Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

FISA Non Sequiturs

Julian Sanchez notes this absurd post at The Corner about the Supreme Court’s refusal to review a decision of the Sixth Circuit ruling that the ACLU lacked standing to sue the NSA over the president’s warrantless wiretapping program. Andy McCarthy thinks that…

This underscores that the President had constitutional authority to order warrantless surveillance; that the cooperating telecoms were not only being patriotic but exercising sound judgment when they complied with requests for assistance; and that the House Democrats are acting reprehensibly by refusing to consider the intelligence reform bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.

Julian is right to call this an insane non sequitur. The amazing thing is the number of levels on which it’s nonsensical. Let me see if I can count them.

In the first place, the Supreme Court gets thousands of appeals every year, and only accepts a few dozen of them. So the Supreme Court declining to hear a case, in and of itself, tells us absolutely nothing about the merits of the case. It simply suggests that the justices had other cases they were more interested in hearing.

Second, the Sixth Circuit decision the Supreme Court allowed to stand didn’t address the merits of the ACLU’s lawsuit—i.e. the legality of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program—either. Rather, the Sixth Circuit held that because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove that they personally had been spied upon, they lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether the program is legal or constitutional.

Third, the telecoms were not a party to this lawsuit at all, so I’m baffled as to how it could have any implications for whether what they did was legal. The legality of the program and the legality of the telecoms’ participation in it are distinct questions. One could perfectly well argue that the program was legal but the telecoms’ participation in it was not, or vice versa. So the fact that a lawsuit against the government failed tells us nothing about whether the lawsuits against the telecoms will succeed.

Fourth, the lawsuits that have been filed against the telecoms are different in important respects from this decision. The EFF suit against AT&T, for example, is based on specific evidence that AT&T is diverting traffic from its fiber-optic network into a secret room controlled by the NSA. This is the kind of concrete evidence that was missing from the ACLU v. NSA case.

Finally, and most obviously, none of this has anything to do with the merits of the competing House and Senate FISA reform bills, or with any ulterior motives Democrats might have. And indeed, if McCarthy is right that all of the lawsuits are groundless, then it’s a little bit of a mystery why he’s so anxious for telecom immunity. If the telecoms didn’t break the law, or if the law they broke was unconstitutional, then they should be able to make that argument in court. It’s only if their arguments aren’t likely to stand up in court that immunity becomes important.

Inside the Sausage Factory

The cover story of this week’s Washington Post Magazine offers a fantastic look at how lobbyists make a living by helping some people take from others.  Every citizen should read it.  Casual observers of government may be surprised (and nauseated) to see how elaborate, expensive, and disingenuous such efforts have become.  (Students of public choice economics will not be.)  As author Jeffrey H. Birnbaum notes, it’s usually the wealthy who are trying to do the taking.

The article is about the travel industry trying to force taxpayers to fund the industry’s advertising campaigns.  (Birnbaum includes such gems as: “One thing everyone agreed on: The travel industry did not want to pay for the ads itself.”)  But the story could have been written about nearly any of the countless lobbying shops littering the D.C. landscape:

The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington’s decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation’s capital.

Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it’s a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients’ costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance – measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided – a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry’s growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.

And why wouldn’t ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.

Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.

Lobbying is Washington’s version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow. 

All of which raises this question: why don’t we see more such stories?  Whatever the reason, Birnbaum deserves kudos for inspecting this small corner of the sausage factory.

Of course, the solution is not to restrict the people’s ability to lobby Congress.  All that sleazy lobbying is nothing more than “petition[ing] the government for a redress of grievances” – a constitutionally protected activity.  The solution, conveniently enough, is to respect the rest of the Constitution too.  Were the People to do that, those sleazy lobbyists wouldn’t get anywhere.

Moving the Goalposts on Surveillance

Fox News correspondent and former judge Andrew Napolitano has a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that FISA, which the Bush administration claims places too many restrictions on the administration’s intelligence-gathering activities, has itself eroded the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment:

The FISA statute itself significantly – and, in my opinion, unconstitutionally – lowered the 4th Amendment bar from probable cause of “crime”to probable cause of “status.” However, in order to protect the 4th Amendment rights of the targets of spying, the statute erected a so-called wall between gathering evidence and using evidence. The government cannot constitutionally prosecute someone unless it has evidence against him that was obtained pursuant to probable cause of a crime, a standard not met by a FISA warrant.

Congress changed all that. The Patriot Act passed after 9/11 and its later version not only destroyed the wall between investigation and prosecution,they mandated that investigators who obtained evidence of criminal activity pursuant to FISA warrants share that evidence with prosecutors. They also instructed federal judges that the evidence thus shared is admissible under the Constitution against a defendant in a criminal case. Congress forgot that it cannot tell federal judges what evidence is admissible because judges, not politicians, decide what a jury hears.

Then the Bush administration and Congress went even further. The administration wanted, and Congress has begrudgingly given it, the authority to conduct electronic surveillance of foreigners and Americans without even a FISA warrant – without any warrant whatsoever. The so-called Protect America Act of 2007, which expired at the end of last week, gave the government carte blanche to spy on foreign persons outside the U.S., even if Americans in the United States with whom they may be communicating are spied on – illegally – in the process. Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee last year that hundreds of unsuspecting Americans’ conversations and e-mails are spied on annually as a consequence of the warrantless surveillance of foreigners outside the United States.

So where does all this leave us? Even though, since 1978, the government has gotten more than 99% of its FISA applications approved, the administration wants to do away with FISA altogether if at least one of the people whose conversations or e-mails it wishes to monitor is not in the U.S. and is not an American.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the characterization of FISA as it was originally enacted in 1978. We do, I think, want our intelligence agencies to be keeping tabs on foreign governments, and so I think there’s a decent argument for allowing surveillance of people who are likely to be agents of a foreign power rather than requiring probable cause that a specific crime has been broken. The far more important point, though, is that since 1978, Congress has repeatedly and dramatically expanded the president’s ability to conduct surveillance with minimal oversight. Whether those changes went too far in 1978, 2001, or somewhere in between is debatable. But it’s clear that since 2001, the executive branch has had sweeping powers to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists with minimal judicial oversight.

What the Bush administration is doing here is moving the goalposts. In 2001, the president said that the changes to FISA that were found in the Patriot Act gave him plenty of authority to spy on terrorists that were using the latest communications technology. Now, seven years later, he’s saying those reforms weren’t good enough and that he needs even broader powers to spy with minimal court supervision. If Congress approves the changes the president is requesting this year, we can expect a future president sometime in the next decade to insist that she’s still subject to too much judicial scrutiny. At some point, we have to say that enough is enough.

Even the Washington Times Says Bush Is Wrong about FISA

This is pretty cool. Not because it quotes me (although that’s pretty cool too), but because it’s the Washington Times, which is occasionally criticized for the right-ward slant of its news coverage, running an article that basically says that that President Bush and his allies in Congress are wrong about FISA:

Many intelligence scholars and analysts outside the government say that today’s expiration of certain temporary domestic wiretapping laws will have little effect on national security, despite warnings to the contrary by the White House and Capitol Hill Republican leaders.

Of course, this has been true all along. There wasn’t an emergency last August when Congress was stampeded into passing the Protect America Act. There wasn’t an emergency last month when the two-week extension got passed. And nothing catastrophic is happening now that the PAA is lapsing. But as long as the president said there was an emergency and the Democrats acted like there was an emergency, journalists weren’t going to say otherwise. When both “sides” of a dispute agree on some point, most journalists will simply accept that point as valid and don’t dig any deeper.

Now that House Democrats are willing to forthrightly state that the expiration of the PAA isn’t a big deal — and act like it’s not a big deal — journalists suddenly have to do their homework and find out who’s telling the truth. And once they do their research, it’s not hard to figure out who’s got the better argument.

Sometimes, good policy is good politics. I think this is one of those cases. If the House leadership capitulates to the president in the next few weeks, it will reinforce the impression that the president was right all along, and we really do need to sacrifice Americans’ privacy in order to fight terrorism. If, on the other hand, House Democrats refuse to enact legislation that undermines judicial oversight or the rule of law, it will cause journalists to write stories like this one, that dig deeper into the arguments of each side. Since in reality, the argument for eviscerating FISA is built on little more than distortions and alarmist rhetoric, that heightened scrutiny will only help those who believe in the rule of law.

Two Sides of the Rule of Law Coin

The president has argued that “[i]f these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won’t participate. They won’t help us. They won’t help protect America.” Pretty scary stuff. But as Kurt Opsahl at EFF points out, if this is an accurate reflection of the telecom companies’ position (and it’s quite possible the president is misrepresenting their position), it’s little more than blackmail. It suggests that the telecom companies would hold the nation’s security hostage for a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Kurt also points out that complying with judicially-issued warrants isn’t optional. The intelligence community isn’t reliant on the goodwill of the telecom industry to ensure compliance. A company that refuses to participate in a lawful eavesdropping program would be ordered to do so by a judge and held in contempt if it refused. So there’s no reason to worry about the telecom companies “not cooperating.” Judges will compel them to cooperate if they’re legally required to do so.

In a sense, complying with lawful surveillance requests and refusing to comply with unlawful ones are two sides of the coin called the rule of law. It’s outrageous that a company would voluntarily violate its customers’ privacy when the law prohibits them from doing so. It would be equally outrageous for a company to refuse to cooperate after the government had gone through the appropriate legal channels. We don’t want decisions about who gets spied on to be subject to the whim of either the president or telecom executives. That’s why we entrust that decision to judges, who are knowledgeable about the law and insulated from corrupted influences.

The Right to Bear… Um…

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans and covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, struck down a Texas statute that criminalized the promotion and sale of sex toys. The Fifth Circuit — where I clerked my first year out of law school — thus became the first and only jurisdiction in the country to recognize the individual right to bear both arms (in the 2001 case of U.S. v. Emerson) and dildoes. (Yes, the statute actually uses the word “dildo” as an example of a prohibited ”obscene device,” which is otherwise defined as a device “designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”)

The Fifth Circuit’s analysis correctly rests on the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, which found that Texas’s anti-homosexual sodomy statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment right to engage in private intimate conduct free from government intrusion. Put simply, there is no state interest compelling enough to overcome the individual right to freedom in the bedroom.

Besides Texas, only three states have a similar obscene devices statute: Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia. The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld its state’s statute, while neither the Alabama nor Virginia Supreme Courts have entertained such challenges. The legislatures of Louisiana, Kansas, and Colorado had also enacted obscene-device bans, but the laws did not survive review by their respective state supreme courts.

The Eleventh Circuit (covering Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), however, just last year rejected a similar Fourteenth Amendment challenge to the Alabama statute. While the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, the Fifth Circuit’s decision now squarely opens up a “circuit split,” which means the issue is ripe for the Court to take up next term. 

The Court has not wanted to touch sex toys cases with, um, a 10-foot pole. But it now has the opportunity to enforce this particular individual right in the same year it (fingers crossed) throws out the D.C. gun ban.

FISA Confusion

I’ve been reading a lot of coverage of the FISA debate this week. I’m getting a little tired of reading commentary from supporters of eliminating judicial oversight who seem to have no clue what they’re talking about. Consider this from FrontPageMag’s Jacob Laksin:

Instead of enjoying the flexibility necessary for real-time intelligence gathering, government officials would be forced to revert to the antiquated standards of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the approval of a special court even to monitor terrorist targets overseas.

In the first place, FISA has been updated repeatedly since the September 11, 2001, so the idea that it’s “antiquated” is silly. Don’t listen to me, listen to the president: “The new law [in 2001] recognizes the realities and dangers posed by the modern terrorist. It will help us to prosecute terrorist organizations — and also to detect them before they strike.”

In the second place, FISA does not, and never has, required a warrant to eavesdrop on foreign communications. FISA only comes into play when intercepting communications between foreigners and Americans, or when conducting surveillance entirely within the United States.

Laksin continues:

One of the signal virtues of the PAA is the fact that it provides liability protection to private companies, like telecoms, who cooperate with the government and aid surveillance efforts. Companies like AT&T already face multibillion dollar lawsuits from leftist activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who charge that the companies broke the law by assisting government efforts to prevent terrorist attack. With the expiration of the PAA, these companies will lose their legal protections. In the current litigious climate, it is more than likely that they will simply stop aiding the government in its intelligence work.

The Protect America Act, which was passed last August, did not include retroactive immunity. That’s why there are pending lawsuits against the telecom companies from those “leftist activist groups.” The PAA does include liability protection for firms that cooperate after the law takes effect, and those provisions will expire on Saturday. However, the idea that this will cause telecom companies to stop “cooperating” is absurd. Telecom companies cooperate with eavesdropping not out of the goodness of their heart, but because (once the executive branch has gotten the appropriate warrant) they’re legally required to do so. That will continue to be true after the PAA expires. And in any event, the law is pretty clear on this subject. The only “liability protection” they really need is to follow it.

And on we go:

To be sure, the version of the PAA bill that passed the Senate is far from perfect. For one thing, the bill vastly expands the role of the FISA court in surveillance work, a prospect that should alarm anyone concerned about intelligence agents’ ability to respond rapidly to potential threats.

I’m not sure what he’s referring to. It’s true that the Senate legislation would require the executive branch to file various reports with the FISA court. But given that it simultaneously eviscerates the requirement to get a FISA warrant for foreign-to-domestic communications, I don’t see how it could plausibly be considered an expansion of the FISA court’s role. And these reporting requirements certainly wouldn’t degrade agents’ ability to respond rapidly to potential threats because it gives the government several days after the fact to submit the appropriate reports. Probably the most stringent requirement in the Senate bill is the one requiring the attorney general to send a copy of each “certification” he signs to the FISA court within five days. Running off a copy of an order and sending a courier over to drop it off hardly seems like an intolerable burden.

I could go on, but you get the point. The problem is that most readers have neither the time nor the patience to research these issues in any detail. So when conservative pundits make misleading claims, a lot of readers can’t tell the difference. It’s very frustrating for those of us who are actually familiar with the underlying facts.

(Cross-posted at The Technology Liberation Front)