Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. The Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency has halted domestic collection of some type of communications metadata—the details are predictably fuzzy, though I've got a guess—in order to allay the concerns of the secret FISA Court that the NSA's activity might not be technically permissible under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Naturally, there's the requisite quote from the anonymous concerned intel official:
"This is a basic tool we used to have, and it's now gone," said one intelligence official familiar with the impasse. "Every day, every week that goes by, there's just one more week of information that we're not collecting. You sit there and say, 'This is unbelievable that we have this gap.'"
I want to take claims like these with due gravity, but I can't anymore. Because we've heard them again and again over the past decade, and they've proven to be bogus every time. We were told that the civil liberties restrictions built into pre-9/11 surveillance law kept the FBI from searching "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop—but a bipartisan Senate panel found it wasn't true. We were told limits on National Security Letters were FBI delaying agents seeking vital records in their investigations—but the delay turned out to have been manufactured by the FBI itself. Most recently, we were warned that the FISA Court had somehow imposed a requirement that a warrant be obtained in order to intercept purely foreign telephone calls that were traveling through U.S. wires. Anyone who understood the FISA law realized that this couldn't possibly be right—and as Justice Department officials finally admitted under pressure, that wasn't true either. But this time there's a really real for serious "intelligence gap" and we'll all be blown up by scary terrorists any minute if it's not fixed? Pull the other one.
That said, Republicans are claiming the problem requires a mere "technical fix" to FISA, so we should at least be able to get a rough sense of what the issue is, if Congress actually decides to act. Democrats, by contrast, appear to think NSA can "address the court's concerns without resorting to legislation." The word "resort" here seems depressingly apt: They'll ask for a legislative tweak if there's absolutely no way to shoehorn what they want to do into the statute through clever lawyering in an ex parte proceeding in front of a highly deferential court, but it's a last resort.
As for what the problem might be, I can think of a couple of possibilities off the top of my head. A few years back, the FISA pen register provision was amended to effectively build into the legal order for a standard pen register, which records data about calls or e-mails made and received, language mirroring a legal demand for subscriber records known as a 2703(d) order in the criminal context. Law enforcement routinely uses that combination of a 2703(d) plus a pen register to get location tracking information for cell phones. But the evidentiary standard for getting a 2703(d) order is (very) slightly higher than the standard for a pen register alone, and federal law prohibits the use of a pen register alone to gather location data. So there might be a question about whether FISA pen registers alone can be used for cell phone location tracking purposes.
Alternatively, given that Internet communications aren't just "metadata" and "content" but rather a whole series of layers containing different types of information, there could be a question about just how far down "metadata" goes. This might be especially tricky for protocols where quite a lot of information about the content of the communication—which is supposed to require a full probable cause warrant—can be gleaned from sophisticated analysis of the size and timing of packets in the stream.
These are, of course, blind guesses. What's disturbing is how much blind guessing the FISA court itself may be doing. The new hiatus, the Post tells us via an anonymous source, came about when the FISA Court "got a little bit more of an understanding"of what the NSA was up to. Their enhanced understanding concerns data that NSA has been getting with the court's approval for "several years," according to the Post. And there you have the real "intelligence gap" in modern surveillance: We have a Court going through a pantomime of oversight over thousands of highly technologically sophisticated interception programs, but it may take a few years for them to really understand what they've been signing off on.
We'll understand still less about the rationale for any "technical fix" to FISA that Congress might approve, if they deign to go that route. But we'll be reassured that it's very important, necessary to keep us safe from the terrorist hordes, and nothing worth bothering our pretty heads about.