The Intercept has published their long-awaited story profiling a number of Muslim-American leaders who have been targeted by the FBI and NSA. It shows that:
In other words, the leaders of a number of different Muslim civil society organizations were wiretapped for years under a program that should require a judge agreeing they represent agents of a foreign power.
But they probably weren’t just wiretapped. They probably were also used as seeds for the phone and Internet dragnets, resulting in the associational mapping of their organizations’ entire structure.
On August 18, 2006, the phone dragnet primary order added language deeming “telephone numbers that are currently the subject of FISA authorized electronic surveillance … approved for meta data querying without approval of an NSA official due to the FISA authorization.”
Given the way the phone and Internet dragnet programs parallel each other (and indeed, intersect in federated queries starting at least by 2008), a similar authorization was almost certainly included in the Internet dragnet at least by 2006.
That means as soon as these men were approved for surveillance by FISA, the NSA also had the authority to run 3-degree contact chaining on their email and phone numbers. All their contacts, all their contacts’ contacts, and all their contacts’ contacts’ contacts would have been collected and dumped into the corporate store for further NSA analysis.
Not only that, but all these men were surveilled during the period (which continued until 2009) when the NSA was running automated queries on people and their contacts, to track day-to-day communications of RAS-approved identifiers.
So it is probably reasonable to assume that, at least for the period during which these men were under FISA-authorized surveillance, the NSA has an associational map of their organizations and their affiliates.
Which is why I find it interesting that DOJ refused to comment on this story, but told other reporters that FBI had never had a FISA warrant for CAIR founder Nihad Awad specifically.
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, or for clarification about why the five men’s email addresses appear on the list. But in the weeks before the story was published, The Intercept learned that officials from the department were reaching out to Muslim-American leaders across the country to warn them that the piece would contain errors and misrepresentations, even though it had not yet been written.
Prior to publication, current and former government officials who knew about the story in advance also told another news outlet that no FISA warrant had been obtained against Awad during the period cited. When The Intercept delayed publication to investigate further, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to confirm or deny the claim, or to address why any of the men’s names appear on the FISA spreadsheet.
Awad’s organization, CAIR, is a named plaintiff in the EFF’s suit challenging the phone dragnet. They are suing about the constitutionality of a program that — the EFF suit also happens to allege — illegally mapped out associational relations that should be protected by the Constitution.
CAIR now has very good reason to believe their allegations in the suit — that all their relationships have been mapped — are absolutely correct.
Update: EFF released this statement on the Intercept story, reading, in part,
Surveillance based on First Amendment-protected activity was a stain on our nation then and continues to be today. These disclosures yet again demonstrate the need for ongoing public attention to the government’s activities to ensure that its surveillance stays within the bounds of law and the Constitution. And they once again demonstrate the need for immediate and comprehensive surveillance law reform.
We look forward to continuing to represent CAIR in fighting for its rights, as well as the rights of all citizens, to be free from unconstitutional government surveillance.
EFF represents CAIR Foundation and two of its regional affiliates, CAIR-California and CAIR-Ohio, in a case challenging the NSA’s mass collection of Americans’ call records. More information about that case is available at: First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA.
Congratulations to Ben Wittes who, with this post, demonstrates how the NSA can “spy” on Americans without “targeting” them.
His piece consists of several steps. First, Wittes goes to great effort to show that Laura Poitras and James Risen have not shown that the American law firm representing the Indonesian government, Mayer Brown, was “targeted” (though he seems to think that means they weren’t spied on).
For starters, it is important to emphasize that the Times story does not involve NSA spying. It doesn’t involve any remotely-plausible suggestion of illegality. It doesn’t involve any targeting of Americans. And it doesn’t involve any targeting of lawyers either.
The facts the story reports are these:
- The surveillance in question was conducted by the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), not NSA.
- The surveillance targeted Indonesian government officials engaged in trade talks with the United States.
- The surveillance apparently took place overseas. (There is no suggestion in the story that the surveillance took place inside the United States.)
In other words, a foreign intelligence service was conducting surveillance against another foreign government, which was in communication with a U.S. law firm. [my emphasis]
This is a flimsy use of NSA’s own euphemism, “targeting,” given that NYT never uses the word in the context of the law firm (they do use it to discuss the law and make it clear ASD discovered they were spying on an American who was working for the USG). The verbs they use include “entangled,” “caught up,” “monitored,” “ensnared,” and “compromised.” All verbs that describe what happens when someone talks to a targeted entity.
From there, Wittes takes a hypothetical quote offered by the NSA spokesperson, explaining that NSA sometimes does ask Five Eyes partners to take special precautions, to suggest the NSA did ask Australia’s ASD to protect the US lawyers involved.
An N.S.A. spokeswoman said the agency’s Office of the General Counsel was consulted when issues of potential attorney-client privilege arose and could recommend steps to protect such information.
“Such steps could include requesting that collection or reporting by a foreign partner be limited, that intelligence reports be written so as to limit the inclusion of privileged material and to exclude U.S. identities, and that dissemination of such reports be limited and subject to appropriate warnings or restrictions on their use,” said Vanee M. Vines, the spokeswoman.
But doesn’t quote the bit that makes it clear NSA would not — and was not — commenting on this case.
The N.S.A. declined to answer questions about the reported surveillance, including whether information involving the American law firm was shared with United States trade officials or negotiators.
Then Wittes shows the ambiguity about what happened when the ASD told the US an American law firm had gotten caught in its surveillance, quoting from the text.
Here’s the direct quote from the document in question.
(TS//SI//REL) SUSLOC Facilitates Sensitive DSD Reporting on Trade Talks: According to SIGINT information obtained by DSD, the Indonesian Government has employed a US law firm to represent its interests in trade talks with the US. On DSD’s behalf, SUSLOC sought NSA OGC guidance regarding continued reporting on the Indonesian government communications, taking into account that information covered by attorney-client privilege may be included. OGC provided clear guidance and DSD has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.
Now, I agree this passage is not crystal clear (though it is less ambiguous than the text itself). What is clear is DSD (the name of which has subsequently been changed to ASD) continued spying on the Indonesian government – and sharing that spying with US “customers” — after SUSLOC consulted (on its behalf) with NSA’s lawyers.
Today, 340 new journalists will join the 10 or so who have been covering the Bradley Manning prosecution closely for the last several years; his trial starts today at Fort Meade.
Expect to see a bunch of essays on secrecy to mark the beginning of the trial.
This one, in which Steven Coll calls for the Supreme Court to revisit the Branzburg v. Hayes decision that established a spirit but not a law protecting press sources, has already generated a lot of attention.
In the long run, to rebalance the national-security state and to otherwise revitalize American democracy, the United States requires a Supreme Court willing to deepen protections for investigative reporters, as the majority in Branzburg would not.
Among some other minor factual inaccuracies (including what the AP UndieBomb 2.0 leak was originally about), it includes this claim.
[Obama's] longest-serving advisers are disciplined and insular to a fault; press leaks offend their aesthetic of power.
While I agree Obama’s advisors are insular to a fault, and agree they revel in an aesthetic of power, they do not despise all press leaks. Even aside from the typical policy debate leaks of classified information, the White House has long reveled in “leaking” classified information to selected members of the press, to get the information out there on its own terms. The tactic is not new — it is precisely the A1 cut-out approach the Bush Administration used to get us into the Iraq War. But the Obama Administration may have expanded its use (that is actually the reason Republicans in Congress were demanding investigations of the leaks that followed the AP story, the ones that, unlike the AP, exposed our mole).
Which is why Coll proposes an inadequate solution to what I agree is the key problem.
Obama inherited a bloated national-security state. It contains far too many official secrets and far too many secret-keepers—more than a million people now hold top-secret clearances. Under a thirty-year-old executive order issued by the White House, the intelligence agencies must inform the Justice Department whenever they believe that classified information has been disclosed illegally to the press. These referrals operate on a kind of automatic pilot, and the system is unbalanced. Prosecutors in Justice’s national-security division initially decide on whether to make a criminal case or to defer to the First Amendment. The record shows that in recent years the division has been bent on action.
I’m not opposed to establishing clearer laws about when a journalist’s sources may be protected. But that can be used — as Dick Cheney tried to use it — as a screen for his exposure of Valerie Plame. Protecting journalists’ sources will not only protect real whistleblowers, but it will also protect the system of official leaks that both Bush and Obama have used to accrue power and avoid accountability.
So not only is fixing Branzburg v. Hayes not enough to fix our “unbalanced … bloated national security state,” it doesn’t get at the underlying problem
As a threshold measure, journalists should be calling for the limitation or repeal of the Espionage Act, which is the real stick Obama is using to cut down on unsanctioned leaks. It’s bad enough for whistleblowers to risk losing their clearance, and with it, a well-compensated livelihood. But as soon as you start talking extended prison sentences, as soon as you start accusing whistleblowers of being worse than an enemy’s spy because they shared damning information with the public generally, that’s going to silence unsanctioned leaks.
Just as importantly, this entire structure of abuse of power rests on a different SCOTUS decision, Navy v. Egan, which gives the Executive absolute control over security clearances (and therefore the less powerful leverage usually wielded against whistleblowers, the ability to strip their clearance), but which has been interpreted by Bush and Obama to give the Executive unfettered authority to determine what is secret and what is not. This decision — which is precisely what David Addington told Scooter Libby he could rely on to justify outing Plame on Cheney’s order — is also what the Obama Administration cited when it refused to litigate al-Haramain and in so doing granted the Bush Administration impunity for illegal wiretapping. The Executive’s claim to have unlimited authority to decide what is secret and not is also what prevents the Senate Intelligence Committee from declassifying the torture report on its own authority. It is also the basis for the authority to stall releasing video of US helicopters gunning down a Reuters team to Reuters under FOIA, which led to Manning leaking it to WikiLeaks himself.
The Obama and Bush Administrations have claimed that no one — not Congress, not the Courts — has the authority to review their arbitrary use of secrecy to accrue more power. That claim is an expansive reading of Navy v. Egan, but thus far not one anyone has challenged before SCOTUS. And that is what has enabled them (with the limited exception of the Plame outing) to avoid all consequences for their asymmetric use of leaks.
So, yes, it would be useful if SCOTUS decided that journalists and others engaging in legitimate investigation can protect sources, especially when investigating national security. But until the underlying system — the Executive’s claim that it can abuse secrecy to protect itself — is changed, secrecy will remain a cancer rotting our democracy.
I’m sure I could grill John Brennan for hours. But after a lot of thought, here are the five questions I believe most important that should be asked of him Today.
1) Do you plan to continue lying to Americans?
You have made a number of demonstrable lies to the American people, particularly regarding the drone program and the Osama bin Laden raid. Most egregiously in 2011, you claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in almost a year from drone strikes; when challenged, you revised that by saying, “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths,” even in spite of a particularly egregious case of civilian deaths just months earlier. On what basis did you make these assertions? What definition of civilian were you using in each assertion? (More background)
In addition, in a speech purportedly offering transparency on the drone program, you falsely suggested we know the identities of all people targeted by drones. Why did you choose to misrepresent the kind of intelligence we use in some strikes?
2) What was the intelligence supporting the first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki?
The US government’s first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike was December 24, 2009. WikiLeaks cables make it clear that Awlaki was a primary target of that strike, not just intended collateral damage. Yet the Webster report makes clear that on that day — that is, until the Underwear Bomber attempt the next day — the Intelligence Community did not consider Awlaki to be operational. Thus, the strike seems to have been approved before he fulfilled the criteria of the white paper released the other day, which authorizes the targeting of senior operational leaders of groups like AQAP. What was the legal basis for targeting this American citizen at a time when the IC did not believe him to be operational? (More background)
3) Will your close friendships with Saudis cloud your focus on the US interest?
In a fawning profile the other day, Daniel Klaidman nevertheless laid out the following points:
In addition, recent reports have confirmed that the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki was launched from Saudi territory.
Were the personal entreaties you responded to from Yemenis or Saudis (or both)?
What role did the Saudis have in the Awlaki strike? Did they have an operational role?
As someone with such close ties to liaison sources, how have you and will you manage to prioritize the interests of the United States over the interests of friends you have from two decades ago?
To what degree is your intelligence sharing — especially with the Saudis — a stovepipe that creates the same risks of intelligence failures that got us into the Iraq War? (More background)
4) What role did you have in Bush’s illegal wiretap program?
The joint Inspector General report on the illegal wiretap program reported that entities you directed — the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in 2003 and 2004, and the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004 and 2005 — conducted the threat assessments for the program.
What role did you have, as the head of these entities, in the illegal wiretapping of Americans? To what extent did you know the program violated FISA? What role did you have in counseling Obama to give telecoms and other contractors immunity under the program? What influence did you have in DOJ decisions regarding suits about the illegal program, in particular the al-Haramain case that was thrown out even after the charity had proved it had been illegally wiretapped? Did you play any role in decisions to investigate and prosecute whistleblowers about this and other programs, notably Thomas Drake? (More background)
5) Did you help CIA bypass prohibitions on spying domestically with the NYPD intelligence (and other) programs?
In your additional prehearing questions, you admit to knowing about CIA’s role in setting up an intelligence program that profiled Muslims in New York City. What was your role in setting up the program? As someone with key oversight over personnel matters at the time, did you arrange Larry Sanchez’ temporary duty at the NYPD or CIA training for NYPD detectives?
Have you been involved in any similar effort to use CIA resources to conduct domestic spying on communities of faith? You said the CIA provides (among other things) expertise to local groups spying on Americans. How is this not a violation of the prohibition on CIA spying on Americans? (More background)
Update: I realized that I have left out a caveat in Brennan’s drone lies — he was talking in the previous year. I’ve fixed that.
The single best chance to hold the government accountable for its illegal wiretapping, the al-Haramain suit, is over.
Our goal was for the judiciary to rule that the president may not disregard an act of Congress in the name of national security.
Ironically, although we had sought a judicial pronouncement that the president may not violate FISA, the 9th Circuit instead proclaimed that he can get away with it.
We have decided not to challenge the 9th Circuit’s ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. We feel that, given the Supreme Court’s current ideological tilt, it is better to leave other courts free to disagree with the 9th Circuit than to risk a bad ruling by the current Supreme Court.
The Al-Haramain case is over. Perhaps someday another court will adjudicate the scope of the president’s domestic wiretapping powers in a national climate less charged by post-9/11 fears.
With these words, Jon Eisenberg, the lawyer representing al-Haramain in its suit against the government for violating FISA, publicly described his decision not to appeal the 9th Circuit’s finding that the government is immune from penalties for violating FISA.
The resolution of the al-Haramain case has been little noted in the halls of DC. But it really underlies the entire debate about the FISA Amendments Act extension.
Because as shitty as the law just renewed is, the government also now knows that they don’t even have to follow that law. They are effectively immune from the law.
I noted last week how prosecutors were claiming they were being extra tough on HSBC for all its money laundering because of the seriousness of the charge they were going to defer: money laundering. Yesterday, with great fanfare, DOJ rolled out their deferred prosecution for money laundering, as if it were a good thing to ratchet up the charges you excuse.
But I was struck even more by how DOJ treated HSBC’s crimes they chose not to indict. Here’s how Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer described HSBC’s crimes:
HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight – and worse – that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries.
From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia, and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC Bank USA. These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard. They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows in HSBC Mexico’s branches.
In total, HSBC Bank USA failed to monitor over $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico between 2006 and 2009, and failed to monitor over $9.4 billion in purchases of physical U.S. dollars from HSBC Mexico over that same period.
In addition to this egregious lack of oversight, from the mid-1990s through at least September 2006, HSBC knowingly allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to move through the U.S. financial system on behalf of banks located in countries subject to U.S. sanctions, including Cuba, Iran and Sudan. On at least one occasion, HSBC instructed a bank in Iran on how to format payment messages so that the transactions would not be blocked or rejected by the United States.
That is, Breuer says HSBC 1) helped Mexican drug cartels launder money and 2) helped Cuban, Iranian, and Sudanese banks avoid US sanctions.
But that’s not all, according to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, that HSBC did. The four main sections of the PSI report on HSBC’s Bank Secrecy Act and money laundering violations pertain to:
One of the things, according to Carl Levin, that HSBC did was help banks involved in terrorist financing get US dollars (that section takes up 53 pages of a 340 page report). And yet, Breuer’s speech did not once mention the word terrorism. The US Attorney’s release used the word “terror” once, though not in conjunction with HSBC. And the Statement of Facts mentions terrorism in conjunction with a description of the laws HSBC violated and in this one paragraph.
In addition to the cooperative steps listed above, HSBC Bank USA has assisted the Government in investigations of certain individuals suspected of money laundering and terrorist financing.
In short, Lanny Breuer and his prosecutors did not mention that this bank they were letting off without prosecution provided a terrorist-connected bank with US dollars for years.
There is only one substantive case left in litigation with the ability to bring tangible accountability for the illegal and unconstitutional acts of the Bush/Cheney Administration’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance program. That case is Al-Haramain v. Bush/Obama. Yes, there is still Clapper v. Amnesty International, but that is a prospective case of a different nature, and was never designed to attack the substantive crimes of the previous Administration.
A little over a couple of hours ago, late morning here in the 9th, the vaunted “most liberal of all Circuit Courts of Appeal”, the Ninth Circuit, drove what may be the final stake in the heart of Al-Haramain by declining to conduct an en banc review of its August 7, 2012 opinion. The notice from the court today is brief:
The opinion filed on August 7, 2012, and appearing at 690 F.3d 1089, is hereby amended. An amended opinion is filed concurrently with this order.
With these amendments, the panel has voted to deny the petition for panel rehearing and the petition for rehearing en banc.
The full court has been advised of the petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc and no judge has requested a vote on whether to rehear the matter en banc. Fed. R. App. P. 35.
The petition for panel rehearing and petition for rehearing en banc are DENIED. No further petitions for en banc or panel rehearing shall be permitted.
Before going further with analysis, a word about the “amendments” to the opinion. The “Amended Opinion” is here. You can compare for yourself to the August 7 original opinion linked above, but the difference is pretty slight.
It appears all the court did is delete a few sentences here and there about 18 USC 2712(b). The court did not address, nor change, their erroneous assertion that plaintiffs’ Al-Haramain could have sued under 1806(a), or restore the misleadingly-omitted (by elipsis) language from 1806(a). Nor did the →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Noah Shachtman does a good job of fact checking Obama’s claims about his drone program in a recent interview with Jessica Yellin.
But I’d like to push further on his comments about Obama’s claims to give Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (to say nothing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) due process by pointing to the way he ends this bit:
Our most powerful tool over the long term to reduce the terrorist threat is to live up to our values and to be able to shape public opinion not just here but around the world that senseless violence is not a way to resolve political differences. And so it’s very important for the President and for the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about, are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by rule of law? Are we abiding by due process? And then set up structures and institutional checks so that you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are.
Having started by saying that drones are just a tool, he ends up by saying that we will vanquish terrorism by upholding our values–rule of law and due process.
And then the Constitution Professor President describes “set[ting] up structures and institutional checks” to make sure that we deliver rule of law and due process.
This, from the guy whose Administration refused to litigate a suit from Anwar al-Awlaki’s father to make sure it was upholding the standards Obama claimed in this interview in Awlaki’s case.
This, from the guy whose Administration has claimed state secrets to make sure no court can review the claims of people who have been rendered or tortured or illegally wiretapped.
This, from the guy who wouldn’t do the politically difficult things to have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried–and surely, convicted–before a civilian court in NYC.
He’s looking for structures and institutional checks to make sure we don’t go down that slippery slope where we forget rule of law. And yet his Administration has repeatedly avoided the one mandated by the Constitution: courts.
Which, according to his own logic, means he’s not using the tool that would best work to keep us safe from terrorism.
Navy v. Egan–the SCOTUS case Executive Branch officials always point to to claim unlimited powers over classification authority–just got bigger.
Berry v. Conyers extends the national security employment veto over commissary jobs
The original 1988 case pertained to Thomas Egan, who lost his job as a laborer at a naval base when he was denied a security clearance. He appealed his dismissal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which then had to determine whether it had authority to review the decision to fire him based on the security clearance denial. Ultimately, SCOTUS held that MSPB could not review the decision of the officer who first fired Egan.
The grant or denial of security clearance to a particular employee is a sensitive and inherently discretionary judgment call that is committed by law to the appropriate Executive Branch agency having the necessary expertise in protecting classified information. It is not reasonably possible for an outside, nonexpert body to review the substance of such a judgment, and such review cannot be presumed merely because the statute does not expressly preclude it.
Unlike Egan, the plaintiffs in this case did not have jobs that required they have access to classified information. Nevertheless, plaintiffs Rhonda Conyers (who was an accounting clerk whose “security threat” pertained to personal debt) and Devon Haughton Northover (who worked in a commissary and also charged discrimination) were suspended and demoted, respectively, when the government deemed them a security risk.
In a decision written by Evan Wallach and joined by Alan Lourie, the Federal Circuit held that the Egan precedent,
require[s] that courts refrain from second-guessing Executive Branch agencies’ national security determinations concerning eligibility of an individual to occupy a sensitive position, which may not necessarily involve access to classified information.
That is, the Federal government can fire you in the name of national security if you have a “sensitive” job, whether or not you actually have access to classified information.
As Timothy Dyk’s dissent notes, the effect of this ruling is to dramatically limit civil service protections for any position the government deems sensitive, both within DOD–where both Conyers and Northover work–and outside it.
Under the majority’s expansive holding, where an employee’s position is designated as a national security position, see 5 C.F.R. § 732.201(a), the Board lacks jurisdiction to review the underlying merits of any removal, suspension, demotion, or other adverse employment action covered by 5 U.S.C. § 7512.
As OPM recognizes, under the rule adopted by the majority, “[t]he Board’s review . . . is limited to determining whether [the agency] followed necessary procedures . . . [and] the merits of the national security determinations are not subject to review.”
In doing so, the dissent continues, it would gut protection against whistleblower retaliation and discrimination.
As the Board points out, the principle adopted by the majority not only precludes review of the merits of adverse actions, it would also “preclude Board and judicial review of whistleblower retaliation and a whole host of other constitutional and statutory violations for federal employees subjected to otherwise appealable removals and other adverse actions.” Board Br. at 35. This effect is explicitly conceded by OPM, which agrees that the agency’s “liability for damages for alleged discrimination or retaliation” would not be subject to review. OPM Br. at 25. OPM’s concession is grounded in existing law since the majority expands Egan to cover all “national security” positions, and Egan has been held to foreclose whistleblower, discrimination, and other constitutional claims.
Tracking Gatorade supplies can now represent a “clear and present danger”
There are a couple of particularly troubling details about how Wallach came to his decision. In a footnote trying to sustain the claim that a commissary employee might be a national security threat, Wallach argues that Northover could represent a threat in the commissary by observing how much rehydration products and sunglasses service members were buying.
The Board goes too far by comparing a government position at a military base commissary to one in a “Seven Eleven across the street.”
Commissary employees do not merely observe “[g]rocery store stock levels” or other-wise publicly observable information. Resp’ts’ Br. 20. In fact, commissary stock levels of a particular unclassified item – sunglasses, for example, with shatterproof lenses, or rehydration products – might well hint at deployment orders to a particular region for an identifiable unit. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
As Josh Gerstein just reported, the 9th Circuit has thrown out a decision against the government in the al-Haramain wiretapping suit. While they don’t comment on Judge Vaughn Walker’s judgement that al-Haramain had standing and had proven they had been spied on, the panel ultimately held that for the alleged actions–collecting al-Haramain’s telecommunications–the government has sovereign immunity. Al-Haramain can only sue individuals, not the government.
The ruling sucks for al-Haramain. But it has larger implications. Effectively, the 9th Circuit is saying there’s no way to hold the government accountable for simply collecting your telecommunications illegally; you can only hold them accountable if they use that information in a trial.
It distinguishes those two activities this way, pointing to language that specifically invokes the United States as a defendant in case of 1806 (use in an official proceeding) but not 1810 (collection).
Contrasting § 1810 liability, for which sovereign immunity is not explicitly waived, with § 1806 liability, for which it is, also illuminates congressional purpose. Liability under the two sections, while similar in its reach, is not identical. Section 1806, combined with 18 U.S.C. § 2712, renders the United States liable only for the “use[ ] and disclos[ure]” of information “by Federal officers and employees” in an unlawful manner. Section 1810, by contrast, also creates liability for the actual collection of the information in the first place, targeting “electronic surveillance or . . . disclos[ure] or use[ ]” of that information. (emphasis added). Under this scheme, Al-Haramain can bring a suit for damages against the United States for use of the collected information, but cannot bring suit against the government for collection of the information itself. Cf. ACLU v. NSA, 493 F.3d 644, 671 (6th Cir. 2007) (Lead Opinion of Batchelder, J.) (noting that FISA potentially allows limitless information collection upon issuance of warrant, but limits use and dissemination of information under, inter alia, § 1806(a)). Although such a structure may seem anomalous and even unfair, the policy judgment is one for Congress, not the courts. Also, because governmental liability remains under § 1806, the district court’s concern that FISA relief would become a dead letter is not valid. See In re Nat’l Sec. Agency Telecomms. Records Litig., 564 F. Supp. 2d at 1125.
Congress can and did waive sovereign immunity with respect to violations for which it wished to render the United States liable. It deliberately did not waive immunity with respect to § 1810, and the district court erred by imputing an implied waiver. Al Haramain’s suit for damages against the United States may not proceed under § 1810.
Because al-Haramain, at a time when Vaughn Walker was using 1810 to get by the government’s State Secrets invocation, said “it was not proceeding under other sections of FISA,” its existing claim is limited to 1810. The government used the information collected–in a secret process that ended up declaring al-Haramain a terrorist supporter–but not in a trial, and therefore not in a way al-Haramain can easily hold the government liable for.
The implication, of course, is that all the rest of the collection the government engages in–of all of us, not just al-Haramain–also escapes all accountability. So long as the government never uses the information itself–even if the entire rest of their case is based on illegally collected information (as it was in, at a minimum, al-Haramain’s terrorist designation)–a person cannot hold the government itself responsible.
The people who can be held accountable? The non-governmental or non law enforcement persons who conduct the surveillance.
But of course, they–the telecoms–have already been granted immunity.