Honest. I started writing about this David Cole column asking, “Can Congress rein in the spies?” before John Brennan admitted that, contrary to his earlier assurances, his spooks actually had been spying on their Congressional overseers and also before President Obama announced that, nevertheless, he still has confidence in Brennan.
Cole’s column isn’t about the the Senate Intelligence Committee’s struggles to be able to document CIA torture, however. It’s about how Patrick Leahy introduced his version of USA Freedom Act “not a moment too soon.”
I don’t want to gripe with the column’s presentation of Leahy’s version of Freedom; with a few notable exceptions (one which I’ll get to), it accurately describes how Leahy’s bill improves on the bill the spies gutted in the House.
I first wanted to point to why Cole says Leahy’s bill comes not a moment too soon.
Leahy’s bill comes not a moment too soon. Two reports issued on Monday bring into full view the costs of a system that allows its government to conduct dragnet surveillance without specific suspicions of wrongdoing. In With Liberty to Monitor All, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU make a powerful case that mass surveillance has already had a devastating effect on journalists’ ability to monitor and report on national security measures, and on lawyers’ ability to represent victims of government overreaching. And the same day, the New America Foundation issued Surveillance Costs, a report noting the widespread economic harm to US tech companies that NSA surveillance has inflicted, as potential customers around the world take their business elsewhere.
Together, these reports make concrete the damaging effects of out-of-control surveillance, even to those with “nothing to hide.” Our democracy has long rested on a vibrant and vigorous press and open legal system. On matters of national security, journalists probably serve as a more important check on the executive than even the courts or Congress.
And, it turns out, tech companies also need to be able to promise confidentiality. Customers of Internet services or cloud computing storage programs, for example, expect and need to be certain that their messages and stored data will be private. Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has been collecting vast amounts of computer data, and has exploited vulnerabilities in corporate encryption programs, have caused many to lose confidence in the security of American tech companies in particular.
Cole describes the great costs out-of-control surveillance imposes on journalists, lawyers, and cloud providers, and implies we cannot wait to reverse those costs.
Then he embraces a bill that would not protect journalists’ conversations with whistleblowers (Leahy’s Freedom still permits the traditional access of metadata for counterintelligence purposes as well as the Internet dragnet conducted overseas) or alleged terrorists, would not protect lawyers’ discussions with their clients (the known attorney-client protected collections happened under traditional FISA, EO 12333, and possibly Section 702, none of which get changed in this bill), and would expose American companies’ clouds even further to assisted government access under the new Call Detail Record provision.
Cole does admit the bill does not address Section 702; he doesn’t mention EO 12333 at all, even though both the HRW and NAF reports did.
Senator Leahy’s bill is not a cure-all. It is primarily addressed to the collection of data within the United States, and does little to reform Section 702, the statute that authorizes the PRISM program and allows the government to collect the content of electronic communications of noncitizens abroad, even if they are communicating with US citizens here. And it says nothing about the NSA’s deeply troubling practice of inserting vulnerabilities into encryption programs that can be exploited by any hacker. It won’t, therefore, solve all the problems that the HRW and New American Foundation reports identify. But it would mark an important and consequential first step.
But he doesn’t admit the bill does little to address the specific sources of the costs identified in the two reports. It’s not a minute too soon to address these costs, he says, but then embraces a bill that doesn’t really address the actual sources of the costs identified in the reports.
That is mostly besides the point of whether Leahy’s bill is a fair apples-to-oranges trade-off with the status quo as to represent an improvement – an answer to which I can’t yet give, given some of the obvious unanswered questions about the bill. It is, however, a testament to how some of its supporters are overselling this bill and with it anyone’s ability to rein in the intelligence community.
But it’s one testament to that that bugs me most about Cole’s column. As I noted, he does mention Leahy’s failure to do anything about Section 702. Nowhere in his discussion of 702, however, does he mention that it permits warrantless access to Americans’ content, one which FBI uses when conducting mere assessments of Americans. Which of course means Cole doesn’t mention the most inexcusable part of the bill — its exemption on already soft reporting requirements to provide the numbers for how many Americans get exposed to these back door searches.
I’m not a fancy Georgetown lawyer, but I strongly believe the back door searches — conducted as they are with no notice to anyone ultimately prosecuted based off such information — are illegal, and probably unconstitutional. When retired DC Circuit Court judge Patricia Wald raised these problems with the practice, Director of National Intelligence Counsel Bob Litt simply said it would be “impracticable” to add greater oversight to back door searches. And in spite of the fact that both the President’s Review Group and PCLOB advised significant controls on this practice (which implicates the costs identified in both the HRW and NAF reports), the version of USA Freedom Act crafted by the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the Committee that’s supposed to ensure the government follows the law — not only doesn’t rein in the practice, but it exempts the most egregious part of the practice from the transparency applauded by people like Cole, thereby tacitly endorsing the worst part of the practice.
And all that’s before you consider that the IC also conducts back door searches of EO 12333 collected information — as first reported by me, but recently largely confirmed by John Napier Tye. And before you consider the IC’s explicit threat — issued during the passage of the Protect America Act — that if they don’t like any regulation Congress passes, they’ll just move the program to EO 12333.
The point is, Congress can’t rein in the IC, and that’s only partly because (what I expect drives the Senate’s unwillingness to deal with back door searches) many members of Congress choose not to. The have not asserted their authority over the IC, up to and including insisting that the protections for US persons under FISA Amendments Act actually get delivered.
In response to the news that Brennan’s spies had been spying on its Senate overseers, Patrick Leahy (who of course got targeted during the original PATRIOT debate with a terrorist anthrax attack) issued a statement insisting on the importance of Congressional oversight.
Congressional oversight of the executive branch, without fear of interference or intimidation, is fundamental to our Nation’s founding principle of the separation of powers.
Yet his bill — which is definitely an improvement over USA Freedumber but not clearly, in my opinion, an improvement on the status quo — tacitly endorses the notion that FBI can conduct warrantless searches on US person communications without even having real basis for an investigation.
That’s not reining in the spies. That’s blessing them.
On a near daily basis in the last week or so, Jason Leopold has tweeted some quote from the daily White House press briefing in which a journalist asks Jay Carney a question about detention, to which Carney responds by insisting the Administration still intends to close Gitmo.
Q One other topic. Wednesday is apparently the 10th anniversary of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and I’m wondering what the White House says now to critics who point to this as a pretty clear broken promise. The President had wanted to close that within a year. That hasn’t happened for a lot of the history that you know of. And now it’s like there’s really no end in sight. How do you respond to the criticism that this is just a big, broken promise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the commitment that the President has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign. We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the President wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist. But the President’s commitment hasn’t changed at all. And it’s the right thing to do for our national security interests.
That has been an opinion shared not just by this President or members of this administration, but senior members of the military as well as this President’s predecessor and the man he ran against for this office in the general election. So we will continue to abide by that commitment and work towards its fulfillment.
And that response usually succeeds in shutting the journalist up.
No one has, as far as I know, asked the more general question: “does the Administration plan to get out of the due process-free indefinite detention business?” That question would be a lot harder for Carney to answer–though the answer, of course, is “no, the Administration has no intention of stopping the practice of holding significant numbers of detainees without adequate review.” Rather than reversing the practice started by the Bush Administration, Obama has continued it, even re-accelerated it, expanding our prison at Bagram several times.
That question seems to be absent from discussions about Gitmo’s anniversary, too. Take this debate from the NYT.
Deborah Pearlstein takes solace in her assessment that Gitmo has gotten better over the last decade.
In 2002, detention conditions at the base were often abusive, and for some, torturous. Today, prisoners are generally housed in conditions that meet international standards, and the prison operates under an executive order that appears to have succeeded in prohibiting torture and cruelty. In 2002, the U.S. president asserted exclusive control over the prison, denying the applicability of fundamental laws that would afford its residents even the most basic humanitarian and procedural protections, and rejecting the notion that the courts had any power to constrain executive discretion. Today, all three branches of government are engaged in applying the laws that recognize legal rights in the detainees. Guantánamo once housed close to 800 prisoners, and most outside observers were barred from the base. Today, it holds 171, and independent lawyers, among others, have met with most detainees many times.
But she doesn’t mention that the Administration still operates a prison alleged to be abusive, even torturous, still rejects the notion that courts have any power to constrain executive discretion over that prison. And that prison holds over 3,000 men in it!
Sure, Gitmo has gotten better, but that only serves to distract from the fact that our detention practices–except for the notable fact that we claim to have ended the most physical forms of torture–have not.
David Cole scolds those in Congress who “don’t seem troubled at all about keeping men locked up who the military has said could be released, or about keeping open an institution that jeopardizes our security,” yet doesn’t mention that Bagram does the same. Nor does he note the part of the Administration’s NDAA signing statement that suggested Congress’ salutary effort to expand detainee review would not necessarily apply to Bagram. How can it all be Congress’ fault when Obama isn’t fulfilling the letter of the law providing more meaningful review to those we’re holding at Bagram?
Even the brilliant Vince Warren focuses on the “legal black hole” that is Gitmo, without mentioning the bigger legal black hole that is Bagram.
Among the four participants in the debate, only Eric Posner even mentions Bagram, suggesting that that’s one less optimal alternative to keeping prisoners at Gitmo.
To be sure, there are other options. Detainees could be placed in prison camps on foreign territory controlled by the U.S. military, where they lack access to U.S. courts and security is less certain.
But then Posner misconstrues the issue.
Some critics believe that the whole idea of a war on terror is misconceived, that Congress could not have lawfully declared war on Al Qaeda, and that therefore suspected members of Al Qaeda cannot be detained indefinitely like enemy soldiers but must either be charged in a court or released. This position has been rejected repeatedly by the courts, but even if it were correct, Guantánamo would remain a legitimate place to detain enemy soldiers picked up on “hot” battlefields wherever they may be now or in the future — places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and maybe soon Iran, to name a few.
There’s a difference between what is legal under international law developed for very different wars and what is just or what is the best way to conduct that war. And the problem with Gitmo (mitigated somewhat over the decade)–and the problem with Bagram, still–is that we’re spending unbelievable amounts of money to detain and abuse people that we haven’t even adequately reviewed to make sure we need to detain them. That’s not a smart way to conduct a war, particularly not one its backers insist will never end, particularly one that depends on our ability to win support among Afghans and other Muslims.
The only thing that was and is problematic about Gitmo that is not also problematic about Bagram is the publicity surrounding it (presumably, though, just here and in Europe–I imagine Afghans, Pakistanis, and al Qaeda members know as much about Bagram as they do about Gitmo). That is, by treating–and allowing the Administration to treat–Gitmo as the problem, rather than due process-free and possibly abusive indefinite detention generally, we’re all acting as if the problem is that people know we’re conducting due process-free indefinite detention, not that we’re doing it at all. We’re letting the Administration off easy with its claims that mean old Congress has prevented it from closing Gitmo, when Bagram offers proof that it wants to do so not for the right reasons–because it is wrong, because it damages our ability to claim to offer something better than corrupt regimes–but because what America has become and intends to stay is embarrassing, politically inconvenient.
I understand that this anniversary will attract general attention to Gitmo. I’m thrilled that, for once, people are listening to the reporters and activists and lawyers and guards and especially the detainees who have fought to close it. But by allowing the myth that Gitmo is the problem to go unchallenged, and not our due process-free indefinite detention generally, we’re simply pretending that unjust and stupid actions that occur outside of the glare of the press don’t matter as much as those that make the news.
I just watched a scintillating panel at the Aspen Security Forum. It featured former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, Alberto Gonzales, ACLU’s Anthony Romero, John Yoo, and David Cole, moderated by Dahlia Lithwick.
The panel itself was notable for the staging of it. The panelists were seated right next to each other, with no table in front. Gonzales sat right next to Romero; Yoo sat right next to Cole. So when Romero corrected Lithwick’s assertion that the Bush Administration had showed respect for using civilian trials with terrorists by recalling that Gonzales had argued for holding American citizen Jose Padilla without trial, Gonzales shifted notably, uncomfortably, by my read. And when Cole rehearsed the language people like Michael Mukasey and Jack Goldsmith used to describe Yoo’s memo all the while pointing with his thumb at Yoo sitting next to him–”solvenly,” he emphasized–Yoo also shifted, though aggressively towards Cole. Before it all ended, Romero started reading from Yoo’s torture memo; Yoo accused him of using Dickensian dramatic delivery.
The physical tension of these men, attempting to contain the contempt they had for each other while sitting in such close proximity, was remarkable.
There were a number of other highlights: John Yoo made the ridiculous claim that no one in the human rights community had come out against drone strikes (Romero came back later and reminded him the ACLU had sued on precisely that issue, representing Anwar al-Awlaki’s family). Gonzales insisted there should be accountability (no matter that he escaped it, both when he politicized DOJ and when he took TS/SCI documents home in his briefcase). Romero hailed Obama’s “willingness to shut down secret sites,” apparently missing Jeremy Scahill’s recent scoop about the CIA-paid prison in Somalia. Yoo, as is typical, lied to protect his actions, not only repeating that canard that torture helped to find Osama bin Laden (rather than delayed the hunt as is the case), but also to claim that warrantless wiertaps helped find the couriers; they did, but those were warrantless wiretaps in the Middle East, not the US!
Just as interesting, though, were the questions. Yoo was somewhat stumped when an IAVA member and former officer asked what an officer who had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution should do if he received what he believed was an unconstitutional order.
Finally, most interesting came when Richard Ben-Veniste–the former Watergate prosecutor and 9/11 Commissioner–asked questions. He said, first of all, that Mohammed al-Qahtani had been providing information before he was tortured (a claim I’m not sure I’ve heard before, made all the more interesting given that we know the Commission received interrogation reports on a running basis). But then his torture turned him into a “vegetable,” which meant the US was unable to prosecute him.
And then Ben-Veniste raised something that the panel, for all its discussion about accountability, didn’t mention. The 9/11 Commission recommended a privacy board to ensure that there was some balance between civil liberties and security. Bush made a half-assed effort to fulfill that requirement; after 2006, at least, there was a functioning Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. But Obama has all but spiked it, killing it by not appointing the Board.
Particularly given Ron Wyden’s and Mark Udall’s concerns about secret law, it’s time the civil liberties community returned its focus on Obama’s refusal to fulfill the law and support this board. That board is precisely the entity that should be balancing whether or not the government is making appropriate decisions about surveillance.
Update: David Cole corrected for John.