Tomorrow is dragnet day, the next 90-day reauthorization for the dragnet.
In advance of that date, Pat Leahy just called on President Obama to simply let the dragnet end.
The President can end the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records once and for all by not seeking reauthorization of this program by the FISA Court, and once again, I urge him to do just that. Doing so would not be a substitute for comprehensive surveillance reform legislation – but it would be an important first step.
Leahy joins 4 other Democrats who have already called for the President to unilaterally stop the dragnet.
At a hearing last month, Adam Schiff suggested to DIRNSA Mike Rogers that they move forward without waiting for a new law.
“There’s nothing in statute that requires the government to gather bulk data, so you could move forward on your own with making the technological changes,” Schiff said. “You don’t have to wait for the USA Freedom Act.”
There’s no reason for the NSA to wait for congressional approval to put additional limits on the program “if you think this is the correct policy,” Schiff added. “Why continue to gather the bulk metadata if [Obama administration officials] don’t think this is the best approach?”
And back in June, Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich not only made a similar suggestion in a letter to the President, but laid out how Obama could achieve what he says he wants to without waiting for legislation.
But the President is not going to end the dragnet. Heck, for all we know, FISC has already signed the reauthorization.
Mind you, it may be that President Obama can’t start the new-and-improved dragnet without offering providers immunity and compensation. But if Obama can’t simply end the dragnet without offering telecoms and second level contractors broad immunity, then he’s obviously planning on something more exotic than just regular phone contact chaining.
In an editorial calling on Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act, the USA Today makes this claim.
Obama’s proposal last January — to leave the data with phone companies, instead of with the government — can’t happen without a new law. And, as in so many other areas, the deeply divided Congress has failed to produce one.
I don’t know whether that is or is not the case.
I do know 3 Senate Intelligence Committee members say it is not the case.
Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich wrote Obama a letter making just this point in June. They argued that Obama could accomplish most, if not all, of what he claimed he wanted without legislation, largely with a combination of Section 215 Orders to get hops and Pen Registers to get prospective collection.
[W]e believe that, in the meantime, the government already has sufficient authorities today to implement most, if not all, of the Section 215 reforms laid out in your proposal without delay in a way that does not harm our national security. More comprehensive congressional action is vital, but the executive branch need not wait for Congress to end the dragnet collection of millions of Americans’ phone records for a number of reasons.
First, we believe that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s (FISC) expansive interpretation of the USA PATRIOT Act to allow the collection of millions of Americans’ phone records makes it likely that the FISC would also agree to a more narrowly-drawn interpretation of the law, without requiring further congressional action. Certainly, it seems likely that the FISC would permit the executive branch to use its current authorities to obtain phone records up to two “hops” from a suspicious phone number or to compel technical assistance by and compensation for recipients of court orders. Unless the FISC has already rejected such a request from the government, it does not seem necessary for the executive branch to wait for Congress before taking action.
Second, we believe that the FISC would likely approve the defined and limited prospective searches for records envisioned under your proposal pursuant to current USA PATRIOT Act Section 214 pen register authorities, given how broadly it has previous interpreted these authorities. Again, we believe it is vital for Congress to enact reforms, but we also believe that the government has sufficient authorities today under the USA PATRIOT Act to conduct these targeted prospective searches in the interim.
Finally, although we have seen no evidence that the government has needed the bulk phone records collection program to attain any time-sensitive objectives, we agree that new legislation should provide clear emergency authorities to allow the government to obtain court approval of individual queries after the fact under specific circumstances. The law currently allows prospective emergency acquisitions of call records under Section 403 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the acquisition of past records without judicial review under national security letter authorities. While utilizing a patchwork of authorities is not ideal, it could be done on an interim basis, while Congress works to pass legislation.
Just weeks before they sent this, Deputy Attorney General James Cole had seemed to say they could (if not already were) getting hybrid orders, in that case mixing phone and location. So it seems like DOJ is confident they could use such hybrid orders, using Section 215 for the hops and Pen Registers for the prospective collection (though, given that they’re already using Section 215 for prospective collection, I’m not sure why they’d need to use hybrids to get anything but emergency orders).
And it makes sense. After all, the public claims about what the Call Detail Record provision would do, at least, describe it as a kind of Pen Register on steroids, 2-degrees of Pen Register. As the Senators suggest, FBI already gets two-degree information of historical records with mere NSLs, so it’d be surprising if they couldn’t get 2 degrees prospectively with a court order.
So at least according to three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, USA Today is simply wrong.
Mind you, I’m not entirely convinced they’re right.
That’s because I suspect the new CDR provision is more than a Pen Register on steroids, is instead something far more intrusive, one that gets far beyond mere call records. I suspect the government will ask the telecoms to chain on location, address books, and more — as they do overseas — which would require far more than a prospective Pen Register and likely would require super immunity, as the bill provides.
I suspect the Senators are wrong, but if they are, it’s because Obama (or his Intelligence Community) wants something that is far more invasive then they’ve made out.
Still, for USAF supporters, there seems no question. If all Obama wants to replace the phone dragnet is prospective 2-degree call (not connection) chaining on RAS targets, he almost certainly has that authority.
But if he needs more authority, then chances are very good he’s asking for something far more than he has let on.
Update: Note, USAT makes at least one other clear error in this piece, as where it suggests the “the program” — the phone dragnet — imposes costs on cloud companies like Microsoft and Google.
Now that I’ve finally got around to reading the so-called transparency provisions in Patrick Leahy’s USA Freedom Act, I understand that one purpose of the bill, from James Clapper’s perspective, is to get Congress to ratify some kind of financial dragnet conducted under Section 215.
As I’ve laid out in detail before, there’s absolutely no reason to believe USA Freedom Act does anything to affect non-communications collection programs.
That’s because the definition of “specific selection term” permits (corporate) persons to be used as a selector, so long as they aren’t communications companies. So Visa, Western Union, and Bank of America could all be used as the selector; Amazon could be for anything not cloud or communications-related. Even if the government obtained all the records from these companies — as reports say it does with Western Union, at least — that would not be considered “bulk” because the government defines “bulk” as collection without a selector. Here, the selector would be the company.
And as I just figured out yesterday, the bill requires absolutely no individualized reporting on traditional Section 215 orders that don’t obtain communications. Here’s what the bill requires DNI to report on traditional 215 collection.
(D) the total number of orders issued pursuant to applications made under section 501(b)(2)(B) and a good faith estimate of—
(i) the number of targets of such orders;
(ii) the number of individuals whose communications were collected pursuant to such orders; and
(iii) the number of individuals whose communications were collected pursuant to such orders who are reasonably believed to have been located in the United States at the time of collection;
(3) INDIVIDUAL WHOSE COMMUNICATIONS WERE COLLECTED.—The term ‘individual whose communications were collected’ means any individual—
(A) who was a party to an electronic communication or a wire communication the contents or noncontents of which was collected; or
(B)(i) who was a subscriber or customer of an electronic communication service or remote computing service; and
(ii) whose records, as described in subparagraph (A), (B), (D), (E), or (F) of section 2703(c)(2) of title 18, United States Code, were collected.
Thus, the 215 reporting only requires the DNI to provide individualized reporting on communications related orders. It requires no individualized reporting at all on actual tangible things (in the tangible things provision!). A dragnet order collecting every American’s Visa bill would be reported as 1 order targeting the 4 or so terrorist groups specifically named in the primary order. It would not show that the order produced the records of 310 million Americans.
I’m guessing this is not a mistake, which is why I’m so certain there’s a financial dragnet the government is trying to hide.
Under the bill, of course, Visa and Western Union could decide they wanted to issue a privacy report. But I’m guessing if it would show 310 million to 310,000,500 of its customers’ privacy was being compromised, they would be unlikely to do that.
So the bill would permit the collection of all of Visa’s records (assuming the government could or has convinced the FISC to rubber stamp that, of course), and it would hide the extent of that collection because DNI is not required to report individualized collection numbers.
But it’s not just the language in the bill that amounts to ratification of such a dragnet.
As the government has argued over and over and over, every time Congress passes Section 215′s “relevant to” language unchanged, it serves as a ratification of the FISA Court’s crazy interpretation of it to mean “all.” That argument was pretty dodgy for reauthorizations that happened before Edward Snowden came along (though its dodginess did not prevent Clare Eagan, Mary McLaughlin, and William Pauley from buying it). But it is not dodgy now: Senators need to know that after they pass this bill, the government will argue to courts that it ratifies the legal interpretations publicly known about the program.
While the bill changes a great deal of language in Section 215, it still includes the “relevant to” language that now means “all.” So every Senator who votes for USAF will make it clear to judges that it is the intent of Congress for “relevant to” to mean “all.”
And it’s not just that! In voting for USAF, Senators would be ratifying all the other legal interpretations about dragnets that have been publicly released since Snowden’s leaks started.
That includes the horrible John Bates opinion from February 19, 2013 that authorized the government to use Section 215 to investigate Americans for their First Amendment protected activities so long as the larger investigation is targeted at people whose activities aren’t protected under the First Amendment. So Senators would be making it clear to judges their intent is to allow the government to conduct investigations into Americans for their speech or politics or religion in some cases (which cases those are is not entirely clear).
That also includes the John Bates opinion from November 23, 2010 that concluded that, “the Right to Financial Privacy Act, … does not preclude the issuance of an order requiring the production of financial records to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursuant to the FISA business records provision.” Given that Senators know (or should — and certainly have the ability to — know) about this before they support USAF, judges would be correct in concluding that it was the intent of Congress to permit the government to collect financial records under Section 215.
So Senators supporting this bill must realize that supporting the bill means they are supporting the following:
That is, Senators supporting this bill are not only supporting a possible financial dragnet, but they are helping the government hide the existence of it.
I can’t tell you what the dragnet entails. Perhaps it’s “only” the Western Union tracking reported by both the NYT and WSJ. Perhaps James Cole’s two discussions of being able to collect credit card records under this provision means they are. Though when Leahy asked him if they could collect credit card records to track fertilizer purchases, Cole suggested they might not need everyone’s credit cards to do that.
Leahy: But if our phone records are relevant, why wouldn’t our credit card records? Wouldn’t you like to know if somebody’s buying, um, what is the fertilizer used in bombs?
Cole: I may not need to collect everybody’s credit card records in order to do that.
If somebody’s buying things that could be used to make bombs of course we would like to know that but we may not need to do it in this fashion.
We don’t know what the financial dragnet is. But we know that it is permitted — and deliberately hidden — under this bill.
Below the rule I’ve put the names of the 18 Senators who have thus far co-sponsored this bill. If one happens to be your Senator, it might be a good time to urge them to reconsider that support.
Patrick Leahy (202) 224-4242
Mike Lee (202) 224-5444
Dick Durbin (202) 224-2152
Dean Heller (202) 224-6244
Al Franken (202) 224-5641
Ted Cruz (202) 224-5922
Richard Blumenthal (202) 224-2823
Tom Udall (202) 224-6621
Chris Coons (202) 224-5042
Martin Heinrich (202) 224-5521
Ed Markey (202) 224-2742
Mazie Hirono (202) 224-6361
Amy Klobuchar (202) 224-3244
Sheldon Whitehouse (202) 224-2921
Chuck Schumer (202) 224-6542
Bernie Sanders (202) 224-5141
Cory Booker (202) 224-3224
Bob Menendez (202) 224-4744
Sherrod Brown (202) 224-2315
As you likely know, when the White House delivered the torture report back to the Senate Intelligence Committee, they discovered that the Intelligence Community had redacted big chunks of the summary. McClatchy’s latest report reveals the CIA blacked out the pseudonyms of torturers that SSCI had used to hide their real names.
Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told McClatchy on Monday that the blackouts _ officially known as redactions _ were made to pseudonyms used for both covert CIA officers and foreign countries.
“No covert CIA personnel or foreign countries are named in the report,” he said. “Only pseudonyms were used, precisely to protect this kind of information. Those pseudonyms were redacted (by the administration).”
All of the pseudonyms were excised from the version of the executive summary that the White House returned to the committee on Friday, a person familiar with the issue said.
I presume CIA felt they had to do this because the names of the torturers are not, in fact secret. We know that Bruce Jessen reverse engineered the torture and Alfreda Bikowsky ordered the rendition of Khalid el-Masri. Keeping the pseudonyms the SSCI used for each secret prevents us from developing a more complete list of the things each did, including the legally actionable things.
In other words, the CIA is redacting things to hide evidence of crimes.
Behind this spat is a more general question: whether redacting 15% of an executive summary is excessive or not. Martin Heinrich says it makes the report unreadable.
“Redactions are supposed to remove names or anything that could compromise sources and methods, not to undermine the source material so that it is impossible to understand,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a member of the committee, said Sunday in a statement. “Try reading a novel with 15 percent of the words blacked out. It can’t be done properly.”
James Clapper and White House spokesperson Josh Earnest say leaving 85% of the summary is very “transparent.”
Josh Earnest justified the redactions, telling reporters: “We’re talking about very sensitive information here. And it’s important that a declassification process be carried out that protects sources and methods and other information that is critical to our national security.”
He noted that more than 85 percent of the executive summary wasn’t blacked out.
But as Katherine Hawkins noted on Twitter, that’s doing the math wrong. The Executive Branch has already decided that the overwhelming majority of the report — the more detailed chapters — will not be released at all right now. The roughly 408 pages the Administration has decided we can see represents just 6.2% of the report — 408 pages out of 6,600.
SSCI wrote the summary so that it could be released, with the perhaps futile expectation that the rest of the report will be released after Bikowsky and others are no longer still working (!!) for the Agency. And yet the Most Transparent Administration Evah™ believes that even releasing that much is too much transparency and democracy for us.
As I noted on Friday, the Administration got a new phone dragnet order on the same day that Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich pointed out that — so long as the Administration only wants to do what it claims to want to do — it could stop holding phone records right away, just as it implemented Obama’s 2-hop mandate and court review in February right away.
From ODNI’s announcement they got a new dragnet order Friday (which they congratulate themselves as a great show of transparency), it’s clear they have no intention of doing so. On the contrary, they’re going to hold out HR 3361 — and their unconvincing claim it ends bulk collection as normal people understand the term — with each new dragnet order.
After carefully considering the available options, the President announced in March that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk, and that it remain at the telephone companies with a legal mechanism in place which would allow the government to obtain data pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries. The President also noted that legislation would be required to implement this option and called on Congress to enact this important change to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Consistent with the President’s March proposal, in May, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3361, the USA FREEDOM Act, which would, if enacted, create a new mechanism for the government to obtain this telephony metadata pursuant to individual orders from the FISC, rather than in bulk. The bill also prohibits bulk collection through the use of Section 215, FISA pen registers and trap and trace devices, and National Security Letters.
Overall, the bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system, while ensuring our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation. The Administration strongly supports the USA FREEDOM Act. We urge the Senate to swiftly consider it, and remain ready to work with Congress to clarify that the bill prohibits bulk collection as noted above, as necessary.
Given that legislation has not yet been enacted, and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities of the Section 215 telephony metadata program, the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the President announced earlier this year.
But here’s the bit I’m most struck by, particularly given that the government has not yet released the March 28, 2014 dragnet order which should be a slam dunk declassification process, given that its content has presumably all been released in the past.
In addition to a new primary order last Friday, FISC also wrote a memorandum opinion.
The Administration is undertaking a declassification review of this most recent court order and an accompanying memorandum opinion for publication.
I can think of two things that would explain a memorandum opinion: the program has changed in some way (perhaps they’ve changed how they interpret “selection term” or implement the automated process which they had previously never gotten running?), or the FISC considered some new legal issue before approving the dragnet.
As I noted last week, both US v. Quartavious Davis, in which the 11th Circuit ruled stored cell location data required a warrant), and US v Stavros Ganias, in which the 2nd Circuit ruled the government can’t use data it seized under an old warrant years later, might affect both the current and future dragnets, as well as other programs the NSA engages in.
Thing is, whatever the subject of the opinion, then it’d sure be nice to know what it says before we pass this legislation, as the legislation may have to correct the wacky secret decisions of the FISC (most members of Congress are still not getting unredacted dragnet orders). But if the last order is any indication, we won’t get this new order until months from now, long after the bill is expected to be rushed through the Senate.
Which is probably all by design.
The three surveillance critics from the Senate Intelligence Committee — Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich — wrote a letter to Obama on the developments in the NSA reform. Generally, they repeat exhortations that Wyden and Udall have already made in hearings to end the dragnet right now, as Obama has already claimed he wants to do.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but I find some of the details in it to be of particular interest.
The Senators point out, for example, that several bills accomplish the goals Obama has publicly stated he’d support. Those bills include the original USA Freedom Act, and separate proposals advanced by both Udall and Wyden.
But they also include the original PATRIOT Reauthorization from 2005, which Dianne Feinstein once supported, as did a young Senator named Barack Obama (though the Senators don’t mention either of those details). Wyden has long pointed obliquely to when the Executive first started using PATRIOT to conduct dragnets, and the record shows the Executive withheld information about how it was using the PRTT authority from even the Intelligence Committees during the 2005 reauthorization. So the Senators may be nodding towards Executive refusal to respect the will of Congress with this mention.
The Senators then both question claims from Administration officials that “in the absence of new legislation, there is no plan to suspend the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records,” and express their doubts “that the version of the USA Freedom Act that recently passed the House of Representatives would actually ban the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”
While they repeatedly reiterate their support for legislative reform, they also lay out a plan by which the President can immediately end the dragnet. Here’s the part I find particularly interesting.
First, they say it is “highly likely” FISC would let them get 2-degrees of phone records, unless FISC has already prohibited that.
Unless the FISC has already rejected such a request from the government, it does not seem necessary for the executive branch to wait for Congress before taking action.
Isn’t this already included in current orders? Shouldn’t the Senators know if FISC has rejected such a request (especially Wyden, who has been on the committee through all this period)? Is Wyden saying it’s possible there’s something else limiting the dragnet? Is he pointing to a ruling he knows about?
Just as interesting, the Senators argue the Pen Register Authority — not Section 215 — could serve to carry out the prospective collection the bill claims to want to do.
FISC would likely approve the defined and limited prospective searches for records envisioned under your proposal pursuant to current USA PATRIOT Act Section 214 pen register authorities, given how broadly it has previous interpreted these authorities.
Finally, although we have seen no evidence that the government has needed the bulk phone records collection program to attain any time-sensitive objectives, we agree that new legislation should provide clear emergency authorities to allow the government to obtain court approval of individual queries after the fact under specific circumstances. The law currently allows prospective emergency acquisitions of call records under Section 403 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the acquisition of past records without judicial review under national security letter authorities.
Of course, the PRTT authority (cited twice here) should always have been the appropriate authority for this collection; we’ve just never learned why the government didn’t use that.
Basically, the Senators are laying out how the Executive could do precisely what it says it wants to do with existing authorities (indeed, with the PRTT authority that are actually targeted to the kind of record in question).
The Executive has all the authorities it needs, the Senators lay out, so why doesn’t it end the dragnet — achieve the reform it claims it wants — immediately?
We believe the way to restore Americans’ constitutional rights and their trust in our intelligence community is to immediately end the practice of vacuuming up the phone records of huge numbers of innocent Americans every day and permit the government to obtain only the phone records of people actually connected to terrorism or other nefarious activity. We support your March 27, 2014, proposal to achieve these goals, but we also view ending bulk collection as an imperative that cannot wait.
Damn! That’s a very good question! Obama moved immediately to implement his first reform proposal — advance FISC approval and limits to two hops — back in February. So why isn’t he moving immediately to implement the plan he says he wants now, as the Senators lay out he could well do under existing authorities?
It may be the Senators are just pressuring Obama to implement changes now, and nothing here is meant to point to some underlying issue.
But I wildarseguess that they’re trying to point out the differences between what they could do — under the PRTT orders they should have been using from the start — and what they want to do.
There’s one difference we can point to right away, after all: immunity. If all the government wanted to do was to obtain call detail records, then they wouldn’t need to give the telecoms immunity. That’s something they do every day. But there’s something they will do that has led the telecoms to demand immunity. That’s the stuff that goes beyond traditional PRTT activity.
Then there’s the stuff we don’t know about: the “connections” based chaining. As I’ve said, I don’t know what that entails. But it is an obvious explanation for why the telecoms need immunity — and for why a simple PRTT order won’t suffice.
One way or another, the Senators are calling Obama’s bluff. Obama says he wants nothing more than to obtain specific phone records going forward. If that’s true, he could make the change today. Yet the Executive is clear they can’t do that.
Update: One more detail. As Wyden’s release on this makes clear, today’s the day the March 28, 2014 phone dragnet order expires, so presumably the government got another one today. We’ve never seen that March 28 order, by the way.
In the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on HR 3361 — which I call the USA Freedumber Act because it makes the dragnet worse in several ways — Dianne Feinstein used her opening statement to talk about the role of “specific selection term” in the bill.
She says, in part,
The problem comes with the definition of a “specific selection term,” which is not clear on its face and I believe it’s confusing.
I’m glad that Feinstein is concerned about the same thing I’ve been focusing on for a month.
The problem with trying to prevent “bulk collection” using the definition of selection term — even aside from the fact that the Intelligence Community understands “bulk collection” to mean something entirely different from what normal people understand it to mean — is that it will be abused.
We didn’t even get out of the hearing without such cynicism. At the hearing, Deputy Attorney General James Cole assured Martin Heinrich and Mark Udall that statements in the legislative record indicating a desire to limit such collection would prevent any abuse. This is the same DAG whose DOJ argued – just the day before!!! — that the legislative record of FISA, which clearly indicates the congressional intent that some defendants will get to review their FISA applications, should be ignored in favor of the 36 year history during which no defendants got such review.
Cole’s comments are all the proof we need that the Executive cannot be trusted to cede to Congress’ wishes (not to mention that the legislative record is far more ambivalent than Cole pretended).
So I’m grateful Feinstein is trying to tighten the definition (though I don’t think that is the workable way to improve the bill).
But I’m a bit confused by Feinstein’s confusion.
You see, as I noted some weeks ago, the term “selection term” is already used for Section 215, and has been for at least a year. And at least in phone dragnet Primary Order standard references to FISA content orders (that is, to traditional FISA warrants and the like), they’re using “selection term” as well.
The intelligence community and the FISA Court already have some common understanding of what “selection term” means — and Primary Orders appear to define the term in a classified-to-us-but-not-Feinstein footnote — and yet Feinstein is confused about what “specific selection term” might mean?
Granted, “selection term” is slightly different than “specific selection term.” Still, given that the “selection term” appears to be defined — and used — in the existing program, I would hope that Senator Feinstein would have some clarity about what it means.
Perhaps the way to start this discussion is to publicly explain how the IC is currently using “selection term”?
In a piece at MoJo, David Corn argues the Senate Intelligence Committee – CIA fight has grown into a Constitutional crisis.
What Feinstein didn’t say—but it’s surely implied—is that without effective monitoring, secret government cannot be justified in a democracy. This is indeed a defining moment. It’s a big deal for President Barack Obama, who, as is often noted in these situations, once upon a time taught constitutional law. Feinstein has ripped open a scab to reveal a deep wound that has been festering for decades. The president needs to respond in a way that demonstrates he is serious about making the system work and restoring faith in the oversight of the intelligence establishment. This is more than a spies-versus-pols DC turf battle. It is a constitutional crisis.
I absolutely agree those are the stakes. But I’m not sure the crisis stems from Feinstein “going nuclear” on the floor of the Senate today. Rather, I think whether Feinstein recognized it or not, we had already reached that crisis point, and John Brennan simply figured he had prepared adequately to face and win that crisis.
Which is why I disagree with the assessment of Feinstein’s available options as laid out by Shane Harris and John Hudson in FP.
If she chooses to play hardball, Feinstein can make the tenure of CIA Director John Brennan a living nightmare. From her perch on the intelligence committee, she could drag top spies before the panel for months on end. She could place holds on White House nominees to key agency positions. She could launch a broader investigation into the CIA’s relations with Congress and she could hit the agency where it really hurts: its pocketbook. One of the senator’s other committee assignments is the Senate Appropriations Committee, which allocates funds to Langley.
Take these suggestions one by one: Feinstein can only “drag top spies” before Congress if she is able to wield subpoena power. Not only won’t her counterpart, Saxby Chambliss (who generally sides with the CIA in this dispute) go along with that, but recent legal battles have largely gutted Congress’ subpoena power.
Feinstein can place a hold on CIA-related nominees. There’s even one before the Senate right now, CIA General Counsel nominee Caroline Krass, though Feinstein’s own committee just voted Krass out of Committee, where Feinstein could have wielded her power as Chair to bottle Krass up. In the Senate, given the new filibuster rules, Feinstein would have to get a lot of cooperation from her Democratic colleagues to impose any hold if ever she lost Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s support (though she seems to have that so far).
But with Krass, what’s the point? So long as Krass remains unconfirmed, Robert Eatinger — the guy who ratcheted up this fight in the first place by referring Feinstein’s staffers for criminal investigation — will remain Acting General Counsel. So in fact, Feinstein has real reason to rush the one active CIA nomination through, if only to diminish Eatinger’s relative power.
Feinstein could launch a broader investigation into the CIA’s relations with Congress. But that would again require either subpoenas (and the willingness of DOJ to enforce them, which is not at all clear she’d have) or cooperation.
Or Feinstein could cut CIA’s funding. But on Appropriations, she’ll need Barb Mikulski’s cooperation, and Mikulski has been one of the more lukewarm Democrats on this issue. (And all that’s assuming you’re only targeting CIA; as soon as you target Mikulski’s constituent agency, NSA, Maryland’s Senator would likely ditch Feinstein in a second.)
Then FP turns to DOJ’s potential role in this dispute.
The Justice Department is reportedly looking into whether the CIA inappropriately monitored congressional staff, as well as whether those staff inappropriately accessed documents that lay behind a firewall that segregated classified information that the CIA hadn’t yet cleared for release. And according to reports, the FBI has opened an investigation into committee staff who removed classified documents from the CIA facility and brought them back to the committee’s offices on Capitol Hill.
Even ignoring all the petty cover-ups DOJ engages in for intelligence agencies on a routine basis (DEA at least as much as CIA), DOJ has twice done CIA’s bidding on major scale on the torture issue in recent years. First when John Durham declined to prosecute both the torturers and Jose Rodriguez for destroying evidence of torture. And then when Pat Fitzgerald delivered John Kiriakou’s head on a platter for CIA because Kiriakou and the Gitmo detainee lawyers attempted to learn the identities of those who tortured.
There’s no reason to believe this DOJ will depart from its recent solicitous ways in covering up torture. Jim Comey admittedly might conduct an honest investigation, but he’s no longer a US Attorney and he needs someone at DOJ to actually prosecute anyone, especially if that person is a public official.
Implicitly, Feinstein and her colleagues could channel Mike Gravel and read the 6,000 page report into the Senate record. But one of CIA’s goals is to ensure that if the Report ever does come out, it has no claim to objectivity. Especially if the Democrats release the Report without the consent of Susan Collins, it will be child’s play for Brennan to spin the Report as one more version of what happened, no more valid than Jose Rodriguez’ version.
And all this assumes Democrats retain control of the Senate. That’s an uphill battle in any case. But CIA has many ways to influence events. Even assuming CIA would never encourage false flags attacks or leak compromising information about Democrats, the Agency can ratchet up the fear mongering and call Democrats weak on security. That always works and it ought to be worth a Senate seat or three.
If Democrats lose the Senate, you can be sure that newly ascendant Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr would be all too happy to bury the Torture Report, just for starters. Earlier today, after all, he scolded Feinstein for airing this fight.
“I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly,”
Burr’s a guy who has joked about waterboarding in the past. Burying the Torture Report would be just the start of things, I fear.
And then, finally, there’s the President, whose spokesperson affirmed the President’s support for his CIA Director and who doesn’t need any Democrats help to win another election. As Brennan said earlier today, Obama “is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.” And I suspect Brennan has confidence that Obama won’t do that.
Which brings me to my comment above, on AJE, that Brennan knows where the literal bodies are buried.
I meant that very, very literally.
Not only does Brennan know firsthand that JSOC attempted to kill Anwar al-Awlaki on December 24, 2009, solely on the President’s authority, before the FBI considered him to be operational. But he also knows that the evidence against Awlaki was far dodgier than it should have been before the President authorized the unilateral execution of an American citizen.
Worse still, Feinstein not only okayed that killing, either before or just as it happened. But even the SSCI dissidents Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich declared the Awlaki killing “a legitimate use of the authority granted the President” in November.
I do think there are ways the (Legislative) Democrats might win this fight. But they’re not well situated in the least, even assuming they’re willing and able to match Brennan’s bureaucratic maneuvering.
Again, I don’t blame Feinstein for precipitating this fight. We were all already in it, and she has only now come around to it.
I just hope she and her colleagues realize how well prepared Brennan is to fight it in time to wage an adequate battle.
Over the last few days, I’ve tracked the accusations and counter-accusations between CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A number of people have asked why, as a way to end this issue, the Committee doesn’t just declassify the entire SSCI Report.
But it’s not so simple as that.
It’s not clear there are the votes to release the Report.
Recall that when the Committee approved the Report back in 2012, the vote was largely split on party lines, with the exception of John McCain, who voted as an Ex Officio member (as Ranking Member of Senate Armed Services Committee) to release the Report. McCain is no longer SASC Ranking member: Jim Inhofe is, and I’m betting he’s not going to vote to release the Report.
There are few other changes in the Committee proper since the report was originally finalized. Martin Heinrich and Angus King have replaced Bill Nelson and Kent Conrad, and Susan Collins and Tom Coburn have replaced Olympia Snowe and Roy Blunt.
And while Heinrich has quickly become one of the better overseers on the Committee, including on torture, it’s not actually clear whether King would vote to release the report. Collins, too, has been reported to be undecided (and her vote would be critical to making this a “bipartisan vote,” now that McCain doesn’t have a vote). There are even hints that Mark Warner wouldn’t vote to support its declassification (though he supported its finalization).
And importantly, King and Collins have been reported to be undecided after the time when, in January, the Committee at least began to suspect they’d been surveilled.
There are, obviously, two different issues (though Saxby Chambliss, at least, sides with CIA on both counts). But there’s been little outcry from the swing votes on releasing the underlying report itself.
Update: h/t to JK for the link to the Collins/King report I was not finding.
McClatchy has now posted an update to the tale of the CIA-SSCI spat.
It appears the following happened: Sometime around August, SSCI staffers working on a database at CIA discovered the internal CIA report, started under Leon Panetta, that corroborated the SSCI report. It also contradicted CIA’s official response to the SSCI Report.
Several months after the CIA submitted its official response to the committee report, aides discovered in the database of top-secret documents at CIA headquarters a draft of an internal review ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta of the materials released to the panel, said the knowledgeable person.
So having discovered even the CIA disagreed with the CIA’s response, the SSCI staffers took a copy with them.
They determined that it showed that the CIA leadership disputed report findings which they knew were corroborated by the so-called Panetta review, said the knowledgeable person.
The aides printed the material, walked out of CIA headquarters with it and took it to Capitol Hill, said the knowledgeable person.
Mark Udall raised the report in a December hearing. In January, CIA accused SSCI of absconding with the document.
After the CIA confronted the panel in January about the removal of the material last fall, panel staff concluded that the agency had monitored computers that they’d been given to use in a high-security research room at the CIA campus in Langley, Va., a McClatchy investigation found.
In response, the CIA asked DOJ to start an investigation.
Then there’s this weird question about the document. I’m not sure whether the issue is how the document first got included in the database at CIA, or whether it’s how it migrated to SSCI.
White House officials have held at least one closed-door meeting with committee members about the monitoring and the removal of the documents, said the first knowledgeable person.
The White House officials were trying to determine how the materials that were taken from CIA headquarters found their way into a data base into which millions of pages of top-secret reports, emails and other documents were made available to panel staff after being vetted by CIA officials and contractors, said the knowledgeable person.
My favorite part of this passage, though, is that contractors are helping choose with documents CIA’s overseers are allowed to see.
Because contractors should surely have more visibility into what the CIA does than CIA’s overseers, right?
All of which is to say the SSCI busted the CIA for lying in their official response to the Committee. And as a result, CIA decided to start accusing the Committee of breaking the law. And now everyone is being called into the Principal’s office for spankings.
This reminds me of what happened when Gitmo defense lawyers tried to independently identify the identities of their clients torturers. The lawyers got too close to the torturers, which set off a process that ultimately led to John Kiriakou, as the sacrificial lamb, going to jail.
But it seems that this is part of a larger CIA effort to stall. As McClatchy notes, CIA took 3 extra months to provide their initial response to SSCI. Then this erupted 2 months later. It has now been almost 3 months since Udall first revealed the existence of the Panetta report. Which brings us just 8 months away from an election in which the Democrats stand a good chance of losing the Senate, and with it, the majority on the Committee that might vote to declassify the report in defiance of CIA’s wishes. Which may be why Saxby Chambliss is fanning the CiA’s flames for them.
“I have no comment. You should talk to those folks that are giving away classified information and get their opinion,” Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said when asked about the alleged intrusions.
Stall, stall, stall. It’s what CIA did with the OPR report, it’s what they did with the torture tape investigation, and now this.
CIA may well suck at doing their job — getting intelligence that is useful to the country. But they sure are experts at outlasting any oversight onto their real activities.