Domestic Collection and Stellar Wind

I’m in the middle of comparing John Yoo’s May 17, 2002 letter to Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (which is largely the November 2, 2001 justification he wrote for Stellar Wind) with Jack Goldsmith’s May 6, 2004 memo on Stellar Wind, which reined in some aspects of Stellar Wind. And I realized something about the authorization process.

On page 17 of his memo, Goldsmith describes the previous opinions issued by OLC. The discussion is largely redacted, but it does describe say the October 4, 2001 memo “evaluated the legality of a hypothetical electronic surveillance program,” whereas the November 2, 2001 memo “examined the authorities granted by the President in the November 2, 2001 Authorization of STELLAR WIND and concluded that they were lawful.”

Already, that’s an interesting assertion given that the Yoo letter doesn’t do that entirely. First, at least in the letter to Kollar-Kotelly, Yoo also treated the program as hypothetical.

Electronic surveillance techniques would be part of this effort. The President would order warrantless surveillance in order to gather intelligence that would be used to prevent and deter future attacks on the United States. Given that the September 11 attacks were launched and carried out from within the United States itself, an effective surveillance program might include individuals and communications within the continental United States. This would be novel in two respects. Without access to any non-public sources, it is our understanding that generally the National Security Agency (NSA) only conducts electronic surveillance outside the United States that do not involve United States persons. Usually, surveillance of communications by United States persons within the unites states is conducted by the FBI pursuant to a warrant obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”). Second, interception could include electronic messages carried through the internet, which again could include communications within the United States involving United States persons. Currently, it is our understanding that neither the NSA nor law enforcement conducts broad monitoring of electronic communications in this matter within the United States, without specific authorization under FISA.


Thus, for example, all communications between United States persons, whether in the United States or not, and individuals in [redacted–likely Afghanistan] might be intercepted. The President might direct the NSA to intercept communications between suspected terrorists, even if one of the parties is a United States person and the communication takes place between the United States and abroad. The non-content portion of electronic mail communications also might be intercepted, even if one of parties is within the United States, or one or both of the parties are non-citizen U.S. persons (i.e., a permanent resident alien). Such operations would expand the NSA’s functions beyond the monitoring only of international communications of non-U.S. persons. [my emphasis]

Importantly, these hypothetical descriptions come from the section of Yoo’s letter before it appears to begin tracking his earlier memo closely. So it’s unclear whether this description of Stellar Wind matches the one in the November 2 memo. It’s certainly possible that Yoo gave an incomplete version of what he had in the earlier memo or even pulled in (hypothetical) language from the October 4 memo. It’s possible, too, that language on domestic content collection reflected a retroactive review Yoo did of the first authorization. (An extended discussion of how Yoo’s early memos track the Authorizations — including discussion of another hypothetical memo Yoo wrote on September 17 — starts at PDF 361.)

Of particular interest, this hypothetical description includes the possibility of intercepting entirely domestic Internet communications (see emphasized language). We know — from the unredacted NSA Stellar Wind IG Report and even from the redacted Joint IG Report — that was something included in the first presidential Authorization, but not the subsequent ones.

The wording of the first authorization could have been interpreted to allow domestic content collection where both communicants were located in the U.S. or were U.S. persons. General Hayden recalled that when the Counsel to the Vice President pointed this out, General Hayden told him that NSA would not collect domestic communications because 1) NSA was a foreign intelligence agency, 2) NSA infrastructure did not support domestic collection, and 3) his personal standard was so high that there would be no problem getting a FISC order for domestic collection.

We also know NSA did collect some domestic collection — on about 3,000 selectors, possibly triggered to non-US persons within the US — at least until Stellar Wind got transitioned to FISA in 2009.

This is a minor, but potentially important one. Yoo was writing hypothetical authorizations for stuff the NSA later pretended not to be authorized to do, but was doing. Those earlier hypothetical authorizations didn’t go away. And therefore, no matter what the authorizations said, there’d still be that authorization sitting there.

2 replies
  1. martin says:

    quote”Yoo was writing hypothetical authorizations for stuff the NSA later pretended not to be authorized to do, but was doing. Those earlier hypothetical authorizations didn’t go away. And therefore, no matter what the authorizations said, there’d still be that authorization sitting there.”unquote

    On the face of it..this seems absurd. Why would Yoo write “hypothetical” authorizations? To me..this is like saying.. “I’m hypothetically authorizing my daughter to stay out till midnight on a date Saturday night.. just in case.. she goes on a date and stays out till midnight against my wishes. That way I don’t have to scold her.”

    Either it’s an authorization or it ain’t. Unless I’m missing something here. I mean, this shit is confusing enough, but hypothetical authorization seems like an oxymoron or something. Are you saying Yoo was “suggesting” to the NSA that ..IF.. they just so happen to do something illegal.. it’s ok, because Yoo says so…hypothetically?

    Good god. If that’s the case, then the government could “hypothetically” authorize any goddamned thing they want to do.. until someone objects, right? I think. Wait.. my brain is seizing up.

    Ok, time for a second cup of coffee and a re-read. fuk.

  2. martin says:

    Ok, I went back and re-read your post from April 16th, that you linked back to. And this stood out least for me.

    quote”So I think it’s possible that the two pages of the memo that don’t exist in the letter might make such a claim (which would in turn justify the October 4, 2001 decisions to authorize the program). In which case, when Yoo was rewriting it to make it palatable to a judge who otherwise might balk, simply rewrote those two pages to make them appear reasonable so long as no one got to review it closely. “unquote

    So no one got to review it…. closely. right. Hahahahahaha..hohohohoho..hahahahahaha!. These clowns never cease to amaze me. appears I’m right. These schmucks think that as long as a POTUS claims that whatever he does, is never long as the DOJ write’s up a “get out of jail free” memo that agrees with him..which they HAVE to. So no one gets to review it too closely.

    Nixon must be ROTFIGSL.

    And btw emptywheel. You ARE a hopeless geek. Thank god for hopeless geeks. Otherwise we’d be hopelessly ignorant of what our government is REALLY doing. THANK YOU..

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