SCOTUS Says “No Thanks” to ACLU Suit–Will It Change the FISA Debate?

SCOTUS just declined to review the 6th Circuit’s dismissal of the ACLU warrantless wiretapping suit.

 The Supreme Court rejected a challenge Tuesday to the Bush administration’s domestic spying program.

The justices’ decision, issued without comment, is the latest setback to legal efforts to force disclosure of details of the warrantless wiretapping that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union wanted the court to allow a lawsuit by the group and individuals over the wiretapping program. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs could not prove their communications had been monitored.

McJoan and Christy point to the key issue here–standing. As Glenn points out, judges have ruled that this warrantless wiretapping program was illegal, yet also ruled (at least the 6th Circuit) that no one had standing to do anything about it. 

It’s not clear whether the 9th Circuit will rule different on the majority of the 40 or so cases out there. But for now, this decision sure seems to put the immunity debate in a different light. After all, if judges won’t let any of these suits advance because no one can prove standing, then why bother with the constitutionally suspect step of having Congress intervene in the Courts?

The rub is the Al-Haramain lawsuit, where plaintiffs once had documented proof that the government had intercepted calls between one of the Charity’s members and its lawyers in the US. Only the government’s Kafkaesque games, which demand lawyers for the charity treat their own memory as classified, prevents the charity from proving standing.

Is Congress going to bigfoot into the privileges of another branch of government because one Islamic charity once had proof of the Bush Administration’s law-breaking? Or is it the threat of a differing opinion in the 9th Circuit the basis of the single-minded panic about immunity?

Shorter WSJ: George Bush Is Irrelevant and So Is McCain

This WSJ editorial beating up on Dems for their shiny new FISA spine is full of the illogical blathering you’d expect. Take this paragraph, which claims that even with immunity from PAA and even with a FISA court order, the telecoms simply won’t do as they’re mandated to do.

Mr. Reyes claims that existing wiretap orders can stay in place for a year. But that doesn’t account for new targets, which may require new kinds of telecom cooperation and thus a new court order. Mr. Reyes can make all the assertions he wants about immunity, but they are no defense against a lawsuit. For that matter, without a statute in place, even a renewed order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is likely to be challenged as illegitimate. A telecom CEO who cooperates without a court order is all but guaranteed to get not merely a wiretap lawsuit, but also a shareholder suit for putting the company at legal risk.

Apparently, the WSJ believes that even if the telecoms have immunity, it’s no defense against a lawsuit (someone better tell Mitch and Mike McConnell that all their immunity efforts are for naught). And even if the FISA Court issues a warrant under that statute known as "FISA," the telecoms would regard such an order as illegitimate, because there’s no statute supporting it.

And of course, the WSJ parrots the now mandatory claim that ACLU and EFF are really trial lawyers wearing low-paying disguises.

So instead they’re trying to do it through the backdoor by unleashing the trial bar to punish the telephone companies.

I’m most amused, though, by the closing paragraph, which gets to the heart of the panic over FISA.

Mr. Bush has been doing his part in this debate, but his political capital is waning. The Republican who needs to make himself heard now is John McCain. The Arizona Senator is voting the right way, but he seems curiously disengaged from a debate that plays to his national security strengths. The time to speak up is before the next 9/11 Commission. [my emphasis]

Bush’s "political capital is waning" must be GOP-speak for "don’t look now because the Democrats have stood up to Bush."  And, pathetically, the WSJ whines that John McCain isn’t cowering Democrats into unquestioning obedience, either.

It’s like flying without a net, isn’t it, WSJ? When you can’t rely on Bush’s "political capital" to cow others into compliance?

Don’t Cry For The Telcos – Bush & Cheney Are The Only Ones That Are Dying For Immunity

The issues surrounding the FISA legislation are still roiling in Congress, thanks to the sudden appearance of a spine and principle by the Democrats in the House of Representatives (and correspondingly, with no thanks to the spineless and craven counterparts in the Senate, especially Jello Jay Rockefeller, the SSCI, and Harry Reid for bringing the horrid Intel committee bill to the floor instead of the far superior Judiciary bill). The most contentious issue has been, and continues to be, the proposed retroactive immunity for telco companies. Since the ugly head of the issue was first raised last summer with the railroaded passage of the Protect America Act, I have been arguing vehemently that the telcos are not in any grave danger financially from the civil suits currently pending. If their conduct is as has been described to date, they are already protected from liability for the actions that have been described, both by existing statutory immunity and by a right to indemnification from the government. The full court press for immunity by the Administration is entirely about cover for the lawless Bush Administration, and not about the impending financial demise of the telcos.

This post will go back over some of the basis for my argument that has been laid out previously, both here at Emptywheel and, earlier, at The Next Hurrah. I will also try to relate a few basics on what the general concept of indemnification is, and how it relates to contracts, in this case the agreements between the telcos and the Bush Administration. I have been making this argument for quite some time now, since last August, and have yet to have anybody put a significant dent in it; but it is no good if it cannot hold up to scrutiny. In that regard, I have posited my theory to several other lawyers expert in the field of governmental/Fourth Amendment litigation, including some extremely knowledgeable on the very civil suits at issue here, and all have agreed with the validity of my premise.

The Argument: The Bush Administration, with the help of telco providers (telelphone, cellphone, internet and other communication providers) engaged in massive wiretapping and datamining efforts, ostensibly to protect the United States from attack by terrorists. The legality of much of these programs has been questioned in many fora, but the germane ones for the immunity demand by the Administration are the civil suits that have been filed against both Read more

FISA and the Warrantless Wiretap Briefings

As we await certain doom because the NSA has to rely on FISA to authorize any new warrantless wiretaps (though it can continue all the programs currently in place), I wanted to correct what appears to be a common mistake about the earlier warrantless wiretap program. I’ve seen a lot of people claim that all of Congress knew of the program, that the Gang of Eight got regular briefings about it, that Congress wants the telecoms to get immunity because leaders in Congress want immunity.

The reality–at least according to the published record of those briefed on Bush’s warrantless wiretap program–is much more narrow. And as this fight moves into the House, it’d pay to have a clear understanding of who got briefed and how they claimed to have responded.

The Gang of Eight was not briefed regularly on the program

Kit Bond likes to claim that the Gang of Eight–the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and the majority and minority leaders of both intelligence committees–were briefed on the program. That’s a lie. In general, the Administration briefed the intelligence committee heads, but not the Majority and Minority leaders. The first time the entire Gang of Eight was briefed on the program was when, on March 10, 2004, the Administration tried to get them to authorize continuing the program even though Jim Comey said it was illegal. At the time, the following were members of the Gang of Eight:

  • Denny Hastert
  • Bill Frist
  • Tom Daschle
  • Nancy Pelosi
  • Porter Goss
  • Jane Harman
  • Pat Roberts
  • Jello Jay Rockefeller

After Harry Reid became Minority Leader of the Senate in 2005, he received a briefing on February 3, 2005–by himself, as did Crazy Pete Hoekstra when he became HPSCI Chair in September 2004. There was not any other briefing where the entire Gang of Eight got the same briefing. Though after Risen and Lichtblau exposed the program, Jello Jay received a briefing with the Republican half of the Gang of Eight, and then Reid, Pelosi, and Harman received a briefing (which Roberts also attended).

As Arlen “Scottish Haggis” Specter has pointed out, the Administration was in violation of the National Security Act when, with the exception of March 10, 2004, it limited its briefings to just the intelligence committee heads.

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Technical Glitches and Minimization

A number of you sent me this Eric Lichtblau story describing how, because of a "technical glitch," the FBI accidentally got all the emails going to one domain, rather than just the emails to and from their particular target.

A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network — perhaps hundreds of accounts or more — instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

F.B.I. officials blamed an “apparent miscommunication” with the unnamed Internet provider, which mistakenly turned over all the e-mail from a small e-mail domain for which it served as host. The records were ultimately destroyed, officials said.

Bureau officials noticed a “surge” in the e-mail activity they were monitoring and realized that the provider had mistakenly set its filtering equipment to trap far more data than a judge had actually authorized.

The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect.

The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the government’s wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations.

But an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: “It’s inevitable that these things will happen. It’s not weekly, but it’s common.”

My response to this is sort of similar to Kagro X’s (and given all my posts about minimization, I would certainly take issue with Lichtblau’s assertion that "the problem has received no discussion"). This story illustrates why minimization is every bit as important in the FISA discussion as immunity.

Hmm. Minimization. That rings a bell. What was it?

Oh yeah! The FISA fight in the Senate! Minimization was a concern because the Senate bill pretty much gave the government a free hand to suck up every phone call, e-mail, text message, etc. there is, and — amazingly enough — had to be amended on the floor in order to even approach a proper handling of minimization concerns. Read more

Ode to Donna Edwards’ Wheaties

I don’t actually know that this sudden outbreak of spine and seemingly coordinated messaging among Democrats is the result of seeing Donna Edwards kick a Democratic incumbent’s behind, but she’s a great person and might as well get the credit. Here’s Silvestre Reyes:

Because I care so deeply about protecting our country, I take strong offense to your suggestion in recent days that the country will be vulnerable to terrorist attack unless Congress immediately enacts legislation giving you broader powers to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans’ communications and provides legal immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in the Administration’s warrantless surveillance program.


If our nation is left vulnerable in the coming months, it will not be because we don’t have enough domestic spying powers. It will be because your Administration has not done enough to defeat terrorist organizations– including al Qaeda– that have gained strength since 9/11. We do not have nearly enough linguists to translate the reams of information we currently collect. We do not have enough intelligence officers who can penetrate the hardest targets, such as al Qaeda. We have surged so many intelligence resources into Iraq that we have taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, you have allowed al Qaeda to reconstitute itself on your watch.

You have also suggested that Congress must grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies. As someone who has been briefed on our most sensitive intelligence programs, I can see no argument why the future security of our country depends on whether past actions of telecommunications companies are immunized.

The issue of telecom liability should be carefully considered based on a full review of the documents that your Administration withheld from Congress for eight months. However, it is an insult to the intelligence of the American people to say that we will be vulnerable unless we grant immunity for actions that happened years ago.


I urge you, Mr. President, to put partisanship aside and allow Republicans in Congress to arrive at a compromise that will protect America and protect our Constitution.

I, for one, do not intend to back down – not to the terrorists and not to anyone, including a President, who wants Americans to cower in fear.

We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution. If we do that, we might as well call the terrorists and tell them that they have won. [my emphasis]

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Will The House Honor Their Oath To Office, Or Follow The Senate’s Lead And Cave To Fear?

Some of us, okay, I am referring to myself, thought that FISA was cooked yesterday (really, I have thought this from the second they announced the unanimous consent agreement and bi-partisan extension baloney) and that the fork might as well be stuck in. As I said in the last thread,

…the House is putting on what appears to be a better showing than the Senate, but I have no doubt that it is all kabuki and the deal is done. I am pretty much positive that Pelosi, Hoyer and Boehner have their skids all greased and did so in conjunction with Hanoi Harry and the Senate Stumblebums. It is good to keep in mind that ALL of the representatives are up for election (only a third, give or take a few, of the Senate), so they have a vested interest in putting on a show. When the curtain closes, the final act will have been the same though.

Remember, we thought there was at least a fighting chance in the Senate, and then all those eloquent and moving words by Chris Dodd, all followed by a whopping 29 Senators having the one ethical bone in their bodies to protect the constitution. Depressing. There is no way the House is going to squelch this after the Senate did that.

I still believe that analysis, but I will have to say that the House has put on a better show today than I expected, even after seeing the John Conyers letter issued evidencing that a little fight might be left in the old boys after all.

Cboldt had this to say last Saturday about the interplay between the Senate and House:

This latest push by the progressives, plus the fact that they have another extension ready, give me a little hope; but not much

The number of signatories, and their general “place” in the hierarchy of power, inclines me to think they are being “humored.” Their objection and voice can’t be blocked, and while it’s good to let them express their point of view, I’m not sure there is enough weight of objection in the House as a whole.

Yes, the right things are being said. But not by many.

The procedural details are in accord with the substantive material (e.g., contents of amendments, UC agreement) and a vote breakdown that heavily favors capitulation to the DNI demands. I wouldn’t be shocked if there was another extension, as a token political concession to the objectors, but I don’t expect Congress to send another extension to the WH.

I Read more

Roll Call–Then and Now

Phred asked what we had accomplished with all our work in the last five months. I’ve got a more specific post (among other things, calling out my Senator Stabenow for another one of her ridiculously bad votes). But for now, here are Democrats who voted for the Protect America Act, in August (bold are those who voted differently today; final vote was 60-28-12):

Bayh (D-IN)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Conrad (D-ND)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lincoln (D-AR)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Pryor (D-AR)
Salazar (D-CO)
Webb (D-VA)

And here are the Democrats who voted for S.2248 today (bold are those who changed their vote since August; underline did not vote in August; final vote was 68-29-3).

Baucus (D-MT)
Bayh (D-IN)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Conrad (D-ND)
Inouye (D-HI)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kohl (D-WI)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lincoln (D-AR)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Pryor (D-AR)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Salazar (D-CO)
Webb (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)

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FISA: On to the House

Sorry I missed all the misery on FISA votes today. Though I can’t say I’m sorry to have missed the Senate committing collective hari kari again.

Which, of course, sends FISA back to the House. The Blue Dogs are no doubt ready to bend over for Bush. Again. But John Conyers isn’t going to go quietly. He sent Fred Fielding a long "to do" list, some of it relating to requests going

First, please provide access to all Members of the House Judiciary Committee those briefings and materials you have made available to 19 Members as of now. Currently, it is my understanding that the entire membership of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been permitted to be “read in” to the TSP program. The only Committee of jurisdiction that has not been offered the same access is the House Judiciary Committee. This is unacceptable and serves little purpose but to impede our Members review of the program and understanding of your request for retroactive amnesty.

Second, please provide the Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, and William J. Haynes, II, General Counsel Department of Defense, from John C. Yoo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Robert J. Delahunty, Special Counsel, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States. It is believed that this Memorandum is dated either October 17, 2001, or October 23, 2001. Based on the title of this document, and based on the contents of similar memoranda issued at roughly the same time, it appears that a substantial portion of this Memorandum provides a legal determination and analysis as to the nature and scope of the Presidential war powers to accomplish specific acts within the United States. Congress is entitled to know the executive branch’s interpretation of its constitutional powers.

Third, please provide copies of filings, correspondence or transcripts of colloquies with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about TSP or other warrantless or other electronic surveillance programs, containing legal analysis, arguments, or decisions concerning the interpretation of FISA, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force enacted on September 18, 2001, or the President’s authority under Article II of the Constitution.

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FISA Liveblog And Trash Talk Thread Tuesday 2/12/08

Another day, another sellout. That may actually be a good question to ask to ask any Congresscritter you can get your hands on, or voice to, over the next eight months. "What was you personal price for selling out the Constitution and my privacy? As a taxpaying constituent and citizen, I am entitled to an honest answer; what was your price?" What are the odds that even one single critter gives an honest answer? About zero is my guess. Document the atrocities as you see them today, I will be in and out, as I believe Marcy will be. A good lawyer always makes a record for appeal, even when he or she is losing miserably. So, make a record; Phred demands it! Because we are certainly going to be appealing what our Senate, and Congress, is doing to us and our Constitution by their cancerous and derelict actions on FISA.