Remember, the President’s Review Group Consulted with ATF

In a follow-up to its release on the DEA’s use of a license plate reader database the other day, ACLU reveals an email that shows ATF in Phoenix considered using the database to track people leaving gun shows in April 2009.

The April 2009 email states that “DEA Phoenix Division Office is working closely with ATF on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the gun shows, to include programs/operation with LPRs at the gun shows.” The government redacted the rest of the email, but when we received this document we concluded that these agencies used license plate readers to collect information about law-abiding citizens attending gun shows. An automatic license plate reader cannot distinguish between people transporting illegal guns and those transporting legal guns, or no guns at all; it only documents the presence of any car driving to the event. Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.

Responding to inquiries about the document, the DEA said that the monitoring of gun shows was merely a proposal and was never implemented.

Given the timing, location, and target — 2009, Arizona, and legal permanent residents, or Green Card holders — this consideration intersects interestingly with Fast and Furious.

But don’t worry, DEA says, this was just a consideration, tracking the movements of legal gun show attendees didn’t really happen.

All that said, I couldn’t help but remember that among the more obvious intelligence agencies the President’s Review Group into the NSA consulted in 2013 was ATF, which suggests that ATF is using at least some of the nifty toys NSA is using. As I noted at the time, that may be quite explicable, in that Section 215 has been used to track explosives precursors (and probably has been used to track acetone and hydrogen peroxide — where are TATP precursors, fertilizer, and maybe even pressure cookers).

But the fact that ATF is considering tapping into other agencies dragnets does raise further questions for me about why the PRG would need to consult with ATF.

Going Postal. And Digital. And Financial: The Dragnet Elephant

Blind MenThe NYT has a report on an IG Report from May that reveals the Postal Service has been doing a lot more “mail covers” (that is, tracking the metadata from letters) than it had previously revealed.

In a rare public accounting of its mass surveillance program, the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.

The number of requests, contained in a little-noticed 2014 audit of the surveillance program by the Postal Service’s inspector general, shows that the surveillance program is more extensive than previously disclosed and that oversight protecting Americans from potential abuses is lax.

Among the most interesting revelations is that USPS previously lowballed the number of covers it does in response to a NYT FOIA by simply not counting most of the searches.

In information provided to The Times earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act, the Postal Service said that from 2001 through 2012, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies made more than 100,000 requests to monitor the mail of Americans. That would amount to an average of some 8,000 requests a year — far fewer than the nearly 50,000 requests in 2013 that the Postal Service reported in the audit.

The difference is that the Postal Service apparently did not provide to The Times the number of surveillance requests made for national security investigations or those requested by its own investigation and law enforcement arm, the Postal Inspection Service. Typically, the inspection service works hand in hand with outside law enforcement agencies that have come to the Postal Service asking for investigations into fraud, pornography, terrorism or other potential criminal activity.

The report led Ben Wittes to engage in a thought experience, predicting the response to this revelation will be muted compared to that of the phone dragnet.

All of this raises the question: Will this program generate the sort of outrage, legal challenge, and feverish energy for legislative reform that the NSA program has? Or will it fall flat?

I have this feeling that the answer is the latter: The Postal Service’s looking at the outside of letters at the request of law enforcement just won’t have the same legs as does the big bad NSA looking at the routing information for telephone calls. The reason, I suspect, is not that there are profound legal differences between the two programs. Yes, one can certainly argue that the difference between a program that aspires to be totalizing and one that is notionally targeted, even if very large, is fundamental enough to justify regarding the former with great skepticism and tolerating the latter with a shrug. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that a program that involves the active perusal of tens of thousands of people’s metadata without strict controls is far more threatening than one that involves tight procedures under judicial oversight and involves initial queries of only a few hundred people’s data.

The reason, I suspect, that this program will not excite the same sorts of passions as does the NSA’s program is that it involves old technology—paper—and it’s been going on for a long time.

I agree with Wittes that this won’t generate the same kind of outrage.

The fact that few noticed when Josh Gerstein reported on this very same report (and revealed that the USPS was trying to prevent the report’s release) back in June (I noticed, but did not write on it) supports Wittes’ point.

All that said, Wittes’ piece serves as an interesting example. Partly because he overstates the oversight of the phone dragnet program. Somehow Wittes doesn’t think the watchlisting of 3,000 presumed American persons with no First Amendment review until 2009 is not an example of abuse. Nor the preservation of 3,000 files worth of phone dragnet data on a research server, mixed in with Stellar Wind data, followed by its destruction before NSA had to explain what it was doing there (which is a more recent abuse than Joe Arpaio’s use of the mail dragnet to target a critic, reported in the NYT).

But also because Wittes misconstrues what a true comparison would entail.

To compare phone dragnet, generally, with the mail dragnet described by the NYT (now including both its national security and Postal Inspection searches), you’d have to compare Title III and local law enforcement phone metadata searches (which number in the hundreds of thousands and include the use of Stingrays to track phone location), Hemisphere (which must number in the 10s of thousands and not only undergo no court review, but are explicitly parallel constructed), the use of NSLs to obtain phone metadata (which number in the 10s of thousands, and which are not overseen by a court, have been subject to abuse, also miscount the most important requests, and access new kinds of data that probably aren’t really covered under the law), the Section 215 dragnet, the FBI bulk PRTT program, as well as the far far bigger EO 12333 phone dragnet.

That is, Wittes wants to compare the totality of the mail dragnet with a teeny segment of even the NSA phone dragnet, all while ignoring the state, local, and other federal agency (including at least FBI, USMS, and DEA) phone dragnets entirely, and declare the former roughly equivalent to the latter (better in some ways, worse in others). If you were to compare the totality of the mail dragnet (admittedly, you’d have to add Fedex and other courier dragnets) with the totality of the phone dragnet, the latter would vastly exceed the former in every way: in abuse, in lack of oversight, and in scale.

And to measure the “passions” mobilized against the phone dragnet, you’d have to measure it all. Attention to the various parts has been fleeting: today there’s more focus on Stingrays, for example, with comparatively less attention to the Section 215 phone dragnet, along with a focus on Hemisphere. There’s so much phone dragnet to go around, it’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

Or perhaps more appropriately, of that old fable of the 6 blind men and the elephant, where each of a series of blind men describe an elephant. These men each feel one part of the elephant and see a pillar, a rope, a tree branch, a hand fan, a wall, and a solid pipe.  Together, they fail to conceive of the elephant in its entirety.

Wittes’ partial view of the phone dragnet describes just one part of one part of the dragnet elephant. At both the NSA, the FBI, and local JTTFs (at a minimum) you’re not conceiving the dragnet unless you understand the implications of matching your phone records and email records to your financial purchases and Internet search cookies — and, your snail mail, which is ultimately just a part of the larger dragnet. Each of those dragnets has several interlocking forms, too. More Title III orders, more NSLs, more Section 215 orders, and more EO 12333 collection. All dumped into a black box that — even for the Section 215 phone dragnet — undergoes no apparent oversight.

But Wittes is by no means alone in his partial view of the dragnet elephant. We all suffer from it. Since the very start of the Snowden leaks, I have been trying hard to track how NSA data gets shared with other agencies (see, for example, NCTC, FBI and CIA, “Team Sport,” ATF). I suspect I’ve got as good an understanding of how this data worms its way through the government as anyone outside of some corners of government, but it still looks like an elephant trunk to me.

That, to me, is the real lesson from the focus on yet another dragnet available to yet more intelligence and law enforcement agencies. None of us yet have a good sense of the scope of the dragnet. It is, quite literally, inconceivable. And we have even less of an idea of what happens after the dragnet feeds all that data into a series of black boxes, most subject to very little oversight.

With each new elephant body part identified, we’d do well to remember, it’s just one more body part.

FBI Will Now Videotape In Custody Interrogations

[Significant Update Below]

My hometown paper, the Arizona Republic, broke some critically important news a few minutes ago. The story by Dennis Wagner, a superb reporter at the Republic for a very long time, tells of a monumental shift in the policy of DOJ agencies in relation to interrogations and confessions of those in custody.

There was no news release or press conference to announce the radical shift. But a DOJ memorandum —obtained by The Arizona Republic — spells out the changes to begin July 11.

“This policy establishes a presumption that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) will electronically record statements made by individuals in their custody,” says the memo to all federal prosecutors and criminal chiefs from James M. Cole, deputy attorney general.

“This policy also encourages agents and prosecutors to consider electronic recording in investigative or other circumstances where the presumption does not apply,” such as in the questioning of witnesses.

This has been a long time coming and is notable in that it covers not just the FBI, but DEA, ATF and US Marshals. Calling it a monumental shift may be, in fact, a bit of an understatement. In the course of a series of false confession cases in the 90’s, attempts to get this instated as policy in the District of Arizona were fought by the DOJ tooth and nail. As other local agencies saw the usefulness of audio and/or video taping, DOJ authorities fought the notion like wounded and cornered dogs. That was not just their position in the 90’s, it has always been thus:

Since the FBI began under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, agents have not only shunned the use of tape recorders, they’ve been prohibited by policy from making audio and video records of statements by criminal suspects without special approval.

Now, after more than a century, the U.S. Department of Justice has quietly reversed that directive by issuing orders May 12 that video recording is presumptively required for interrogations of suspects in custody, with some exceptions.

What has historically occurred is an agent (usually in pairs) did interviews and then recounted what occurred in what is called a “302” report based on their memories, recollections and handwritten notes (which were then usually destroyed). This created the opportunity not just for inaccuracy, but outright fabrication by overly aggressive agents. Many defendants have been wrongfully convicted, and some who were guilty got off because competent defense attorneys made fools of agents, and their bogus process, in court.

In short, presumptive taping is smart for both sides, and absolutely in the interests of justice. It still remains inexplicable why the DOJ maintained this intransigence so long when every competent police procedures expert in the world has been saying for decades that taping should be the presumption.

Now it should be noted that the policy will only apply to “in custody” interrogations and not ones where there has been no formal arrest which is, of course, a gaping hole considering how DOJ agents blithely work suspects over under the ruse they are not yet in custody. There will also clearly be an exigent circumstances/public safety exception which are also more and more frequently abused by DOJ (See: here, here and here for example).

So, we will have to wait to see the formal written guidance, and how it is stated in the relevant operation manuals for agents and US Attorneys, to get a full bead on the scope of change. And, obviously, see how the written policies are implemented, and what exceptions are claimed, in the field.

But the shift in interrogation policy today is monumental and is a VERY good and positive step. Today is a day Eric Holder should be proud of, and it was far too long in arriving.

UPDATE: When I first posted this I did not see the actual memo attached to Dennis Wagner’s story in the Arizona Republic; since that time I have been sent the actual memo by another source, and it is also available as a link in the Republic story that broke this news. Here are a couple of critical points out of the actual memo dated May 12, 2014:

The policy establishes a presumption in favor o f electronically recording custodial interviews, with certain exceptions, and encourages agents and prosecutors to consider taping outside of custodial interrogations. The policy will go into effect on Friday, July 11, 2014.

By my information, the gap in implementation is because DOJ wanted to do some top down discussion and orientation on the new policy, which makes some sense given the quantum nature of this shift. My understanding is that this is already ongoing, so DOJ seems to be serious about implementation.

But, more important is the news about non-custodial situations. That was a huge question left unanswered initially, as I indicated in the original part of this post. That agents and attendant prosecutors will be encouraged to record these instances as well is, well, encouraging!

The exceptions, which are outlined is Section II of the memo are pretty much exactly as I indicated should be expected above.

Notable in the Presumptions contained in Section I of the memo is that the rule applies to ALL federal crimes. No exceptions, even for terrorism. Also, the recording may be either overt or covert, which is not different from that which I have seen in many other agencies that have long recorded interrogations. Section III specifically excludes extraterritorial situations from the rule. Frankly, I am not sure why that is necessary, the ability to record is pretty ubiquitous these days, extraterritorial should be no problem for presumptive recording.

Those are the highlights of the memo. It is short and worth a read on your own.

Faster and Furiouser Domestic Spying: Why Would the NSA Review Group Talk to the ATF?

Because I’m working on a post on John Bates’ response to the NSA Review Group recommendations, I happened to re-review the list of people the Review Group spoke with today (see page 277; Bates was the only one from the FISA Court they spoke with),

See if you find anything odd with this list of entities the Review Group spoke with from the Executive Branch (here’s a handy list of intelligence agencies to compare it to):

Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counterterrorism

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Central Intelligence Agency

Defense Intelligence Agency

Department of Commerce

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

Department of Justice

Department of State

Drug Enforcement Agency

Federal Bureau of Investigations

National Archives and Records Administration

National Counterterrorism Center

National Institute for Standards and Technology

National Reconnaissance Office

National Security Advisor

National Security Agency

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

President’s Intelligence Advisory Board

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE)

Special Assistant to the President for Cyber Security

Treasury Department

Much of the list makes sense. You’ve got the people largely in charge of terrorism (NCTC, Lisa Monaco, FBI, Treasury), you’ve got some of the people in charge of cyber and/or corrupting encryption standards (DHS, Michael Daniel, NIST), you’ve got the people who have to deal with angry foreign leaders (State), you’ve got people in charge of data sharing and storage (PM-ISE and NARA), and you’ve got Commerce (which serves to boost, but also coerce, the tech companies on these issues).

There are some absences. I’m surprised Department of Energy, which plays a key role in counterproliferation, isn’t on here. It’s light on counterintelligence functions, both at DNI and things like AFOSI (which I believe has some nifty cybertools). I’m also a little surprised DOD was represented as a whole, but not some of the branch intelligence organizations. Similarly, DHS was represented as a whole, but not some of its relevant branches (TSA, CBP, and Secret Service).

And then there’s the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is on the list.

And even more alarmingly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Don’t get me wrong, neither is all that surprising. We know some of the tools covered by the Review Group — notably National Security Letters — have actually been (mis)used in drug investigations as well as in terrorism ones. Given the logic of the certifications we know exist — not to mention the Administration’s fear-mongering and increasing focus on Transnational Crime Organizations not run by Jamie Dimon — I wouldn’t be surprised if Section 702 were used to fight the war on drugs, if it hasn’t already been. And the drug war certainly is a foreign intelligence priority for EO 12333 collection. Given NSA’s increasing inclusion of drug cartels in the boilerplate comments it releases about Snowden stories, I expect we’ll hear some nifty things about the war on drugs before this is out.

Similarly, one of the first things we learned the government was using Section 215 and/or NSLs to collect was purchase records for beauty supplies, otherwise known as explosives precursors. Since then, Members of Congress have talked about tracking fertilizer purchases. And I’d be shocked if there weren’t at least a half-hearted attempt to track pressure cooker purchases. I guess, from ATF’s inclusion among the Review Group’s interlocutors, we know a little bit about where this data resides: in probably the most fucked up law enforcement agency in government (though maybe that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which thankfully was not considered central enough to talk to the Review Group).

Still, given the increasing number of signals that these authorities have been used to track gun purchases, and ATF’s notorious failures at tracking gun purchases in the past, I wonder whether they’re involved not just to talk about explosives purchases, but also gun records?

The Review Group warned that,

Like other agencies, there are situations in which NSA does and should provide support to the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other law enforcement entities. But it should not assume the lead for programs that are primarily domestic in nature.

For a variety of reasons (both reasonable and unreasonable), it is much harder to claim that tracking gun purchases pertains to counterterrorism or another foreign intelligence purpose than tracking acetone purchases.

Is this one of the domestic security functions the Review Group worried about?

Obama & Holder Push AZ USAtty Burke Out Over ATF GunRunner Cock-Up

Coming across the wire this morning was this stunning announcement by the Department of Justice:

Statement of Attorney General Eric Holder on the Resignation of U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke 08/30/2011 01:01 PM EDT

“United States Attorney Dennis Burke has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s office, first as a line prosecutor over a decade ago and more recently as United States Attorney,” said Attorney General Holder.

Say what? Maybe I am not as plugged in as i used to be, but holy moly this came out of the blue. What is behind the sudden and “immediate” resignation of Dennis Burke, an extremely decent man who has also been a great manager of the Arizona US Attorney’s Office through some of the most perilous times imaginable? The USA who has piloted the office in dealing with such high grade problems such as those stemming from SB1070, to traditional immigration issues, to the Giffords/Loughner shooting tragedy, the corruption and malfeasance of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to voting rights and redistricting controversies brought on by the ever crazy Arizona Legislature, has now resigned in the blink of an eye? Really?


The GunWalker mess. Also known as “Project GunRunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious” (yes, the idiots at ATF actually did call it that). From the Arizona Republic:

Burke’s resignation, effective immediately, is one of several personnel moves made in the wake of a federal gun-trafficking investigation that put hundreds of rifles and handguns from Arizona into the hands of criminals in Mexico. Burke’s office provided legal guidance to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the flawed initiative called Operation Fast and Furious.

The news comes on the same day as a new acting director was named to oversee the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives following congressional hearings into Fast and Furious, an operation that was aimed at major gun-trafficking networks in the Southwest.

Irrespective of the name attached to the program – I have always known it as the GunWalker operation, so i will stick with that – is has been a first rate clusterfuck from the outset. And, unlike so many things bollixing up the government, it cannot be traced back to the Bush/Cheney Read more