FISCR Used an Outdated Version of EO 12333 to Rule Protect America Act Legal

If the documents relating to Yahoo’s challenge of Protect America Act released last month are accurate reflections of the documents actually submitted to the FISC and FISCR, then the government submitted a misleading document on June 5, 2008 that was central to FISCR’s ultimate ruling.

As I laid out here in 2009, FISCR relied on the the requirement  in EO 12333 that the Attorney General determine there is probable cause a wiretapping technique used in the US is directed against a foreign power to judge the Protect America Act met probable cause requirements.

The procedures incorporated through section 2.5 of Executive Order 12333, made applicable to the surveillances through the certifications and directives, serve to allay the probable cause concern.

The Attorney General hereby is delegated the power to approve the use for intelligence purposes, within the United States or against a United States person abroad, of any technique for which a warrant would be required if undertaken for law enforcement purposes, provided that such techniques shall not be undertaken unless the Attorney General has determined in each case that there is probable cause to believe that the technique is directed against a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.

44 Fed. Reg. at 59,951 (emphasis supplied). Thus, in order for the government to act upon the certifications, the AG first had to make a determination that probable cause existed to believe that the targeted person is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power. Moreover, this determination was not made in a vacuum. The AG’s decision was informed by the contents of an application made pursuant to Department of Defense (DOD) regulations. See DOD, Procedures Governing the Activities of DOD Intelligence Components that Affect United States Persons, DOD 5240.1-R, Proc. 5, Pt. 2.C.  (Dec. 1982).

Yahoo didn’t buy this argument. It had a number of problems with it, notably that nothing prevented the government from changing Executive Orders.

While Executive Order 12333 (if not repealed), provides some additional protections, it is still not enough.


Thus, to the extent that it is even appropriate to examine the protections in the Executive Order that are not statutorily required, the scales of the reasonableness determination sway but do not tip towards reasonableness.

Yahoo made that argument on May 29, 2008.

Sadly, Yahoo appears not to have noticed the best argument that Courts shouldn’t rely on EO 12333 because the President could always change it: Sheldon Whitehouse’s revelation on December 7, 2007 (right in the middle of this litigation) that OLC had ruled the President could change it in secret and not note the change publicly. Whitehouse strongly suggested that the Executive in fact had changed EO 12333 without notice to accommodate its illegal wiretap program.

But the government appears to have intentionally withheld further evidence about how easily it could change EO 12333 — and in fact had, right in the middle of the litigation.

This is the copy of the Classified Annex to EO 12333 that (at least according to the ODNI release) the government submitted to FISCR in a classified appendix on June 5, 2008 (that is, after Yahoo had already argued that an EO, and the protections it affords, might change). It is a copy of the original Classified Appendix signed by Ed Meese in 1988.

As I have shown, Michael Hayden modified NSA/CSS Policy 1-23 on March 11, 2004, which includes and incorporates EO 12333, the day after the hospital confrontation. The content of the Classified Annex released in 2013 appears to be identical, in its unredacted bits, to the original as released in 1988 (see below for a list of the different things redacted in each version). So the actual content of what the government presented may (or may not be) a faithful representation of the Classified Appendix as it currently existed.

But the version of NSA/CSS Policy 1-23 released last year (starting at page 110) provides this modification history:

This Policy 1-23 supersedes Directive 10-30, dated 20 September 1990, and Change One thereto, dated June 1998. The Associate Director for Policy endorsed an administrative update, effective 27 December 2007 to make minor adjustments to this policy. This 29 May 2009 administrative update includes changes due to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and in core training requirements.

That is, Michael Hayden’s March 11, 2004 modification of the Policy changed to the Directive as existed before 2 changes made under Clinton.

Just as importantly, the modification history reflects “an administrative update” making “minor adjustments to this policy” effective December 27, 2007 — a month and a half after this challenge started.

By presenting the original Classified Appendix — to which Hayden had apparently reverted in 2004 — rather than the up-to-date Policy, the government was presenting what they were currently using. But they hid the fact that they had made changes to it right in the middle of this litigation. A fact that would have made it clear that Courts can’t rely on Executive Orders to protect the rights of Americans, especially when they include Classified Annexes hidden within Procedures.

In its language relying on EO 12333, FISCR specifically pointed to DOD 5240.1-R. The Classified Annex to EO 12333 is required under compliance with part of that that complies with the August 27, 2007 PAA compliance.

That is, this Classified Annex is a part of the Russian dolls of interlocking directives and orders that implement EO 12333.

And they were changing, even as this litigation was moving forward.

Only, the government appears to have hidden that information from the FISCR.

Update: Clarified that NSA/CSS Policy 1-23 is what got changed.

Update: Hahaha. The copy of DOD 5240.1 R which the government submitted on December 11, 2007, still bears the cover sheet labeling it as an Annex to NSA/CSS Directive 10-30. Which of course had been superseded in 2004.

Note how they cut off the date to hide that it was 1990?

Note how they cut off the date to hide that it was 1990?

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The Curious Timing of FBI’s Back Door Searches

The very first thing I remarked on when I read the Yahoo FISCR opinion when it was first released in 2009 was this passage.

The petitioner’s concern with incidental collections is overblown. It is settled beyond peradventure that incidental collections occurring as a result of constitutionally permissible acquisitions do not render those acquisitions unlawful.9 See, e.g., United States v. Kahn, 415 U.S. 143, 157-58 (1974); United States v. Schwartz, 535 F.2d 160, 164 (2d Cir. 1976). The government assures us that it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary. On these facts, incidentally collected communications of non-targeted United States persons do not violate the Fourth Amendment.(26 in original release; 30 in current release)

The government claimed to FISCR that it did not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted US persons.

Barring some kind of neat parse, I didn’t buy the claim, not even in 2009.

Since then, we’ve found out that — barring some kind of neat parse — I was absolutely right. In fact, they are doing back door searches on this data, especially at FBI.

What I’m particularly intrigued by, now, is the timing.

FISCR said that in an opinion dated August 22, 2008 — over a month after the July 10, 2008 passage of the FISA Amendments Act. I have not yet found evidence of when the government said that to FISCR. It doesn’t appear in the unredacted part of their Jun 5, 2008 Merits brief (which cites Kahn but not Schwartz; see 49-50), though it might appear behind the redaction on 41. Of note, the April 25, 2008 FISC opinion doesn’t even mention the issue in its incidental collection discussion (starting at 95), though it does discuss amended certifications filed in February 2008.

So I’m guessing the government made that representation at the hearing in June, 2008.

We know, from John Bates’ rationale for authorizing NSA and CIA back door searches, such back door searches were first added to FBI minimization procedures in 2008.

When Bates approved back door searches in his October 3, 2011 opinion, he pointed to FBI’s earlier (and broader) authorities to justify approving it for NSA and CIA. While the mention of FBI is redacted here, at that point it was the only other agency whose minimization procedures had to be approved by FISC, and FBI is the agency that applies for traditional FISA warrants.

[redacted] contain an analogous provision allowing queries of unminimized FISA-acquired information using identifiers — including United States-person identifiers — when such queries are designed to yield foreign intelligence information. See [redacted]. In granting [redacted] applications for electronic surveillance or physical search since 2008, including applications targeting United States persons and persons in the United States, the Court has found that the [redacted] meet the definitions of minimization procedures at 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801(h) and 1821(4). It follows that the substantially-similar querying provision found at Section 3(b)(5) of the amended NSA minimization procedures should not be problematic in a collection that is focused on non-United States persons located outside the United States and that, in aggregate, is less likely to result in the acquisition of nonpublic information regarding non-consenting United States persons.

So since 2008, FBI has had the ability to do back door searches on all the FISA-authorized data they get, including taps targeting US persons.

The FBI Minimization procedures submitted with the case all date to the 1990s, though a 2006 amendment changing how they logged the identities of US persons collected (note, in 2011, John Bates was bitching at FBI for having ignored an order to reissue all its minimization procedures with updates; I can see why he complained).

As described in the Government’s response of June 16, 2006, identities of U.S. persons that have not been logged are often maintained in FBI databases that contain unminimized information. The procedures now simply refer to “the identities” of U.S. persons, acknowledging that the FBI may not have previously logged such identities.

But there’s reason to believe the FBI minimization procedures — and this logging process — was changed in 2008, because a government document submitted in the Basaaly Moalin case — we know Moalin was wiretapped from December 2007 to April 2008, so during precisely the period of the Yahoo challenge, though he was not indicted until much later — referenced two sets of minimization procedures, seeming to reflect a change in minimization during the period of his surveillance (or perhaps during the period of surveillance of Aden Ayro, which is how Moalin is believed to have been identified).

That is, it all seems to have been happening in 2008.

The most charitable guess would be that explicit authorization for back door searches happened with the FAA, so before the FISCR ruling, but after the briefing.

Except in a letter to Russ Feingold during early debates  on the FAA, Mike Mukasey and Mike McConnell (the latter of whom was involved in this Yahoo fight) strongly shot down a Feingold amendment that would have required the government to segregate all communications not related to terrorism (and a few other things), and requiring a FISA warrant to access them.

The Mukasey-McConnell attack on segregation is most telling. They complain that the amendment makes a distinction between different kinds of foreign intelligence (one exception to the segregation requirement in the amendment is for “concerns international terrorist activities directed against the United States, or activities in preparation therefor”), even while they claim it would “diminish our ability swiftly to monitor a communication from a foreign terrorist overseas to a person in the United States.” In other words, the complain that one of the only exceptions is for communications relating terrorism, but then say this will prevent them from getting communications pertaining to terrorism.

Then it launches into a tirade that lacks any specifics:

It would have a devastating impact on foreign intelligence surveillance operations; it is unsound as a matter of policy; its provisions would be inordinately difficult to implement; and thus it is unacceptable.

As Feingold already pointed out, the government has segregated the information they collected under PAA–they’re already doing this. But to justify keeping US person information lumped in with foreign person information, they offer no affirmative reason to do so, but only say it’s too difficult and so they refuse to do it.

Even 5 years ago, the language about the “devastating impact” segregating non-terrorism data might have strongly suggested the entire point of this collection was to provide for back door searches.

But that letter was dated February 5, 2008, before the FISCR challenge had even begun. While not definitive, this seems to strongly suggest, at least, that the government planned — even if it hadn’t amended the FBI minimization procedures yet — to retain a database of incidentally data to search on, before the government told FISCR they did not.

Update: I forgot a very important detail. In a hearing this year, Ron Wyden revealed that NSA’s authority to do back door searches had been closed some time during the Bush Administration, before it was reopened by John “Bates stamp” Bates.

Let me start by talking about the fact that the House bill does not ban warrantless searches for Americans’ emails. And here, particularly, I want to get into this with you, Mr. Ledgett if I might. We’re talking of course about the backdoor search loophole, section 702 of the FISA statute. This allows NSA in effect to look through this giant pile of communications that are collected under 702 and deliberately conduct warrantless searches for the communications of individual Americans.  This loophole was closed during the Bush Administration, but it was reopened in 2011, and a few months ago the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged in a letter to me that the searches are ongoing today. [my emphasis]

When I noted that Wyden had said this, I guessed that the government had shut down back door searches in the transition from PAA to FAA, but that seems less likely, having begun to review these Yahoo documents, then that it got shut down in response to the hospital confrontation.

But it shows that more extensive back door searches had been in place before the government implied to the FISCR that they weren’t doing back door searches that they clearly were at least contemplating at that point. I’d really like to understand how the government believes they didn’t lie to the FISCR in that comment (though it wouldn’t be the last time they lied to courts about their databases of Americans).

“Linking” Procedures in the Yahoo Opinion

As I mentioned earlier, Yahoo is finally releasing the documents pertaining to its challenge of Protect America Act directives in 2008. The LAT has loaded the Yahoo documents in an easy to access page.

This post will look primarily at the FISCR opinion.

As you’ll recall, this opinion was previously released in 2009 (and in fact, the previous list has names of some of the DOJ people who are redacted with this release unredacted).

The four main new disclosures I noted are:

  • A discussion of differences between the definition of foreign power in EO 12333 and FISA
  • Concerns Yahoo raised about how inaccurate the first directives it had received (the Court appears to misunderstood the seriousness of the inaccuracies)
  • Discussion of a parting shot — this supplemental brief makes it clear the largely redacted discussion pertains to US person data collected overseas; I’ll probably return to this, but it appears Yahoo’s concerns were born out and led to the addition of Sections 703-5 in FISA Amendments Act.
  • Reference to “linking” procedures which were part of what FISCR used to deem the collection constitutional

That last item — the “linking” procedures — is what was redacted in this post I did when the memo was first released. As I noted then, the procedures were what the FISCR used to meet particularity requirements.

The following passage starts on page 23:

The linking procedures — procedures that show that the [redacted] designated for surveillance are linked to persons reasonably believed to be overseas and otherwise appropriate targets — involve the application of “foreign intelligence factors” These factors are delineated in an ex parte appendix filed by the government. They also are described, albeit with greater generality, in the government’s brief. As attested by affidavits  of the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), the government identifies [redacted] surveillance for national security purposes on information indicating that, for instance, [big redaction] Although the FAA itself does not mandate a showing of particularity, see 50 U.S.C. § 1805(b). This pre-surveillance procedure strikes us as analogous to and in conformity with the particularly showing contemplated by Sealed Case.

I’ll need to look more closely to find this brief — if it was released. But I suspect that this shows more closely how the metadata dragnets and the content collection are linked. They collect the metadata to mine for “proof” of meaningful connection, then use that to unlock the content. That’s not surprising — it’s what I had been speculating since days after Risen first broke this — but it’s important to flesh out. Because, of course, all this not-a-search metadata really is, because it leads directly to the content.

As I noted in my post in 2009, Russ Feingold released a statement with the release of the opinion, basically arguing that Yahoo could have won this if they had had access to the procedures related to the program (Mark Zwillinger made the same point when he testified to PCLOB).

The decision placed the burden of proof on the company to identify problems related to the implementation of the law, information to which the company did not have access.  The courtupheld the constitutionality of the PAA, as applied, without the benefit of an effective adversarial process.  The court concluded that “[t]he record supports the government.  Notwithstanding the parade of horribles trotted out by the petitioner, it has presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse in the circumstances of the instant case.”  However, the company did not have access to all relevant information, including problems related to the implementation of the PAA.  Senator Feingold, who has repeatedly raised concerns about the implementation of the PAA and its successor, the FISA Amendments Act (“FAA”), in classified communications with the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General, has stated that the court’s analysis would have been fundamentally altered had the company had access to this information and been able to bring it before the court.

There’s no reason to believe the “linking” procedures are what Feingold was referring to. After all, there still are details of the minimization and targeting procedures that raise big constitutional issues. Plus, we know foreign collection has always been a big concern of Feingold’s. But I am wondering whether part of the problem was that their contact chaining was not very good, and therefore they were collecting people who really weren’t linked to the targets in question.

Which might explain why Yahoo was experiencing so many dud directives in the first months of its operation.

The Source of the Section 702 Limitations: Special Needs?

Way back in 2013, in Marty Lederman’s review of the NSA Review Group’s Report, he pointed to the Report’s suggestion that Section 702 collection was limited to use with counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and cybersecurity.

The Report contains an interesting clue about how the government is presently using Section 702 that I do not recall being previously disclosed—and raises a related question about legal authorities under that provision of the FAA:

The Report explains (page 136) that in implementing Section 702, “NSA identifies specific ‘identifiers’ (for example, e-mail addresses or telephone numbers) that it reasonably believes are being used by non-United States persons located outside of the United States to communicate foreign intelligence information within the scope of the approved categories (e.g., international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and hostile cyber activities).


Later, on pages 152-53, the authors “emphasiz[e] that, contrary to some representations,section 702 does not authorize NSA to acquire the content of the communications of masses of ordinary people.  To the contrary, section 702 authorizes NSA to intercept communications of non-United States persons who are outside the United States only if it reasonably believes that a particular ‘identifier’ (for example, an e-mail address or a telephone number) is being used to communicate foreign intelligence information related to such matters as international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or hostile cyber activities.”  (Italics in original.)

I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe that there’s anything in the statute itself that imposes the limitations in bold–neither that the NSA must use such “identifiers,” nor that international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and hostile cyber activities are the only topics of acceptable foreign intelligence information that can be sought.  Perhaps the FISC Court has insisted upon such limits; but, as far as I know, the Section 702 authority as currently codified is not so circumscribed.

Of course, if you’re a regular emptywheel reader, you likely know where this has been suggested in the past, since I’ve been pointing out this apparent limitation to Section 702 since June 10 and discussed some implications of it here, here, and here.

In a response to Lederman, Julian Sanchez provided some specific cautions about treating these category limits as true “limitations.” He suggests it is unlikely that the Intelligence Community or the FISA Court would impose such limitations.

The 702 language, codified at 50 U.S.C. §1881a, permits the NSA to acquire any type of “foreign intelligence information,” which is defined extraordinarily broadly to encompass, inter alia, anything that relates to the “conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.” But here we have the Review Group suggesting repeatedly that 702 surveillance is only for acquiring certain specific types of foreign intelligence information, related to nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, or cybersecurity. Have the intelligence agencies or the FISC imposed a more restricted reading of “foreign intelligence information” than the FISA statute does? I doubt it.

While I agree with most of Sanchez’ other cautions, I actually do think it likely that the FISC conducts a review that ends up in such limited certifications. They did it for application of Section 215 to the phone dragnet (which legally could have been used for counterintelligence purposes) and I think they may well have done so with Section 702.

FISCR only ruled bulk content collection legal for “national security” foreign intelligence purposes

We’ll learn whether I’m right or not when the FISC releases more of the 2008 Yahoo challenge to Protect America Act directives. But there is enough detail in the unclassified August 22, 2008 FISA Court of Review opinion released in early 2009 to suggest where that limitation may have come from.

The FISCR opinion, written by Bruce Selya, describes the certifications before the Court as limited to “foreign intelligence for national security purposes,” a limitation that already circumscribes PAA (and the FISA Amendments Act, as Sanchez has laid out), which allow their use for foreign intelligence generally.

In essence, as implemented, the certifications permit surveillances conducted to obtain foreign intelligence for national security purposes when those surveillances are directed against foreign powers or agents of foreign powers reasonably believed to be located outside the United States. [my emphasis]

This limitation is important because of the way Selya deals with the affirmation, in the FISC ruling before the FISCR, that there is a foreign intelligence exception to the Fourth Amendment: by instead finding a special needs exception to the Fourth tied to national security. Read more