Funny Telecom Games on Retroactive Immunity

There are two funny things in the telecom brief in response to Judge Walker’s questions about the retroactive immunity statute. (Here is EFF’s brief and Eric Holder’s.)

Don’t Cite the Statute

First, in spite of the fact that Walker asked the parties to address a specific question about a specific clause of the FISA Amendment Act, the telecom lawyers don’t get around to actually discussing the language of that clause until page 15 of a 17 page brief. There’s a reason for that. Once they do discuss the clause in question, they’re faced with precisely the problem that Walker (and bmaz and Mary) have identified: the language doesn’t tell the Attorney General whether he has to give the telecoms immunity, or simply can give immunity, at his whim.

Here, § 802(a) does not expressly state whether certification is mandatory or discretionary. It provides merely that a “civil action . . . shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court” that at least one of the five criteria in § 802(a) has been met (emphasis added). The Attorney General cannot submit a certification unless the standards of § 802(a) have been satis-fied, and the word “if” simply reflects that these standards will not be met in every case. But noth-ing in the statute specifies whether the Attorney General may decline to certify after determining that a case is eligible for certification. The statute does not state, for instance, that the decision whether to certify is committed to the “discretion” of the Attorney General. Nor does the statute use permissive language, such as the word “may.”

While Section 802 also does not specify that certification is mandatory, what is critical for purposes of constitutional avoidance is that it fairly admits of that construction. Section 802(e) re-fers to the “authority and duties of the Attorney General” (emphasis added). The use of the word “duties” indicates that § 802 imposes some mandatory obligation on the Attorney General, but the statute does not expressly identify which of the tasks it describes are mandatory. This ambiguity could be resolved by reading § 802 as imposing on the Attorney General a “dut[y]” to certify if he finds the predicate facts, if it were necessary to construe the statute in this way in order to save its constitutionality. Read more

Obama Again Supports Bush’s Bogus Stance on al-Haramain, But Partly Punts on State Secrets

This time in the al-Haramain case.

The argument in this new filing is substantially the same as they made in January, particularly in their misrepresentation of Judge Walker’s approach to classified information. Once again, they suggest Walker has ordered the wiretap log declassified (though they do so less dishonestly than they did in January), when in fact Walker has ordered the government consider what can be declassified.

The Court then held that it would review, initially ex parte, the Sealed Document that was the subject of the state secrets privilege assertion and will then issue an order regarding a factual question at issue in that privilege assertion— “whether the Sealed Document establishes that plaintiffs were subject to electronic surveillance not authorized by FISA.” Id. at 23. The Order then adds that fully ex parte proceedings under Section 1806(f) “would deprive plaintiffs of due process to an extent inconsistent with Congress’ purpose in enacting FISA Sections 1806(f) and 1810.” Id. Accordingly, the Order “provides for members of plaintiffs’ litigation team to obtain the security clearances necessary to be able to litigate the case, including, but not limited to, reading and responding to the court’s future orders.” Id. The Court’s Order also “specifically rejected” the Government’s assertion that the Executive branch controls access to classified information, see id. at 21, and held that Section 1806(f) “leaves the court free to order discovery of the materials or other information sought by the ‘aggrieved person’ in whatever manner it deems consistent  with section 1806(f)’s text and purpose.”

That phrase, " initially ex parte," suggests that Walker would definitely review the document openly, when he said no such thing (and only required declassification of government briefs going forward). 

That said, there is a very significant difference. This filing defends the state secrets invocation of the past, arguing that the invocation of state secrets in this case has already been ruled to be proper.

The Court of Appeals has previously determined that plaintiffs’ case cannot proceed without critical information that the state secrets privilege was properly asserted to protect—including whether or not plaintiffs were subject to alleged surveillance and, in particular, the classified sealed document at issue in this case.

 And then it accuses Judge Walker of changing his stance regarding the use of the document.

The Court initially reviewed the allegations in the amended complaint to determine whether the case may proceed to Section 1806(f) proceedings. See Dkt. 57 at 2-8. The Court then considered and rejected the Government’s contention that the public evidence cited in the amended complaint was insufficient to establish plaintiffs’ standing to proceed under Section 1806(f) as “aggrieved persons” subject to the alleged surveillance. See id. at 9. In making this determination, the Court decided an issue held open in its July 2 decision: what the standard would be for determining whether the case could proceed under Section 1806(f), see id. at 10-12 (discussing standard applicable under 18 U.S.C. § 3504), and then decided for the first time that it was sufficient for plaintiffs merely to establish a prima facie case of alleged surveillance, see id. at 13.

The balance of the argument, then, focuses on whether Walker made the correct interpretation that 1806(f) trumped state secrets.

I will need to read closer, but I suspect the resolution of this will depend on how far state secrets extends. Does it prevent a judge from assessing evidence ex parte, which is all Walker has ordered (contrary to the misrepresentations of the government)?

Just as interesting, though, is the shift in this filing away from one of privilege, per se, and toward the legal issues themselves. Sure, Obama is supporting Bush’s crappy stance in al-Haramain. Read more

FISA: Grill the Executives

Threat Level has posted an intriguing interview with Russell Tice from 2006. Tice provides a better idea of how some of the sorting might have happened.

Tice: Say you’re pretty sure you’re looking for terrorists, and you’re pretty sure that the percentage of women terrorists as opposed to men is pretty [small]. So you just filter out all female voices. And there’s a way to determine whether the signature of the voice is male or female. So, boom, you get rid of 50 percent of your information just by filtering there. Then from your intelligence work you realize that most terrorists never talk more than two minutes. So any conversation more than two minutes, you immediately filter that out. You start winnowing down what you’re looking for.

Q: Without really knowing what it is you’re looking for?

Tice: Right. And if you can develop a machine to look for the needle in the haystack and what you come out with from having the machine sift through the haystack is a box of straw, where maybe the needle’s in there and maybe a few bonus needles, then that’s a whole lot better than having humans try to sift through a haystack.

Sounds like a pretty easy system for determined terrorists to game.

The main point of the Threat Level post, though, is that 1) this involved more than just telecom (and email) providers. It also included our banks and whatnot, and 2) since former participants in this sytem will always invoke executive privilege (and state secrets) the only way to figure out what happened would be to subpoena the CEOs of the companies to testify.

I spoke with Tice extensively in the spring of 2006. With Bush still in power, the whistleblower was considerably more taciturn than on television last week. But looking back through the transcript of my interviews now, in the context of his new revelations, it seems clear that Tice was saying that credit card companies and banks gave the same kind of cooperation to the government that phone companies did.

"To get at what’s really going on here, the CEOs of these telecom companies, and also of the banking and credit card companies, and any other company where you have big databases, those are the people you have to haul in to Congress and tell them you better tell the truth," he said at the time. "Because anyone Read more

Alberto Gonzales Tells the Tale We've Been Waiting For

Alberto Gonzales did a long interview with NPR’s Michel Martin on his tenure as Bush’s Fredo. As part of it, he gave a long discussion of his actions on March 10, 2004 and thereafter, starting with his insistence that he was not trying to take advantage of Ashcroft when he was in ICU (my transcript–apologies in advance for any errors). 

AGAG: Neither and or I, and obviously, I can’t really speak for Andy, but I’m comfortable saying that neither Andy or I would have gone there to take advantage of someone who was sick. Um, Andy and I both, in fact, talked about the importance of satisfying ourselves as we talked with General Ashcroft that he was in fact competent. We talked about it over at the White House and talked about it in the sedan over to the hospital. We were concerned about that. We were sent there on behalf of the President of the United States. We had just left a very important meeting with the Congressional leadership about a very important intelligence program that the Congressional leadership agreed with the President should continue because it was a particularly heightened period of threats against the United States and against our allies. And I might remind your listeners that the very next morning, you had the Madrid train bombings. It was a very serious period of time, we had a very important program, and everyone–the Congressional branch leadership and the Executive branch leadership seemed to feel that this was something that should continue.

MM: Are you saying the President told you to go?

AGAG: What I’m saying is I was sent there on behalf of the President of the United States. The Chief of Staff, the Counsel to the President, we went to the hospital on behalf of the President to make sure that General Ashcroft had this information. That’s why we went to the hospital.

MM: You mean had information about the Madrid bombing or had information that this was of importance to the President and the Congressional leadership?

AGAG: The Madrid bombing had not happened yet. That would happen then the next morning. We went to the hospital to make sure that the Attorney General had information about the approval of the Congressional leadership. We felt that as a former Member of Congress that that would make a difference for him and as someone who had been involved in the reauthorization of the program for three years we felt that that would make a difference. Read more

The "Obama" Support for Stay Pending Appeal in al-Haramain

A number of you have emailed to ask about this report–that Obama has supported Bush’s request for a stay pending appeal in the al-Haramain case.

The Obama administration fell in line with the Bush administration Thursday when it urged a federal judge to set aside a ruling in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a U.S. president may bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrants.

In a filing in San Francisco federal court, President Barack Obama adopted the same position as his predecessor. With just hours left in office, President George W. Bush late Monday asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to stay enforcement of an important Jan. 5 ruling admitting key evidence into the case.

Thursday’s filing by the Obama administration marked the first time it officially lodged a court document in the lawsuit asking the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s warrantless-eavesdropping program. The former president approved the wiretaps in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"The Government’s position remains that this case should be stayed," the Obama administration wrote (.pdf) in a filing that for the first time made clear the new president was on board with the Bush administration’s reasoning in this case.

On its face, this looks like really horrible news–a spineless attempt on Obama’s part to play along with Bush’s efforts to run out the clock on Bush’s alleged crimes in wiretapping al-Haramain and other Americans. And frankly, this should not be surprising news; Eric Holder said in his confirmation hearing that–unless he finds anything unexpected–he would continue the Bush Administration’s support for retroactive immunity, a case that is also before Judge Vaughn Walker. So it would be unsurprising that the Obama Administration would be cautious in this case as well.

That said, there is some confusion about the whole decision. Here’s the timeline:

January 16: Bush files appeal

January 19: Bush motions for stay pending appeal, informs Walker and al-Haramain of what it is doing

January 20: al Haramain responds, Obama becomes President

January 21: Specter places his one-week hold on Holder’s nomination

January 22:  The "Obama Administration" submits support of Bush motion 

January 23, 10:30 AM PST: Hearing scheduled

As al-Haramain complains in its response, the Bush Administration appears to have deliberately held their appeal until "64 minutes before midnight on the last day of the Bush presidency." Read more

How to Prove Intentionality of Domestic Surveillance?

Given Russell Tice’s recent confirmations of many of our suspicions about Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programs, I wanted to point a footnote from the recently declassified FISCR ruling. In a paragraph addressing the incidental collection of Americans’ communications and dismissing the possibility (based on BushCo’s assurances) that the Bush Administration kept a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted US person, this footnote appears.

The petitioner has not charged that the Executive Branch is surveilling overseas persons in order intentionally to surveil persons in the United States. Because the issue is not before us, we do not pass on the legitimacy vel non of such a practice. (26)

I find the footnote interesting for a couple of reasons. It suggests that the collection–whether intentionally or not–is sweeping up communications from US persons (even while the ruling elsewhere suggests that there is much more leeway for targeting US persons in this than claimed). That is, it seems to admit the possibility that there might be a suit arguing that the wiretap programs intentionally target Americans, in which case the foreign intelligence exception it describes may be limited. 

But at the same time, it suggests how high the bar to prove that this entire program is just an attempt to evade the Fourth Amendment and wiretap Americans. Jeebus. If it accepts the Bush Administration’s assurances that there is no incidental database (which reads like a highly-parsed statement anyway), then how would we ever prove we were intentionally tapped?

FISA + EO 12333 + [redacted] procedures = No Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yesterday, I showed that the government claims it doesn’t have a database of incidentally collected data from non-targeted US persons; and then I showed why that claim is not credible. Today, I’ll point to another big loophole in the government’s wiretapping program revealed by the FISCR opinion: the use of three or more different methods of getting around Fourth Amendment requirements of probable cause and particularity.

The opinion describes what it seems to present as abundant protections involved in the wiretapping at issue–noting that these protections are included not just in Protect America Act, but also Executive Order 12333 and certain classified procedures.

Beginning in [redacted] 2007, the government issued directives to the petitioner commanding it to assist in warrantless surveillance [redacted, redacted footnote]. These directives were issued pursuant to certifications that purported to contain all the information required by PAA.

The certifications require certain protections above and beyond those specified by the PAA. For example, they require the AG and the National Security Agency (NSA) to follow the procedures set out under Executive Order 12333 2.5 …, before any surveillance is undertaken. Moreover, affidavits supporting the certifications spell out additional safeguards to be employed in effecting the acquisitions. This last set of classified procedures has not been included in the information transmitted to the petitioner. In essence, as implemented, the certifications permit surveillance 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]

Much later, when the Court is testing the government’s claim that certifications in question qualify as “reasonable,” it again lists these several “safeguards.”

The government rejoins that the PAA, as applied here, constitutes reasonable government action. It emphasizes both the protections spelled out in PAA itself and those mandated under the certifications and directives. This matrix of safeguards comprises at least five components: targeting procedures, minimization procedures, a procedure to ensure that a significant purpose of a surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information, procedures incorporated through Executive Order 12333 2.5, and [redacted] procedures [redacted] outlined in an affidavit supporting the certifications. [my emphasis]

Understand–this opinion is not about whether PAA (or, more generally, a Congressionally-sanctioned wiretap program) by itself authorizes under the Fourth Amendment the actions the government required the plaintiff to take. It is about whether PAA + EO 12333 (the Reagan Executive Order laying out our intelligence program, plus the amendments to that EO) + redacted procedures submitted in conjuction with, but not mandated by, PAA fulfill Fourth Amendment requirements. PAA, by itself, does not fulfill Fourth Amendment requirements.

Read more

The Government Sez: We Don’t Have a Database of All Your Communication

I’m going to try to do a series of posts on the FISA Appeals Court ruling before football starts tomorrow. In this post, I just want to point to a passage that deserves more scrutiny:

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)

To translate, if the government collects information from a US citizen (here or abroad), a legal permanent US resident, a predominantly US organization, or a US corporation in the course of collecting information on someone it is specifically targeting, it it claims it does not keep that in a database (I’ll come back and parse this in a second). In other words, if the government has a tap on your local falafel joint because suspected terrorists live off their falafels, and you happen to call in a take out order, it does not that have in a database.

There are reasons to doubt this claim. First of all, because we know of huge new data storage facilities, and they’ve got to be filling those facilities with something. Of course, they might just store US person communications on servers, but not in a formal database, and thereby be able to claim they’ve not got your falafel order in a database proper.

But we also know that when Russ Feingold proposed several measures to protect this kind of incidental data during last year’s FISA debate, Mike McConnell and Michael Mukasey started issuing veto threats. For example, when Feingold proposed adding this amendment to the new FISA changes,

At such time as the Government can reasonably determine that a communication acquired under this title (including a communication acquired under subsection (a)(2)) is to or from a person reasonably believed to be located in the United States, such communication shall be segregated or specifically designated and no person shall access such a communication, except in accordance with title I or this section.

Mukasey and McConnell threw out a bunch of vague alarmist objections.

The Mukasey-McConnell attack on segregation is most telling. They complain that the amendment makes a distinction between different kinds of foreign intelligence Read more

Church Committee, The Bush II Version?

Because it wouldn’t be a badly corrupt attempt to install a permanent Republican majority without a Church Committee to clean up afterwards…

Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire, has a story in Salon describing a proposed second Church Committee.

Now, in the twilight of the Bush presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s.

While reporting on domestic surveillance under Bush, Salon obtained a detailed memo proposing such an inquiry, and spoke with several sources involved in recent discussions around it on Capitol Hill. The memo was written by a former senior member of the original Church Committee; the discussions have included aides to top House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, and until now have not been disclosed publicly.


"If we know this much about torture, rendition, secret prisons and warrantless wiretapping despite the administration’s attempts to stonewall, then imagine what we don’t know," says a senior Democratic congressional aide who is familiar with the proposal and has been involved in several high-profile congressional investigations.

Notably, Shorrock describes discussions to investigate Bush’s surveillance programs–and their antecedents in the Clinton and Reagan Administration.

The article also provides names and dates that seem to corroborate the earlier Radar story on Main Core. Shorrock explains that William Hamilton, the President of Inslaw–the maker of PROMIS, a criminal investigations database–claiming that the Reagan Administration just gave PROMIS to NSA and CIA to use for intelligence purposes. Hamilton also describes being told by a US intelligence official in 1992 and an NSA official in 1995 that the government was using PROMIS to search the Main Core database–a database of all those perceived to be domestic threats to national security within the US.

This article still doesn’t clinch the case that the biggest problem with the illegal wiretap program is that it used the Main Core database–listing people perceived to be domestic enemies–to develop target lists for wiretapping. Nevertheless, it provides a lot more data points, while at the same time hinting that there might be will to actually investigate this mess.

The FISA Loss: Recommendations for the Future

Selise’s superb diary on FISA has finally persuaded me to write a post that I’ve been thinking about for some time: a recap of the FISA fight with thoughts on what we could have done differently.

Before I talk about what we could improve though, let me say this. Everyone involved, Republican, Democrat, House and Senate, attributes the unexpectedly tough battle over FISA to the work of the Netroots: bloggers, MoveOn, and most importantly their readers, partnering with the civil liberties groups and a few leaders in Congress to push back against a legislative tidal wave. Aside from Josh Marshall’s resoundingly successful campaign to save social security–in which public opinion and Democratic leadership always supported the same goals as the Netroots–this was the first real sustained legislative campaign waged by the Netroots. We were fighting against a telecom and intelligence contracting industry that, in addition to being rich, has been fighting these battles for years. Looked at from that perspective, we had remarkable success. And if we replicate this effort on other topics, we will have more success in the future. In fact, I rather think the news that Chris Dodd is one of the few people confirmed to have made the vetting stage of the VP search (though I highly doubt Obama will choose him–I think it’s political theater), when Hillary and Jim Webb and Joe Biden and others have not, suggests Obama recognizes that he took our efforts too cavalierly. We did a lot right in this fight; if we learn the right lessons from it, we will be more powerful and effective in the future.

That said, here are some things we should do in the future:

  • Improve intelligence oversight
  • Admit we’re dealing with legislators
  • Identify the real terms of debate
  • Recognize when leadership begins to negotiate
  • Profile all the key players

Improve intelligence oversight

As Selise points out in her diary, we were fighting against a leadership that–because they were among the only ones briefed on the President’s illegal program–had an incentive to support telecom immunity because they had, at least by virtue of not mounting an effective opposition to the program, bought off on it. The still-serving Democrats who had been briefed on the program before it became public in 2005 are: Pelosi (from the very first briefing on October 25, 2001 as HPSCI ranking member, and continuing as House Minority leader), Reid (in his role as Minority Read more