If the Executive Had Followed Clear Minimization Requirements of PATRIOT, Dragnet Abuses Might Have Been Avoided

For 4 years, it has been clear that DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine used his 2008 report on the FBI’s use of Section 215 to address how it had been used for what was then a secret program. For that reason, I want to look more closely at what he had to say about minimization.

Glenn Fine reveals how FBI minimization procedures are self-referential nonsense

As I noted, as part of a congressionally-mandated review completed in March 2008, DOJ’s Inspector General Glenn Fine reviewed whether DOJ had complied with PATRIOT Reauthorization’s requirement that the Attorney General craft minimization procedures to use with Section 215 collection.

He described how, in advance of a September 5, 2006 deadline, two parts of DOJ squabbled over what the minimization procedures should be.

Several months after enactment of the Reauthorization Act, the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) and the FBI — both of whom had been developing minimization procedures related to Section 215 orders — exchanged draft procedures. The drafts differed in fundamental respects, ranging from definitions to the scope of the procedures.

The fight seems to have been significantly fought between OIPR’s Counsel James Baker (who had a record of trying to get DOJ to follow the law) and FBI’s General Counsel Valerie Caproni (who got confirmed as a Federal Judge for NY this year literally at the same moment the Administration started releasing the most damning details on the dragnet).

Unresolved issues included the time period for retention of information, definitional issues of “U.S. person identifying information,” and whether to include procedures for addressing material received in response to, but beyond the scope of, the FISA Court order; uploading information into FBI databases; and handling large or sensitive data collections.

A couple of months would put this debate squarely in the time period when the first dragnet order would be signed (two months would be May 9; the first order was signed May 24).

And you can see how these issues would go squarely to the heart of whether or not the government could use Section 215 to authorize the dragnet. The dragnet introduces immediate retention issues, given that it authorizes collection on data not yet in existence; imagine if OIPR mandated an immediate search, with all non-responsive numbers to be destroyed. NSA itself treated phone numbers as “identifiers,” and yet this entire program fails to meet the most basic dissemination limits if you treat them as identifiers here. We know NSA had recurrent problem with receiving data that was beyond the scope, including credit card numbers and international data. Unloading this into the FBI database presents immense problems, given that the foreign intelligence value of a query is based on a algorithm, not more concrete evidence. And of course, Fine’s mention of the debate over “handling large or sensitive data collections” must implicate the dragnet, which is the quintessential large and sensitive data collection.

Almost the entirety of the detailed discussion of these issues is redacted.

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The Phone Dragnet Did Not (and May Still Not) Meet the PATRIOT Act’s Minimization Requirements

While a number of the changes to Section 215 passed just before the government started relying on it to create a database of all phone-based relationships in the United States watered down the law, one provision made the law stricter.

The 2006 Reauthorization required the Attorney General to establish minimization procedures for the data collected under the program.

(g) Minimization Procedures and Use of Information- Section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1861) is further amended by adding at the end the following new subsections:

(g) Minimization Procedures-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, the Attorney General shall adopt specific minimization procedures governing the retention and dissemination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of any tangible things, or information therein, received by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in response to an order under this title.

(2) DEFINED- In this section, the term `minimization procedures’ means–

(A) specific procedures that are reasonably designed in light of the purpose and technique of an order for the production of tangible things, to minimize the retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information;

(B) procedures that require that nonpublicly available information, which is not foreign intelligence information, as defined in section 101(e)(1), shall not be disseminated in a manner that identifies any United States person, without such person’s consent, unless such person’s identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance; and

(C) notwithstanding subparagraphs (A) and (B), procedures that allow for the retention and dissemination of information that is evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes.

(h) Use of Information- Information acquired from tangible things received by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in response to an order under this title concerning any United States person may be used and disclosed by Federal officers and employees without the consent of the United States person only in accordance with the minimization procedures adopted pursuant to subsection (g). No otherwise privileged information acquired from tangible things received by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in accordance with the provisions of this title shall lose its privileged character. No information acquired from tangible things received by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in response to an order under this title may be used or disclosed by Federal officers or employees except for lawful purposes.’.

But from the very start, the FISA Court and the Administration set out to ignore this requirement. After all, well before anyone did any analysis about the foreign intelligence value of the phone dragnet data, the FBI disseminated all of it, by having the telecoms hand it over directly to the NSA. And phone numbers are US person identifiers (best demonstrated by NSA’s use of phone numbers as identifiers to conduct searches in other contexts).

Thus, before any Agency even touched the data, the phone dragnet scheme violated this provision by disseminating non-publicly available information about US person identifiers on every single American without their consent.

According to FISC’s original Section 215 phone dragnet order, the NSA only had to abide by the existing SID-18 minimization procedures.

[D]issemination of U.S. person information shall follow the standard NSA minimization procedures found in the Attorney General-approved guidelines (U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18). [link added]

And the FBI only applied the minimization procedures it used to fulfill the statute after the NSA had already run queries on it.

With respect to any information the FBI receives as a result of this Order (information that is passed or “tipped” to it by NSA), the FBI shall follow as minimization procedures the procedures set forth in The Attorney General’s Guidelines for FBI National Security Investigations and Foreign Intelligence Collection (October 31, 2003). [link added]

Even after this initial order, the Attorney General did not comply with the mandate to come up with minimization procedures specific to Section 215. Instead, then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales just adopted four sections of the National Security Investigations Guidelines.

In analysis included in a 2008 review of the FBI’s use of Section 215, DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine deemed this measure to fall short of the statute’s requirements.

These interim minimization procedures use general hortatory language stating that all activities conducted in relation to national security investigations must be “carried out in conformity with the Constitution.” However, we believe this broad standard does not provide the specific guidance for minimization procedures that the Reauthorization Act appears to contemplate.


[T]he Reauthorization Act required the Department to adopt “specific procedures” reasonably designed to “minimize the retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information.” We believe that the interim procedures do not adequately address this requirement, and we recommend that the Department continue its efforts to construct specific minimization procedures relating to Section 215 orders, rather than rely on general language in the Attorney General’s NSI Guidelines.

As I’ll show in a follow-up post, presumably in response to Fine’s report, Attorney General Michael Mukasey adopted new, arguably even more general guidelines to fulfill this requirement, the AG Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations. (I strongly suspect the August 20, 2008 FISC opinion the government won’t release authorizes the language that would appear in those Guidelines).

But the implications of this have more immediate significance.

After all, the only known American who got busted based on a Section 215 tip, Basaaly Moalin, argues for a new trial tomorrow. And he was tipped based on dissemination that took place in 2007 — that is, before DOJ even tried to address these problematic minimization procedures. He was tipped based on dissemination that — under the letter of the PATRIOT Act — should never have happened.

Update: With regards to Moalin’s case, this seems pertinent.

As of early December 2007, the [Director of National Intelligence] working group [trying to harmonize defintions] had not defined “U.S. person identifying information.

This means that, at the time he was identified in the dragnet, the entire intelligence community was still fighting over whether phone numbers constituted US person identifying information entitled to additional protection.

Update: In an address to the EU Parliament, Jim Sensenbrenner accuses NSA of ignoring civil liberty protections in the PATRIOT Act.

“I firmly believe the Patriot Act saved lives by strengthening the ability of intelligence agencies to track and stop potential terrorists, but in the past few years, the National Security Agency has weakened, misconstrued and ignored the civil liberty protections we drafted into the law,” he said, adding that the NSA “ignored restrictions painstakingly crafted by lawmakers and assumed a plenary authority we never imagined.”

12 Years Later, DOJ Is Still Struggling Through Dragnet Discovery Issues

As I noted earlier, Charlie Savage describes how, after Don Verrilli made false representations to the Supreme Court about whether defendants get an opportunity to challenge FISA Amendments Act derived evidence, it set off a discussion in DOJ about their discovery obligations.

Mr. Verrilli sought an explanation from national security lawyers about why they had not flagged the issue when vetting his Supreme Court briefs and helping him practice for the arguments, according to officials.

The national security lawyers explained that it was a misunderstanding, the officials said. Because the rules on wiretapping warrants in foreign intelligence cases are different from the rules in ordinary criminal investigations, they said, the division has long used a narrow understanding of what “derived from” means in terms of when it must disclose specifics to defendants.

In national security cases involving orders issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, prosecutors alert defendants only that some evidence derives from a FISA wiretap, but not details like whether there had just been one order or a chain of several. Only judges see those details.

After the 2008 law, that generic approach meant that prosecutors did not disclose when some traditional FISA wiretap orders had been obtained using information gathered through the warrantless wiretapping program. Division officials believed it would have to disclose the use of that program only if it introduced a recorded phone call or intercepted e-mail gathered directly from the program — and for five years, they avoided doing so.

For Mr. Verrilli, that raised a more fundamental question: was there any persuasive legal basis for failing to clearly notify defendants that they faced evidence linked to the 2008 warrantless surveillance law, thereby preventing them from knowing that they had an opportunity to argue that it derived from an unconstitutional search? [my emphasis]

It’s not entirely true that only judges learn if there are a series of orders leading up to a traditional FISA that incriminates a person. For example, we know it took 11 dockets and multiple orders to establish probable cause to wiretap Basaaly Moalin, the one person allegedly caught using Section 215. We also know there was a 2-month delay between the time they identified his calls with (probably) Somali warlord Aden Ayrow and the time they started wiretapping him under traditional FISA. Even before that point, Ayrow would have been — and almost certainly was — a legal FISA Amendments Act target. Meaning it’d be very easy for the government to watch Moalin’s side of their conversations in those two months to develop probable cause — or even to go back and read historical conversations (note, Ken Wainstein may have signed some of the declarations in question, which would make a lot of sense if they took place during the transition between Attorneys General earlier in 2007).

But Moalin’s attorneys didn’t — and still haven’t — learned whether that’s what happened. (Note, I’m overdue to lay out the filings in the case since I last covered it; consider it pending.)

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David Kris Points to the Clause Loopholed Under David Barron on Metadata Collection

I’m working on a longer post on David Kris’ paper on the phone [and Internet] dragnets.

But for the moment, I want to note that he strongly implies the US is relying on 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f) to collect international metadata. He does it when he first introduces the phone dragnet secondary order (page 2).

The order excluded production of metadata concerning “communications wholly originating and terminating in foreign countries.”5 215 Bulk Secondary Order at 2; see Business Records FISA NSA Review at 15 (June 25, 2009) [hereinafter NSA End-to-End Review], available at
FISA%20Review%2020130909.pdf; August 2013 FISC Order at 10 n.10; cf. 18 U.S.C. §2511(2)(f) (“Nothing contained in this chapter or chapter 121 or 206 of this title, or section 705 of the Communications Act of 1934, shall be deemed to affect the acquisition by the United States Government of foreign intelligence information from international or foreign communications, or foreign intelligence activities conducted in accordance with otherwise applicable Federal law involving a foreign electronic communications system, utilizing a means other than electronic surveillance as defined in section 101 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978”). [my emphasis]

And he does it just after suggesting that the FISA Court may have approved the phone dragnet in 2006 — however shabby the legal case — just to have it under FISC supervision (note, he also nods to the Internet metadata dragnet, but as I’ll note he goes through some contortions to avoid addressing it all that directly).

More broadly, it is important to consider the context in which the FISA Court initially approved the bulk collection. Unverified media reports (discussed above) state that bulk telephony metadata collection was occurring before May 2006; even if that is not the case, perhaps such collection could have occurred at that time based on voluntary cooperation from the telecommunications providers. If so, the practical question before the FISC in 2006 was not whether the collection should occur, but whether it should occur under judicial standards and supervision, or unilaterally under the authority of the Executive Branch.147

147 With respect to metadata concerning foreign-to-foreign communications, which the FISC’s order expressly does not address, see 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f)

This is important because it is precisely the clause (the one Kris cites above) that the Office of Legal Counsel reinterpreted in 2010 to cover past illegal access to phone metadata, including US based phone metadata.

The existence of that memo was first disclosed by Glenn Fine in his Exigent Letter IG Report. (See also this post.) He described how, in the context of its effort to clean up the legal process free access of phone data from the telecoms, DOJ had ordered up this opinion (though they claimed they were not relying on it). In 2011, DOJ provided enough information in response to a FOIA to make it clear the memo pertained to this passage.

Now, in context, Kris is just implying that the government is using this clause to get the telecoms to voluntarily turn over foreign to foreign communications.

Except we know precisely how the NSA defines “foreign communications.”

Foreign communication means a communication that has at least one communicant outside of the United States. All other communications, including communications in which the sender and all intended recipients are reasonably believed to be located in the United States at the time of acquisition, are domestic communications.

That is, so long as just one end of a communication is foreign, the NSA considers it a foreign communication (and therefore the telecoms can voluntarily disclose it under their interpretation of this clause of ECPA).

And remember: this opinion reinterpreting ECPA was written under the direction of — if not written by — David Barron, the guy Obama wants to have a lifetime appointment on the First Circuit.

I need to think through whether this means what I think it means. But it sure seems like Kris is not only saying that the government did use this loophole to collect metadata involving foreigners (and Americans). But given that DOJ claimed it could use this memo to clean up its entirely domestic communications problems (per the Fine IG Report), it sure seems like Kris is saying if we close the Section 215 collection, the government will just resume using ECPA.

Update: I just realized this post, which adopts an argument I made almost two weeks ago (that there is no original opinion for the phone dragnet) was written by Marty Lederman (who was at OLC during roughly the same period that Barron was).

Which is why I find it weird that Lederman makes an extended argument noting that an earlier clause in ECPA tweaked during the original PATRIOT Act bill prohibits this sharing of phone metadata.

You wouldn’t know it from Judge Eagan’s opinion–or from David Kris’s paper, for that matter–but Congress has actually considered the specific question about whether and under what circumstance service providers may disclose to the government the telephony metadata of their customers, and has enacted a statute dealing specifically with that question–a statute that expressly prohibits such disclosure.  Moreover, the prohibition in question was enacted as part of the very same law that includes Section 215, namely, the PATRIOT Act of 2001.

A provision of the Electronic Communications Protection Act (ECPA), 18 U.S.C. 2702(a)(3), states that “a provider of remote computing service or electronic communication service to the public shall not knowingly divulge a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber to or customer of such service (not including the contents of communications covered by paragraph (1) or (2)) to any governmental entity.”

Statutory language doesn’t often get much clearer than that:  A provider of remote computing service or electronic communication service to the public — a category that includes phone service providers — cannot knowingly convey consumer records or information to any governmental entity.

Remarkably, Congress added this prohibition to ECPA in section 212(a)(1)(B)(iii) of the 2001 PATRIOT Act itself–the same law in which section 215 expanded the “business records” provision upon which the government relies here.  The two provisions are only three pages apart in the Statutes at Large.  In other words, the government is relying here upon a broad, general “business records” provision included in the PATRIOT Act; but in that very same legislation, Congress included another provision specifically involving the business records of telephone customers, and in that more specific provision it precluded the very sort of records transfer at issue here.

The thing is, I find it almost impossible to believe that Lederman wouldn’t know about (or even didn’t review) that January 8, 2010 opinion. And he certainly must know what the implications of invoking foreign communications in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f) to be.

I’m confused.

Update: I missed one other mention of 2511(2)(f), which comes in Kris’ incomplete description of all the violations in the phone dragnet program (it is incomplete, in part, because he cites from the June report of the problems rather than the August filing presenting them, which includes several more, probably more troubling violations; but he also misses details of a few of the other violations which is particularly interesting because he, of all people, must know this stuff).

(8) acquisition of metadata for foreign-to-foreign telephone calls from a provider that believed such metadata to be within the scope of the FISC’s orders, when it was not, NSA End-to-End Review at 15; cf. August 2013 FISC Order at 10 n.10 (“The Court understands that NSA receives certain call detail records pursuant to other authority, in addition to the call detail records produced in response to this Court’s Orders.”); see generally 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f) (“Nothing contained in this chapter or chapter 121 or 206 of this title, or section 705 of the Communications Act of 1934, shall be deemed to affect the acquisition by the United States Government of foreign intelligence information from international or foreign communications, or foreign intelligence activities conducted in accordance with otherwise applicable Federal law involving a foreign electronic communications system, utilizing a means other than electronic surveillance as defined in section 101 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978”);

His inclusion of it here is interesting because this violation is likely the collection that Reggie Walton shut down temporarily on July 9, 2009. Does that mean they just kept collecting from this provider (I wonder, by the way, whether it’s something exotic like Skype), and deemed it covered by 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(f)? If so, Kris would have been among those who made the decision to do so.

Hot Numbers and the 2009 Troubles

Starting in 2007, DOJ’s Inpector General Glenn Fine did a series of reports on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters and Exigent Letters. In response (and as the FBI tried to clean up the mess from its inappropriate use of those tools), in 2007 the government asked OLC for an interpretation on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. That opinion, which was issued on November 8, 2008, ruled that ECPA barred telecom providers from responding to certain kinds of requests without legal process.

Finally, you have asked whether a provider, in answer to an oral request before service of an NSL, may tell the FBI whether a particular account exists. This information would be confined to whether a provider serves a particular subscriber or a particular phone number. We believe that ECPA ordinarily bars providers from complying with such requests.

In the last of his IG Reports on NSLs and Exigent Letters, Fine argued that that OLC opinion made two of FBI’s practices with exigent letters — “sneak peeks” and “hot numbers” — illegal.

[T]he Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded, and we agree, that the ECPA ordinarily bars communications service providers from telling the FBI, prior to service of legal process, whether a particular account exists. We also concluded that if that type of information falls within the ambit of “a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber to or customer of such service” under 18 USC 2702(a)(3), so does the existence of calling activity by particular hot telephone numbers, absent a qualifying emergency under 18 USC 2702(c)(4).


Therefore, we believe that the practice of obtaining calling activity information about how numbers in these matters without service of legal process violated the ECPA.


We believe the FBI should carefully review the circumstances in which FBI personnel asked the on-site communications service providers [redacted] “hot numbers” to enable the Department to determine if the FBI obtained calling activity information under circumstances that trigger discovery or other obligations in any criminal investigations or prosecutions.

The “hot number” practice is functionally equivalent to the “alert list” the NSA used on the Section 215 dragnet database, in which it checked daily incoming calls to see if there had been any US contact with both approved and unapproved identifiers; if there was activity in both cases, it would spark further investigation.

The practice Fine focused on in this report was the requests FBI would get onsite telecom providers to fill without a subpoena. But at the same time Fine was working on that series of reports (the last one wasn’t issued until 2010) he was also working on a report on the FBI’s 2006 use of Section 215 (issued in March 2008), which included two classified appendices on bulk collection programs including (presumably) the phone dragnet from May until December 2006, and the 2009 Joint IG Report on the illegal wiretap program (which would have covered the dragnet program through May 2006).

We now know that both the pre May 2006 dragnet program and the post May 2006 dragnet program included a practice that, in wake of that OLC opinion (and perhaps before), Fine would find required some legal attention (the Pen Register equivalent in a grand jury context might put the post May 2006 practice in good stead, the 2008 opinion would seem to make the use of alerts earlier illegal, along with everything else).

Which may be why the government asked Judge Reggie Walton to consider whether the dragnet program complied with ECPA for his December 12, 2008 opinion.

That’s just a hypothesis (though the December 2008 would have been the first dragnet application after the OLC memo).

But if it’s right, it makes the NSA”s “discovery” of the alert process the following month all the more ridiculous. The alert process had been in place for years. FBI was being scolded for an equivalent practice (that ended in 2006) within FBI. And yet NSA somehow didn’t think to tell Walton about it until he had ruled ECPA did not present a problem for the dragnet more generally.

These three programs — the illegal program and the exigent letters, which both became the early dragnet in 2006 — are all closely related. Once you read them in tandem, though, it makes NSA”s claims to ignorance completely incredible.

Which brings me back to a reminder I’ve made several times. In the wake of the 2009 discoveries, Pat Leahy tried to mandate a DOJ review of the ongoing Section 215 activity, an effort the Administration thwarted. Fine agreed to do one anyway … then left. His replacement, Michael Horowitz, keeps claiming he’s still working on that investigation (but only covering the activities through 2009). That investigation has been going on 1,191 days now.

Update: Another interesting timing detail. According to the White Paper, the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees had all received the initial application and Primary Order on the dragnet by December 2008. So did they wait until the Walton opinion? Or did they know the Judiciary Committees would get them as part of DOJ IG reports?

If by “New” IG Investigation You Mean 1,155 Days Old

Shane Harris reads the DOJ IG Report on its civil liberties related work and reports that it is investigating the use of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

The Department of Justice Inspector General, which has issued several critical reports over the years about FBI surveillance, is again looking into the bureau’s use of powerful and secretive orders for information about Americans.

A new review is examining “any improper or illegal uses” of the FBI’s surveillance authorities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That’s the portion of the law that allows the government to collect Americans’ phone records en masse. And in what appears to be a first review of its kind, the IG will also look at the FBI’s use of pen register and trap-and-trace authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These are the authorities that allow the bureau to track the metadata of communications made to and from phone numbers and email accounts.

Only this is not a new review. Now-retired DOJ IG Glenn Fine first laid out his plans for the investigation on June 15, 2010 in a letter to Pat Leahy. I reported on the April update on that investigation and the related back story here, 6 weeks ago.

By my math, that means this IG Investigation of abuses we know occurred in 2009 has been going on  1,155 days. And the investigation remains focused on abuses that happened 2 PATRIOT Act extensions ago, rather than what is going on with the program now.

DOJ’s IG, at least under Fine, was very good at rooting out problems with intelligence programs. But we have yet to hear much from his replacement, Michael Horowitz (who has been on the job for 16 months after a long delay in both nominating and confirming him), to indicate one way or another whether he’ll be as good as Fine.

We do know he’s taking his sweet time reviewing problems that happened 4 years ago.

On the Refusal to Exercise Oversight over Vast Surveillance Programs, Episode 117

The Joint IG Report on the illegal wiretap program left out all discussion of what happened to the Internet and (to a lesser extent) phone metadata collection that got moved into Pen Register/Trap&Trace and Section 215 collection, respectively, as described by the NSA Draft IG Report (see page 39 ff).

The transition of certain PSP-authorized activities to FISC orders is described in detail in Section 5 of the classified report and Chapter Five of the DOJ OIG Report. Further details regarding this transition are classified and therefore cannot be addressed in this unclassified report.

But the report did make it clear that Glenn Fine, then DOJ’s Inspector General, had recommended DOJ and other Intelligence Committee agencies track whether these programs were useful in their new form.

As noted above, certain activities that were originally authorized as part of the PSP have subsequently been authorized under orders issued by the FISC. The DOJ OIG believes that DOJ and other IC agencies should continue to assess the value of information derived from such activities to the government’s counterterrorism efforts.


Finally, the collection activities pursued under the PSP, and under FISA following the PSP’s transition to that authority, involved unprecedented collection activities. We believe the retention and use by IC organizations of information collected under the PSP and FISA should be carefully monitored.

The Joint IG Report came out in July 2009. The debate over extending the PATRIOT Act started in earnest in September 2009.

Yet not only wasn’t that review baked into the extension, but when Patrick Leahy tried to include additional oversight that would include, among other things,

  • Mandate further audits of some of these provisions, such as the use of pen registers
  • Give the Court oversight over the minimization procedures for the use of Section 215 and pen register and trap and trace devices
  • Require that Section 215 and pen registers only be granted if authorities can show that the requested information has ties to terrorism

Dianne Feinstein got Leahy to take much of that out in a substitute bill, and then Jeff Sessions, seemingly working on behalf of the Administration, gutted things further in the Senate markup. It was fairly clear then that the IC — if not the Administration personally — wanted to make sure this oversight did not get added to the PATRIOT Act.

And it didn’t.

The next year, Glenn Fine — who, of course, was the guy who recommended increased oversight in the first place — said he’d do the reviews anyway.

We intend to initiate another review examining the FBI’s use of NSLs and Section 215 orders for business records. Among other issues, our review will assess the FBI’s progress in responding to the OIG’s recommendations in the prior reports. In addition, we intend to examine the number of NSLs issued by the FBI from 2007 through 2009, and we will closely examine the automated system to generate and track NSLs that the FBI implemented to address the deficiencies identified in the OIG reports.

In addition, our review will cover the FBI’s use of Section 215 orders for business records. It will examine the number of Section 215 applications filed from 2007 through 2009, how the FBI is using the tool today, and describe any reported improper or illegal uses of the authority. Our review will also examine the progress the FBI has made in addressing recommendations contained our prior reports that the FBI draft and implement minimization procedures specifically for information collected under Section 215 authority.

We also intend to conduct a programmatic review of the FBI’s use of its pen register and trap and trace authority under the FISA. That part of the review will examine issues such as how the FBI uses the authority to collect information, what the FBI does with the information it collects, and whether there have been any improper or illegal uses of the authority either reported by the FBI or identified by the OIG. [my emphasis]

Writing in 2010, when both metadata collection programs were still ongoing under these authorities, this basically laid out a plan to review all the secret metadata collection hidden inside these authorities.

Fine wrote that in June; in November of that year, he announced his resignation, saying he wanted to pursue new professional challenges.

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Is the Section 215 Dragnet Limited to Terrorism Investigations?

Unlike PRISM, most public discussions about the Section 215 dragnet program suggest that it is tied to terrorism. It’s a claim, for example, that Charlie Savage makes in this story, which he traces back to this statement from Director of National Security James Clapper.

And indeed, that statement does claim the program is limited to terrorism investigations.

The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications. Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time. The FISA Court specifically approved this method of collection as lawful, subject to stringent restrictions.

The information acquired has been part of an overall strategy to protect the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it may assist counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities.


By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling. The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.

All information that is acquired under this order is subject to strict restrictions on handling and is overseen by the Department of Justice and the FISA Court. Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed because the vast majority of the data is not responsive to any terrorism-related query. [my emphasis]

Even assuming James “Least Untruthful Too Cute by Half” Clapper can be trusted on this point, consider a few things about this statement.

  • It was released after only the first Guardian release. Thus, it was almost certainly rushed. And while NSA has claimed they had identified Edward Snowden before he started publishing, it is possible they did not know precisely what he had taken (though it is equally possible they already knew).
  • Clapper avoids mentioning precisely what program he is referring to in this statement, not even mentioning the Section 215 authority directly (though he does mention the PATRIOT Act. The Executive Branch has a well-established history — on this and related programs precisely — in addressing just a subset of a program so as to try to hide larger parts of it.

In addition, recall that when DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine referred to these secret programs in a 2008 report on the use of Section 215, he spoke in the plural and included two classified appendices to describe them. In 2011, Acting Assistant Attorney General Todd Hinnen referred only to programs, plural. Thus, there almost certainly are at least two secret programs, and Michael Hayden has claimed Obama has expanded the use of this authority, which might mean there are more than two.

Furthermore, compare Clapper’s statement from June 6 — which mentioned only terrorists — with how he explained the dragnet program to Andrea Mitchell on June 9.

ANDREA MITCHELL: At the same time, when Americans woke up and learned because of these leaks that every single telephone call in this United States, as well as elsewhere, but every call made by these telephone companies that they collect is archived, the numbers, just the numbers, and the duration of these calls. People were astounded by that. They had no idea. They felt invaded.

JAMES CLAPPER: I understand that. But first let me say that I and everyone in the intelligence community all– who are also citizens, who also care very deeply about our– our privacy and civil liberties, I certainly do. So let me say that at the outset. I think a lot of what people are– are reading and seeing in the media is a lot of hyper– hyperbole.
A metaphor I think might be helpful for people to understand this is to think of a huge library with literally millions of volumes of books in it, an electronic library. Seventy percent of those books are on bookcases in the United States, meaning that the bulk of the of the world’s infrastructure, communications infrastructure is in the United States.

There are no limitations on the customers who can use this library. Many and millions of innocent people doing min– millions of innocent things use this library, but there are also nefarious people who use it. Terrorists, drug cartels, human traffickers, criminals also take advantage of the same technology. So the task for us in the interest of preserving security and preserving civil liberties and privacy is to be as precise as we possibly can be when we go in that library and look for the books that we need to open up and actually read.

You think of the li– and by the way, all these books are arranged randomly. They’re not arranged by subject or topic matter. And they’re constantly changing. And so when we go into this library, first we have to have a library card, the people that actually do this work.

Which connotes their training and certification and recertification. So when we pull out a book, based on its essentially is– electronic Dewey Decimal System, which is zeroes and ones, we have to be very precise about which book we’re picking out. And if it’s one that belongs to the– was put in there by an American citizen or a U.S. person.

We ha– we are under strict court supervision and have to get stricter– and have to get permission to actually– actually look at that. So the notion that we’re trolling through everyone’s emails and voyeuristically reading them, or listening to everyone’s phone calls is on its face absurd. We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. And I assure you, we don’t want to.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Why do you need every telephone number? Why is it such a broad vacuum cleaner approach?

JAMES CLAPPER: Well, you have to start someplace. If– and over the years that this program has operated, we have refined it and tried to– to make it ever more precise and more disciplined as to which– which things we take out of the library. But you have to be in the– in the– in the chamber in order to be able to pick and choose those things that we need in the interest of protecting the country and gleaning information on terrorists who are plotting to kill Americans, to destroy our economy, and destroy our way of life.

In speaking of the way in which the government uses this dragnet collection as a kind of Dewey Decimal system to identify communications it wants to go back and view, he doesn’t limit it to terrorists. Indeed, he doesn’t even limit it to those foreign intelligence uses the PATRIOT Act authorizes, like counterintelligence (though Obama’s roll-out of Transnational Crime Organization initiative in 2011 — which effectively started treating certain transnational crime networks just like terrorists — may suggest only those crime organizations are being targeted).

Given two more days of disclosures after his initial Section 215 statement, Clapper acknowledged that PRISM has been used (at a minimum) to pursue weapons proliferators and hackers in addition to terrorists. Then, the next day, he at least seemed to suggest that Section 215 collection is used to pinpoint not just terrorists, but also drug cartels and other criminal networks.

And as I’ll show in a follow-up post, it seems to have targeted far more than that.

The Section 215 Dragnet Started as Abusive Exigent Letter Practice Wound Down

Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 8.17.13 PMJulian Sanchez (who, if you’re not already following, you should, @normative) just made an important observation about the Section 215 collection that collects metadata on all phone calls every day.

Carriers keep call detail records for years. No earthly reason to demand DAILY updates just to preserve.

Thunk. The penny dropped.

In theory, no, there’s no reason to demand daily updates from the telecoms. In fact, in theory, you could always just ask the telecoms to conduct the kind of data analysis that is now being done by NSA.

But there’s a very good reason why they’re not doing it that way.

They tried. It was badly abused.

And they started moving away from that approach in March 2006, precisely when we know the Section 215 program started.

Most of what we know about the exigent letters program comes from a report DOJ’s Inspector General did in March 2007 [ed 6/16: oops–all this time I had the least damning report linked. read this one]  (my posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here). But the short version is that the NY FBI office set up an office to have representatives of the three major telecom companies come in and directly access their data with FBI Agents looking over their back. As such, it’s probably similar to what PRISM accomplishes for internet providers (except that an NSA employee rather than a telecom employee does the search), and presumably akin to whatever NSA does with the Section 215 dragnet information (which, after all, replicates the telecom databases perfectly).

The problems — that that we know about from the unclassified report (there are secret and TS/SCI versions which probably have bigger horrors) — include:

  • FBI General Counsel had no apparent knowledge of 17% of the searches
  • Thousands of searches never got recorded
  • FBI lied to the telecoms about how urgent the information was to get the information
  • FBI did an unknown number of sneak peeks into the data to see if there was something worth getting formally

Altogether, the unclassified IG Report described 26 abuses that should have been reported to then (and once again, since Chuck Hagel became Defense Secretary) inoperable Intelligence Oversight Board.

That includes the tracking of journalist call records in at least three cases (one of which I suspect is James Risen).

In short, it violated many legal principles. And that’s just the stuff that actually got recorded and showed up in an unclassified report.

The Executive spent years trying to clean up the legal mess, with four OLC opinions between November 8, 2008 and January 8, 2010 making one after another argument to justify the mess.

And just as it became clear what a godforsaken mess all this was in March 2006, they started using Section 215 to collect all call records.

The effectively created the same databases that had been abused when the FBI had telecom employees doing the work, to have NSA or FBI do the very same work as well.

In short, the reason we don’t do what Sanchez is absolutely right we should do — ask the telecoms for information as we need it — is it’s not easy enough.

What I look forward to learning, though, is how having government employees do the work that telecom employees — who at least were bound by ECPA — avoids the same kind of abusive fishing expeditions.

Update: Here’s a description I wrote to summarize this 3 years ago.

This IG Report was the third DOJ’s Inspector General, Glenn Fine, has done on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters and “exigent letters,” though this is the first to focus almost exclusively on exigent letters. In 2003, the FBI installed representatives of AT&T and (later) Verizon and MCI onsite, with computers hooked up to their respective companies’ databases. Rather than using a subpoena or a National Security Letter to get phone records from them (both of which would have required a higher level of review), the FBI basically gave them a boilerplate letters saying it was an emergency (thus the “exigent”) and could they please give the FBI the phone data; the FBI promised grand jury subpoenas to follow. Only, in many cases, these weren’t emergencies, they never sent the grand jury subpoenas, and many weren’t even associated with investigations into international terrorism. In other words, FBI massively abused this system to get phone data without necessary oversight. Fine has been pressing FBI to either establish some legal basis for getting this data or purging it from FBI databases for three years, and they have done that with some, but not all, of the data collected. But the FBI has tried about three different ways to bring this practice into conformity with legal guidelines, all unpersuasive to Fine. The OLC opinion is the most recent of these efforts.

Also, here’s a timeline.

Is Robert Mueller, a Purported Hero of the Hospital Confrontation, Responsible for Section 215 Use?

On March 23, 2004 at noon, less than two weeks after the dramatic hospital confrontation and threats to quit reportedly got the Administration to agree to stop data mining Americans, FBI Director Robert Mueller had a meeting with Dick Cheney, at the Vice President’s request, in the Vice President’s office. In his notes, Mueller doesn’t describe what the VIce President wanted, nor am I aware that it has even been reported in the press.

The next day, the Chief Division Counsel of some Division of the FBI wrote a memo to the FBI General Counsel noting that FBI was using a “new standard” with Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and indicating that a “recent decision” had been made to bypass the review of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review on Section 215 applications.

In part, the apparent decision to bypass OIPR, which had rejected the premise of the previous Section 215 orders FBI had submitted in the past, reflected no more than a concerted effort on FBI’s part to make sure it could start using all the PATRIOT authorities it had been granted in 2001 in anticipation of renewal discussions that would take place the following year. Yet the timing of this change is particularly curious, given that we now know Section 215 has been used to collect data that could be used for data mining Americans, precisely the problem that had caused the hospital confrontation 12 days earlier.

At the very least, however, it shows that sometime around the same time as Jim Comey and others at DOJ tried to stop the data mining of Americans under NSA’s illegal program, FBI claimed to have eliminated one review step for Section 215 orders and changed the standard used for them. That reference notwithstanding, DOJ Inspector General at least reported that OIPR continued to have a role. (Note, the office that got cut out of the process, OIPR, is where one of the key whistleblowers on the illegal program, Thomas Tamm worked, though I have asked him if he knew whether they used Section 215 to accomplish the same program and he didn’t know anything about it.)

On May 21, 2004, just as the the confrontation was settling down, FBI got its first Section 215 order approved. MIRACLES! the memo subject line read. “We got our first business record order signed today. It only took two and a half years.”

Now, at least some of the people commenting publicly on the confirmation that Section 215 has been used to compile a database recording details on all calls Americans make say Section 215 has supported that purpose only since 2006. Dianne Feinstein, for example, says the practice has gone on for 7 years.

As far as I know, this is the exact three month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA Court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful.

Seven years would put its start almost exactly at the March 9, 2006 renewal of the PATRIOT Act, which added new language on Section 215 in the wake of the December 15, 2005 exposure of Bush’s illegal wiretap program. In discussions of this collection program since last week, it has generally been accepted that’s when it all started.

Curiously (particularly given his insistence that PRISM only started in 2008, slides to the contrary notwithstanding), James Clapper made no claims about precisely when this practice started.

The Patriot Act was signed into law in October 2001 and included authority to compel production of business records and other tangible things relevant to an authorized national security investigation with the approval of the FISC. This provision has subsequently been reauthorized over the course of two Administrations – in 2006 and in 2011. It has been an important investigative tool that has been used over the course of two Administrations, with the authorization and oversight of the FISC and the Congress.

It is possible that this program was conducted under a different PATRIOT provision (such as the Pen Register ones) prior to 2006; in fact, Clapper never mentions the term “Section 215” in his purported clarification of the program.

Now, consider one more detail. In a statement before the 2009 debate on PATRIOT Act reauthorization focusing closely on Section 215, Russ Feingold suggested that the debate over reauthorization in 2005, which led to purported initial use of Section 215 to conduct this dragnet, had been stymied by classification of how the PATRIOT had been implemented.

I remain concerned that critical information about the implementation of the Patriot Act has not been made public – information that I believe would have a significant impact on the debate. During the debate on the Protect America Act and the FISA Amendments Acts in 2007 and 2008, critical legal and factual information remained unknown to the public and to most members of Congress – information that was certainly relevant to the debate and might even have made a difference in votes. And during the last Patriot Act reauthorization debate in 2005, a great deal of implementation information remained classified.


But there also is information about the use of Section 215 orders that I believe Congress and the American people deserve to know. I do not underestimate the importance of protecting our national security secrets. But before we decide whether and in what form to extend these authorities, Congress and the American people deserve to know at least basic information about how they have been used. So I hope that the administration will consider seriously making public some additional basic information, particularly with respect to the use of Section 215 orders.

There can be no question that statutory changes to our surveillance laws are necessary. Since the Patriot Act was first passed in 2001, we have learned important lessons, and perhaps the most important of all is that Congress cannot grant the government overly broad authorities and just keep its fingers crossed that they won’t be misused, or interpreted by aggressive executive branch lawyers in as broad a way as possible. [my emphasis]

This suggests the plan to use Section 215 may have been explicit in those classified debates.

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