Rosemary Collyer’s Worst FISA Decision

In addition to adding former National Security Division head David Kris as an amicus (I’ll have more to say on this) the FISA Court announced this week that Rosemary Collyer will become presiding judge — to serve for four years — on May 19.

Collyer was the obvious choice, being the next-in-line judge from DC. But I fear she will be a crummy presiding judge, making the FISC worse than it already is.

Collyer has a history of rulings, sometimes legally dubious, backing secrecy and executive power, some of which include,

2011: Protecting redactions in the Torture OPR Report

2014: Ruling the mosaic theory did not yet make the phone dragnet illegal (in this case she chose to release her opinion)

2014: Erroneously freelance researching the Awlaki execution to justify throwing out his family’s wrongful death suit

2015: Serially helping the Administration hide drone details, even after remand from the DC Circuit

I actually think her mosaic theory opinion from 2014 is one of her (and FISC’s) less bad opinions of this ilk.

The FISC opinion I consider her most troubling, though, is not a FISC decision at all, but rather a ruling from last year in an EFF FOIA. Either Collyer let the government hide something that didn’t need hidden, or it has exploited EFF’s confusion to hide the fact that the Internet dragnet and the Upstream content programs are conducted by the same technical means, a fact that would likely greatly help EFF’s effort to show all Americans were unlawfully spied on in its Jewell suit.

Back in August 2013, EFF’s Nate Cardozo FOIAed information on the redacted opinion referred to in this footnote from John Bates’ October 3, 2011 opinion ruling that some of NSA’s upstream collected was illegal.

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Here’s how Cardozo described his FOIA request (these documents are all attached as appendices to this declaration).

Accordingly, EFF hereby requests the following records:

1. The “separate order” or orders, as described in footnote 15 of the October 3 Opinion quoted above, in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “address[ed] Section 1809(a) and related issues”; and,

2. The case, order, or opinion whose citation was redacted in footnote 15 of the October 3 Opinion and described as “concluding that Section 1809(a)(2) precluded the Court from approving the government’s proposed use of, among other things, certain data acquired by NSA without statutory authority through its ‘upstream collection.’”

Request 2 was the only thing at issue in Collyer’s ruling. By my read, it would ask for the entire opinion the citation to which was redacted, or at least identification of the case.

EFF, of course, is particularly interested in upstream collection because it’s at the core of their many years long lawsuit in Jewell. To get an opinion that ruled upstream collection constituted unlawful collection sure would help in EFF’s lawsuit.

In her opinion, Collyer made a point of defining “upstream” surveillance by linking to the 2012 John Bates opinion resolving the 2011 upstream issues (as well as to Wikipedia!), rather than to the footnote he used to describe it in his October 3, 2011 opinion.

The opinion in question, referred to here as the Section 1809 Opinion, held that 50 U.S.C. § 1809(a)(2) precluded the FISC from approving the Government’s proposed use of certain data acquired by the National Security Agency (NSA) without statutory authority through “Upstream” collection. 3

3 “Upstream” collection refers to the acquisition of Internet communications as they transit the “internet backbone,” i.e., principal data routes via internet cables and switches of U.S. internet service providers. See [Caption Redacted], 2012 WL 9189263, *1 (FISC Aug. 24, 2012); see also (last visited Oct. 19, 2015); (last visited Oct. 19, 2015).

As it was, Collyer paraphrased where upstream surveillance comes from as ISPs rather than telecoms, which was redacted in the opinion she cited. But by citing that and not Bates’ 2011 opinion, she excluded an entirely redacted sentence from the footnote Bates used to explain it, which in context may have described a little more about the underlying opinion.

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Having thus laid out the case, Collyer deferred to NSA declarant David Sherman’s judgment — without conducting a review of the document — that releasing the document would reveal details about the implementation of upstream surveillance.

Specifically, the release of the redacted information would disclose sensitive operational details associated with NSA’s “Upstream” collection capability. While certain information regarding NSA’s “Upstream” collection capability has been declassified and publicly disclosed, certain other information regarding the capability remains currently and properly classified. The redacted information would reveal specific details regarding the application and implementation of the “Upstream” collection capability that have not been publicly disclosed. Revealing the specific means and methodology by which certain types of SIGINT collections are accomplished could allow adversaries to develop countermeasures to frustrate NSA’s collection of information crucial to national security. Disclosure of this information could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.


With respect to the FISC opinion withheld in full, it is my judgment that any information in the [Section 1809 Opinion] is classified in the context of this case because it can reasonably be expected to reveal classified national security information concerning particular intelligence methods, given the nature of the document and the information that has already been released. . . . In these circumstances, the disclosure of even seemingly mundane portions of this FISC opinion would reveal particular instances in which the “Upstream” collection program was used and could reasonably be expected to encourage sophisticated adversaries to adopt countermeasures that may deprive the United States of critical intelligence. [my emphasis]

Collyer found NSA had properly withheld the document as classified information the release of which would cause “grave damage to national security.”

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