A Dragnet of emptywheel’s Most Important Posts on Surveillance, 2007 to 2017

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten this week.

To celebrate, the emptywheel team has been sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. This is my massive dragnet of surveillance posts.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.


Whitehouse Reveals Smoking Gun of White House Claiming Not to Be Bound by Any Law

Just days after opening the new digs, I noticed Sheldon Whitehouse entering important details into the Senate record — notably, that John Yoo had pixie dusted EO 12333 to permit George Bush to authorize the Stellar Wind dragnet. In the ten years since, both parties worked to gradually expand spying on Americans under EO 12333, only to have Obama permit the sharing of raw EO 12333 data in its last days in office, completing the years long project of restoring Stellar Wind’s functionalities. This post, from 2016, analyzes a version of the underlying memo permitting the President to change EO 12333 without providing public notice he had done so.


McConnell and Mukasey Tell Half Truths

In the wake of the Protect America Act, I started to track surveillance legislation as it was written, rather than figure out after the fact how the intelligence community snookered us. In this post, I examined the veto threats Mike McConnell and Michael Mukasey issued in response to some Russ Feingold amendments to the FISA Amendments Act and showed that the government intended to use that authority to access Americans’ communication via both what we now call back door searches and reverse targeting. “That is, one of the main purposes is to collect communications in the United States.”

9 years later, we’re still litigating this (though, since then FISC has permitted the NSA to collect entirely domestic communications under the 2014 exception).


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

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

After the FISCR opinion on what we now know to be the Yahoo challenge to Protect American Act first got declassified, I identified several issues that we now have much more visibility on. First, PAA permitted spying on Americans overseas under EO 12333. And it didn’t achieve particularity through the PAA, but instead through what we know to be targeting procedures, including contact chaining. Since then we’ve learned the role of SPCMA in this.

In addition, to avoid problems with back door searches, the government claimed it didn’t have a database of all our communication — a claim that, narrowly parsed might be true, but as to the intent of the question was deeply misleading. That claim is one of the reasons we’ve never had a real legal review of back door searches.

Bush’s Illegal Domestic Surveillance Program and Section 215

On PATRIOTs and JUSTICE: Feingold Aims for Justice

During the 2009 PATRIOT Act reauthorization, I continued to track what the government hated most as a way of understanding what Congress was really authorizing. I understood that Stellar Wind got replaced not just by PAA and FAA, but also by the PATRIOT authorities.

All of which is a very vague way to say we probably ought to be thinking of four programs–Bush’s illegal domestic surveillance program and the PAA/FAA program that replaced it, NSLs, Section 215 orders, and trap and trace devices–as one whole. As the authorities of one program got shut down by exposure or court rulings or internal dissent, it would migrate to another program. That might explain, for example, why Senators who opposed fishing expeditions in 2005 would come to embrace broadened use of Section 215 orders in 2009.

I guessed, for example, that the government was bulk collecting data and mining it to identify targets for surveillance.

We probably know what this is: the bulk collection and data mining of information to select targets under FISA. Feingold introduced a bajillion amendments that would have made data mining impossible, and each time Mike McConnell and Michael Mukasey would invent reasons why Feingold’s amendments would have dire consequences if they passed. And the legal information Feingold refers to is probably the way in which the Administration used EO 12333 and redacted procedures to authorize the use of data mining to select FISA targets.

Sadly, I allowed myself to get distracted by my parallel attempts to understand how the government used Section 215 to obtain TATP precursors. As more and more people confirmed that, I stopped pursuing the PATRIOT Act ties to 702 as aggressively.


Throwing our PATRIOT at Assange

This may be controversial, given everything that has transpired since, but it is often forgotten what measures the US used against Wikileaks in 2010. The funding boycott is one thing (which is what led Wikileaks to embrace Bitcoin, which means it is now in great financial shape). But there’s a lot of reason to believe that the government used PATRIOT authorities to target not just Wikileaks, but its supporters and readers; this was one hint of that in real time.


The March–and April or May–2004 Changes to the Illegal Wiretap Program

When the first iteration of the May 2004 Jack Goldsmith OLC memo first got released, I identified that there were multiple changes made and unpacked what some of them were. The observation that Goldsmith newly limited Stellar Wind to terrorist conversations is one another reporter would claim credit for “scooping” years later (and get the change wrong in the process). We’re now seeing the scope of targeting morph again, to include a range of domestic crimes.

Using Domestic Surveillance to Get Rapists to Spy for America

Something that is still not widely known about 702 and our other dragnets is how they are used to identify potential informants. This post, in which I note Ted Olson’s 2002 defense of using (traditional) FISA to find rapists whom FBI can then coerce to cooperate in investigations was the beginning of my focus on the topic.


FISA Amendments Act: “Targeting” and “Querying” and “Searching” Are Different Things

During the 2012 702 reauthorization fight, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall tried to stop back door searches. They didn’t succeed, but their efforts to do so revealed that the government was doing so. Even back in 2012, Dianne Feinstein was using the same strategy the NSA currently uses — repeating the word “target” over and over — to deny the impact on Americans.

Sheldon Whitehouse Confirms FISA Amendments Act Permits Unwarranted Access to US Person Content

As part of the 2012 702 reauthorization, Sheldon Whitehouse said that requiring warrants to access the US person content collected incidentally would “kill the program.” I took that as confirmation of what Wyden was saying: the government was doing what we now call back door searches.


20 Questions: Mike Rogers’ Vaunted Section 215 Briefings

After the Snowden leaks started, I spent a lot of time tracking bogus claims about oversight. After having pointed out that, contrary to Administration claims, Congress did not have the opportunity to be briefed on the phone dragnet before reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act in 2011, I then noted that in one of the only briefings available to non-HPSCI House members, FBI had lied by saying there had been no abuses of 215.

John Bates’ TWO Wiretapping Warnings: Why the Government Took Its Internet Dragnet Collection Overseas

Among the many posts I wrote on released FISA orders, this is among the most important (and least widely understood). It was a first glimpse into what now clearly appears to be 7 years of FISA violation by the PRTT Internet dragnet. It explains why they government moved much of that dragnet to SPCMA collection. And it laid out how John Bates used FISA clause 1809(a)(2) to force the government to destroy improperly collected data.

Federated Queries and EO 12333 FISC Workaround

In neither NSA nor FBI do the authorities work in isolation. That means you can conduct a query on federated databases and obtain redundant results in which the same data point might be obtained via two different authorities. For example, a call between Michigan and Yemen might be collected via bulk collection off a switch in or near Yemen (or any of the switches between there and the US), as well as in upstream collection from a switch entering the US (and all that’s assuming the American is not targeted). The NSA uses such redundancy to apply the optimal authority to a data point. With metadata, for example, it trained analysts to use SPCMA rather than PATRIOT authorities because they could disseminate it more easily and for more purposes. With content, NSA appears to default to PRISM where available, probably to bury the far more creative collection under EO 12333 for the same data, and also because that data comes in structured form.

Also not widely understood: the NSA can query across metadata types, returning both Internet and phone connection in the same query (which is probably all the more important now given how mobile phones collapse the distinction between telephony and Internet).

This post described how this worked with the metadata dragnets.

The Purpose(s) of the Dragnet, Revisited

The government likes to pretend it uses its dragnet only to find terrorists. But it does far more, as this analysis of some court filings lays out.


The Corporate Store: Where NSA Goes to Shop Your Content and Your Lifestyle

There’s something poorly understood about the metadata dragnets NSA conducts. The contact-chaining isn’t the point. Rather, the contact-chaining serves as a kind of nomination process that puts individuals’ selectors, indefinitely, into the “corporate store,” where your identity can start attracting other related datapoints like a magnet. The contact-chaining is just a way of identifying which people are sufficiently interesting to submit them to that constant, ongoing data collection.

SPCMA: The Other NSA Dragnet Sucking In Americans

I’ve done a lot of work on SPCMA — the authorization that, starting in 2008, permitted the NSA to contact chain on and through Americans with EO 12333 data, which was one key building block to restoring access to EO 12333 analysis on Americans that had been partly ended by the hospital confrontation, and which is where much of the metadata analysis affecting Americans has long happened. This was my first comprehensive post on it.

The August 20, 2008 Correlations Opinion

A big part of both FBI and NSA’s surveillance involves correlating identities — basically, tracking all the known identities a person uses on telephony and the Internet (and financially, though we see fewer details of that), so as to be able to pull up all activities in one profile (what Bill Binney once called “dossiers”). It turns out the FISC opinion authorizing such correlations is among the documents the government still refuses to release under FOIA. Even as I was writing the post Snowden was explaining how it works with XKeyscore.

A Yahoo! Lesson for USA Freedom Act: Mission Creep

This is another post I refer back to constantly. It shows that, between the time Yahoo first discussed the kinds of information they’d have to hand over under PRISM in August 2007 and the time they got directives during their challenge, the kinds of information they were asked for expanded into all four of its business areas. This is concrete proof that it’s not just emails that Yahoo and other PRISM providers turn over — it’s also things like searches, location data, stored documents, photos, and cookies.

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

Confession: I have an entire chapter of the start of a book on the Yahoo challenge to PRISM. That’s because so much about it embodied the kind of dodgy practices the government has, at the most important times, used with the FISA Court. In this post, I showed that the documents that the government provided the FISCR hid the fact that the then-current versions of the documents had recently been modified. Using the active documents would have shown that Yahoo’s key argument — that the government could change the rules protecting Americans anytime, in secret — was correct.


Is CISA the Upstream Cyber Certificate NSA Wanted But Didn’t Really Get?

Among the posts I wrote on CISA, I noted that because the main upstream 702 providers have a lot of federal business, they’ll “voluntarily” scan on any known cybersecurity signatures as part of protecting the federal government. Effectively, it gives the government the certificate it wanted, but without any of the FISA oversight or sharing restrictions. The government has repeatedly moved collection to new authorities when FISC proved too watchful of its practices.

The FISA Court’s Uncelebrated Good Points

Many civil libertarians are very critical of the FISC. Not me. In this post I point out that it has policed minimization procedures, conducted real First Amendment reviews, taken notice of magistrate decisions and, in some cases, adopted the highest common denominator, and limited dissemination.

How the Government Uses Location Data from Mobile Apps

Following up on a Ron Wyden breadcrumb, I figured out that the government — under both FISA and criminal law — obtain location data from mobile apps. While the government still has to adhere to the collection standard in any given jurisdiction, obtaining the data gives the government enhanced location data tied to social media, which can implicate associates of targets as well as the target himself.

The NSA (Said It) Ate Its Illegal Domestic Content Homework before Having to Turn It in to John Bates

I’m close to being able to show that even after John Bates reauthorized the Internet metadata dragnet in 2010, it remained out of compliance (meaning NSA was always violating FISA in obtaining Internet metadata from 2002 to 2011, with a brief lapse). That case was significantly bolstered when it became clear NSA hastily replaced the Internet dragnet with obtaining metadata from upstream collection after the October 2011 upstream opinion. NSA hid the evidence of problems on intake from its IG.

FBI Asks for at Least Eight Correlations with a Single NSL

As part of my ongoing effort to catalog the collection and impact of correlations, I showed that the NSL Nick Merrill started fighting in 2004 asked for eight different kinds of correlations before even asking for location data. Ultimately, it’s these correlations as much as any specific call records that the government appears to be obtaining with NSLs.


What We Know about the Section 215 Phone Dragnet and Location Data

During the lead-up to the USA Freedom Debate, the government leaked stories about receiving a fraction of US phone records, reportedly because of location concerns. The leaks were ridiculously misleading, in part because they ignored that the US got redundant collection of many of exactly the same calls they were looking for from EO 12333 collection. Yet in spite of these leaks, the few figured out that the need to be able to force Verizon and other cell carriers to strip location data was a far bigger reason to pass USAF than anything Snowden had done. This post laid out what was known about location data and the phone dragnet.

While It Is Reauthorizing FISA Amendments Act, Congress Should Reform Section 704

When Congress passed FISA Amendments Act, it made a show of providing protections to Americans overseas. One authority, Section 703, was for spying on people overseas with help of US providers, and another was for spying on Americans overseas without that help. By May 2016, I had spent some time laying out that only the second, which has less FISC oversight, was used. And I was seeing problems with its use in reporting. So I suggested maybe Congress should look into that?

It turns out that at precisely that moment, NSA was wildly scrambling to get a hold on its 704 collection, having had an IG report earlier in the year showing they couldn’t audit it, find it all, or keep it within legal boundaries. This would be the source of the delay in the 702 reauthorization in 2016, which led to the prohibition on about searches.

The Yahoo Scan: On Facilities and FISA

The discussion last year of a scan the government asked Yahoo to do of all of its users was muddled because so few people, even within the privacy community, understand how broadly the NSA has interpreted the term “selector” or “facility” that it can target for collection. The confusion remains to this day, as some in the privacy community claim HPSCI’s use of facility based language in its 702 reauthorization bill reflects new practice. This post attempts to explain what we knew about the terms in 2016 (though the various 702 reauthorization bills have offered some new clarity about the distinctions between the language the government uses).


Ron Wyden’s History of Bogus Excuses for Not Counting 702 US Person Collection

Ron Wyden has been asking for a count of how many Americans get swept up under 702 for years. The IC has been inventing bogus explanations for why they can’t do that for years. This post chronicles that process and explains why the debate is so important.

The Kelihos Pen Register: Codifying an Expansive Definition of DRAS?

When DOJ used its new Rule 41 hacking warrant against the Kelihos botnet this year, most of the attention focused on that first-known usage. But I was at least as interested in the accompanying Pen Register order, which I believe may serve to codify an expansion of the dialing, routing, addressing, and signaling information the government can obtain with a PRTT. A similar codification of an expansion exists in the HJC and Lee-Leahy bills reauthorizing 702.

The Problems with Rosemary Collyer’s Shitty Upstream 702 Opinion

The title speaks for itself. I don’t even consider Rosemary Collyer’s 2017 approval of 702 certificates her worst FISA opinion ever. But it is part of the reason why I consider her the worst FISC judge.

It Is False that Downstream 702 Collection Consists Only of To and From Communications

I pointed out a number of things not raised in a panel on 702, not least that the authorization of EO 12333 sharing this year probably replaces some of the “about” collection function. Most of all, though, I reminded that in spite of what often gets claimed, PRISM is far more than just communications to and from a target.

UNITEDRAKE and Hacking under FISA Orders

A document leaked by Shadow Brokers reveals a bit about how NSA uses hacking on FISA targets. Perhaps most alarmingly, the same tools that conduct such hacks can be used to impersonate a user. While that might be very useful for collection purposes, it also invites very serious abuse that might create a really nasty poisonous tree.

A Better Example of Article III FISA Oversight: Reaz Qadir Khan

In response to Glenn Gerstell’s claims that Article III courts have exercised oversight by approving FISA practices (though the reality on back door searches is not so cut and dry), I point to the case of Reaz Qadir Khan where, as Michael Mosman (who happens to serve on FISC) moved towards providing a CIPA review for surveillance techniques, Khan got a plea deal.

The NSA’s 5-Page Entirely Redacted Definition of Metadata

In 2010, John Bates redefined metadata. That five page entirely redacted definition became codified in 2011. Yet even as Congress moves to reauthorize 702, we don’t know what’s included in that definition (note: location would be included).

FISA and the Space-Time Continuum

This post talks about how NSA uses its various authorities to get around geographical and time restrictions on its spying.

The Senate Intelligence Committee 702 Bill Is a Domestic Spying Bill

This is one of the most important posts on FISA I’ve ever written. It explains how in 2014, to close an intelligence gap, the NSA got an exception to the rule it has to detask from a facility as soon as it identifies Americans using the facility. The government uses it to collect on Tor and, probably VPN, data. Because the government can keep entirely domestic communications that the DIRNSA has deemed evidence of a crime, the exception means that 702 has become a domestic spying authority for use with a broad range of crimes, not to mention anything the Attorney General deems a threat to national security.

“Hype:” How FBI Decided Searching 702 Content Was the Least Intrusive Means

In a response to a rare good faith defense of FBI’s back door searches, I pointed out that the FBI is obliged to consider the least intrusive means of investigation. Yet, even while it admits that accessing content like that obtained via 702 is extremely intrusive, it nevertheless uses the technique routinely at the assessment level.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2016-2017

10 Years of emptywheel: Jim’s Dimestore

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

The Reclassification of Details on the 2011 Upstream Fight

As I noted in this post, Charlie Savage recently liberated more details on the resolution of the 2011 upstream 702 problems.

With respect to some details, however, the newly liberated documents represent a reclassification of details that were made public when the October 3, 2011 John Bates opinion was released in 2013. The government has provided entirely classified documents that are probably the early exchanges on the problem, including language that was unclassified in Bates’ 2011 opinion. In addition, the government has redacted dates that were also made public in Bates’ opinion.

I laid out both the timeline and the language cited from those early exchanges in this post. As I noted in this post, that timeline makes it clear that at the same time John Bates was asking NSA to assess the impact of upstream collection on US persons by sampling real NSA collection, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall were asking for the same thing.

I’ve laid out the combined timeline below. What it — and the newly released documents — show is just how brazen James Clapper’s refusal to provide real numbers to Wyden and Udall was. Not only did their request exactly coincide with the government’s request for more time so they could get more data — the count of US persons — to Bates (though Clapper’s record quick response delivered his refusal before Bates got his first real numbers). But the 48-hour turnaround on analysis of SCTs in September shows how quickly NSA can get rough estimates of US person data when they need to.

There are more alarming things the reclassification of these details suggests, which I’ll address in a follow-up. But for now, know that in 2011, the Intelligence Community refused to treat Congress with the same respect due a co-equal branch of government as it was treating Bates (and that’s the deep background to James Clapper’s 2013 “not wittingly” response).

April 2011, unknown date: Wyden and Udall ask for estimate of US person collection verbally


April 19, 2011: Notice of two upstream overcollection violations [see PDF 144]

April 20, 2011: One recertification submission

April 22, 2011: Two more recertification submissions

May 2, 2011: Clarification letter first admits MCT problem

May 5, 2011: Government asks for extension until July 22, 2011

May 9, 2011: Court grants extension, issues briefing order

June 1, 2011: Government submits response to briefing order

June 17, 2011: Court presents follow-up questions

June 28, 2011: Government response to follow-up questions

July 8, 2011: Court (John Bates) meets with senior DOJ people, tells them he has serious concerns

July 14, 2011: Government files another extension; court grants extension to September 20, 2011

July 14, 2011: Wyden and Udall send letter to James Clapper asking (among other things):

  • In a December 2007 Statement of Administration Policy on the FISA Amendments Act, the Office of Management and Budget said that it would “likely be impossible” to count the number of people located in the United States whose communications were reviewed by the government pursuant to the FISA Amendments Act. Is this still the case? If so, is it possible to estimate this number with any accuracy?
  • Have any apparently law-abiding Americans had their communications collected by the government pursuant to the FISA Amendments Act?

July 26, 2011: Clapper responds to Wyden and Udall, refusing to give numbers or describe compliance incidents

August 16, 2011: Government files supplement, presenting results of “manual review of statistically representative sample” for 6 months

August 22, 2011: Meeting between Court and government

August 30, 2011: Government makes another submission

September 7, 2011: Court has hearing

September 9, 2011: Government files additional submission, submitting results of analysis of SCTs completed in just 48 hours

Ron Wyden’s History of Bogus Excuses for Not Counting 702 US Person Collection

The other day, Ron Wyden gave a long speech on FISA Section 702, purportedly explaining why he was voting against Dan Coats to be Director of National Intelligence. Wyden voted against Coats because his former colleague would not commit to providing a number of the number of Americans swept up under Section 702. Given that it’s always a good idea to read Wyden closely, I wanted to summarize what he said. I’ll look at his complaints in a separate post, but for now I wanted to focus on Wyden’s description of the bogus explanations James Clapper and others gave Wyden in his past efforts to get the number of Americans sucked up in 702. I summarized the known exchanges that occurred on this issue before Clapper’s famous “not wittingly” lie here.

In 2011, both Wyden and John Bates were asking for numbers at the same time — NSA refused both

The first request for a count is temporally significant(update: I think I just missed this one in the past). In April 2011, Wyden and Mark Udall asked for the number.

In April of 2011, our former colleague, Senator Mark Udall, and I then asked the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, for an estimate.

According to Clapper’s response, they sent a written letter with the request on July 14, 2011. The timing of this request is critically important because it means Wyden and Udall made the request during the period when NSA and FISA Judge John Bates were discussing the upstream violations (see this post for a timeline). As part of that long discussion Bates had NSA do analysis of how often it collected US person communications that were completely unrelated to a targeted one (MCTs). Once Bates understood the scope of the problem, he asked how many US person communications it collected that were a positive hit on the target that were the only communication collected (SCTs).

But the timing demands even closer scrutiny. On July 8, John Bates went to DOJ to express “serious concerns” — basically, warning them he might not be able to reauthorize upstream surveillance. On July 14 — the same day Wyden and Udall asked Clapper for this information — DOJ asked Bates for another extension to respond to his questions, promising more information. Clapper blew off Wyden and Udall’s request in what must be record time — on July 26. On August 16, DOJ provided their promised additional information to Bates. That ended up being a count of how many Americans were affected in MCTs.

That means Clapper claimed he couldn’t offer a number even as NSA was doing precisely the kind of count that Wyden and Udall wanted, albeit for just one kind of 702 collection. And, as Wyden suggested in his speech, Clapper’s answer was non-responsive, answering how many US persons had their communications reviewed, rather than how many had their communications collected.

In July of that year, the director wrote back and said, and I quote, it was not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He suggested reviewing the classified number of disseminated intelligence reports containing a reference to a U.S. Person, but that is very different than the number of Americans whose communications have been collected in the first place. And that’s what this is all about.

Then, after the government presented the information on how many US persons were collected via MCTs to Bates in August, Bates asked them to go back and count SCTs.

NSA refused.

Both FISC and members of SSCI were asking for this information in the same time period, and NSA refused to provide the count.

Since NSA wouldn’t help him, Bates invented an estimate himself, calculating that some 46,000 entirely domestic communications were collected under upstream collection each year.

NSA’s manual review focused on examining the MCTs acquired through NSA’s upstream collection in order to assess whether any contained wholly domestic communications. Sept. 7, 2011 Hearing Tr. at 13-14. As a result, once NSA determined that a transaction contained a single discrete communication, no further analysis of that transaction was done. See Aug. 16 Submission at 3. After the Court expressed concern that this category of transactions might also contain wholly domestic communications, NSA conducted a further review. See Sept. 9 Submission at 4. NSA ultimately did not provide the Court with an estimate of the number of wholly domestic “about” SCTs that may be acquired through its upstream collection. Instead, NSA has concluded that “the probability of encountering wholly domestic communications in transactions that feature only a single, discrete communication should be smaller — and certainly no greater — than potentially encountering wholly domestic communications within MCTs.” Sept. 13 Submission at 2.

The Court understands this to mean that the percentage of wholly domestic communications within the universe of SCTs acquired through NSA’s upstream collection should not exceed the percentage of MCTs within its statistical sample. Since NSA found 10 MCTs with wholly domestic communications within the 5,081 MCTs reviewed, the relevant percentage is .197% (10/5,081). Aug. 16 Submission at 5.

NSA’s manual review found that approximately 90% of the 50,440 transactions in the same were SCTs. Id. at 3. Ninety percent of the approximately 13, 25 million total Internet transactions acquired by NSA through its upstream collection during the six-month period, works out to be approximately 11,925,000 transactions. Those 11,925,000 transactions would constitute the universe of SCTs acquired during the six-month period, and .197% of that universe would be approximately 23,000 wholly domestic SCTs. Thus, NSA may be acquiring as many as 46,000 wholly domestic “about” SCTs each year, in addition to the 2,000-10,000 MCTs referenced above.

Presumably, Wyden learned that NSA had been doing such a count in October, well after Clapper had given his first non-responsive answer.

The 2012 privacy violation claim

Wyden skips the next request he made, when on May 4, 2012, he and Udall asked the Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough for a number (I laid out the timing of the request in this post). When they also tried to include language in the FAA reauthorization requiring the IGs to come up with a number, SSCI refused, citing their outstanding request to McCullough. Of course, McCullough did not get back to the Senators with his refusal to do such a count until after the bill had passed out of committee. He responded by saying NSA IG George Ellard didn’t have the capacity for such a review, and besides, it would violate the privacy of Americans to find out how much NSA was violating their privacy.

I defer to his conclusion that obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office and dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA’s mission. He further stated that his office and NSA leadership agreed that an IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.

Clapper blows off 12 Senators

In response, Wyden rounded up some privacy minded Senators to sign onto a letter asking for an estimate of the number. In this week’s speech, Wyden noted that he said he’d be willing to take an estimate. He didn’t remind his listeners that he and his friends also asked whether such an estimate had been done.

  • Have any entities made any estimates — even imprecise estimates — about how many US communications have been collected under section 702 authorities?

The answer to that question — at least with regards to upstream collection — was yes. NSA had estimated the MCTs and Bates, using their estimate, had made an even rougher estimate of the SCTs. But as I noted here, members of Congress relying on the purported disclosure to Congress about the upstream violations wouldn’t know that — or that the upstream violations involved entirely US person collection. As Wyden noted in his speech, Congress didn’t get this information before the reauthorized FAA.

We still got no answer. And section 702 was reauthorized without this necessary information.

Clapper’s least untruthful answer

Wyden also doesn’t address Clapper’s famous March 2013 lie. Since the exposure of the phone dragnet, most discussions have assumed Wyden was probing only about that program. But the question, as asked, absolutely applied to incidental collection.

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data, at all, on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, uh, collect, but not wittingly.

Indeed, several of Clapper’s many excuses claim he was thinking of content when he responded. Even if he were, his first answer would still be yes: the NSA collects on so many millions of Americans incidentally that it refuses to count it. But Clapper’s “not wittingly” response is almost certainly not a goof, since he gave it after Wyden had provided a day’s warning the question would be asked and after two different John Bates’ opinions that made it clear that he would forgive the collection of content so long as NSA didn’t know about it, but once they knew about it, then it would become illegal. The not wittingly response reinforces my firm belief that the reason the government refuses to count this is because then a great deal of their Section 702 collection would be deemed illegal under those two FISC precedents.

Clapper’s blow-off becomes Dan Coats’ blow-off

Which is where Wyden brings us up to date, with both house of Congress asking for such a number and — after promises it would be forthcoming — not getting it.

So last year looking at the prospect of the law coming up, there was a renewed effort to find out how many law-abiding Americans are getting swept up in these searches of foreigners. In April 2016 a bipartisan letter from members of the House Judiciary Committee asked the Director of National Intelligence for a public estimate of the number of communications or transactions involving United States persons are collected under section 702 on an annual basis. This letter coming from the House Democrats and Republicans, again asked for a rough estimate. This bipartisan group suggested working with director clapper to determine the methodology to get this estimate.

In December there were hints in the news media that something might be forthcoming, but now we’re here with a new administration considering the nomination of the next head of the intelligence community who has said that reauthorizing section 702 is his top legislative priority and that there is no answer in sight to the question Democrats and Republicans have been asking for over six years. How many innocent law-abiding Americans are getting swept up in these searches under a law that targets foreigners overseas?

There’s one tiny tidbit he doesn’t mention here. Coats never answered that he wouldn’t provide an answer. Rather, he said he didn’t understand the technical difficulties behind providing one (not even after participating in the 2012 vote where this was discussed). In his confirmation hearing, Coats explained one reason why he couldn’t learn what the technical difficulties were before he was confirmed. When he resigned the Senate, his clearance had lapsed, and during his confirmation process, his new clearance was being processed. That meant that for this — and any other classified question that Coats might want to consider anew — he was unable to get information.

The Senate doesn’t seem to care about this serial obstruction, however. Coats was confirmed with an 85-12 vote, with the following Senators voting against confirmation.

Baldwin (D-WI)
Booker (D-NJ)
Duckworth (D-IL)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Harris (D-CA)
Markey (D-MA)
Merkley (D-OR)
Paul (R-KY)
Sanders (I-VT)
Udall (D-NM)
Warren (D-MA)
Wyden (D-OR)

Given how hard the IC is trying to hide this, the actual exposure of US persons must be fairly significant. We’ll see whether Congress finds another way to force this information out of the IC.

Updated with more granular timing on the 2011 exchange.

On the Coming Showdown over Promiscuous Sharing of EO 12333 Data

A number of outlets are reporting that Ted Lieu and Blake Farenthold have written a letter to NSA Director Mike Rogers urging him not to implement the new data sharing effort reported by Charlie Savage back in February. While I’m happy they wrote the letter, they use a dubious strategy in it: they suggest their authority to intervene comes from Congress having “granted” NSA authority to conduct warrantless collection of data.

Congress granted the NSA extraordinary authority to conduct warrantless collection of communications and other data.2

2 See Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act.

As an initial matter, they’ve sent this letter to a guy who’s not in the chain of approval for the change. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Attorney General Loretta Lynch will have to sign off on the procedures developed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; they might consult with Rogers (if he isn’t the one driving the change), but he’s out of the loop in terms of implementing the decision.

Furthermore, the Congressionally granted authority to conduct warrantless surveillance under FISA has nothing to do with the authority under which NSA collects this data, EO 12333. In his story, Savage makes clear that the change relies on the [what he called “little-noticed,” which is how he often describes stuff reported here years earlier] changes Bush implemented in the wake of passage of FISA Amendments Act. As I noted in 2014,

Perhaps the most striking of those is that, even while the White House claimed “there were very, very few changes to Part 2 of the order” — the part that provides protections for US persons and imposes prohibitions on activities like assassinations — the EO actually replaced what had been a prohibition on the dissemination of SIGINT pertaining to US persons with permission to disseminate it with Attorney General approval.

The last paragraph of 2.3 — which describes what data on US persons may be collected — reads in the original,

In addition, agencies within the Intelligence Community may disseminate information, other than information derived from signals intelligence, to each appropriate agency within the Intelligence Community for purposes of allowing the recipient agency to determine whether the information is relevant to its responsibilities and can be retained by it.

The 2008 version requires AG and DNI approval for such dissemination, but it affirmatively permits it.

In addition, elements of the Intelligence Community may disseminate information to each appropriate element within the Intelligence Community for purposes of allowing the recipient element to determine whether the information is relevant to its responsibilities and can be retained by it, except that information derived from signals intelligence may only be disseminated or made available to Intelligence Community elements in accordance with procedures established by the Director in coordination with the Secretary of Defense and approved by the Attorney General.

Given that the DNI and AG certified the minimization procedures used with FAA, their approval for any dissemination under that program would be built in here; they have already approved it! The same is true of the SPCMA — the EO 12333 US person metadata analysis that had been approved by both Attorney General Mukasey and Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier that year. Also included in FISA-specific dissemination, the FBI had either just been granted, or would be in the following months, permission — in minimization procedures approved by both the DNI and AG — to conduct back door searches on incidentally collected US person data.

In other words, at precisely the time when at least 3 different programs expanded the DNI and AG approved SIGINT collection and analysis of US person data, EO 12333 newly permitted the dissemination of that information.

What Bush did just as he finished moving most of Stellar Wind over to FISA authorities, was to make it permissible to share EO 12333 data with other intelligence agencies under the same kind of DNI/AG/DOD approval process already in place for surveillance. They’ve already been using this change (though as I note, in some ways the new version of EO 12333 made FAA sharing even more permissive than EO 12333 sharing). And Savage’s article describes that they’ve intended to roll out this further expansion since Obama’s first term.

Obama administration has been quietly developing a framework for how to carry it out since taking office in 2009.


Intelligence officials began working in 2009 on how the technical system and rules would work, Mr. Litt said, eventually consulting the Defense and Justice Departments. This month, the administration briefed the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent five-member watchdog panel, seeking input. Before they go into effect, they must be approved by James R. Clapper, the intelligence director; Loretta E. Lynch, the attorney general; and Ashton B. Carter, the defense secretary.

“We would like it to be completed sooner rather than later,” Mr. Litt said. “Our expectation is months rather than weeks or years.”

All of which is to say that if Lieu and Farenthold want to stop this, they’re going to have to buckle down and prepare for a fight over separation of powers, because Congress has had limited success (the most notable successes being imposition of FAA 703-705 and Section 309 of last year’s intelligence authorization) in imposing limits on EO 12333 collection. Indeed, Section 309 is the weak protection Dianne Feinstein and Mark Udall were able to get for activities they thought should be covered under FAA.

Two more points. First, I suspect such expanded sharing is already going on between NSA and DEA. I’ve heard RUMINT that DEA has actually been getting far more data since shutting down their own dragnets in 2013. The sharing of “international” narcotics trade data has been baked into EO 12333 from the very start. So it would be unsurprising to have DEA replicate its dragnet using SPCMA. There’s no sign, yet, that DEA has been included under FAA certifications (and there’s not, as far as we know, an FAA narcotics certificate). But EO 12333 sharing with DEA would be easier to implement on the sly than FAA sharing. And once you’ve shared with DEA, you might as well share with everyone else.

Finally, this imminent change is why I was so insistent that SPCMA should have been in the Brennan Center’s report on privacy implications of EO 12333 collection. What the government was doing, explicitly, in 2007 when they rolled that out was making the US person participants in internationally collected data visible. We’ve seen inklings of how NSA coaches analysts to target foreigners to get at that US person content. The implications of basing targeting off of SPCMA enabled analysis under PRISM (which we know they do because DOJ turned over the SPCMA document, but not the backup, to FISC during the Yahoo challenge), currently, are that US person data can get selected because US persons are involved and then handed over to FBI with no limits on its access. Doing so under EO 12333 will only expand the amount of data available — and because of the structure of the Internet, a great deal of it is available.

Probably, the best way to combat this change is to vastly expand the language of FAA 703-705 to over US person data collected incidentally overseas during next year’s FAA reauthorization. But it will take language like that, because simply pointing to FISA will not change the Executive’s ability to change EO 12333 — even secretly! — at will.

Government’s Assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki Used “Significantly Different” EO 12333 Analysis

Jameel Jaffer has a post on the government’s latest crazy-talk in the ongoing ACLU and NYT effort to liberate more drone memos. He describes how — in the government’s response to their appeal of the latest decisions on the Anwar al-Awlaki FOIA — the government claims the Court’s release of an OLC memo does not constitute official release of that memo. (Note, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government is making this claim in anticipation of orders to release torture pictures in ACLU’s torture FOIA suit that’s about to head to the 2nd Circuit.)

But there’s another interesting aspect of that brief. It provides heavily redacted discussion of the things Judge Colleen McMahon permitted the government to withhold. But it makes it clear that one of those things is a March 2002 OLC memo that offers different analysis about the assassination ban than the analysis used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.

The district court also upheld the withholding of a March 2002 OLC Memorandum analyzing the assassination ban in Executive Order 12,333 (the “March 2002 Memorandum”). (CA 468-70; see CA 315-29). Although the district court noted that the OLC-DOD Memorandum released by this Court contained a “brief mention” of Executive Order 12,333, the district court concluded that the analysis in the March 2002 Memorandum is significantly different from any legal analysis that this Court held has been officially disclosed and for which privilege has been waived.

The statement here is carefully worded, probably for good reason. That’s because the February 19, 2010 memo McMahon permitted the government to almost entirely redact clearly explains EO 123333 and its purported ban on assassinations in more depth than the July 16, 2010 one; the first paragraph ends,

Under the conditions and factual predicates as represented by the CIA and in the materials provided to us from the Intelligence Community, we believed that a decisionmaker, on the basis of such information, could reasonably conclude that the use of lethal force against Aulaqi would not violate the assassination ban in Executive Order 12333 or any application constitutional limitations due to Aulaqi’s United States citizenship.

I pointed out that there must be more assassination analysis here. It almost certainly resembles what Harold Koh said about a month later, for which activists at NYU are now calling into question his suitability as an international law professor.

Fourth and finally, some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.”

But the government is claiming that because that didn’t get disclosed in the July 2010 memo, it doesn’t have to be disclosed in the February 2010 memo, and the earlier “significantly different” analysis from OLC doesn’t have to be disclosed either.

At a minimum, ACLU and NYT ought to be able to point to the language in the white paper that addresses assassinations that doesn’t appear in the later memo to show that the government has already disclosed it.

But I’m just as interested that OLC had to change its previous stance on assassinations to be able to kill Awlaki.

Of course, the earlier memo was written during a period when John Yoo and others were pixie dusting EO 12333, basically saying the President didn’t have to abide by EO 12333, but could instead violate it and call that modifying it. Perhaps that’s the difference — that David Barron invented a way to say that killing a high ranking leader (whether or not he’s a citizen) didn’t constitute assassination because of the weapons systems involved, as distinct from saying the President could blow off his own EOs in secret and not tell anyone.

I suggested Dick Cheney had likely pixie dusted EO 12333’s ban on assassinations back in 2009.

But there’s also the possibility the government had to reverse the earlier decision in some other fashion. After all, when Kamal Derwish was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on November 9, 2002, the government claimed Abu Ali al-Harithi was the target, a claim the government made about its December 24, 2009 attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, but one they dropped in all subsequent attempts, coincident with the February 2010 memo. That is, while I think it less likely than the alternative, it is possible that the 2010 analysis is “significantly different” because they had to interpret the assassination ban even more permissively. While I do think it less likely, it might explain why Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich keep pushing for more disclosure on this issue.

One thing is clear, however. The fact that the government can conduct “significantly different” analysis of what EO 12333 means, in secret, anytime it wants to wiretap or kill a US citizen makes clear that it is not a meaningful limit on Executive power.

CIA Headquarters Ordered Janat Gul’s Torture to Keep Going for an OLC Approval

I’m working on a longer post on how the torture of Hassan Ghul and Janat Gul relate to the three May 2005 OLC memos, which — as Mark Udall has pointed out — were based on a series of lies from CIA.

But for the moment, I want to point to a narrower point.

As I have explained, CIA got the White House and DOJ to approve the resumption of torture in 2004 by claiming that Janat Gul had information on a pre-election threat. By October 2004, CIA confirmed that claim was based on a fabrication by a CIA source.

But even before CIA’s source admitted to fabricating that claim, on August 19, 2004, CIA’s torturers had come to the conclusion that Gul didn’t have any information on an imminent threat. The “team does not believe [Gul] is withholding imminent threat information,” they wrote in a cable that day. Two days later, folks at CIA headquarters wrote back and told the torturers to keep torturing. The cable “stated that Janat Gul ‘is believed’ to possess threat information, and that the ‘use of enhanced techniques is appropriate in order to obtain that information.'”

So, as had happened in the past, the torturers had decided the detainee had given up all the information he had, but HQ ordered them to keep torturing.

But that’s not all HQ did.

As I sort of lay out here (and will lay out at more length in my new post), we know from the May 30, 2005 CAT memo that several of the August 2004 OLC letters authorizing torture pertained to Janat Gul. At a minimum, that includes a request in response to which John Ashcroft authorized the use of most torture techniques approved in 2002 on July 22, 2004, and a series of requests in response to which Daniel Levin authorized the use of the remaining technique — the waterboard — on August 6, 2004.

And an August 25, 2004 letter in response to which Daniel Levin authorized four new techniques: dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing, and abdominal slaps. [Update: The May 10, 2005 Techniques memo — which Comey described as “ready to go out and I concurred” in an April 27, 2005 email — served to retroactively approve all these memos and Gul’s treatment.]

That August 25, 2004 letter had to have made the claim (because Levin repeated the judgment in his letter) — 6 days after the torturers had told HQ Gul was not withholding any imminent threat information and 4 days after HQ had said, no, Gul “is believed” to have threat information — that Gul “is believed to possess information concerning an imminent terrorist threat to the United States.”

That is, CIA’s HQ made the torturers resume torturing a guy who had already asked to be killed so as to sustain the claim he had imminent threat information so as to be able to get OLC to cough up another memo.

Significantly, there’s no indication all of those four new techniques — or waterboarding — were ever used on Gul. Indeed, here’s what the torture report describes in its last description of the specific torture used on Gul.

On August 25, 2004, CIA interrogators sent a cable to CIA Headquarters stating that Janat Gul “may not possess all that [the CIA] believes him to know.”824 The interrogators added that “many issues linking [Gul] to al-Qaida are derived from single source reporting” (the CIA source).825 Nonetheless, CIA interrogators continued to question Gul on the pre-election threat. According to an August 26, 2004, cable, after a 47-hour session of standing sleep deprivation, Janat Gul was returned to his cell, allowed to remove his diaper, given a towel and a meal, and permitted to sleep.826

They got their memo, authorizing techniques that had been used without any official authorization from OLC on detainees in the years before (including on Gul Rahman before he died). And then they finally let the suicidal Janat Gul sleep.

And only months later did they get around to checking (perhaps using a polygraph?) whether their original source had been bullshitting them, as at least one CIA officer had surmised back in March.

I reported in December that they used Gul and the threat of an election year threat to get OLC to reauthorize torture generally. But this sequence makes it clear that they continued to torture Gul, all in the name of getting OLC to approve torture techniques they had already used without approval, even after the torturers were convinced he was not withholding any information.

No wonder Jim Comey doesn’t want to read any more details about Gul’s torture, which he retroactively signed off on.

Section 309: A Band-Aid for a Gaping Wound in Democracy

Someone surveilling our conversation "connection chained" Bob Litt and I while chatting at CATO.

Metadata: Someone surveilling our conversation “connection chained” Bob Litt and me chatting about spying on Americans in the Hayek Auditorium at CATO on 12/12/14.

On Friday, officials from James Clapper’s office confirmed in a number of different ways that the government obtains “vast troves” of Americans’ communication overseas. And rather than enforce Dianne Feinstein and Mark Udall’s suggestion that the intelligence community treat it under FISA — as the spirit of FISA Amendment Acts, which extended protection to Americans abroad, would support — Congress instead passed Section 309, a measure to impose limited protections on vast unregulated spying on Americans.

This all happened at CATO’s conference on surveillance, an awesome conference set up by Julian Sanchez.

My panel (moderated very superbly by Charlie Savage) revisited at length the debate between former State Department whistleblower John Napier Tye and Director of National Intelligence Civil Liberties Officer Alex Joel (into which I stuck my nose). As he did in his Politico post responding to Tye’s alarms about the risk of EO 123333 collection against Americans to democracy, Joel pointed to the topical limits on bulk collection Obama imposed in his Presidential Policy Directive 28, which read,

The United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats. Routine communications and communications of national security interest increasingly transit the same networks, however, and the collection of signals intelligence in bulk may consequently result in the collection of information about persons whose activities are not of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence value. The United States will therefore impose new limits on its use of signals intelligence collected in bulk. These limits are intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of all persons, whatever their nationality and regardless of where they might reside.

In particular, when the United States collects nonpublicly available signals intelligence in bulk, it shall use that data only for the purposes of detecting and countering: (1) espionage and other threats and activities directed by foreign powers or their intelligence services against the United States and its interests; (2) threats to the United States and its interests from terrorism; (3) threats to the United States and its interests from the development, possession, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction; (4) cybersecurity threats; (5) threats to U.S. or allied Armed Forces or other U.S or allied personnel; and (6) transnational criminal threats, including illicit finance and sanctions evasion related to the other purposes named in this section.

I noted — as I did in my Salon piece on the topic — that bulk collection for even just one topic means the collection of everything, as counterterrorism serves as the excuse to get all phone records in the US in the phone dragnet. Joel did not dispute that, explaining that PPD-28 only limits the use of data that has been bulk collected to these six purposes. PPD-28 does nothing to limit bulk collection itself. Though the fact that these limitations have forced a change in how the NSA operates is testament that they were using data collected in bulk for even more reasons before January.

The NSA is, then, aspiring to collect it all, around the world.

Which was a point confirmed in an exchange between Joel and Tye. Joel claimed we weren’t collecting nearly all of the Internet traffic out there, saying it was just a small fraction. Tye said that was disingenuous, because 80% of Internet traffic is actually things like Netflix. Tye stated that the NSA does collect a significant percentage of the remainder (he implied most, but I’d want to see the video before I characterize how strongly he said that).

Again, collect it all.

Our panel didn’t get around to talking about Section 309 of the Intelligence Authorization, which I examined here. The Section imposes a 5 year retention limit on US person data except for a number of familiar purposes — foreign intelligence, evidence of a crime, encryption, all foreign participants, tech assurance or compliance, or an Agency head says he needs to retain it longer (which requires notice to Congress). Justin Amash had argued, in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the provision, that the measure provides affirmative basis for sharing US person content collected under EO 12333.

In a later panel at the CATO conference, DNI General Counsel Bob Litt said that the measure doesn’t change anything about what the IC is already doing.  Read more

The Emergency EO 12333 Fix: Section 309

In a last minute amendment to the Intelligence Authorization, the House and Senate passed a new section basically imposing minimization procedures for EO 12333 or other intelligence collection not obtained by court order. (See Section 309)

(3) Procedures.–

(A) Application.–The procedures required by paragraph (1) shall apply to any intelligence collection activity not otherwise authorized by court order (including an order or certification issued by a court established under subsection (a) or (b) of section 103 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1803)), subpoena, or similar legal process that is reasonably anticipated to result in the acquisition of a covered communication to or from a United States person and shall permit the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of covered communications subject to the limitation in subparagraph (B).

(B) Limitation on retention.–A covered communication shall not be retained in excess of 5 years, unless–

(i) the communication has been affirmatively determined, in whole or in part, to constitute foreign intelligence or counterintelligence or is necessary to understand or assess foreign intelligence or counterintelligence;

(ii) the communication is reasonably believed to constitute evidence of a crime and is retained by a law enforcement agency;

(iii) the communication is enciphered or reasonably believed to have a secret meaning;

(iv) all parties to the communication are reasonably believed to be non-United States persons;

(v) retention is necessary to protect against an imminent threat to human life, in which case both the nature of the threat and
the information to be retained shall be reported to the congressional intelligence committees not later than 30 days after the
date such retention is extended under this clause;

(vi) retention is necessary for technical assurance or compliance purposes, including a court order or discovery obligation, in which case access to information retained for technical assurance or compliance purposes shall be reported to the congressional
intelligence committees on an annual basis; or

(vii) retention for a period in excess of 5 years is approved by the head of the element of the intelligence community responsible for such retention, based on a determination that retention is necessary to protect the national security of the United States, in which case the head of such element shall provide to the congressional intelligence committees a written certification describing–
(I) the reasons extended retention is necessary to protect the national security of the United States; (II) the duration for which the head of the element is authorizing retention;

(III) the particular information to be retained; and

(IV) the measures the element ofthe intelligence community is taking toprotect the privacy interests of UnitedStates persons or persons locatedinside the United States.

The language seems to be related to — but more comprehensive than — language included in the RuppRoge bill earlier this year. That, in turn, seemed to arise out of concerns raised by PCLOB that some unnamed agencies had not revised their minimization procedures in the entire life of EO 12333.

Whereas that earlier passage had required what I’ll call Reagan deadenders (since they haven’t updated their procedures since him) to come up with procedures, this section effectively imposes minimization procedures similar to, though not identical, to what the NSA uses: 5 year retention except for a number of reporting requirements to Congress.

I suspect these are an improvement over whatever the deadenders have been using But as Justin Amash wrote in an unsuccessful letter trying to get colleagues to oppose the intelligence authorization because of the late addition, the section provides affirmative basis for agencies to share US person communications whereas none had existed.

Sec. 309 authorizes “the acquisition, retention, and dissemination” of nonpublic communications, including those to and from U.S. persons. The section contemplates that those private communications of Americans, obtained without a court order, may be transferred to domestic law enforcement for criminal investigations.

To be clear, Sec. 309 provides the first statutory authority for the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of U.S. persons’ private communications obtained without legal process such as a court order or a subpoena. The administration currently may conduct such surveillance under a claim of executive authority, such as E.O. 12333. However, Congress never has approved of using executive authority in that way to capture and use Americans’ private telephone records, electronic communications, or cloud data.


In exchange for the data retention requirements that the executive already follows, Sec. 309 provides a novel statutory basis for the executive branch’s capture and use of Americans’ private communications. The Senate inserted the provision into the intelligence reauthorization bill late last night.

Which raises the question of what the emergency was to have both houses of Congress push this through at the last minute? Back in March, after all, RuppRoge was happy to let the agencies do this on normal legislative time.

I can think of several possibilities:

  • The government is imminently going to have to explain some significant EO 12333 collection — perhaps in something like the Hassanshahi case or one of the terrorism cases explicitly challenging the use of EO 12333 data and it wants to create the appearance it is not a lawless dragnet (though the former was always described as metadata, not content)
  • The government is facing new scrutiny on tools like Hemisphere, which the DOJ IG is now reviewing; if 27-year old data is owned by HIDTA rather than AT&T, I can see why it would cause problems (though again, except insofar as it includes things like location, that’s metadata, not content)
  • This is Dianne Feinstein’s last ditch fix for the “trove” of US person content that Mark Udall described that John Carlin refused to treat under FISA
  • This is part of the effort to get FBI to use EO 12333 data (which may be related to the first bullet); these procedures are actually vastly better than FBI’s see-no-evil-keep-all-data for up to 30 years approach, though the language of them doesn’t seem tailored to the FBI

Or maybe this is meant to provide the patina of legality to some other dragnet we don’t yet know about.

Still, I find it an interesting little emergency the intelligence committees seem to want to address.

5 Democrats Have Called on Obama Not to Reauthorize the Dragnet Tomorrow

Tomorrow is dragnet day, the next 90-day reauthorization for the dragnet.

In advance of that date, Pat Leahy just called on President Obama to simply let the dragnet end.

The President can end the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records once and for all by not seeking reauthorization of this program by the FISA Court, and once again, I urge him to do just that.  Doing so would not be a substitute for comprehensive surveillance reform legislation – but it would be an important first step.

Leahy joins 4 other Democrats who have already called for the President to unilaterally stop the dragnet.

At a hearing last month, Adam Schiff suggested to DIRNSA Mike Rogers that they move forward without waiting for a new law.

“There’s nothing in statute that requires the government to gather bulk data, so you could move forward on your own with making the technological changes,” Schiff said. “You don’t have to wait for the USA Freedom Act.”

There’s no reason for the NSA to wait for congressional approval to put additional limits on the program “if you think this is the correct policy,” Schiff added. “Why continue to gather the bulk metadata if [Obama administration officials] don’t think this is the best approach?”

And back in June, Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich not only made a similar suggestion in a letter to the President, but laid out how Obama could achieve what he says he wants to without waiting for legislation.

But the President is not going to end the dragnet. Heck, for all we know, FISC has already signed the reauthorization.

Mind you, it may be that President Obama can’t start the new-and-improved dragnet without offering providers immunity and compensation. But if Obama can’t simply end the dragnet without offering telecoms and second level contractors broad immunity, then he’s obviously planning on something more exotic than just regular phone contact chaining.

One Potential Civil Liberties Bright Spot from Yesterday’s Shellacking: Thad Cochran

There has been a lot of belated attention to the impact that Mark Udall’s loss yesterday will have on the Senate Intelligence Committee. I’ve been pointing to the possibility of a Udall loss and a Richard Burr Chairmanship since March. I warned you all of this when there was still time to do something about it!

Yesterday’s election will have huge impact on intelligence matters. It’s crystal clear, for example, that Burr has zero intention of exercising any oversight into the intelligence community, as we know he has been uninterested in their law-breaking in the past. I actually think Burr may be more interested in their competence than Feinstein has been, but that may be just a pipe-dream.

Burr might even be the very very rare Gang of Four member who doesn’t use the position to leak what the intelligence community wants to make public to the press. I say that because Burr was a key player in requiring the White House to provide the committees a list of sanctioned leaks, which I actually think was a badly needed reform (though I have no idea whether the White House has complied).

There’s also the matter of the 3 or 4 new Republicans that will gain seats on the Intelligence Committee (adding at least one for the majority, along with replacing Saxby Chambliss and Tom Coburn, both of whom retired). It’d be nice to see a libertarian among these — perhaps someone like Mike Lee, given that Utah has a lot of intelligence equities. But I highly doubt Mitch McConnell would put anyone with an interest in civil liberties on the Committee.

But there is one area where yesterday’s shellacking might harbor good news for civil liberties: Thad Cochran.

With Republicans in the majority, Barb Mikulski (D-NSA) will lose her Chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee; Cochran is expected to get that Chair. Mikulski has always been — even more than Dianne Feinstein — the impediment to any real civil liberties change in the Senate, because she is far more powerful. Importantly, she served as a guarantee that smart policies put through on appropriations bills — like Alan Grayson’s elimination of a requirement that NIST consult with the NSA on encryption standards, and the Massie-Lofgren amendment to defund back door searches — would not make it into any final bill.

Losing the majority, even losing Mikulski on Appropriations on all other matters, is a huge loss, don’t get me wrong.

But it does mean that Thad Cochran might, just maybe, allow good things to move through the Senate on appropriations. With Barb Mikulski there was no chance in hell of doing something on an appropriations bill. Without her, there’s at least a possibility. (Remember that Ted Stevens permitted a Ron Wyden amendment defunding TIA to go through appropriations in 2003, so such things are not unheard of.)

There’s no reason to believe that Cochran, in general, is any friendlier to civil liberties than Mikulski. But he’s not the NSA’s own personal senator. And that may be a tiny bright spot.