The surveillance hawks are out feeding the propaganda machine.
First there’s Eli Lake claiming that, if Congress were to pass legislation newly immunizing and compensating providers to conduct two-hop spying on Americans, most of whom would be innocent, it would amount to “tak[ing] back some of the extraordinary powers it granted to the executive branch [by…] revok[ing] the NSA’s authority to collect telephone records in bulk.” The implication is that Congress affirmatively granted the NSA that authority.
Of course, that’s not what happened. First, the Bush Administration secretly assumed that authority as it rolled out Stellar Wind, without even fully informing Congress about it or considering the legal implications of collecting Internet metadata via telecom switches. Years later, DOJ found that part of the program unlawful. When DOJ asked the FISA Court to approve that collection — well, in truth, it didn’t ask; DOJ told the court it “shall” authorize the collection under the terms of the Pen Register statute — it specifically refused to go to Congress to get it approved. “Government cannot pursue that route because seeking legislation would inevitably compromise the secrecy of the collection program the Government wishes to undertake,” the government’s application claimed.
It took years after getting a secret court to rubber stamp, twice (in the second instance, without even writing an opinion to explain how the Section 215 statute dictating relevance might be deemed to mean all) these new dragnet collections before the Executive briefed the full Intelligence Committees, and the Executive didn’t share the materials on the program until obligated to do so by the FISA Amendments Act. Though well into 2010, the Executive was withholding documents mandated under FAA for disclosure to the oversight committees. The Executive did provide short, in some ways misleading, summaries to be shared with Congress before they reauthorized the PATRIOT Act. But not only weren’t those summaries made easily available to members, in 2011, Mike Rogers didn’t pass it on, ensuring that a sufficient number of Congressmen to make the difference in the vote could not be informed. And the briefings held instead were affirmatively misleading.
This is what Eli Lake considers Congress “granting the executive branch authority to collect telephone records in bulk,” which is where he gets the claim that in shifting the program to providers it would be taking away an authority.
For all its other faults and, at times, outright inaccuracies, Lake accidentally reveals the problem with Mitch McConnell’s logic calling for a 2-month reauthorization.
Opponents of the bill raise one technical concern: The legislation gives the NSA 180 days to build a new computer architecture for querying the phone company databases. It’s a tricky matter. Phone companies store the records of only their customers, whereas the NSA stored all of these records in one database.
Even Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a supporter of the bill to curb bulk collection, acknowledged this could be a problem. Speaking to reporters Tuesday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Schiff said: “I think if we reach an impasse on the authority sunsets, then the NSA will have some responsibility for that breach. I have been urging the NSA for quite some time now to begin the process for developing the process to take data from different providers so they can talk to each other.”
If USA F-ReDux were to pass tomorrow, NSA would have 6 months to set up the replacement (though as Schiff notes, they could have been implementing the new plan for months). Read more