The Section 215 Rap Sheet

Marco Rubio, who is running for President as an authoritarian, claims that “There is not a single documented case of abuse of this program.”

He’s not alone. One after another defender of the dragnet make such claims. FBI witnesses who were asked specifically about abuses in 2011 claimed FBI did not know of any abuses (even though FBI Director Robert Mueller had had to justify FBI’s use of the program to get it turned back on after abuses discovered in 2009).

Comment — Russ Feingold said that Section 215 authorities have been abused. How does the FBI respond to that accusation?

A — To the FBI’s knowledge, those authorities have not been abused.

Though Section 215 boosters tend to get sort of squishy on their vocabulary, changing language about whether this was illegal, unconstitutional, or abusive.

Here’s what we actually know about the abuses, illegality, and unconstitutionality of Section 215, both the phone dragnet program and Section 215 more generally.


First, here’s what judges have said about the program:

1) The phone dragnet has been reapproved around 41 times by at least 17 different FISC judges

The government points to this detail as justification for the program. It’s worth noting, however, that FISC didn’t get around to writing an opinion assessing the program legally until 10 judges and 34 orders in.  Since Snowden exposed the program, the FISC appears to have made a concerted effort to have new judges sign off on each new opinion.

2) Three Article III courts have upheld the program:

Judges William Pauley and Lynn Winmill upheld the constitutionality of the program (but did not asses the legality of it); though Pauley was reversed on statutory, not constitutional grounds. Judge Jeffrey Miller upheld the use of Section 215 evidence against Basaaly Moalin on constitutional grounds.

3) One Article III court — Judge Richard Leon in Klayman v. Obama — found the program unconstitutional.

4) The Second Circuit (along with PCLOB, including retired Circuit Court judge Patricia Wald, though they’re not a court), found the program not authorized by statute.

The latter decision, of course, is thus far the binding one. And the 2nd Circuit has suggested that if it has to consider the program on constitution grounds, it might well find it unconstitutional as well.

Statutory abuses

1) As DOJ’s IG confirmed yesterday, for most of the life of the phone dragnet (September 2006 through November 2013), the FBI flouted a mandate imposed by Congress in 2006 to adopt Section 215-specific minimization procedures that would give Americans additional protections under the provision (note–this affects all Section 215 programs, not just the phone dragnet). While, after a few years, FISC started imposing its own minimization procedures and reporting requirements (and rejected proposed minimization procedures in 2010), it nevertheless kept approving Section 215 orders.

In other words, in addition to being illegal (per the 2nd Circuit), the program also violated this part of the law for 7 years.

2) Along with all the violations of minimization procedures imposed by FISC discovered in 2009, the NSA admitted that it had been tracking roughly 3,000 presumed US persons against data collected under Section 215 without first certifying that they weren’t targeted on the basis of First Amendment protected activities, as required by the statute.

Between 24 May 2006 and 2 February 2009, NSA Homeland Mission Coordinators (HMCs) or their predecessors concluded that approximately 3,000 domestic telephone identifiers reported to Intelligence Community agencies satisfied the RAS standard and could be used as seed identifiers. However, at the time these domestic telephone identifiers were designated as RAS-approved, NSA’s OGC had not reviewed and approved their use as “seeds” as required by the Court’s Orders. NSA remedied this compliance incident by re-designating all such telephone identifiers as non RAS-approved for use as seed identifiers in early February 2009. NSA verified that although some of the 3,000 domestic identifiers generated alerts as a result of the Telephony Activity Detection Process discussed above, none of those alerts resulted in reports to Intelligence Community agencies.

NSA did not fix this problem by reviewing the basis for their targeting; instead, it simply moved these US person identifiers back onto the EO 12333 only list.

While we don’t have the background explanation, in the last year, FISC reiterated that the government must give First Amendment review before targeting people under Emergency Provisions. If so, that would reflect the second time where close FISC review led the government to admit it wasn’t doing proper First Amendment reviews, which may reflect a more systematic problem. That would not be surprising, since the government has already been chipping away at that First Amendment review via specific orders.

Minimization procedure abuses

1) The best known abuses of minimization procedures imposed by the FISC were disclosed to the FISC in 2009. The main item disclosed involved the fact that NSA had been abusing the term “archive” to create a pre-archive search against identifiers not approved for search. While NSA claimed this problem arose because no one person knew what the requirements were, in point of fact, NSA’s Inspector General warned that this alert function should be disclosed to FISC, and it was a function from the Stellar Wind program that NSA simply did not turn off when FISC set new requirements when it rubber-stamped the program.

But there were a slew of other violations of FISC-imposed minimization procedures disclosed at that time, almost all arising because NSA treated 215 data just like it treats EO 12333, in spite of FISC’s clear requirements that such data be treated with additional protections. That includes making query results available to CIA and FBI, the use of automatic search functions, and including querying on any “correlated” identifiers. These violations, in sum, are very instructive for the USA F-ReDux debate because NSA has never managed to turn these automated processes back on since, and one thing they presumably hope to gain out of moving data to the providers is to better automate the process.

2) A potentially far more egregious abuse of minimization procedures was discovered (and disclosed) in 2012, when NSA discovered that raw data NSA’s techs were using over 3,000 files of phone dragnet data on their technical server past the destruction date.

As of 16 February 2012, NSA determined that approximately 3,032 files containing call detail records potentially collected pursuant to prior BR Orders were retained on a server and been collected more than five years ago in violation of the 5-year retention period established for BR collection. Specifically, these files were retained on a server used by technical personnel working with the Business Records metadata to maintain documentation of provider feed data formats and performed background analysis to document why certain contact chaining rules were created. In addition to the BR work, this server also contains information related to the STELLARWIND program and files which do not appear to be related to either of these programs. NSA bases its determination that these files may be in violation of BR 11-191 because of the type of information contained in the files (i.e., call detail records), the access to the server by technical personnel who worked with the BR metadata, and the listed “creation date” for the files. It is possible that these files contain STELLARWIND data, despite the creation date. The STELLARWIND data could have been copied to this server, and that process could have changed the creation date to a timeframe that appears to indicate that they may contain BR metadata.

But rather than investigate this violation — rather than clarify how much data this entailed, whether it had been mingled with Stellar Wind data, whether any other violations had occurred — NSA destroyed the data.

In one incident, NSA technical personnel discovered a technical server with nearly 3,000 files containing call detail records that were more than five years old, but that had not been destroyed in accordance with the applicable retention rules. These files were among those used in connection with a migration of call detail records to a new system. Because a single file may contain more than one call detail record, and because the files were promptly destroyed by agency technical personnel, the NSA could not provide an estimate regarding the volume of calling records that were retained beyond the five-year limit. The technical server in question was not available to intelligence analysts.

From everything we’ve seen the tech and research functions are not audited, not even when they’re playing with raw data (which is, I guess, why SysAdmin Edward Snowden could walk away with so many records). So not only does this violation show that tech access to raw data falls outside of the compliance mechanisms laid out in minimization procedures (in part, with explicit permission), but that NSA doesn’t try very hard to track down very significant violations that happen.

Overall sloppiness

Finally, while sloppiness on applications is not a legal violation, it does raise concerns about production under the statute. The IG Report reviewed just six case files which used Section 215 orders. Although the section is heavily redacted, there are reasons to be significantly concerned about four of those.

  • An application made using expedited approval that made a material misstatement about where FBI obtained a tip about the content of a phone call. The FBI agent involved “is no longer with the FBI.” The target was prosecuted for unlawful disclosure of nuke information, but the Section 215 evidence was not introduced into trial and therefore he did not have an opportunity to challenge any illegal investigative methods.
  • A 2009 application involving significant minimization concerns and for which FBI rolled out a “investigative value” exception for access limits on Section 215 databases. This also may involve FBI’s secret definition of US person, which I suspect pertains to treating IP addresses as non-US persons until they know it is a US person (this is akin to what they do under 702 MPs). DOJ’s minimization report to FISC included inaccuracies not fixed until June 13, 2013.
  • A 2009 application for a preliminary investigation that obtained medical and education records from the target’s employer. FBI ultimately determined the target “had no nexus to terrorism,” though it appears FBI kept all information on the target (meaning he will have records at FBI for 30 years). The FBI’s minimization report included an error not fixed until June 13, 2013, after the IG pointed it out.
  • A cyber-investigation for which the case agent could not locate the original production, which he claims was never placed in the case file.

And that’s just what can be discerned from the unredacted bits.

Remember, too: the inaccuracies (as opposed to the material misstatement) were on minimization procedures. Which suggests FBI was either deceitful — or inattentive — to how it was complying with FISC-mandated minimization procedures designed to protect innocent Americans’ privacy.

And remember — all this is just Section 215. The legal violations under PRTT were far more egregious, and there are other known violations and misstatements to FISC on other programs.

This is a troubling program, one that several judges have found either unconstitutional or illegal.


USA Freedom Does Not Rein in the Spies

Honest. I started writing about this David Cole column asking, “Can Congress rein in the spies?” before John Brennan admitted that, contrary to his earlier assurances, his spooks actually had been spying on their Congressional overseers and also before President Obama announced that, nevertheless, he still has confidence in Brennan.

Cole’s column isn’t about the the Senate Intelligence Committee’s struggles to be able to document CIA torture, however. It’s about how Patrick Leahy introduced his version of USA Freedom Act “not a moment too soon.”

I don’t want to gripe with the column’s presentation of Leahy’s version of Freedom; with a few notable exceptions (one which I’ll get to), it accurately describes how Leahy’s bill improves on the bill the spies gutted in the House.

I first wanted to point to why Cole says Leahy’s bill comes not a moment too soon.

Leahy’s bill comes not a moment too soon. Two reports issued on Monday bring into full view the costs of a system that allows its government to conduct dragnet surveillance without specific suspicions of wrongdoing. In With Liberty to Monitor All, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU make a powerful case that mass surveillance has already had a devastating effect on journalists’ ability to monitor and report on national security measures, and on lawyers’ ability to represent victims of government overreaching. And the same day, the New America Foundation issued Surveillance Costs, a report noting the widespread economic harm to US tech companies that NSA surveillance has inflicted, as potential customers around the world take their business elsewhere.

Together, these reports make concrete the damaging effects of out-of-control surveillance, even to those with “nothing to hide.” Our democracy has long rested on a vibrant and vigorous press and open legal system. On matters of national security, journalists probably serve as a more important check on the executive than even the courts or Congress.


And, it turns out, tech companies also need to be able to promise confidentiality. Customers of Internet services or cloud computing storage programs, for example, expect and need to be certain that their messages and stored data will be private. Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has been collecting vast amounts of computer data, and has exploited vulnerabilities in corporate encryption programs, have caused many to lose confidence in the security of American tech companies in particular.

Cole describes the great costs out-of-control surveillance imposes on journalists, lawyers, and cloud providers, and implies we cannot wait to reverse those costs.

Then he embraces a bill that would not protect journalists’ conversations with whistleblowers (Leahy’s Freedom still permits the traditional access of metadata for counterintelligence purposes as well as the Internet dragnet conducted overseas) or alleged terrorists, would not protect lawyers’ discussions with their clients (the known attorney-client protected collections happened under traditional FISA, EO 12333, and possibly Section 702, none of which get changed in this bill), and would expose American companies’ clouds even further to assisted government access under the new Call Detail Record provision.

Cole does admit the bill does not address Section 702; he doesn’t mention EO 12333 at all, even though both the HRW and NAF reports did.

Senator Leahy’s bill is not a cure-all. It is primarily addressed to the collection of data within the United States, and does little to reform Section 702, the statute that authorizes the PRISM program and allows the government to collect the content of electronic communications of noncitizens abroad, even if they are communicating with US citizens here. And it says nothing about the NSA’s deeply troubling practice of inserting vulnerabilities into encryption programs that can be exploited by any hacker. It won’t, therefore, solve all the problems that the HRW and New American Foundation reports identify. But it would mark an important and consequential first step.

But he doesn’t admit the bill does little to address the specific sources of the costs identified in the two reports. It’s not a minute too soon to address these costs, he says, but then embraces a bill that doesn’t really address the actual sources of the costs identified in the reports.

That is mostly besides the point of whether Leahy’s bill is a fair apples-to-oranges trade-off with the status quo as to represent an improvement — an answer to which I can’t yet give, given some of the obvious unanswered questions about the bill. It is, however, a testament to how some of its supporters are overselling this bill and with it anyone’s ability to rein in the intelligence community.

But it’s one testament to that that bugs me most about Cole’s column. As I noted, he does mention Leahy’s failure to do anything about Section 702. Nowhere in his discussion of 702, however, does he mention that it permits warrantless access to Americans’ content, one which FBI uses when conducting mere assessments of Americans. Which of course means Cole doesn’t mention the most inexcusable part of the bill — its exemption on already soft reporting requirements to provide the numbers for how many Americans get exposed to these back door searches.

I’m not a fancy Georgetown lawyer, but I strongly believe the back door searches — conducted as they are with no notice to anyone ultimately prosecuted based off such information — are illegal, and probably unconstitutional. When retired DC Circuit Court judge Patricia Wald raised these problems with the practice, Director of National Intelligence Counsel Bob Litt simply said it would be “impracticable” to add greater oversight to back door searches. And in spite of the fact that both the President’s Review Group and PCLOB advised significant controls on this practice (which implicates the costs identified in both the HRW and NAF reports), the version of USA Freedom Act crafted by the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the Committee that’s supposed to ensure the government follows the law — not only doesn’t rein in the practice, but it exempts the most egregious part of the practice from the transparency applauded by people like Cole, thereby tacitly endorsing the worst part of the practice.

And all that’s before you consider that the IC also conducts back door searches of EO 12333 collected information — as first reported by me, but recently largely confirmed by John Napier Tye. And before you consider the IC’s explicit threat — issued during the passage of the Protect America Act — that if they don’t like any regulation Congress passes, they’ll just move the program to EO 12333.

The point is, Congress can’t rein in the IC, and that’s only partly because (what I expect drives the Senate’s unwillingness to deal with back door searches) many members of Congress choose not to. The have not asserted their authority over the IC, up to and including insisting that the protections for US persons under FISA Amendments Act actually get delivered.

In response to the news that Brennan’s spies had been spying on its Senate overseers, Patrick Leahy (who of course got targeted during the original PATRIOT debate with a terrorist anthrax attack) issued a statement insisting on the importance of Congressional oversight.

Congressional oversight of the executive branch, without fear of interference or intimidation, is fundamental to our Nation’s founding principle of the separation of powers.

Yet his bill — which is definitely an improvement over USA Freedumber but not clearly, in my opinion, an improvement on the status quo — tacitly endorses the notion that FBI can conduct warrantless searches on US person communications without even having real basis for an investigation.

That’s not reining in the spies. That’s blessing them.

Told You So, FBI Back Door Search Edition

For a long time, I’ve been noting that the October 3, 2011 John Bates Opinion and last August’s Semiannual Report on FISA make it clear that the FBI, like the CIA and NSA, conducts back door searches off Section 702 collected data.

ODNI’s response to Ron Wyden’s request for actual numbers of how many back door searches the government conducts makes it clear that I was correct.

The report is even worse than I imagined. It shows the following:


FBI does back door searches for both foreign intelligence and criminal purposes. This means NSA’s language about keeping data for evidence of a crime is fairly meaningless, because they’re handing chunks of data off to FBI that it can troll for evidence of crime.

And the FBI doesn’t count these queries. In fact, FBI doesn’t even distinguish between when it is searching foreign and US person identifiers.They say only that “the number of queries is substantial.”


I expected all that from the FBI. What amazes me is that the CIA — an Agency that is not supposed to conduct domestic intelligence collection — does not count how many metadata-only queries of US person data it does. So all those fears of NSA identifying whether you’re visiting an AIDS clinic or a pregnancy counseling center? The NSA may not do that kind of analysis, but the CIA might be checking what foreigners you’re talking to.

The CIA also conducts a bunch of content queries — “fewer than 1900” — of which 40% are counterterrorism-related queries for other agencies. (Which leads me to wonder why neither NSA nor FBI are doing these queries, which would make more sense.) But that leaves 60% of 1900 — or around 1,100 queries a year of US person content that are for CIA’s own purposes and may not even be terrorism related.


The NSA conducts the fewest. It conducts 198 US person content queries (that is, not all that much fewer than the 248 US persons queried in the phone dragnet or collected on using another Section 215 order). It conducts 9,500 queries of metadata only queries, of which some are duplicative.

Compared to CIA’s uncountable number, that may not sound like a lot. But compare that to the phone dragnet, which also queried on fewer than 248 US person identifiers last year. That is, it is doing an order of magnitude more Internet metadata queries than it is phone queries.

One more thing: Last year’s FAA report revealed that CIA and NSA also sometimes accidentally query US person data. So the numbers of Americans sucked in via FAA may be significantly larger.


One more note about this report. PCLOB is due to release their Section 702 report on Wednesday. That is sure to have recommendations about how to protect US person privacy; Patricia Wald was quite clear in the most recent PCLOB hearing she believes the government should use a warrant to access this data. So Ron Wyden finally got a response, but it almost certain is only because PCLOB was about to make much of this public on their own.

(KS linked to this version of the Doors, thanks!)

USA Freedumb Act: The Timing

A number of people have expressed appreciation for this analysis: if you find this useful, please consider donating to support my work. 

I’m going to do a series of more finished posts on the “compromised” version of Jim Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act, which I hereby dub the USA Freedumb Act (thanks to Fake John Schindler for the suggestion), because so many of the reforms have been gutted. Here’s the initially proposed bill. Here’s my working thread on USA Freedumb.

You will hear a great many respectable people making positive comments about this bill, comments they normally would not make. That’s because of the carefully crafted timing.

As you recall, Mike Rogers originally got the House Parliamentarian to rule that the bill could go through the House Intelligence Committee. And his bill, which I affectionately call “RuppRoge” after Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger and Scooby Doo’s “Rut Roh” phase, is genuinely shitty. Not only does it put the NSA onsite at providers and extend call records collection beyond terrorism applications, but it also extends such collection beyond call records generally. It is likely an attempt to get the US back into the Internet dragnet business. Shitty bill.

That said, in key ways RuppRoge is very similar to USA Freedumb. Both “limit” bulk collection by limiting collection to selectors (Freedumb does so across the board, including for NSLs, whereas RuppRoge does so for sensitive Business Records, call records, and Internet metadata). Both propose a similarly (IMO) flimsy FISC advocate. Both propose laughably weak FISC transparency measures. Both will include compensation and immunity for providers they don’t currently have.

Aside from three areas where RuppRoge is better — it forces agencies to update their EO 12333 proposals, doesn’t extend the PATRIOT Act, and provides a (not very useful) way to challenge certificates, all the way up to SCOTUS — and three where it is far worse — it develops more Insider Threat measures, it applies for uses beyond terrorism and beyond call records, and doesn’t include new (but now circumscribed) IG reporting  — they’re not all that different. [Correction: USA Freedumb ALSO applies beyond terrorism.]

They’re differently shitty, but both are pretty shitty.

The reason why otherwise respectable people are welcoming the shitty Freedumb bill, however, is that it gives House Judiciary Committee — with a number of real reformers on it — first pass on this bill. It’s a jurisdictional issue. It puts the jurisdiction for surveillance bills back where it belongs, at the Judiciary Committee.

Oh, by the way, one of the more extensive (in terms of text) real changes in Freedumb is it finally includes the House Judiciary Committee, along with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and Senate Judiciary Committee, among the committees that get certain kinds of reporting. Jurisdiction. (No, I can’t explain to you why it wasn’t included in the first place in 2008, and no, I can’t explain why that detail is not better known.) It gives everyone on HJC a tiny reason to support the bill, because they’ll finally get the reporting they should have gotten in 2008.

The House Intelligence Committee will consider RuppRoge the day after HJC considers Freedumb, Thursday. Which has elicited hasty (overly hasty, IMO) statements of support for Freedumb, as a way to head off the shitty RuppRoge.

Effectively, the National Security State has managed to put two differently shitty bills before Congress and forced reformers to choose. Freedumb is the better (as in less horrible) bill, and it might get better in Committee. But it’s not a runaway call. And the haste has prevented anyone from really figuring out what a central change to both programs means, which limits collection to selectors, which could be defined in very broad terms (and about which — you’ll have to take my word for now — the NSA has lied in public comments).

One more timing issue that I suspect explains the sudden activity surrounding “reform.” The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is due to release a report on Section 702 in the next month or so (its comment period for the report closed on April 11). Given the comments of David Medine, James Dempsey, and Patricia Wald at hearings, I strongly suspect PCLOB will recommend reforms — at least — to back door searches, and possibly to upstream collection. Both are items which were gutted as USA Freedom became Freedumb. (In addition, two aspects that would have expanded PCLOB’s authorities — giving it a role in picking the FISC advocate and giving it subpoena power — have been removed.) So in the same way that President Obama rushed to reaffirm NSA’s unified structure, in which the Information Assurance Division and Cybercommand functions are unified with the more general NSA spying function, before his handpicked Review Group recommended they be split, this seems to be a rush to pre-empt any recommendations PCLOB makes.

Ultimately, these two shitty bills are destined to be merged in conference anyway, and reformers seem to have given up 75% of the field before we get started.

Which means just about the only “reform” we’ll get are actually tactical fixes to help the Security State deal with legal and technical issues they’ve been struggling with.

The USA Freedumb Act has become — with DiFi’s Fake FISA Fix and RuppRoge before it — the third fake reform since Edward Snowden’s leaks first got published. Wearing down the reformers seems to be working.

NSA’s New “Privacy Officer” Releases Her First Propaganda

Over at Lawfare, Ken Anderson released the public comment on Section 702 the NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Office have submitted to the Privacy and Civil Liberties and Oversight Board. Anderson notes that the comment doesn’t appear to be online yet, and the name of the Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer, Rebecca Richards, doesn’t appear on what Anderson posted (though that may be Lawfare’s doing).

The statement, generally, makes me sad. The comment repeatedly backed off including known, even unclassified details about Section 702, and as such this doesn’t so much read as an independent statement on the privacy assessment of the woman at the NSA mandated with overseeing it, but rather a highly scripted press release.

I will probably do a piece on some potential holes this statement may indicate in NSA’s oversight (though it is written in such hopeless bureaucratese, we can’t be sure). But for the moment, I wanted to point to what, in my opinion, is the most glaring example of how scripted this.

The statement describes back door searches this way:

Since October 2011 and consistent with other agencies’ Section 702 minimization procedures, NSA’s Section 702 minimization procedures have permitted NSA personnel to use U.S. person identifiers to query Section 702 collection when such a query is reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information. NSA distinguishes between queries of communications content and communications metadata. NSA analysts must provide justification and receive additional approval before a content query using a U.S. person identifier can occur. To date, NSA analysts have queried Section 702 content with U.S. person identifiers less frequently than Section 702 metadata. For example, NSA may seek to query a U.S. person identifier when there is an imminent threat to life, such as a hostage situation. NSA is required to maintain records of U.S. person queries and the records are available for review by both OOJ [sic] and ODNI as part of the external oversight process for this authority. Additionally, NSA’s procedures prohibit NSA from querying Upstream data with U.S. person identifiers.

The only new piece of information provided here is that the NSA conducts more back door searches on 702 metadata than on 702 content.

But then the statement immediately provides the most defensible example of back door searches — searching for a US person’s identifier in content when they’ve been kidnapped, a scenario that derives from a pre-PAA problem with NSA’s kludged FISC approved program. Notably, this scenario is almost certainly not a metadata search! This is also the same scenario used by Dianne Feinstein’s aides in November to obscure the true extent of the searches, suggesting it is a propaganda line NSA has developed to spin back door searches.

What I find so frustrating about this statement is how it compares with statements others have already made … to PCLOB.

In November, for example, after ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt admitted that the Intelligence Community treats back door searches of 702 data (and probably, EO 12333 data) like they do all “legally collected” data, NSA General Counsel Raj De admitted that NSA doesn’t even require Reasonable Articulable Suspicion to do searches on US person data, because doing so would involve adopting a higher standard for back door searches than for other data.

Raj De: Our minimization procedures, including how we handle data, whether that’s collection, analysis, dissemination, querying are all approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. There are protections on the dissemination of information, whether as a result of a query or analysis. So in other words, U.S. person information can only be disseminated if it’s either necessary to understand the foreign intelligence value of the information,evidence of a crime and so forth. So I think those are the types of protections that are in place with this lawfully collected data.

[Center for Democracy and Technology VP James] DEMPSEY: But am I right, there’s no, on the query itself, other than it be for a foreign intelligence purpose, is there any other limitation? We don’t even have a RAS for that data.

MR. DE: There’s certainly no other program for which the RAS standard is applicable. That’s limited to the 215 program, that’s correct. But as to whether there is, and I think this was getting to the probable cause standard, should there be a higher standard for querying lawfully collected data. I think that would be a novel approach in this context, not to suggest reasonable people can’t disagree, discuss that. But I’m not aware of another context in which there is lawfully collected, minimized information in this capacity in which you would need a particular standard.

Then, in March, Litt objected to requiring court review before doing back door searches (and he was asked specifically about back door searches of US person data, though he reportedly tried to back off the application of this to US persons after the hearing) because the volume of back door searches is so high.

[Retired DC Circuit Judge] Patricia Wald: The President required, or, I think he required in his January directive that went to 215 that at least temporarily, the selectors in 215 for questioning the databank of US telephone calls–metadata–had to be approved by the FISA Court. Why wouldn’t a similar requirement for 702 be appropriate in the case where US person indicators are used to search the PRISM database? What big difference do you see there?

Robert Litt: Well, I think from a theoretical perspective it’s the difference between a bulk collection and a targeted collection which is that–

Wald: But I would think that, sorry for interrupting, [cross-chatter]  I would think that message since 702 has actually got the content.

Litt: Well, and the second point that I was going to make is that I think the operational burden in the context of 702 would far greater than in the context of 215.

Wald: But that would–

Litt: If you recall, the number of actual telephone numbers as to which a  RAS–reasonable articulable suspicion determination was made under Section 215 was very small. The number of times that we query the 702 database for information is considerably larger. I suspect that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.

Wald: I suppose the ultimate question for us is whether or not the inconvenience to the agencies or even the unhappiness of the FISA Court would be the ultimate criteria.

Litt: Well I think it’s more than a question of convenience, I think it’s also a question of practicability.

Admittedly, Litt’s answer refers to all the back door searches conducted by the Intelligence Community, including the both the CIA and FBI (the latter of which other reporters seem to always ignore when discussing back door searches), as well as NSA. So it’s possible this volume of back door searches reflects FBI’s use of the practice, not NSA’s. (Recall that former presiding FISC Judge John Bates admits the Court has no clue how often or in what ways the Executive Branch is doing back door searches on US person data, but that it is likely so common as to be burdensome to require FISC involvement.)

Still, the combined picture already provided to PCLOB goes well beyond the hostage situation provided by the Privacy Office statement.

Even the President’s comment about back door searches in his January speech appears to go beyond what the NSA statement does (though again, imposing new limits on back door searches for law enforcement purposes probably speaks primarily to FBI’s back door searches, less so NSA’s).

 I am asking the Attorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702.

We are slowly squeezing details about the reality of back door searches, so I wasn’t really relying on this statement in any case.

But it’s an issue of credibility. The Privacy Officer, to have a shred of credibility and therefore the PR value that Obama surely hopes it will have, must appear to be speaking from independent review within the scope permitted by classification restraints. That hasn’t happened here, not even close. Instead, Rebecca Richards appears to speaking under the constraint of censorship far beyond that imposed on other government witnesses on this issue.

That doesn’t bode well for her ability to make much difference at NSA.

NSA Conducts So Many Back Door Searches on US Persons It Would Be Impracticable to Approve Those Queries

Update, 8/3/14: Given what we’ve subsequently learned about FBI’s substantial number of uncounted back door searches, Litt’s description of further controls as not practicable probably most directly relates to FBI, not NSA.

While there wasn’t as much as I’d like, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board hearing today focused somewhat on the issue of back door searches: which are when NSA searches on US person data on “incidentally” collected data under Section 702 of FISA.

DOJ National Security Director Deputy AAG Brad Wiegmann even suggested we should call them queries, perhaps to obscure all the obvious problems with them as searches under the Fourth Amendment.

The most telling exchange, however, came when PCLOB Board Member Patricia Wald suggested that the FISA Court conduct the same kind of oversight over these backdoor searches that it is now doing pursuant to the changes in Section 215 President Obama made in January. (CSPAN won’t let me embed this yet but here’s a link.) ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt shot that idea down aggressively, stating that is is not practicable.

Patricia Wald: The President required, or, I think he required in his January directive that went to 215 that at least temporarily, the selectors in 215 for questioning the databank of US telephone calls–metadata–had to be approved by the FISA Court. Why wouldn’t a similar requirement for 702 be appropriate in the case where US person indicators are used to search the PRISM database? What big difference do you see there?

Robert Litt: Well, I think from a theoretical perspective it’s the difference between a bulk collection and a targeted collection which is that–

Wald: But I would think that, sorry for interrupting, [cross-chatter]  I would think that message since 702 has actually got the content.

Litt: Well, and the second point that I was going to make is that I think the operational burden in the context of 702 would far greater than in the context of 215.

Wald: But that would–

Litt: If you recall, the number of actual telephone numbers as to which a  RAS–reasonable articulaable suspcion determination was made under Section 215 was very small. The number of times that we query the 702 database for information is considerably larger. I suspect that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.

Wald: I suppose the ultimate question for us is whether or not the inconvenience to the agencies or even the unhappiness of the FISA Court would be the ultimate criteria.

Litt: Well I think it’s more than a question of convenience, I think it’s also a question of practicability.

NSA General Counsel Raj De, who has spent the better part of the last 9 months saying “it’s only metadata” went on to argue that somehow this “targeted” content program (which of course requires no advance review of selectors) is less intrusive than the metadata collection under Section 215.

Make up your damn mind!

To be fair, I suspect one of the issues is that after the Nidal Hasan attack (and this is just a very well educated guess), NSA rolled out a system whereby new communications between a targeted foreigner and an American automatically pulls up all previous communications involving that US person. That would count as a search, even though it would effectively feel like an automatic cross-referencing of all prior communications involving someone talking to a target, even if that is a US person.

Nevertheless, this means that NSA is conducting so many back door searches on US person data that it would be “impracticable” to actually give those searches some kind of review.

No wonder NSA refuses to give numbers on this practice to Ron Wyden.

PCLOB Told Mike Rogers They Would Discuss Legality of Dragnet

Mike Rogers is outraged! outraged! that PCLOB overstepped what he sees as their mandate to talk about the illegality of the phone dragnet.

Defenders of the program reacted sharply to the report’s findings on Thursday. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he agreed with the two dissenters “that the board should … not partake in unwarranted legal analysis.”

I find this hysterical not just because Rogers has spent the last 7 months weighing in the program’s legality. I’ll take Retired Appeals Court Judge Patricia Wald’s opinion on legality over Rogers’ any day.

But it’s also funny because PCLOB told Rogers (as well as the President and the rest of Congress) they were going to report on the program’s legality back in their November report to the President and Congress.

Met with officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA) on several occasions to discuss the operation and oversight of programs under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (telephone metadata) and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These discussions covered collection, use and dissemination practices, compliance measures, including internal and external oversight, and the implementation guidelines governing collection and use of intelligence pursuant to Sections 215 and 702. These discussions commenced prior to June 2013 as part of the Board’s basic oversight responsibilities, and then evolved, after the Snowden leaks, into a more in-depth review of the programs operated pursuant to Sections 215 and 702. The review, which is intended to culminate in a public report as requested by the President and Members of Congress, is addressing the history, legality, necessity, and effectiveness of these programs. [my emphasis]

He didn’t object at the time.

He’s only objecting now that the Board has found the program illegal.

Rogers might complain that he didn’t notice this warning back then and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable for not objecting back when he was told they were going to review the legality of the program. But to make that argument, Rogers would have to admit he’s inattentive to matters concerning the programs he has primary oversight responsibility over.

While there’s abundant evidence that’s true, I doubt Rogers is prepared to admit it.