Today Obama Will Get His Fifth New Dragnet Order Since “Reform” Started

On December 12, 2013, almost one year ago, President Obama’s handpicked NSA Review Group made the following two recommendations.

Recommendation 1: We recommend that section 215 should be amended to authorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue a section 215 order compelling a third party to disclose otherwise private information about particular individuals only if:
(1) it finds that the government has reasonable grounds to believe that the particular information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation intended to protect “against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities” and
(2) like a subpoena, the order is reasonable in focus, scope, and breadth.

Recommendation 5: We recommend that legislation should be enacted that terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party. Access to such data should be permitted only with a section 215 order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that meets the requirements set forth in Recommendation 1.

Since that time, Obama has applied for and will, today, receive authorization for 5 extensions of the phone dragnet:

BR 14-01, signed by Thomas Hogan on January 3, 2014

BR 14-67, signed by Rosemary Collyer on March 28, 2014

BR 14-96, signed by James Zagel on June 19, 2014

BR 14-125, signed by Raymond Dearie on September 11, 2014

Along the way, Obama has instituted prior FISC review, added an emergency provision, given up on an automated query NSA had never been able to implement technically, even while standardizing “connection chaining.” The FISC also had to remind the government it must still abide by the legal requirement for prior First Amendment review, even when obtaining emergency orders.

By my count, the government has made 5 changes (or institutionalized prior changes) since the time Obama’s hand-picked review group recommended he give up the dragnet. As I noted yesterday, over the last year, 5 different Democrats have called on Obama to end the dragnet without waiting for legislation.

And yet, sometime today, the dragnet will be extended for another 3 months.

Emergency Dragnet Chaining, Now with First Amendment Protections!

Thursday, I Con the Record quietly released the most recent phone dragnet order, BR-125, dated September 11, 2014 (curiously, I Con the Record went back to correct its original release to indicate the order had been reauthorized on 9/11, not 9/12; I think FISC has been setting deadlines such that they are a Friday, but this one was approved on a Thursday).

Congratulations, Raymond Dearie! The government will point to your approval of this order as yet more proof of the soundness of the program.

There is one intriguing new addition to the order (the change shows up in two places). Both footnote 6 and footnote 7 add a requirement to the emergency provision for a First Amendment review. Footnote 7, which is more extensive, reads:

Before an emergency query is performed under this authority, NSA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), in consultation with the Director or Acting Director shall confirm that any selection term reasonably believed to be used by a United States (U.S.) person is not regarded as associated with [redacted–description of terrorist groups acceptably included in this program] solely on the basis of activities that are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Such a requirement was not in the emergency procedures as originally proposed by the government nor in the orders issued since. (Update: Though of course, First Amendment review is required by the law; ultimately, the order for NSA to do a First Amendment review is tantamount to a reminder that it has to follow the law even when doing emergency queries.)

While we can’t know whether this got added because NSA used the emergency provisions to chain on someone for their speech, most changes to dragnet orders have historically been a response to some kind of problem.

And whether or not this language arose out of some issue or just intelligent caution, it provides yet another reason why the emergency provision of USA Freedom Act should not be passed as written.

As I have laid out, one of the ways in which Leahy’s emergency provision is notably worse than this emergency provision is because it puts the Attorney General in charge of compliance. It does not — as the current emergency provisions do — give broad authority to the FISC to remedy any collection conducted under the emergency provision that should not have been. As adopted, the current provisions even permit the FISC to order “destroying the results of the emergency query and recalling any reports or other disseminations based on those results”).

Under USA Freedom, if the FISC caught the government using an emergency authorization to identify the communications network of someone who engaged in protected speech, it would not have the explicit authority to demand the Attorney General destroy the records collected as a result. It has that authority right now.

And the latest dragnet order at least raises questions about whether it has already had to exercise that authority.