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All Three Branches Conduct Vaunted NSA Oversight!

Today, we learned this is what the vaunted Congressional oversight of NSA spying looks like.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who did not receive a copy of the 2012 audit [showing thousands of violations] until The Post asked her staff about it, said in a statement late Thursday that the committee “can and should do more to independently verify that NSA’s operations are appropriate, and its reports of compliance incidents are accurate.”

We learned this is what the vaunted FISA Court oversight of NSA spying looks like.

The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy. Without taking drastic steps, it also cannot check the veracity of the government’s assertions that the violations its staff members report are unintentional mistakes.

“The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court,” its chief, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders.”

We learned this is what the vaunted internal NSA oversight of NSA spying looks like.

The NSA uses the term “incidental” when it sweeps up the records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for NSA personnel say that kind of incident, pervasive under current practices, “does not constitute a . . . violation” and “does not have to be reported” to the NSA inspector general for inclusion in quarterly reports to Congress. Once added to its databases, absent other restrictions, the communications of Americans may be searched freely.

In one required tutorial, NSA collectors and analysts are taught to fill out oversight forms without giving “extraneous information” to “our FAA overseers.” FAA is a reference to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which granted broad new authorities to the NSA in exchange for regular audits from the Justice Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence and periodic reports to Congress and the surveillance court.

Using real-world examples, the “Target Analyst Rationale Instructions” explain how NSA employees should strip out details and substitute generic descriptions of the evidence and analysis behind their targeting choices.

Vaunted. For well over 2 months. This is what they’ve been hailing.

Russ Feingold: Yahoo Didn’t Get the Info Needed to Challenge the Constitutionality of PRISM

The NYT has a story that solves a question some of us have long been asking: Which company challenged a Protect America Act order in 2007, only to lose at the district and circuit level?

The answer: Yahoo.

The Yahoo ruling, from 2008, shows the company argued that the order violated its users’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The court called that worry “overblown.”

But the NYT doesn’t explain something that Russ Feingold pointed out when the FISA Court of Review opinion was made public in 2009 (and therefore after implementation of FISA Amendments Act): the government didn’t (and still didn’t, under the PAA’s successor, the FISA Amendments Act, Feingold seems to suggests) give Yahoo some of the most important information it needed to challenge the constitutionality of the program.

The decision placed the burden of proof on the company to identify problems related to the implementation of the law, information to which the company did not have access. The court upheld the constitutionality of the PAA, as applied, without the benefit of an effective adversarial process. The court concluded that “[t]he record supports the government. Notwithstanding the parade of horribles trotted out by the petitioner, it has presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse in the circumstances of the instant case.” However, the company did not have access to all relevant information, including problems related to the implementation of the PAA. Senator Feingold, who has repeatedly raised concerns about the implementation of the PAA and its successor, the FISA Amendments Act (“FAA”), in classified communications with the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General, has stated that the court’s analysis would have been fundamentally altered had the company had access to this information and been able to bring it before the court.

In the absence of specific complaints from the company, the court relied on the good faith of the government. As the court concluded, “[w]ithout something more than a purely speculative set of imaginings, we cannot infer that the purpose of the directives (and, thus, of the surveillance) is other than their stated purpose… The petitioner suggests that, by placing discretion entirely in the hands of the Executive Branch without prior judicial involvement, the procedures cede to that Branch overly broad power that invites abuse. But this is little more than a lament about the risk that government officials will not operate in good faith.” One example of the court’s deference to the government concerns minimization procedures, which require the government to limit the dissemination of information about Americans that it collects in the course of its surveillance. Because the company did not raise concerns about minimization, the court “s[aw] no reason to question the adequacy of the minimization protocol.” And yet, the existence of adequate minimization procedures, as applied in this case, was central to the court’s constitutional analysis. [bold original, underline mine]

This post — which again, applies to PAA, though seems to be valid for the way the government has conducted FAA — explains why.

The court’s ruling makes it clear that PAA (and by association, FAA) by itself is not Constitutional. By itself, a PAA or FAA order lacks both probable cause and particularity.

The programs get probable cause from Executive Order 12333 (the one that John Yoo has been known to change without notice), from an Attorney General assertion that he has probable cause that the target of his surveillance is associated with a foreign power.

And the programs get particularity (which is mandated from a prior decision from the court, possibly the 2002 one on information sharing) from a set of procedures (the descriptor was redacted in the unsealed opinion, but particularly given what Feingold said, it’s likely these are the minimization procedures both PAA and FAA required the government to attest to) that give it particularity. The court decision makes it clear the government only submitted those — even in this case, even to a secret court — ex parte.

The petitioner’s arguments about particularity and prior judicial review are defeated by the way in which the statute has been applied. When combined with the PAA’s other protections, the [redacted] procedures and the procedures incorporated through the Executive Order are constitutionally sufficient compensation for any encroachments.

The [redacted] procedures [redacted] are delineated in an ex parte appendix filed by the government. They also are described, albeit with greater generality, in the government’s brief. [redacted] Although the PAA itself does not mandate a showing of particularity, see 50 USC 1805b(b), this pre-surveillance procedure strikes us as analogous to and in conformity with the particularity showing contemplated by Sealed Case.

In other words, even the court ruling makes it clear that Yahoo saw only generalized descriptions of these procedures that were critical to its finding the order itself (but not the PAA in isolation from them) was constitutional.

Incidentally, while Feingold suggests the company (Yahoo) had to rely on the government’s good faith, to a significant extent, so does the court. During both the PAA and FAA battles, the government successfully fought efforts to give the FISA Court authority to review the implementation of minimization procedures.

The NYT story suggests that the ruling which found the program violated the Fourth Amendment pertained to FAA.

Last year, the FISA court said the minimization rules were unconstitutional, and on Wednesday, ruled that it had no objection to sharing that opinion publicly. It is now up to a federal court.

I’m not positive that applies to FAA, as distinct from the 215 dragnet or the two working in tandem.

But other reporting on PRISM has made one thing clear: the providers are still operating in the dark. The WaPo reported from an Inspector General’s report (I wonder whether this is the one that was held up until after FAA renewal last year?) that they don’t even have visibility into individual queries, much less what happens to the data once the government has obtained it.

But because the program is so highly classified, only a few people at most at each company would legally be allowed to know about PRISM, let alone the details of its operations.

[snip]

According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process. [my emphasis]

This gets to the heart of the reason why Administration claims that “the Courts” have approved this program are false. In a signature case where an Internet provider challenged it — which ultimately led the other providers to concede they would have to comply — the government withheld some of the most important information pertaining to constitutionality from the plaintiff.

The government likes to claim this is constitutional, but that legal claim has always relied on preventing the providers and, to some extent, the FISA Court itself from seeing everything it was doing.

Shorter Neal Katyal: Please Appoint Me Judge!

If it weren’t for this line, disdaining what judges do,

But judges should be left to what they know.

I would be convinced that this op-ed from Neal Katyal, arguing against a Drone and/or Targeted Killing Court, was a transparent attempt to curry favor with the man who gets to nominate people for lifetime appointments to federal courts.

Because it strikes me as a dishonest argument, one made by someone who almost surely knows better, repeating the AUMF fallacy.

But there is no true precedent for interposing courts into military decisions about who, what and when to strike militarily. Putting aside the serious constitutional implications of such a proposal, courts are simply not institutionally equipped to play such a role.

While the Bush Administration didn’t read Ted Olson into its worst OLC opinions when he was Solicitor General — and so it’s possible (though unlikely) that Katyal was likewise not read into the June 2010 opinion that authorized the CIA to kill Anwar al-Awlaki during the time he was Acting Solicitor General — he was almost certainly part of the legal strategy to respond to the ACLU/CCR suit hoping to enjoin the President from killing Awlaki unless he represented an imminent threat, which also occurred while he was Acting SG.

Neal Katyal almost certainly knows the CIA was cleared to carry out that killing (though he had left the Administration by the time Awlaki was ultimately killed), and that this was a covert op.

To argue for a star chamber within the Executive Branch, he paints the judges who serve on the FISA Court as generalists who have no clue about national security issues.

There are many reasons a drone court composed of generalist federal judges will not work. They lack national security expertise, they are not accustomed to ruling on lightning-fast timetables, they are used to being in absolute control, their primary work is on domestic matters and they usually rule on matters after the fact, not beforehand.

[snip]

What reason does the FISA Court give us to think that judges are better than specialists at keeping executive power in check?

The FISA Court includes judges like Thomas Hogan (who has been a District Court judge in DC since Katyal was 12) and is now led by Reggie Walton (who joined DC District back when President Obama was still a State Senator). While they’ve seen their share of DC drug cases, they’ve also presided over some high profile national security cases (both had a part in the Libby case, both have issued key rulings in Gitmo habeas cases).  But Katyal thinks they’re just not capable of reviewing whether an American should be killed by his government with no due process.

There’s more that’s laugh out loud funny in Katyal’s op-ed, such as the suggestion that targeted killing of an American (as far as I know, no one is even considering using a FISA process with non-citizens) presents no Constitutional issues.

Even the questions placed before the FISA Court aren’t comparable to what a drone court would face; they involve more traditional constitutional issues — not rapidly developing questions about whether to target an individual for assassination by a drone strike.

And the suggestion that the Executive can be trusted to hand over its own analysis on targeted killing to Congress.

The adjudicator would be a panel of the president’s most senior national security advisers, who would issue decisions in writing if at all possible. Those decisions would later be given to the Congressional intelligence committees for review.

Not to mention that a “court” which the President was free to overrule amounts to any kind of due process.

Crucially, the president would be able to overrule this court, and take whatever action he thought appropriate, but would have to explain himself afterward to Congress.

Mind you. I, like Katyal, think the idea of turning FISA into a Drone and/or Targeted Killing court is terrible. But I’m not arguing that’s because an actual court would infringe too much on the President’s claimed authority to kill Americans at will.

Do Bloggers Suck or Does TradMed Just Suck More?

Above the Law, reporting on a speech 9th Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski gave at Fordham Law, summarized his argument as, “A New Argument in Favor of Cameras in the Courtroom: Bloggers Suck.”

Now, for the record, I’m all in favor of cameras in the courtroom and have long been, particularly once I discovered that TradMed journalists look for different things at hearings than I do. And particularly today, as I’m deciding whether I have time to get to the closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, drink some beers with bmaz, and be back here in time to drive to Syracuse for my mom’s 70th, I’d love the option of sitting at home and streaming the trial (though beers with bmaz might still win the day).

But I wanted to look more closely at the argument Kozinski seems to be making (assuming, of course, that the blogger at Above the Law competently replicated it, because there’s always the possibility he’s just being loud and biased).

Kozinski started his talk by going over some of the arguments he has made before [PDF] in support of cameras (e.g., studies show cameras don’t affect the proceedings, quoting his “old boss” Warren Burger — “People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.”).

It wouldn’t be like the O.J. trial, which decidedly set the cameras-in-the-courtroom movement back. Kozinski advocates stationary cameras that would not zoom in, zoom out, or otherwise overly dramatize the courtroom events. Kozinski acknowledged that if you were to choose between a O.J. media circus or reports from informed journalists like Nina Totenberg or Linda Greenhouse, one might be happy to live without cameras.

But that’s not usually the choice one has. Kozinski pointed to the “long, slow decline of the newspaper industry” and the “rise of a much more diffuse style of coverage” as a major reason why cameras should be brought into courtrooms. Increasingly, the public is relying on “pseudo-journalists” (aka bloggers) for their instantaneous legal news.

“On the Internet, the loudest voice gets the most attention,” said Kozinski, who said that tends to lead to a distortion of the coverage of a case. He also raised the risks of relying on unknown bloggers, pointing to the case of “Dr. Flea.”

[snip]

“The days of obscurity for judges and reliable, informed journalists are gone and gone forever,” said Kozinski. “If courts don’t change with the times, change will be forced upon them.”

Kozinski’s arguing, apparently, that we need cameras in the courtroom because trials are no longer covered with the skill that Nina Totenberg and Linda Greenhouse bring to their work. Furthermore, Kozinski seems to be arguing, the public is fooled into following “loud” chroniclers of trials, rather than competent ones. And, it seems, Kozinski believes readers (the blogger here doesn’t specify what kind of reader) risk … something … if they rely on pseudonymous bloggers.

As some of you no doubt recall, a blog named “FireDogLake” actually once covered a trial–the Scooter Libby trial–also covered by Nina Totenberg. FDL’s coverage was undoubtedly biased and at times even delved into heavy snark (since then, in fact, one of the bloggers has developed a bit of a reputation for a potty mouth). Nevertheless, FDL’s liveblog–written under the pseudonyms “emptywheel,” “Swopa,” and “Pachacutec”– became the standard “instantaneous” news from the trial. Two of the TradMed journalists in the courtroom–including one whose beat was the Court–followed the stream, not to mention an unknown number of journalists who chose to stay away from the court house and follow along the thread. The General Counsel for the Washington Post chose to follow FDL’s liveblog, rather than the superb work of Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, because with five reporters testifying in the trial, he needed up-to-the-minute near transcription rather than twice-daily analysis of the events. When it was all said and done, Jay Rosen declared that in most categories of coverage “FDL was tops.” I assume Rosen even considered Nina Totenberg’s coverage of the trial when he said that.

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