On Friday, I Con the Record revealed that a telecom — Ellen Nakashima confirms it was Verizon — asked the FISA Court to make sure its January 3 order authorizing the phone dragnet had considered Judge Richard Leon’s December 16 decision that it was unconstitutional. On March 20, Judge Rosemary Collyer issued an opinion upholding the program.
Rosemary Collyer’s plea for help
Ultimately, in an opinion that is less shitty than FISC’s previous attempts to make this argument, Collyer examines the US v. Jones decision at length and holds that Smith v. Maryland remains controlling, mostly because no majority has overturned it and SCOTUS has provided no real guidance as to how one might do so. (Her analysis raises some of the nuances I laid out here.)
The section of her opinion rejecting the “mosaic theory” that argues the cumulative effect of otherwise legal surveillance may constitute a search almost reads like a cry for help, for guidance in the face of the obvious fact that the dragnet is excessive and the precedent that says it remains legal.
A threshold question is which standard should govern; as discussed above, the court of appeals’ decision in Maynard and two concurrences in Jones suggest three different standards. See Kerr, “The Mosaic Theory of the Fourth Amendment,” 111 Mich. L. Rev. at 329. Another question is how to group Government actions in assessing whether the aggregate conduct constitutes a search.See id. For example, “[w]hich surveillance methods prompt a mosaic approach? Should courts group across surveillance methods? If so, how? Id. Still another question is how to analyze the reasonableness of mosaic searches, which “do not fit an obvious doctrinal box for determining reasonableness.” Id. Courts adopting a mosaic theory would also have to determine whether, and to what extent, the exclusionary rule applies: Does it “extend over all the mosaic or only the surveillance that crossed the line to trigger a search?”
Any such overhaul of Fourth Amendment law is for the Supreme Court, rather than this Court, to initiate. While the concurring opinions in Jones may signal that some or even most of the Justices are ready to revisit certain settled Fourth Amendment principles, the decision in Jones itself breaks no new ground concerning the third-party disclosure doctrine generally or Smith specifically. The concurring opinions notwithstanding, Jones simply cannot be read as inviting the lower courts to rewrite Fourth Amendment law in this area.
As I read these passages, I imagined that Collyer was trying to do more than 1) point to how many problems overruling the dragnet would cause and 2) uphold the dignity of the rubber stamp FISC and its 36+ previous decisions the phone dragnet is legal.
There is reason to believe she knows what we don’t, at least not officially: that even within the scope of the phone dragnet, the dragnet is part of more comprehensive mosaic surveillance, because it correlates across platforms and identities. And all that’s before you consider how, once dumped into the corporate store and exposed to NSA’s “full range of analytic tradecraft,” innocent Americans might be fingerprinted to include our lifestyles.
That is, not only doesn’t Collyer see a way (because of legal boundary concerns about the dragnet generally, and possibly because of institutional concerns about FISC) to rule the dragnet illegal, but I suspect she sees the reverberations that such a ruling would have on the NSA’s larger project, which very much is about building mosaics of intelligence.
No wonder the government is keeping that August 20, 2008 opinion secret, if it indeed discusses the correlations function in the dragnet, because it may well affect whether the dragnet gets assessed as part of the mosaic NSA uses it as.
Verizon’s flaccid but public legal complaint
Now, you might think such language in Collyer’s opinion would invite Verizon to appeal this decision. But given this lukewarm effort, it seems unlikely to do so. Consider the following details:
Leon issued his decision December 16. Verizon did not ask the FISC for guidance (which makes sense because they are only permitted to challenge orders).
Verizon got a new Secondary Order after the January 3 reauthorization. It did not immediately challenge the order.
It only got around to doing so on January 22 (interestingly, a few days after ODNI exposed Verizon’s role in the phone dragnet a second time), and didn’t do several things — like asking for a hearing or challenging the legality of the dragnet under 50 USC 1861 as applied — that might reflect real concern about anything but the public appearance of legality. (Note, that timing is of particular interest, given that the very next day, on January 23, PCLOB would issue its report finding the dragnet did not adhere to Section 215 generally.)
Indeed, this challenge might not have generated a separate opinion if the government weren’t so boneheaded about secrecy.
Verizon’s petition is less a challenge of the program than an inquiry whether the FISC has considered Leon’s opinion.
It may well be the case that this Court, in issuing the January 3,2014 production order, has already considered and rejected the analysis contained in the Memorandum Order. [redacted] has not been provided with the Court’s underlying legal analysis, however, nor [redacted] been allowed access to such analysis previously, and the order [redacted] does not refer to any consideration given to Judge Leon’s Memorandum Opinion. In light of Judge Leon’s Opinion, it is appropriate [redacted] inquire directly of the Court into the legal basis for the January 3, 2014 production order,
As it turns out, Judge Thomas Hogan (who will take over the thankless presiding judge position from Reggie Walton next month) did consider Leon’s opinion in his January 3 order, as he noted in a footnote.
And that’s about all the government said in its response to the petition (see paragraph 3): that Hogan considered it so the FISC should just affirm it.
Verizon didn’t know that Hogan had considered the opinion, of course, because it never gets Primary Orders (as it makes clear in its petition) and so is not permitted to know the legal logic behind the dragnet unless it asks nicely, which is all this amounted to at first.
Note that the government issued its response (as set by Collyer’s scheduling order) on February 12, the same day it released Hogan’s order and its own successful motion to amend it. So ultimately this headache arose, in part, because of the secrecy with which it treats even its most important corporate spying partners, which only learn about these legal arguments on the same schedule as the rest of us peons.
Yet in spite of the government’s effort to dismiss the issue by referencing Hogan’s footnote, Collyer said because Verizon submitted a petition, “the undersigned Judge must consider the issue anew.” Whether or not she was really required to or could have just pointed to the footnote that had been made public, I don’t know. But that is how we got this new opinion.
Finally, note that Collyer made the decision to unseal this opinion on her own. Just as interesting, while neither side objected to doing so, Verizon specifically suggested the opinion could be released with no redactions, meaning its name would appear unredacted.
The government contends that certain information in these Court records (most notably, Petitioner’s identity as the recipient of the challenged production order) is classified and should remain redacted in versions of the documents that are released to the public. See Gov’t Mem. at 1. Petitioner, on the other hand, “request[s] no redactions should the Court decide to unseal and publish the specified documents.” Pet. Mem. at 5. Petitioner states that its petition “is based entirely on an assessment of [its] own equities” and not on “the potential national security effects of publication,” which it “is in no position to evaluate.” Id.
I’ll return to this. But understand that Verizon wanted this opinion — as well as its own request for it — public.