Russ Feingold

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FBI’s Back Door Searches: Explicit Permission … and Before That

I have written numerous times about the timing of authorization for FBI to do back door searches. There’s a passage of the November 6, 2015 FISC opinion finding those searches to be constitutional that some have taken to clearly date the authority. But I believe the (unredacted sections of the) passage are being misread.

As Judge Thomas Hogan describes, “Queries by FBI personnel of Section 702-acquired data…

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As the unredacted parts of the section make clear, queries for both foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime “have been explicitly permitted by the FBI Minimization Procedures since 2009.” [my emphasis] The footnote goes onto describe how Minimization Procedures approved by Attorney General Mukasey on October 22, 2008 and submitted on some redacted date were approved by an opinion issued on April 7, 2009.

Already, that’s a curious set of details. If the minimization procedures were approved in October 2008, normally they’d be submitted close to right away, though it’s not clear that that happened. But why bother, given that FISC had just approved FAA certifications on September 4 (this timing resembles what had happened earlier that year, when the government significantly changed the program within days of getting certificates approved)?  In any case, James Clapper’s censors want to hide what those dates were. One likely reason they might have done so would be to hide the dates from defendants, including a few of the ones challenging 702. Another would be to obscure how the approval process went after passage of FISA Amendments Act, specifically given that the FISA Court of Review finalized its Yahoo opinion in August of that year, in which it relied on DOJ’s promise that “there is no database” of incidentally collected US person information.

There Is No Database

But two other things suggest that’s not the end of the story. First, the use of “explicitly” suggests there may have been a period before FISC approved the minimization procedures when such a practice was approved but perhaps not explicitly. Perhaps that simply refers to that lag period, between the time Mukasey approved those minimization procedures and the time FISC approved them.

But then there’s that redacted paragraph (the next footnote, 25, starts after it). Hogan adds something to his discussion beyond his description of the explicit approval of those minimization procedures.

As I have pointed out, Mukasey (writing with then Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who would also have to approve any PRISM minimization procedures) made it clear in response to a Russ Feingold amendment of FISA Amendments Act in February of 2008 that they intended to spy in Americans under PRISM.

So it sure seems likely the Administration at the very least had FBI back door searches planned, if not already in the works, well before FISC approved the minimization procedures in 2009. That’s probably what Hogan explained in that paragraph, but James Clapper apparently believes it would be legally inconvenient to mention that.

After Lying in a Closed Surveillance Briefing in 2011, Intelligence Community Plans Another Closed Briefing

On May 18, 2011, 48 members of the House (mostly Republicans, but also including MI’s Hansen Clarke) attended a closed briefing given by FBI Director Robert Mueller and General Counsel Valerie Caproni on the USA PATRIOT Act authorities up for reauthorization. The hearing would serve as the sole opportunity for newly elected members to learn about the phone and Internet dragnets conducted under the PATRIOT Act, given Mike Rogers’ decision not to distribute the letter provided by DOJ to inform members on the secret dragnets they were about to reauthorize.

During the hearing, someone asked,

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

One of the briefers — the summary released under FOIA does not say who — responded,

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

As a reminder, hearing witness Robert Mueller had to write and sign a declaration for the FISC two years earlier to justify resuming full authorization for the phone dragnet because, as Judge Reggie Walton had discovered, the NSA had conducted “daily violations of the minimization procedures” for over two years. “The minimization procedures proposed by the government in each successive application and approved and adopted as binding by the orders of the FISC have been so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall BR regime has never functioned effectively,” Walton wrote in March 2009.

Now, I can imagine that whichever FBI witness claimed the FBI didn’t know about any “abuses” rationalized the answer to him or herself using the same claim the government has repeatedly made — that these were not willful abuses. But Walton stated then — and more evidence released since has made clear he was right since — that the government simply chose to subject the vast amount of US person data collected under the PATRIOT Act to EO 12333 standards, not more stringent PATRIOT Act ones. That is, the NSA, operating under FBI authorizations, made a willful choice to ignore the minimization procedures imposed by the 2006 reauthorization of the Act.

Whoever answered that question in 2011 lied, and lied all the more egregiously given that the questioner had no way of phrasing it to get an honest answer about violations of minimization procedures.

Which is why the House Judiciary Committee should pointedly refuse to permit the Intelligence Committee to conduct another such closed briefing, as they plan to do on Section 702 on February 2. Holding a hearing in secret permits the IC to lie to Congress, not to mention disinform some members in a venue where their colleagues can not correct the record (as Feingold might have done in 2011 had he learned what the FBI witnesses said in that briefing).

I mean, maybe HJC Chair Bob Goodlatte wants to be lied to? Otherwise, there’s no sound explanation for scheduling this entire hearing in closed session.


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.


The 2009 Last Ditch Attempt to Undercut the FISA Court

As I laid out in this timeline, sometime in fall 2009, the NSA submitted an end-to-end report describing the Internet dragnet. Then, weeks later, David Kris wrote Reggie Walton, admitting that the had been collecting data outside the categories approved by Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in 2004 — that is, admitting that the rosy picture NSA had painted in its end-to-end report was entirely false. Sometime shortly thereafter, DOJ decided not to submit its Internet dragnet reauthorization application, effectively shutting down the Internet dragnet on or around October 30, 2009 until John “Bates-Stamp” Bates reauthorized it sometime around July 2010.

Which is why I find the discussion of the PATRIOT reauthorization during precisely that time period so interesting.

On October 1 the Senate Judiciary Committee had its first open hearing on PATRIOT reauthorization.  At that point, an effort to require Section 215 have particular ties to terrorism got shut down in an action we now know served to preserve the phone dragnet. The discussion around it created the interest for a classified briefing. On October 7, they got that briefing. Also on October 7, the Obama Administration gave Jeff Sessions a bunch of changes they wanted off of what the bill had been on October 1.

On October 8, the Senate Judiciary Committee had another open hearing on PATRIOT reauthorization. The committee adopted Sessions changes over DiFi’s already watered down version of what Pat Leahy had originally pushed on October 1 (this is what elicited Russ Feingold’s concerns about SJC acting as the Prosecutors Committee). The changes limited Section 215 protections for libraries, fixed the gag order problem with NSLs with a non-fix that is similar to one included in USA Freedom Act. Most significantly, they watered down what would have been new minimization procedures for the PRTT authority (which were ultimately stripped in any case), making clear minimization procedures should only be adopted in exceptional circumstances. As I guessed correctly at the time, this was probably done to protect the PRTT dragnet that was collecting vast amounts of Internet metadata (as well as, contrary to Jeff Sessons’ claims in the hearing, content).

They absolutely gutted the minimization procedures tied to pen registers! Pen registers are almost certainly the means by which the government is conducting the data mining of American people (using the meta-data from their calls and emails to decide whether to tap them fully). And Jeff Sesssions–I mean Barack Obama–simply gutted any requirement that the government get rid of all this meta-data when they’re done with it. They gutted any prohibitions against sharing this information widely. In fact, they’ve specified that judges should only require minimization procedures in extraordinary circumstances. Otherwise, there is very little limiting what they can do with your data and mine once they’ve collected it.

By asserting it had the authority to impose minimization procedures on the Internet dragnet, the FISC tried, utterly unsuccessfully, to prevent the NSA from illegally wiretapping Americans. When the FISC again asserted its authority to impose minimization procedures, NSA just took its toys and went overseas, where it didn’t have that meanie rubber stamp FISC to contend with.

I raise this not only because it suggests DOJ was making legislative efforts to undercut the FISC just as they discovered a huge problem with their Internet dragnet. But also because, in my opinion, the USA Freedom Act makes a similar effort to withdraw any claim the court might make to be able to impose and review compliance with minimization procedures. I don’t think it’s an Internet dragnet this time — as I’ll write later, I think it’s either location (which is fairly banal) or more interesting flow analyses. But I think Congress — with the support of civil liberties NGOs, this time — is still trying to undercut the way that FISC has best been able to impose some controls on the government’s spying.

How to Fix the FISA Court … Or Not

The government assures us that it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary. On these facts, incidentally collected communications of non-targeted United States persons do not violate the Fourth Amendment.(26)

That line, from the FISCR opinion finding the Protect America Act constitutional, gets to the core problem with the FISA Court scheme. Even in 2009, when the line was first made public, it was pretty clear the government had made a false claim to the FISA Court of Review.

Now that we know that FBI had already been given authority to keep PAA-collected content in databases that they could search at what is now called the assessment stage of investigations — warrantless searches of the content of Americans against whom the FBI has no evidence of wrong-doing — the claim remains one of the signature moments where the government got approval for a program by being less than candid to the court (the government has been caught doing so in both Title III courts and at FISC, and continues to do so).

That’s also why I find Greg McNeal’s paper on Reforming the FISC, while very important, ultimately unconvincing.

McNeal’s paper is invaluable for the way he assesses the decision — in May 2006 — to authorize the collection of all phone records under Section 215. Not only does the paper largely agree with the Democratic appointees on PCLOB that the program is not authorized by the Section 215 statute, McNeal conducts his own assessment of the government’s application to use Section 215 for that purpose.

The application does not fare well.

Moreover, the government recognized that not all records would be relevant to an investigation, but justified relevance on what could best be described as usefulness or necessity to enable the government’s metadata analysis, stating:

The Application fully satisfies all requirements of title V of FISA. In particular, the Application seeks the production of tangible things “for” an international terrorism investigation. 50 U.S.C. § 1861(a)(1). In addition, the Application includes a statement of facts demonstrating that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the business records sought are “relevant” to an authorized investigation. Id.  § 1861(b)(2). Although the call detail records of the [redacted] contain large volumes of metadata, the vast majority of which will not be terrorist-related, the scope of the business records request presents no infirmity under title V. All of the business records to be collected here are relevant to FBI investigations into [redacted] because the NSA can effectively conduct metadata analysis only if it has the data in bulk.49

The government went even further, arguing that if the FISC found that the records were not relevant, that the FISC should read relevance out of the statute by tailoring its analysis in a way that would balance the government’s request to collect metadata in bulk against the degree of intrusion into privacy interests. Disregarding the fact that the balancing of these interests was likely already engaged in by Congress when writing section 215, the government wrote:

In addition, even if the metadata from non-terrorist communications were deemed not relevant, nothing in title V of FISA demands that a request for the production of “any tangible things” under that provision collect only information that is strictly relevant to the international terrorism investigation at hand. Were the Court to require some tailoring to fit the information that will actually be terrorist-related, the business records request detailed in the Application would meet any proper test for reasonable tailoring. Any tailoring standard must be informed by a balancing of the government interest at stake against the degree of intrusion into any protected privacy interests. Here, the Government’s interest is the most compelling imaginable: the defense of the Nation in wartime from attacks that may take thousands of lives. On the other side of the balance, the intrusion is minimal. As the Supreme Court has held, there is no constitutionally protected interest in metadata, such as numbers dialed on a telephone.50

Thus, what the government asked the court to disregard the judgment of the Congress as to the limitations and privacy interests at stake in the collection of business records. Specifically, the government asked the FISC to disregard Congress’s imposition of a statutory requirement that business records be relevant, and in disregarding that statutory requirement rely on the fact that there was no constitutionally protected privacy interest in business records. The government’s argument flipped the statute on its head, as the purpose of enhancing protections under section 215 was to supplement the constitutional baseline protections for privacy that were deemed inadequate by Congress.

McNeal is no hippie. That he largely agrees and goes beyond PCLOB’s conclusion that this decision was not authorized by the statute is significant.

But as I said, I disagree with his remedy — and also with his assessment of the single source of this dysfunction.

McNeal’s remedy is laudable. He suggests all FISC decisions should be presumptively declassified and any significant FISC decision should get automatic appellate review, done by FISCR. That’s not dissimilar to a measure in Pat Leahy’s USA Freedom Act, which I’ve written about here. With my cautions about that scheme noted, I think McNeal’s remedy may have value.

The reason it won’t be enough stems from two things.

First, the government has proven it cannot be trusted with ex parte proceedings in the FISC. That may seem harsh, but the Yahoo challenge — which is the most complete view we’ve ever had of how the court works, even with a weak adversary — really damns the government’s conduct. In addition to the seemingly false claim to FISCR about whether the government held databases of incidentally collected data, over the course of the Yahoo challenge, the government,

  • Entirely restructured the program — bringing the FBI into a central role of the process — without telling Reggie Walton about these major changes to the program the challenge he was presiding over evaluated; this would be the first of 4 known times in Walton’s 7-year tenure where he had to deal with the government withholding materially significant information from the court
  • Provided outdated versions of documents, effectively hiding metadata that would have shown EO 12333, which was a key issue being litigated, was more fluid than presented to the court
  •  Apparently did not notice either FISC or FISCR about an OLC opinion — language from which was declassified right in the middle of the challenge — authorizing the President to pixie dust EO 12333 at any time without noting that publicly
  • Apparently did not provide the underlying documents explaining another significant change they made during the course of the challenge, which would have revealed how easily Americans could be reverse targeted under a program prohibiting it; these procedures were critical to FISCR’s conclusion the program was legal

In short, the materials withheld or misrepresented over the course of the Yahoo challenge may have made the difference in FISCR’s judgment that the program was legal (even ignoring all the things withheld from Yahoo, especially regarding the revised role of FBI in the process). (Note, in his paper, McNeal rightly argues Congress and the public could have had a clear idea of what Section 702 does; I’d limit that by noting that almost no one besides me imagined they were doing back door searches before that was revealed by the Snowden leaks).

One problem with McNeal’s suggestion, then, is that the government simply can’t be trusted to engage in ex parte proceedings before the FISC or FISCR. Every major program we’ve seen authorized by the court has featured significant misrepresentations about what the program really entailed. Every one! Until we eliminate that problem, the value of these courts will be limited.

But then there is the other problem, my own assessment of the source of the problem with FISC. McNeal thinks it is that Congress wants to pawn its authority off onto the FISC.

The underlying disease is that Congress wants things to operate the way that they do; Congress wants the FISC and has incentives to maintain the status quo.

Why does Congress want the FISC? Because it allows them to push accountability off to someone else. If members ofCongress are responsible for conducting oversight of secretoperations, their reputations are on the line if the operations gotoo far toward violating civil liberties, or not far enoughtoward protecting national security. However, with the FISC conducting operations, Congress has the ability to dodge accountability by claiming they have empowered a court to conduct oversight.

I don’t, in general, disagree with this sentiment in the least. The last thing Congress wants to do is make a decision that might later be tied to an intelligence failure, a terrorist attack, a botched operation. Heck, I’d add that the last thing most members of Congress serving on the Intelligence Committees would want to do is piss off the contractors whose donations provide one of the perks of the seat.

But the dysfunction of the FISC stems, in significant part, from something else.

In his paper on the phone dragnet (which partly incorporates the Internet dragnet), David Kris suggests the original decision to bring the dragnets under the FISC (in the paper he was limited by DOJ review about what he could say of the Internet dragnet, so it is not entirely clear whether he means the Colleen Kollar-Kotelly opinion that paved the way for the flawed Malcolm Howard one McNeal critiques, or the Howard one) was erroneous. Continue reading

Yahoo’s Lawyer’s Take on the Yahoo Trove

Even back in 2009, when Russ Feingold made it clear that Yahoo had no access to the data it needed to aggressively challenge the Protect American Act orders it received, I realized what a tough legal fight it was to litigate blind. That has only been made more clear by the document trove released last week.

Which is why Mark Zwillinger’s comments about the trove are so interesting.

First, ZwillGen points out that the challenge to the PAA directives may not have helped Yahoo avoid complying, but it did win an important victory allowing providers to challenge surveillance orders.

[I]n this fight, the government argued that Yahoo had no standing to challenge a directive on the basis of the Fourth Amendment rights of its users. See Government’s Ex Parte Brief at pages 53-56.Although the government was forced to change its position after it lost this issue at both the FISC and the FISCR — and such standing was expressly legislated into the FAA – had the government gotten its way, surveillance orders under § 702 would have been unchallengeable by any party until the fruits of the surveillance were sought to be used against a defendant in a criminal case. That would have given the executive branch even greater discretion to conduct widespread surveillance with little potential for judicial review. Even though Yahoo lost the overall challenge, winning on the standing point was crucial, and by itself made the fight personally worthwhile.

ZwillGen next notes that the big numbers reported in the press — the $250K fines for non-compliance — actually don’t capture the full extent of the fines the government was seeking. It notes that the fines would have added up to $400 million in the second month of non-compliance (it took longer than that to obtain a final decision from the FISCR).

Simple math indicates that Yahoo was facing fines of over $25 million dollars for the 1st month of noncompliance, and fines of over $400 million in the second month if the court went along with the government’s proposal. And practically speaking, coercive civil fines means that the government would seek increased fines, with no ceiling, until Yahoo complied. 

Finally — going directly to the points Feingold made 5 years ago — Yahoo had no access to the most important materials in the case, the classified appendix showing all the procedures tied to the dragnet.

The ex parte, classified appendix was just that: a treasure trove of documents, significantly longer than the joint appendix, which Yahoo had never seen before August 22, 2014. Yahoo was denied the opportunity to see any of the documents in the classified, ex parteappendix—even in summary form. Those documents bear a look today. They include certifications underlying the § 702 directives, procedures governing communications metadata analysis, a declaration from the Director of National Intelligence, numerous minimization procedures regarding the FBI’s use of process, and, perhaps most importantly, a FISC decision from January 15, 2008regarding the procedures for the DNI/AG Certification at issue, which Yahoo had never seen. It examines those procedures under a “clearly erroneous” standard of review – which is one of the most deferential standards used by the judiciary. Yahoo did not have these documents at the time, nor the opportunity to conduct any discovery. It could not fully challenge statements the government made, such as the representation to FISCR “assur[ing the Court] it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary.” Nor could Yahoo use the January 15, 2008 decision to demonstrate how potential flaws in the targeting process translated into real world effects.

This blind litigation is, of course, still the position defense attorneys challenging FISA orders for their clients are in.

Yahoo actually made a pretty decent argument 6 years ago, pointing to incidental collection, collection of Americans’ records overseas (something curtailed, at least in name, under FISA Amendments Act), and dodgy analysis underlying the targeting decisions handed off to Yahoo. But they weren’t permitted the actual documentation they needed to make that case. Which left the government to claim — falsely — that the government was not conducting back door searches on incidentally collected data.

For years, ex parte proceedings have allowed the government to lie to courts and avoid real adversarial challenges to their spying. And not much is changing about that anytime soon.

The Curious Timing of FBI’s Back Door Searches

The very first thing I remarked on when I read the Yahoo FISCR opinion when it was first released in 2009 was this passage.

The petitioner’s concern with incidental collections is overblown. It is settled beyond peradventure that incidental collections occurring as a result of constitutionally permissible acquisitions do not render those acquisitions unlawful.9 See, e.g., United States v. Kahn, 415 U.S. 143, 157-58 (1974); United States v. Schwartz, 535 F.2d 160, 164 (2d Cir. 1976). The government assures us that it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary. On these facts, incidentally collected communications of non-targeted United States persons do not violate the Fourth Amendment.(26 in original release; 30 in current release)

The government claimed to FISCR that it did not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted US persons.

Barring some kind of neat parse, I didn’t buy the claim, not even in 2009.

Since then, we’ve found out that — barring some kind of neat parse — I was absolutely right. In fact, they are doing back door searches on this data, especially at FBI.

What I’m particularly intrigued by, now, is the timing.

FISCR said that in an opinion dated August 22, 2008 — over a month after the July 10, 2008 passage of the FISA Amendments Act. I have not yet found evidence of when the government said that to FISCR. It doesn’t appear in the unredacted part of their Jun 5, 2008 Merits brief (which cites Kahn but not Schwartz; see 49-50), though it might appear behind the redaction on 41. Of note, the April 25, 2008 FISC opinion doesn’t even mention the issue in its incidental collection discussion (starting at 95), though it does discuss amended certifications filed in February 2008.

So I’m guessing the government made that representation at the hearing in June, 2008.

We know, from John Bates’ rationale for authorizing NSA and CIA back door searches, such back door searches were first added to FBI minimization procedures in 2008.

When Bates approved back door searches in his October 3, 2011 opinion, he pointed to FBI’s earlier (and broader) authorities to justify approving it for NSA and CIA. While the mention of FBI is redacted here, at that point it was the only other agency whose minimization procedures had to be approved by FISC, and FBI is the agency that applies for traditional FISA warrants.

[redacted] contain an analogous provision allowing queries of unminimized FISA-acquired information using identifiers — including United States-person identifiers — when such queries are designed to yield foreign intelligence information. See [redacted]. In granting [redacted] applications for electronic surveillance or physical search since 2008, including applications targeting United States persons and persons in the United States, the Court has found that the [redacted] meet the definitions of minimization procedures at 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801(h) and 1821(4). It follows that the substantially-similar querying provision found at Section 3(b)(5) of the amended NSA minimization procedures should not be problematic in a collection that is focused on non-United States persons located outside the United States and that, in aggregate, is less likely to result in the acquisition of nonpublic information regarding non-consenting United States persons.

So since 2008, FBI has had the ability to do back door searches on all the FISA-authorized data they get, including taps targeting US persons.

The FBI Minimization procedures submitted with the case all date to the 1990s, though a 2006 amendment changing how they logged the identities of US persons collected (note, in 2011, John Bates was bitching at FBI for having ignored an order to reissue all its minimization procedures with updates; I can see why he complained).

As described in the Government’s response of June 16, 2006, identities of U.S. persons that have not been logged are often maintained in FBI databases that contain unminimized information. The procedures now simply refer to “the identities” of U.S. persons, acknowledging that the FBI may not have previously logged such identities.

But there’s reason to believe the FBI minimization procedures — and this logging process — was changed in 2008, because a government document submitted in the Basaaly Moalin case — we know Moalin was wiretapped from December 2007 to April 2008, so during precisely the period of the Yahoo challenge, though he was not indicted until much later — referenced two sets of minimization procedures, seeming to reflect a change in minimization during the period of his surveillance (or perhaps during the period of surveillance of Aden Ayro, which is how Moalin is believed to have been identified).

That is, it all seems to have been happening in 2008.

The most charitable guess would be that explicit authorization for back door searches happened with the FAA, so before the FISCR ruling, but after the briefing.

Except in a letter to Russ Feingold during early debates  on the FAA, Mike Mukasey and Mike McConnell (the latter of whom was involved in this Yahoo fight) strongly shot down a Feingold amendment that would have required the government to segregate all communications not related to terrorism (and a few other things), and requiring a FISA warrant to access them.

The Mukasey-McConnell attack on segregation is most telling. They complain that the amendment makes a distinction between different kinds of foreign intelligence (one exception to the segregation requirement in the amendment is for “concerns international terrorist activities directed against the United States, or activities in preparation therefor”), even while they claim it would “diminish our ability swiftly to monitor a communication from a foreign terrorist overseas to a person in the United States.” In other words, the complain that one of the only exceptions is for communications relating terrorism, but then say this will prevent them from getting communications pertaining to terrorism.

Then it launches into a tirade that lacks any specifics:

It would have a devastating impact on foreign intelligence surveillance operations; it is unsound as a matter of policy; its provisions would be inordinately difficult to implement; and thus it is unacceptable.

As Feingold already pointed out, the government has segregated the information they collected under PAA–they’re already doing this. But to justify keeping US person information lumped in with foreign person information, they offer no affirmative reason to do so, but only say it’s too difficult and so they refuse to do it.

Even 5 years ago, the language about the “devastating impact” segregating non-terrorism data might have strongly suggested the entire point of this collection was to provide for back door searches.

But that letter was dated February 5, 2008, before the FISCR challenge had even begun. While not definitive, this seems to strongly suggest, at least, that the government planned — even if it hadn’t amended the FBI minimization procedures yet — to retain a database of incidentally data to search on, before the government told FISCR they did not.

Update: I forgot a very important detail. In a hearing this year, Ron Wyden revealed that NSA’s authority to do back door searches had been closed some time during the Bush Administration, before it was reopened by John “Bates stamp” Bates.

Let me start by talking about the fact that the House bill does not ban warrantless searches for Americans’ emails. And here, particularly, I want to get into this with you, Mr. Ledgett if I might. We’re talking of course about the backdoor search loophole, section 702 of the FISA statute. This allows NSA in effect to look through this giant pile of communications that are collected under 702 and deliberately conduct warrantless searches for the communications of individual Americans.  This loophole was closed during the Bush Administration, but it was reopened in 2011, and a few months ago the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged in a letter to me that the searches are ongoing today. [my emphasis]

When I noted that Wyden had said this, I guessed that the government had shut down back door searches in the transition from PAA to FAA, but that seems less likely, having begun to review these Yahoo documents, then that it got shut down in response to the hospital confrontation.

But it shows that more extensive back door searches had been in place before the government implied to the FISCR that they weren’t doing back door searches that they clearly were at least contemplating at that point. I’d really like to understand how the government believes they didn’t lie to the FISCR in that comment (though it wouldn’t be the last time they lied to courts about their databases of Americans).

“Linking” Procedures in the Yahoo Opinion

As I mentioned earlier, Yahoo is finally releasing the documents pertaining to its challenge of Protect America Act directives in 2008. The LAT has loaded the Yahoo documents in an easy to access page.

This post will look primarily at the FISCR opinion.

As you’ll recall, this opinion was previously released in 2009 (and in fact, the previous list has names of some of the DOJ people who are redacted with this release unredacted).

The four main new disclosures I noted are:

  • A discussion of differences between the definition of foreign power in EO 12333 and FISA
  • Concerns Yahoo raised about how inaccurate the first directives it had received (the Court appears to misunderstood the seriousness of the inaccuracies)
  • Discussion of a parting shot — this supplemental brief makes it clear the largely redacted discussion pertains to US person data collected overseas; I’ll probably return to this, but it appears Yahoo’s concerns were born out and led to the addition of Sections 703-5 in FISA Amendments Act.
  • Reference to “linking” procedures which were part of what FISCR used to deem the collection constitutional

That last item — the “linking” procedures — is what was redacted in this post I did when the memo was first released. As I noted then, the procedures were what the FISCR used to meet particularity requirements.

The following passage starts on page 23:

The linking procedures — procedures that show that the [redacted] designated for surveillance are linked to persons reasonably believed to be overseas and otherwise appropriate targets — involve the application of “foreign intelligence factors” These factors are delineated in an ex parte appendix filed by the government. They also are described, albeit with greater generality, in the government’s brief. As attested by affidavits  of the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), the government identifies [redacted] surveillance for national security purposes on information indicating that, for instance, [big redaction] Although the FAA itself does not mandate a showing of particularity, see 50 U.S.C. § 1805(b). This pre-surveillance procedure strikes us as analogous to and in conformity with the particularly showing contemplated by Sealed Case.

I’ll need to look more closely to find this brief — if it was released. But I suspect that this shows more closely how the metadata dragnets and the content collection are linked. They collect the metadata to mine for “proof” of meaningful connection, then use that to unlock the content. That’s not surprising — it’s what I had been speculating since days after Risen first broke this — but it’s important to flesh out. Because, of course, all this not-a-search metadata really is, because it leads directly to the content.

As I noted in my post in 2009, Russ Feingold released a statement with the release of the opinion, basically arguing that Yahoo could have won this if they had had access to the procedures related to the program (Mark Zwillinger made the same point when he testified to PCLOB).

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 courtupheld 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.

There’s no reason to believe the “linking” procedures are what Feingold was referring to. After all, there still are details of the minimization and targeting procedures that raise big constitutional issues. Plus, we know foreign collection has always been a big concern of Feingold’s. But I am wondering whether part of the problem was that their contact chaining was not very good, and therefore they were collecting people who really weren’t linked to the targets in question.

Which might explain why Yahoo was experiencing so many dud directives in the first months of its operation.

USA Freedumber Will Not Get Better in the “Prosecutors” Committee

Having been badly outmaneuvered on USA Freedumber — what was sold as reform but is in my opinion an expansion of spying in several ways — in the House, civil liberties groups are promising a real fight in the Senate.

“This is going to be the fight of the summer,” vowed Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

If advocates are able to change the House bill’s language to prohibit NSA agents from collecting large quantities of data, “then that’s a win,” he added.

“The bill still is not ideal even with those changes, but that would be an improvement,” Rottman said.


“We were of course very disappointed at the weakening of the bill,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “Right now we really are turning our attention to the Senate to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”


One factor working in the reformers’ favor is the strong support of Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Unlike House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who only came to support the bill after negotiations to produce a manager’s amendment, Leahy was the lead Senate sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.

The fact that Leahy controls the committee gavel means he should be able to guide the bill through when it comes up for discussion next month, advocates said.

“The fact that he is the chairman and it’s his bill and this is an issue that he has been passionate about for many years” is comforting, Greene said.

I hope they prove me wrong. But claims this will get better in the Senate seem to ignore the recent history of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s involvement in surveillance bills, not to mention the likely vote counts.

It is true Pat Leahy wants real reform. And he has a few allies on SJC. But in recent years, every surveillance-related bill that came through SJC has been watered down when Dianne Feinstein offered an alternative (which Leahy sometimes adopted as a manager’s amendment, perhaps realizing he didn’t have the votes). After DiFi offered reform, Sheldon Whitehouse (who a number of less sophisticated SJC members look to as a guide on these issues) enthusiastically embraced it, and everyone fell into line. Often, a Republican comes in and offers a “bipartisan reform” (meaning conservative Republicans joining with the Deep State) that further guts the bill.

This is how the Administration (shacking up with Jeff Sessions) defeated an effort to rein in Section 215 and Pen Registers in 2009.

This is how DiFi defeated an effort to close the backdoor loophole in 2012.

As this was happening in 2009, Russ Feingold called out SJC for acting as if it were the “Prosecutors Committee,” rather than the Judiciary Committee.

(Note, in both of those cases as well as on the original passage of Section 702, I understood fairly clearly what the efforts to stymie reform would do, up to 4 years before those programs were publicly revealed; I’ve got a pretty good record on this front!)

And if you don’t believe this is going to happen again, tell me why this whip count is wrong:

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 5.18.49 PM

If my read here is right, the best case scenario — short of convincing Sheldon Whitehouse some of what the government wants to do is unconstitutional, which John Bates has already ruled that it is — is relying on people like Ted Cruz (whose posturing on civil liberties is often no more than that) and Jeff Flake (who was great on these issues in the House but has been silent and absent throughout this entire debate). And that’s all to reach a 9-9 tie in SJC.

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Had Leahy had the votes to move USA Freedom Act through SJC, he would have done so in October.

That was the entire point of starting in the House: because there was such a large number of people (albeit, for the  most part without gavels) supporting real reform in the House. But because reformers (starting with John Conyers and Jerry Nadler) uncritically accepted a bad compromise and then let it be gutted, that leverage was squandered.

Right now, we’re looking at a bill that outsources an expanded phone dragnet to the telecoms (with some advantages and some drawbacks), but along the way resets other programs to what they were before the FISC reined them in from 2009 to 2011. That’s the starting point. With a vote count that leaves us susceptible to further corruption of the bill along the way.

Edward Snowden risked his freedom to try to rein in the dragnet, and instead, as of right now it looks like Congress will expand it.

Update: I’ve moved Richard Blumenthal into the “pro reform” category based on this statement after the passage of USA Freedumber. Thanks to Katherine Hawkins for alerting me to the statement.

No Protection for International Communications: Russ Feingold Told Us So

Both the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer and EFF have reviews of the government’s latest claims about Section 702. In response to challenges by two defendants, Mohamed Osman Mohamud and Jamshid Muhtorov, to the use of 702-collected information, the government claims our international communications have no Fourth Amendment protection.

Here’s how Jaffer summarizes it:

It’s hardly surprising that the government believes the 2008 law is constitutional – government officials advocated for its passage six years ago, and they have been vigorously defending the law ever since. Documents made public over the last eleven-and-a-half months by the Guardian and others show that the NSA has been using the law aggressively.

What’s surprising – even remarkable – is what the government says on the way to its conclusion. It says, in essence, that the Constitution is utterly indifferent to the NSA’s large-scale surveillance of Americans’ international telephone calls and emails:

The privacy rights of US persons in international communications are significantly diminished, if not completely eliminated, when those communications have been transmitted to or obtained from non-US persons located outside the United States.

That phrase – “if not completely eliminated” – is unusually revealing. Think of it as the Justice Department’s twin to the NSA’s “collect it all”.


In support of the law, the government contends that Americans who make phone calls or sends emails to people abroad have a diminished expectation of privacy because the people with whom they are communicating – non-Americans abroad, that is – are not protected by the Constitution.

The government also argues that Americans’ privacy rights are further diminished in this context because the NSA has a “paramount” interest in examining information that crosses international borders.

And, apparently contemplating a kind of race to the bottom in global privacy rights, the government even argues that Americans can’t reasonably expect that their international communications will be private from the NSA when the intelligence services of so many other countries – the government doesn’t name them – might be monitoring those communications, too.

The government’s argument is not simply that the NSA has broad authority to monitor Americans’ international communications. The US government is arguing that the NSA’s authority is unlimited in this respect. If the government is right, nothing in the Constitution bars the NSA from monitoring a phone call between a journalist in New York City and his source in London. For that matter, nothing bars the NSA from monitoring every call and email between Americans in the United States and their non-American friends, relatives, and colleagues overseas.

I tracked Feingold’s warnings about Section 702 closely in 2008. That’s where I first figured out the risk of what we now call back door searches, for example. But I thought his comment here was a bit alarmist.

As I’ve learned to never doubt Ron Wyden’s claims about surveillance, I long ago learned never to doubt Feingold’s.


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