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The Scandal of Lying about “Thwarted” “Plots” Started 4 Years Ago

As predicted, one big takeaway from yesterday’s NSA hearing (the other being the obviously partial disclosure about location tracking) is Keith Alexander’s admission that rather than 54 “plots” “thwarted” in the US thanks to the dragnet, only one or maybe two were. Here are some examples.

But they’re missing this real scandal about the government’s lies about the central importance of Section 215.

That scandal started 4 years ago, when an example the FBI now admits had limited import played a critical role in the reauthorization of Section 215 without limits on the dragnet authority.

First, note that even while Leahy got Alexander to back off his “54 plots” claim, the General still tried to insist Section 215 had been critical in two plots, not just one.

SEN. LEAHY: Let’s go into that discussion, because both of you have raised concerns that the media reports about the government surveillance programs have been incomplete, inaccurate, misleading or some combination of that. But I’m worried that we’re still getting inaccurate and incomplete statements from the administration.

For example, we have heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted by the use of Section 215 and/or Section 702 authorities. That’s plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress; we get it in statements. These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with an inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.

Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and out of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S. Would you agree with that, yes or no?

DIR. ALEXANDER: Yes.

SEN. LEAHY: OK. In our last hearing, Deputy Director Inglis’ testimony stated that there’s only really one example of a case where, but for the use of Section 215, bulk phone records collection, terrorist activity was stopped. Is Mr. Inglis right?

DIR. ALEXANDER: He’s right. I believe he said two, Chairman; I may have that wrong, but I think he said two, and I would like to point out that it could only have applied in 13 cases because of the 54 terrorist plots or events, only 13 occurred in the U.S. Business Record FISA was only used in (12 of them ?).

SEN. LEAHY: I understand that, but what I worry about is that some of these statements that all is — all is well, and we have these overstatements of what’s going on — we’re talking about massive, massive, massive collection. We’re told we have to do that to protect us, and then statistics are rolled out that are not accurate. It doesn’t help with the credibility here in the Congress; doesn’t help with the credibility with us, Chairman, and it doesn’t help with the credibility with the — with the country. [my emphasis]

Here’s the transcript at I Con the Record from the previous hearing, where Inglis in fact testified that Section 215 was only critical in the Basaaly Moalin case (which was not a plot against the US but rather funding to defeat a US backed invasion of Somalia).

MR. INGLIS: There is an example amongst those 13 that comes close to a but-for example and that’s the case of Basaaly Moalin.

 

That is, in fact, Inglis said it had been critical in just one “plot.”

After he did, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce piped in to note the phone dragnet also “played a role” by identifying a new phone number of a suspect we already knew about in the Najibullah Zazi case.

MR. JOYCE: I just want to relate to the homeland plots. So in Najibullah Zazi and the plot to bomb the New York subway system, Business Record 215 played a role; it identified specifically a number we did not previously know of a —

SEN. LEAHY: It was a — it was a critical role?

MR. JOYCE: What I’m saying — what it plays a

SEN. LEAHY: (And was there ?) some undercover work that was — took place in there?

MR. JOYCE: Yes, there was some undercover work.

SEN. LEAHY: Yeah —

MR. JOYCE: What I’m saying is each tool plays a different role, Mr. Chairman. I’m not saying that it is the most important tool —

SEN. LEAHY: Wasn’t the FBI — wasn’t the FBI already aware of the individual in contact with Zazi?

MR. JOYCE: Yes, we were, but we were not aware of that specific telephone number, which NSA provided us. [my emphasis]

So, when pressed, Joyce admitted that Section 215 wasn’t critical to finding Adis Medunjanin, one of Zazi’s conspirators. (And if you read Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s Enemies Within, you see just how minor a role it played.)

That’s important, because the Administration’s use of Section 215 in the Zazi case was crucially important to the defeat of two efforts to rein in the dragnet in 2009.

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What Does the Government Consider “Protected” First Amendment Activities?

The other day, AP’s Matt Lee called out State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki’s suggestion that Edward Snowden is not entitled to free speech.

QUESTION: Okay. Then I just don’t understand. I think this is an incredibly slippery slope that you’re going down here, that the U.S. Government is going down here, if you are coming up and saying to us that you’re trying to prevent an American citizen – albeit one who has been accused of serious crimes – from exercising his right to free speech. You don’t agree with that?

MS. PSAKI: I believe that what I’ve conveyed most proactively here is our concern about those who helped facilitate this event —

QUESTION: Yes.

MS. PSAKI: — and make it into a propaganda platform.

QUESTION: Right. And —

QUESTION: Or a public asylum —

QUESTION: — the propaganda platform aside, free speech covers propaganda. Last time I checked, it covers a lot of things. And I don’t see, unless he’s somehow violated U.S. law by speaking at this – at the Russian – the transit line at the Russian airport, I don’t see why you would be disappointed in the Russians for, one, facilitating it, but also, apparently from what it sounds like, tried to discourage them from – tried to discourage this – them from allowing this event to take place in the – to take place at all.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, this isn’t happening, clearly, because we wouldn’t be talking about it, in a vacuum. And this is an individual, as we all know, who has been accused of felony crimes in the United States. We have expressed strongly our desire to have him returned —

QUESTION: I understand.

MS. PSAKI: — to face those charges. This is all applicable context to these circumstances.

QUESTION: But as you have also said, he is a U.S. citizen.

MS. PSAKI: He is, yes.

QUESTION: He remains a U.S. citizen, and he enjoys certain rights as a U.S. citizen. One of those rights, from your point of view, is that he has the right to come back and face trial for the crimes he’s committed. But the rights that you’re not talking about are his right to free speech, his right to talk with whoever he wants to, freedom to assemble. I don’t understand why those rights are – why you ignore those and simply say that he has – that he’s welcome to come back to the United States to exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers. Why is that the only right that he gets, according to this Administration? [my emphasis]

As it happens, I read it about the same time i read this passage, from the government’s opposition to Basaaly Saeed Moalin’s challenge to the FISA-derived evidence against him (see this post for more background).

Moalin claims he was fargeted for FISC-authorized surveillance in violation of FISA’s stipulation that no United States person may be considered a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power solely on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment. Docket No 92 at 18-19 (citing 50 U.S.C. §§ 1805(a)(2)(A), 1824(a)(2)(A)). Although protected First Amendment activities canot form the sole basis for FISC-authorized electronic surveillance or physical search, not all speech-related activities fall within the protection of the First Amendment. See infra at 70.

That is, when faced with limitations on surveillance based on First Amendment activities, the government claimed that not all speech is protected.

(Note, I’m not certain because the page numbers listed in this unclassified motion are to the pagination of the classified motion, but I believe that reference to speech that is not protected is redacted.)

That’s important because of the narrative the government presented in this motion (which is different from what Sean Joyce presented to the House Intelligence Committee — I believe both narratives are in fact badly misleading).

In the materials presented in this case, the government suggests FISA-authorized surveillance on Moalin’s calls with al-Shabaab warlord Aden Ayrow started, out of the blue, in December 2007, several months before al-Shabaab was listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. I’m not aware of any evidence it presents that precedes these calls. Yet these early calls show no evidence of criminal behavior.

Thus, the evidence suggests that merely calling someone considered a terrorist but whose group was not yet officially designated as such by the government makes one an agent of a foreign power.

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The 8-FISA Judge 11-Docket Spying Authorization to Identify Less than $10,000 to Al-Shabaab

In a hearing last month, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce described a case in which the phone metadata database helped catch terrorists. (after 1:07)

Lastly, the FBI had opened an investigation shortly after 9/11. We did not have enough information, nor did we find links to terrorism, so we shortly thereafter closed the investigation. However, the NSA, using the business record FISA, tipped us off that this individual had indirect contacts with a known terrorist overseas. We were able to reopen this investigation, identify additional individuals through legal process, and were able to disrupt this terrorist activity.

While he didn’t name it, subsequent discussions of the case made it clear he meant Basaaly Saeed Moalin, a Somali-American convicted with three others in February for sending less than $10,000 to al-Shabaab (altogether Moalin was charged with sending $17,000 to Somalia, the balance of it to non-Shabaab figures the government claims are also terrorists).

Moalin’s lawyer Joshua Dratel unsuccessfully challenged the government’s use of material derived from FISA (the judge’s opinion rejecting the challenge has never been released). Yet even with that challenge, Dratel was never informed of the use of Section 215 in the case.

All that said, the government’s opposition to his challenge is utterly fascinating, even with huge chunks redacted. I’m going to do a weedy post on it shortly. But for now, I want to point to three indicia that reveal how much more complex this surveillance was than Joyce described to the House Intelligence Committee.

First, as part of the introduction, the government provided an (entirely redacted) Overview of the FISA Collection at Issue. While we have no idea how long that passage is, the government needed 9 footnotes to explain the collection (they are also entirely redacted). Similarly, a section arguing “The FISA Applications Established Probable Cause” has the following structure and footnotes (the content is entirely redacted):

[footnote to general material]

1.

a.

2.

a. [6 footnotes]

b.

i. [2 footnotes]

ii.

iii. [1 footnote]

iv. [2 footnotes]

v. [3 footnotes]

Now it may be that section 1 here pertains to physical collection, and section 2 pertains to electronic collection (both were used, though I suspect the physical collection was metaphorical in some way). But even there, there seem to be at least 6 and possibly far more orders involved, with two types of collection — perhaps one pertaining to bulk 702-style collection (most of the intercepts happened under Protect America Act) and the other to the use of Section 215.

Then, as part of a discussion about the minimization requirements tied to the application(s) involved, the government revealed 8 different FISC judges signed off on orders pertaining to the collection.

In order to fulfill the statutory requirements discussed above, the Attorney General has adopted standard minimization procedures for FISC-authorized electronic surveilance and physical search that are on file with the FISC and that are incorporated by reference into every relevant FISA application that is submitted to the FISC. As a result, the eight FISC judges who issued the orders authorizing the FISA collections at issue in this case found that the applicable standard minimization procedures met FISA’s statutory requirements. The FISC orders in the dockets at issue directed the Governent to follow the approved minimization procedures in conducting the FISA collection. [my emphasis]

But it appears this surveillance involved even more than 8 orders. In a section claiming that this surveillance is not complex, the government cited 11 sealed exhibits that include the dockets at issue.

There is nothing extraordinary about this case that would prompt the Court to be the first to order the disclosure of highly sensitive and classified FISA materials. Disclosure is not necessar for the Court to determine the legality of the collection. Here, the FISA dockets – at Sealed Exhibits 16-26 – are well-organized and easily reviewable by the Court in camera and ex parte. The Index of Materials in the Government’s Sealed Exhibit and this memorandum serve as a road map through the issues presented for the Court’s in camera and ex parte determination. The FISA materials contain ample information from which the Court can make an accurate determination of the legality of the FISA collection; indeed, they are “relatively straightforward and not complex.” [my emphasis]

15 footnotes addressing probable cause approved by 8 judges over 11 different dockets.

This is not a simple check of the phone database. (I’ll explain what I think actually happened with the surveillance we know about in a future post.)

Now, some of this clearly invokes the iterative approval of programmatic orders as described by Eric Lichtblau and the WSJ. The May 2006 opinion authorizing the use of Section 215 to collect phone records for every American surely is one of the authorizations cited. That opinion may rely on the 2004 one that authorized the use of Pen Register/Trap and Trace to collect all the Internet metadata in the country. I suspect there may be several orders authorizing collection on al-Shabaab and/or Somalia generally — one that precedes Protect America Act, one that collects under PAA, and probably one that collects under FISA Amendments Act (the key conversations took place in late 2007 through much of 2008). I suspect, too, there’s an order governing collection of all signals off some switch. Then there may be traditional FISA warrants to collect on Moalin and his co-conspirator Mohamud Abdi Yusuf (the other co-conspirators appear not to have been targets of collection).

Still, that only gets you to 8 dockets, even assuming they used a new one for Somalia each time.

“Relatively straightforward … not complex,” the government said, in arguing the defendant shouldn’t get a look at this jerry-rigged system of surveillance. And we still can’t see the logic Judge Jeffrey Miller used to agree with them.