At the core of the expanding dragnet approved in secret by the FISA Court, Eric Lichtblau explained, is the application of “special needs” to “track” terrorists.
In one of the court’s most important decisions, the judges have expanded the use in terrorism cases of a legal principle known as the “special needs” doctrine and carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures, the officials said.
The special needs doctrine was originally established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger. Applying that concept more broadly, the FISA judges have ruled that the N.S.A.’s collection and examination of Americans’ communications data to track possible terrorists does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, the officials said.
That legal interpretation is significant, several outside legal experts said, because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law — used to justify airport screenings, for instance, or drunken-driving checkpoints — and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications in pursuit of terrorism suspects. “It seems like a legal stretch,” William C. Banks, a national security law expert at Syracuse University, said in response to a description of the decision. [my emphasis]
That’s actually not entirely secret. We see the beginnings of the process in the 2002 In Re Sealed Case decision by the FISC Court of Review, which thwarted FISA Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth’s attempt to limit how much FISA information got shared for criminal prosecutions. In approving the “significant purpose” language passed in the PATRIOT Act which made it far easier for the government to use FISA information to justify criminal investigations, the decision pointed to the post-9/11 threat of terrorism to justify FISA as a special needs program (though as I lay out in this post, they also pointed to the judicial review and specificity of FISA to deem it constitutional, which should have presented problems for the dragnet programs that followed).
FISA’s general programmatic purpose, to protect the nation against terrorists and espionage threats directed by foreign powers, has from its outset been distinguishable from “ordinary crime control.” After the events of September 11, 2001, though, it is hard to imagine greater emergencies facing Americans than those experienced on that date.
We acknowledge, however, that the constitutional question presented by this case–whether Congress’s disapproval of the primary purpose test is consistent with the Fourth Amendment–has no definitive jurisprudential answer. The Supreme Court’s special needs cases involve random stops (seizures) not electronic searches. In one sense, they can be thought of as a greater encroachment into personal privacy because they are not based on any particular suspicion. On the other hand, wiretapping is a good deal more intrusive than an automobile stop accompanied by questioning.
Although the Court in City of Indianapolis cautioned that the threat to society is not dispositive in determining whether a search or seizure is reasonable, it certainly remains a crucial factor. Our case may well involve the most serious threat our country faces. Even without taking into account the President’s inherent constitutional authority to conduct warrantless foreign intelligence surveillance, we think the procedures and government showings required under FISA, if they do not meet the minimum Fourth Amendment warrant standards, certainly come close. We, therefore, believe firmly, applying the balancing test drawn from Keith, that FISA as amended is constitutional because the surveillances it authorizes are reasonable. [my emphasis]
Even in one of the only two FISA opinions (this from the Court of Review) that we’ve seen, then, the courts used the urgent threat of terrorism post-9/11 to justify searches that they found to be very close constitutional questions.
Terrorism was “the most serious threat” our country faces, the argument went, so this seeming violation of the Fourth Amendment was nevertheless reasonable.
Or at least close, a per curium panel including longtime FISA foe Laurence Silberman argued.
And in fact, this argument has always been built into the larger dragnet programs. Jack Goldsmith’s 2004 memo on the illegal program describes how it is premised on intelligence — gathered largely from interrogations of al Qaeda operatives — showing al Qaeda wants to attack in the United States.
As explained in more detail below, since the inception of [the program] intelligence from various sources (particularly from interrogations of detained al Qaeda operatives) has provided a continuing flow of information indicating that al Qaeda has had, and continues to have, multiple redundant plans for executing further attacks within the United States. Read more