My apologies to Amy Jeffress.
When I first realized that FISA Court Presiding Judge Thomas Hogan picked her to serve as amicus for the review of the yearly 702 certifications last year, I complained that she, not Marc Zwillinger, got selected (the pick was made in August, but Jeffress would later be picked as one of the standing amicus curiae, along with Zwillinger). After all, Zwillinger has already argued that PRISM (then authorized by Protect America Act) was unconstitutional when he represented Yahoo in its challenge of the program. He’s got experience making this precise argument. Plus, Jeffress not only is a long-time national security prosecutor and former top Eric Holder aide, but she has been involved in some actions designed to protect the Executive. I still think Zwillinger might have done a better job. But Jeffress nevertheless made what appears to be a vigorous, though unsuccessful, argument that FBI’s back door searches of US person data are unconstitutional.
A former top DOJ lawyer believes FBI’s back door queries are unconstitutional
But it says a lot that Jeffress — someone who narrowly missed being picked as Assistant Attorney General for National Security and who presumably got at least some visibility on back door searches when working with Holder — argued that FBI’s warrantless back door searches of communications collected under Section 702 is unconstitutional. (I presume it would be unethical for Jeffress to use information learned while counseling Holder in this proceeding, which might have put her in an interesting position of knowing more than she could say.)
Sadly, Hogan didn’t care. Worse, his argument for not caring doesn’t make sense. As I’ll note, not only did Hogan pick a less than optimal person to make this argument, but he may have narrowly scoped her input, which may have prevented her from raising evidence in Hogan’s own opinion that his legal conclusion was problematic.
To be clear, Jeffress was no flaming hippie. She found no problem with the NSA and CIA practice of back door searches, concluding, “that the NSA and CIA minimization procedures are sufficient to ensure that the use of U.S. person identifiers for th[e] purpose of [querying Section 702-acquired information] complies with the statutory requirements of Section 702 and with the Fourth Amendment.” But she did find the FBI practice problematic.
Jeffress’ amicus brief included at least 10 pages of discussion of her concerns with the practice, though ODNI did not release her brief and Hogan cited very limited bits of it. She argued, “the FISA process cannot be used as a device to investigate wholly unrelated ordinary crimes” and said because the queries could do so they “go far beyond the purpose for which the Section 702-acquired information is collected in permitting queries that are unrelated to national security.”
To dismiss Jeffress’ arguments, Hogan does several things. He,
- Notes the statute requires foreign intelligence just be “a significant purpose” of the collection, and points back to the 2002 In Re Sealed Case FISCR decision interpreting the “significant purpose” language added in the PATRIOT Act to permit the use of traditional FISA information for prosecutions
- Cites the FISA minimization procedure language that “allow[s] for the retention and dissemination of information that is evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed”
- Dismisses a former top DOJ official’s concerns about the use of FISA data for non-national security crimes as “hypothetical”
- Doesn’t address — at all — language in the FBI minimization procedures that permits querying of data for assessments and other unspecified uses
- Invests a lot of faith in FBI’s access and training requirements that later parts of his opinion undermine
There are several problems with his argument.
In Re Sealed Case ties “significant purpose” to the target of an interception
First, Hogan extends the scope of what the FISA Court of Review interpreted the term “significant purpose,” which got added to traditional FISA in the PATRIOT Act and then adopted in FISA Amendments Act.
Hogan cites the FISCR decision in In Re Sealed Case to suggest it authorized the use of information against non-targets of surveillance. He does so by putting the court’s ultimate decision after caveats it uses to modify that. “The Court of Review concluded that it would be an “anomalous reading” of the “significant purpose” language of 50 U.S.C. § 1804(a)(6)(B) to allow the use of electronic surveillance in such a case. See id. at 736. The Court nevertheless stressed, however, that “[s]o long as the government entertains a realistic option of dealing with the agent other than through criminal prosecution that it satisfies the significant purpose test.”
But that’s not what FISCR found. Here’s how that reads in the original, with Hogan’s citations emphasized.
On the one hand, Congress did not amend the definition of foreign intelligence information which, we have explained, includes evidence of foreign intelligence crimes. On the other hand, Congress accepted the dichotomy between foreign intelligence and law enforcement by adopting the significant purpose test. Nevertheless, it is our task to do our best to read the statute to honor congressional intent. The better reading, it seems to us, excludes from the purpose of gaining foreign intelligence information a sole objective of criminal prosecution. We therefore reject the government’s argument to the contrary. Yet this may not make much practical difference. Because, as the government points out, when it commences an electronic surveillance of a foreign agent, typically it will not have decided whether to prosecute the agent (whatever may be the subjective intent of the investigators or lawyers who initiate an investigation). So long as the government entertains a realistic option of dealing with the agent other than through criminal prosecution, it satisfies the significant purpose test.
The important point is–and here we agree with the government–the Patriot Act amendment, by using the word “significant,” eliminated any justification for the FISA court to balance the relative weight the government places on criminal prosecution as compared to other counterintelligence responses. If the certification of the application’s purpose articulates a broader objective than criminal prosecution–such as stopping an ongoing conspiracy–and includes other potential non-prosecutorial responses, the government meets the statutory test. Of course, if the court concluded that the government’s sole objective was merely to gain evidence of past criminal conduct–even foreign intelligence crimes–to punish the agent rather than halt ongoing espionage or terrorist activity, the application should be denied.
The government claims that even prosecutions of non-foreign intelligence crimes are consistent with a purpose of gaining foreign intelligence information so long as the government’s objective is to stop espionage or terrorism by putting an agent of a foreign power in prison. That interpretation transgresses the original FISA. It will be recalled that Congress intended section 1804(a)(7)(B) to prevent the government from targeting a foreign agent when its “true purpose” was to gain non-foreign intelligence information–such as evidence of ordinary crimes or scandals. See supra at p.14. (If the government inadvertently came upon evidence of ordinary crimes, FISA provided for the transmission of that evidence to the proper authority. 50 U.S.C. § 1801(h)(3).) It can be argued, however, that by providing that an application is to be granted if the government has only a “significant purpose” of gaining foreign intelligence information, the Patriot Act allows the government to have a primary objective of prosecuting an agent for a non-foreign intelligence crime. Yet we think that would be an anomalous reading of the amendment. For we see not the slightest indication that Congress meant to give that power to the Executive Branch. Accordingly, the manifestation of such a purpose, it seems to us, would continue to disqualify an application. That is not to deny that ordinary crimes might be inextricably intertwined with foreign intelligence crimes. For example, if a group of international terrorists were to engage in bank robberies in order to finance the manufacture of a bomb, evidence of the bank robbery should be treated just as evidence of the terrorist act itself. But the FISA process cannot be used as a device to investigate wholly unrelated ordinary crimes.
Hogan ignores three key parts of this passage. First, FISCR’s decision only envisions the use of evidence against the target of the surveillance, not against his interlocutors, to in some way neutralize him. Any US person information collected and retained under 702 is, by definition, not the targeted person (whereas he or she might be in a traditional FISA order). Furthermore, FBI’s queries of information collected under 702 will find and use information that has nothing to do with putting foreign agents in prison — that is, to “investigate wholly unrelated ordinary crimes,” which FISCR prohibited. Finally, by searching data that may be years old for evidence of a crime, FBI is, in effect, “gaining evidence of past criminal conduct” — itself prohibited by FISCR — of someone who isn’t even the target of the surveillance.
Hogan only treats querying for criminal purposes
Having, in my opinion, expanded on what FISCR authorized back in 2002, Hogan then ignores several parts of what FBI querying permits.
Here’s (some of) the language FBI added to its minimization procedures, at the suggestion of PCLOB, to finally, after 8 years, fully disclose what it was doing to the FISC.
It is a routine and encouraged practice for FBI to query databases containing lawfully acquired information, including FISA-acquired information, in furtherance of the FBI’s authorized intelligence and law enforcement activities, such as assessments, investigations and intelligence collection. Section III.D governs the conduct of such queries. Examples of such queries include, but are not limited to, queries reasonably designed to identify foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime related to an ongoing authorized investigation or reasonably designed queries conducted by FBI personnel in making an initial decision to open an assessment concerning a threat to national security, the prevention or protection against a Federal crime, or the collection of foreign intelligence, as authorized by the Attorney General Guidelines. These examples are illustrative and neither expand nor restrict the scope of the queries authorized in the language above.
This language makes clear FBI may do back door searches for:
- To identify foreign intelligence information
- To identify evidence of a crime related to an ongoing investigation
- To decide whether to open an assessment concerning a threat to national security, the prevention or protection against a Federal crime, or the collection of foreign intelligence
- Other things, because FBI’s use of such queries “are not limited to” these uses
Given Hogan’s stingy citations from Jeffress’ brief, it’s unclear how much of these things she addressed (or whether she was permitted to introduce knowledge gained from having worked closely with Eric Holder when these back door searches were being formalized).