October 5, 2017 – USA Liberty Act Allows FBI’s End-Run Around The Constitution To Continue
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will be filing the so-called “USA
Liberty Act”, an attempt to deal with the fact that the main statutory authority for the
government’s mass surveillance programs is due to expire December 31.
The product of lengthy negotiations between ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers (DMI),
committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and others, it unfortunately showcases that a
bipartisan solution is not always a good one.
“The least the bill could have done,” says Restore The Fourth National Chair Alex Marthews, “would have been to fix the backdoor searches problem.”1
An unknown, but probably very large, number of Americans’ communications are being collected by the NSA’s systems without a warrant ‘for foreign intelligence purposes’, and then exploited by domestic agencies like the FBI for use in ordinary criminal investigations of all kinds. It’s common for the FBI to claim a connection of an investigation to foreign intelligence or counterterrorism, even when the `connection’ is nothing more than `the suspect read something on the Internet or traveled abroad.’2
The USA Liberty Act would still allow the FBI to warrantlessly search the NSA’s stored communications based on such a claim. It says a warrant is needed if the FBI already has a domestic crime it’s investigating, and wants to find more evidence among the content of Americans’ communications held by the NSA; but (a) it requires no warrant for metadata hits anyway, and (b) those aren’t the really worrying situations.
Instead, we’re worried about the stage where the FBI doesn’t really have a crime in mind yet, but is trying to find dirt on people. It has been historically very easy for them to claim a “foreign intelligence” connection in the case of any immigrant, or a “counterterrorism” connection in the case of any Muslim; effectively, if this is codified into law, the Fourth Amendment might as well be a dead letter for such people’s online communications. Under the practice of “parallel construction”, the FBI actually starts with a person of interest, uses NSA data to find the initial evidence of a crime, and then “backfills” a plausible chain of non-NSA evidence so that their use of intelligence-derived information is not challengeable in court.3 This bill won’t fix that. Most
Americans brought up on charges based on NSA-derived information are never told where that evidence came from. We don’t even know in aggregate or in general an estimate of how many Americans NSA’s “PRISM” and “UPSTREAM” programs, governed by Section 702, have had their data warrantlessly seized; Congressmembers have been asking for six years for an estimate, and the intelligence community has stolidly refused to give one.4
This bill does some good things. For example, it extends whistleblower protections to
intelligence community contractors. It codifies a ban on so-called “about collection.” But given all we have learned as a nation about mass surveillance on us since December 2012, when this law last came up for renewal, it should at the very least require a warrant for all domestic agencies’ searches of intelligence databases.
1 For more on Restore The Fourth, see www.restorethe4th.com.
2 See, among many others, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, MA
3 See a fuller explanation at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_construction.
4 This sorry history is detailed at https://www.emptywheel.net/2017/03/17/ron-wydens-history-of-bogus-excuses-for-not-counting-702-us-person-collection.
National Chair, Restore the Fourth
Restore the Fourth
Department of State
November 3, 2017 – Restore the Fourth (RT4) and the Identity Project (IDP) have collaboratively submitted their formal comments to the U.S. Department of State regarding Proposed Information Collection: Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants. This supplementary procedure would subject certain applicants for visas for admission to the United States to the following additional inquiry items:
- Travel history during the last fifteen years, including source of funding for travel
- Address history during the last fifteen years
- Employment history during the last fifteen years
- All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant
- Names and dates of birth for all siblings
- Name and dates of birth for all children
- Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners
- Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the last five years
- Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years
RT4 and IDP address conflicts between this proposed policy and the U.S. Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). This practice stands to encroach on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The proposed inquiries stand to be lacking in specificity or granularity. How comprehensive is the request for emails, phone numbers, and ‘social media’ handles? What is considered ‘social media’ in the absence of any statutory, regulatory, or legal definition? For example, is an applicant expected to remember every web site on which they have registered as a commenter? Are applicants expected to obtain and provide cellphone tower location tracking logs? Public transit or road-toll RFID-chip movement logs? License-plate reader motor vehicle movement logs? In-vehicle GPS logs? Or “merely” airline, train, intercity bus, and/or hotel reservation and ticketing records?
These additional inquiries exposes applicants to guilt by association based on family members, domestic partners, or people who provide funds for travel. They also expose applicants to legal sanctions in their home countries. For instance, Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally with which the U.S. Department of State might be expected to share information obtained through this collection of information. This could include information that could identity Saudi Arabian citizens or residents who have engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment but are considered capital crimes in their homeland, such as blasphemy.
The Department of State has been processing visa applications for almost two centuries without requiring this information. It is not necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the Department of State.