by Alex Marthews, National Chair
Mass Surveillance of Muslims Won’t Work, So Why Do It?
A former Middle East advisor to President Obama, Steven Simon, suggested in Saturday’s New York Times that the administration’s response to the Paris attacks was likely to include “Tighter border controls, more intensive surveillance in the U.S. and more outreach to local communities in the hope that extremists will be fingered by their friends and family. And a tightening of already intimate cooperation with European intelligence agencies.” These proposals, if adopted, would be immensely counterproductive, and here’s why.
First, tighter border controls are irrelevant to this attack. It appears that all of the attackers so far identified were EU citizens.
Second, France already had a draconian mass surveillance law, which came into effect at the beginning of October. It didn’t work to thwart these attacks. The reason is the “false positives” problem. Any system employing demographics, metadata, or past behavior, inevitably sweeps up a vast majority of innocent people, and diverts police and intelligence resources towards ruling them out. This LA Times study of “pre-crime” efforts to prevent violent crimes by US Army soldiers added every variable they could, and still, for every 15 people who did in fact commit violence in a given year in their set of suspects, 985 did not. Similarly, before the Boston Marathon attacks, the FBI had flagged Tamarlen Tsarnaev for interview; but they interview hundreds of flagged people every week, and have no way of knowing which among them will actually commit an attack. So, it appears that six weeks before the attacks, France’s intelligence agencies snowed themselves under with an ocean of false positives, and weren’t able to detect among that traffic the communications that were suspicious. They can’t be faulted for not being able to do so; it’s mathematically impossible. All mass surveillance allows is what’s happening now, which is to be able to go back into the system and see what you missed.
Third, Muslim and black communities were already under very heavy pressure in France, and are already under very heavy pressure here from the FBI, through its “Countering Violent Extremism” program, to “finger friends and family”. CVE uses models of radicalization with no solid academic basis to identify people as potentially radical simply because they have changed their dietary habits or become more devout about their religion. To make their numbers, the FBI has even resorted, in case after case, to creating their own terrorists out of young, poor, and mentally unstable young men, using confidential informants to lead them through every stage of devising a plot till they do something the FBI can arrest them for. We don’t need more of that either.
Fourth, when it comes to “more intimate cooperation” with European intelligence agencies, the fact is that such cooperation is already “intimate” – so intimate that the British systematically tap Internet traffic and hand us the contents; so intimate that we share “raw take” intelligence with Israeli security services; so intimate that the German intelligence agency helped the NSA spy on Europe’s top politicians in exchange for access to the latest in surveillance wizardry. Short of actually being in bed with one another, there’s no more “intimacy” to be had – and it still isn’t working.
This kind of mass surveillance is not working to thwart attacks. But in four important ways, it does work. Mass surveillance intimidates ordinary citizens in their conversations and ordinary activities of life. It allows bigoted politicians to curry favor with their base, and coast on a wave of suspicion about Muslims. It brings great profits to the private security firms smart enough to fill their cup at the never-failing spigot of federal counterterrorism funding. And it makes the general public feel that Something Is Being Done, convincing them to trade more of their rights away for the pretense of a little temporary safety.
Last, if we react in this particular way, it serves the ends of the violent criminals who committed this attack. Lacking resources themselves to wage war, they seek to build their support among more moderate people. IRA terrorists posed as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Northern Irish Catholics against foreign oppression; the Islamic State poses as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Muslims against foreign oppression. A governmental backlash against Muslims in general will merely bolster their propaganda: See? We told you they’re out to get you! Come join us!
Instead, we should use the Constitution to solve the false positives problem. The Fourth Amendment bars mass surveillance, requiring, before surveillance is conducted, a warrant based on individualized probable cause of involvement in actual criminal activity. Imagine that, instead of having a “TIDE” terrorist database with 750,000+ names on it, it were limited to a maximum of one thousand, but that the one thousand were each investigated thoroughly on the basis of actual evidence. The surveillance agencies would waste a lot less time chasing fruitless leads, building data centers, or shoveling money to software vendors to try to solve this insoluble problem.
Foreign policy and economic solutions are outside our remit, but it should be obvious that in order to drain the Islamic State of support, we have to provide those fleeing its rule with a credible chance at a better life. Letting them know that if they come to our country, they will be constantly under watch even if innocent of any crime, is not a good way to showcase our ways.
by Alex Marthews, National Chair and Derick Bellamy, Communications Chair
Over two years on from Edward Snowden’s leaks, the government’s mass surveillance of our private communications continues to increase, but it’s hard for most people to take the time to figure out the bills, policies and programs involved, and where their elected representatives stand.
In partnership with Fight for the Future, we have done the work for you. With the battle over CISA next up in Congress and the next election one year away, we need to know who is on our side, and who’s on Team Surveillance.
Our new surveillance scorecard launched today at www.decidethefuture.org, and grades lawmakers on their commitment to surveillance reform. An extension and update of a similar tool released last year, Decide The Future adds data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and much more.
The site is simple and easy to use, and will allow you to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and which are working to expand the surveillance state. Just input your state and find your legislators’ voting records.
All 535 members of Congress are graded. 24 Senators got A grades, and 35 got Fs. In the House, 173 Representatives (40%) got A grades, and 10 (2.3%) got Fs. Looking at the states, legislators from Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin are most supportive of surveillance reform, while legislators from Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois and Mississippi tend to oppose reform more.
We encourage you to use the site to call, email or tweet lawmakers to demand stronger surveillance reform, during the ongoing fight against CISA, during future legislative battles, and through the 2016 election.
As Congress prepares to make decisions affecting the nation’s privacy and safety, we should all be aware who is and isn’t fighting for our Fourth Amendment rights.
by Alex Marthews, National Chair
Restore The Fourth is turning its hand to something new: Filing its own legal amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in federal appeals court.
The key remedy for Fourth Amendment violations is the ability of defendants to exclude evidence that was seized through an unconstitutional search. However, since 1984, the Supreme Court has narrowed this remedy, finding that exclusion is not required when the officer is relying in good faith on “binding appellate precedent” or on mistakes made by others. In US v. Ganias, a case now being reviewed en banc by the 2nd Circuit, there is a serious risk that this “exclusionary rule” will be narrowed even further.
U. S. v. Ganias involves an investigation of Stavros Ganias, a Connecticut CPA. His hard drive was imaged by Army investigators looking for evidence of contracting fraud by two of the his clients. It took thirteen months for the Army to separate out the Quickbooks files of the two clients. Then, because the Army by now viewed the image of Ganias’s hard drive as “government property”, they never gave the rest of his imaged hard drive’s content back; they felt it might come in useful someday. Two years later, in 2006, the IRS was investigating Mr. Ganias for suspected tax evasion. They asked the Army for the hard drive image from 2003. They got a new warrant, searched the old hard drive, and found evidence of tax evasion. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Ganias’s favor, declaring that there had been a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unconstitutional searches and seizures, and that the hard drive, as a product of that unconstitutional search, should be excluded. But now, the ruling is being reviewed en banc and may be overturned.
We wanted to do our part in preserving the ability of people targeted by the US government to gain meaningful redress, so we have filed our first ever amicus curiae (=”friend of the court”) brief. With assistance from Mahesha Subbaraman, a brilliant attorney who recently resigned from the Institute for Justice to start his own private practice in Minneapolis, MN, we were able to articulate a compelling argument for why the government cannot simply sit on an ever-increasing pile of seized records for them to rootle through at will when they become useful. The case will be ruled on in September.
by Alex Marthews, National Chair
In the runup to last night’s sunset of three PATRIOT Act authorities, TV-watchers were barraged with lurid threats of “horrific terrorist attacks and violence” that would be our lot if we dared to let go of any of them. And then the authorities did sunset, and we all woke up this morning, still alive, and mysteriously unmassacred.
Look around you. What you see outside is that apocalypse’s first day, and … we’re OK. A small part of the surveillance state has stopped collecting new data. In the full daylight, cops are still stopping suspects. In the shadows, PRISM collection continues, unreformed. But this morning proves that Section 215 was never needed. The dragnets enabled under it didn’t do a blind bit of good.
This is hard to swallow, but it’s true. There never was, on this topic, any “tradeoff between privacy and security”. There never was any well-intentioned desire to Keep Us Safe™. The NSA felt able to launch mass metadata dragnets, and they did. That’s it. No-one really bothered analyzing whether the dragnets really worked. It wasn’t about effectiveness, or about safety. It was about fostering a culture of submission to authority.
In the same way, more locally, for twenty years and more, the NYPD wasted millions of dollars in staff time, conducting suspicionless “stop and frisks” of millions of people who had done nothing wrong. When questioned, they argued that without stop and frisk, lawlessness would run rampant. And then, when they were forced to stop last year, what happened? Crime fell.
In the same way, after 9/11, we took the Fourth Amendment, and broke it. We chose to torture people, run secret prisons, and launch illegal wars, all, again, to Keep Us Safe. It was, and is, for nothing. The bombs we dropped, the pain we caused, the lives we took, were all in vain.
We should be under no illusions now. The claim that Section 215 was needed, like the claim that the Iraq War was needed, were always nonsense. In all likelihood, the claims we need the other mass surveillance systems are nonsense too. Don’t go telling us that we can’t do without, say, mass internet surveillance under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, or without full take of entire countries’ audio and Internet communications under Executive Order 12,333. We’ve done without such things before. We can do without them again. We gain no safety from submission, and it should not have taken fourteen years to learn that lesson, stop submitting and start standing up straight again.
Here’s the bad news. Not only the sunset happened last night. The Senate also voted for cloture on the USA FREEDOM Act, which would put these three expired provisions back into law, by a margin of 77 to 17. On Tuesday, they’ll vote on the bill itself, and it looks likely, based on the cloture vote, to pass. Even if there are no amendments, the President will sign it. So on the third day after sunset, Section 215 will rise again, like a new-bitten zombie, and start looking for prey. Undead Section 215 will be a little different – for example, instead of holding the dragnet data itself, the NSA will pay Internet and phone companies to hold onto it, and it’s likely that when it passes it will allow the NSA to instruct companies to format the data in such a way that the NSA can query it almost frictionlessly. Permanent sunset will mean the NSA actually has to collect less, and that’s so unimaginable to Senators – well, to all but a very few Senators – that they are racing to restore the lapsed parts of the PATRIOT Act and deprive you and me once again of the liberties we have so improbably won back.
So I say to our more servile Senators: Don’t you dare restore the PATRIOT Act. You aren’t here above all to Keep Us Safe™; you’re here above all to protect the Constitution. Endorsing the USA FREEDOM Act breaks that oath. Look at the side the fearmongers have taken, and the profits they stand to make, and vote the other way. Vote No on the USA FREEDOM Act tomorrow, and then let’s discuss, deeply, seriously, openly and fearlessly, what kinds of surveillance the Constitution will allow. The American people are ready to breathe more freely and live their lives less watched. It’s time to move forward.
Last night, the Senate delivered a stunning rebuke to the NSA and the other surveillance agencies. By refusing to act, they in effect voted to allow parts of the PATRIOT Act to expire, on which the FBI and NSA (illegally) rely to conduct mass metadata dragnets on Americans. This is an abhorrent outcome to national-security authoritarians, but they played their part in making it more likely to happen. This is a partial story of how it came about.
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the so-called “business records” provision, dates from immediately after 9/11. It has been used since then, without the knowledge or consent of most of Congress, to justify mass metadata dragnets, including a phone metadata dragnet proven to exist by documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. These metadata dragnets under Section 215 are a small part of the NSA’s overall surveillance activities; Internet and other content dragnets, which take in all the communications of whole countries and also “incidentally” include the communications of millions of Americans, were justified under other provisions of law, and so will continue.
Last fall, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2014 failed to pass in the Senate, which was deeply disappointing many surveillance activists who had worked hard for it. The reaction of some – notably CDT, OTI and Access – was to roll up their sleeves, try again in the new Congress, and work out a text that they and interested legislators and the intelligence community and the administration could come to agreement on. They reintroduced the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 in March. It was on balance a weaker reform than the 2014 bill, reflecting a Congressional leadership that was more sympathetic to the NSA. It included, among other new measures, increased sentences for material support for terrorism. It passed the House on May 13, by 338 votes to 88. The 88 who voted against it were almost all surveillance reformers, and the more authoritarian members voted for it.
Why was that? Well, the USA FREEDOM Act, despite being touted in the press as reform, was never especially popular in the surveillance reform community. It would have reformed Section 215, but in a token way whose practical effects on actual NSA data-gathering on the ground were likely to be minimal. It would also have reauthorized it for several years, which made long-time principled opponents of the PATRIOT Act very uncomfortable. For that reason, after the bill failed in fall 2014, some organizations coalesced around a different strategy called “Sunset215.” The core groups – X-Labs, the Sunlight Foundation and Restore The Fourth, BORDC, PCCC, FreedomWorks, the Cato Institute and the Campaign for Liberty – adopted a name, the “Civil Liberties Coalition”, and our coalition steadily expanded to include a huge array of organizations from both left and right. Our strategy was to get reintroduced, with bipartisan support, the much stronger Surveillance State Repeal Act, which would show what reforms were needed; and to focus not on reforming Section 215, but on having it lapse on schedule at midnight on May 31.
Remarkably, despite the conventional wisdom six months ago that a sunset would never happen, that looks now to be by far the most likely outcome.
Part of what happened here was that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 14 that Section 215 had never authorized mass metadata dragnets. If reauthorized unchanged, the unanimous opinion said, the programs would end; if Congress wanted the programs to continue, they would have to change Section 215 to authorize them explicitly. This ruling changed the calculus for the administration and the intelligence community. It now looked as if the best option was not Senator McConnell’s preferred strategy of straight reauthorization without change or reform. Instead, they started to advocate adoption of the USA FREEDOM Act – with, in the end, even the CIA weighing in in support of it. There would be token reforms, but USA FREEDOM would provide stronger Congressional authorization for mass surveillance than the existing text of Section 215. It appears that this pressure had an effect, reducing support in the Senate for straight reauthorization, and nearly unifying the Democratic caucus in the Senate around the USA FREEDOM Act.
At the same time, our Civil Liberties Coalition was working hard generating hundreds of thousands of calls to Congress, and building the credibility of the argument for letting Section 215 lapse. We tapped into a deep sense of unease in the country with the whole project of mass surveillance – a sense that after 9/11 we had, as a country, gone off track, and needed to get right with the Constitution. That in turn gave anti-surveillance legislators – like Mark Pocan and Thomas Massie in the House, and Rand Paul in the Senate – the support they needed for a strong stand on this issue.
The Senate has been headed for a recess that would last until June 1, after the PATRIOT Act provisions expire. Last night, after midnight, these provisions finally came up for a Senate vote. McConnell placed the USA FREEDOM Act first on the agenda. 42 Senators voted against cloture. That 42 represented the more authoritarian Republicans in their 55-strong caucus, for whom even token reform was intolerable – and also Senator Paul, who, like the 88 in the House, felt that USA FREEDOM didn’t go far enough. 12 reformist Republicans voted for cloture, but that wasn’t enough; the final vote count was 57 in favor, and they needed 60.
So far, McConnell’s plan was working; his idea was that with USA FREEDOM out of the way, the Senate would agree to a two-month reauthorization of Section 215 in order to get home to their districts for the recess, and then he could lean on the House to ensure that any reforms were as empty as possible. But then his reauthorization vote also failed, by the substantial margin of 45 votes for to 54 votes against. The Democrats and several reformist Republicans voted No.
That’s when things went awry for the surveillance defenders.
Desperately, McConnell offered shorter and shorter renewals, only to have them blocked by objections from Senator Rand Paul and others. In the end, the only thing he could control was the Senate calendar, so he called for the Senate to reconvene at 5pm on May 31, to give them another chance to prevent the sunset of these PATRIOT Act authorities.
There is only one, remote possibility that will prevent sunset now. If McConnell throws his support behind the USA FREEDOM Act, and finds a few surveillance opponents willing to hold their noses to vote for it, then the Senate and House and White House will have all come to agreement before a sunset occurs. There would be a technical lapse of less than a day, owing to procedural limitations, but the legislative avenues to prevent lapse would have been successfully closed off. However, McConnell has spent months arguing that the USA FREEDOM Act is dangerous and unpatriotic. So we will see next week how unscrupulous, exactly, he is prepared to be.
Even now, some press outlets are misunderstanding what happened last night as a failure for surveillance reformers. It was nothing of the sort. The lapse of Section 215 is far more reform than most people could imagine happening six months ago. But last night, the billion-dollar three-letter agencies got a whipping from a few motivated legislators and a raggle-taggle band of civil liberties true believers. It’s an incredible story.
—10:00pm EST: UPDATED to more clearly explain what happens if USA FREEDOM passes.
by Alex Marthews, National Chair
The House just voted to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, which reauthorizes and alters Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, with a vote of 338 to 88. It’s being depicted as a landslide in favor of reform. It is, sadly, anything but. This is why.
Last week’s ruling by the 2nd Circuit fundamentally changed the Congressional debate. Senator McConnell, the Majority Leader, had been pushing for a straight reauthorization of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. But the 2nd Circuit ruling said, among much else, that if Congress did a straight reauthorization of the same language, then their ruling that mass metadata surveillance was unlawful would still stand. In other words, straight reauthorization will no longer get surveillance defenders what they want. So, as the next best thing, the administration and the intelligence committees swung behind the USA FREEDOM Act. This Act would impose token limits on how much they can collect with a single request, but would modernize intelligence collection for a world where much communication is not an actual phone call. As a compromise between moderate surveillance reformers and the intelligence community, it actually offers a lot that the intelligence community likes. So it looks much better to them at this point than straight reauthorization (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215) or straight sunset (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215).
How do we know this happened? We can measure it.
EFF came out last year with a congressional scorecard, grading Representatives on their approach to mass surveillance. Looking at how those Reps voted this time, we can see that the mean grade of those voting for USA FREEDOM was a C. The mean grade of those voting against USA FREEDOM was an A- (full data here). Probably 115 reform-minded Congressmembers felt that USA FREEDOM was enough of a positive step that they voted for it. But the pattern is clear:
Most Yes votes were from surveillance supporters, and the vast majority of No votes were from reformers.
It’s therefore inaccurate for the New York Times and other outlets to depict this as an enthusiastic repudiation of mass surveillance, when in practice USA FREEDOM is emerging as the least-worst alternative for mass surveillance supporters.
Does this mean that Sens. McConnell and Burr, last seen desperately pushing for a straight short-term reauthorization of Section 215, would actually see their agenda advanced better if the USA FREEDOM Act passed? It’s quite possible that they don’t fully grasp the ramifications of a straight reauthorization in the context of the 2nd Circuit ruling. But if they don’t grasp it, the administration and the intelligence community do seem to, and, it appears, pressured Reps to vote accordingly.
Last Thursday’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in ACLU v. Clapper threw a bomb into the middle of the debate over renewing the legal authority governing the NSA’s mass metadata surveillance programs. In a unanimous ruling, the Justices held that such programs, untethered to the limiting factor of what is relevant to a specific investigation, were never authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
Bob Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, scrambled to respond, arguing at a panel on transparency in DC on May 8 that the ruling is not binding on the FISC, that it is not currently in effect, and that it will be overturned soon anyway. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), who vehemently supports mass NSA surveillance, is contending that “I think the statutory language today allows the NSA to do exactly what they’re doing […] I have a very tough time thinking the Supreme Court would look at this law […] and come to the conclusion that we didn’t empower the NSA to do bulk collection.” In the same article, Stewart Baker, the former general counsel for the NSA, is reported as deriding the ruling as a “97-page law review article” whose “significance is close to zero.”
Collectively, these assertions are the public face of what’s nothing less than a desperate effort by the NSA to declare itself literally above the law. But let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
- Does a ruling by a Court of Appeals override the interpretation by a FISC judge that mass metadata surveillance is authorized by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act?
The law setting up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. § 106 of that Act specifies that “decisions under this section that electronic surveillance was not lawfully authorized or conducted … shall be final orders and binding upon all courts of the United States and the several States except a United States court of appeals and the Supreme Court.”
Decisions “under this section” as to the lawfulness or otherwise of surveillance, are decisions taken by the FISC. Such decisions are stated to be binding on all courts, except a United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. If FISC decisions bind all courts except Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court, then by definition decisions by the Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court must bind the FISC. So Bob Litt is either not familiar enough with FISA, or is purposely misstating the law.
- Does the 2nd Circuit Court’s ruling coming into effect depend on a further ruling by the Supreme Court?
The 2nd Circuit stayed their ruling, and remanded to the district court the question of whether the program would continue, simply because Congress is currently actively considering what to do with § 215. But they also gave guidance to the district court on how to react to Congress:
[T]he statutory issues on which we rest our decision could become moot (at least as far as the future of the telephone metadata program is concerned), and the constitutional issues appellants continue to press radically altered, by events that will occur in a short time frame. If Congress decides to authorize the collection of the data desired by the government under conditions identical to those now in place, the program will continue in the future under that authorization. There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues, which may be significantly altered by the findings made, and conclusions reached, by the political branches […] If Congress decides to institute a substantially modified program, the constitutional issues will certainly differ considerably from those currently raised. If Congress fails to reauthorize § 215 itself, or reenacts § 215 without expanding it to authorize the telephone metadata program, there will be no need for prospective relief, since the program will end…”
The Court envisions three possible outcomes here, other than a simple lapse of § 215.
(A) Congress may choose to pass a revised Section 215, which explicitly authorizes mass metadata collection. This would be politically unpalatable in exact proportion to the explicitness of the authorization. If that happens, then the appellants could still receive relief for their past injury from an unlawful program, and the constitutional issues the Court did not reach would still remain alive.
(B) Congress may, as Senator Burr has been pushing for, reauthorize Section 215 as is; but Senator Burr’s personal belief that that will still mean the mass metadata surveillance programs are lawful and authorized, is of much less weight than the 2nd Circuit’s statement here that “if Congress reenacts § 215 without expanding it to authorize the telephone metadata program, […] the program will end.” Burr cannot, in other words, make the current § 215 say what a Court of Appeals has determined that it does not say.
(C) Congress may authorize a substantially reformed metadata surveillance program, conforming to the ruling, in which case that would raise “constitutional issues” that will “certainly differ considerably from those currently raised”, presumably mooting this ruling.
So, whether or not this ruling is mooted is dependent not on the Supreme Court, but on the choices Congress makes. The USA FREEDOM Act has now passed the House, and enjoys substantial, though possibly not sufficient, support in the Senate. If it passes unchanged, it’s probably not very compatible with the 2nd Circuit Court ruling, because it regulates mass metadata surveillance by limiting it to specific selection terms rather than by analogizing it to a grand jury subpoena process, and by allowing two “hops” of data collection from a target rather than a more-likely-conforming one hop. The district court would, if it passes, have a difficult task before it. Congress would have weighed in with a brand-new scheme that is in some ways looser than what the 2nd Circuit wants; but to rule that scheme incompatible with the 2nd Circuit would be interpreted as activist. It’s more politically likely that the district court would order relief for past unlawful surveillance and allow the new scheme time to come into being, allowing future lawsuits to be brought only when further injury is identified under that new scheme.
It’s for precisely these kinds of reasons that we continue to strongly oppose the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act. Allowing § 215 to lapse would much more clearly undercut mass metadata surveillance. The ruling also makes explicit that the preferred strategy of Senator Burr, trying to reauthorize § 215 as is, will not reauthorize the mass metadata surveillance programs and will not moot this ruling, whether it’s a short or a long-term extension. Instead, in the context of a straight reauthorization, the district court would then award relief to the appellants for their past injury, and order the end of the program as required by the 2nd Circuit ruling.
- Is it likely that the Supreme Court will overrule the 2nd Circuit?
The Supreme Court exists primarily to resolve “circuit splits” – differences in interpretation of federal statutes or the Constitution among the eleven Courts of Appeals.
There’s no split yet.
Since the 2nd Circuit binds the FISC, there’s no split between courts of equal authority immediately underneath the Supreme Court. There are two lawsuits where rulings are pending that relate to the government’s mass metadata surveillance programs. Of these two, the 9th Circuit is more likely to agree than disagree with the 2nd Circuit, and the DC Circuit, while likely to rule that mass metadata surveillance is constitutional, is unlikely to rule on the question of whether Section 215 authorizes mass metadata surveillance. Noted surveillance apologist Ben Wittes reluctantly makes this point here. So unless the DC Circuit goes beyond its remit, there will be no circuit split that would enable the Supreme Court to intervene.
Of course, the government could – and likely will – attempt to get the 2nd Circuit to rehear this case en banc. But the ruling was a unanimous one, and solely on statutory grounds – the court didn’t reach the question of whether mass metadata surveillance conflicted with the Fourth Amendment. It’s therefore very unlikely that the 2nd Circuit will grant such a rehearing.
All this means that, if the USA FREEDOM Act does not pass in some form, the 2nd Circuit ruling would until the next Supreme Court session in the fall, and probably till the term after that, be the last word on the legality of the government’s mass metadata surveillance programs. Congress cannot countenance the operation of illegal programs in the interim, in the hope that one day the Supreme Court will accept a writ of certiorari to resolve an as-yet-nonexistent circuit split. To do so would, as I note above, allow the NSA to operate above the law.
So, to sum up, Bob Litt, Senator Burr, and Stewart Baker are wrong. The ruling in ACLU v. Clapper is much more than a “97-page law review article” of “close to zero significance.” It is now, and will be for at least a year, the controlling law relating to mass metadata surveillance, unless Congress chooses explicitly to authorize such programs in the interim. Anyone who advises Congress simply to disregard the ruling is advocating gross disrespect for the law. No member of Congress should kid themselves otherwise.
by Alex Marthews, National Chair
When last week began, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was pushing hard for controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act, due to expire June 1, to be renewed for more than five years without any changes or reform. He had the backing of Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had the support of the intelligence community. But then things started to go wrong.
One of these provisions, Section 215, had been interpreted in secret by the intelligence community to authorize mass metadata surveillance untethered to any particular criminal investigation. The argument was that they had to collect the whole in order to understand patterns of communications and get to the terrorists they were after. Then, last Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals—one step below the Supreme Court—issued a stinging, unanimous ruling in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU that this argument was wrong, and that Section 215 had not authorized mass metadata collection at all. Congress, the Court said, had never explicitly and knowingly approved mass metadata surveillance programs, and if Congress wanted such programs to continue (see page 96), they would have to write that explicitly into the law.
This put McConnell in a bind. He’d been arguing for renewal of these authorities because he wanted mass metadata surveillance to continue. Now, if Section 215 gets renewed unchanged, these programs will not continue. So he needs to change tack, fast, rather than continuing to push for clean reauthorization.
After this ruling, there’s only one realistic vehicle that would continue the mass metadata collection programs (with some limits and added transparency) rather than getting rid of them entirely. So the White House, the intelligence community, and even some national security conservatives—but so far not McConnell—are swinging behind using the USA FREEDOM Act, which is expected to pass the House today.
What would the USA FREEDOM Act do? The press has generally misunderstood this bill as the bill surveillance reformers want. In reality, it’s already a delicately negotiated compromise between some reform-minded legislators and the intelligence community, with very little support from civil liberties groups. The biggest group that was working on it, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has just pulled its support, because now the Second Circuit has ruled, USA FREEDOM’s remaining reforms look very small. USA FREEDOM would never have accomplished any of the reforms outlined in this letter supporting stronger reforms.
Call your Senator. Let them know that neither the USA FREEDOM Act nor Mr. McConnell’s renewal bill are what we need. We need Section 215 to lapse, and to consider stronger reforms like our own Surveillance State Repeal Act or Rep. Lofgren’s End Warrantless Surveillance Act. Above all, we don’t want them to be tricked into thinking that something represents reform just because it bears the label “USA FREEDOM”. We’ve been down that road before, with the unpatriotic PATRIOT Act. We won’t get fooled again.
In a last-ditch post-midterm Hail Mary, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get just one more
thing done before handing over to the Republicans. That thing, apparently – the single thing he thinks we as
Americans most need – is a renewal of the PATRIOT Act provision allowing mass phone data collection, bound up
in the watered-down USA FREEDOM Act. The Act promises to allow legislators to say that they have dealt with the problem of mass government surveillance. In truth, it doesn’t even come close, and may well do harm.
The key sticking point – and the reason why, among others, Sen. Rand Paul has come out against passing USA FREEDOM in the lame-duck session – is that it renews for two years Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which is one of the three main legal underpinnings for mass government surveillance. (It also renews Section 206, the Fourth Amendment-abusing “roving wiretaps” provision, which allows the government to wiretap multiple devices of a target who is not yet identified.) USA FREEDOM would constrain mass government surveillance of Americans, under this section of law, such that the US government would no longer hold the phone metadata of all Americans. Instead, phone companies would hold it, but would be required to hand it over to the government in a form that would permit mass analysis. It’s hard to say that that’s any better. Senator Leahy’s office, and civil liberties groups like EFF and ACLU, have made strenuous efforts to negotiate the strongest reforms that the White House will accept. As it turns out, what the White House will accept falls far short and comes at too high a price. Restore the Fourth, joined by the Campaign for Liberty and other civil liberties groups, are therefore opposing its passage.
Analyst Marcy Wheeler has identified many deficiencies and possible improvements that could be made to the bill as it currently stands. Without those improvements, it will be a worthless reform, done only for PR and to get renewal of the PATRIOT Act authorities that a Republican-controlled Senate might not agree to renew at President Obama’s request this coming June.
So, do we let the zombie USA FREEDOM Act eat our brains – by making us think that this is real reform – or do we
stand up for allowing Section 215 to actually sunset on schedule in June 2015?
The PATRIOT Act’s boosters claimed it would only ever be temporary, emergency post-9/11 legislation, and that
eventually, like the al-Qaeda threat itself, the need for it would pass away. Well, it’s half a generation later. It’s
time. Truthfully, it’s long past time.
Don’t let Harry Reid claim he really did anything to reform the NSA. And don’t let the press fall for the line that this
represents any dialing back of government mass surveillance. The actual sunset of Section 215 would do much
more to rein in surveillance than this bill would – hence Harry Reid’s Hail Mary.
Alex Marthews, National Chair
On July 29, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) brought out his new proposal for NSA reform. It’s the result of an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes consultation with: reform groups like EFF and the Open Technology Institute; Democratic and Republican leaders; the White House; and the intelligence agencies. It’s a stronger reform than would have been politically possible before Edward Snowden, and it will probably outlaw bulk collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
With all honesty, Restore The Fourth congratulates the reform groups for going through this process to get a bill to the floor. We’re recommending to our 25 chapters that they should advocate for allowing this bill to come up for a vote, and should also support the Wyden-Udall amendment tightening its language further. But we’re leaving whether to take this recommendation up to them. We cannot, as a collective organization, wholeheartedly endorse the bill as it stands.
This is why. When it comes to the Constitution, we’re unapologetic, starry-eyed idealists. We believe that the Fourth Amendment means what it says. The Fourth Amendment requires particularized warrants based on probable cause before spying on any individual. Though the act will outlaw the bulk collection authorized by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, it would still authorize warrantless surveillance based on “specific selection terms”, and extend the law’s sunset date from mid-2015 to the end of 2017.
Additionally, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that bulk collection will stop. As far as anyone can tell from outside the system, most bulk collection occurs under the authority of the Reagan-era Executive Order 12333, which covers foreign communications and sets few limits. Section 215 is used, along with Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, to backfill any gaps in what is collected under EO12333, gaps created by legal restrictions on what you can collect on Americans’ communications.
The Senate’s USA FREEDOM Act reduces the potential abuses from one of the three authorizations of the surveillance state, but it doesn’t remove any of them.
Any bill moderate enough to neutralize the opposition of the intelligence agencies and the White House is necessarily going to codify a great deal of unconstitutional behavior. The intelligence agencies won’t accept a large portion of their work being defined as illegal, even when it should be. So in practice, this bill represents the outer edge of a political compromise being hammered out, that will allow the intelligence agencies’ work to be disrupted as minimally as possible by civil liberties concerns.
Further, the surveillance agencies have a track record of lying to lawmakers, and of subjecting legislative language to gross abuses to get what they want. When Congress outlaws something, it doesn’t mean the surveillance agencies will necessarily stop doing it. It just means that when they do it, it will be more obviously illegal. It is still unlikely that anybody will actually be punished for doing that illegal thing, and hence not that likely that it will actually stop. James Clapper, Keith Alexander, and Michael Hayden don’t deserve medals and millions of dollars. They deserve felony convictions and prison meatloaf.
We must not lose sight of all that this bill fails to address. That the USA FREEDOM Act is being proposed is a good thing. But the right thing in a deeper sense, the reform that we do aim for and endorse, is a reform that: applies the Fourth Amendment to all US government actions; repeals all of the key authorities underpinning mass surveillance; and punishes the Americans who have unconstitutionally surveilled us. We will keep pushing for the day this kind of reform is on the table, and it may come sooner than you think.
Alex Marthews, National Chair