Posts tagged ‘FISA’

Cost and Benefit and the Fourth Ammendment

From Reuters via Zero Hedge:

The Obama administration on Thursday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.

The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.

A senior administration official said the court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.

Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.

"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.

The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

A few thoughts:

  1. I have no doubt that this makes the job of tracking terrorists easier.  So would the ability to break down any door anywhere and do random house searches without a warrant.  The issue is not effectiveness, but the cost in terms of lost liberty and the potential for abuse.  The IRS scandal should remind us how easy it is to use government power to harass political enemies and out-groups
  2. The FISA court is a bad joke, as it seems willing to issue "all information on all people" warrants.  I think there is little doubt that similar data gathering is going on at all the other carriers.
  3. Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser.  I am sure with her proven history of not just being a political puppet but really digging in to challenge White House talking points that she will quickly get to the bottom of this.

Obama's Total Failure

Forget about the economy -- libertarians expect Democrats to be horrible statists in economic matters.  But we hope to get some protection of civil liberties in exchange.  But Obama has been simply awful in this area as well -- prosecuting marijuana sellers that are legal under state law, claiming assassination powers, the drone war, wiretapping, failure to address gay marriage, etc.

Here is but one example - the Orwellian defense of warrantless wiretapping.  You can't sue us unless we tell you there is a wiretap, and we are not going to tell you.

As part of its concerted campaign to prosecute whistleblowers and to classify state secrets, the Obama administration has taken a position in Clapper that makes the Bush administration pro-secrecy campaign seem pale in comparison: namely, that no one can challenge warrantless surveillance unless the government tells you in advance that you’re being surveilled—which national security interests prevent it from doing. When Bush administration offered milder versions of the same arguments, the civil liberties community rose up in protest. Verrilli, for his part, was met by vigorous skepticism from the Supreme Court’s liberal justices.

It’s unfortunate enough that the administration asked the Court to hear the surveillance case in the first place, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruledthat the plaintiffs —lawyers and human rights and media organizations whose work requires them to communicate with clients, sources, and victims of human rights abroad—had legal standing to bring the case. Although they couldn’t be 100 percent sure that their telephone communications were being monitored, the appellate held that there was a “realistic danger” that their telephone communications were being monitored under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), passed by Congress to codify some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. This led the journalists and lawyers to suffer tangible injuries—such as having to fly to the Middle East to communicate with clients rather than talking by telephone, for example, or being more circumspect in talking to Middle Eastern sources, as journalists such as Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges alleged.

In his Supreme Court brief and in the oral argument yesterday, however, Verrilli alleged that these harms were too speculative to create legal standing to challenge the law, since the lawyers and journalists couldn’t be sure they were being surveilled under the FAA rather than under some other warrantless wiretapping authority. Essentially, the Obama administration was arguing that targets of surveillance could only challenge the law after they knew they were being surveilled, though the government would never tell them they were being surveilled before bringing a case against them.

I am sure we would all like a ruling that we cannot be sued unless we give the plaintiff permission to do so, essentially what the Obama Administration is claiming here.

Update:  From the Washington Times:

Bloomberg News reported on October 17 that Attorney General Eric Holder “prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined, including law-and-order Republicans John Mitchell, Edwin Meese and John Ashcroft.” :

The Justice Department said that there are established avenues for government employees to follow if they want to report misdeeds. The agency “does not target whistle-blowers in leak cases or any other cases,” Dean Boyd, a department spokesman, said.“An individual in authorized possession of classified information has no authority or right to unilaterally determine that it should be made public or otherwise disclose it,” he said.

However, when leaks to the press benefit the administration, prosecutions from the Jusitce Department are absent. For example, AG Holder was not prosecuting anyone over who leaked information about the killing of Oasma bin Laden. The Justice Department has yet to charge anyone over leaking information regarding the U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran as well as an al Qaida plan to blow up a U.S. bound airplane. In fact, the Justice Department ended up appointing one of two attorneys to the cyberattacks investigation who was an Obama donor.

Part of the problem is that if this (or any other) Administration has its way, information that embarrasses the Administration get's classified, on the dubious logic that embarrassing the Administration embarrasses America.  With this definition, all whistle-blowing becomes "espionage".

Update 2:  More on Wiretapping from the EFF

To the contrary, there’s no indication that the still-active warrantless wiretapping program—which includes a warrantless dragnet on millions of innocent Americans’ communications—has significantly changed from the day Obama took office. With regard to the FISA Amendments Act, the Obama Administration has actively opposed all proposed safeguards in Congress. All the while, his Administration has been even more aggressive than President Bush in trying to prevent warrantless wiretapping victims from having their day in court and hascontinued building the massive national security infrastructure needed to support it. ...

Some have suggested it’s possible when Obama said “safeguards” on the Daily Show, he is referring to some unspecified secret administrative rules he has put into place. Yet if these “safeguards” exist, they have been kept completely secret from the American public, and at the same, the administration is refusing to codify them into the law or create any visible chain of accountability if they are violated. But given the ample evidence of Constitutional violations since Obama took office (see: herehere, and here), these secret safeguards we don’t know exist are clearly inconsequential.

Hope and Change

Libertarians vote for Republicans when they get tired of Democrat's authoritarian meddling in economics.  Libertarians vote for Democrats when they get tired of Republican's tough-on-crime/terrorism/sex/drugs civil rights violations.  But what to do when Republicans like Bush expand government like Democrats, and Democrats like Obama show little respect for individual liberties:

Google and an alliance of privacy groups have come to Yahoo's aid by helping the Web portal fend off a broad request from the U.S. Department of Justice for e-mail messages, CNET has learned.

In a brief filed Tuesday afternoon, the coalition says a search warrant signed by a judge is necessary before the FBI or other police agencies can read the contents of Yahoo Mail messages--a position that puts those companies directly at odds with the Obama administration.

Yahoo has been quietly fighting prosecutors' requests in front of a federal judge in Colorado, with many documents filed under seal. Tuesday's brief from Google and the other groups aims to buttress Yahoo's position by saying users who store their e-mail in the cloud enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The government theory in the case seems pretty bizarre to me.  I guess the folks who have been trying to convince me to use PGP aren't so paranoid after all.

But all that aside, it strikes me there is a need for legislative action here to cement electronic privacy.  A couple of weeks ago, Julian Sanchez had a good article describing the crazy state of electronic privacy law -- its worth a read because it is hard to excerpt, the rules being so Byzantine.  But here is one snippet:

Suppose the police want to read your e-mail. To come into your home and look through your computer, of course, they'd need a full Fourth Amendment search warrant based on probable cause. If they want to intercept the e-mail in transit, they have to go still further and meet the "super-warrant" standards of the Wiretap Act. Once it lands on your Internet Service Provider's server, a regular search warrant is once again the standard"”assuming your ISP is providing access "to the public." If it's a more closed network like your work account, your employer is permitted to voluntarily hand it over. But if you read the e-mail, or leave it on the server for more than 180 days, then suddenly your ISP has become a "remote computing service" provider rather than an "electronic communications service provider" vis a vis that e-mail. So instead of a probable cause warrant, police can get a 2703(d) order based on "specific and articulable facts" showing the information is "relevant and material" to an investigation"”a much lower standard"”provided they notify you. Except they can ask a judge to delay notification if they think that would impede the investigation. Oh, unless your ISP is in the Ninth Circuit, where opened e-mails still get the higher level of protection until they've "expired in the normal course," whatever that means.

Unfortunately, this aggressive approach to the Fourth Amendment seems to be well embedded in the Obama administration:

Yesterday a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation can recover damages under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for illegal eavesdropping on telephone conversations between its officials and its American lawyers. U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker rejected the Obama administration's argument that the state secrets privilege barred the foundation's lawsuit. Although Barack Obama ran on a promise to use the privilege less promiscuously than his predecessor, his Justice Department, like Bush's, claimed that even acknowledging the warrantless wiretapping of Al Haramain would endanger national security.

Al Haramain learned about the surveillance after the government accidentally gave its lawyers a classified document discussing it, but the foundation was not allowed to cite that document in making its case. Instead it relied on public statements by various federal officials that Walker concluded were sufficient to show the surveillance had occurred. Since there was never any serious question that warrantless surveillance of communications involving people in the United States violated FISA, the government lost its case once Walker refused to let it hide behind the state secrets privilege. "Under defendants' theory," he noted, "executive branch officials may treat FISA as optional and freely employ the SSP to evade FISA, a statute enacted specifically to rein in and create a judicial check for executive-branch abuses of surveillance authority....Because FISA displaces the SSP in cases within its purview, the existence of a FISA warrant is a fact that cannot be concealed through the device of the SSP."

This story was interesting, in a creepy Orwellian sort of way, in that it has turned out to be really, really hard to bring suit against this administration for this crime because people have a hard time demonstrating in court that they have standing to sue.  In effect, one has to show that he has been wiretapped to then sue that the surveillance was illegal, but the information to prove that one has been wiretapped is classified and therefore unavailable.  Only an accidental leak allowed this case to proceed.

Where Were You Republicans?

As any reader of this blog will know, I am a strong supporter of opening up new areas in North America to oil drilling and freeing companies to develop western oil shale reserves.  Republicans in Congress are currently bashing Pelosi and the Democrats for not opening this development up.  Fair enough, I guess, but where were the Republican for the six years they had both the Congress and the Presidency?

As a libertarian, the situation in Congress simply sucks.  Republicans, who purport to be our allies on economic issues, do nothing of consequence with their six years running Congress.  Democrats, who purport to be our allies on civil liberties issues, immediately roll over on FISA once taking over Congress.  My general observation is that I like both parties better when they are in opposition.

I'm Unclear Here

I would prefer not to see warrantless searches without judicial oversight be legal under any circumstances, so I am happy there are roadblocks in the FISA extension.  What I am unclear about, though, are the exact issues surrounding telecom immunity from lawsuits which is apparently what has the thing held up.  By no means do I wish to give telecoms some blanket immunity from the consequences of their handling of private data.  However, it seems odd to want to hold them liable for complying with what would be, under the new law, a legal government order.  Or, is the immunity issue all retroactive to past compliance with government orders when it wasn't so clear if the government orders were legal?

I must say I have some sympathy for businesses, particularly those that are highly regulated as telecom, who bow under government pressure and then get sued for doing so.  For example, as I wrote before, I am required by Arizona law to take actions that the Feds consider illegal.  Its a frustrating place to be.

Anyone who can provide clarity on the issues here (not the FISA issues or wiretapping issues but narrowly on the immunity issue) is encouraged to do so.

Academic Arguments for the Imperial Presidency

Well, this, from Opinio Juris, certainly got my blood moving this morning:

The first part of Posner and Vermeule's book offers a forceful
theoretical defense of executive authority during times of emergency.
The book offers a thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on the
cost-benefit analysis at play when government seeks the optimal balance
between the competing goods of security and liberty. Posner and
Vermeule argue that there is a Pareto security-liberty frontier at
which no win-win improvements are possible. That is, at this frontier
any increase in security will require a decrease in liberty, and
vice-versa. From my perspective, the existence of this security-liberty
frontier appears unassailable.

Given this frontier, Posner and Vermeule then offer their central
argument of institutional competence. They argue that there are few or
no domains in which it is true both that government choices about
emergency policies are not accurate (on average) and
that judicial review can make things better. They further argue that
civil libertarians who subscribe to vigorous judicial review in times
of emergency fail to identify a large and important set of cases in
which government blunders or acts opportunistically during emergencies and in which judges can improve matters

I haven't read the book, and am only just getting through the symposium they are holding.  My first, primal reaction is YUK!  Here are a couple of random thoughts:

  • I don't know if the last statement in the second paragraph is true -- I suspect it is not, or at least is subject to "improve matters" being interpreted differently by each individual.  However, it strikes me that even if the statement is true, checks and reviews by other branches of government still circumscribe executive excesses by their threat.  And the act and/or the threat of review leads to open political debate that can redirect executive actions.  Even GWB, who has pushed the theory of executive powers to new levels, can arguably be said to have modified his management of the Iraq war in response to Congressional scrutiny, even without explicit legislation being passed. 
  • The incentive system in government is for the government and its employees to grab new powers over the populace.  Anything that slows down that process, even in a "Crisis" is a good thing
  • If they want to argue that the Congress is useless as a check because in times of crisis they just become the president's bitch, I can't argue with you.  Just look at how the Democratic majority actions on Patriot Act rollbacks (none) or FISA enforcement (they actually retroactively gave Bush the power he wanted).  But this does not mean we should give up hoping they will try.
  • Government officials love it when they can act with enhanced power and decreased accountability.  If we institutionalize an imperial presidency in times of "crisis" and then give the President the power to declare a "crisis", then you can bet we will always be in a crisis.   Even if checks and balances don't tend to improve civil liberties decision-making in times of crisis, they at least help us get out of the crisis and declare normality again.  Otherwise we would never go back.

The real problem is that a government full of lifetime government employees is never, ever going to make the right choice on the security-freedom curve.  Really, by security, we mean government intrusion, so you can think of this as the government power vs. individual power curve.  And lifetime government employees are always going to choose for more power for themselves.  The problem is not who in government should fix our point on this curve, the problem is that anyone in the government is allowed to fix this point. 

That was what the Constitution was supposed to be for -- an act of the people fixing this point for the government.  The founding fathers were well aware of republics that had processes for slipping into dictatorship in times of war.  Rome was a good example, and eventually demonstrated what happened in this system -- the crisis never went away and you got a dictator all the time with no republic.  The founders explicitly did not write such a capacity for the president into the Constitution.  And it should stay that way.

Hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts after having read more of their work.

Update:  This comes to mind, for example

A recent interview with
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, suggests that
the administration also feels duty-bound to withhold information when
it might be useful to critics who oppose President Bush's
anti-terrorism policies, since those policies are necessary to protect
national security. But the very same information can"”indeed, should"”be
released at a more opportune time, when it will help the president
pursue his policies....

And then further, to the issue of eavesdropping international calls:

It's
pretty clear McConnell's real concern is that debating this issue
endangers national security because it threatens to prevent the
president from doing whatever he thinks is necessary to fight
terrorism. Hence Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on
Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, is not at
all exaggerating when he observes, "He's basically saying that
democracy is going to kill Americans." And not just democracy, but
constitutional government of any kind, since anything that interferes
with the president's unilateral decisions with respect to national
security (which is whatever he says it is) is going to kill Americans
too.

Why George Will Gets Paid for Writing, and I Don't

While I bloviated for many screen-inches on wiretaps, detentions, and separation of powers (and here, and here), George Will nails what I was trying to say in about a paragraph.

But, then, perhaps no future president will ask for such congressional
involvement in the gravest decision government makes -- going to war. Why would
future presidents ask, if the present administration successfully asserts its
current doctrine? It is that whenever the nation is at war, the other two
branches of government have a radically diminished pertinence to governance, and
the president determines what that pertinence shall be. This monarchical
doctrine emerges from the administration's stance that warrant-less surveillance
by the National Security Agency targeting American citizens on American soil is
a legal exercise of the president's inherent powers as commander in chief, even
though it violates the clear language of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, which was written to regulate wartime surveillance.

Will seems to think the wiretapping a reasonable approach, and thinks Congress should authorize it, but its very reasonableness or even necessity does not justify executive circumvention of the Constitution:

Besides, terrorism is not the only new danger of this era. Another is the
administration's argument that because the president is commander in chief, he
is the "sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs." That non sequitur is
refuted by the Constitution's plain language, which empowers Congress to ratify
treaties, declare war, fund and regulate military forces, and make laws
"necessary and proper" for the execution of all presidential powers
. Those
powers do not include deciding that a law -- FISA, for example -- is somehow
exempted from the presidential duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully
executed."

Fantastic Interview with Andrew Napolitano

Over the past few days, I have posted a lot on first and fourth amendment issues, from wiretaps and detentions to free speech to prosecutorial abuses.  It turns out I could have saved my self a lot of time and just linked this great interview with former Judge Andrew Napolitano.

We are in a fit of
constitutional chaos when the government views constitutional guarantees as
discretionary. As Americans, we order our lives on the belief that we have
extraordinary freedoms. We believe those freedoms don't come from the
government. They come from our humanity. The government doesn't
give freedom; the government
under the Constitution is restrained from
interfering with it. I can
basically say whatever I want about the government. I can basically travel
wherever I want to go. I can basically worship however I see fit. If the
government comes to the view that those freedoms are discretionary, no matter
how noble the stated [reason to restrict them] may be, then we're in a state of
constitutional chaos. We will not be able to order our lives based on freedom.
We won't know who will be prosecuted or who'll just be swept away.

On the Patriot Act:

Let's put aside all of
the procedural problems with enacting it. Forget about the fact that there was
no debate. Forget about the fact that most members of Congress didn't even have
an opportunity to read it. It is a direct assault on at least three amendments
to the Constitution: the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth
Amendment. The
PATRIOT Act legitimates the notion that if we
give up certain freedoms, the government will keep us safer. I reject that
notion from a moral and legal point of view. I also reject it from a practical
point of view. It doesn't work. The government doesn't need our freedoms to
keep us safer. No one"”no lawyer, judge, or historian"”can point to a single
incident in American history where national security was impaired because
someone insisted on their right to free speech or their right to privacy or
their right to due process.

The PATRIOT Act encourages what the
government calls "national security letters""”basically, self-written search
warrants. It violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits self-written search
warrants. The
PATRIOT Act and two of its predecessors, the Foreign
Intelligence Security Act of 1977 [
FISA] and the Electronic
Privacy Act of 1986, authorized the government to obtain search warrants by
bypassing [longstanding tradition in] the courts. Today an
FBI agent investigating a
person need only satisfy her or himself that the person under investigation is
a threat to national security. The agent doesn't have to demonstrate evidence
to a judge

On the regulatory state:

[The FDR era] began, in my view,
the dark part of American history where the federal government believed that it
could solve any problem that was national in scope, irrespective of whether it
was a
federal problem. A federal problem is one arising
under the 18 specific enumerated powers given to the federal government under
the Constitution. A
national problem is something
that exists in New Jersey and California and Texas and Illinois. But just
because it's national doesn't mean it's federal and therefore can be addressed
by the federal government....

In terms of the
government control of our lives, in terms of the percentage of our income that
the government takes from us, in terms of the types and the areas of human
behavior we let the government regulate, we are infinitely less free. And as
Jefferson once said, it is in the natural order of things that the government
should be greater and human
liberty lesser.

Women have
much more freedom. African Americans have much more freedom. Gays have much
more freedom. The discrimination that was rampant, and often caused by the
government, 40 or 50 or 60 years ago"”there's been progress in those areas. But
the destruction of federalism, the centralization of power in Washington, the
belief that Washington can regulate all aspects of our lives will, if not
checked, lead us to a totalitarian form of government. Freedom is the power and
ability to obey your own free will and conscience rather than the free wills
and consciences of others.

The interview also has a very useful short summary of the history of FISA and the Patriot act, and demonstrates how the incremental assaults on the fourth amendment have added up.  I encourage you to read it all.  In addition to this interview, Reason also had a good debate on the Patriot Act here.