Why The NSA And President Bush Got The FISA Court To Reinterpret The Law In Order To Collect Tons Of Data
from the a-bit-more-revealing dept
Over the weekend, the Washington Post published yet another revelation about the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, including some details of various “code named” data collection projects like MAINWAY, MARINA and NUCLEON. NUCLEON is the program for intercepting telephone calls (the actual content), though that’s apparently limited. MAINWAY and MARINA are focused on all the data about communications (what everyone’s been referring to as metadata), but not the actual content.
But what struck me as most interesting about the report is that it reveals some of the details of why the FISA court reinterpreted a key part of the Patriot Act to allow the NSA to do bulk collection of data — contrary to its plain wording — and how that interpretation has been used by the government. We’ve discussed in the past that the telcos had a habit of voluntarily handing over a ton of information (i.e., nearly everything) to the government on no legal basis at all. However, when the NY Times broke the story back in 2006 about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, the telcos freaked out. As was widely covered, that led to passing a law that gave the telcos retroactive immunity for breaking the law (which they did). However, apparently, the telcos (with the help of the administration) sought to have the FISA court reinterpret the patriot act such that the limitation on “relevant” business records in Section 215 would now mean “all of them.” The law was written such that the FISA court is only supposed to allow for the collection of “tangible” things (including records) if it can be shown to the court that the specific thing being collected is relevant to an investigation. The FISA Court apparently believes that means anything — and that’s the crux of the secret interpretation from the FISA Court which it and the DOJ have been refusing to reveal.
When the New York Times revealed the warrantless surveillance of voice calls, in December 2005, the telephone companies got nervous. One of them, unnamed in the report, approached the NSA with a request. Rather than volunteer the data, at a price, the “provider preferred to be compelled to do so by a court order,” the report said. Other companies followed suit. The surveillance court order that recast the meaning of business records “essentially gave NSA the same authority to collect bulk telephony metadata from business records that it had” under Bush’s asserted authority alone.
The article also highlights an even bigger mess around the collection of internet data. Bush had ordered it to be done, covering email data and Skype calls, from the siphoning they were doing directly off the network from the telcos. Cheney’s lawyer wrote up the order. Then there was the somewhat infamous story of a bunch of top DOJ officials, including FBI boss Robert Mueller and his expected replacement James Comey, who apparently threatened to resign, pointing out that this was not actually legal. NSA boss Michael Hayden, apparently has no scruples at all, and said he was fine with keeping the program going, even if the Attorney General wouldn’t sign the order. Lawyers for the NSA also tried out a ridiculous interpretation of the law that said they could collect everything, but they didn’t technically “acquire” anything until they looked at it. While the report claims this interpretation is no longer used by the NSA, it certainly seems like officials have argued that data is not “collected” until they look at it. Either way, the FISA court stepped in to “make it legal” to do such bulk data collection:
Three months later, on July 15, the secret surveillance court allowed the NSA to resume bulk collection under the court’s own authority. The opinion, which remains highly classified, was based on a provision of electronic surveillance law, known as “pen register, trap and trace,” that was written to allow law enforcement officers to obtain the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls from a single telephone line.
Basically, when data collection runs up against the limits of the law, the FISA court steps in with a secret reinterpretation of the law to let intelligence officials do what they want. There are no adversarial hearings with anyone arguing the other side, and since the rulings are secret, the judges never even have to be worried about criticism. Hence the infamous rubber stamp of the court.