Dianne Feinstein's Bragging About NSA Surveillance Program May Finally Result In It Being Declared Unconstitutional
from the ooops dept
This is quite an incredible story that’s unfolding about a new opportunity for a Constitutional challenge to the FISA Amendments Act, which has enabled broad NSA surveillance. If you haven’t been following the details (and even if you haven’t been following all of this closely), the specifics may be a bit confusing, so we’ll try to go piece by piece through the history here to explain the events leading up to a new Constitutional challenge being placed on the law, which the Supreme Court had previously effectively wiped out — in large part due to false information presented by the Solicitor General, who now appears to be not at all happy the intelligence community led him to lie to the Supreme Court. And it may have all unravelled because of Dianne Feinstein’s gloating and bragging about how important the FISA Amendments Act is.
First up: the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) was passed in 2008, after Congress claimed that the intelligence community was hamstrung in important areas of surveillance. Much of the debate over the law was focused on the fact that it gave telcos retroactive immunity for anything illegal they might have done regarding President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was only revealed by the NY Times a few years earlier. But, even more important than that was that the FAA more or less authorized continued warrantless wiretapping by the intelligence community. In 2011, the FAA was up for renewal. Some in the Senate sought to use the distraction (that year) over the “debt ceiling” to sneak through an early renewal with no debate, and Senator Ron Wyden put a hold on it, demanding more answers about how many Americans were being spied on. He eventually lifted the hold in exchange for a one-year extension and a promised debate over the FAA.
Fast forward to the end of last year, with the FAA set to expire yet again, and Senate Intelligence Committee boss Dianne Feinstein, who had originally made that “deal” with Wyden, tried very hard to avoid having any debate. Eventually, at the very end of December, she allowed a brief debate, in which she showed up up to insist that the FAA had to be renewed or we’d all be at risk. As we noted at the time, her reasoning was somewhat laughable, where she held up a pretend piece of paper with a supposed “classified” reason for why the FAA was so important. Remember that speech, because it’s going to become quite important a little later on in this story.
Parallel to all of this, there was a legal fight making its way through the courts, brought by the ACLU to challenge the Constitutionality of the FAA. The big question was whether or not the courts could be convinced that the ACLU had “standing” to sue, since it couldn’t prove that it had been spied on directly. Eventually, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that the ACLU had no standing. Of course, the key thing that had concerned the Justices the most was the simple question: if the program is secret, then could anyone ever challenge the Constitutionality of the program?
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued the case on behalf of the government, told the Supreme Court that of course people could have standing to challenge the law, and that the government would be required to inform defendants in cases where such information was used that it was collected under the FAA. This point is what pushed the Supreme Court over the edge to rule against the ACLU. As they noted in the majority decision:
…if the Government intends to use or disclose information obtained or derived from a §1881a acquisition in judicial or administrative proceedings, it must provide advance notice of its intent, and the affected person may challenge the lawfulness of the acquisition…. Thus, if the Government were to prosecute one of respondent-attorney’s foreign clients using §1881a-authorized surveillance, the Government would be required to make a disclosure…. In such a situation, unlike in the present case, it would at least be clear that the Government had acquired the foreign client’s communications using §1881a-authorized surveillance.
Okay, now the law has been in place since 2008. If what Verrilli said was true, then, um, shouldn’t there have been some cases between now and then where the FAA-enabled wiretapping was used? And if that’s true, then it should have been disclosed in the various cases. Except, there is no case on record where it had been disclosed.
Right, so now we jump back to Feinstein’s grandstanding about why we need to keep the FAA. In her speech on the floor, she announced that the FAA was necessary in a long list of cases:
“I’ve asked the staff to compile arrests that have been made in the last four years in America on terrorist plots that have been stopped. And there are 100 arrests that have been made since 2009 and 2012. There have been 16 individuals arrest just this year alone. Let me quickly just review what these plots were. And some of them come right from this program. The counterterrorism come and the information came right from this program. And again, if Members want to see that they can go and look in a classified manner.
[proceeds to list out eight “examples” of terrorism arrests — two with names, six are just general descriptions of plots]
… and it goes on and on and on. So this has worked. And you know, as the years go on, the intelligence becomes the way to prevent these attacks. Now that the FBI has geared up a national security unit, they’ve employed 10,000 people and information gained through programs like this, through other sources as well, is able to be used to prevent plots from happening. So in four years 100 arrests to prevent something from happening in the United States, some of which comes from this program. So I think it’s a vital program.
The lawyers for the defendants in the two named cases suddenly recognized an issue. They were named in this list, but at no point had they been told that evidence was gathered under this program. So they asked. And… the government refused to tell them the details. The NY Times took notice of this, pointing out that either Feinstein lied in her Senate statement or Verrilli lied to the Supreme Court:
In a prosecution in Federal District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., against two brothers accused of plotting to bomb targets in New York, the government has said it plans to use information gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, which authorized individual warrants. But prosecutors have refused to say whether the government obtained those individual warrants based on information derived from the 2008 law, which allows programmatic surveillance.
Prosecutors in Chicago have taken the same approach in a prosecution of teenager accused of plotting to blow up a bar.
To his credit, it appears that once this all became clear, Verrilli had a crisis of conscience, suggesting that he did not knowingly lie to the Supreme Court, but honestly believed that the DOJ would reveal its use of these programs in cases. From that new NY Times piece by Charlie Savage, it’s reported that Verrilli was pretty angry about being misled and demanded some answers:
As a result, Mr. Verrilli sought an explanation from national security lawyers about why they had not flagged the issue when vetting his Supreme Court briefs and helping him practice for the arguments, according to officials.
The national security lawyers explained that it was a misunderstanding, the officials said. Because the rules on wiretapping warrants in foreign intelligence cases are different from the rules in ordinary criminal investigations, they said, the division has long used a narrow understanding of what “derived from” means in terms of when it must disclose specifics to defendants.
Either way, Verrilli followed through on this, and apparently kicked off a major “internal debate” over whether or not there was “any persuasive legal basis for failing to clearly notify defendants that they faced evidence linked to the 2008 warrantless surveillance law, thereby preventing them from knowing that they had an opportunity to argue that it derived from an unconstitutional search.” According to the article, Verrilli “argued that withholding disclosure from defendants could not be justified legally.” Eventually, even the NSA and FBI’s lawyers and James Clapper’s office agreed. The decision was made to start revealing this information going forward.
However, they also agreed to reveal to at least one defendant that the FAA was used to collect evidence against them, and that this had not been revealed. Of course, this means they get to cherry pick the “right” case.
The ACLU, however, is not waiting around. Almost immediately, it filed a case about this, arguing that the government had illegally hidden this information in response to a FOIA request. It seems like that may be the most obvious procedural way of re-raising this question, as I have no idea if there’s some way for the ACLU to directly petition the Supreme Court to reopen the case, noting that the key piece of information the Justices relied on to make their ruling was false (though, apparently, from a Solicitor General who had been misled by prosecutors).
Now, to wrap this all up, we bring it back around to Feinstein’s speech in the Senate. Remember, the whole point of her speech was to directly argue for the reapproval of the FAA. And while she equivocated a few times in describing what programs were responsible for the arrests, she clearly made references to “this program” working. However, when the lawyers for one of the defendants named by Feinstein asked the Senate Intelligence Committee for some clarification, Morgan Frankel, a Senate Intelligence Committee lawyer, responded by arguing that Feinstein wasn’t actually referring to the FAA program. Seriously.
Notwithstanding that she was speaking in support of reauthorization of Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Senator Feinstein did not state, and she did not mean to state, that FAA surveillance was used in any or all of the nine cases she enumerated, including Mr. Daoud’s case, in which terrorist plots had been stopped. Rather, the nine cases the Chairman sumamrized were drawn from a list of 100 arrests arising out of foiled terrorism plots in the United States between 2009 and 2012 compiled by the staff from FBI press releases and other public sources.
[….] To summarize, nothing in Senator Feinstein’s remarks was intended to convey any view that FAA authorities were used or were not used in Mr. Daoud’s case or in any of the other cases specifically named. Rather, her purpose in reviewing several recent terrorism arrests was to refute the “view by some that this country no longer needs to fear attack.” Thus, because Senator Feinstein was neither relying on, nor attempting to convey, any information about the use or non-use of FAA authorities in any of the nine cases, there are no “assessments, reports, and other information” in the Committee’s possession to which Senator Feinstein referred in her comments, pertaining to FAA surveillance with respect to Mr. Daoud’s case.
Did you get that? So, what they’re now saying is that Senator Feinstein went to the floor of the Senate to argue strongly in favor of renewing the FAA, and she named a bunch of cases, clearly stating that this program was necessary because of those cases — but she didn’t mean to imply that it was ever actually used in any of those cases. And, in the meantime, we now find out that even in cases where it has been used, no one’s been told about it, despite the law requiring defendants to be told — and the Solicitor General telling the Supreme Court they would be told.
So, it appears that both Verrilli and the Supreme Court got duped by the intelligence community, while Feinstein clearly misled the Senate and the American public by pretending that the FAA had been used to stop terrorism, but when called on it, now pretends she meant no such thing. Thankfully, however, her attempt at misleading the public by bragging about these arrests may have now (finally) kicked off the legal rationale for a case to prove that the FAA is, in fact, unconstitutional.