FISA Court Tries, Once Again, To Justify Allowing Bulk Collection Of Data On All Your Phone Calls
from the let's-try-this-again dept
Last week, the FISA Court (FISC) renewed yet again (as it has every few months for over 7 years) the ability of the government to demand data on every phone call from American telcos. Last month, the FISC (for the first time) published its rationale for allowing the collection — one that many experts found extremely lacking. Not only did the court incorrectly state that members of Congress were fully aware of the details of the program when they renewed it, but it also made up some of its own rules and ignored some of the Supreme Court’s statements on such forms of data collection.
Today, the court has declassified the new justification that was written up for this latest round of rubber-stamping, and it’s written by a different judge than before. This time, it’s Judge Mary McLaughlin, who notes that this is the first time she’s had to review such an application, but for the most part she “agrees with and adopts” the reasoning used back in July by Judge Eagan to justify the collection. However, she also attempts to go into a little more detail, perhaps in response to the public criticism to Eagan’s reasoning. Eagan’s ruling stated the following:
In light of the importance of the national security programs that were set to expire, the Executive Branch and relevant congressional committees worked together to ensure that each Member of Congress knew or had the opportunity to know how Section 215 was being implemented under this Court’s Documentation and personnel were also made available to afford each Member full knowledge of the scope of the implementation of Section 215 and of the underlying legal interpretation.
Unfortunately, as many have pointed out (and the White House has admitted) this is not true. Rep. Mike Rogers did not share the details with members of the House, despite the White House recommending strongly that he do so. While he did set up “briefings” with the NSA, they were clearly designed to keep Representatives in the dark. Among the many tricks that Rogers pulled, was sending announcements of the briefings to what’s considered the “spam folder” of representatives, holding them at very inconvenient times (when most Reps. were out of town) and then leaving it up to the Reps. to guess what they should be asking about.
In this latest ruling, McLaughlin doesn’t make the claim as directly as Eagan did, but still suggests that every member of Congress “had the opportunity to learn about the scope of the metadata collection and this Court’s interpretation of Section 215.” Thus, because they reauthorized it (thanks mostly due to fear-mongering by the heads of the Intelligence Committees), it must mean that Congress approved of the interpretation of the law. That seems specious, at best. It’s increasingly clear that the heads of the intelligence committees actively sought to mislead others in Congress over these programs. Pretending that they were well informed is simply fiction. The very fact that so many in Congress (including some on the Intelligence Committee) have noted that they were kept in the dark about many important details, Judge McLaughlin is playing games here that don’t reflect reality.
She also attempts to deal with the fact that in the Jones GPS case, the Supreme Court indicated that when there’s bulk collection of data, it’s possible to cross over from not being a 4th Amendment violation, to being one. In other rulings, the suggestion had been that if a single data point wasn’t a 4th Amendment violation, then the bulk collection couldn’t be either — even though Justice Alito’s opinion in Jones strongly argued otherwise. McLaughlin tries to hand-wave this away:
The Supreme Court’s more recent decision in United States v. Jones… does not point to a different result here. Jones involved the acquisition of a different type of information through different means.
More specifically, she argues that because Jones was about monitoring and this case is about collection it’s different. That also seems questionable, as Alito himself made the comparison to wiretapping. To argue that they’re not analogous seems like it’s ignoring what was said. McLaughlin does, legitimately, point out that Justice Sotomayor’s opinion suggested that the whole notion of the 3rd party doctrine (saying there’s no 4th Amendment protection for information given to a third party) should be revisited, but that the Court declined to do so in Jones.
Hopefully, this is setting up a situation in which the Supreme Court will no longer be able to punt the issue, as it did in Jones, and we can get some renewed respect for the 4th Amendment, especially in cases where bulk data is collected and accessed by government officials.