FISA Court Tackles Section 215 Mess, Public Advocates In New Opinion

from the bulk-collection-paused? dept

The FISA Court has released its opinion on the interim Section 215 collection activities. The government argued that it was owed six months of uninterrupted, plain vanilla Patriot Act collections, as provided for in the USA Freedom Act. While the new law significantly alters the NSA’s collection methods, it was given 180 days to transition to an off-site “collection,” housed by telcos and responsive only to targeted searches.

But a few points were still unclear. First, Section 215 did actually expire on May 31st. Only the passage of the USA Freedom Act prevented it from going completely dead, and even so, it’s no longer a bulk collection. Second, the Second Circuit Court found the collection was illegal under current law. This finding has very limited jurisdiction, of course, and the appeals court has no control over the FISA Court. The FISC can consider this opinion (and it has), but the question of the legality of this bulk collection is still mostly unsettled.

Third, the USA Freedom Act provides for the appointment of five people to argue on behalf of the public and potential surveillance targets. The new order tackles this new stipulation… sort of. First of all, however, the FISA Court has the unenviable task of sorting out the numerous conflicts caused by the sunset of Section 215, and its almost immediate sunrise in mutated form, thanks to the provisions of the passed-at-the-last-minute USA Freedom Act.

Julian Sanchez at Just Security points out the FISC had a couple of options when interpreting the new law, the old law and various other legal questions.

Since reading USA Freedom as amending the post-sunset law would result in legal gibberish, in other words, the FISC reads the law as doing what Congress very obviously intended for it to do, not what a hyper-literal evil genie might read it as doing.

The opinion appears to authorize old-school Section 215 bulk collecting during the 180-day winddown. [As pointed out by Julian Sanchez, the opinion “pointedly” does not authorize this. What it does is provide for the collection as amended by the USA Freedom Act, which obviously isn’t the same thing, and isn’t how the government has interpreted the 180-day transition period.) What’s more interesting is the order’s discussion of the brand new advocates that will finally bring an adversarial presence to the court. Sanchez notes the FISC could have simply ignored this stipulation until after the 6-month temporary reauthorization was completed and USA Freedom’s version of Section 215 kicked in. But it didn’t. However, that doesn’t exactly mean it’s welcoming the additional arguments and scrutiny. In this opinion, the FISC rubberstamps itself.

First, it understatedly notes that things are all kinds of screwed up at the moment.

Although the statutory framework is somewhat tangled, the choice before the court is actually very clear and stark: as described below, it can apply well-established principles of statutory construction and interpret the USA FREEDOM Act in a manner that gives meaning to all of its provisions, or it can ignore those principles and conclude that Congress passed an irrational statute with multiple superfluous parts.

Having issued its mildly derogatory assessment of Schrödinger’s Bulk Collection, the FISA Court moves on to declare that, despite the multiple legal entanglements and legislative changes, this particular request is so straightforward — and its precedent sufficiently clear — there’s no need to ask a second opinion.

Under the circumstances, it does not appear that the assistance of an amicus curiae would materially assist the court in making that decision. The court therefore finds that it is “not appropriate” to appoint an amicus curiae in this matter, within the meaning of 50 U.S.C. §1803(i)(2)(A).

This would, of course, be the statute cited by the Second Circuit Court as not allowing for the bulk collection of records, but whatever. In this particular case, the FISA Court’s assessment is likely correct. If it’s expected to see this tangled mess the way legislators intended, rather than as a “hyper-literal evil genie,” the government is free to collect bulk records for the next six months while transitioning to the new process. Anyone arguing on behalf of the public will just have to wait until the USA Freedom version goes into effect and attack any deficiencies then. As for the appeals court decision, it has very little bearing now that the Section 215 program is on the way to retirement. The passage of USA Freedom now provides for the legal authority needed to continue this collection, which will no longer be in bulk and much more likely to adhere to the Section 1803 provisions.

Sanchez points out an interesting omission — if it is an omission — that possibly indicates the government won’t even be performing its long-running bulk collection for the next six months. As he notes, no additional order authorizing normal bulk collection has been issued. In the wake of the Snowden leaks, the FISA Court has been pretty punctual with the public release of authorization orders, but there’s no order attached to this opinion.

Because the FISC has declined to take the 180-day escape hatch, and because they cannot plausibly invoke the “no brainer” exception, the court does intend to appoint an amicus to brief the question of whether bulk collection can continue during the six month transition window. Since it will take time to find an appropriate party, and there’s no indication of any further bulk order being issued as yet, it seems reasonable to infer that, at present, the bulk program remains suspended. Alternatively, the FISC may have issued a temporary order authorizing resumption of bulk collection for some quite short period, without an opinion, while it looks for an amicus and takes time to consider their arguments.   If they had in fact already issued an opinion and order reauthorizing bulk collection, after all, it would be quite strange to have issued a memorandum opinion dealing only with this narrow question, rather than bundling them all together.

If so, this would be the first time since 2009 that the bulk collection has been suspended for any length of time, which is significant on its own.

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Comments on “FISA Court Tackles Section 215 Mess, Public Advocates In New Opinion”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Third, the USA Freedom Act provides for the appointment of five people to argue on behalf of the public and potential surveillance targets.

How does the public know that those people are doing their job if they cannot appoint them or monitor their actions in a secret court. Without public, rather than government, oversight, such appointments will just be a sinecure for those supportive of the secret court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The job of these five people will be to represent the public before the FISA Court. To accurately represent the role and power that average citizens have, these five will be put in straightjackets, have duct-tape strapped over their mouths, and pillowcases placed over their heads.

I fully trust they’ll be able to do the job they’ve been appointed to do, exactly as intended.

MarcAnthony (profile) says:

Mischievous genie

As long as this “court” is gauging Congress’ intent based on a question of obviousness, why not also gauge what the authors of the Constitution intended for the people? Surely it wasn’t mass surveillance. FISA’s evil genie allegory is apropos; its track record shows that the NSA is its recognized master, and it will use every iota of wiggle room to interpret their wishes as its command.

GEMont (profile) says:

Its the same old Song and Dance my friend...

And while Section 215 undergoes its high-profile, publicly exposed, cosmetic surgery to keep the public focused and looking at the left hand of the NSA, the bulk collection, renamed “the lot collection”, carries on unimpeded under a different program name and a different directive and a different set of rules, secretly under the right hand.

And we have achieved: Business as Usual.

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