Appeals Court Affirms NSA Surveillance Can Be Used To Investigate Domestic Criminal Suspects
from the spooks-in-the-federal-cop-shop dept
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals confirms what's already known about the NSA's domestic surveillance: it's not just for terrorism.
The NSA collections -- done in the FBI's name -- are supposed to only gather info related to international terrorism. But that requirement has been phased out. The NSA "tips" a certain amount of data to the FBI for its own use and it has been shown in the past to do the same for the DEA, which it then instructs to obscure the origin of its info.
An opinion [PDF] just released by the Appeals Court, says basically the same thing: although the NSA's surveillance is supposed to be used to sniff out terrorists, there's nothing in the law that prevents it from using its collections to go after criminals.
Gregory Turner was convicted of conspiring with Prince Asiel Ben Israel (both US persons) to provide aid to Zimbabwean "Specially Designated Nationals" -- in this case a group working to block the institution of more democratic processes and procedures in that country.
Turner moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that the government's use of a FISA order to obtain information on his activities violated the NSAs foreign intelligence directives. But the court finds the directive does not limit FISA warrants to terrorism only. The government only needs to "reasonably believe" a target is an "agent of a foreign power."
The government informed Turner it had gathered evidence using FISA-authorized surveillance. Then it refused to turn over information to him with regards to its activities. From the redacted, terribly-reproduced decision:
On February 27, 2014, Turner filed a motion for disclosure of FISA materials and motion to suppress evidence obtained or derived from FISA. The government responded to these motions with a classified brief and a sealed appendix submitted ex parte to the district court and redacted, unclassified version served to Turner. Additionally, the government filed a "Declaration and Claim of Privilege" by the Attorney General that declared, "it would harm the national security of the United States to disclose or hold an adversarial hearing with regards to the FISA materials…"
Both motions by Turner were denied. These denials have been upheld by the Appeals Court. Turner claimed the government failed to meet its probable cause requirements for the FISA warrant and also violated his First Amendment rights with its surveillance.
Much of the court's reasoning is redacted but it does have this to say about Turner's assertions.
Turner contends that "FISA appears to require the communications subject to surveillance of a United States person must related directly to activities involving international terrorism as defined in FISA." Turner misstates the law. FISA is not limited to activities involving international terrorism. FISA authorizes surveillance and searches based on probable cause that the target is an "agent of foreign power," which relates to "any person" engaged in certain activities… on behalf of a foreign power, including "clandestine intelligence gathering activities" and "enter[ing] the United States under a false or fraudulent identity… or while in the United States… assum[ing] a false or fraudulent identity." These activities are listed in addition to "international terrorism."
Not only that, but the laws governing FISA-ordered activities were loosened in 2008 to encompass all sorts of criminal activity not related to foreign powers or international terrorism.
FISA, as amended in 2008, "eliminated any justification for the FISA court to balance the relative weight the government places on criminal prosecution as compared to other counterintelligence responses." [...] [T]he amended FISA statute "does not oblige the government to demonstrate to the FISA court that its primary purpose in conducting electronic surveillance is not criminal prosecution."
As for Turner's First Amendment claims, the court finds the activities he engaged in were not covered under the First Amendment, no matter how "right" Turner may have believed undermining the installation of a democratic government was. As the court sees it, the government established Turner was an "agent of a foreign power," something that strips away protections normally afforded to political activity. Or maybe just political activity the US government doesn't approve of.
Either way, it's very clear FISA court orders can be used to engage in domestic surveillance purely to investigate criminal activity, something the NSA hasn't exactly been forthcoming about. As long as a foreign power is somehow involved, the NSA and the FBI are interchangeable surveillance pieces, even though one of them is assumed to be mostly uninvolved in domestic surveillance of US persons.