DOJ Memo Shows NSA And White House Lawyers Mainly Unconcerned About Evidence Obligations In Criminal Trials

from the let's-temporarily-sort-of-care-about-something dept

Charlie Savage of the New York Times has obtained another document detailing the internal guidelines of the NSA's STELLAR WIND program as a result of the NYT's long-running FOIA lawsuit against the government. The new document is a memo from the Department of Justice, which details its lawyers' attempts to suss out the government's obligation to defendants when it comes to evidence derived from classified surveillance programs.

As Savage points out in his post, much of the NSA program's inner workings (and abuses) have been detailed in previously-released documents, including an Inspector General's report obtained by the Times in 2015. That doesn't make this document [PDF] unworthy of a read, however. It doesn't provide more detail on the program or its apparent abuse, but it does make it clear the government didn't seem too concerned about potential due process violations arising from the obscuring of surveillance-derived evidence.

First, the memo points out very few DOJ lawyers and prosecutors have been "read in" to the program, which immediately makes it more difficult to balance adversarial issues in criminal prosecutions where the paper trail leads back to the NSA's warrantless surveillance.

But the OLC (Office of Legal Counsel) doesn't have the right lawyers on staff to make this determination. Then-OLC head John Yoo himself admits (via a quotation in the memo) that "criminal law is not [his] area." To remedy this, the OLC brought in two lawyers from the DOJ's Criminal Division -- Patrick Rowan and Christopher Wray -- to analyze processes and check for adherence to Rule 16 (defendant' communications and statements in the government's possession) and Brady (exculpatory evidence) obligations. But it appears once the two DOJ lawyers were "read in," they were forgotten about.

Wray told the OIG that after his and Rowan's read-in, they "were kind of left on our own." He said that no one directed him or Rowan to continue studying the Rule 16 issues or the government's Brady obligations in connection with international terrorism prosecutions, nor did anyone tell them to develop any judgments or opinions on the subject.

What is clear is that whatever changes were made at the NSA and DOJ were the result of journalism. According to Rowan's statements to the NSA's Inspector General, the NSA was, at best, "generally aware" of its evidence disclosure obligations "prior to the December 2005 disclosure… of the Stellar Wind program in The New York Times."

But the process in place -- and likely the process that continues today with the OLC's blessing -- was to spot cases that might present discovery issues and take steps to hide the origin of that evidence.

Rowan stated that if the NSA located any responsive but classified information, it would be expected to notify senior Justice Department officials with the requisite clearances about the information. Rowan said he was confident that if Brady information were known to the NSA, it would be brought to the attention of the Department and steps would have been taken to dismiss the case or otherwise ensure the program was not disclosed.

If the government wanted both program secrecy and a successful prosecution, the FBI would engage in something that looks an awful lot like parallel construction.

[Rowan] stated that the FBI had "walled off" any evidence it collected from inclusion in criminal cases by tipping out Stellar Wind-derived information under [REDACTED] with a caveat that the information in the tipper was "for lead purposes only." Rowan noted that OIPR [the DOJ's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review] also had in place a scrubbing process to delete program-derived information from FISA applications. Rowan expressed confidence that these mechanisms ensured that no program information was used in international terrorism prosecutions. Finally, Rowan stated that the FBI is "very quick to get FISAs up," thereby minimizing the likelihood that the NSA's Stellar Wind database would be the sole repository of Brady material.

The DOJ lawyers felt evidence issues still remained mostly unaddressed, but the OLC apparently lost interest shortly thereafter. The new head of the OLC discussed some issues with Rowan but told the DOJ "he did not believe the OLC followed up on Rowan's request that it continue researching these issues." Another OLC official said he had seen Rowan's work, but the office apparently decided Yoo's memo (the same Yoo who stated criminal law "wasn't his area") was the final word on the subject. This same official also stated he wasn't aware of any "formal procedures" for handling surveillance-derived evidence arising from the DOJ's examination of the subject.

The other DOJ lawyer "read in" to the program confirmed the OLC official's statement.

Wray also told us there was no organized Departmental effort to establish formal procedures for reviewing international terrorism prosecutions to comply with Rule 16 disclosure requests and Brady obligations. He said "the thinking was" that the Rowan memorandum was the "first step" toward devising "some kind of systematized process" for such reviews. However, we found no indication that OLC followed up on Rowan's request to further study these discovery issues with any kind of written product.

So, the answer on prosecution evidence obligations comes from a guy who knows little about criminal law. On the plus side (haha), he's a strong proponent of making all rights and liberties subservient to national security concerns. The FBI does its part to protect NSA surveillance programs by erecting parallel evidence gathering, which means defendants might actually be able to see the evidence used against them, but be unable to challenge the constitutionality of the original collection. This all works out very well for the government, which somehow managed to slack its way into a playing field tilted towards the prosecution despite having one of its flagship surveillance programs splashed all over the pages of the New York Times. Remind me again how leaks damage the government's ability to pursue investigations and prosecutions?

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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 7:51am

    Re: Re: Who will even find the Brady material?

    The problem is confirmation bias.

    "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."
    - Cardinal Richelieu

    Richelieu's point is valid even without evil intent. Even without electronic surveillance there are endless cases of people put through hell because of confirmation bias: Officers seizing on details that support their suspicion while ignoring those that oppose it.

    WITH electronic surveillance - emails, Facebook posts, Google search history, grocery purchase history etc. - instead of six lines they're getting six million. They'll always be able to find something with which to hang the most honest of people. And there's a growing number of examples of this happening.

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