Judge Gives DOJ Until The End Of The Month To Submit Declassified Opinion Containing FISA Court's Justifications For The Section 215 Program
from the surveillance-state-sausage-making dept
It appears the government will finally be releasing the FISA court’s thought process justifying the mass harvesting of Americans’ metadata from fully-immunized telcos under the Section 215 program (now 501). An earlier court order from FISA judge Dennis Saylor discussing the potential release of this court opinion described it thusly:
The government has identified the Opinion issued in Docket Number BR 13-25 on February 19, 2013, as one that “contain[s] analysis by this Court evaluating the meaning, scope, and/or constitutionality” of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, codified as amended at 50 U.S.C. § 1861.
Whether it will be instructive and enlightening (rather than stuffed full of Third Party Doctrine bullshit and circular “it’s legal because it’s legal” reasoning) remains to be seen. But the last two words of that previous sentence are something at least: it will “be seen.” And, apparently, with a minimum of redactions.
For the reasons stated herein, the Court is directing the government to prepare and declassify a redacted version of the opinion issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in Docket Number BR-25 on February 19, 2013.
The ACLU (and others) have pushed for a release of this particular FISC opinion for more than a year now. The court doesn’t even attempt to address the First Amendment implications of withholding the opinion from the public because there are plenty of other angles justifying its release. The court notes that the release would serve the public’s interest as recent disclosures (both authorized and unauthorized) have brought the Section 215 program into the court of public opinion (as well as actual federal courtrooms).
While the FISA court may have arrived at this conclusion based on ongoing events, the government arrived somewhere completely different.
After appropriations had been reinstated and a timetable for declassification review had been set, the government advised that, “[a]fter careful review of the [February 19, 2013] Opinion by senior intelligence officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, the Executive Branch has determined that the Opinion should be withheld in full and a public version of the Opinion cannot be provided.”
The FISA court asked for the combined brain power of the DOJ, Executive Branch and an unspecified number of “senior intelligence officials” to explain their thought process and got a lot of unintelligible mumbles and floor-staring in return.
Noting that “the government has provided no explanation of this conclusion,” the Court ordered the government to submit “a detailed explanation of its conclusion that the Opinion is classified in full and cannot be made public, even in a redacted form.”
Duly chastened, the brain trust resorted to one of its favorites: making this info public would jeopardize ongoing investigations. But it conceded that the opinion could still be declassified if a sufficient amount of black ink is spilled. The FISC pressed harder, asking for narrower redactions that removed only the targets in question, rather than the accompanying language that would clarify the court’s stance on the bulk collection issue. Surprisingly, despite its lack of practice with operating anything narrowly-defined or targeted, the government managed to come up with a redacted version that satisfied the unexpectedly demanding FISA court.
[T]he Court notes that releasing the February 19, 2013 Opinion pursuant to the Second Redaction Proposal achieves the basic objective sought by the movants: disclosure of the Court’s legal reasoning, to the extent that it can reasonably be segregated from properly classified facts. There is an inherent risk that the end product of such an exercise “may confuse or obscure, rather than illuminate, the decision[ ] in question.” In re Motion for Release of Court Records, 526 F. Supp.2d at 495. On balance, however, the Court is satisfied that publication of the February 19, 2013 Opinion in conformance with the Second Redaction Proposal would enhance, rather than detract from, public understanding of the Court’s reasoning as to the legal issues presented.
Well, I guess we’ll see what it looks like when we get it. August 29th is deadline for the submission of a formally declassified version of the (supposedly) narrowly-redacted opinion. The FISA court then needs to give it a quick once-over before publishing it “immediately” to its website. I don’t expect to see it any sooner than the end of this month, but we’ll be taking a good look at it when it finally arrives.