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House committees take first step to reform NSA

3:28 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

Last week, the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees approved a bill that would begin the process of restoring constitutional limits to dragnet government surveillance. While a praiseworthy step in the right direction, the progress to date remains both entirely too slow, and deferential to the intelligence agencies.

Congress should immediately pass the USA FREEDOM Act, and then get back to work to pass the further restrictions on NSA spying necessary to render it compliant with the First and Fourth amendments.

A limited reform package

Several observers have noted various ways in which the bill passed out of the committees last week leaves a great deal to be desired. The House committees watered down the bill’s provisions before approving it, undermining its ability to meaningfully restrain government spying.

For instance, the revised bill would fail to stop “back door searches,” through which the government targets Americans for surveillance while claiming to target foreigners in order to evade legal restrictions created in the 1970s after the agencies were caught spying on peaceful domestic social movements. In addition, the measure that would have created a public advocate to lend some legitimacy to the secret FISA court was scuttled. Instead, the court will retain discretion to appoint a panel of privacy advisors.

Finally, the revised bill fails to ensure transparency. Its public reporting requirements, watered down in committee, previously would have covered a number of domestic surveillance activities, including controversial National Security Letters long abused by the FBI.

This week, a coalition of 30 organizations wrote to Congress to address vulnerabilities where “several technical corrections and clarifications to the bill are required if Congress is to help ensure that the bill language is not misinterpreted and its stated goal of ending bulk collection is met.” Encyclopedic writer and analyst Marcy Wheeler questioned ”whether the bill will actually expose more kinds of US person records to the scrutiny of the NSA.” And Georgetown law professor David Cole said “the biggest mistake any of us could make would be to conclude that this bill solves the problem.”

Most fundamentally, Danielle Brian from the Program on Government Oversight said, “We cannot expect this bill to protect privacy and civil liberties while the public and Congress continue to be in the dark about the policies in practice.”

These concerns are all valid. Unfortunately, they’re just the beginning of the story.

Deferring to agencies despite a decade of secret crimes

Beyond particular concerns with changes wrought by Senate committees to the USA FREEDOM Act are a series of broader problems. Despite its welcome progress, the policy reform process reflects a troubling pattern of congressional deference to agencies and officials without any legitimate basis.

No senior intelligence agency official has confirmed even a single instance in which the NSA dragnet helped stop a potential terrorist attack. Multiple independent review panels have affirmatively reached the conclusion that NSA surveillance has never actually helped protect national security, despite the self-protecting statements of executive officials to the contrary.

Meanwhile, some of those very same officials have been caught red-handed lying to Congress, about matters as fundamental as whether the NSA is spying on millions of Americans. The Director of National Intelligence misled Congress, despite having advance written notice of that question, prompting several members of Congress to seek his appropriate prosecution for perjury.

Instead, the officials implicated in mass constitutional crimes all remain in place, and only after a year since learning the facts is Congress finally taking steps to restore the rule of law.

The proportionate response to the Snowden revelations would be to remove the entire senior leadership of the domestic intelligence agencies. The fact that the agencies’ leadership remains in place — despite the revelation of over a decade of unconstitutional surveillance that has poisoned our nation’s international relations and undermined our constitutional legacy, self-protecting lies to Congress, the misappropriation of public funds, and documented abuses of these programs facilitating potential domestic violence —renders suspect so-called policy “reforms” that ultimately defer to their interests.

Restoring a legitimate baseline for debate

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FBI & NSA spying revealed: Uncle Sam is watching you, and both Congress and the courts are complicit

1:23 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

The (UK) Guardian published a previously secret court order authorizing dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans without any pretense of justification, confirming concerns raised by civil libertarians (including me) for years.

Since first taking office in 2009, the Obama administration has repeatedly extended the USA PATRIOT Act, including the overbroad section 215 cited as the basis for the FBI surveillance approved by the secret order disclosed by the Guardian. In light of Congress’ recent decision to extend the law permitting even worse abuses by the NSA for another five years, and the Supreme Court’s outrageous decision in Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l turning a blind eye to dragnet domestic surveillance, the document is also a clarion call for both mass outrage and immediate congressional action for long overdue sunlight at the National Security Agency.

The document is disturbing because, in a single swoop, it authorizes not just the wiretapping of a single individual, or a single organization, but all of the customers of a single telecommunications company. The order reinforces its own secrecy, immune from public or congressional oversight, violating core tenets of both Due Process and the Fourth Amendment at once.

Surveillance run amok

The first thing to take away from this disclosure is this sheer scale and scope of FBI and NSA spying on Americans. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY), like the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and various allied organizations, have been raising alarm since even before the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”).

Along with Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), Sen.  Wyden has suggested in his capacity as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that Americans would be outraged if we knew about secret government interpretations of the PATRIOT Act’s controversial Section 215 authority. The law is bad enough without being contorted to allow surveillance even beyond its meager limits, but that’s exactly what the document leaked to the Guardian demonstrates: a single wiretap order allowing the FBI to spy on millions of law-abiding Americans at once, without even a pretense of the individualized suspicion long required by the Constitution.

Wyden has also sought information about how many Americans have been impacted by NSA spying overseen by the same FISA court that approved the FBI surveillance revealed by the Guardian. The answers would be laughable if they weren’t so disturbing: the NSA claimed it couldn’t answer a quantitative question because it would somehow violate the privacy of individuals under surveillance, and also that figuring out the answer to Wyden’s inquiries would simply be impracticable.

The NSA’s spin moves before Sen. Wyden’s attempts at oversight insinuated what the Guardian’s disclosure confirms: that our government’s most secret agency is run amok, squandering billions of dollars while assaulting America from our own shores, using our own money.

While outrage is appropriately escalating at the scale of FBI and NSA abuses, three angles to this controversy have remained muted in most of today’s commentary.

Whistleblowers and transparency

First what little we do know about the NSA’s program is mostly gleaned from government whistleblowers, courageous individuals who have designed their careers to inform the public about secret abuses of our rights.

Many of them have faced prosecution, at unprecedented levels under the Obama administration, making even the Nixon administration look transparent by comparison. But the crackdown on whistleblowers is what enables abuses like the NSA’s to happen in the first place.

And keep your eyes open for whatever investigation the Justice Department will launch into this leak, compounding its assault on the Associated Press with a witch hunt to uncover the source of the leak to the Guardian.

Judicial independence

Second, the leaked court order reveals the illegitimacy of jurisprudence that sticks its head in the sand rather than confronting vital social issues.

The constitutional standing doctrine articulated by the Supreme Court in Clapper vs. Amnesty International eviscerates judicial review, and enshrined the principle that the executive branch can commit any abuse under the sun, yet evade judicial review, as long as it does so in secret. The decision creates perverse incentives and could serve as a cornerstone in the further entrenchment of executive power going forward.

Similarly, the sheer breadth of the leaked order authorizing FBI surveillance confirms the inadequacy of secret courts. Courts exist to enforce our rights in the face of government abuses. That’s one of the central geniuses of the founding fathers and the system of checks and balances they constructed.

But when the decisions are secret, they stop being judicial in character. Law is built on mutual references among courts. When the law can’t reference itself, it stops being law, and emerges as something very different: in this case, a rubber stamp allowing any manner of dragnet violations impacting law-abiding Americans and our fundamental rights.

We the People

It’s not enough to be outraged. Times like this require concerted, committed, and focused grassroots action. Raise your voice online to support the transpartisan “Ben Franklin” caucus discussed by Senators Wyden and Paul in DC this Monday night. And don’t stop there: reach out to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee for help building a diverse grassroots coalition to champion civil liberties where you live. Read the rest of this entry →

Clapper v Amnesty: Courts and Congress v Our Constitution

9:30 am in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

This article was originally published on the People’s Blog for the Constitution.

US Supreme Court

Tuesday’s decision by the Supreme Court in Clapper vs Amnesty Int’l reflects judicial formalism at its worst. The decision abandons fundamental rights and the courts’ constitutional mandate, while placing government agencies above the law, so long as they commit their abuses in secret.

Clapper is a constitutional travesty of the highest order, reflecting the erosion of privacy, judicial independence, and constitutional government all at once. By allowing executive secrecy to insulate violations from review, five Justices of the Supreme Court have effectively killed what shreds once remained of the Fourth Amendment.

Every American should be gravely concerned, and anyone who still considers America “the land of the free” should carefully reconsider their assumptions. Several elements of the decision are disturbing, especially when viewed in a broader context beyond the case itself.

Most obviously disappointing is the result of the ruling, not only for the plaintiffs, but also anyone who uses the phone system or Internet.

A scandal in plain sight

The Clapper saga started with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was first passed in the 1970s to restrict domestic spying by government agencies. It was prompted by decades of abuses by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies that Congress investigated and found conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at suppressing the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association,” including a documented government campaign to “neutralize” Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

In 2002, the Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency (the NSA) to begin a secret warrantless wiretapping program in clear violation of the FISA law. It remained secret, at one point prompting a dramatic intra-executive showdown and threats of a mass resignation by Justice Department officials under the Bush administration, until the New York Times exposed the program in late 2005.

Aside from generating an earthquake across Washington, the first results of the Times‘ expose included government threats to prosecute the journalists. Their only “crime” was exposing the public to an issue that should never have been secret in the first place.  While prosecutors thankfully opted not to prosecute Lichtblau & Risen, others continued to face prosecution for pursuing transparency in the public interest.

In the middle of the 2008 presidential election race, Congress amended FISA to permit what the original statute had been passed to prohibit. Rather than require the agency to comply with the long-standing law, however, Congress instead watered down the law to allow the agency’s abuses to continue.

Congress’ 2008 amendments to FISA doomed oversight. As the dissenting Justices in Clapper observed, the 2008 amendments allow NSA monitoring not only of agents of a foreign power, but also law-abiding Americans. Congress in 2008 also removed FISA’s original requirement for the NSA to identify specific targets and locations for surveillance, enabling the agency to conduct bulk collection, or dragnet surveillance. Finally, the 2008 amendments subsidized corporate crime, extending a corporate subsidy in the form of immunity from lawsuits alleging privacy violations, ensuring that telecommunications companies could continue facilitating unconstitutional surveillance without fearing lawsuits from a justifiably hostile public.

That was the context in which a group of activists, journalists, and lawyers among the most likely suspects for NSA surveillance filed suit.

Closing the courthouse doors

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Will Obama’s second term finally fulfill his 2008 promises? (Part I)

5:37 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

This article was originally published on the People’s Blog for the Constitution and is the first in a forthcoming series articulating specific civil liberties recommendations for the second Obama administration.

President Obama’s reelection has sparked an onslaught of analysis attempting to define the agenda for his second term. Will it reflect the vision of restoring liberty and security on which the president ran in 2008, or the disappointing passivity towards the national security state that characterized his first term?

More to the point, will President Obama’s legacy include emerging American authoritarianism, or instead the recovery of constitutional freedoms lost over the past decade? While machinations in Washington will of course influence the answer, We the People will play a crucial role, well beyond the 2012 election, in determining the outcome.

Obama’s legacy of constitutional violations

With the broad strokes that history affords the past, any president’s legacy usually shrinks within a decade to two or three elements. For instance, Clinton is remembered for presiding over the tech boom and resulting federal surplus, dismantling welfare and escalating mass incarceration, and surviving a partisan impeachment effort prompted by sophomoric sexual indiscretion.

George H. W. Bush’s legacy includes the first Iraq war, failing to energize the economy, and a premature pledge not to raise taxes. We remember Ronald Reagan for overcoming the Soviet Union and its satellites (even if his methods ensured the contemporary budget crisis, created al-Qaeda, and emboldened Iran), heralding “morning in America” to end a recession, and after surviving an assassination attempt, conveniently growing unable to recall more or less anything about compounding scandals that stained his second term.

In these broad strokes, President Obama’s legacy will likely include memories of the historic debate over healthcare policy in 2009, and the recurring budget crises that, combined with GOP intransigence, have periodically brought Washington to a standstill under his administration. The most enduring part of his legacy, however, will be the entrenchment of the national security state on his watch.

Beyond merely failing to reverse the trajectory of the Bush-Cheney administration, Obama’s first term extended it, pioneering new abuses while entrenching old ones.

Unlike Obama, Bush & Cheney never asserted the authority to kill US citizens based on their speech.

Unlike Obama, Bush & Cheney never signed into a law a statute granting the military the power to detain any American without evidence or proof of crime.

While Bush & Cheney violated international law by authorizing torture, it took the Obama administration to decide  that such criminal acts would go unpunished (or even investigated), ensuring their recurrence and nailing the coffin of international human rights.

The Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers who sacrifice their jobs to defend the public interest has reached unprecedented levels, as have deportations of undocumented workers, their families, and occasionally, even US citizens. Rather than repudiate the Bush & Cheney paradigm, Obama has unfortunately perpetuated it.

A former President’s warning

50 years ago, a president with the deepest military roots among any who has held office since then–no mere General, but the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower — issued a disturbing warning about a threat to our democracy posed by “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” that, together, he described as “the military-industrial complex.” President Eisenhower said, in no uncertain terms, that:

“[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Ike observed the larval stages of a dynamic that has grown only more pernicious since he left office. In the decade since 9/11, under Presidents Bush and Obama alike, our military-industrial complex has initiated not only various military conflicts abroad, but also a domestic war on the constitutional rights of the American people.

Secret and increasingly immune to public accountability, if not above the law altogether, and insulated from accountability by elected leaders from each of the major political parties, an alphabet soup of federal agencies has emerged to pursue a duplicative, wasteful, and constitutionally abusive national security agenda.

Eisenhower proved prescient. True to his prediction, the contemporary national security racket offends all Americans, regardless of ideology.

Casualties of the national security state: transparency, accountability, and legitimacy

First, it has erected such pervasive secrecy that it threatens the basis for democratic accountability, subverting the consent of the governed on which democratic  legitimacy depends. For years, the NSA operated its dragnet warrantless wiretapping scheme in total secrecy, not only unauthorized by statute, but in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) enacted by Congress in the 1970s to stop domestic spying.

Every federal court ever to review the program on the merits has struck it down as unconstitutional, yet it persists unabated. Congress bent over backward to rewrite the FISA law in 2008, and appellate courts have thrown out numerous lawsuits challenging it based on the perverse reasoning that, because the NSA’s program is secret, no plaintiffs can prove that they, in particular, have been monitored.

Officials have admitted to violating even the permissive new law. Members of Congress have asked tough questions and received only silence in response. Yet, reflecting a disturbing pattern of bipartisan abdication repeated over the past decade, the House recently voted to reauthorize the 2008 FISA amendments for another five years, even beyond the next administration.

Secret programs violating contrived statutes, especially with the blessing of (supposedly) independent courts, make a mockery of our claim to live in “a land of the free.”

Further installments in this series will examine the ideologically diverse social movements abused by misguided and constitutionally offensive domestic spying activities, as well as the contribution of those programs to the federal budget crisis. The series will conclude by suggesting not one, but two alternative national security agendas for President Obama’s second term.

Photo by leighblackall under Creative Commons license.

Uncle Sam is watching you

1:43 pm in Uncategorized by Shahid Buttar

"I've got my eye on you."

This week, Congress prepares to abuse the Constitution again, by extending its 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). With the House of Representatives poised to vote today on a premature five year extension, will members remember what they heard when theatrically reading the Constitution on the House floor, or instead entrench the Bush-Cheney legacy beyond even the next administration?

When Congress first voted back in 2008 to give the National Security Agency the power to eavesdrop on any—in other words, every–American without any reason for individual suspicion, it did so without a full picture of what it allowed. Indeed, the full contours of the program remain secret even today.

The only reason the NSA’s spying powers have survived this long is because courts have refused to consider claims that they are unconstitutionally invasive. The Supreme Court will consider one such case this fall — which, if successful, will merely allow the several year process of a litigation challenge to finally begin.

Even though much of it remains shrouded in secrecy, we do know a few things about the NSA’s warrantless spying program authorized by FISA.

We know that it began illegally, without any authorization by Congress and in clear violation of the FISA law crafted by Congress in the 1970s to stop our government from spying on Americans.

We know it is so vast and unchecked that, nearly ten years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to authorize it, even despite coercion from the Bush White House.

We know that an architect of the program, alarmed at how his work was co-opted to abuse the rights of Americans, blew a whistle about fraud and waste, only to face prosecution by the Obama Administration for espionage–until a federal court ultimately told the government to stop chasing a loyal servant of the American people.

We know that the NSA has violated even this incredibly permissive law, abusing its own powers and the rights of untold numbers of Americans. Our government has admitted to that much, without offering any way to know how widespread those violations have been — or remain.

We know that the executive branch currently interprets parts of other surveillance laws in secret, allowing government activities even beyond the intentions of their authors.

We know that congressional Democrats–including then Senator Obama–joined their Republican colleagues in 2008 to approve FISA, even while both parties paid lip service about defending constitutional values in Washington. Despite the partisan rancor apparent on many issues, Congress marches in lockstep on national security, elevating government power well beyond constitutional limits.

We know that, despite Washington’s wrangling over the budget crisis, the NSA has never justified its massive costs to the American people. In fact, Congress knows neither what the program costs, nor when the NSA’s program has actually helped national security, let alone whether those costs are justified!

We know that FISA has enabled the most pervasive state surveillance system ever known to humankind. The only settings in which powers like it have ever existed are dystopian science fiction novels.

Even the former Soviet Union and contemporary China, for all their efforts to control their people, lacked the resources to conduct the kind of monitoring that the NSA does every day — not only on terror suspects, but on you and your family.

We also know that the Obama administration has supported the Bush-Cheney NSA policy, extending it once before — even though Senator Obama, before winning the White House, promised at one point to vote against it. Until President Obama signed a 2011 law granting our military the potential power to detain any American indefinitely without proof of crime, FISA was the high water mark of the post 9-11 national security state.

Finally, we know that the American people can still defend our rights when aroused. Earlier this year, a grassroots firestorm stopped SOPA and PIPA before they transformed the Internet.

Congress already gave our government the power to conduct mass domestic spying by approving FISA four years ago, but a grassroots clamor this fall could stop that power from being renewed — or at least force Congress to finally do its job and ask tough questions that should have been answered long ago, before writing the NSA yet another blank check.

This post originally appeared at the People’s Blog for the Constitution.