Fixing FISA

Congress is beginning to have a debate about surveillance, oversight and secrecy – the one good thing to come out of  Edward Snowden’s continuing adventure.  Of course, it is hard to debate when you can’t talk about a lot of things in public or even to your fellow members, so I was very interesting in reading Judge James G. Carr’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.  His suggestion is one that Congress and the Obama Administration should be able to debate and legislate without revealing anything that needs to be kept secret.  Judge Carr is identified as a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Ohio,[who] served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2002 to 2008.

CONGRESS created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978 as a check on executive authority. Recent disclosures about vast data-gathering by the government have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the court’s actions. Congress can take a simple step to restore confidence in the court’s impartiality and integrity: authorizing its judges to appoint lawyers to serve the public interest when novel legal issues come before it.

The court is designed to protect individual liberties as the government protects us from foreign dangers. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon administration had violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting warrantless surveillance on a radical domestic group, the White Panthers, who were suspected of bombing a C.I.A. recruiting office in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1975 and 1976, the Church Committee, a Senate panel, produced a series of reports about foreign and domestic intelligence operations, including surveillance by the F.B.I. of suspected communists, radicals and other activists — including, notoriously, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Foreign Intelligence Service Act set up the FISA Court in response. To obtain authority to intercept the phone and electronic communications of American citizens and permanent residents, the government must only show probable cause that the target has a connection to a foreign government or entity or a foreign terrorist group. It does not have to show, as with an ordinary search warrant, probable cause that the target is suspected of a crime.

The problem is that the court only hears from one side.  I wrote recently that the real danger to our civil liberties is the FISA Court and I hoped that people will come up with ways to try to fix it.  Judge Carr has one suggestion at which Congress should take a serious look.

Critics note that the court has approved almost all of the government’s surveillance requests. Some say the court is virtually creating a secret new body of law governing privacy, secrecy and surveillance. Others have called for declassified summaries of all of the court’s secret rulings.

James Robertson, a retired federal judge who served with me on the FISA court, recently called for greater transparency of the court’s proceedings. He has proposed the naming of an advocate, with high-level security clearance, to argue against the government’s filings. He suggested that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which oversees surveillance activities, could also provide a check. I would go even further.

In an ordinary criminal case, the adversarial process assures legal representation of the defendant. Clearly, in top-secret cases involving potential surveillance targets, a lawyer cannot, in the conventional sense, represent the target.

Congress could, however, authorize the FISA judges to appoint, from time to time, independent lawyers with security clearances to serve “pro bono publico” — for the public’s good — to challenge the government when an application for a FISA order raises new legal issues.

Having lawyers challenge novel legal assertions in these secret proceedings would result in better judicial outcomes. Even if the government got its way all or most of the time, the court would have more fully developed its reasons for letting it do so. Of equal importance, the appointed lawyer could appeal a decision in the government’s favor to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review — and then to the Supreme Court. No opportunity for such review exists today, because only the government can appeal a FISA court ruling.

A combination of a people’s advocate and public release of decision summaries would remove some of the mystery and secrecy.

One obvious objection: judges considering whether to issue an ordinary search warrant hear only from the government. Why should this not be the same when the government goes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?

My answer: the court is unique among judicial institutions in balancing the right to privacy against the president’s duty to protect the public, and it encounters issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation that no other court does or can.

For an ordinary search warrant, the judge has a large and well-developed body of precedent. When a warrant has been issued and executed, the subject knows immediately. If indicted, he can challenge the warrant. He can also move to have property returned or sue for damages. These protections are not afforded to FISA surveillance targets. Even where a target is indicted, laws like the Classified Information Procedures Act almost always preclude the target from learning about the order or challenging the evidence. This situation puts basic constitutional protections at risk and creates doubts about the legitimacy of the court’s work and the independence and integrity of its judges. To avert these dangers, Congress should amend FISA to give the court’s judges the discretion to appoint lawyers to serve not just the interests of the target and the public — but those of the court as well.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993 (Photo credit: David Holt London)

We are already deep in uncharted waters and we need to take steps to try to protect ourselves.  It serves no purpose if we lose our civil liberties while protecting them.  I don’t have a great deal of hope that Congress can actually get itself together enough to act, but there has been some glimmer of bipartisanship about this issue.  Let us hope someone writes Judge Carr’s ideas into a bill so it can be introduced.

The real danger: The FISA Court

Congress and the President can say all they want to that everything about the surveillance is approved by the FISA Court.  OK.  But what do we know about this secret court?  Some revelations this past weekend by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times tell us a great deal that I, for one, didn’t know.  For example, did you know that Chief Justice John Roberts was in charge?

The Ezra Klein/Evan Soltas Wonkblog had a great summary this morning.

The laws we live by aren’t just the bills Congress passes and the president signs. It’s what the courts decide those bills actually mean.

We’re used to that. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, says that states that don’t accept the Medicaid expansion lose all their Medicaid money. The Supreme Court decided that went too far. The law might still say that if you read the underlying bill, but it no longer means that. Now states can reject the Medicaid expansion without jeopardizing the rest of their Medicaid money — and many are.

But here’s the thing: When judges make the laws, Congress can always go back and remake the laws. The changes the court makes are public, and so is their reasoning. Both the voters and Congress know what the court has done, and can choose to revisit it.

Well, usually.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) that governs the national surveillance state is also remaking the law. But it’s remaking the law in secret. The public has no opportunity to weigh in, and Congress can’t really make changes, because few know what the court is deciding, and almost no one can discuss the decisions without endangering themselves.

So that’s a real Catch 22.

Surveillance types make a distinction between secrecy of laws, secrecy of procedures and secrecy of operations. The expectation is that the laws that empower or limit the government’s surveillance powers are always public. The programs built atop those laws are often secret. And the individual operations are almost always secret. As long as the public knows about and agreed to the law, the thinking goes, it’s okay for the government to build a secret surveillance architecture atop it.

But the FISA court is, in effect, breaking the first link in that chain. The public no longer knows about the law itself, and most of Congress may not know, either. The courts have remade the law, but they’ve done so secretly, without public comment or review.

These rules have been remade in a court where the government is the only witness, and there’s no possibility for appeal, and all 11 judges were chosen by Chief Justice John Roberts, and 10 of the 11 judges were Republican appointees to the federal bench. This is not a court like any other court in the United States save for the secrecy. It’s a court pretty much unlike any other in the United States.

When asked who watches over the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts, the administration says that the FISA courts do. Trite as it may be, that leads to the age-old question: Well, then who watches over the watchers?

The answer would be to rewrite the law but how does one do that with a dysfunctional Congress and a law with impacts that no one can discuss without violating it?  As I said, a Catch-22.  But there is a proposal by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and a bi-partisan group of other senators to end some of the secrecy.

We should be discussing ways to rein in the FISA Court and modify the Patriot Act.  Forget Edward Snowden.  He can stay at the Moscow airport or get smuggled to South American.  Fixing the law is what is important.

Let me end with Tom Tomorrow.

This Modern World

This Modern World

Surveillance and President Obama

I look forward to my weekly email from my Congressman, Mike Capuano.  Of course, I once worked for him when he was mayor of the City of Somerville (a near Boston city) so I am used to Mike’s saying what he means and I almost always agree with him.  I am copying the entire first part of his email into this post.

mike_225x315

“U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Somerville), who voted against the Patriot Act, rallied protesters by calling the law the worst attack on freedom since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.”

                                                                                                                Boston Herald

                                                                                                                September 10, 2003

 

The Patriot Act and Verizon

 

I am sure you are aware that Verizon has reportedly been ordered by the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) to turn over, “on an ongoing daily basis”, information about every customer telephone number, including landline, cell and business numbers. That information reportedly includes all numbers dialed and all calls received within the United States as well as between the United States and other countries.

As I write this newsletter, the news is filled with reports that a similar program called PRISM is in place for every major internet and email provider. The government claims they have not accessed the content of phone calls, but it seems they ARE accessing the content of emails such as videos, websites visited and more. According to reports, the PRISM program is not at this time being used on U.S. citizens.

Even if you can accept the government collecting the number and length of every call you make, are you really comfortable with them having the ability to catalogue all the YouTube videos you watch, the Netflix movies you download, or the web pages you visit? It seems that our own government has access to every phone call, email and internet search for all Americans at every minute of every day.

Like most Americans, I am absolutely outraged. But, if you’re a long time subscriber to these newsletters, you probably already knew that. You also probably know that I voted against passage of the so-called “Patriot Act” and every reauthorization since it first passed in 2001.

Before I go any further, I feel compelled to remind you that I was an early and strong supporter of President Obama.  I am still amongst the strongest Obama supporters in the House of Representatives.  Nonetheless, I cannot remain silent out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to President or party when I believe that basic American rights have been intentionally trampled.

I know we live in a dangerous world and there is work to do to prevent terrorists from harming us. But we must find a balance between giving law enforcement the tools they need to track and identify terrorists and protecting the very liberties upon which our great country was founded.

This data collection has reportedly been going on for 7 years. The length of time that this has been going on and the staggering amount of data collected on every Verizon customer amounts to an incredible overreach. Even if you’re not a Verizon customer, there is clearly reason for concern. Who really believes that Verizon is the only telecommunications company required to turn over this data?

I have always believed that we must give law enforcement the tools they need to pursue criminals. However, we can do that and still protect civil liberties.

It is time for those of us who support President Obama to speak up.  I believe he is a good man and has been a good President.  However, I think his Administration has allowed their concern for our safety to lead them down the wrong path.  If we remain silent, those who have always wished him to fail on every point stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of America and we will all be worse off for it.  It is possible to support President Obama and yet disagree with him on certain issues – this is one of those times.

The President has said he is glad this is out in the open and he welcomes discussion.  Instead of reacting in horror – or wishing more information would be collected, we need to talk.   I’m not sure I know where the balance is, but one thing that I learned at St. John’s College (Annapolis) is that dialog can lead to greater clarity and understanding.  So let’s talk:  To each other and to the President and your member of Congress.

Photograph from Capuano website.