The House just voted to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, which reauthorizes and alters Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, with a vote of 338 to 88. It’s being depicted as a landslide in favor of reform. It is, sadly, anything but. This is why.
Last week’s ruling by the 2nd Circuit fundamentally changed the Congressional debate. Senator McConnell, the Majority Leader, had been pushing for a straight reauthorization of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. But the 2nd Circuit ruling said, among much else, that if Congress did a straight reauthorization of the same language, then their ruling that mass metadata surveillance was unlawful would still stand. In other words, straight reauthorization will no longer get surveillance defenders what they want. So, as the next best thing, the administration and the intelligence committees swung behind the USA FREEDOM Act. This Act would impose token limits on how much they can collect with a single request, but would modernize intelligence collection for a world where much communication is not an actual phone call. As a compromise between moderate surveillance reformers and the intelligence community, it actually offers a lot that the intelligence community likes. So it looks much better to them at this point than straight reauthorization (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215) or straight sunset (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215).
Last Thursday’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in ACLU v. Clapper threw a bomb into the middle of the debate over renewing the legal authority governing the NSA’s mass metadata surveillance programs. In a unanimous ruling, the Justices held that such programs, untethered to the limiting factor of what is relevant to a specific investigation, were never authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.
Bob Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, scrambled to respond, arguing at a panel on transparency in DC on May 8 that the ruling is not binding on the FISC, that it is not currently in effect, and that it will be overturned soon anyway. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), who vehemently supports mass NSA surveillance, is contending that “I think the statutory language today allows the NSA to do exactly what they’re doing […] I have a very tough time thinking the Supreme Court would look at this law […] and come to the conclusion that we didn’t empower the NSA to do bulk collection.” In the same article, Stewart Baker, the former general counsel for the NSA, is reported as deriding the ruling as a “97-page law review article” whose “significance is close to zero.”
Collectively, these assertions are the public face of what’s nothing less than a desperate effort by the NSA to declare itself literally above the law. But let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
We’re asking everybody to call their Congressmember (Massachusetts numbers below the fold) to support HR1466, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, a bipartisan bill we helped introduce that would truly end mass surveillance. This is why it matters.
On June 1, the part of the PATRIOT Act that has been used to legitimate the mass collection of all of our phone call information, and much else besides, will lapse, It’s a terrible provision known as “Section 215.” Section 215 allows the FBI – and, it appears, other intelligence agencies too – to collect “any tangible things” that are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation. As it turns out, the intelligence community has argued explicitly that every single call in the United States is “relevant”. So, it appears, if we don’t let the NSA know exactly when I called the Danish Pastry House in Watertown about my one-year-old daughter’s first birthday cake, then ISIS will destroy us all.
There has been no legislation proposed yet from either chamber of Congress to renew Section 215. The intelligence community is panicking, and is apparently literally waving pictures of the burning Twin Towers at our elected officials, and telling them that if Section 215 lapses and there’s another attack, it’ll be the lawmakers’ fault and ISIS will destroy us all.
There may be a bill launched next week that would renew it, called the USA FREEDOM Act. Many civil liberties groups plan to support it, because it would also include reforms to Section 215, and may also reform (not repeal) the government’s other mass surveillance programs. We haven’t seen that bill yet, but it would have to be very strong to make it a better deal than simply letting the government’s Section 215 authority die.
There’s actually no evidence that Section 215’s mass surveillance programs have ever stopped a terrorist attack, and the government’s own reports have repeatedly shown that it has never stopped one. Follow me below the fold for the explanation why, and for the numbers to call!
Mass surveillance is damaging enough; but the capabilities we have handed to the surveillance agencies create a different kind of opportunity for the empire-building surveillance bureaucrat.
The constant claim is that Americans are not “wittingly”“targeted” under the dragnet; it’s just that their communications are vacuumed up “incidentally” because they are one, two, or three “hops” from a given “target”, a category that includes a shifting set of millions of people at a time. But even that face-saving statement is a lie. American citizens are “targets” themselves, and there’s an obvious category of people it would make strategic sense for the surveillance agencies to target: Namely, the set of people with authority over the budgets and remits of the surveillance agencies themselves.
NSA whistleblower Russell Tice is much less well known than Edward Snowden, but his testimony is just as explosive. Here’s an interview he gave in 2013, with a partial transcript:
Okay. They [the NSA] went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and judicial. But they went after other ones, too. They went after heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges [Samuel Alito] is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the White House–their own people. They went after antiwar groups. They went after U.S. companies that that do business around the world. They went after U.S. banking firms and financial firms that do international business. They went after NGOs like the Red Cross that that go overseas and do humanitarian work. They went after a few antiwar civil rights groups. So, you know, don’t tell me that there’s no abuse, because I’ve had this stuff in my hand and looked at it.
It’s been widely reported that the NSA, under the constitutionally suspect authority of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, collects all Americans’ phone metadata. Congress has not yet passed any reforms to this law, but there have been many proposals for changes and the national debate is still raging. Yet Americans’ data is also being collected under a different program that’s entirely hidden from public oversight, and that was authorized under the Reagan-era Executive Order 12333.
That’s the topic of a TEDx-Charlottesville talk by whistleblower John Napier Tye, entitled “Why I spoke out against the NSA.” Tye objected to NSA surveillance while working in the US State Department. He explains that EO 12333 governs data collected overseas, as opposed to domestic surveillance which is authorized by statute. However, because Americans’ emails and other communications are stored in servers all over the globe, the distinction between domestic and international surveillance is much less salient than when the order was originally given by President Reagan in 1981.
Over the last two years, at least 50 law enforcement agencies around the United States have used radar devices that allow them to peer through walls and into your home without a warrant, according to USA Today. The devices, each of which costs nearly $6,000, detect movement – even breathing – through walls and up to 50 feet away.
According to contracts obtained by USA Today, the US Marshals Service began buying the radars in 2012 and has since spent $180,000 on the equipment – enough for thirty Range-R radars manufactured by L-3 Communications. Disturbingly, the radars can even be mounted on a drone.
The devices were originally manufactured for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ,but have made their way onto domestic soil, providing yet another example of how the use of military gear by police results in an infringement of our fundamental right to be free of unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures.
For who-knows-how-many years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using Automatic License Plate Recognition software to create a national database of the driving habits of ordinary citizens not suspected of a crime, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents describe the state of the surveillance effort as of 2009, leaving us wondering just how vast it could be today.
This vehicle tracking program originated near border crossings in the southwestern United States but has grown into a nation-wide project. It is a joint effort between the DEA and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The surveillance program has been alluded to in Congressional testimony every once in a while through the years, but has yet to be fully understood. The documents released by the ACLU, despite being heavily redacted, shine some much-needed light on the interests and priorities of the DEA and federal law enforcement agencies in general. As of 2009, at least 100 license plate readers had been deployed in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
And we should be concerned. According to the ACLU:
These records . . . offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.
Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.
Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.
Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.
Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.
The United States has a well-developed jurisprudence for dealing with people who make threats. The default presumption, thanks to the First Amendment, is that any speech, even speech that is frightening, prejudiced or factually wrong, is legal. Even a generic desire for the President to die has First Amendment protection. The key precedents here are Watts v. United States and Brandenburg v. Ohio, both from 1969. In Watts, an 18-year-old remarked during a rally against the draft that:
“They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.”
The ruling suggested that this was protected as merely ‘a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President’, of a kind still very familiar to us today. Those prosecuted for threatening the President over the last few years have typically had additional evidence of actual conspiracy to commit murder.
In Brandenburg, a KKK leader’s advocacy of ethnic violence was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment, because it was not “directed to inciting” or “likely to incite, imminent lawless action.” There must be some specificity as to the time that the lawless action is to occur; it cannot simply be a generalized articulation of the need for violence at some future time. It must be, in other words, a so-called “true threat.”
These rulings have stood essentially unmodified for nearly half a century. They are also a lot more protective of threatening speech than most people, including surveillance state employees, casually assume. One result of that assumption is that surveillance agencies pro-actively monitor social media, and open investigations on the basis of First Amendment-protected threats they encounter, when the constitutionality of doing so is at best highly suspect.
Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?
If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.