Two District Courts see NSA very differently

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the last day of 2013, the federal district court for the Southern District of New York handed the Obama Administration a sweeping endorsement of the NSA’s bulk telephony metadata collection program. Unlike the decision in Klayman v. Obama, the district court in ACLU V. Clapper began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to frame the power of the government to defend national security.

The September 11th terrorist attacks revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is. While Americans depended on technology for the conveniences of modernity, al-Qaeda plotted in a seventh-century milieu to use that technology against us. It was a bold jujitsu. And it succeeded because conventional intelligence gathering could not detect diffuse filaments connecting al-Qaeda. …

The Government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world. It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program—a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data.

This blunt tool only works because it collects everything. …

If reasonableness stands as the constitutional framework for First Amendment rights of association and Fourth Amendment Rights to be free from governmental searches and seizures, then the reasonable government reaction to terrorism can well be understood to depend on the magnitude of the threat to determine the reasonableness of the government’s response to that threat. As the court highlighted, “[t]he natural tension between protecting the nation and preserving civil liberty is squarely presented by the Government’s bulk telephony metadata collection program.”

Unlike the Klayman decision, this opinion relies not upon the search and seizure doctrines of Smith v. Maryland442 U.S. 745 (1979) as the distinct powers of the government to conduct foreign and domestic security in United States v. U.S. Dist. Court for East. Dist. of Mich., 407 U.S. 297 (1972).

The court quoted a recent decision interpreting Keith to provide for wide latitude in reviewing surveillance powers.

 Although the Keith opinion expressly disclaimed any ruling ‘on the scope of the President’s surveillance power with respect to the activities of foreign powers,’ it implicitly suggested that a special framework for foreign intelligence surveillance might be constitutionally permissible.

 Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138, 1143 (2013) (quoting Keith407 U.S. at 322– 23) (internal citations omitted).

Klayman and Clapper diverge quickly because they begin at very different points. Klayman emphasized the importance of being the first court to provide a non-secret review of the bulk telephony program. Clapper, in contrast, offers great deference both to Congress and to the FISA judges who have reviewed the secret process. The court notes that “[f]ifteen different FISC judges have found the metadata collection program lawful a total of thirty-five times since May 2006.”

Clapper also sites evidence of success from the program:

The effectiveness of bulk telephony metadata collection cannot be seriously disputed. Offering examples is a dangerous stratagem for the Government because it discloses means and methods of intelligence gathering. Such disclosures can only educate America’s enemies. Nevertheless, the Government has acknowledged several successes in Congressional testimony and in declarations that are part of the record in this case. In this Court’s view, they offer ample justification:

  • In September 2009, NSA discovered that an al-Qaeda-associated terrorist in Pakistan was in contact with an unknown person in the United States about efforts to perfect a recipe for explosives. NSA immediately notified the FBI, which investigated and identified the al-Qaeda contact as Colorado-based Najibullah Zazi. The NSA and FBI worked together to identify other terrorist links. The FBI executed search warrants and found bomb-making components in backpacks. Zazi confessed to conspiring to bomb the New York subway system. Through a section 215 order, NSA was able to provide a previously unknown number of one of the co­conspirators—Adis Medunjanin.[1]
  • In January 2009, while monitoring an extremist in Yemen with ties to al- Qaeda, the NSA discovered a connection with Khalid Oazzani in Kansas City. NSA immediately notified the FBI, which discovered a nascent plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange. Using a section 215 order, NSA queried telephony metadata to identify potential connections. Three defendants were convicted of terrorism offenses.
  • In October 2009, while monitoring an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist, the NSA discovered that David Headley was working on a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. He later confessed to personally conducting surveillance of the Danish newspaper office. He was also charged with supporting terrorism based on his involvement in the planning and reconnaissance for the 2008 hotel attack in Mumbai. Information obtained through section 215 orders was utilized in tandem with the FBI to establish Headley’s foreign ties and put them in context with U.S. based planning efforts.

These successes are helpful to begin to understand the program. They do not, however, provide context into the efforts of anti-terrorist activities or explain whether a more focused program would provide equal or greater protections without affecting millions of individuals who have a right to be free from data searching.

Or perhaps the Clapper court is correct that national security is different from criminal investigations and more needs to be done to codify the distinction articulated in Keith. The constitutional question remains what his reasonable under the circumstances. Neither decision has been able to answer that question because too much information and power is left to the discretion of the executive branch and secret proceedings.

Investigations need to be clandestine, but there is no reason that the nature of constitutional protections is not fully understood and debated.

I do not know if the geographic location of the court is relevant, but the shape and culture of lower Manhattan has been transformed by 9/11 in a manner that makes it part of its zeitgeist. Having by coincidence visited the site of the 9/11 memorial with my family the day the Clapper decision was handed down, I was overwhelmed by the thousands of visitors who spoke all languages and came from towns across the world to remember and reflect. The meaning of reasonable takes on different aspects in the shadow of such history. Whether it should do so must also be part of our national debate.

The tension between Klayman and Clapper should lead to a healthier understanding regarding terrorism and surveillance, but only if the two starting points of the two decisions can be understood and reconciled. Liberty is protection from oppression. Oppression can come from the government, its enemies, or the unchecked, mob-like will of the majority. Oppression cannot be stopped with more oppression, only with more liberty.

Klayman and Clapper cannot be reconciled, but the two decisions have the potential to help us find the right path. The lessons of each decision are best understood as part of a dialogue rather than discrete declarations. That dialogue has only begun.


[1] The court explains the Section 215 order as follows:

In 1998, Congress amended FISA to allow for orders directing common carriers, public accommodation facilities, storage facilities, and vehicle rental facilities to provide business records to the Government. See Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, Pub. L. 105-272, § 602, 112 Stat. 2396, 2410 (1998). These amendments required the Government to make a showing of “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that the person to whom the records pertain is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.” §602.

After the September 11th attacks, Congress expanded the Government’s authority to obtain additional records. See USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-56, § 215, 115 Stat. 272, 287 (2001) (codified as amended at 50 U.S.C. § 1861) (“section 215”).’ Section 215 allows the Government to obtain an order “requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items),” eliminating the restrictions on the types of businesses that can be served with such orders and the requirement that the target be a foreign power or their agent. The Government invoked this authority to collect virtually all call detail records or “telephony metadata.” See infra, Part II. See generally David S, Kris, On the Bulk Collection of Tangible Things, 1 Lawfare Res. Pap. Ser. 4 (2013).

Court hands at least temporary rebuke to NSA for domestic spying

nsa

NSA (Photo credit: shawnblog)

The New York Times has been highlighting the federal government defeat in the first lawsuit over NSA surveillance of U.S. telephone and internet activity outside the FISA court jurisdiction. The decision in Klayman v. Obama represents a strong rebuke to the NSA. Written in a tone of outrage, the district court decision emphasizes the profound differences that exist in the current NSA surveillance program from the historical precedents upon which the claim of constitutionality is based.

In Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 745 (1979), the Supreme Court held that the use of a “pen register” was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment because the information sent to the telephone company was a business record provided without a reasonable expectation of privacy.[1] The pen register records only the numbers dialed on a telephone. Any expectation of privacy that could exist in the telephone numbers a person dialed was unreasonable.

From the diminutive pen register acorn, a mighty oak has grown to obliterate the sunlight that once shined light on government activities. That oak is the pervasive surveillance program:

[T]he almost–Orwellian technology that enables the Government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979. … The notion that the Government could collect similar data on hundreds of millions of people and retain that data for a five-year period, updating it with new data every day in perpetuity, was at best, in 1979, the stuff of science fiction. By comparison, the Government has at its disposal today the most advanced twenty-first century tools, allowing it to “store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future. … Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire vibrant and constantly updating picture of the person’s life.”

Critics of the district court opinion point to the precedent of Smith to suggest that the decision reflects an activist agenda, but proper case analysis requires a judge to look to the facts of a case rather than a simplistic summary of the rule. Factually, the public expects far more privacy in the metadata disclosed on their computers, phones, tablets, and mobile devices than the 1979 consumer expected from the telephone company.

In addition, as the court highlighted, the relationship between the telecommunications companies and the government could be viewed as making the telco’s agents of law enforcement. As agents of the police, the third party doctrine no longer applies.

More importantly, the scale of the surveillance and the mosaic of coverage creates a vastly different experience than that previously adjudicated in Smith or the other decision before the Supreme Court.

In United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), the Supreme Court started to review the potential for wide-scale extensive surveillance. The majority decision demurred on the question, finding a search occurred using common law trespass analogies. But five justices opined that the mosaic of surveillance has a constitutional consequence that will need to be addressed.

Dan Solove has written on both the Klayman decision and the importance of privacy in metadata. His conclusion:

 Smith, and many other Fourth Amendment cases, need to be rethought in light of modern technology where surveillance can be so systematic and pervasive. There is a real difference between being able to engage in a small discrete amount of surveillance and having such broad and sweeping surveillance powers as the NSA is exercising. The challenge is where to draw the lines. This problem exists mainly because Smith still remains viable and must be dealt with. I think it’s time for Smith to be overturned, and so there wouldn’t be such line-drawing challenges.

The Katz approach to expectation of privacy may not be the most useful tool for assessing the scope of pervasive privacy. Despite the coverage of the NSA, I expect that few members of the public can truly comprehend the extent to which the movement of every communication, every Internet-connected device, all information on those devices, the tracking of other objects that are reported to central databases, and photographs and video taken by anyone can be integrated into a pervasive picture of movement. Is this science fiction? Or is it the goal of the NSA five-year strategic plan. Unless the courts or Congress begin to say no to a mosaic of unrelenting surveillance, this plan will be enacted soon. With taxpayer dollars. And without oversight.

The decision is being appealed.


[1] Smith explains the constitutional privacy framework: The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In determining whether a particular form of government-initiated electronic surveillance is a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, our lodestar is Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). In Katz, Government agents had intercepted the contents of a telephone conversation by attaching an electronic listening device to the outside of a public phone booth. The Court rejected the argument that a “search” can occur only when there has been a “physical intrusion” into a “constitutionally protected area,” noting that the Fourth Amendment “protects people, not places.” Because the Government’s monitoring of Katz’ conversation “violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth,” the Court held that it “constituted a `search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”