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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Administration's new FISA defense is factually false

In light of Gen. Hayden's new claim yesterday that the reason the Bush Administration decided to eavesdrop outside of FISA is because the "probable cause" standard for obtaining a FISA warrant was too onerous (and prevented them from obtaining warrants they needed to eavesdrop), there is a fact which I have not seen discussed anywhere but which now appears extremely significant, at least to me.

In June, 2002, Republican Sen. Michael DeWine of Ohio introduced legislation (S. 2659) which would have eliminated the exact barrier to FISA which Gen. Hayden yesterday said is what necessitated the Administration bypassing FISA. Specifically, DeWine's legislation proposed:

to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to modify the standard of proof for issuance of orders regarding non-United States persons from probable cause to reasonable suspicion. . . .

In other words, DeWine's bill, had it become law, would have eliminated the "probable cause" barrier (at least for non-U.S. persons) which the Administration is now pointing to as the reason why it had to circumvent FISA.

During that time, the Administration was asked to advise Congress as to its position on this proposed amendment to loosen the standard for obtaining FISA warrants, and in response, they submitted a Statement from James A. Baker, the Justice Department lawyer who oversees that DoJ's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, which is the group that "prepares and presents all applications for electronic surveillance and physical search under the Act to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court or Court)." If anyone would be familiar with problems in obtaining FISA warrants, it would be Baker.

And yet, look at what Baker said in his Statement. He began by effusively praising the Patriot Act on the ground that the 72-hour window provided by the Patriot Act had given the Administration the speed and flexibility it needed in order to engage in eavesdropping:

The reforms in those measures (the PATRIOT Act) have affected every single application made by the Department for electronic surveillance or physical search of suspected terrorists and have enabled the government to become quicker, more flexible, and more focused in going "up" on those suspected terrorists in the United States.

One simple but important change that Congress made was to lengthen the time period for us to bring to court applications in support of Attorney General-authorized emergency FISAs. This modification has allowed us to make full and effective use of FISA's pre-existing emergency provisions to ensure that the government acts swiftly to respond to terrorist threats. Again, we are grateful for the tools Congress provided us last fall for the fight against terrorism. Thank you.

And then, regarding DeWine's specific proposal to lower the evidentiary standard required for a FISA warrant, Baker said that:

The Department of Justice has been studying Sen. DeWine's proposed legislation. Because the proposed change raises both significant legal and practical issues, the Administration at this time is not prepared to support it.

So, in June, 2002, the Administration refused to support elimination of the very barrier ("probable cause") which Gen. Hayden claimed yesterday necessitated the circumvention of FISA. In doing so, the Administration identified two independent reasons for opposing this amendment. One reason was that the Justice Department was not aware of any problems which the Administration was having in getting the warrants it needed under FISA:

The practical concern involves an assessment of whether the current "probable cause" standard has hamstrung our ability to use FISA surveillance to protect our nation. We have been aggressive in seeking FISA warrants and, thanks to Congress's passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, we have been able to use our expanded FISA tools more effectively to combat terrorist activities. It may not be the case that the probable cause standard has caused any difficulties in our ability to seek the FISA warrants we require, and we will need to engage in a significant review to determine the effect a change in the standard would have on our ongoing operations. If the current standard has not posed an obstacle, then there may be little to gain from the lower standard and, as I previously stated, perhaps much to lose.

So as of June, 2002 -- many months after the FISA bypass program was ordered -- the DoJ official who was responsible for overseeing the FISA warrant program was not aware (at least when he submitted this Statement) of any difficulties in obtaining warrants under the FISA "probable cause" standard, and for that reason, the Administration would not even support DeWine's amendment. If - as the Administration is now claiming - they had such significant difficulties obtaining the warrants they wanted for eavesdropping that they had to go outside of FISA, surely Baker - who was in charge of obtaining those warrants - would have been aware of them. And, if the Administration was really having the problems under FISA, they would have supported DeWine's Amendment. But they didn't.

The second concern the Administration expressed with DeWine's amendment was that it was quite possibly unconstitutional:

The Department's Office of Legal Counsel is analyzing relevant Supreme Court precedent to determine whether a "reasonable suspicion" standard for electronic surveillance and physical searches would, in the FISA context, pass constitutional muster. The issue is not clear cut, and the review process must be thorough because of what is at stake, namely, our ability to conduct investigations that are vital to protecting national security. If we err in our analysis and courts were ultimately to find a "reasonable suspicion" standard unconstitutional, we could potentially put at risk ongoing investigations and prosecutions.

By that time, the Administration had already been engaging in eavesdropping outside of the parameters of FISA, and yet the DoJ itself was expressing serious doubts about the constitutionality of that eavesdropping and even warned that engaging in it might harm national security because it would jeopardize prosecutions against terrorists. Put another way, the DoJ was concerned that it might be unconstitutional to eavesdrop with a lower standard than probable cause even as the Administration was doing exactly that.

Two other points to note about this failed DeWine Amendment that are extremely important:

(1) Congress refused to enact the DeWine Amendment and thus refused to lower the FISA standard from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion." It is the height of absurdity for the Administration to now suggest that Congress actually approved of this change and gave it authorization to do just that -- when Congress obviously had no idea it was being done and refused to pass that change into law when it had the chance.

(2) DeWine's amendment would have lowered the standard for obtaining a FISA warrant only for non-U.S. persons -- whereas for "U.S. persons," the standard would have continued to be "probable cause." And, DeWine's amendment would not have eliminated judicial oversight, since the Administration still would have needed approval of the FISA court for these warrants.

That means that, in 2 different respects, DeWine's FISA amendment was much, much less draconian than what the Administration was already secretly doing (i.e., lowering the evidentiary standard but (i) eliminating judicial oversight, and (ii) applying these changes not just to non-U.S. persons but also to U.S. persons). Thus, Congress refused to approve -- and the DoJ even refused to endorse -- a program much less extreme and draconian than the Administration's secret FISA bypass program.

This has extremely significant implications for the Administration's claims made yesterday through Gen. Hayden as to why it was necessary to bypass FISA. The Administration's claim that the "probable cause" component of FISA was preventing it from engaging in the eavesdropping it needed is the opposite of what it told Congress when refusing to support the DeWine Amendment. And its claim that Congress knew of and approved of its FISA-bypassing eavesdrop program is plainly negated by the fact that the same Congress was debating whether such changes should be effectuated and then refused to approve much less extreme changes to FISA than what the Administration secretly implemented on its own (and which it now claims Congress authorized).

The Administration is stuck with the excuse given by Gen. Hayden yesterday as to why it had to eavesdrop outside of FISA, but that excuse is plainly contradicted by these events and by the Administration's own statements at the time.

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