Scaremongering About the Patriot Act Sunset

As Section 215 nears its expiration date, the standoff over civil liberties is imminent, writes ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer.

By Jameel Jaffer

In a last-ditch effort to scare lawmakers into preserving unpopular and much-abused surveillance authorities, the Senate Republican leadership and some intelligence officials are warning that allowing Section 215 of the Patriot Act to sunset would compromise national security. (One particularly crass example from Senator Lindsey Graham: “Anyone who neuters this program is going to be partially responsible for the next attack.”) Some media organizations have published these warnings without challenging them, which is unfortunate. The claim that the expiration of Section 215 would deprive the government of necessary investigative tools or compromise national security is entirely without support.

First, there’s no evidence that the call-records program is effective in any meaningful sense of the word. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which reviewed classified files, “could not identify a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” The President’s Review Group, which also reviewed classified files, determined that the call-records program had “not [been] essential to preventing attacks,” and that, to the extent the program had contributed to terrorism investigations, the records in question “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” using targeted demands. Although government once made far grander claims to the FISA court, the strongest claim that leaders of the intelligence community now make in support of the call-records program is that it provides “peace of mind.” Whatever this claim means—peace of mind to whom?—it’s not a claim that the program is necessary.

Second, there’s no evidence that other forms of collection under Section 215 have been any more effective. If intelligence officials could cite instances in which collection under Section 215 had been crucial to terrorism investigations, you can be sure they would have cited them by now. They certainly would have cited them to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, but a report by the Inspector General released this past week states that FBI personnel were “unable to identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained through use of Section 215 orders.” FBI personnel didn’t say that collection under Section 215 had been entirely useless—they said it had been useful in corroborating information already in their possession, for example—but they certainly didn’t say, or even come close to saying, that the expiration of Section 215 would compromise national security.

Third, the sunset of Section 215 wouldn’t affect the government’s ability to conduct targeted investigations of terrorist threats. This is because the government has many other tools that allow it to collect the same kinds of things that it can collect under Section 215. It can use administrative subpoenas or grand jury subpoenas. It can use pen registers. It can use national security letters. It can use orders served under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. If Section 215 sunsets, it can use the provision that Section 215 amended, which will allow it to collect business records of hotels, motels, car and truck rental agencies, and storage rental facilities.

The sunset of Section 215 would undoubtedly be a significant political loss for the intelligence community, and it would be a sensible first step towards broader reform of the surveillance laws, but there’s no support for the argument that the sunset of Section 215 would compromise national security. Against this background, it’s not surprising the FBI Director reacted the way he did to a question about the possible sunset of Section 215. “I don’t like losing any tool in our toolbox,” Comey said, “but if we do, we press on.”

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© 2015 Just Security

For 7 Years, FBI Defied Law for Seeking a Person’s Records Under Patriot Act

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A Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that for seven years the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated statutory law designed to restrict the agency’s surveillance power. During this period, the agency sought individuals’ records under the business records provision of the PATRIOT Act without adopting proper “minimization procedures” to protect privacy of US persons.

The FBI’s use of orders under Section 215 between 2007 and 2009 was examined by the inspector general. Whether the FBI complied with recommendations the inspector general made back in March 2008.

Section 215 makes it possible for the government to obtain “any tangible things,” such as books, records and other items from a business, organization or entity. They are supposed to be “relevant” to an “authorized investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a US person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” But the standard for relevance is very low.

The Section 215 provision is set to expire on June 1, and, as Senator Rand Paul comprehensively outlined while he held the Senate floor for over ten hours, there are many reasons to not reauthorize the provision. This report, which was completed eleven months ago but is dated May 2015, adds substantially to those reasons.

Under the PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, the law required that certain “minimization procedures” be adopted to ensure the handling of US persons’ data was done appropriately. It was not until March 7, 2013, that the Attorney General and the Justice Department officially incorporated these procedures into requests for records. (Marcy Wheeler points out the Justice Department did not actually fully comply with legally required procedures until after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information.)

“The Attorney General’s and the [Justice] Department’s actions came 7 years after such procedures were required by the Reauthorization Act and 5 years after we concluded the interim procedures in 2006 were deficient,” the inspector general’s report [PDF] indicates.

In an understatement, the inspector general declares that the Justice Department “should have met its statutory obligation considerably earlier than March 2013.”

The report suggests that FBI personnel have made “strategic use of the legislative and technological changes by broadening the scope of materials sought in applications. Section 215 authority is not limited to requesting information related to the known subjects of specific underlying investigations. The authority is also used in investigations of groups comprised of unknown members and to obtain information in bulk concerning persons who are not the subjects of or associated with any FBI investigation.”

That seems hugely significant. FBI personnel are permitted to request records of persons who are not subjects of underlying investigations. The FBI uses the PATRIOT Act to request records on people when they do not even have an FBI investigation into those individuals.

FBI personnel with authorized access are apparently permitted to engage in some action involving records, which the Justice Department believes must keep secret. This action is used to determine whether records “reasonably appear to be foreign intelligence information, necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime.”

National Security Division attorneys in the Justice Department and FBI case agents provided the inspector general with a “range of examples of material that would qualify under this criteria.” It is impossible for the public to know what this means because the Justice Department had it censored in the report.

Another term the FBI has conjured to expand its surveillance powers is “investigative value.” This is a term the inspector general discovered the FBI had introduced for allowing case agents “unconnected with the underlying investigation access to material received in response” to a Section 215 order. However, what “investigative value” means to the FBI and just how it stretches the boundaries of what the agency is authorized to do is anyone’s guess because, again, the agency’s definition is censored in the released report.

The “type of information that is categorized as metadata will likely continue to evolve and expand,” the report acknowledges. The FBI is obtaining “large collections of metadata,” which is data about the records but not the exact content from the records themselves. “Electronic communication transaction information” and two other types of data, which the FBI does not want the public to know about, are being sought through this provision of the PATRIOT Act. (more…)

Obama And Clinton Endorse USA Freedom Act After Court Ruling

In the aftermath of yesterday’s court ruling and the looming June 1st deadline to reauthorize the section of the PATRIOT Act the court ruled illegal, the Democratic Party establishment appears to have shifted somewhat on domestic spying. President Barack Obama, through a White House spokesman, has said he supports the USA Freedom Act – which would reform the phone collection program.

Hillary Clinton also endorsed the NSA reform bill tweeting: “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act—a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties.”

One of the USA Freedom Act’s biggest promoters is Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner who helped author the PATRIOT Act. Sensenbrenner has been adamant post-Snowden that the NSA was never given the powers it was using under the bill he helped write. After the court decision Sensenbrenner reaffirmed his view saying that Congress never intended Section 215 to authorize bulk collection of phone records and that “This program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law. It’s time for Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act in order to protect both civil liberties and national security with legally authorized surveillance.”

But the USA Freedom Act is by no means fundamental reform. While the bill would reform NSA’s bulk collection practices domestically it would leave in place the massive spying apparatus along with the unrestricted information warfare overseas that will inevitably lead to the agency vacuuming up US citizen’s data.

The truth likely is that as long as the US maintains its national security state mentality and massively funds permanent agencies of war like the NSA there will always be these kind of abuses. Ultimately, the greatest impact from the Snowden disclosures may be the public being more vigilant with their private information and more skeptical of the state’s claims regarding power.