Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe appeared on the Kevin Roberts Show, a Heritage Foundation podcast, to discuss the myriad challenges posed by the creeping corruption of America’s intelligence network. In particular, Ratcliffe highlighted problems associated with Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That intelligence agencies routinely abuse Section 702 is an open secret these days, but that should make it no less noteworthy when a former Director of National Intelligence validates it.
Prior to taking the nation’s top post in intelligence, Ratcliffe served as a Republican Congressman from Texas. Rep. Ratcliffe sat on the intelligence oversight committee, where he routinely interacted with intelligence agencies he’d later oversee. Contrasting these two perspectives, Ratcliffe exposed how much the intelligence agencies shield information from Congressional oversight.
“Congress has an oversight role over the intelligence community,” Ratcliffe said. “It wasn’t until I became the Director of National Intelligence and walked in and said ‘show me the intelligence that we have that says there’s Russian collusion, show me the intelligence that says that there’s support that [Covid] was a natural development from zoonotic transmission.’ The fact is the intelligence didn’t show that. As an elected official for the American people with oversight, I wasn’t getting the truth. I literally had to become the Director of National Intelligence to get the truth…”
Regarding Section 702, Ratcliffe noted that while “it does make America safer when used appropriately,” the policy needs firm guardrails to prevent abuse. “The problem is what we have seen, particularly in the Obama administration and now carrying forward into the Biden administration, and it occurred even during the Trump administration through these embedded partisans … was to turn that important tool inward on American citizens and even members of Congress.”
But Ratcliffe doesn’t think guardrails are enough. Regarding agency culture, Ratcliffe said, “I’m hesitant to now just say it’s a few bad apples, because it’s been a problem for so long that, if you talk about it that way, people think it’s a small problem. And it’s not. It’s become a cultural problem.”
Beginning with the Obama Administration, partisans have been embedded “at the highest mid-and-senior level management within these institutions…” With respect to solutions, Ratcliffe said “it’s going to require those major structural reforms…”
Whatever your political leanings, such statements from a former Director of National Intelligence should be deeply worrying. PPSA is pleased former Director Ratcliffe is calling for serious reforms to Section 702. As Ratcliffe says, both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the sorry state of the intelligence community, and it is up to concerned Americans to right the ship.
Intelligence Community MYTH: Warrantless access to Americans’ data is vital to defending people and companies against cyberattacks and ransomware. Otherwise, we’d be wide-open to cyberattacks from Russia and China.
FACT: Most cybersecurity experts disagree with the government’s argument. The Washington Post conducted a survey of “a group of high-level digital security experts from across government, the private sector and security research community.”
There is no “defensive” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the government claims to be doing something for our own good does not make it constitutional, nor does it mitigate the privacy intrusion or risk of abuse.
If government agents want to access our private communications for our own good, they should simply ask our permission. Without that permission, they should get a probable cause warrant to spy on Americans’ communications.
NYPD’s Angwang Case
This week, Baimadajie Angwang, an officer of the New York Police Department, appears before an administrative judge to make a bid to remain on the force. The long journey of Angwang – from Tibetan refugee to U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, to police officer, to accused spy – shows how an American can have his reputation destroyed and his freedom threatened by secret charges.
As a teenager, Angwang visited the United States on a cultural exchange program only to be beaten by Chinese police on his return to his homeland. He fled the country and successfully sought asylum and citizenship in the United States, serving as a Marine. Angwang joined the NYPD in 2016, married, and became a father.
On the morning of Sept. 21, 2020, Officer Angwang was confronted in front of his home by four souped-up pickup trucks squealing to a halt, half-a-dozen officers in tactical gear piling out, and rifles pointed inches from his face. Angwang was charged with spying for China on his fellow Tibetans in New York and lying on a security form. Angwang was held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for five months.
The conditions in that jail are wretched, far worse than those of most prisons. Angwang had to borrow underwear from another prisoner. The facility lost power, leaving desperate prisoners to suffer in the cold through a bitter January. When Angwang fell ill, guards ignored his pleas for help.
What was Angwang’s alleged crime? It grew out of his quest to secure a long-term visa from the Chinese consulate to visit his elderly parents in Tibet and allow them to meet their granddaughter. In extensive conversations with a consular official, Angwang had tried to get this visa by demonstrating that he was friendly and apolitical. Angwang’s lawyer, John F. Carman, wrote to a federal judge that his client tried to strike a “solicitous tone and accommodating posture.” Prosecutors said that Angwang invited Chinese consular officials to NYPD events and reported on the activities of other Tibetans in New York.
The prosecution’s case was based on calls and likely texts between Angwang and the consulate, all secretly recorded. To be fair, the government arguably has good reason to watch how Chinese diplomats try to convert American citizens into spies. Furthermore, the government did obtain a warrant to surveil Angwang. Carman said that evidence from these communications, however, was misinterpreted and taken out of context by prosecutors.
In court, Angwang faced a dilemma shared with many charged with evidence they are not allowed to see. In such cases, when classified evidence is introduced in a trial, the judge and prosecutors secretly determine in a sealed court what evidence can be seen by the defense attorney and what can be presented in court. In August 2022, Carman read a single-page summary of these charges in the prosecutor’s office.
“What I saw was so powerful, it caused me to write the judge and ask if that’s what they have, why hasn’t there been a motion to dismiss?” Carman told The New York Times. In January, prosecutors dropped the case, citing a “holistic” assessment of the evidence and “additional information bearing on the charges.”
Now Angwang is asking an administrative court to let him keep his job as a New York City police officer. If he loses his job, Angwang will have to seek another job with a resume and a reputation forever under the shadow of secret evidence. “It creates a cloud of mystery,” Carman said. “You only have to assume that this guy did stuff that was bad for the country. Which is an inference that’s easily drawn, but in this case should not have been drawn.”
And should a defendant like Angwang, who escapes the crosshairs of secret evidence, sue the government for compensation, the state secrets privilege will ensure that he cannot win. The evidence against the government, you see, must remain secret. The defamatory effect, however, lives on.
Is there really a good justification – the protection of sources and methods – for withholding so much of a secret case? Can the government at least issue a note of exoneration for Angwang and others when secret charges are dropped?
Intelligence Community Myth: “The government is neither intentionally nor inadvertently targeting Americans for surveillance through Section 702.”
Fact: This assertion is in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday by Richard E. DiZinno and Beth A. Williams – the two dissenters from the recent critical report on Section 702 from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). This statement by DiZinno and Williams is flatly contradicted by the PCLOB report.
In that report, the government owns up to intentional violations. The report states:
“According to the government, there have been several examples where oversight mechanisms have identified incidents involving improper intent in seeking to circumvent or violate the procedures, related rules, or statutory requirements.”
Two of these violations are from 2022. This is important because the FBI, in announcing its new “accountability” procedures, claimed that there had been no identified instances of intentional non-compliance since 2018.
We know about these four searches because they are egregious, personal misuses of Section 702 data that cannot possibly be explained away. Imagine what can happen when agents can spin serious-sounding but imagined national security justifications to look at Americans’ private data and communications.
PCLOB Chair Ups Ante by Calling for Probable Cause Warrant for U.S. Person Queries
What are the topline takeaways from the report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)?
A majority of board members of this government watchdog panel directly counter the claims of the Biden Administration and the intelligence community that a requirement for the government to seek judicial review of the private communications of Americans would be “operationally unworkable” and lead to extreme danger to national security. The report punctures the FBI’s frequent claims that having the ability to rifle through Americans’ communications without a warrant is essential to national security and protecting the United States from harm.
The PCLOB majority endorses “individualized and particularized judicial review” by the FISA Court before the government can review data of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
PCLOB is coming down firmly on the side of civil liberties organizations that have long argued against intelligence and law enforcement agencies being allowed to have ready access to Americans’ private data and communications, with little judicial oversight.
Internal FBI Procedures Insufficient
The PCLOB majority finds the internal changes by the FBI in its Section 702 procedures to be far less than what is needed to protect Americans from backdoor searches, the practice of using secretly derived information to develop a case. Moreover, these searches are generally useless, as are the FBI’s internal procedures. The report also rejects that broad categories of searches, such as so-called “defensive” searches for potential victims’ information, should be exempted from judicial review.
Amici, Abouts and Unmasking
The report endorses the proposal to require amici – or qualified civil liberties experts to advise the FISA Court whenever proposed investigations touch sensitive cases that implicate basic constitutional rights. The board would narrow the standards by which the government selects targets. And the board would formally restrict “abouts” collection – information in which a target is merely mentioned.
Even the two board members who voted against the report found that “The U.S. Intelligence Community should adopt new rules to protect against the unmasking of U.S. Persons for political purposes.”
The Chair’s Call for a Warrant Requirement
Chair Sharon Bradford Franklin (see p. 226) writes that a “search through Section 702 communications data seeking information about a particular American constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, and current query standards are insufficient to meet constitutional requirements.”
Chair Franklin notes that the FBI routinely runs searches of U.S. persons at a preliminary stages of an inquiry. The FBI “asserted that it could not meet a probable cause standard for such queries conducted at these early stages.” Nor could the FBI identify, outside the categories of “victim” or “defensive” queries, “a single criminal prosecution that relied on evidence identified through a U.S. person query.”
Chair Franklin raises the ante on PCLOB’s recommendation that a FISA Court provide judicial review for U.S. person queries.
“But I believe that Congress should also require a probable cause standard for FBI’s U.S. person queries conducted at least in part to seek evidence of a crime in order to fully protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.”
Franklin writes that this is the only way to ensure such queries fully comply with the Fourth Amendment, while being consistent with criminal law in other contexts. She would explicitly adopt the standards of Carpenter v. United States (2018), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the police don’t need a warrant to seize a cellphone but do need a warrant to search the contents of that cellphone, which contain “the privacies of life.” She analogizes this case to the “seizure” of the incidental collection of Americans’ information under Section 702, and the need to have a warrant to search it.
Chair Franklin’s conclusions, and the PCLOB’s full list of 19 recommendations, are included in the executive summary of its report.
Today, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) issued its long-awaited report on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The report, endorsed by a majority of the Board’s members, sheds new light on abuses over the past few years, revealing that, “[i]n the reporting period covering November 2020 to December 2021, non-compliant queries related to civil unrest numbered in the tens of thousands.”
The report includes recommendations that Congress enact robust reforms as part of any reauthorization of Section 702. Among other reforms, it urges Congress to (1) require the government to obtain individualized judicial approval to access communications retrieved through U.S. person queries (commonly known as “backdoor searches”), with exceptions for consent and exigent circumstances; (2) codify President Biden’s executive order specifying the legitimate objectives of surveillance; (3) improve the workings of the FISA Court, including by strengthening the role of amici; (4) prohibit the government from re-starting “abouts” collection; and (5) impose a deadline for declassifying significant FISA Court opinions.
Privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties groups issued the following statement responding to the report:
“The message of the Board’s report is clear: individualized judicial review of U.S. person queries is critical to protect Americans’ rights and prevent further abuses. The report flatly rejects the government’s self-serving claim that individualized judicial review is unworkable. It also rejects the baseless notion that broad categories of these searches, such as searches for foreign intelligence or so-called ‘defensive’ searches for potential victims’ information, should be exempted from this requirement. And it rejects the fallacy that the FBI’s tweaks to its internal procedures are sufficient to address the acute risks posed by backdoor searches.
“Three members of the Board stated that they would support a probable cause standard for U.S. person queries in any criminal investigation, including those related to foreign intelligence. In her statement, the Chair of the Board compellingly explained why the full ‘probable cause’ standard is required by the Fourth Amendment and necessary to safeguard Americans’ privacy. We believe the same logic supports a requirement for a probable cause order for any U.S. person query.
“We note that the Board limited its inquiry and its recommendations to Section 702. It did not address many of the other issues that are very much part of the current debate, including the government’s use of data brokers to circumvent legal protections for Americans’ privacy and the use of overseas surveillance to collect Americans’ information without statutory authority or judicial oversight. Congress, however, must address these issues. If it limits itself to reforms of Section 702, the government will simply continue its warrantless surveillance of Americans using these other methods.”
More than thirty organizations from across the political spectrum have called for a range of reforms as a precondition for any reauthorization of Section 702. Those reforms include:
Statement above attributable to the following organizations:
Intelligence Community MYTH: We need to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – just as it is now – in order to counter the carnage caused by fentanyl trafficking.
FACT: The government hasn’t cited a single instance in which warrantless searches of Americans’ communications proved useful in combating the fentanyl trade.
None of the proposed surveillance reforms involving Americans’ privacy, such as a warrant requirement, would stop the intelligence community from using Section 702 to locate foreign fentanyl labs, whether in China or Mexico, and tracking the cartels that smuggle it.
And if an American does become a suspect in this trafficking, the government can and should seek a probable cause warrant, as is routinely done in other domestic law enforcement cases. We do not need to sacrifice our constitutional rights in order to fight fentanyl trafficking.
Intelligence Community MYTH: To talk about anything other than Section 702 during the reauthorization debate is a distraction.
FACT: Section 702 is only one of many ways the government collects and searches through Americans’ private communications and data without a warrant. If we do not close all the loopholes that allow for illicit surveillance, then the government will seamlessly shift over to alternate ways of watching our every action, move, and utterance.
One of the most dangerous forms of lawless surveillance is the widespread practice of government agencies buying up Americans’ sensitive digital communications, geolocation histories, and other private information from third-party data brokers.
Federal agencies from the IRS, to DHS, FBI, DEA and DoD routinely purchase and access data of American consumers scraped from apps and social media to review our online search histories, location histories, and communications from texts to phone calls and emails. The government, for example, has purchased data from religious apps and dating apps. Government attorneys assert that this is lawful because the Fourth Amendment forbids “seizures” of our papers and effects, when in fact they are merely buying it.
This sophistry must be countered. We should extend a warrant requirement to data purchases under Section 702 to keep the intelligence community from shifting to a reliance on purchased data or some other authority largely unconstrained by judicial and Congressional oversight.
The government also surveils American citizens through Executive Order 12333 – not a law, just an assertion of authority by the executive branch – with very little (if any) oversight from Congress. Former Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a noted champion of the intelligence community, said on the Senate floor in 2020 that 12333 authority allows “the president to do all of this, without Congress’s permission, without guardrails.”
The Section 702 reauthorization is our best opportunity to rein in these and other forms of warrantless surveillance. It is imperative that Congress act on this opportunity. If legislative reforms are narrowly limited to Section 702, the Administration will simply rely more heavily on these loopholes to continue its lawless surveillance of Americans.
Congress intended Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to give U.S. intelligence agencies the authority to collect intelligence from foreigners located abroad.
For fifteen years, however, federal agencies have exploited Section 702 and other surveillance programs to conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans. The numbers are staggering: In 2021 the FBI conducted 3.4 million warrantless searches of Americans’ communications obtained under Section 702. Even after an effort to shape up for the reauthorization debate, in 2022 the FBI still conducted more than 200,000 such warrantless searches.
Now former intelligence community officials are waging a media campaign to scare Congress into submitting to a “clean” or mildly revised reauthorization of Section 702.
Predictably, they are resorting to scare tactics to get their clean reauthorization. Rep. Andy Biggs, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance, earlier this year warned:
“The FBI and federal intelligence agencies use scare tactics to convince Congress that these unchecked powers are the only method available to protect our nation from harm. Well, every American should be scared to know federal agents are spying on them, even if they have nothing to hide.”
Below is the first of our “Myths vs. Facts” responses from PPSA to fables being foisted by advocates of the intelligence community.
Intelligence Community MYTH: A warrant requirement to search for Americans’ private data and communications in the Section 702 database would be “drastic and unwarranted,” putting the American homeland at risk. Congress must not let Section 702 expire.
FACT: We can protect national security and have a foreign surveillance authority that respects the constitutional rights of American citizens.
A warrant requirement is by definition not a proposal to let Section 702 expire at the end of this year. Indeed, Section 702 expiration can only happen if surveillance hawks fail to agree to significant reform. They cannot play a game of chicken and then act like Chicken Littles. If national security is being risked by the expiration of Section 702, then it will be the champions of the intelligence community who will cause it to happen.
The specific intelligence community argument against warrants when Americans are surveilled makes no sense. The stated purpose of Section 702 is to conduct surveillance of foreign targets outside the United States. The government’s own Section 702 success stories all involve obtaining critical intelligence about plots by hostile foreign actors. It is wrong and patently absurd to sidestep Americans’ constitutional rights and warrantlessly surveil our own citizens in the name of foreign surveillance.
Reform proposals, such as a warrant requirement for the surveillance of Americans’ communications, are not radical proposals. It is the ongoing mass surveillance of Americans who’ve done nothing remotely suspicious by our own government that is radical.
Your phone, like your dog, knows all about you. But your dog will never tell. Your smartphone does, all day long, producing data that the federal government can buy and access without a warrant.
The same, increasingly, is true of your car. It knows where you go, and for how long. For example, Tesla has internal cameras, and according to Elon Musk biographer, Walter Isaacson, that CEO wanted them to record drivers to defend the company against lawsuits in the event of an accident.
As your car integrates with your smartphone, the automobile becomes just another digital device that tracks your every move. A contemporary car can accumulate 4,000 gigabytes of data every day. Our cars’ entertainment and communications systems track our address books, call logs and what we listen to. Systems made to monitor performance can report our weight, as well as where we’ve driven, and if we’ve driven there alone or with someone else.
But at least your dog in the backseat still won’t rat you out.
This is just one more way digital technology is narrowing the bounds of privacy to, essentially, floatation tanks. The good news is that lawmakers in the Bay State are reacting to defend the privacy of their constituents. Two bills, one introduced in the Massachusetts House and one in the Senate, would limit collected data, set rules for the security of that data, and require it to be purged after it becomes irrelevant. Moreover, data collection would require the consent of the owner.
Jalopnik.com reports that privacy advocates, however, are finding loopholes in the law “wide enough to drive a Nissan through.” Whatever the strength of these bills, Protect The 1st commends Massachusetts lawmakers for thinking around the technological curve while that very technology hurtles us ever faster, ever forward.
As with AI, a sense of urgency for predictive rulemaking is in order. There was a time when talking cars were a staple of science fiction. Now our cars tell us where to go and when to turn – and sometimes won’t shut up. What our cars will do next we may not be able to quite imagine.
Massachusetts has started a debate that needs to go national and in high gear.
An Example of American Techno-Masochism
PPSA works hard to counter growing government surveillance. This generally means surveillance by U.S. federal agencies – such as FISA’s Section 702 authority passed by Congress for foreign surveillance but used to spy on Americans. We also scrutinize expanding surveillance by state and local police, including cell-site simulators that trick your smartphone into giving up your location and other information, and ubiquitous facial recognition software that can follow you around.
But our concerns about government surveillance don’t end with just our government.
We are increasingly concerned about the regular and sometimes pervasive surveillance of Americans by the People’s Republic of China, most recently the potential for Beijing to use TikTok as a way to track 80 million Americans.
Now, thanks to an investigative piece in The Free Press, we’ve learned that China is also looking to surveil Americans through an increasingly common technology in American cars – LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging. This is the system that allows self-driving and semiautonomous cars to track the traffic around them. LIDAR is also, The Free Press reports, “a mapping technology, an aid to the growing number of smart cities, a tool for robotics, farming, meteorology, you name it.”
Who is the dominant manufacturer and seller of LIDAR technology in the United States? It is Hesai, a Chinese company that sells nearly one out of every two LIDAR systems globally. In sales, it far outsells all of its American competitors together.
China is relying on an old playbook to dominate the U.S. and world markets in LIDAR. The Free Press reports that Hesai does this by offering a solid product, but one backed by Chinese subsidies to sell at below price. Why would they do that?
An explanation comes from Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC), who fired off a letter earlier this summer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Policy.
“[I]t is my understanding that the Chinese LIDAR companies are working with the Chinese Government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to improve this technology and leverage it for Chinese military applications. Simultaneously, these companies have been flooding the U.S. market with low-cost, heavily subsidized Chinese LIDAR, potentially enabling the Chinese to collect a trove of valuable information …
“Moreover, the Chinese Government is using LIDAR sensors to conduct police surveillance in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where evidence suggests China is engaged in ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people.”
Given that Chinese law enforces a “military-civil fusion” strategy on Chinese businesses, requiring every Chinese organization and citizen to “support, assist, and cooperate with the state intelligence work,” why on earth would we allow that same government to be able to spy on every American in every near-future car?
It is one thing to be forced into the position of the Uyghurs. It is quite something else for the United States to willingly submit to techno-masochism.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects Americans against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. But what is unreasonable? Is a low-flying drone taking photos of you and your property behind a privacy fence reasonable?
In October, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in what could well become a landmark privacy case. The outcome may help determine the national limits of drone surveillance – and perhaps influence the limits of government surveillance – for all Americans.
The facts are pretty simple. Todd and Heather Maxon of Long Lake Township in Michigan live on a five-acre estate, where Todd likes to repair old cars.
In 2008, the Township government charged the Maxons with operating an illegal junkyard. The couple and the Township reached a settlement. In 2018, the Township received tips that the Maxons had violated their settlement by bringing more cars onto their property, even though such vehicles were not visible from the street. So the Township hired a private drone operator to fly a high-resolution camera over the Maxon property to take images.
The Maxons sued, claiming that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated. A lower court agreed with the government but was overturned in 2021 by the Michigan Court of Appeals. That court ordered that the drone photos be suppressed.
At the heart of this case is the “reasonable expectation of privacy” articulated by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II in Katz v. United States (1967). But technology keeps testing what is a reasonable expectation of privacy. The Supreme Court has zigged and zagged along the way, once upholding a wiretap to be permissible because it occurred at the telephone pole and did not require a physical intrusion into the home.
Katz overturned that standard, invalidating an FBI wiretap of a public payphone, where the caller (a sports bookie) had a reasonable expectation that he would not be overheard. “The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places,” Justice Potter Steward declared in the Court’s majority opinion. But the Court returned somewhat to the physical intrusion standard – invalidating thermal imaging by police from the street that penetrated inside a target’s home in Kyllo v. United States (2001).
The Cato Institute and Rutherford Institute, in an amicus brief, noted the problem with the physical intrusion standard: “At present, police are free to go through people’s garbage, look into their barn with a flashlight, and read through their bank records without going through the hassle of first securing a warrant.” We now live in an age of ubiquitous digital intrusion with government purchases of our private data, as well as optical intrusion from drones and other aerial surveillance.
In other words, the current privacy standard is a jumbled mess. That is why the Maxon case is potentially so important. At its simplest, it will determine if drones – an increasingly ubiquitous reality in American life – will be freely used to spy on Americans in their backyards (as the New York City Police recently did over backyard barbecues during Labor Day).
But we think the Maxon case may prove to be pivotal in defining – perhaps, eventually, by the U.S. Supreme Court – what privacy and reasonableness mean in an era of drones, facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence.
For years PPSA has documented the increasing disposition of federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies to use the ever-expanding Glomar response – a “cannot confirm or deny” answer once reserved for the nation’s most closely guarded secrets – as a blanket response to any meddlesome Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
We should not overlook, however, another handy tool for FOIA avoidance, and that is to release the requested document but redact many or all of its meaningful parts. Now the Department of Justice Office of the General Counsel has perfected this technique, taking it to its logical end.
It began in 2020 when PPSA joined with Demand Progress to file a FOIA request. Our request concerned surveillance that may be taking place under no statute, but instead under a self-professed authority of the executive branch known as Executive Order 12333. The reply from the FBI is, in its own way, telling.
In the DOJ response, a certain Mr. or Ms. BLANK who holds the title of BLANK in the Office of the General Counsel returned with 40 pages of responsive documents. Thirty-nine pages are redacted in their entirety, as is the 40th page, with the redacted name of the signator and his/her redacted title, but with one, unredacted statement:
Hope that’s helpful.
There’s honestly no other way to take this than the Department of Justice shooting a middle finger at the very idea of a FOIA request, an exercise of the Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This is a shame because the subject of this request is an important one.
Demand Progress and PPSA based our FOIA request on a July 2020 letter from now-retired Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and current Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to then-Attorney General William Barr and then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. The two senators noted the expiration of Section 215 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), commonly known as the “business records” provision of FISA. The intelligence community had vociferously lobbied for the renewal of Section 215 with predictions that allowing its expiration would lead to something akin to the city-destroying scenes in the 1996 movie Independence Day.
Then the Trump Administration called their bluff and allowed this authority to expire. The response from the intelligence community? Crickets.
The sudden complacency of the intelligence community struck many as suspicious. Were federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies shifting their surveillance to another authority? Sens. Leahy and Lee seemed to think so. They wrote:
“At times the executive branch has tenuously relied on Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981, to conduct surveillance operations wholly independent of any statutory authorization … This would constitute a system of surveillance with no congressional oversight potentially resulting in programmatic Fourth Amendment violations at tremendous scale … We strongly believe that such reliance on Executive Order 12333 would be plainly illegal.”
This July 2020 letter, with a detailed series of penetrating questions about the practice and scope of 12333 surveillance, was issued by two powerful and respected members of the United States Senate … And it hit the walls of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with all the full force of wet spaghetti. As with so many other congressional requests, this letter was not answered in any substantive way.
So Demand Progress joined with PPSA in October 2020, in an effort to use the law to compel an answer, this time as a formal FOIA request. We leveraged that law to request responsive documents that would reveal how the agencies might be repurposing EO 12333 to pick up the slack from the expired 215 authority, in order to spy on persons inside the United States.
And this is the answer we get. It can only be taken, in a general way, as confirmation that Executive Order 12333 is, in fact, being relied upon for the surveillance of people in the United States. This is one more reason why Congress should use the reauthorization of Section 702 to seek broad surveillance reform, including significant guardrails on Executive Order 12333. With mounting evidence of abuses of Americans’ civil rights, a powerful coalition of leading conservatives and liberals in Congress is building steam to do just that.
Hope that’s helpful.
"The government should do all it can to combat the illegal trafficking of dangerous drugs. But those efforts should not - and need not - come at the expense of Americans’ constitutional rights," writes Noah Chauvin in The Hill.
Noah is a counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law in The Hill.
Montana governor Greg Gianforte recently signed into law SB 351, the Genetic Information Privacy Act. It’s the latest in Montana’s concerted effort to protect its citizens’ privacy interests in the face of evolving threats from emerging technologies.
Montana was in the vanguard of digital privacy protection in 2013 when it passed HB 603, requiring judicial authorization before law enforcement is permitted to access location data. This was a full five years before Carpenter v. United States, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that warrantless access to such information violates the Fourth Amendment.
Since that time, Montana’s has passed into law:
(Hat tip to Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a good breakdown of this decade-long trajectory.)
Montana also passed a 2021 constitutional amendment with sweeping support that added electronic data and communications to the state’s search and seizure protections. (Montana’s recent ban on TikTok resulted in some privacy benefits but significantly more consternation from some in the media.)
To date, Washington has failed to pass much in the way of meaningful digital privacy legislation (or genetic privacy legislation outside of a non-discrimination bill in 2008 and piecemeal HIPAA protections). The United States has a number of older information privacy laws related to specific sectors such as health care and finance, and they’ve been used to prevent certain harms. In short, the federal government broadly allows the collection of personal data, then subsequently regulates certain industries that use that data. It’s a reactive – rather than proactive – way to address a growing threat to privacy.
As a result, individual states are stepping in to act on privacy in the digital age. It’s encouraging to see a bipartisan array of state legislatures do so: California, Connecticut, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, and Utah have already passed or enacted comprehensive data privacy laws.
As for genetic privacy, other states should consider following Montana’s lead. As digitization of medical records becomes standardized and genetic sequencing becomes easier, authorities and private actors have ever more avenues for accessing your information. Whether it’s warrantless law enforcement searches of DNA databases, use of medical information by private companies for employment and insurance purposes or even the private patenting of human genes – the threats are manifold – and scary.
Our (cowboy) hats are off to Montana for its forward-thinking efforts to safeguard our rights in the face of rapidly advancing technology.
Our bipartisan coalition is prompting former intelligence agency officials to carry the Biden administration's water by lobbying hard to kill Section 702 reform. Our Senior Policy Advisor and former U.S. Congressman, Bob Goodlatte, and Americans for Prosperity's deputy director of Federal Government Affairs, Matthew Silver, cut through the spin in RealClearPolitics.
1.3 Million IC Security Clearances – But House Only Trusted With a Few?
Mark Davis, PPSA’s Director of Policy, recently spoke to a group of Legislative Directors for Members of the U.S. House of Representatives about the intelligence community’s opposition to House oversight of its activities.
Davis discussed the need to enhance Congressional oversight. The number of staffers with security clearance sufficient to help their Members review the operations of the intelligence community is sharply limited. Most House offices cannot have a staffer who obtains “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information,” or TS/SCI clearance. Davis discussed proposals to allow every Member of the House to advance one staff member for such clearance, subject to passing a background check.
Davis told the Legislative Directors:
“The reform of Section 702 must ensure that Congress itself has the tools to conduct necessary oversight of surveillance agencies—including sufficiently cleared staff for each Member. There are about 1.3 million intelligence community employees and consultants with top-secret clearance. It is insulting to hold, as the intelligence community does, that it would be dangerous to add a few hundred more on Capitol Hill.”
Our senior policy advisors, Former U.S. Congressman and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, and former U.S. Senator, Mark Udall, provide how we don’t have to choose between security and the Constitution. We can have both.
Civil rights groups say efforts to get US intelligence agencies to adopt privacy reforms have largely failed. Without those changes, renewal of a post-9/11 surveillance policy may be doomed.
Its guests on Thursday included privacy and national security experts from the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Electronic Information Privacy Center, and Demand Progress, among a dozen other groups. The largely progressive coalition further included conservative nonprofits such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Bob Goodlatte, a former Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee who now serves as a senior advisor to the nonprofit Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, also attended.
Over a dozen privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum met yesterday with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines and other high ranking intelligence community officials to discuss Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA 702), and connected surveillance issues such as data purchases and surveillance pursuant to Executive Order 12333.
Following the meeting, the undersigned attendees (full list below) issued the following statement:
“We appreciate DNI Haines taking time to hear our serious concerns with warrantless FISA 702 surveillance, but remain deeply distressed that the intelligence community will not commit to any of the meaningful reforms that are critical to protect Americans’ privacy.
“After years of misuse such as deliberately seeking out private messages of activists on the left and right, a batch of 19,000 campaign donors, and lawmakers, it’s clear that FISA 702 and related surveillance powers need serious change. The administration and intelligence community must be willing to come to the table and accept significant new privacy protections that advocates, Congress, and the American people are calling for. There simply isn’t a path to reauthorization built on half-measures, window dressing, and codification of internal procedures that have repeatedly failed to protect Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties.”
As detailed in a letter provided to DNI Haines in advance of the meeting, participants view reauthorization of FISA 702 as dependent on a range of meaningful reforms, including:
Statement above attributable to the following organizations:
The output of former NSA officials in pushing for a “clean,” or unamended, reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been prolific. Several such pieces have recently run in the op-ed pages of The Hill newspaper alone.
The latest op-ed, by former senior NSA and Department of Homeland Security officials Jon Darby and Thomas Warrick, is a masterpiece of misdirection.
It begins with the oft-told tale of Secretary of State Henry Stimson in 1929 closing down the “Black Chamber,” a New York City office in which government cryptographers broke the codes of Japanese and other foreign diplomats. “Gentlemen,” Stimson famously said, “do not read each other’s mail.” Stimson reversed his elevated sense of etiquette when he became Secretary of War during World War Two – and the ability to break Japanese codes became central to Allied victory.
The implication here is that civil libertarians today who complain about Section 702 are sniffy idealists who would expose us to great danger. To buttress this point, Darby and Warrick cite several intelligence successes, including the breaking of the plot to bomb New York City’s subway in 2009. With Russia and China turning increasingly hostile, Darby and Warrick say that we need robust means to intercept those who threaten the safety of the American homeland.
To which PPSA and many other civil libertarians say, “hurrah!”
We take issue, however, with the central metaphor of their piece – Henry Stimson’s ending of foreign surveillance. No foreigner enjoys the protections of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. When it comes to foreign terrorists and spies, we say surveil away. Our concern arises when the communications of millions of Americans are folded into Section 702 surveillance.
Whenever an American becomes a target of a government investigation, a probable cause warrant is required by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution to examine their communications. Take the case cited by Darby and Warrick – the planned New York City bombing involving an Afghan-American who was in communication with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and traveled to meet them. That alone should have been enough to obtain a probable cause warrant to inspect the target’s communications.
Darby and Warrick acknowledge that “for a time, the FBI routinely searched databases with information collected under Section 702’s authority even in non-national security investigations.” Victims of such improper government surveillance included a Member of the U.S. House, a U.S. senator, a state senator, a judge, a local political party, and 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign, among many others. Darby and Warrick assure us that these abuses were “corrected” when “additional safeguards” were put in place.
Despite large reductions in the numbers of Americans who have their data hoovered up, however, more than 200,000 warrantless searches are still taking place every year. As Sen. Mike Lee of Utah notes, the correct number for violations of the Constitution is zero. If Congress misses this rare opportunity to impose a warrant requirement, expect the FBI and other agencies to quickly revert to old ways.
A final point: There is an air of unreality surrounding the debate over the Section 702 database. It is, after all, likely small compared to the database of warrantlessly obtained and inspected personal information of Americans that is commercially acquired by our government.
About a dozen federal agencies, from NSA, to DoD, to IRS, to the FBI, to DHS, purchase our personal data scraped from apps and sold by third-party data brokers. Government lawyers blandly assert they are not violating the constitution’s prohibition against seizing our data. They are, after all, merely buying it.
That strikes most Members of Congress and their constituents as sophistry. Our digital actions – whom we communicate with, where we go, what we search online for – can be our most personal information, revealing our romantic lives, our health issues, our religious beliefs and worship, and our political activities. Yet the government – including the agencies that Darby and Warrick served – routinely ransack what essentially are our personal diaries without a warrant or oversight of any sort.
The coming debate over the reauthorization of Section 702 will be our best opportunity in a generation to curb the government’s appetite for all our information. We should not let this rare chance pass us by.
While many of us were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, the line between sci-fi dystopia and reality got a little blurrier. The New York City Police Department announced it was using aerial drones to “check in” on parties held across the city over the Labor Day weekend.
The NYPD is making the move, it says, in response to complaints about large and noisy parties during the holiday weekend. At a press conference, Assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said: “If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party.” The practice of aerial surveillance is escalating. New York police used drones just four times in 2022 but have so far used them 124 times in 2023. Mayor Eric Adams has said he wants to see police further embrace the “endless” potential of drones.
The decision is almost certainly illegal. Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union, says mass drone surveillance may violate the city’s Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act. This is an ordinance passed in 2020 that requires the NYPD to disclose its surveillance tactics.
The proliferation of drones over our backyards, however, may not be unconstitutional. U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the Fourth Amendment has dealt with aerial surveillance before. In the 1988 case Florida v. Riley, the Court held that Florida did not violate a man’s right against unreasonable searches when police, on a tip, flew a helicopter over his property and observed a greenhouse in which the man was growing marijuana. The greenhouse was not visible from the ground and could only be detected aerially.
But nearly 40 years have passed since Florida v. Riley, and in that time police departments across the country have been able to amass and deploy an entire fleet of small, flexible aerial drones. Whereas police might have been constrained by the cost to own and operate a helicopter in the past, today’s police departments can operate a sizable drone fleet at a fraction of the price, enabling a near permanent aerial surveillance force.
Further compounding the problem is the high degree of reciprocity between local law enforcement and the national security center. A Department of Justice response to a PPSA Freedom of Information Act request shows that local governments have received fleets of drones and other surveillance technology from the federal government.
As Washington floods local police forces with hovering spies, it is time for cities and states to update our laws and jurisprudence on aerial surveillance.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) recently introduced the USPIS Surveillance Protection Act, legislation that would defund the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), an initiative of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPS) that, among other things, gathers intelligence from U.S. citizens' social media posts. Under this program, yet another federal agency is assuming the disturbing power to surveil broad swaths of Americans’ digital communications.
Documents reveal that the USPS used the iCOP program to monitor social media content that revealed the when and where of planned protests and other posts it found “inflammatory.” The program was also used to monitor conservative-leaning social media sites for potential violent activity by groups like the Proud Boys. You don’t have to defend the extreme views of some of these groups to feel the tug of the slippery slope.
Rep. Gaetz called the program a “clandestine domestic surveillance program,” saying, “The USP Inspection Service is operating outside of its USPS jurisdiction when it monitors internet users’ sharing of information.”
The government is no stranger to using the mail service to spy on American citizens. In May, PPSA wrote that agencies often obtain so-called “mail covers,” photo images of mail envelopes. Such analog-style “metadata” can give any interested party information about whom you are writing to and who is writing back. Between 2010 to 2014, postal inspectors and law enforcement agencies requested more than 135,000 mail covers. Among the top agencies requesting mail covers were the IRS, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.
PPSA is pleased to see Rep. Gaetz’ bill begin to address the widespread practice of federal monitoring of Americans’ internet posts. In the era of digital communications, it is worrying to see the USPS transition from a postal to a surveillance agency. Congress must take steps to reign in this covert and lesser-known form of government spying now.
When spy novelist John le Carré left MI-6 to become a writer, he said that he had resolved to have “nothing to do with the intelligence world.” Would that the same could be said of former intelligence community lawyers. During the relative quiet of August, attorneys who once served the alphabet soup of agencies – NSA, NSC, CIA – have been busy posting pieces and writing op-eds why Congressional reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) should be passed with minimal changes. If Congress amends Section 702 with a warrant requirement to spy on the communications of American citizens, they tell us, the nation will be in peril.
Civil libertarians are responding with vigor.
Witness the incisive piece by Patrick Toomey, Sarah Taitz, and Kia Hamadanchy of the American Civil Liberties Union in the online journal justsecurity.org, a clear-eyed response to all the recent fearmongering by this intelligence community campaign. Toomey and his colleagues offer a wide-ranging survey of Section 702 and the dangers posed by how it is used in a way that is both deep and accessible.
The ACLU hits the main point early and with great clarity:
“If the purpose of Section 702 is to ‘target’ foreigners for intelligence gathering, then officials should have no qualms about imposing robust safeguards for Americans … but for too long, officials have tried to have it both ways – claiming that the law was not intended to spy on Americans, while using Section 702 to do just that.”
ACLU more than amply demonstrates that Section 702 has become a “domestic surveillance tool, with agents and analysts routinely searching through the enormous pool of collected data for the private communications of Americans.” ACLU adds: “With that fact finally in the open, the rules written into the law should reflect the bedrock protections the Constitution requires.”
This strong piece is a welcome rejoinder. As Congress prepares to return in September, defenders of the surveillance status quo have been busy warning that a warrant requirement of Section 702 would allow Chinese and Russian agents to run rampant, or that warrants would hobble law enforcement, drowning the nation in fentanyl.
The ACLU’s recent piece is a sign, however, that champions of reforms are not going to let up in our corrections and rebuttals. Our coalition of civil liberties groups will be briefing leading newspapers and their editorial boards. We are reaching out to reporters to correct misleading claims and steer journalists to the right information. And we will continue to update our resource on Section 702, fisareform.org.
Intelligence community disinformation is, as they say, a target-rich environment. We act in the confidence that the case for warrants and other reforms will be matters of common sense and bedrock American principles for Members of Congress and their constituents.
For years, the excuse the intelligence community has trotted out to derail surveillance reform was the need to prevent a re-building of “the wall” – shorthand for the refusal of the FBI and CIA to share information between each other, and within their own organizations – that could have stopped the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This was more than a little disingenuous. There was no “wall.” There was no law or formal policy that kept these agencies from sharing appropriate alarm about flight students who wanted to learn to pilot large passenger jets, while skipping the part about landing. The 9/11 Commission appropriately put the blame on sluggish, bureaucratic behavior that allowed that awful day to happen.
The 9/11 excuse to avoid any and all reforms to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) doesn’t have the same punch it used to have. So the apologists for the intelligence community are changing tack. They now argue that Congress must pass Section 702 as it is or else the nation will drown in a sea of fentanyl. A recent article in The Charlotte News & Observer demonstrates how the apologists for the status quo are now using fentanyl to lobby North Carolina’s two senators, Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, to walk away from changes to Section 702. Both senators have bravely stood up for their constituents by speaking out for the need for surveillance reform.
This is part of a larger effort by the McClatchy media group to run stories, from The Miami Herald to The Kansas City Star. That nationwide series links senators skeptical about Section 702 to the assertion that a Section 702 probable cause warrant requirement would degrade law enforcement’s ability to stop fentanyl distribution.
No one disagrees that the smuggling of this deadly drug into the United States is a national crisis. It is estimated that 150 Americans die every day from synthetic opioid poisoning. Fentanyl, which can be 50 times more potent than heroin, is particularly dangerous. PPSA and other civil libertarian groups agree that fighting fentanyl smuggling and marketing is a major national struggle that law enforcement should be fully engaged in countering.
But these efforts by the intelligence community smack of fear-mongering. We are adamant in our conviction that we can fight fentanyl without throwing out the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures of our personal information. Section 702 enables surveillance of foreign nationals for national security purposes. Because all communications are global, and many Americans have conversations with foreigners, millions of Americans have their data caught up in 702’s dragnet.
And, as we have seen, the FBI and other agencies have warrantlessly accessed the personal information of Americans millions of times in recent years – including the personal data of political leaders, that of a U.S. senator, a House Member, a state senator, and a judge.
Here’s a tip for the FBI: no Member of Congress is engaged in the smuggling and distribution of fentanyl. What excuse, then, does the FBI have for intruding into the personal communications and data of leading politicians? Perhaps Sens. Tillis and Budd might want to ask the intelligence community questions about that.
The bottom line is that the FBI and other agencies should be able to prosecute fentanyl smugglers and sellers and respect the U.S. Constitution at the same time.
“The reform debate is about this program’s broad intrusion on Americans’ privacy,” ACLU’s Patrick Toomey told The News & Observer. “If the purpose of Section 702 is to target foreigners for intelligence purposes, as officials often say, then they should stop stonewalling robust protections for Americans.”