USA Liberty Act Meet the New Surveillance State

During the debate on the USA Freedom Act, my friend and former colleague, and current Ron Paul Senior Fellow Adam Dick quipped that Congress’s next phony civil liberties bill would be called the USA Liberty Act.

Well Adam was a prophet. Last week the House Judiciary Committee unveiled the USA Liberty Act (H.R. 3989), which renews and “reforms” Section 702 of the FISA Act. Just like the USA FREEDOM Act, the reforms in the bill do little or nothing to actually protect our liberties.

Patrick Eddington from CATO explains:

One of the biggest vulnerabilities Americans face today is the growing volume of their personal data being stored on servers in the private sector and in government. In the government counterterrorism (CT) context—and CT intelligence collection was the original rationale for this authority—there is simply no reason for the government to continue the collection and storage of the information of innocent U.S. Persons (a legal definition that includes citizens and legal permanent residents).

The bill as drafted would allow the government to do exactly that for at least 90 days for “foreign intelligence purposes” and it allows the Director of the NSA (DIRNSA) to waive that requirement on an individual and specific basis if DIRNSA determines that such waivers are “necessary to protect the national security.” All this provision will do is create more paperwork for NSA, but the waiver process could no doubt be largely automated, rendering this alleged reform meaningless. A genuine reform would 1) explicitly prohibit the government from obtaining and maintaining the data of Americans unless said Americans were the actual target of an authorized criminal investigation, and 2) require mandatory external audits (read Government Accountability Office) to confirm said data destruction.

In September 2017, Demand Progress issued a report highlighting the number of times the NSA and Department of Justice have been caught violating Sec. 702, FISA Court orders, or both. From the report’s executive summary:

The FISC has twice found that certain Section 702 collection violated the Fourth Amendment. In 2011 the government revealed that as part of its “upstream” Section 702 collection it collected non-targeted, entirely domestic communications. When NSA violated the rules that were supposed to make this collection legal, FISC again deemed the practice “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

For almost 12 years, both under Section 702 and other programs before it, NSA was always engaging in or retaining some kind of electronic surveillance the FISC would go on to deem unauthorized, and NSA would only fix the problem when threatened with criminal sanctions.

The draft House Judiciary bill makes no mention of these past violations, much less proposes any remedies. House and Senate members apparently need to be reminded that the Constitution’s impeachment function is applicable to all civil officers of government who engage in such violations.

Read the whole piece here.

Marcy Wheeler explains the inadequacies of the bill’s proposed fix of the backside loophole.

The requirement only applies to evidence of crime. It requires the crime to be one of the ones listed in the Wiretap Act, but includes state crimes, which in turn includes drug crimes (and child pornography, which of course is now in Section 702’s minimization procedures).

For some reason, it requires this application to go to FISC, rather than a regular magistrate, which is problematic both from a time management issue for FISC but also for reasons of standardization among magistrates. That’s all the more concerning given that the bill doesn’t explain what kind of review the FISC judge can do — whether the judge can actually review for probable cause, or whether she doesn’t have that authority. This is a big concern, because DOJ has repeatedly told FISC judges in secret that they don’t have authority specifically laid out in law, not even when they were asking judges to approve programmatic spying.

One good part of this language is that it requires something beyond metadata from a 702 search to support a probable cause review.

First, the bill exempts emergency or threat to life queries.

But before it does that, it exempts all requests “designed for the primary purpose of returning foreign intelligence information.” In a different section, HJC punts on the issue of defining what “foreign intelligence information” means, directing the government to do that in minimization procedures.

It punts on more than that. How can you have one category for “primary purpose” FI information, but then not treat criminal searches as primary? Where does that line end? Especially given that this is permitted, for both criminal and intelligence purposes, at the assessment level, which is before the government has any evidence.

In short, even where it is writing exceptions, the bill does it in such a way as to let the split swallow the rule.

Consider: a great deal of individually targeted FISA data will replicate data obtained using 702 (which may in fact be the data the government used to obtain a targeted FISA order). A search on such data will return both the traditional FISA data and the 702 data. In cases where the FBI can use the former, they don’t have to bother with a “warrant” from FISC. As FBI obtains more and more raw EO 12333 data, that will be even more true there.

So while there may be an interesting operational reason for this — perhaps FBI even missed information in some sensitive investigation because not all data was accessible? — there are also clear downsides and the likelihood this will turn into a workaround to make the back door search even less meaningful.

Finally, the bill requires the government to adopt a meaning for “query reasonably designed for the primary purpose of returning foreign intelligence information” in yearly certifications, rather than doing it themselves.

Read all of Marcy's post here. Also see Marcy's other commentary on the bill here, here, and here.

Also watch Patrick Eddington discuss the bill with Daniel McAdams on the Liberty Report here.

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