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Profile: USA Patriot Act
USA Patriot Act was a participant or observer in the following events:
President Clinton signs the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which the New York Times calls “broad legislation that provides new tools and penalties for federal law-enforcement officials to use in fighting terrorism.” The Clinton administration proposed the bill in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). In many ways, the original bill will be mirrored by the USA Patriot Act six years later (see October 26, 2001). Civil libertarians on both the left and right opposed the legislation. Political analyst Michael Freeman called the proposal one of the “worst assaults on civil liberties in decades,” and the Houston Chronicle called it a “frightening” and “grievous” assault on domestic freedoms. Many Republicans opposed the bill, and forced a compromise that removed increased wiretap authority and lower standards for lawsuits against sellers of guns used in crimes. CNN called the version that finally passed the Republican-controlled Congress a “watered-down version of the White House’s proposal. The Clinton administration has been critical of the bill, calling it too weak. The original House bill, passed last month, had deleted many of the Senate’s anti-terrorism provisions because of lawmakers’ concerns about increasing federal law enforcement powers. Some of those provisions were restored in the compromise bill.” [CNN, 4/18/1996; New York Times, 4/25/1996; Roberts, 2008, pp. 35] An unusual coalition of gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) led the opposition to the law. [New York Times, 4/17/1996] By the time Congress passed the bill, it had been, in the words of FBI Director Louis Freeh, “stripped… of just about every meaningful provision.” [Roberts, 2008, pp. 35] The law makes it illegal in the US to provide “material support” to any organization banned by the State Department. [Guardian, 9/10/2001]
Sen. Russell Feingold will ultimately be the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.
[Source: Publicity photo]The “anti-terrorism” Patriot Act is introduced in Congress. The act is technically known as The USA PATRIOT Act, which stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” [US Congress, 10/2/2001] The legislation was ready four days after the 9/11 attacks, in what Attorney General John Ashcroft called a “full-blown legislative proposal” ready to submit to Congress. The proposal is actually a revamping and enlargement of the Clinton-era antiterrorism legislation first proposed after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing (see April 25, 1996). [Roberts, 2008, pp. 36]
The “anti-terrorism” Patriot Act is introduced in Congress on October 2, 2001 (see October 2, 2001), but it is not well received by all. [US Congress, 10/2/2001] One day later, Senate Majority Leader and future anthrax target Tom Daschle (D-SD) says he doubts the Senate will take up this bill in the one week timetable the administration wants. As head of the Senate, Daschle has great power to block or slow passage of the bill. Attorney General John Ashcroft accuses Senate Democrats of dragging their feet. [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] On October 4, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman and future anthrax target Patrick Leahy (D-VT) accuses the Bush administration of reneging on an agreement on the bill. Leahy is in a key position to block or slow the bill. Some warn that “lawmakers are overlooking constitutional flaws in their rush to meet the administration’s timetable.” Two days later, Ashcroft complains about “the rather slow pace…over his request for law enforcement powers… Hard feelings remain.” [Washington Post, 10/4/2001] The anthrax letters to Daschle and Leahy are sent out between October 6-9 as difficulties in passing the Patriot Act continue (see October 6-9, 2001).
On October 9, 2001, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) blocks an attempt to rush the Patriot Act to a vote with little debate and no opportunity for amendments. He criticizes the bill as a threat to civil liberties. [Associated Press, 10/10/2001] One day earlier, in the story “Cracks in Bipartisanship Start to Show,” the Washington Post reported, “Congress has lost some of the shock-induced unity with which it first responded to the [9/11] attacks.” [Washington Post, 10/8/2001] Also on October 9, identical anthrax letters are postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey, with lethal doses to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Inside both letters are the words, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great” (see October 15, 2001). [Associated Press, 8/7/2008]
President Bush signs the Patriot Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the USA Patriot Act (see October 2, 2001) into law. The act’s provisions include:
1) Non-citizens can be detained and deported if they provide “assistance” for lawful activities of any group the government chooses to call a terrorist organization. Under this provision the secretary of state can designate any group that has ever engaged in violent activity as a terrorist organization. Representative Patsy Mink (D-HI) notes that in theory supporters of Greenpeace could now be convicted for supporting terrorism. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/12/2001]
2) Immigrants can be detained indefinitely, even if they are found not to have any links to terrorism. They can be detained indefinitely for immigration violations or if the attorney general decides their activities pose a danger to national security. They need never be given a trial or even a hearing on their status. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002]
3) Internet service providers can be ordered to reveal the websites and e-mail addresses that a suspect has communicated to or visited. The FBI need only inform a judge that the information is relevant to an investigation. [Village Voice, 11/26/2001; San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002]
4) The act “lays the foundation for a domestic intelligence-gathering system of unprecedented scale and technological prowess.” [Washington Post, 11/4/2001] It allows the government to access confidential credit reports, school records, and other records, without consent or notification. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002] All of this information can now be given to the CIA, in violation of the CIA’s mandate prohibiting it from spying within the US. [Village Voice, 11/26/2001]
5) Financial institutions are encouraged to disclose possible violations of law or “suspicious activities” by any client. The institution is prohibited from notifying the person involved that it made such a report. The term “suspicious” is not defined, so it is up to the financial institutions to determine when to send such a report.
6) Federal agents can easily obtain warrants to review a library patron’s reading and computer habits (see January 2002). [Village Voice, 2/22/2002] Section 215 allows the FBI to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for an order to obtain documents relating to counterterrorism investigations without meeting the usual standard of legal “probable cause” that a crime may have been committed. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI—see October 9, 2001) says that Section 215 can allow the FBI to “go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone.” Librarians will make Section 215 the centerpiece of their objections to the Patriot Act, arguing that the government can now “sweep up vast amounts of information about people who are not suspected of a crime.” In 2005, one librarian will say, “It reminds me of the Red Scare of the 1950s.” However, some FBI officials find it easier to use provisions of Section 505, which expands the usage of so-called “national security letters” (see November 28, 2001). [Roberts, 2008, pp. 39-40]
7) The government can refuse to reveal how evidence is collected against a suspected terrorist defendant. [Tampa Tribune, 4/6/2003]
Passes with No Public Debate - The law passes without public debate. [Village Voice, 11/9/2001; Village Voice, 11/26/2001] Even though it ultimately took six weeks to pass the law, there were no hearings or congressional debates. [Salon, 3/24/2003] Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) says: “This was the least democratic process for debating questions fundamental to democracy I have ever seen. A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret, subject to no committee process, comes before us immune from amendment” (see October 2-4, 2001 and October 24, 2001). [Village Voice, 11/9/2001] Only 66 congresspeople, and one senator, Feingold, vote against it. Few in Congress are able to read summaries, let alone the fine print, before voting on it. [Los Angeles Times, 10/30/2001] Feingold says, “The new law goes into a lot of areas that have nothing to do with terrorism and have a lot to do with the government and the FBI having a wish list of things they want to do.” [Village Voice, 11/9/2001] Supporters of the act point out that some of its provisions will expire in four years, but in fact most provisions will not expire. [Chicago Tribune, 11/1/2001]
Mounting Opposition - One year later, criticism of the law will grow. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002] Dozens of cities will later pass resolutions criticizing the Patriot Act (see January 12, 2003).
The newly adopted USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) allows FBI field offices to issue, without court orders, so-called “national security letters,” or NSLs, that require recipients—telecommunications firms, employers, libraries, anyone—to provide detailed information on their clients, employees, and patrons. The FBI’s Office of General Counsel warns each field office of the potential for abuse inherent in such powerful and relatively unrestricted instruments, writing in part: “NSLs are powerful investigative tools in that they can compel the production of substantial amounts of relevant information. However, they must be used judiciously.… In deciding whether or not to re-authorize the broadened authority, Congress certainly will examine the manner in which the FBI exercised it. Executive Order 12333 and the FCIG [Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Foreign Intelligence Collection and Counterintelligence Investigations] require that the FB[I] accomplish its investigations through the ‘least intrusive’ means. Supervisors should keep this in mind when deciding whether or not a particular use of NSL authority is appropriate. The greater availability of NSLs does not mean that they should be used in every case.” This warning not to overuse NSLs is not always heeded (see February 2005 and Before Mid-March, 2007). [Wired News, 7/10/2007]
The Patriot Act permits federal agents to secretly obtain information from booksellers and librarians about customers’ and patrons’ reading, internet and book-buying habits, merely by alleging that the records are relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation. The act prohibits librarians and booksellers from revealing these requests, so they cannot be challenged in court (see October 2, 2001). [Newsday, 9/16/2002] A University of Illinois study now concludes that federal agents have sought records from about 220 libraries nationwide since September 2001. [Miami Herald, 9/1/2002] The Justice Department refuses to say how many times it has invoked this Patriot Act provision (see June 13, 2002). [Observer, 3/16/2003] But Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant says that people who borrow or buy books surrender their right of privacy. [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/10/2003] Some libraries and bookstores unhappy with the law begin to fight back in a number of ways. Some libraries have posted signs warning that the government may be monitoring their users’ reading habits. [Reuters, 3/11/2003] Thousands of libraries are destroying records so agents have nothing to seize. [New York Times, 4/7/2003] Many librarians polled say they would break the law and deny orders to disclose reading records. [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/10/2003]
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) turns down the Justice Department’s bid for sweeping new powers to monitor and wiretap US citizens. FISC judges rule that the government has misused the law and misled the court dozens of times. The court finds that Justice Department and FBI officials supplied false or misleading information to the court in over 75 applications for search warrants and wiretaps, including one signed by then-FBI director Louis Freeh. While the court does not find that the misrepresentations were deliberate, it does rule that not only were erroneous statements made, but important information was omitted from some FISA applications. The judges found so many inaccuracies and errors in FBI agent Michael Resnick’s affidavits that they bar him from ever appearing before the court again. The court cites “the troubling number of inaccurate FBI affidavits in so many FISA applications,” and says, “In virtually every instance, the government’s misstatements and omissions in FISA applications and violations of the Court’s orders involved information sharing and unauthorized disseminations to criminal investigators and prosecutors.” The court is also unhappy with the Justice Department’s failure to answer for these errors and omissions, writing, “How these misrepresentations occurred remains unexplained to the court.” The court finds that in light of such impropriety, the new procedures proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft in March would give prosecutors too much control over counterintelligence investigations, and would allow the government to misuse intelligence information for criminal cases. The ruling is a severe blow to Ashcroft’s attempts since the 9/11 attacks to allow investigators working in terrorism and espionage to share more information with criminal investigators. (These limitations were put in place after the Church Commission’s findings of massive fraud and misuse of domestic surveillance programs during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. See April, 1976, January 29, 1976, and December 21, 1974). The Justice Department says of the decision, “We believe the court’s action unnecessarily narrowed the Patriot Act and limited our ability to fully utilize the authority Congress gave us.” Interestingly, the Justice Department also opposed the public release of FISC’s decision not to grant the requested powers. Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the NSA, calls the opinion “a public rebuke. The message is you need better quality control. The judges want to ensure they have information they can rely on implicitly.” Bush officials have complained since the 9/11 attacks that FISA requirements hamper the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agents to track terrorist suspects, including alleged hijacking conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001). Those requirements mandate that agents must show probable cause that the subject of a search or wiretap is an agent of a foreign government or terrorist group, and, because FISA standards for obtaining warrants is far lower than for ordinary criminal warrants, mandate strict limits on the distribution of information secured from such investigations. The FBI searched Moussaoui’s laptop computer and other belongings without a FISA warrant because some officials did not believe they could adequately show the court that Moussaoui had any connections to a foreign government or terrorist group. In its ruling, FISC suggests that if the Justice Department finds FISA too restrictive, they should ask Congress to update the law. Many senators on the Judiciary Committee say they are willing to enact such reforms, but have complained of resistance from Ashcroft and a lack of cooperation from the Bush administration. [Washington Post, 8/23/2002] In November 2002, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review will overturn the FISC decision and give the Justice Department what it asked for (see November 18, 2002).
Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Charles Grassley, US Department of Justice, Stewart Baker, Zacarias Moussaoui, National Security Agency, John Ashcroft, Church Commission, USA Patriot Act, Louis J. Freeh, Michael Resnick
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Several members of Congress submit a list of 50 questions to Attorney General Ashcroft, asking him how the Patriot Act is being implemented (see October 26, 2001). [New York Times, 7/14/2002] For instance, they ask, “How many times has the department requested records from libraries, bookstores and newspapers? How many roving wiretaps has the department requested?” Ashcroft refuses to answer many of the questions, even though he is legally required to do so. [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/8/2002] Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) fails to receive any response to dozens of letters he writes to Ashcroft, and other senators complain of a complete stonewall from Ashcroft. [Washington Post, 8/21/2002] In March 2003, senators continue to complain that Ashcroft still has not provided the oversight information about the Patriot Act that he is required to give by law. [ABC News, 3/12/2003]
The Justice Department provides limited information to the House Judiciary Committee about actions performed under the new Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001). Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) had demanded answers to 50 questions regarding the Patriot Act from Attorney General John Ashcroft, or else he would “start blowing a fuse.” Among other things, Sensenbrenner wanted to know how many times the Justice Department had implemented wiretaps under the act, and threatened Congressional subpoenas and opposition to the act when it comes up for renewal. Sensenbrenner and the Judiciary Committee receive far less than originally requested, with the Justice Department asserting that much of the information is classified and cannot be revealed. Sensenbrenner declares himself satisfied. [Savage, 2007, pp. 114-115]
It is reported that 22 cities representing 3.5 million residents have passed resolutions criticizing the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts (see October 26, 2001). Another 70 cities have such resolutions in the works. [Associated Press, 1/12/2003] Many of the resolutions provide some legal justification for local authorities to resist cooperating in the federal war on terrorism when they deem civil liberties and Constitutional rights are being compromised. [New York Times, 12/23/2002]
The Senate Judiciary Committee issues an interim report titled “FISA Implementation Failures” that finds the FBI has mishandled and misused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its anti-terrorism measures. The report is written by Arlen Specter (R-PA), Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). [US Congress, 2/2003] Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) not only refused to take part in the report, he issues a letter protesting the report’s findings. Other committee members were invited to take part in drafting the report, but none did so. [Salon, 3/3/2003] Specter says just after the report is issued, “The lack of professionalism in applying the law has been scandalous. The real question is if the FBI is capable of carrying out a counterintelligence effort.” According to the report, both the FBI and the Justice Department routinely employ excessive secrecy, suffer from inadequate training, weak information analysis, and bureaucratic bottlenecks, and will stifle internal dissent to excess as part of their usage of the expanded powers provided under FISA. The report uses as a case study the instance of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001), who stands accused of conspiring with the 9/11 hijackers. FBI officials in Washington impeded efforts by its agents in Minneapolis, most notably former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, to secure a FISA warrant that would have allowed those agents to search Moussaoui’s laptop computer and belongings before the attack. [US Congress, 2/2003; Associated Press, 2/25/2003] “September 11 might well have been prevented,” says Specter. “What are they doing now to prevent another 9/11?” Grassley adds that in closed Senate hearings, they learned that two supervisors who handled the case did not understand the basic elements of FISA, and a senior FBI attorney could not provide the legal definition of “probable cause,” a key element needed to obtain a FISA warrant. [Associated Press, 2/25/2003] “I hate to say this,” Leahy observes, “but we found that the FBI is ill-equipped” to conduct surveillance on those in the United States possibly plotting terrorist acts on behalf of foreign powers. [Salon, 3/3/2003]
Lack of Cooperation from FBI, Justice Department - The report says that neither the FBI nor the Justice Department were cooperative with the Judiciary Committee in the committee’s efforts to investigate either agency’s actions under FISA, routinely delaying their responses to Congressional inquiries and sometimes ignoring them altogether. The report says that perhaps the most troubling of its findings is “the lack of accountability that has permeated the entire application procedure.” The report notes that although Congressional oversight is critical to ensure a transparent, effective usage of FISA powers (augmented under the USA Patriot Act) that do not stray from legal boundaries, such oversight has been discouraged by both the FBI and the Justice Department. [US Congress, 2/2003] The Justice Department dismisses the report as “old news.” [Patrick Leahy, 2/27/2003] Grassley says, “I can’t think of a single person being held accountable anywhere in government for what went on and what went wrong prior to Sept. 11. It seems that nobody in government makes any mistakes anymore.” [Salon, 3/3/2003]
Spark for New Legislation - The three senators use the report as a springboard to introduce a bill, the “Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act,” which will allow Congress to more closely oversee oversee FBI surveillance of Americans and government surveillance of public libraries, would supervise FISA usage in criminal cases, and disclose the secret rules of the FISA court to Congress. [Associated Press, 2/25/2003] Even though all three senators support a lowering of the standards by which a FISA warrant can be issued, the American Civil Liberties Union says it supports the bill, with reservations. “There’s a lot of concern in this country that, especially with the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA has become a massive tool for secret surveillance,” says ACLU lawyer Timothy Edgar. “One way to assuage those concerns—or show that they’re true—is to have more reporting.” Edgar says that the ACLU worries about the lowering of the standards for such warrants, but as long as the bill implement. [Salon, 3/3/2003] The question of the bill becomes moot, however, as it will never make it out of committee. [US Congress - Senate Judiciary Committee, 3/2003]
Entity Tags: USA Patriot Act, Robert S. Mueller III, Tim Edgar, Patrick J. Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee, Marion (“Spike”) Bowman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Arlen Specter, Domestic Surveillance Oversight Act, Charles Grassley, Zacarias Moussaoui
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Former senior Watergate counsel Samuel Dash (see March 25, 1973) writes that if Bush administration officials leaked the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson to the press (see June 23, 2003, July 7, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, July 8, 2003, 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, and Before July 14, 2003), “they may have committed an act of domestic terrorism as defined by the dragnet language of the Patriot Act their boss wanted so much to help him catch terrorists.” Dash notes that the Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state” that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” In Dash’s estimation, the Plame Wilson leak meets this criteria. It put Plame Wilson’s life at risk along with “her contacts abroad whom terrorists groups can now trace.” It is a clear violation of US criminal law. And its intent was to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population”—to intimidate Plame Wilson’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, into silence, along with “all critics of the administration” who now know “they too can be destroyed if they persist.” Dash notes that the Patriot Act “distorts the criminal law, and its dragnet provisions threaten the liberty of too many innocent people,” so such an accusation—the Bush administration committed an act of domestic terrorism—may be an overstatement of the realities of the case. However, Dash continues, interpreting the law is irrelevant. The administration’s actions under the existing law are the issue. Dash writes that the Justice Department faces a dilemma: “Can they treat this investigation differently from any other terrorist investigation? Under the Patriot Act, they have acquired expanded powers to wiretap and search. Will they place sweeping and roving wiretaps on White House aides? Will they engage in sneak, secret searches of their offices, computers, and homes? Will they arrest and detain incommunicado, without access to counsel, some White House aides as material witnesses?” The Justice Department will not do so, Dash writes, nor should they: “I hope they would not employ such police-state tactics. I had hoped they would not use them against ordinary American citizens, but the attorney general has done so, insisting he needs to use these powers to protect our safety. Then why are they not equally needed in a domestic terrorism investigation of White House aides?” Dash concludes that whether or not the leak “constitutes an act of domestic terrorism under the Patriot Act, it was certainly an outrageous betrayal of trust and an arrogant display of power by officials charged with protecting our national security and, on behalf of the president, assuring that the laws are faithfully executed.” [Newsday, 10/28/2003; Wilson, 2004, pp. 399-401]
Federal judge Audrey Collins rules that parts of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional, specifically portions barring individuals or entities from giving expert advice or assistance to groups designated as international terrorist organizations. Collins rules that the ban on on providing “expert advice or assistance” is impermissibly vague, and violates the First and Fifth Amendments. The advice or assistance forbidden under the act “could be construed to include unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the First Amendment,” Collins writes. The suit, brought before a Los Angeles court by the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), was originally filed in 1998 by five groups and two US citizens who wanted to provide political and financial support to the nonviolent arms of two dissident organizations designated as terrorists by the United States: the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. The suit was later amended to include the Patriot Act. The HLP argued that the plaintiffs were threatened with 15 years in prison if they provided advice to the groups. The Patriot Act, Collins rules, does not differentiate between impermissible advice on violence and encouraging the use of peaceful, nonviolent means to achieve goals. “The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature,” she writes. HLP attorney David Cole calls the ruling “a victory for everyone who believes the war on terrorism ought to be fought consistent with constitutional principles.” The ruling is the first judicial setback for the Patriot Act. [Associated Press, 1/26/2004; San Francisco Chronicle, 1/27/2004] The judge’s verdict will be upheld on appeal (see December 10, 2007).
Congress expands the Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) by approving an intelligence spending bill with a provision that gives the FBI the power to subpoena business documents and transactions from a broad range of businesses and entities—including libraries, travel agencies, and even eBay—without court warrants. This reduces oversight of the FBI and shifts power away from the judiciary. The Patriot Act already allows the FBI to acquire bank records and communications records by issuing a National Security Letter (NSL) affirming that the information it seeks is relevant to an open investigation; the targeted institution is legally “gagged,” unable to inform anyone, especially the subject of the investigation, of the subpoena. The new law expands the use of NSLs by redefining “financial institution” to include insurance companies, real estate agents, the US Postal Service, travel agencies, casinos, pawn shops, car dealers and any other business whose “cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters.” The provision is one of the most controversial parts of the so-called “Patriot II” act (see February 7, 2003) that was withdrawn after the public learned of its elements. Like most intelligence spending bills, this one was drafted in secret and passed with little debate or public comment. Law professor Chris Schroeder, a former Justice Department assistant attorney general, says the insertion of the provision shows that “people who want to expand the powers of the FBI didn’t want to stop after Patriot II was leaked. They are going to insert these provisions on a stealth basis. It’s insidious.” James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology agrees: “On its face, it’s a cryptic and seemingly innocuous amendment. It wasn’t until after it passed both houses that we saw it. The FBI and CIA like to try to graft things like this into intelligence bills.” CIA Director Porter Goss, when he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the provision, saying it is necessary to keep pace with terrorists and the changing economy. “This provision brings the definition of ‘financial institution’ up to date with the reality of the financial industry,” Goss told House members. “This provision will allow those tracking terrorists and spies to ‘follow the money’ more effectively and thereby protect the people of the United States more effectively.” Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union says the bill goes too far in expanding executive branch powers. “The more that checks and balances against government abuse are eroded, the greater that abuse,” Edgar says. “We’re going to regret these initiatives down the road.” [Wired News, 11/24/2003]
Entity Tags: Tim Edgar, US Department of Justice, USA Patriot Act, Porter J. Goss, House Intelligence Committee, Central Intelligence Agency, Center for Democracy and Technology, American Civil Liberties Union, James Dempsey, Chris Schroeder, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut receives an e-mail that looks like a terrorist threat. The agents there follow the normal routine: they ask the service provider, a group of Connecticut public libraries, for the real name, street address, and Internet logs of the sender. The agents have no search warrant, grand jury subpoena, or court order. What they do have is a National Security Letter (NSL) that describes the records needed. According to the expanded USA Patriot Act, the NSL is all the FBI needs, and the NSL statute bars the librarians from disclosing the request to anyone. The librarians will refuse to hand over the information, and will file a federal lawsuit challenging the NSL as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (see July 13, 2005). The e-mailed threat will turn out to be a hoax. Kevin O’Connor, the US attorney in Connecticut, later says the FBI suspected that the threat was a hoax from the outset, but believed they had an “obligation” to pursue it. “We weren’t tying up librarians or reading through books,” he will say. “All we wanted was identifying information. God forbid it isn’t a hoax.” The librarians who challenge the NSL, however, feel differently. George Christian, the point man in the librarians’ legal challenge, will say, “The idea that the government can secretly investigate what the public is informing itself about is chilling.” A judge will strike down the NSL gag order, allowing Christian and his three colleagues (by now dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media) to disclose the fact that they had received an NSL, with a judge calling the NSL gag order “antithetical to democratic concepts”. In April 2006, the government will drop its NSL request (see August 2005-May 2006). Christian will be unmollified. “The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground,” he will say. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]
After a contentious Senate confirmation hearing (see February 3, 2005), White House senior counsel Alberto Gonzales is sworn in as attorney general of the United States. He is the first Hispanic to hold the office, and replaces former Attorney General John Ashcroft. President Bush says that the “attorney general has my complete confidence” and that he has been “a model of service” with a “deep dedication to the cause of justice.” Gonzales, Bush says, is now on “an urgent mission to protect the United States from another terrorist attack.” Bush uses the swearing-in press conference to urge Congress to renew all provisions of the USA Patriot Act, saying that “we must not allow the passage of time, or the illusion of safety, to weaken our resolve in this new war.” Gonzales says he will place his loyalty to the nation above his loyalty to Bush, noting that while the attorney general is “a member of the president’s Cabinet, a part of his team… the attorney general represents also the American people, and his first allegiance must always be to the Constitution of the United States.” [New York Times, 2/14/2005; Talking Points Memo, 2011]
In a Columbus, Ohio, speech praising the USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001), President Bush claims that when US government agencies wiretap anyone’s phones or email communications, they do so with a court order. Bush says: “Before the Patriot Act, agents could use wiretaps to investigate a person committing mail fraud, but not to investigate a foreign terrorist. The Patriot Act corrected all these pointless double standards—and America is safer as a result. One tool that has been especially important to law enforcement is called a roving wiretap. Roving wiretaps allow investigators to follow suspects who frequently change their means of communications. These wiretaps must be approved by a judge, and they have been used for years to catch drug dealers and other criminals. Yet, before the Patriot Act, agents investigating terrorists had to get a separate authorization for each phone they wanted to tap. That means terrorists could elude law enforcement by simply purchasing a new cell phone. The Patriot Act fixed the problem by allowing terrorism investigators to use the same wiretaps that were already being using against drug kingpins and mob bosses. The theory here is straightforward: If we have good tools to fight street crime and fraud, law enforcement should have the same tools to fight terrorism.” [White House, 6/9/2005] Bush made almost identical claims a year ago (see April 19-20, 2004). The same day as Bush makes his speech, the White House issues a fact sheet making the same claims (see June 9, 2005). Former AT&T senior technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009 and May 2004), who helped install the equipment used by the National Security Agency (NSA) and his firm to intercept foreign and domestic Internet communications (see January 16, 2004), will later say that Bush’s insistence that the administration gets court orders before wiretapping communications is false. AT&T, on behalf of the NSA, was monitoring “billions of messages a second,” Klein will write, all without court orders. [Klein, 2009, pp. 47-48]
President Bush signs Executive Order 13388, which dramatically expands the powers of the US government to monitor and collect data on US citizens. [Executive Order 13388 of October 25, 2005, 10/25/2005] The order augments the power of “National Security Letters,” authorized in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan (see December 4, 1981), but rarely used against US citizens until the advent of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act. Thanks to the order, the data files are even more accessible to what the order calls “state, local, and tribal” governments as well as the undefined “appropriate private sector entities,” presumably private data-mining corporations that collect personal and financial data on US citizens for the government.
Over 30,000 NSLs a Year - The FBI now issues over 30,000 NSLs a year, a hundredfold increase from earlier administration usages. NSLs are issued by FBI field supervisors at their discretion without court warrant or oversight by the judiciary or Congress. NSLs force their recipients—librarians, booksellers, employers, Internet providers, and others—to turn over any and all personal data on their customers and employees and are legally required not to tell the targets of the investigations about the letters or the data collection. An FBI supervisor can, without oversight or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, collect data on what a citizen makes, spends, invests, gambles, reads in books and on the Internet, buys online, and with whom that citizen lives, works, associates, telephones, and exchanges e-mails. Senior FBI officials admit that the huge spike in NSLs stems from the FBI’s new authority to collect tremendous amounts of data on US citizens not accused of criminal activities. And NSLs are now used to generate leads against terrorist suspects and not merely pursue them.
NSLs Handled With Discretion, Officials Insist - FBI and White House officials insist that NSLs are handled with discretion and with a recognizance of Americans’ right to privacy. Joseph Billy Jr, the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, says he understand that “merely being in a government or FBI database… gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” But innocent Americans “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]
Brett Tolman. [Source: ABC4 (.com)]Brett Tolman, a Republican Senate Judiciary Committee official, tells Assistant Attorney General William Moschella that he will perform a “comprehensive fix” to the USA Patriot Act reauthorization coming up for approval in Congress (see March 9, 2006). Tolman and Moschella are referring to a provision in the reauthorization legislation that would allow the attorney general to appoint interim US Attorneys on an indefinite basis without having them go through Senate confirmation, and remove the ability of a federal court to appoint a US Attorney (see July 2005 - March 2006). Moschella suggests Tolman use the “comprehensive fix” of repealing Section 546 of Title 28 of the United States Code, subsections C and D, and replacing them with the following language: “A person appointed as United States Attorney under this section may serve until the qualification of a United States Attorney for such district appointed by the president under section 541 of this title.” Late the same evening, Tolman receives an email from Moschella instructing him to quietly insert the provision in the USA Patriot Act reauthorization bill that would eliminate a 120-day limit for “interim” US Attorneys to serve without Senate confirmation. In essence, the provision would allow such “interims” to serve indefinitely, cutting the Senate entirely out of the process of naming US Attorneys and allowing the attorney general to make political appointments without oversight. Tolman replies, “I will get the comprehensive fix done.” He slips the provision into a draft of the bill while it is in conference committee. None of the members notice the provision, and it is part of the bill as signed into law in March 2006 (see March 9, 2006). Tolman himself is one of the first beneficiaries of the new provision, becoming the US Attorney for Utah. When the new provision comes to light in early 2007, both chambers of Congress vote overwhelmingly to repeal it. This is one of numerous “stealth provisions” the White House will have inserted into legislation with the help of compliant Congressional Republicans and staffers. [Savage, 2007, pp. 316; US Department of Justice, 3/23/2007 ] Moschella will later take the credit for the provision, and will tell reporters that he made the change on behalf of the Justice Department “without the knowledge or coordination of his superiors at the Justice Department or anyone at the White House.” [Talking Points Memo, 2011]
In his weekly radio address, President Bush claims that the US always obtains court warrants before launching electronic surveillance efforts. “The Patriot Act is helping America defeat our enemies while safeguarding civil liberties for all our people,” he says. “The judicial branch has a strong oversight role in the application of the Patriot Act. Under the act, law enforcement officers need a federal judge’s permission to wiretap a foreign terrorist’s phone or search his property. Congress also oversees our use of the Patriot Act. Attorney General Gonzales delivers regular reports on the Patriot Act to the House and the Senate.” [White House, 12/10/2005] Bush has made similar claims in the recent past (see April 19-20, 2004, June 9, 2005, and April 19-20, 2004). Former AT&T senior technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009 and May 2004), who helped install the equipment used by the National Security Agency (NSA) and his firm to intercept foreign and domestic Internet communications (see January 16, 2004), will later say that Bush’s insistence that the administration gets court orders before wiretapping communications is false. AT&T, on behalf of the NSA, was monitoring “billions of messages a second,” Klein will write, all without court orders. [Klein, 2009, pp. 47-48]
A number of senators from both political parties lash out at President Bush’s acknowledgment that he reauthorized the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program over thirty times since its inception in late 2001 (see December 17, 2005). Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says that such warrantless wiretapping is outside of the law. “He’s trying to claim somehow that the authorization for the Afghanistan attack after 9/11 permitted this, and that’s just absurd,” Feingold says. “There’s not a single senator or member of Congress who thought we were authorizing wiretaps.… If he needs a wiretap, the authority is already there—the [Foreign] Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). They can ask for a warrant to do that, and even if there’s an emergency situation, they can go for 72 hours as long as they give notice at the end of 72 hours.” Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) says the behavior of the White House and NSA “can’t be condoned.” Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says his committee will immediately begin investigating the matter. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says the report swayed his decision on the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act. “Today’s revelation that the government listened in on thousands of phone conversations without getting a warrant is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote,” he says. [CNN, 12/16/2005]
Suzanne Spaulding, a former counsel for the CIA, the Senate and House intelligence commission, and executive director of the National Terrorism Commission from 1999 through 2000, writes an op-ed criticizing the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance program. She writes that the three main sources of oversight and restraint on Bush’s unfettered efforts to monitor US citizens—Congress, the judiciary, and the American people—have failed to halt what she calls “this extraordinary exercise of presidential power.” Spaulding, who will testify along similar lines before the Senate over a year later (see April 11, 2007), writes, “Ironically, if it is ultimately determined that this domestic surveillance program reflects the exercise of unchecked power in contravention of law, it will wind up weakening the presidency. Once again, we will confront the challenge of restoring Americans’ faith in the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.” The pretense of oversight by the administration, in providing limited and perhaps misleading briefings on the program only to the so-called “Gang of Eight” Congressional leaders, is superficial and ineffective, she writes; the entire process “effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.” She notes that because of the severe restrictions both in the information doled out to these Congressional leaders, and their strict prohibition on discussing the information with anyone else, even other intelligence panel members, “[i]t is virtually impossible for individual members of Congress, particularly members of the minority party, to take any effective action if they have concerns about what they have heard in one of these briefings. It is not realistic to expect them, working alone, to sort through complex legal issues, conduct the kind of factual investigation required for true oversight and develop an appropriate legislative response.” Congressional oversight is key to retaining the trust of the US citizenry, she writes, and adds that that particular principle was well understood at the CIA while she was there. Oversight “is vital for a secret agency operating in a democracy. True oversight helps clarify the authority under which intelligence professionals operate. And when risky operations are revealed, it is important to have members of Congress reassure the public that they have been overseeing the operation. The briefings reportedly provided on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program reflect, instead, a ‘check the box’ mentality—allowing administration officials to claim that they had informed Congress without having really achieved the objectives of oversight.” While those few members of Congress are given little real information, the judiciary, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), is cut out of the process entirely. “Instead of going to a judge on the secret court that was specifically established to authorize foreign intelligence surveillance inside the United States, we are told that an NSA shift supervisor was able to sign off on the warrantless surveillance of Americans,” she writes. “That’s neither a check nor a balance. The primary duty of the NSA shift supervisor, who essentially works for the president, is to collect intelligence. The task of the judge is to ensure that the legal standards set out in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have been met. Which one has stronger independence to say no, if no needs to be said? The objectives of the surveillance program, as described in news reports, seem laudable. The government should be running to ground the contacts listed in a suspected terrorist’s cell phone, for example. What is troubling is that this domestic spying is being done in apparent contravention of FISA, for reasons that still are not clear.” In her piece she takes issue with the Bush administration’s insistence that its surveillance program is legal and necessary. She makes the following case:
Specious Arguments to Duck FISA Court - The argument that the FISA Court is too slow to respond to immediate needs for domestic surveillance is specious, she says. “FISA anticipates situations in which speed is essential. It allows the government to start eavesdropping without a court order and to keep it going for a maximum of three days. And while the FISA application process is often burdensome in routine cases, it can also move with remarkable speed when necessary, with applications written and approved in just a few hours.” Instead, she says that the Bush administration must have dodged FISC because their wiretaps didn’t meet FISA standards of probable cause. Since FISC is staffed by judges hand-picked by conservative then-Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “who presumably felt that they had the right temperament and expertise to understand the national security imperatives as well as the need to protect civil liberties,” and since FISC has granted all but four of the more than 5,645 requests for wiretaps and surveillance made by the administration since 2001, to argue that FISC is unresponsive is simply wrong-headed. And, she notes, if the administration felt that FISA’s standards were too strict, it could have moved to amend the law to allow more leniency in obtaining such warrants. It has not done so since the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act. She writes, “The administration reportedly did not think it could get an amendment without exposing details of the program. But this is not the first time the intelligence community has needed a change in the law to allow it to undertake sensitive intelligence activities that could not be disclosed. In the past, Congress and the administration have worked together to find a way to accomplish what was needed. It was never previously considered an option to simply decide that finding a legislative solution was too hard and that the executive branch could just ignore the law rather than fix it.”
No Justification for Keeping Program Secret - In addition, the administration has consistently failed to make a case for keeping the domestic wiretapping policy secret for four years. US-designated terrorist groups already know that the government listens to their cell phone conversations whenever possible, and they are well aware of the various publicly known programs to search through millions of electronic communications, such as the NSA’s Echelon program (see April 4, 2001). “So what do the terrorists learn from a general public discussion about the legal authority being relied upon to target their conversations?” she asks. “Presumably very little. What does the American public lose by not having the public discussion? We lose the opportunity to hold our elected leaders accountable for what they do on our behalf.”
Assertions that Program Authorized by Congress Fallacious - The argument advanced by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that says the program does not violate the law because Congress’s post-9/11 authorization of force against terrorists gives the administration the right to circumvent FISA is equally specious, she argues. “FISA does provide for criminal penalties if surveillance is conducted under color of law ‘except as authorized by statute.’ This is a reference to either FISA or the criminal wiretap statute. A resolution, such as the Use of Force resolution, does not provide statutory authority. Moreover, FISA specifically provides for warrantless surveillance for up to 15 days after a declaration of war. Why would Congress include that provision if a mere Use of Force resolution could render FISA inapplicable? The law clearly states that the criminal wiretap statute and FISA are ‘the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance…and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.’ If these authorities are exclusive, there is no other legal authority that can authorize warrantless surveillance. Courts generally will not view such a clear statutory statement as having been overruled by a later congressional action unless there is an equally clear indication that Congress intended to do that.” Therefore, by any legal standard, the administration’s program is, apparently, illegal.
No Inherent Presidential Authority - The ultimate argument by Bush officials, that the president has some sort of inherent authority as commander-in-chief to authorize illegal wiretaps, is the same groundless legal argument recently used to justify the use of torture by US intelligence and law enforcement agents (see December 28, 2001). That argument was withdrawn, Spaulding notes, after it became publicly known. While the courts have not specifically ruled on this particular argument, Spaulding notes that the Supreme Court refused to recognize then-President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the nation’s steel mills to avert a possible strike during the Korean War. The Supreme Court ruled “that the president’s inherent authority is at its weakest in areas where Congress has already legislated. It ruled that to find inherent presidential authority when Congress has explicitly withheld that authority—as it has in FISA—‘is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between president and Congress.’” She notes that in 2004, the Supreme Court rejected the argument for unchecked presidential power in the Hamdi case (see June 28, 2004), with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writing for the court, “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. …Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with… enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.” Spaulding concludes, “The rule of law and our system of checks and balances are not a source of weakness or a luxury of peace. As O’Connor reminded us in Hamdi, ‘It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments…that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.’” [Washington Post, 12/25/2005]
Entity Tags: Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, USA Patriot Act, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Harry S. Truman, Alberto R. Gonzales, “Gang of Eight”, National Commission on Terrorism, Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Echelon, Bush administration (43)
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
A federal judge rules that the USA Patriot Act allows the federal government to trace e-mail information without court warrants or evidence of criminal behavior. As part of a secret ongoing grand jury investigation, the Justice Department asked the court to approve the monitoring of an unnamed person’s e-mail correspondents—not the contents of the e-mails, which would require evidence of wrongdoing, but instead the identities and e-mail header information. The magistrate judge in that case refused, and asked the Justice Department to submit an additional brief demonstrating that its request would be legal. Instead of submitting the brief, the Justice Department went to US District Judge Thomas Hogan, a Reagan appointee. Hogan reviewed the federal law dealing with “pen register” and “trap and trace” devices, terms having to do with telephone wiretapping, and today rules that those laws “unambiguously” authorize such e-mail surveillance. Hogan rules that the Patriot Act authorizes that sort of e-mail surveillance, as long as prosecutors note that such surveillance might be “relevant” to an investigation. [United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 3/10/2001; CNET News, 2/9/2006]
President Bush signs the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law. The bill, which extends and modifies the original USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001), was driven through Congress primarily by the Republican majorities in both Houses. However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cosponsored the Senate bill, numerous Democrats in both Houses voted with the Republicans in favor of the bill, and the final bill sailed through the Senate by an 89-10 vote on March 2. [GovTrack, 3/9/2006; Library of Congress, 3/9/2006] In the signing ceremony, Bush calls the Reauthorization Act “a really important piece of legislation… that’s vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people.” He repeatedly evokes the 9/11 attacks as a reason why the new law is needed. [Government Printing Office, 3/9/2006]
Provisions for Oversight Added - One of the reasons why the reauthorization bill received such support from Congressional moderates on both sides of the aisle is because Congress added numerous provisions for judicial and Congressional oversight of how government and law enforcement agencies conduct investigations, especially against US citizens. Representative Butch Otter (R-ID) said in 2004 that Congress came “a long way in two years, and we’ve really brought an awareness to the Patriot Act and its overreaches that we gave to law enforcement.” He adds, “We’ve also quieted any idea of Patriot II, even though they snuck some of Patriot II in on the intelligence bill” (see February 7, 2003). [Associated Press, 1/23/2004]
Opposition From Both Sides - Liberal and conservative organizations joined together in unprecedented cooperation to oppose several key provisions of the original reauthorization and expansion of the Patriot Act, including easing of restrictions on government and law enforcement agencies in obtaining financial records of individuals and businesses, “sneak-and-peek” searches without court warrants or the target’s knowledge, and its “overbroad” definition of the term “terrorist.” Additionally, lawmakers in Congress insisted on expiration dates for the various surveillance and wiretapping methodologies employed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies (see Early 2002). [Associated Press, 5/23/2005] The final bill mandates that anyone subpoenaed for information regarding terrorist investigations has the right to challenge the requirement that they not reveal anything about the subpoena, those recipients will not be required to tell the FBI the name of their lawyer, and libraries that are not Internet service providers will not be subject to demands from “national security letters” for information about their patrons. Many of the bill’s provisions will expire in four years. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/3/2006]
Reauthorizing Original Provisions - The bill does reauthorize many expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain “tangible items,” such as business records from libraries and bookstores, in connection with foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. Port security provisions are strengthened, and restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine that can be used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine are imposed, forcing individuals to register their purchases of such medicines and limiting the amounts they can buy. [CBS News, 3/9/2006]
Bush Signing Statement Says He Will Ignore Oversight Mandates - But when he signs the bill into law, Bush also issues a signing statement that says he has no intention of obeying mandates that enjoin the White House and the Justice Department to inform Congress about how the FBI is using its new powers under the bill. Bush writes that he is not bound to tell Congress how the new Patriot Act powers are being used, and in spite of what the law requires, he can and will withhold information if he decides that such disclosure may “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.” [Statement on Signing the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, 3/9/2006; Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says that Bush’s assertion that he can ignore provisions of the law as he pleases, under the so-called “unitary executive” theory, are “nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law.” Law professor David Golove says the statement is illustrative of the Bush administration’s “mind-bogglingly expansive conception” of executive power, and its low regard for legislative power. [Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Author and legal expert Jennifer Van Bergen warns of Bush using this signing statement to avoid accountability about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, writing: “[I]t is becoming clearer every day that Bush has no qualms about violating either international laws and obligations or domestic laws. The recent revelations about the secret NSA domestic surveillance program revealed Bush flagrantly violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was specifically enacted to prevent unchecked executive branch surveillance. … His signing statements, thus, are nothing short of an attempt to change the very face of our government and our country.” [Institute for Public Accuracy, 3/27/2006]
Request to Rescind Signing Statement - In late March, Democratic House members Jane Harman and John Conyers will write to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting that the administration rescind the signing statement, writing: “As you know, ‘signing statements’ do not have the force of law. Legislation passed by both Houses and signed by the president does. As Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution states: ‘Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it.’” Bush and Gonzales will ignore the request. [US House of Representatives, 3/29/2006]
Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, David Golove, Alberto R. Gonzales, Butch Otter, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick J. Leahy, USA Patriot Act, John Conyers, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jennifer Van Bergen, Jane Harman, George W. Bush
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Responding to President Bush’s signing statement indicating that he will not comply with several oversight provisions in the USA Patriot Act reauthorization (see March 9, 2006), House members Jane Harman (D-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI) write to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking that the administration rescind the statement. They write, “As you know, ‘signing statements’ do not have the force of law. Legislation passed by both Houses and signed by the President does. As Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution states: ‘Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it.’ If the President does not like part of a bill, he has only one option: to veto the entire thing. This signing statement, and many of the 107 similar statements the President has issued on other legislation, have the effect of corrupting the legislative process. Indeed, during consideration of this matter, many Members who supported the final law did so based upon the guarantee of additional reporting and oversight. This Administration cannot, after the fact, unilaterally repeal provisions of the law implementing such oversight.” [US House of Representatives, 3/29/2006]
A report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, finds that the FBI used self-issued subpoenas known as National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain phone, e-mail, and financial information on at least 143,074 targets between 2003 and 2005. The report’s main conclusions include:
More than half of those targeted are US citizens;
In many cases FBI officials evaded limits on NSLs and sometimes illegally issued them;
60% of the audited NSLs do not follow the FBI’s rules of issuance, and a further 22% contain unreported possible violations of the law, including improper requests and unauthorized collections of information;
The number of surveillance targets is probably far higher than the audit finds, because the FBI practices poor record-keeping that allow at least 22% of surveillance to go unreported;
Fine finds that agents had routinely issued the letters even when they had no open investigation, as required by law;
One office made arrangements with telecommunications firms to get information instantly, even before issuing NSLs, by sending “exigent letters” claiming it needed the requested information because of an emergency, and that the letters and necessary court warrants were in preparation (see Before Mid-March, 2007). But, the audit finds, “we could not confirm one instance in which a subpoena had been submitted to any US attorney’s office before the exigent letter was sent to the phone companies” and that “many were not issued in exigent circumstances.”
Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants hearings. “The Inspector General’s report is a scathing critique of FBI misuse of the secretive process,” Markey says. Although the FBI has used NSLs for years, their usage soared after the USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) eased the restrictions on them. Now, FBI agents in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations can issue NSLs themselves, without court warrants or even the approval of a supervisor, as long as the agent affirms that the information they seek is “relevant” to an open investigation. The information obtained by NSLs remains in a massive “data warehouse,” where it can be accessed again for data-mining or subsequent investigations. [Wired News, 3/9/2007]
FBI director Robert Mueller orders a criminal probe into FBI officials who used misleading “exigent letters”—letters used in lieu of National Security Letters (NSLs) that demand information on an emergency basis—to acquire thousands of US citizens’ phone records. Mueller tells civil liberties groups of the probe, which focuses on the activities of the Communications Analysis Unit (CAU). The probe could result in criminal prosecutions for misuse of Patriot Act investigative tools. NSLs are powerful subpoenas that can be issued by FBI supervisors without court supervisions, and have played central roles in previous allegations of misuse (see February 2005). The probe is investigating incidents where CAU officials wrote “exigent letters” to telecommunications firms requesting immediate wiretaps and promising that court warrants would be forthcoming—but the warrants had never been applied for and were never issued. Some FBI employees have already been granted immunity in return for their testimony. NSLs are routinely used to provide investigators in terrorism and espionage cases with data from phone companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and Internet service providers on any US citizens considered “relevant” to an ongoing investigation. This information is then stored in three separate computer systems, including a shared data-mining system called the Investigative Data Warehouse. Though warned in 2001 to use this power with restraint, FBI agents have so far issued over 47,000 NSLs, more than half of those targeting Americans. In the case of the CAU, a support bureau which analyzes suspected terrorist communications and provides intelligence to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, its officials cannot issue subpoenas, but must have counterterrorism investigators do so. But the CAU has issued at least 739 “exigent letters” to AT&T, Verizon, and MCI seeking information on over 3,000 phone numbers; some of the individual letters contained requests for over 100 numbers. The letters read in part, “Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided. Subpoenas requesting this information have been submitted to the US Attorney’s Office who will process and serve them formally to [telecom firm] as expeditiously as possible.” [Wired News, 7/12/2007] (Reporter Ryan Singel notes, The most striking thing about these exigent letters… is that they all use the same pathetic, passive bureaucratese.”) [Wired News, 7/10/2007] No such subpoena requests had been filed with the particular US attorneys, and only some of the requests were later followed up with proper legal processes. CAU chief Bassem Youssef says he ended the problem after he took over the unit in 2005, and says his attempts to provide post-facto legal processes were often hampered by uncooperative field offices. Youssef is suing the FBI over his complaints that the bureau was wasting his Arabic-language skills and antiterrorism experience and the bureau’s alleged retaliation. [Wired News, 7/12/2007]
Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Verizon Communications, USA Patriot Act, Ryan Singel, Robert S. Mueller III, Bassem Youssef, Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), AT&T, MCI, Investigative Data Warehouse, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
George Christian, a Connecticut librarian and data manager who fought a National Security Letter from the FBI demanding information about his library’s patrons (see July 13, 2005 and August 2005-May 2006), testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Christian, who along with his three fellow plaintiffs, has repeatedly spoken about what he considers the Justice Department’s egregrous abuse of power and its invasion of privacy, and his opposition to the USA Patriot Act, which has given the FBI the ability to not only demand private information from libraries about their patrons, but require those librarians to keep quiet about the request. Though the court battle restored Christian’s ability to speak publicly about his encounter with the FBI, he testifies, “We feel an obligation to the tens of thousands of others who received National Security Letters and now will live under a gag order for the rest of their lives.” He tells the committee, “Our saga should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution about how our civil liberties are being sorely tested by law enforcement abuses of national security letters. The questions raised vindicate the concerns that the library community and others have had for over five years about the broad powers expanded under the USA Patriot Act.… We believe changes can be made that conform to the rule of law, do not sacrifice law enforcement’s abilities to pursue terrorists ,yet maintain civil liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution.” Libraries “should remain pillars of democracy, institutions where citizens could come to explore their concerns, confident that they could find information on all sides of controversial issues and confident that their explorations would remain personal and private.” He quotes one of his fellow plaintiffs: “[S]pying on people in the library is like spying on them in the voting booth.” Christian also says that while many believe that library records are now protected by the revised Patriot Act, in fact, they are not. He says that “a loophole inserted into the wording allows the FBI to use a national security letter to obtain library records anyway.” He notes that FBI director Robert Mueller has admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new language “did not actually change the law.” Similarly, the revised Patriot Act still gives the government the power to impose near-unlimited gag orders on NSL recipients—though the new law seems to give recipients the ability to challenge such gag orders, the law says that if the government declares that lifting such a gag order would “harm national security,” the court must accept that assertion and refuse to lift the order. “Hence, there is no prior judicial review to approve an NSL and, with rare exception, no legal way to challenge an NSL after the fact,” Christian testifies. “It is the secrecy surrounding the issuance of NSLs that permits their misuse. Because of the fact that all recipients of NSLs are perpetually gagged, no one knew the FBI was issuing so many. No one knew there was no public examination of the practice. No one could ask if over 143,000 National Security Letters in two years are necessary.… Secrecy that prevents oversight and public debate is a danger to a free and open society.” [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]
Suzanne Spaulding. [Source: Bipartisan Security Group]Suzanne Spaulding, a national security expert with twenty years of experience in the CIA, on various Congressional oversight committees, and executive director of two separate commissions on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of that body’s hearings on the improper use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by the FBI (see October 25, 2005). Spaulding has spoken out before against the NSA’s wiretapping program (see December 25, 2005). She says that the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agents need “the tools they need to do their job” and “clear guidance on just what it is that we want them to do on our behalf—and how we want them to do it. Clear rules and careful oversight provide essential protections for those on the front lines of our domestic counterterrorism efforts.” However, Spaulding testifies, “it appears both were lacking in the implementation of national security letter authorities.” Spaulding says that Congress should begin a much larger examination of domestic surveillance issues, saying, “The appropriateness of using FISA electronic surveillance to eavesdrop on Americans should be considered in light of other, less intrusive techniques that might be available to establish whether a phone number belongs to a suspected terrorist or the pizza delivery shop. It’s not the ‘all or nothing’ proposition often portrayed in some of the debates.” However, according to recent findings by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, “there is not sufficient guidance on how to apply that in the NSL context or in conjunction with other available collection techniques.” Therefore, there is a strong “need for a broader examination of domestic intelligence tools.”
Urges Congressional Review - Spaulding urges Congress “to undertake a comprehensive review of all domestic intelligence collection, not just by FBI but also by the other national security agencies engaged in domestic intelligence collection, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency. A Joint Inquiry or Task Force could be established by the Senate leadership, with representation from the most relevant committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Homeland Security and Government Affairs), to carefully examine the nature of the threat inside the US and the most effective strategies for countering it. Then Congress, and the American public, can consider whether we have the appropriate institutional and legal framework for implementing those strategies with adequate safeguards and oversight.”
FBI's Expanded Powers Need Review - In addition, she testifies, the FBI’s expanded ability to use NSLs under the Patriot Act must be examined. Currently, the law seems to allow the FBI to use NSLs to obtain evidence pursuant to a FISA warrant, thus allowing “the government to get information about individuals who are not themselves the subject of an investigation”—“parties two or three steps removed from their subjects without determining if these contacts reveal suspicious connections,” Fine reported. Spaulding expands on Fine’s findings: “In fact, the most tenuous of connections would seem to suffice for this NSL standard. For example, it’s not clear why an ‘investigation to protect against international terrorism’ couldn’t justify demanding information about all residents of, say, Dearborn, Michigan [home to a large Arab-American community], so that you could run them through some logarithmic profile to identify ‘suspicious’ individuals. In fact, Congress should examine the facts surrounding the nine NSLs in one investigation that were, according to the IG Report, used to obtain information regarding over 11,000 different phone numbers.”
Data Mining Efforts Should Be Examined - Also, she says, data mining efforts by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies should be carefully examined and addressed: “NSLs should not become a mechanism for gathering vast amounts of information about individuals with no known connection to international terrorism for purposes of data mining.” Spaulding also notes that the Patriot Act allows FBI special agents in charge (SACs) to issue NSLs; instead, she says, only attorneys in the Justice Department’s National Security Division should be able to issue NSLs. Yet another problem Spaulding notes is the FBI’s policy of retention of data gathered on US citizens through NSLs, even when those citizens have no connection to terrorist activities. Spaulding expressed similar concerns in a previous op-ed for the Washington Post (see December 25, 2005). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]
Former Reagan Justice Department official and constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein and former civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald applaud the recent ruling requiring the government to overturn alleged al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri’s military detention status (see June 11, 2007). Fein writes that the decision “rebuked President Bush’s frightening claim that the Constitution crowned him with power to pluck every American citizen from his home for indefinite detention without trial on suspicion of preparing for acts of international terrorism.” Other terrorist acts, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995) and the 1993 World Trade Center bombings (see February 26, 1993), “were tried and punished in civilian courts,” Fein notes, adding that Bush bypassed the USA Patriot Act to classify al-Marri as an enemy combatant, although the Patriot Act “provides a specific method for the government to detain aliens affiliated with terrorist organizations who are believed likely to engage in terrorist activity.” Al-Marri was denied that procedure due to his classification as an enemy combatant. [Washington Times, 6/19/2007] Greenwald writes, “How extraordinary it is—how extraordinarily disturbing it is—that we are even debating these issues at all. Although its ultimate resolution is complicated, the question raised by al-Marri is a clear and simple one: Does the president have the power—and/or should he have it—to arrest individuals on US soil and keep them imprisoned for years and years, indefinitely, without charging them with a crime, allowing them access to lawyers or the outside world, and/or providing a meaningful opportunity to contest the validity of the charges? How can that question not answer itself?… Who would possibly believe that an American president has such powers, and more to the point, what kind of a person would want a president to have such powers? That is one of a handful of powers that this country was founded to prevent.” [Chicago Sun-Times, 6/17/2007]
The Ninth Court of Appeals in San Francisco upholds a 2004 ruling (see January 23, 2004) that portions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional. The original ruling found that portions of the Act banning any advice or assistance to designated terrorist organizations is too broad and vague; the appeals court agrees, ruling that the language of the Act is too vague to be understood by someone of ordinary intelligence. Without clear language, the Act says that those who provide assistance to foreign terrorist organizations could be subject to prison terms of up to 15 years. To survive a vagueness challenge, the appeals court says, a statute “must be sufficiently clear to put a person of ordinary intelligence on notice that his or her contemplated conduct is unlawful.” Congressional amendments to the Act have not remedied the problem, the court says. [Associated Press, 12/10/2007]
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