In the past two weeks Congress has introduced a slew of bills responding to the Guardian's publication of a top secret court order using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to demand that Verizon Business Network Services give the National Security Agency (NSA) a record of every customer's call history for three months. The order was confirmed by officials like President Obama and Senator Feinstein, who said it was a "routine" 90 day reauthorization of a program started in 2007.
Currently, four bills have been introduced to fix the problem: one by Senator Leahy, Senator Sanders, Senators Udall and Wyden, and Rep. Conyers. The well-intentioned bills try to address the Justice Department's (DOJ) abusive interpretations of Section 215 (more formally, 50 USC § 1861) apparently approved by the reclusive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) in secret legal opinions.
Sadly, all of them fail to fix the problem of unconstitutional domestic spying—not only because they ignore the PRISM program, which uses Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and collects Americans' emails and phone calls—but because the legislators simply don't have key information about how the government interprets and uses the statute. Congress must find out more about the programs before it can propose fixes. That's why a coalition of over 100 civil liberties groups and over half a million people are pushing for a special congressional investigatory committee, more transparency, and more accountability.
More Information Needed
The American public has not seen the secret law and legal opinions supposedly justifying the unconstitutional NSA spying. Just this week the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported that the secret law includes dozens of opinions—some of which are hundreds of pages long—gutting the Fourth Amendment. The special investigative committee must find out necessary information about the programs and about the opinions. Or, at the very least, extant committees like the Judiciary or Oversight Committees must conduct more open hearings and release more information to the public. Either way, the process must start with the publication of the secret legal opinions of the FISA Court, and the opinions drafted by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).
Why the Legislation Fails to Fix Section 215
Some of the bills try to narrow Section 215 by heightening the legal standard for the government to access information. Currently, the FBI can obtain "any tangible thing"—including, surprisingly, intangible business records about Americans—that is "relevant"
to an authorized investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a US person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities
with a statement of facts showing that there are "reasonable grounds to believe" that the tangible things are "relevant" to such an investigation. Bills by Rep. Conyers and Sen. Sanders attempt to heighten the standard by using pre-9/11 language mandating "specific and articulable facts" about why the FBI needs the records. Rep. Conyers goes one step further than Sen. Sanders by forcing the FBI to include why the records are "material," or significantly relevant, to an investigation.
By heightening the legal standard, the legislators intend for the FBI to show exactly why a mass database of calling records is relevant to an investigation. But it's impossible to know if these fixes will stop the unconstitutional spying without knowing how the government defines key terms in the bills. The bills by Sen. Leahy and Sens. Udall and Wyden do not touch this part of the law.
Failure to Stop the Unconstitutional Collection of "Bulk Records"
Sens. Udall, Wyden, and Leahy use a different approach; their bills mandate every order include why the records "pertain to" an individual or are "relevant to" an investigation. Collectively this aims—but most likely fails—to stop the government from issuing "bulk records orders" like the Verizon order. Senator Sanders travels a different path by requiring the government specify why "each of" the business records is related to an investigation; however, it's also unclear if this stops the spying. Yet again, Rep. Conyers bill provides the strongest language as it deletes ambiguous clauses and forces all requests "pertain only to" an individual; however even the strongest language found in these bills will probably not stop the unconstitutional spying.
Legislators Are Drafting in the Dark
Unfortunately, legislators are trying to edit the statutory text before a thorough understanding of how the government is using key definitions in the bill or how the FISA Court is interpreting the statute. For instance, take the word "relevant." The "tangible thing" produced under a Section 215 order must be "relevant" to the specific type of investigation mentioned above. But the Verizon order requires every Verizon customer's call history.
The New York Times confirmed the secret FISA court was persuaded by the government that this information is somehow relevant to such an investigation. The Wall Street Journal (paywall), quoting "people familiar with the [FISA Court] rulings" wrote: "According to the [FISA Court], the special nature of national-security and terrorism-prevention cases means 'relevant' can have a broader meaning for those investigations." Obviously, only severely strained legalese—similar to the Department of Justice's re-definition of "imminent"—could justify such an argument. And the Fourth Amendment was created to protect against this exact thing—vague, overbroad "general warrants" (.pdf).
If "relevant" has been defined to permit bulk data collection, requiring more or better facts about why is unlikely to matter. Even Sen. Sanders's approach—which would require "each" record be related to an investigation—could fall short if "relevance" is evaluated in terms of the database as a whole, rather than its individual records. This is just one example of why the secret FISA Court decisions and OLC opinions must be released. Without them, legislators cannot perform one of their jobs: writing legislation.
Congress Must Obtain and Release the Secret Law
The actions revealed by the government strike at the very core of our Constitution. Further, the majority of Congress is unaware about the specific language and legal interpretations used to justify the spying. Without this information, Congress can only legislate in the dark. It's time for Congress to investigate these matters to the fullest extent possible. American privacy should not be held hostage by secrecy. Tell Congress now to push for an special investigative committee, more transparency, and more accountability.