As someone once said, “the Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols.”  Well it was not just someone, it was Chief Justice John Roberts. He flatly rejected the government’s claim that agency protocols could solve the Fourth Amendment violations created by police searches of our communications stored in the cloud and accessible through our phones.  

Apparently, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) didn’t get the memo. That’s because, under a recently declassified decision from November 2020, the FISC again found that a series of overly complex but still ultimately swiss cheese agency protocols -- that are admittedly not even being followed -- resolve the Fourth Amendment problems caused by the massive governmental seizures and searches of our communications currently occurring under FISA Section 702. The annual review by the FISC is required by law -- it’s supposed to ensure that both the policies and the practices of the mass surveillance under 702 are sufficient. It failed on both counts.  

The protocols themselves are inherently problematic. The law only requires that intelligence officials “reasonably believe” the “target” of an investigation to be a foreigner abroad -- it is immaterial to the initial collection that there is an American, with full constitutional rights, on the other side of a communication

Justice Roberts was concerned with a single phone seized pursuant to a lawful arrest.  The FISC is apparently unconcerned when it rubber stamps mass surveillance impacting, by the government’s own admission, hundreds of thousand of nonsuspect Americans.

What’s going on here?  

From where we sit, it seems clear that the FISC continues to suffer from a massive case of national security constitutional-itis. That is the affliction (not really, we made it up) where ordinarily careful judges sworn to defend the Constitution effectively ignore the flagrant Fourth Amendment violations that occur when the NSA, FBI, (and to a lesser extent, the CIA, and NCTC) misuse the justification of national security to spy on Americans en mass. And this malady means that even when the agencies completely fail to follow the court's previous orders, they still get a pass to keep spying.  

The FISC decision is disappointing on at least two levels. First, the protocols themselves are not sufficient to protect Americans’ privacy. They allow the government to tap into the Internet backbone and seize our international (and lots of domestic) communications as they flow by -- ostensibly to see if they have been targeted. This is itself a constitutional violation, as we have long argued in our Jewel v. NSA case. We await the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Jewel on the government’s claim that this spying that everyone knows about is too secret to be submitted for real constitutional review by a public adversarial court (as opposed to the one-sided review by the rubber-stamping FISC).  

But even after that, the protocols themselves are swiss cheese when it comes to protecting Americans. At the outset, unlike traditional foreign intelligence surveillance, under Section 702, FISC judges do not authorize individualized warrants for specific targets. Rather, the role of a FISC judge under Section 702 is to approve abstract protocols that govern the Executive Branch’s mass surveillance and then review whether they have been followed.  

The protocols themselves are inherently problematic. The law only requires that intelligence officials “reasonably believe” the “target” of an investigation to be a foreigner abroad -- it is immaterial to the initial collection that there is an American, with full constitutional rights, on the other side of a conversation whose communications are both seized and searched without a warrant. It is also immaterial that the individuals targeted turn out to be U.S. persons.  This was one of the many problems which ultimately ended with the decommissioning of the Call Detail Records program, which despite being Congress' attempt to rein in the program which started under section 215 of the Patriot Act, still mass surveilled communications metadata, including inadvertently collecting millions of call detail records from American persons illegally. 

Next, the protocols allow collection for any “foreign intelligence,” purpose, which is a much broader scope than merely searching for terrorists. The term encompasses information that, for instance, could give the U.S. an advantage in trade negotiations. Once these communications are collected, the protocols allow the FBI to use the information for domestic criminal prosecutions if related to national security.  This is what Senator Wyden and others in Congress have rightly pointed out is a “backdoor” warrantless search. And those are just a few of the problems.  

While the protocols are complex and confusing, the end result is that nearly all Americans have their international communications seized initially and a huge number of them are seized and searched by the FBI, NSA, CIA and NCTC, often multiple times for various reasons, all without individual suspicion, much less a warrant.

Second, the government agencies -- especially the FBI -- apparently cannot be bothered to follow even these weak protocols.  This means that in practice, we users don’t even get that minimal protection.  The FISC decision reports that the FBI has never limited its searches to just those related to national security. Instead agents query the 702 system for investigations relating to health care fraud, transnational organized crime, violent gangs, domestic terrorism, public corruption and bribery. And that’s in just 7 FBI field offices reviewed. This is not a new problem, as the FISC notes. Although it once again seems to think that the FBI just needs to be told again to do it and to do proper training (which it has failed to do for years). The court notes that it is likely that other field offices also did searches for ordinary crimes, but that the FBI also failed to do proper oversight so we just don’t know how.  

A federal court would accept no such tomfoolery.....Yet the FISC is perfectly willing to sign off on the FBI’s failures and the Bureau’s flagrant disregard of its own rulings for year upon year.

Next, the querying system for this sensitive information had been designed to make it hard not to search the 702-collected data, including by requiring agents to opt out (not in) to searching the 702 data and then timing out that opt-out after only thirty minutes. And even then, the agents could just toggle “yes” to search 702 collected data, with no secondary checking prior to those searches. This happened multiple times (that we know of) to allow for searches without any national security justification. The FBI also continued to improperly conduct bulk searches, which are large batch queries using multiple search terms without written justifications as required by the protocols. Even the FISC calls these searches “indiscriminate,” yet it reauthorized the program.  

In her excellent analysis of the decision, Marcy Wheeler lists out the agency excuses that the Court accepted:

  • It took time for them to make the changes in their systems
  • It took time to train everyone
  • Once everyone got trained they all got sent home for COVID 
  • Given mandatory training, personnel “should be aware” of the requirements, even if actual practice demonstrates they’re not
  • FBI doesn’t do that many field reviews
  • Evidence of violations is not sufficient evidence to find that the program inadequately protects privacy
  • The opt-out system for FISA material — which is very similar to one governing the phone and Internet dragnet at NSA until 2011 that also failed to do its job — failed to do its job
  • The FBI has always provided national security justifications for a series of violations involving their tracking system where an Agent didn’t originally claim one
  • Bulk queries have operated like that since November 2019
  • He’s concerned but will require more reporting

And the dog also ate their homework.  While more reporting sounds nice, that’s the same thing ordered the last time, and the time before that.  Reporting of problems should lead to something actually being done to stop the problems.  

At this point, it’s just embarrassing. A federal court would accept no such tomfoolery from an impoverished criminal defendant facing years in prison. Yet the FISC is perfectly willing to sign off on the FBI and NSA failures and the agencies' flagrant disregard of its own rulings for year upon year.  Not all FISC decisions are disappointing.  In 2017, we were heartened that another FISC judge had been so fed up that it issued requirements that led to the end of the “about” searching of collected upstream data and even its partial destruction. And the extra reporting requirements do give us at least a glimpse into how bad it is that we wouldn’t otherwise have.  

But this time the FISC has let us all down again. It’s time for the judiciary, whether a part of the FISC or not, to inoculate themselves against the problem of throwing out the Fourth Amendment whenever the Executive Branch invokes national security, particularly when the constitutional violations are so flagrant, long-standing and pervasive. The judiciary needs to recognize mass spying as unconstitutional and stop what remains of it. Americans deserve better than this charade of oversight. 

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