Thursday, January 18, 2007

FISA Court Negotiations

A year ago, the Justice Department issued a "fact sheet" detailing what it called the "myth v. reality" of its warrantless surveillance program. Among the supposed myths rebutted by the document was that "the Administration could have used FISA but simply chose not to." The Department explains that it could not have used FISA because its multiple layers of approval take too much time to respond to the fast-moving needs of counter-terrorism. Maybe that's right; maybe not. It's impossible to know given that the government has not revealed operational details of its surveillance program, claiming national security reasons.

But if the FISA process was too slow a year ago, why is it fast enough today? In announcing that henceforth the govt would seek FISA warrants for the wiretaps that, to this point, it has performed without a warrant, the Justice Department stated that it had worked out with the courts an "innovative" approach that would permit greater speed and flexibiilty. This leads to a number of questions that, one hopes, will be answered at least to the satisfaction of those in Congress investigating the program. To wit:

1) Why didn't the government go to the FISA court at the onset of the program to propose its innovation?

2) If, as the Justice Department claimed in its fact sheet, the cumbersome FISA mechanism is set forth in FISA itself, where does the FISA court get the authority to innovate around that?

and

3) What are we to make of the suggestion --- at least in some of the news stories --- that the administration negotiated with the FISA court over how these applications would be handled? To be sure, warrant applications are inevitably made ex parte (because to include the target in discussions would tip him, her or it off), but here it is suggested that the administration lawyers negotiated with the FISA court judges over the program as a whole, rather than making the case for particular warrants. Did any members of Congress participate in this process? If not, why not?

13 comments:

nealus said...

Oren Kerr argued that perhaps the Grubbs ruling on anticipatory warrants may have been the change in the law necessary to allow this 'innovation.'

Michael C. Dorf said...

That's a plausible theory except for the statement that the Justice Dep't has been working on this for almost two years; Grubbs came down last May. I guess it's possible that the direction of the work shifted at that point. But I agree with Kerr that really we have no idea what's going on.

Madisonian said...

Also, it's not as if Grubbs really broke new ground in holding that anticipatory warrants were consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, the Court's decision notes that every court of appeals that had previously considered the issue had held that such warrants were permissible.

Celeste said...

There was this from the NYT:

The administration said it had briefed the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees in closed sessions on its decision.

But Representative Heather A. Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, who serves on the Intelligence committee, disputed that, and some Congressional aides said staff members were briefed Friday without lawmakers present.

Ms. Wilson, who has scrutinized the program for the last year, said she believed the new approach relied on a blanket, “programmatic” approval of the president’s surveillance program, rather than approval of individual warrants.

Administration officials “have convinced a single judge in a secret session, in a nonadversarial session, to issue a court order to cover the president’s terrorism surveillance program,” Ms. Wilson said in a telephone interview. She said Congress needed to investigate further to determine how the program is run.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Doesn't FISA allow the government up to 30 days after surveillance begins to get a warrant? If that's correct, how can there be any validity to the claim that the fast-moving nature of anti-terrorism efforts prevents compliance with FISA?

Russell said...

Also, since Orin's post this morning regarding the anticipatory warrants idea, Judge Kollar-Kotelly has indicated that she (and by extension FISC) would have no objection to the publication of the orders in question. That leads me to believe that they are structural --- if they were actually anticipatory warrants for specific individuals/cases, one would think she would have been more reluctant to see them released (since they would obviously alert the subjects of the warrants, the very reason for the FISA confidentiality rules).

Marty Lederman said...

"Did any members of Congress participate in this process? If not, why not?"

It would raise constitutional concerns under the anti-aggrandizement principle (cf. Bowsher v. Synar). Depends, of course, on what the legislative "participation" might be.

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