Intelligence bill would mandate declassification of Gitmo detainee dossiers, curb PCLOB

The House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI) today released the text of the annual intelligence authorization act for 2017 following conference negotiations with the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI). Two provisions in it jumped out at me:


Section 701 requires the government to declassify, and make available to the public, intelligence reports about the (alleged) previous terrorist activities detainees who have been transferred from the Guantanamo Bay prison since it opened in 2002. As an example, it lists the dossiers prepared by the National Counterintelligence Center in advance of the parole-like Periodic Review Board hearings that detainees began receiving in late 2013, or functionally similar files for those detainees who were transferred without going through the PRB process. (It also calls for making public whatever security restrictions the receiving country has agreed to; those tend to be things like keeping an ex-detainee under surveillance and not issuing travel documents to him for at least two years.)

This provision interests me a great deal. While I doubt this is the motivation of the GOP staffers and lawmakers who drafted this provision, I think it could actually do a lot of good for the subset of former Gitmo detainees against whom the evidence of terrorism ties was thin, and who are battling the stigma of having been held there as they try to move on with the remainder of their lives. I have argued that the administration should make public dossiers about detainees developed by the 2009 Gitmo review task force; my understanding is that many of them say there was no credible information that the detainee in question had been involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or allies. (That’s close to an exoneration but not quite one; it ambiguously leaves open the possibility that the ex-detainee had been a low-level member of Al Qaeda without actually doing anything bad.) I am also pursuing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit trying to get those documents out.


Sections 601 and 602 keep in provisions that would continue a slow-motion leashing by the intelligence committees of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a bipartisan five-member panel that Congress created after a recommendation by the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its members and staff have security clearances and a mandate to investigate government practices that affect individual rights. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has strongly objected to these, so we’ll see if there is a filibuster.

The provisions would change budgeting rules for the board so that it would have to shut down if Congress did not act every year to reauthorize it to spend money, and would require the board to tell the intelligence committees and the heads of intelligence agencies what it is investigating. That follows a provision in last year’s bill that barred the PCLOB from looking at covert activities like the CIA’s drone program.

However the committees dropped another disputed provision in the prior Senate version of the bill that would essentially have limited the PCLOB’s jurisdiction to Americans’ rights, not the privacy of foreigners. That proposal was awkwardly timed because when the earlier Senate version of the bill put it forward, the United States had just pointed to the PCLOB’s role in negotiations with Europe over a recently completed trans-Atlantic agreement for handling private data. The PCLOB’s efforts to watchdog privacy rights was supposed to help to assuage concerns on the continent about using internet and technology companies based in America following Edward Snowden’s leaks about American surveillance capabilities.


Hardcore Surveillance Law Nerding: On Yahoo scanning, “facilities,” and Stellarwind

Over at Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler’s latest post about legal issues raised by the Yahoo scan controversy/mystery is worth reading. I agree with much but not all of it. This post will explain.

First, some context. The Yahoo scan issue, first revealed in an important but in places murky October 4 scoop by Reuters, has gradually become clearer through follow-up reporting. At this point I think we know that:

  • Operational: The government was hunting for a data signature linked to a communications method used by a state-sponsored terrorist organization, and this unusual step was deemed necessary because the government knew that the organization’s agents were transmitting their messages (which further used this tell-tale communications method) via Yahoo emails, but not which specific Yahoo accounts they were using to do it.
  • Legal: It was an individualized title I FISA court order, not a FISA Amendments Act/702 warrantless surveillance directive.
  • Technical: Yahoo embedded the scanning program used for this classified purpose within its operating system kernel, a different place than where it runs programs that already scan all incoming e-mail traffic for other, unclassified purposes like tagging spam, deciding which targeted ads to display, and blocking detecting child porn. This created systemic risks and alarmed Yahoo’s security team, which hadn’t been told about it, when they discovered it.

So. Yesterday, a group of civil-liberties groups sent a letter to the Office of National Intelligence asking the government to declassify more details, which includes the line, “If reports are true, this authority to conduct a particularized search has apparently been secretly construed to authorize a mass scan.” A Reuters story discussing this letter notes the two elements necessary for a traditional FISA Court order (that a target is probably a foreign power or its agent, and that the facility at which surveillance will be directed is probably used by that target) and adds this gloss: “An entire service, such as Yahoo, has never publicly been considered to be a ‘facility’ in such a case: instead, the word usually refers to a phone number or an email account.”

Marcy criticizes this gloss. Back in 2007, leading up to the enactment of the Protect America Act, the FISA Court briefly interpreted traditional FISA in a way that permitted the court to (purport to) authorize upstream collection of e-mails using traditional FISA orders to telecommunications companies. The court did so in part by determining that the “facility” could mean an entire telecommunications switch connecting the U.S. network to the world, since Qaeda agents surely used those switches to communicate (along with everybody else). Equipment at the telecoms (which had already been operating without court permission as part of Stellarwind) would scan the data packets passing through that facility and send messages containing an e-mail address “tasked” for collection (as likely used by Al Qaeda) to Fort Meade. This theory was summarized in the famous draft NSA Inspector General report about Stellarwind leaked by Snowden, and most of the important FISA Court documents related to this came out via one of our subsequent FOIA cases. I did my best to synthesize and explain all this in “Power Wars” chapter five, sections 10 (“The Path to Legalizing Warrantless Surveillance”), 11 (“A Hidden Fight”), and 12 (“Upstream Internet Surveillance”).

So Marcy’s first or main point, with which I entirely agree, is that it is not unprecedented for the FISA Court to define “facility” in a way that is more stretched than a particular phone number or e-mail account. Indeed, I would add, the original 1978 House Intelligence Committee report explaining the congressional intent behind FISA explicitly envisioned that sometimes a FISA order would require wiretapping an organization’s entire switchboard to get at one individual target within that organization, which was acceptable as long as minimization was used to discard innocent people’s conversations picked up as a result; this was to be lawful even in cases where “it may not be possible or reasonable to avoid acquiring all conversations.” So what happened in 2007 was a huge stretch but it didn’t start from nothing, and what happened at Yahoo likely flows from the same rationale.

Marcy’s second argument is that over time, “facility” and “selector” have become synonymous in FISA jurisprudence. If she’s right as applied to this case, at least, then it complicates the matter, as it would mean that the 2007 precedent is beside the point, because all of Yahoo’s system is not the “facility”; rather the specialized communications method linked to this data signature selector is the facility. (This would still leave open the Fourth Amendment issue of whether Yahoo’s act of scanning unrelated e-mails in search of that selector is an impermissible search, the same unresolved dispute that is central to legal debates about upstream-style surveillance at network switches, but that’s different from the statutory question of what a “facility” can be.) This would be something to look for if we ever get to see the FISA Court litigation documents.

Moving on, one of the interesting things about the latter idea — that the “facility” was the communications method being used on these messages before they were transmitted through Yahoo e-mail — is that it would essentially be one kind of content contained within another kind of content: The content of the actual message is contained in the special technique, which is in turn contained in an ordinary e-mail; as a result, lots of emails’ contents must be scanned to find the targeted ones. Marcy draws a link between that concept and another unresolved legal problem with surveillance that collects packet-based communications: data packets come in layers, like a series of envelopes wrapped in other envelopes, so what is technically content at one point in transmission becomes metadata at another. For example, one layer may say “send this packet from a Gmail server to a Yahoo server,” and the next layer (not normally examined until it gets to Yahoo) may say “place this message in Charlie’s Yahoo account inbox.” This may be important because in constitutional law, stuff that is considered the content of communications is protected by the Fourth Amendment, whereas mere addressing metadata, because it it shown to a third party, does not implicate privacy rights. So if you intercepted the packet at an AT&T switch as it is in transit from Gmail to Yahoo, only the fact that it is routing to Yahoo in general might be deemed the addressing metadata because that layer is all that anyone intended for AT&T to look at; the e-mail header envelope/layer is still sealed inside and is not intended for AT&T’s consumption. If you intercepted the packet at Yahoo, however, the fact that the message is addressed to Charlie’s Yahoo account, specifically, becomes merely metadata because it was intended for Yahoo to look at that envelope/layer. The best write-up I’ve seen about how this technical issue might have constitutional implications is by Julian Sanchez here, but as far as I can tell the FISA Court has never addressed it. (It flicks at this problem in footnote 7 of a ruling declassified in August which was about using a pen register to collect digits dialed after a phone call is already connected, but only to say it is not addressing legal issues raised by using a pen register with Internet technology in that opinion.)

That leads me to my last point in reaction to Marcy’s post. In wrapping up her (in my view correct) point that there is public precedent for traditional FISA (content) orders to involve an elongated understanding of “facility” and bulk scanning systems, she makes a passing reference to the famous 2004 hospital crisis over Stellarwind: “These scans likely replicate the problem identified in 2004, in that the initial scan is not of things that count as metadata to the provider doing the scan.” I understand her to be saying that the 2004 crisis — one feature of which was a dispute over whether the bulk e-mail metadata collection bucket was lawful — involved the problem of this blurry line between technical content and technical metadata described in the above paragraph: collecting e-mail headers from AT&T switches was gathering content.

I think that her premise here is incorrect: I have found no evidence that anyone involved in the 2004 crisis was thinking about the technical content/metadata issue and the Fourth Amendment issues it may raise. Rather the problem identified in 2004 was statutory. Under FISA, installing a device on a network to collect metadata related to communications counted as “electronic surveillance” (i.e. the thing regulated by FISA’s court order requirement isn’t always about “content”) and therefore needed a court order, and the new leadership at the Office of Legal Counsel in 2004 didn’t think a president’s wartime powers could trump or displace what FISA said was necessary here because the collection was bulk domestic rather than targeted at individual foreign wartime enemies. See “Power Wars” chapter five, section 6 (“Stellarwind”), 8 (“The Hospital Room Crisis”), and 9 (“Legalizing Bulk Data Collection”).

FBI releases internal dissents on 2013 Chicago hubcap-thief shooting incident

In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit I filed with The New York Times (represented by David McCraw, who is getting some attention today for his letter to Donald Trump’s lawyer rejecting a demand that the NYT retract an article about two women who say Trump touched them inappropriately), the Federal Bureau of Investigation has disclosed some previously redacted information about an internal dispute regarding a 2013 shooting incident that drew some local news media attention in Chicago at the time. I do not see a national-audience NYT article to write here, but am adding it to the library of internal FBI shooting reports that The Times and I have been using a series of FOIA lawsuits and requests to assemble for several years. This was a residual dispute about redactions within a large set of documents that we previously obtained through the litigation, and it resolves the case. I’ll just post the document here and briefly explain what it was about.

So, back in March 2013, three FBI agents in Chicago were going to lunch when they spotted a man, William Tapes, steal two hubcaps in the parking lot of a Jewel-Osco supermarket and get into the driver’s seat of a car, which had two other occupants. They intervened and he threw the car into gear and drove off, nearly hitting two of them. One of the agents jumped out of the way and fired ten bullets at the car, some as it was roaring past him and some after it had already passed him. Bullets grazed Tapes and another occupant of the car, who subsequently identified Tapes when interviewed at a hospital. Three days later, Tapes turned himself in. He was denied bail and charged with assault on a federal officer with a deadly weapon. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 84 months in prison. Tapes, 52, appealed, saying the sentence was unreasonable because it failed to take into account his failing eyesight; in 2014, a unanimous panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit — Judges Diane Wood, William Bauer, and David Hamilton — upheld the sentence.

That — along with a declination to prosecute the agent for violating Tapes’ civil rights by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — resolved the legal issues arising from the incident. However, there remained an administrative matter: the FBI’s Shooting Incident Review Group met, as it does nearly every time an agent fires his or her weapon outside a range, to determine whether the shooting complied with the bureau’s policy on the use of deadly force. It permits firing a weapon only to protect against an imminent threat to life. For decades, the FBI deemed every intentional shooting to be a “good shoot” that complied with its use of force policy, but — in what may or may not be a coincidence — since we began FOIA’ing out its documents showing that internal process, the SIRG has started occasionally finding some incidents to be “bad shoots.”

In this case, the majority SIRG voted to find that the shooting complied with the deadly force policy, but two members of the SIRG disagreed and said it was a bad shoot. The original document return, however, redacted several pages explaining what the dissenters’ reasoning was. The FBI has now agreed to disclose that to the public, along with the FBI’s rebuttal. In short, the first dissenter — the same Civil Rights Division attorney who had previously determined that the shooting did not violate the Constitution — argued that while the agent’s early shots were justified, it violated the deadly force policy when the agent continued firing at the car after it had passed by, as the danger had passed and those shots could only have been meant to prevent Tapes from fleeing, which was not a permissible motive under the use-of-force policy. The second dissenter, a DOJ Criminal Division trial attorney, agreed with the first dissenter but went further, arguing that none of the shots were justified because the agent was already out of danger (shooting from the side at the car) and because it improperly endangered the two innocent passengers in the car. But they were outvoted.

The less-redacted version of the document is here:


Marco Rubio lied twice in one sentence but it’s 2016 so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I just noticed that when President Obama nominated someone yesterday to be the first United States ambassador to Cuba in more 50 years, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who opposes Obama’s efforts to thaw relations with the Communist dictatorship, said this in making his argument that the Senate should not confirm that nominee:

Just like releasing all terrorists from Guantanamo and sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Iranian regime, rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the President that needs to be stopped.

In the real world, Obama is not trying to release all terrorists from Guantanamo. What Obama wants to do is move the 41 remaining detainees who are not recommended for transfer to a different military-run prison on domestic soil, where the United States would continue imprisoning them indefinitely. (He does want to transfer the other 20 remaining detainees, although most are likely headed to custodial rehabilitation programs run by dictatorships in the gulf, if recent transfers are any guide.) There’s a legitimate good-faith debate to be had about whether it would be a good or a bad idea to open a replacement wartime prison on domestic soil, but either way it is simply false that Obama is trying to release them all. (Rubio also claimed during last Saturday’s weekly GOP radio address that “With just four months left in office, President Obama and his allies in Congress want to release every single terrorist from the military’s custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”)

Also in the real world, the money the United States controversially sent to Iran earlier this year was Iranian money from an aborted weapons deal with the Shah that the United States had frozen after the 1979 revolution. There’s a legitimate good-faith debate about whether finally returning those assets was a good idea or a bad idea — even a “ransom,” given its timing — but either way it wasn’t American taxpayers’ dollars.

The quality of public policy discourse in 2016 is really depressing.



Eternal Return, Enemy Combatant Edition: A call to place the Chelsea bombing suspect in military custody

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, today called for holding Ahmad Khan Rahami, the Afghan-American arrested as the sole suspect in the Chelsea bombing, as an enemy combatant: placing him in indefinite military custody and interrogating him without a defense lawyer or a Miranda warning that he has any right to remain silent. Graham argued that the priority now should be gathering intelligence that might prevent future attacks, not gathering evidence that would be admissible in a courtroom trial. But he also acknowledged, at the end of his statement, a certain weariness to this debate.

“Now, I hope the Obama Administration will consider holding Rahami as an enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes. The suspect, based upon his currently reported actions, clearly is a candidate for enemy combatant status.

“Right now, we should be focused on gathering intelligence from this suspect that can help our nation understand how these attacks were planned and carried out. Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant also allows us to question him about what attacks may follow in the future. That should be our focus, not a future domestic criminal trial that may take years to complete.

“Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant to determine whether he has ties to terrorist groups, whether he was working for or funded by them, and whether there are co-conspirators, and then trying him in our civilian system for his terrorist acts is the best way to protect our country first, and then achieve justice.

“As an American citizen, Rahami cannot be tried by a military commission. Any future trial at which he would be a defendant would take place in federal district court or state court.

I have little confidence the Obama Administration will take the course of action I am proposing. Instead, they will read him Miranda Rights as soon as possible and continue to criminalize the war. Their actions will leave our nation less safe in the years to come.”

Graham sounds a little bit like an actor phoning in his role in a movie sequel, and for good reason. This is specifically a repetition of an episode in 2013, when Graham made the same call regarding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, following his capture. Both Tsarnaev and Rahami are naturalized American citizens, arrested on American soil, for pressure cooker bombings. Fortunately, Rahami’s did not succeed in killing anyone, unlike the Tsarnaev brothers’. But legally we’re looking at the same thing.

One big problem, legally, with Graham’s idea is that there is as yet no publicly known evidence linking Rahami to Al Qaeda. The United States government does not have the power to hold just any terrorism suspect in wartime detention — rather, that legal authority exists only for captives who are members of the specific organization with which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict. In 2013, I interviewed Graham about his idea with regard to Tsarnaev, and he acknowledged this, but suggested that a judge would give the government leeway to hold a terrorism suspect in military custody for up to 30 days or so anyway, to figure out if there were any such links.

“You can’t hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that,” Graham told me then. “But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda — I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn’t hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable.”

Even if Rahami were linked to Al Qaeda, it remains murky whether the government may hold a citizen arrested on domestic soil as an enemy combatant. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the indefinite wartime detention of a citizen captured fighting against the United States in the Afghanistan combat zone to prevent his “return to the battlefield,” holding that “there is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.” But its ruling was confined to the “narrow question” presented by that fact pattern alone, and left unanswered whether a citizen terrorism suspect arrested on domestic soil could be held in military custody. Perhaps importantly, Justice O’Connor also observed in the plurality opinion that, “Certainly, we agree that indefinite detention for the purpose of interrogation is not authorized” (my emphasis). In the Jose Padilla case, two appeals courts disagreed on the question of whether domestically arrested American citizen terrorism suspects could be held that way, and the Supreme Court never resolved the question. Congress punted when lawmakers had an opportunity to clarify what the law should be.

As readers of Power Wars know, one of Obama’s signature national security and civil liberties policies — one he never backed away from, even as he made many compromises in other areas — has been that terrorism cases arising on domestic soil should exclusively be handled with civilian law enforcement procedures and powers, not military force. He has been unwilling to hold American citizens and lawful residents arrested on domestic soil as enemy combatants. Meanwhile, those readers also know that ever since the fallout from the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas 2009, when Republican Scott Brown harnessed anger over the FBI’s handling of the underwear bomber into winning the special election for a vacant Senate seat in super-blue Massachusetts, it has been a core GOP strategy to attack Obama for refusing to put new terrorism captives into Gitmo-style military custody.

As a result, every time someone gets arrested for a suspected (Islamist) terrorism offense, both sides trot out the same talking points. What was new about the Tsarnaev episode — the twist that there was no evidence linking the suspect to Al Qaeda — is now becoming part of the déjà vu cycle of national security legal policy and politics, too.




Two new FOIA lawsuits about detainees and surveillance — explained

In the past few weeks, the New York Times and I have filed two new Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. This post will explain them. (The hard work, as always, is being done by the NYT’s lawyer, David McCraw, as well as our outgoing annual NYT First Amendment fellow, Tali Leinwald, who is off to clerk on the Third Circuit, and our incoming fellow, Ian MacDougall.)

We filed the first lawsuit against the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on August 2. It seeks the approximately 240 reports assessing the threat posed by each of the detainees who remained at Guantanamo Bay when President Obama took office. They were produced by a six-agency task force which re-evaluated the evidence about what each man had done before his capture, as well as his behavior in prison, and recommended whether to transfer him, prosecute him, or continue to hold him indefinite wartime detention without trial. These reports replaced, and in many cases corrected errors in, the military’s Joint Task Force threat assessments produced during the Bush administration years; those are the dossiers Chelsea Manning leaked via WikiLeaks. I laid out the moral and policy case for making the 2009 set public, too, in this Sunday Review piece. Judge Richard Berman has the case.

We filed the second lawsuit yesterday against the Justice Department. Assigned to Judge Lewis Kaplan, it combines requests for several post-9/11 legal policy matters the department has handled:

  • The first document it seeks is a May 4, 2005, memo signed by Pat Rowan, a national security lawyer in the Bush Justice Department, about the department’s discovery obligations when using evidence obtained or derived from the Stellarwind warrantless surveillance and bulk data collection program in court against a criminal defendant.
    • Discussion: A big issue regarding the N.S.A.’s warrantless surveillance program, both before and after Congress legalized it, is whether and when criminal defendants who face evidence obtained or derived from it should get notice from prosecutors about where that evidence came from. This is important because they have legal standing to challenge the lawfulness of the surveillance that gathered the evidence. To date, the government has successfully prevented a definitive examination of the merits of Stellarwind; in 2006, a district court judge ruled that it was illegal, but an appeals court vacated that ruling on the technical grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing. No criminal defendant was ever notified that some evidence came from the program, and the Obama administration, in a previous FOIA lawsuit we brought for a Justice Department inspector general report about Stellarwind, redacted much of a lengthy portion about possible Brady violations – that is, instances in which prosecutors may have unlawfully withheld evidence from the defense that could have helped it – regarding the program. But that report included an unredacted sentence referring to the existence of this memo.
  • The second document is the “Standard Minimization Procedures for FBI Electronic Surveillance and Physical Search Conducted Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” that were approved by the Attorney General on October 22, 2008 and later submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
    • Discussion: The FBI’s minimization procedures for FISA information are its rules for sharing and disseminating information gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — and, since 2007, the warrantless surveillance program governed by the Protect America and the FISA Amendments Act. The government has issued later versions of these procedures, but not this set, which should help show how the practice of “backdoor searching,” or government agents looking at private communications previously collected without a warrant for Americans who have become the subject of their suspicions, began. See this post for more discussion of what we already know about how this got going.
  • The third document is the August 2009 final report of the 2009 executive order task force on rendition/interrogation policy. The fourth document is the January 2010 final report of the 2009 executive order task forces on detention policy.
    • Discussion: In 2009, when Obama took office, he set up three captives-related executive order task forces – each interagency but led or co-led by the DOJ. One re-assessed the remaining Guantanamo detainees and recommended what to do with each; its final report is already public but we are suing in a separate case to get the individual assessments as noted above. The other two dealt with what to keep and what to change about rendition and interrogation policy, and future detainee policies, respectively. Their final reports are not public, although I wrote about their contents in Power Wars. See Chapter Four Section Fourteen (“The Interrogation and Rendition Task Force”) and Chapter Seven Section One (“The Straw Man Plan for Future Captures”).
  • The last request is for a set of documents filed by the department in 2011 before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in connection with a case that dealt with “upstream,” or network-switch-based, surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act.
    • Discussion: In August 2013, as part of the wave of declassifications of FISA Court materials after the Snowden leaks, the government made public redacted versions of an Oct. 3, 2011 ruling and a Nov. 3, 2011 ruling by Judge John Bates, then the presiding judge of the FISA Court, an a case that dealt with a technical problem raised by upstream Internet surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act. Judge Bates found that the NSA had been violating the Fourth Amendment in certain ways, and then he ruled that a fix proposed by the NSA would solve the problem. His rulings are the source of widely cited numbers about the program – that the NSA was collecting about 250 million communications annually from it, of which 9 percent came from upstream and 91 percent came from Prism. I suspect that Judge Bates misinterpreted something and that these numbers are inaccurate. (See this post.) We are seeking the remaining documents from the litigation, including the Justice Department’s submissions which he was working with when he wrote his opinion.

Stay tuned.





Pour one out for another fruitful FOIA case for surveillance documents

Another excellent Freedom of Information Act case for surveillance documents came to an end late last month while I was on vacation, so I’m only now getting to it. It was for inspector general reports at the National Security Agency about the three programs that grew out of Stellarwind.

The germ of the idea for this FOIA came from Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel, who had spotted a passing reference to the existence of an NSA inspector general report about the FISA Amendments Act warrantless surveillance program deep in a 2013 memo to the Intelligence Oversight Board and pointed it out to me in early 2015. I made a FOIA request for it and threw in the other two Stellarwind successor activities — the bulk phone records and bulk e-mail records programs — without knowing if there were any inspector general reports about them. As is typically the case with FOIA, the NSA did not act on the request and so the New York Times filed a lawsuit. I thank our great FOIA lawyer, David McCraw, and two annual NYT First Amendment fellows, Jeremy Kutner (2014-15) and Tali Leinwald (2015-16) for their hard work on the case.

It turned out to be paydirt: there were hundreds of pages of documents that were responsive to the three-part request. The N.S.A. disclosed them in three tranches, and each was newsworthy. One document among the bulk phone metadata program group — turned over to us in unredacted form by mistake — disclosed the identities of the participants in the bulk phone records program (AT&T, Sprint and Verizon) and confirmed suspicions that it could be used to hunt for Hezbollah and Iranian operatives, not just Al Qaeda. The bulk e-mail metadata program group confirmed that even though the N.S.A. said it had turned off that program in late 2011, it did so only after it had figured out how to achieve similar results using data obtained in other ways. And the warrantless surveillance program group shed light on the role played by telecommunications providers in actively performing the sifting and filtering of data packets required for upstream Internet surveillance on behalf of the N.S.A. rather than passively turning over all the packets for the N.S.A. to hunt through itself. (Notably, Marcy had already surmised both that the N.S.A. collection and analysis of e-mail metadata had probably migrated more than ended, and that Iran was part of the phone metadata program, based on scattered clues in the prior public record.)

We challenged the N.S.A. over the legitimacy of several redactions, but Judge Katherine Forrest granted the Justice Department’s request for summary judgment and dismissed the case without any further disclosures. Nevertheless, it had already dragged a lot of useful material out into the public eye. As with the FOIA case for Department of Justice inspector general reports that also ended last month with a ruling against us in a dispute over whether any further redaction lines should be removed, the concluding loss masked a much larger overall victory for transparency and public understanding of government powers and actions.

As Gitmo’s Camp 5 closes, the backstory of my 2003 story disclosing its existence

Today, my friend Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, who does God’s work by traveling to Guantanamo to cover every day of every pre-trial hearing in the dysfunctional military commissions system, reports that the military has closed Camp 5 and consolidated the remaining 46 regular detainees in Camp 6. (The 15 former CIA black-site high-value prisoners are housed in the secretive Camp 7).

Carol’s scoop is a bookend for my own first Gitmo scoop, 13 years ago: that the military was building Camp 5, its first permanent, concrete-walled wing of the previously ad hoc prison operation. At the time, I was working for The Miami Herald, too. Gitmo was Carol’s beat, but I had become fascinated by it during a fellowship year at Yale Law School during the 2002-03 academic year, and we often nerded out about it when I got back to Miami in June 2003. Soon after, Knight-Ridder sent her to Iraq to cover the new war there, and Carol lobbied to let me take the Gitmo beat in her absence. (In a parallel move, she let me house-sit her beachfront apartment, as I had given up my own South Beach apartment when I went up to New Haven and was not interested in signing a new lease for a reason I’ll explain below.)

Later that summer I went down for my first trip to Gitmo. On the plane, I chatted up my seatmate, who turned out to be an engineer for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, who said he was coming down for work on Camp 5. I didn’t think much of it. But when the public affairs staff gave us our introductory briefing, they talked only of Camps 1-4, the four wings of a complex called Camp Delta.

“What about Camp 5?” I asked. They professed ignorance.

Later on that trip, in an interview with the prison operation commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller (who soon after left Gitmo for a fateful trip to consult at Abu Ghraib about getting better intelligence from interrogating detainees there), I asked again. Miller wanted to know how I knew about Camp 5, and I was straightforward about it, so then he told me all about it.

Here’s the opening of the August 23, 2003, story I wrote. (Please forgive the misuse of “literally.”)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Twenty months after it opened as a short-term solution early in America’s war on terrorism, this much-criticized military detention and interrogation camp is evolving from wire mesh to concrete.
The hastily erected Camp Delta for “enemy combatants” will make a significant leap toward permanence with a previously undisclosed fifth phase that will be hard-sided and take a year to build, The Herald has learned.
Workers are also retrofitting a makeshift courtroom in case some of the 660 detainees from 42 countries, most of them suspected al Qaeda members or Taliban soldiers captured in Afghanistan, are tried before a military commission.
The developments suggest that the Bush administration is literally pouring concrete around its controversial policy of indefinitely holding alleged terrorists and supporters in legal limbo, without prisoner-of-war rights.
“[This] should exist as long as the global war on terrorism is ongoing if it helps our nation and our allies win,” said camp commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. “We are exceptionally good at developing intelligence that will help defeat the scourge of terrorism.”
Many legal scholars and human rights groups continue to argue that the policy unnecessarily bends U.S. law and undermines the stability of the Geneva Conventions when instead the existing legal system could be modified to meet intelligence security needs.
But calls to change the approach seem increasingly moot as workers throw up ever more durable structures, also including dormitory housing for 2,000 soldiers here.
The new “Camp Five” will take three times longer to build than the four existing camps, which are made from wire mesh and metal atop concrete slabs, with chain-link fences and wood towers.
“It is a hard-sided concrete building,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we have to ship everything into Guantanamo Bay by sea, and it takes time to get the materials down here.” …

The Herald ran the story on the front page with big splashy play, and the wire services picked it up and it got attention all over the world. That was pretty cool: my previous reporting experiences were mostly limited to parochial issues like corruption in the Miami-Dade school system.

Meanwhile, I had become engaged to Luiza Chwialkowska, a Canadian reporter who had been in the same Knight Foundation fellowship program at Yale. I didn’t want to move to Canada and she didn’t want to move to Miami, so we agreed to converge on Washington, D.C., as a place where there were a lot of journalism jobs and we wouldn’t necessarily have to work for the same employer.  For awhile I thought the Miami Herald was going to send me to D.C. as its Washington correspondent, but that arrangement fell through. Luiza had already landed a job there and moved to a one-bedroom in Cleveland Park. So I had come back to Miami that summer while actively looking for a job in D.C.

Peter Canellos, then the Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, was interested in hiring me, and I was scheduled to fly to Boston to interview with Marty Baron, then its executive editor. Fortunately for me, this story came out just before I got on the plane to Boston, so I brought the hard copy and showed it to Marty in the interview as a demonstration of what sorts of stories I’d like to write for the Globe. In September, Luiza and I were married in New Haven, expecting that we’d have to live apart for an indefinite period. But during our honeymoon in Banff, I got a call from Peter saying the Globe was hiring me for its Washington bureau.

So, Camp 5.

ISIS war powers lawsuit update and backstory

Today, David Remes and Bruce Ackerman, the lawyers representing an army captain who is suing President Obama over the legality of the armed conflict against the Islamic State, filed a lengthy brief – the plaintiff’s opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss the case. In it, they seek to advance their arguments both that the captain, Nathan Michael Smith, has legal standing to bring the case, and that they are right on the merits that the ISIS war lacks proper and necessary Congressional authorization. They also filed an affidavit by several scholars of Islamic law and jihadi movements making the case that the split between core Al Qaeda and its former Iraq affiliate, which grew into ISIS, was older and deeper than the Obama administration acknowledges. I am embedding their brief below.

In Power Wars, Chapter 12 (“The Tug of War”), section 15 (“Extending the 9/11 War”), I reported out the backstory to how Obama came to embrace this controversial legal position. In the summer of 2014, before the U.S. started bombing ISIS, Obama’s White House Counsel, Neil Eggleston, and the then top-lawyer for the National Security Council, Brian Egan, and the rest of the interagency lawyers group developed two theories. They considered each to be viable but also to have its own downside. One was to treat the intervention as a new phase in the existing war Congress had authorized against the 9/11 perpetrators, which would solve the domestic legal problem but would likely be criticized as a stretch because ISIS and Al Qaeda were now at odds. (The argument was that the post-Osama bin Laden split between core Al Qaeda and ISIS into successor factions that were both still fighting the US, even if they were also at odds with each other, did not abrogate the US’s existing authority to keep fighting each.) The other was to treat it as a brand-new conflict, but then if Congress did not vote to authorize it within 60 days, it could set up a  repetition of the War Powers Resolution fiasco with Libya three years earlier.

When they presented this choice to Obama in a Situation Room meeting, portraying both theories as legally available or defensible options, Obama opted for the first theory, knowing he would be criticized for it. The decision to take that aggressive stance turned, as it often did in executive power deliberations in the Obama era, on the White House’s belief that Congress, in the Tea Party Republican era, was unable to function as a competent governing partner. Even though there was an emergency and Republicans were mostly all for getting more aggressive against Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, nobody thought that it was realistic to expect Congress — especially the GOP-controlled House — to move and vote on a new authorization to use military force before the War Powers Resolution’s 60-day clock would expire in October. So Obama went with the “ISIS war=Al Qaeda war” theory.

That was indeed controversial. Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman penned a column in The Atlantic last summer, a year into the conflict, saying its biggest casualty had been the Constitution because Obama, by waging the conflict with legitimate authorization, and Congress, by not bothering to assert its role, “threaten to destroy all serious restraints against open-ended war-making by the commander-in-chief.” He said a soldier deployed to wage the conflict could have legal standing to put the question before the Supreme Court; that led to the lawsuit by Captain Smith, an intelligence officer then stationed in Kuwait and engaged in the counter-ISIS campaign. Still, Congress has appropriated funds to fight ISIS in two annual cycles since then; DOJ argues that amounts to legislative ratification of Obama’s theory.

[Other stuff: Here is an amicus brief that Michael Glennon and the Constitution Project are seeking the court’s permission to file. It focuses on the War Powers Resolution’s “clear statement” rule. Here are previous NYT articles about the Obama administration’s legal theory that the White House needed no new grant of authority from Congress to go to war against ISIS because, they argued, the Islamic State was already covered by the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda (and by the 2002 AUMF against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). And here is a NYT article about the filing of Captain Smith’s lawsuit, and about the government’s reply laying out its legal theory – enhanced by the notion that Congress, by appropriating funds for the conflict, has ratified it.]

Here’s the new brief:

Smith v Obama Plaintiff s Opposition to Motion to Dismiss (Text)

A FOIA lawsuit that brought to light large amounts of information about post-9/11 surveillance may be ending

Today, Judge Analisa Torres of the Southern District of New York issued a ruling in a Freedom of Information Act case brought by The New York Times and me. The case centered on various Justice Department inspector general reports about post-9/11 surveillance. The government had already made public a sizable amount of information due to this case, but we were fighting over whether some of the material it redacted should be uncovered. Judge Torres ruled against us. This could be the end of the case, or we might appeal. Either way, it seems like a good moment to hail the significant amounts of information this lawsuit brought into public light. Below I discuss in some detail what the documents were and link to them as well as some stories that they generated.

But first, I want to thank the NYT’s lawyer, David McCraw, and two NYT First Amendment Fellows — Victoria Baranetsky (2014) and Jeremy Kutner (2015) — for their hard work on the litigation. And I thank the government officials who chose to put out the significant portions of these documents that the executive branch decided to acquiesce to making public rather than fighting us over, even though we disagree that they were justified in redacting certain things.

Background: After Edward Snowden’s leaks, the government declassified many facts about surveillance and communications metadata collection/analysis — like, for instance, the existence of the Patriot Act bulk phone records collection program that was the subject of the first of his leaks that Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian chose to publish. The government did this because Snowden had disclosed a number of its capabilities, and it wanted to explain and defend itself, including discussing internal rules and oversight over those capabilities.

Seeking to leverage that wave of declassification, I filed a FOIA request — and later, with the NYT, this lawsuit — seeking inspector general reports on those topics. We sought disclosure of some reports that were entirely classified, as well as reprocessing and more fulsome release of reports that had previously been made public but in heavily redacted form.

The most important of these reports was a massive investigation by six agencies’ inspectors general into the post-9/11 Stellarwind warrantless wiretapping and bulk metadata collection program. The creation of this report had been mandated by Congress as part of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, and it was kept entirely secret when completed in 2009. The famous “NSA IG report” leaked by Snowden and originally published by The Guardian (though the Washington Post had previously written about bits of it without publishing it) was an early draft of the NSA’s contribution to this much larger Stellarwind report, which DOJ oversaw. (Here’s a story about a partial revelation from that leak that I had the honor of co-writing with Jim Risen, who along with Eric Lichtblau broke the original warrantless wiretapping story.) But the Justice Department’s chapter turned out to contain many, many additional revelations about the history of that program.

Other reports covered the FBI’s involvement with the FISA Amendments Act warrantless wiretapping programs that grew out of Stellarwind, and its collection of phone data and other types of records using National Security Letters, “exigent” letters, and Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The government produced these documents in large tranches over time, and in several cases went back and re-issued them with fewer redactions. Here are some news articles based on these documents:

In addition, significant details in my book Power Wars — especially “Chapter 4: Stellarwind (Surveillance 1928-2009)” and, to a lesser extent, “Chapter 11: Institutionalized (Surveillance 2009-2015)” — drew on the information these documents brought to light.

Here’s the documents:

Not bad for one lawsuit.