Politics & Policy

NSA Nonsense

The legal issues.

All hopes that the debate over National Security Agency surveillance would quietly subside were shattered on Thursday morning by an explosive USA Today report that the NSA has secretly collected a massive database containing the phone-call records of tens of millions of Americans. Anonymous sources said to have “direct knowledge of the arrangement” explained to the newspaper that the agency was able to persuade three major telecommunications companies to provide these records:

The NSA’s domestic program began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the sources. Right around that time, they said, NSA representatives approached the nation’s biggest telecommunications companies. The agency made an urgent pitch: National security is at risk, and we need your help to protect the country from attacks.

The agency told the companies that it wanted them to turn over their “call-detail records,” a complete listing of the calling histories of their millions of customers. In addition, the NSA wanted the carriers to provide updates, which would enable the agency to keep tabs on the nation’s calling habits.

In short, this data-mining operation allegedly involved collection of records regarding calls that were made–but did not, apparently, include the content of those communications.

As could be expected, the story’s publication was accompanied by a torrent of criticism directed at the Bush administration. A quick scan of liberal blogs shows that the program is being attacked as not only unwise, but also illegal. Yet for this to be true, an actual law must have been broken. Yet the two most likely legal authorities–the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution–do not prohibit the alleged government activity.

FISA distinguishes between “electronic surveillance,” which collects the substantive content of electronic communications, and “pen registers,” which collect only the addressing information of electronic communications. Although the language of FISA is somewhat convoluted, information about what calls were being made that doesn’t involve listening in on the discussions themselves should be classified as a pen register rather than electronic surveillance under the statute.

However, the definition of “pen register” in FISA shows that the statute doesn’t regulate the government with respect to the technology at issue here. FISA states that the regulations governing pen registers do not “include any device or process used by a provider or customer of a wire or electronic communication service for billing, or recording as an incident to billing, for communications services provided by such provider.” That is precisely what was alleged in this case: The sources who spoke to USA Today said that the three participating telecommunications companies handed over information that was collected pursuant to their regular billing procedures. FISA does not implicate such action.

Nor would the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, make the conduct in question illegal. The Supreme Court held in Smith v. Maryland (1978) that government collection of phone numbers called does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that callers cannot have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the numbers they dial:

[W]e doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial. All telephone users realize that they must “convey” phone numbers to the telephone company, since it is through telephone company switching equipment that their calls are completed. All subscribers realize, moreover, that the phone company has facilities for making permanent records of the numbers they dial, for they see a list of their long-distance (toll) calls on their monthly bills. . . .

[E]ven if [a caller] did harbor some subjective expectation that the phone numbers he dialed would remain private, this expectation is not “one that society is prepared to recognize as ‘reasonable.’” . . . This Court consistently has held that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties. . . . [W]hen [a caller] used his phone, [he] voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company and “exposed” that information to its equipment in the ordinary course of business. In so doing, [the caller] assumed the risk that the company would reveal to police the numbers he dialed.

In sum, the alleged government data collection described by USA Today does not, on its face, violate the Fourth Amendment or FISA. Of course, the fact that a government action is legal doesn’t settle the case: There may still be ample room to oppose it. But there is a rush among broad sections of the Left to declare illegal any Bush-administration policies with which they disagree without being troubled by such trivialities as what the actual, settled law says. Here, this reflexive reaction appears dead wrong.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is an attorney and counterterrorism consultant. His first book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, will be published in winter 2007 by Tarcher/Penguin.


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