Justice Department’s national security chief cites six-month transition period in the USA Freedom Act as a reason to turn the bulk surveillance spigot back on.
The legal request, filed nearly four hours after Barack Obama vowed to sign a new law banning precisely the bulk collection he asks the secret court to approve, also suggests that the administration may not necessarily comply with any potential court order demanding that the collection stop.
US officials confirmed last week that they would ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court – better known as the Fisa court, a panel that meets in secret as a step in the surveillance process and thus far has only ever had the government argue before it – to turn the domestic bulk collection spigot back on.
Justice Department national security chief John A Carlin cited a six-month transition period provided in the USA Freedom Act – passed by the Senate last week to ban the bulk collection – as a reason to permit an “orderly transition” of the NSA’s domestic dragnet. Carlin did not address whether the transition clause of the Freedom Act still applies now that a congressional deadlock meant the program shut down on 31 May.
But Carlin asked the Fisa court to set aside a landmark declaration by the second circuit court of appeals. Decided on 7 May, the appeals court ruled that the government had erroneously interpreted the Patriot Act’s authorization of data collection as “relevant” to an ongoing investigation to permit bulk collection.
Carlin, in his filing, wrote that the Patriot Act provision remained “in effect” during the transition period.
“This court may certainly consider ACLU v Clapper as part of its evaluation of the government’s application, but second circuit rulings do not constitute controlling precedent for this court,” Carlin wrote in the 2 June application. Instead, the government asked the court to rely on its own body of once-secret precedent stretching back to 2006, which Carlin called “the better interpretation of the statute”.
The second circuit court of appeals is supposed to bind only the circuit’s lower courts. But the unique nature of the Fisa court – whose rulings practically never became public before whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations – has left ambiguous which public court precedents it is obliged to follow.
“While the Fisa court isn’t formally bound by the second circuit’s ruling, it will certainly have to grapple with the second circuit’s interpretation of the ‘relevance’ requirement. The [court] will also have to consider whether Congress effectively adopted the second circuit’s interpretation of the relevance requirement when it passed the USA Freedom Act,” said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU, which brought the lawsuit the second circuit decided.
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