Surveillance Like a Cancer Grows? The Implications of NSA Intelligence Activities on the Non-Proliferation & Arms Control Communities


In a comment to Dan Joyner’s post on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Yousaf Butt raised the need to link the disclosures being made about NSA surveillance to the work of people engaged on non-proliferation and arms control issues. In particular, he cited a July 6, 2013, New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau entitled “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.” This article was widely read, as evidenced by The Economist basing a story on it. In the Times article, Lichtblau reported US intelligence officials obtaining “access to an e-mail attachment sent within the United States because they said they were worried that the e-mail contained a schematic drawing or a diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.” Yousaf asked whether this example means anyone discussing nuclear proliferation could be subject to NSA surveillance. Or, more broadly, could electronic communications about WMD proliferation challenges to US national security be subject to NSA collection activities? Yousaf thought such surveillance could create a “chilling effect” that might adversely affect “free discourse” in the non-proliferation area. Dan asked me to share my thoughts on this issue, so here goes . . .


Section 702 of FISA

Let me start with the case reported in the Times and cited by Yousaf. Apparently, the e-mail communication that contained the attachment accessed by US intelligence officials was sent and received in the US, so, if accurately reported by the Times, this case does not involve the authority created in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008 that permits the FISA Court to authorize “the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information,” including communications involving US persons (Section 702, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 50 USC sec. 1881a(a)). Even though this case does not involve this authority, the free speech concerns raised by lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists in Clapper v. Amnesty International (decided on standing grounds, 133 S.Ct. 1138 (2013)) apply to persons engaged in electronic communications with foreign nationals located overseas on issues relating to US national security.

FISA defines “foreign intelligence” to include “information that relates to . . . the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power” (50 USC sec. 1801(e)(1)). As the challenge mounted in Clapper indicates, many communities of interest are concerned about the “chilling effect” of the surveillance authority created by the FISA Amendments Act. The inclusion of WMD proliferation in the definition of foreign intelligence means the non-proliferation and arms control communities have been on notice about this US government power since 2008.

However, Snowden’s disclosures of PRISM (the NSA program operated under Section 702 of FISA) revealed how the US government uses this power. People in communities of interest not previously nervous about Section 702 of FISA might now be concerned about their communications with foreign nationals, and perhaps, as Yousaf’s comment suggests, this includes persons working on non-proliferation and arms control questions. So, as with other interested persons and organizations, the non-proliferation and arms control communities should monitor what happens next with this controversy, including law suits already filed in federal court challenging PRISM.

US Communications, Metadata, and Access to the Content of Communications

However, the case reported in the Times involved an e-mail and its attachment sent and received in the US, meaning that different aspects of FISA applied to this surveillance activity. The Times article is not exactly clear what happened, when it happened, what the FISA court did, and why it did what it did (at least these things are not clear to me from the article). My point is not that the Times article is wrong; my point is that it raises more questions than it answers, and trying to answer some questions proves difficult because of a lack of information. As explained below, these questions require more scrutiny of the Times article’s claim that the FISA court “vastly broadens powers of the N.S.A.” In short, we should not jump to conclusions about the Times article and its implications. In what follows, I try to sort through what the article does contain.

Collecting Internet and E-Mail Metadata

US intelligence officials probably picked up information from collecting and analyzing “metadata” on e-mail traffic that triggered a desire to see the e-mail attachment in question. Part of Snowden’s disclosures included information about the US government’s collection of e-mail and other Internet metadata within the US after 9/11 through 2011, when this aspect of NSA surveillance was apparently terminated. Initially undertaken by the Bush administration outside FISA, the collection and analysis of e-mail and other Internet metadata came within FISA court review and approval in 2004, after which the FISA court reviewed and approved orders for such surveillance periodically until 2011, when the Obama administration stopped this particular metadata surveillance effort.

Application of the “Special Needs” Exception to Collection of Internet and E-Mail Metadata under FISA

According to the Times article, the FISA court determined that such metadata surveillance did not violate the Fourth Amendment and relied, apparently, on the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Generally, the “special needs” exception allows the government to undertake a search without a Fourth Amendment warrant to gather information unrelated to law enforcement purposes (e.g., drug tests of railway workers; passenger screening at airports). Referring to outside legal experts, the Times article commented that this application of this exception “is significant . . . because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law . . . and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications” for foreign intelligence purposes, including countering terrorism, WMD proliferation, espionage, and cyber attacks. This alleged expansive use of the “special needs” doctrine by the FISA court forms part of the Times article’s observation that this court is perhaps becoming “almost a parallel Supreme Court” because it regularly assesses “broad constitutional questions” and establishes judicial precedents for foreign intelligence surveillance.

Here is where the questions about the article begin to multiply. For starters, telephony and Internet metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment under existing jurisprudence, so, presumably, the FISA court does not need the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment to review and approve collection of metadata. As Orin Kerr commented, if the FISA court “has ruled that all metadata is outside the Fourth Amendment, that’s not a surprise.”

Next, the “special needs” exception  has long been associated with the gathering of foreign intelligence by the US government and with FISA itself. As Kris and Wilson put it, “Congress enacted FISA explicitly to serve as a special need not related to ordinary law enforcement: foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence. The courts have upheld FISA under a special-needs theory against multiple constitutional challenges” (David S. Kris and J. Douglas Wilson, National Security Investigations & Prosecutions (2007), sec. 11:12, p. 11-30). So, foreign intelligence activities subject to FISA fall under the “special need” exception for foreign intelligence gathering under existing law and jurisprudence. Again, Kerr commented that, if the FISA court has held that foreign intelligence efforts to locate terrorists fall under the “special needs” exception, then “that’s not noteworthy.” The same applies to foreign intelligence gathering for other serious national security threats, such as WMD proliferation.

These observations suggest that the FISA court is not vastly increasing the powers of the NSA or acting as a “parallel Supreme Court”  but is operating within existing jurisprudence and statutory law. So, what’s going on here? I’m not sure based on what the Times article contains. Now, people might be worried about the powers existing jurisprudence and statutory law give the NSA and the FISA court–but the Times article claims something new, different, and secret is happening that does not track case precedents and legislation.

Accessing the E-Mail Attachment Related to Nuclear Proliferation

As noted above, the Times article reported that US intelligence officials went beyond metadata collection and accessed the content of an e-mail communication in the form of an attachment the officials feared “contained a schematic drawing or diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.” The Times article is not clear how, and under what authority, the US intelligence officials accessed the content of this e-mail communication. The article states that gaining such access “[i]n the past . . . probably would have required a court warrant because the suspicious e-mail involved American communications.”

Well, if the US government wanted access to the e-mail attachment for foreign intelligence purposes, then FISA requirements for obtaining a FISA court order to undertake such content-based surveillance within the US apply. However, the Times article is not clear whether US intelligence officials obtained a FISA court order to access the content of the e-mail communication in question. Confusingly, the article follows up its statement about the probable need for a “court warrant” with a description of the broadening of the FISA definition of “foreign intelligence” in 2008 to include information related to WMD proliferation–information that is not helpful to understanding whether the US government obtained FISA court approval to access the e-mail attachment in question.

If the government obtained the FISA court’s specific approval for its access to the e-mail attachment, then the government complied with the relevant law–nothing new, then, legally speaking. However, if the FISA court has constructed some “special needs” exception to the FISA requirement to obtain a specific order for electronic surveillance in the US for foreign intelligence purposes, then we might have something new to ponder. But the Times article does not provide enough information to pursue this inquiry in any productive manner. We would have to be able to examine the FISA court decisions mentioned in the article, but those remain secret.


OK, so what does all of this mean for communities interested in non-proliferation and arms control that communicate through e-mail and other electronic means with people inside and outside the US? Based on what’s in the Times article, here’s my answer:

  • Since the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 added Section 702 to FISA, it has been clear that electronic communications by US persons with foreign nationals could be subject to broad, FISA court-approved surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence through targeting persons reasonably believed to be located outside the US. The Times article does not change what we have known for quite some time on this aspect of FISA.
  • The Times article’s reference to the “special needs” exception creates more questions than answers, meaning that, in such a state of affairs, it is best not to rage first and ask legal questions later. We know enough to wonder whether the article is accurately describing what’s actually happened in the FISA court. But, given recent disclosures, we also know enough to worry that we don’t know everything we need to know to assess what’s going on.
  • What exactly the FISA court has done in the rulings mentioned in the Times article remains unclear, and the rulings remain secret. For the time being, we don’t know what we don’t know concerning the legal reasoning used by the FISA court.

My intent is not to promote a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude about the implications of NSA surveillance programs disclosed in recent weeks either generally or specifically to work that you might do. Like many people, I worry about the scale of the surveillance the disclosures have revealed and about some legal justifications given for these secret programs. But I am also concerned that the incomplete information we are getting through leaks in dribs and drabs is creating and agitating fears that, like a toxic miasma, government surveillance is permeating everything, everywhere and affecting everybody without meaningful limits or oversight. To prevent actual and imagined surveillance from doing more damage to the body politic, more transparency is required politically and legally.


The proposed WMD-free zone in the Middle East – Part One: law of the sea issues

This is the first of a series of posts on the proposed zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Each post will focus on specific international law issues arising from the establishment of such zone. The present one deals with the international law of the sea.

Article VII of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons recognizes the right ‘of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories’. UN General Assembly Resolution 3472 (XXX) B of 11 December 1975 defines a nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) as ‘any zone, recognized as such by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which any group of States in the free exercise of their sovereignty, has established by virtue of a treaty or convention whereby: (a) the statute of total absence of nuclear weapons to which the zone shall be subject, including the procedure for the delimitation of the zone, is defined; (b) an international system of verification and control is established to guarantee compliance with the obligations deriving from that statute’. The two fundamental prohibitions for the states parties to a NWFZ treaty are the prohibition to possess nuclear explosive devices anywhere and the prohibition to station or allow the stationing of those devices (whoever owns them) within the zone. Five NWFZs have been established so far: in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco, 1967), in the South Pacific Ocean (Rarotonga Treaty, 1985), in South-East Asia (Bangkok Treaty, 1995), in Africa (Pelindaba Treaty, 1996) and in Central Asia (Semipalatinsk Treaty, 2006). All these treaties have now entered into force. Mongolia has also unilaterally declared itself nuclear weapon-free and Antarctica is denuclearized as a consequence of the 1959 Washington Treaty that demilitarized the continent and reserved it for exclusively peaceful purposes.

A NWFZ in the Middle East was first proposed by the Shah of Persia in 1974 with the endorsement of the Egyptian government. In 1990, Egypt proposed to broaden the scope of the zone and to turn it into a WMD-free zone so to target not only Israel’s nuclear programme but also the chemical and bacteriological weapons possessed by other Middle Eastern states. Since the 1980s, the UN General Assembly has annually adopted a resolution by consensus supporting the initiative. The WMD-free zone was also mentioned, among others, in Security Council Resolutions 687 (1991) on Iraq. Negotiations have however stalled for a long time but have gained momentum when, at the 1995 Review Conference of the NPT, the so-called Middle East Resolution was adopted as part of the package deal for the Arab States to agree to the indefinite extension of the NPT. The resolution, which was reaffirmed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, endorsed the peace process in the Middle East, called the remaining countries not party to the NPT to accede as soon as possible and accept full scope IAEA safeguards, and called all Middle East states and NPT parties, in particular the nuclear weapon states, to make every effort to establish a WMD-free zone in the region. The subsequent 2010 NPT Review Conference finally called for a conference, to be held in 2012, in view of the establishment of such a zone. In October 2011, the UN Secretary-General announced that Finland had been chosen to host the conference with Jaakko Laajava, Under-Secretary of State in Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acting as the ‘facilitator’. It is still unclear whether it will be possible to hold the conference before the end of the year. In any case, the conference’s purpose is not to adopt a treaty, but to be a further step in the negotiation process that should hopefully lead to the drafting of the treaty.

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