The Phone Book Analogy

It started out with Representative Michelle Bachmann.  On the floor of the house she made a speech where she compared the NSA’s 215 spying program to a phone book.  The NSA’s 215 spying program is the one where the NSA is collecting every single phone number that is called and received by every citizen of the United States.

Rep. Bachmann said said there is more information in your phonebook then there is in the NSA database.  You can see the video of Rep. Bachmann’s comments at the bottom of this Mediate article.  This same argument was pushed by Representative Mike Rogers today on ABC’s this week.  The video clip of his statement can be found here.

The analogy seems to be constructed as follows.  A phone book contains the address, name, and phone number of each person with a listed number.  The NSA program only collects phone numbers dialed.  Thus, the NSA program has less information then the phone book concerning each individual record collected.

This phone book analogy is insulting.  First things first, I don’t have a land line.  I only own a cell phone.  That means that my information is not found in a phone book.  So the argument fails there as it pertains to myself and to many others.

What if I did have a land line and my phone number name and address did appear in a phone book?  The information printed in a phone book is distinctly different from the information the NSA collects.  The NSA collects what phone numbers every American citizen has called, the time of the call, and the duration of the call (I think they also collect the location of the call, but there is no hard evidence yet).  The phone book simply does not contain that information.  Knowing that you have a phone number and knowing what numbers that phone number has dialed is an apples and oranges comparison.

The information that is collected by the NSA cannot be viewed in piecemeal.  The government has roundly argued that they are collecting a haystack to look for a needle.  That means, they posit, that we have to look at their collection as a compilation of billions of pieces of information.  We must look at it as one database collection, not billions of individual collections.  They then take an about face and would like to use the phone book analogy and say that the proper comparison is to look at one phone number in a phone book and one record of a collected call record.

In other words the NSA wants to have its cake and eat it too.  They want to justify the collection by saying that it is the mass collection that is important and that each individual record must be viewed as a whole in order to explain how it is related to a terrorism investigation.  This is necessary because the Patriot Act says the records must relate to a foreign terrorism investigation.

The government then wants to turn around and rationalize this massive collection by arguing that each individual bit of information collected is actually less, piece by piece, than if you look at an individual record of a phone book.

Also, the information that can be gleaned from a phone book and the NSA spying is completely different.  The phone book information will tell me what your phone number is and where you live.  If you move and your address changes then I can learn where you moved.  The information can be used a bit more broadly if there is some sort of a pattern related to your movements and other people’s movements.  By movements I mean complete changes of address from one apartment or house to another.

The NSA information gives us a much more complete picture of how information travels.  They know every person you communicate with on the phone.  They argue that there are no names collected, but this is an even more absurd argument.  They can track who you call after you speak to certain persons.  They can see how different groups interact and that gives them an amazing ability to understand how information is traveling and what persons are integral in the dissemination of this information.

I won’t belabor the point, but this 60 minutes segment called Counterinsurgency Cops, starting at around the 8:00 minute mark, shows you what data collection can do.  Granted the Counterinsurgency Cops collect more information than the NSA is ‘supposedly’ collecting, but it is a useful video to start learning just how much little bits of information can teach you about a person.

Also, if the value of the information collected is less than what is in a phone book then why are we collecting it?  It speaks volumes about their argument.  They say the collection of this information has been essential in stopping terrorist attacks, yet the information collected tells us so little that we should not be concerned that collecting it is violating our privacy.  Another example of wanting to eat their cake and have it too.  It’s almost as if each argument they make exists in its own vacuum and the prior facts and arguments don’t exist.

Lastly, the fact that two representatives of the people, one is the chairman of the intelligence committee, would be willing to use such a fatuous argument makes me skeptical of the value of their oversight of the NSA.  The argument is clearly aimed at someone who has much less than a basic understanding of the facts.

Because the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied to Congress and the American people with impunity the NSA and the government have a credibility gap.  In order to fill that gap they have to insure confidence in their actions.  Remember, each time they make an argument they are implicitly saying ‘trust us.’  They won’t let us see the programs so it is all about their word.  When they put forth the phone book analogy it makes that trust gap wider not more narrow.  If these programs truly have value that is greater than their privacy intrusion arguments like these do not help.

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Government Ideals Then and Now

I was watching the most recent House Judiciary Hearings on FISA Oversight.  One meme that kept cropping up was politician’s expressing that they find it acceptable that the government is wholesale spying on non-American citizen persons.  I understand that much of this was to focus the purpose of the hearing on the NSA’s programs as they relate to American citizens.

However, this position strikes me as against the principals under which our government was founded.  I recently re-read the Declaration of Independence.  This is one of our foundational documents and gives us a better understanding of the limits our founders believe existed on every government.  They understood that there are certain rights that are unalienable and are given by God and have no boundaries.

Governments are formed to preserve these very rights.  It seems to me that many of the rights that we hold dear and that are enshrined in our Constitution are unalienable rights given to us by our Creator.  This means that American citizens and non-American citizens alike have these rights.  Our politicians should not just flippantly state that it is acceptable for our government to spy on the world.

I understand that we are currently engaged in a declared conflict.  Wars involve spying.  Just because you aren’t born within our borders does not mean that you have no rights to privacy from our government.  We do need to protect our citizens from international harms.  These harms do not justify a worldwide panopticon.

Furthermore, I am not naive enough to believe that the arrogance of our government somehow evaporates upon our shores.  Justification for spying on the world will probably be used for spying on us.  In the case of the NSA the difference is merely a keystroke.

Our government began with broad ideals that have been eroded by weak politicians who believe that somehow the current conditions require them to chip away at these rights to keep us safe.  What they forget is that we have a government of limited powers and they don’t have the power to chip away at these rights.  The often used argument that all three branches of government agree is but a red herring.  Our rights exist to protect us from all government no matter whether it is exercised as legislative, judicial, or executive.

Unfortunately, politicians too often give up on these principles in order for temporary gains on policy or electoral advantage.  An attack on the Constitution for something you desire is no different than your foes attack on the Constitution for something you abhor.

Hate Crimes Legislation and Poor Judicial Conduct

I came across an unfortunate consequence of confusion partially created by the charges resulting from hate crimes legislation.  This morning I read a New York Law Journal article by John Caher entitled Manslaughter Hate Conviction Found to Be Legally Consistent (paywall).  This article was based on a decision in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Dwight R. Delee KA 09-02479.

Mr. Dwight Delee was charged with killing a person by shooting him with a rifle.  The man he killed was a homosexual and wearing a dress at the time of the murder.  There was ample evidence that the crime was at least in part motivated by an animus towards the victim’s sexual preference.  Mr. Delee was charged with murder in the second degree as a hate crime, intentional murder in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.  At trial there were some lesser included charges that were given to the jury including manslaughter as a hate crime in the first and second degrees and manslaughter in the first and second degrees.

After the trial Mr. Delee was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.  He was acquitted of all the other charges, except one which us unnecessary to discuss as it is irrelevant to this article.

The defense moved post-verdict to dismiss the conviction of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime because it was inconsistent with the acquittal on the manslaughter in the first degree charge.  This properly preserved the issue for appeal.  Unfortunately, the judge dismissed the jury before asking them to resolve their conflicted verdict.  The judge could have avoided the, I believe unjust, result if he or she had merely asked the jury to resolve the conflict.  This was poor judicial conduct and helped to result in the ends of justice not being served.

The appeal resulted and the appellate court overturning the conviction of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime.  The majority found the not guilty finding of manslaughter in the first degree to be inconsistent with a guilty finding of manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime.  The majority held that manslaughter in the first degree and manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime are identical in all elements except the added hate crime element to the latter.  If the jury found that one of the elements of manslaughter in the first degree was not met, then it also could not have been met to support the hate crimes conviction.

The result is that a person who shot someone in cold blood serves the three and one half years on the illegal weapons possession and serves no time for the murder.

The jury foreman apparently presented an affidavit roughly a week after the verdict explaining what took place during the deliberations.  It turns out that the jury quickly determined that this was a hate crime.  Because they decided that it was a hate crime they found him not guilty of the other charges.  This is the danger of having the similar crimes charged.  It seems the jury found that because the hate crime element was met they should only find him guilty of the hate crime.  In other words, they saw a selection of choices and went with the most correct choice instead of all the correct choices.

It is confusing serving on a jury.  To have charges that are identical, except as to one element, being charged presents an added layer of difficulty.  It is fairly clear that this jury would most likely, if presented with the conflict by the trial judge, have found the defendant guilty of both manslaughter in the first degree and manslaughter in the first degree as a hate crime.

Whether or not you agree with hate crimes legislation it is clear that the confusion caused by having the similar counts charged to the jury helped result in a miscarriage of justice.  I understand that better judicial conduct most probably would have salvaged the verdict.

It could also be argued that the overcharging, inclusive of the lesser included offenses to the jury, may also result in confusion.  This is true and this case is not definitive and I am definitely not arguing that this case means all hate crimes legislation should be written out of the law.  I think it would be interesting to find out how often this happens and whether this case is an outlier.

Dicta That Made Me Laugh

I was reading the decision in United States v. Edwards, 498 F2d 496 (2nd Cir. 1974) and was struck by some dicta.  The majority, referencing airport searches, held that “[m]ore than a million Americans subject themselves to it daily; all but a handful do this cheerfully, even eagerly, knowing it is essential for their protection.” Id. at 500.  This sentence made me chuckle.

Maybe it is just me but when I go through airport security I don’t see people eagerly awaiting their chance to have their entire body x-rayed or jumping at the opportunity to have a TSA agent grope their person.  How things have changed.

Danger of the Special Needs Doctrine

I was reading the New York Times Article “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.” by Eric Lichtblau.  This article was written generally about the secret law that has been created by the FISA court.  It also touches on how that law has expanded in gross numbers of decisions and substantive theories that underly these new decisions.  This article was written based on information received from “current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.”

Mr. Lichtblau’s article discusses the “special needs” doctrine and its application to terrorism cases.  He points out that the “special needs” doctrine has been used by the Courts to find “that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger.”  Mr. Lichtblau then writes that this doctrine has been used more broadly to track the communications of American citizens based on the need to combat terrorism.  Mr. Lichtblau writes that his source contends this tracking “does not run afoul of the fourth amendment.”  Mr. Lichtblau further states that the reasoning used in terrorism cases has been used in cases involving other potential threats so long as they fit under the enlarged definition of “foreign intelligence.”

Mr. Lichtblau then writes that the metadata that is captured by the government has been treated unworthy of 4th amendment protection.  However, the government needs to have some sort of specific information about a threat in order to search the data it has collected.

Orin Kerr wrote a thoughtful post on this article on the Volokh Conspiracy entitled “Hints and Questions About the Secret Fourth Amendment Rulings of the FISA Court.”  His article raises some questions about the New York Times aricle.  Mr. Kerr is not surprised that the “special needs” doctrine has been used as public courts have already found that the “special needs” doctrine can be properly invoked with terrorism as its justification.  Furthermore, Mr. Kerr does not know what to take away from the article.  He wonders whether Mr. “Lichtblau [is] just saying that the metadata collection is outside the Fourth Amendment but that obtaining contents is protected (but covered by the special needs doctrine, requiring some cause but not a warrant)? Or is Lichtblau saying that accessing even just the metadata database is some kind of search requiring justification?”

This is a very important question.  It is  not answered in the New York Times article and without access to the secret FISA court decisions it is unlikely that anyone could reasonably divine what has developed behind locked doors.  I will attempt to add a further wrinkle to the question and posit a hypothesis.

To first understand this question one needs to examine what the “special needs” exception is not.  This exception, as applied, does not mean that a search has not taken place under the 4th amendment.  Cassidy v. Chertoff, 471 F.3d 67 (2nd Cir. 2006) discusses, in some detail, the special needs exception and its application in general to 4th amendment jurisprudence.  What we learn is that a person can have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the items the government wants to search.  However, the “special needs” exception can result in a finding that the search was reasonable under the circumstances. Thus, there is no 4th amendment violation despite a reasonable expectation of privacy.

However, as Orin Kerr dutifully points out, the devil is in the details when discussing 4th amendment cases.  The case I cited above applies to searches of a person and of their luggage.  When looking at the search of phony metadata there are other requirements at play than just the 4th amendment.  18 USC § 3121-3127 adds the further dimension that a tap and trace must be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation amongst other requirements.*

Perhaps in order to satisfy this statute the FISA courts have adopted a standard that must be met by the government before collecting phony metadata.  It is also as equally plausible that the FISA court has found that the obtaining of the metadata is subject to the special needs exception and the tap and trace statute is only applied once the government wants to search the information it has collected.

So why is my article seem to indicate that there is a danger presented by the “special needs” doctrine?  Very simply because the “special needs” doctrine is extremely fact specific and here the facts and the laws are being executed and interpreted in secret.  This creates a hollowing out of your 4th amendment rights.

We know to date that citizens of the United States of America have had their rights violated by the federal government.  We know that there are decisions by the FISA courts indicating that such violations have taken place.  However, there is no remedy or even a right to know whose rights have been violated.  A right that cannot be enforced is not much of a right at all.  This is even more true when the very evidence of the violation is ordered to be destroyed and no citizen is made aware to what extent and under what authority their rights were violated.

Furthermore, citizens cannot adjudge what actions their government is taking and comport their future behavior to protect their privacy.  For instance, I know that if I use a ferry to transport myself across Lake Champlain my bags and my car may be searched.  If I have something I don’t want the government to know about (whether legal or illegal) I can comport my behavior to protect my privacy.  I can hire my own boat, I can drive around the lake, or I can choose to transport my luggage or car via any number of alternatives.  In connection with the NSA snooping I do not know under what standards my privacy is being invaded.  I cannot even attempt to comport my behavior to protect my privacy if I don’t know what items of mine the government is searching and under what theory they are conducting the search.

I understand the need to keep secrets so that the terrorists cannot attack American citizens.  However, if I cannot protect my rights from my government then my choice becomes the lesser of two evils.  Our founding fathers created limitations on our government as a bulwark against such choices.  We chose freedom over perfect security.  We saw that the search for perfect security gives the government powers that can and will be abused.  Open government, written laws, and open courts protect the citizens from overreach by their government.  Two of those very sacred protections are taken away from us under the FISA regime.  We are left to the whims of elected officials and are in danger of becoming a nation of men not a nation of laws.

*For a more comprehensive take on this law please see my article entitled “Smith v. Maryland and the NSA telephone number defense.”

Lois Lerner and her Catch 22

It has become apparent that Lois Lerner is going to invoke her fifth amendment right to not incriminate herself.  Rachel Bade and John Bresnahan wrote an article discussing the issues surrounding her use of the right.  Their article focused mainly on the maneuvering of the parties involved and the practical implications of their decisions.

There was a statement by Lois Lerner’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, that seems to undercut her use of the fifth amendment privilege.  Mr. Taylor is quoted as follows: ““If the court finds that she didn’t waive, then it’s over, and if the court finds that she did and orders her to testify, then she goes to testify,”Taylor said, later, adding that there is “no danger under any circumstances of her going to jail.””

This begs the question.  If there is no danger under any circumstances of Lois Lerner going to jail based on her testimony then what is the basis for exercising her fifth amendment rights?  One cannot assert the privilege because the testimony they are being asked to give is uncomfortable or will paint the testifier in a negative light.  One has to believe that their testimony may incriminate.  At best this statement by her attorney further muddies the water in an already murky situation.

Some may argue that this sentence was just an errant statement from her attorney.  I seriously doubt an attorney with the pedigree and experience of Mr. Taylor is in the practice of making errant statements to the press. I am, quite frankly, confused as to why he made that statement.

What is Freedom?

When I read or hear reports about the NSA’s massive spying there is often a point of view elucidated as follows: some argue that they will surrender some amount of their liberty in return for their safety.  This is at best a false argument and unfortunately is given improper weight from the members of the press.

It is quite understandable that a society cannot function if said society is destroyed by outside threats.  John Stuart Mill and our founders understood this well.  They examined the root necessities of the power of individuals to exercise power over others. They realized that this power must be extremely limited and tied to very necessary ends.  It was understood that this power is necessary and dangerous as the accumulated power can be used against citizens with the same force and effect as it is used against outside threats.

“Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies.  To prevent the weaker members of the community from being prayed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down.  But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defense against his beak and claws.  The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

The balance between liberty and security cannot unfortunately be drawn completely in favor of liberty.  We all want our government to protect us from real and understood threats.  Terrorism is unfortunately a real threat in our society.  This need to be protected from real and understood threats is the basis for societies justified power over others.

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will , is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

It is understood and generally accepted that power can be exercised to the extent necessary to salvage civil society.  To what extent these powers are used and when they are allowed to be exercised are the questions of our time. Unfortunately, some pretend that the present questions we face as as a nation are novel ideations that only our generations have faced and thus the lessons of the past can be dashed aside as inapplicable to our present predicaments.  These very arguments attempt to compel us to give up our basic liberty for protection from threats.  This  inability to understand that our challenges are not unique is a fallacy of hubris and a failure of character.

“All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.  Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law.  What these rules should be is the principle question of human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving.  No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another.  Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which making had always been agreed.” John Stuart Mill 1859

The questions of the balance of liberty and security has thusly been debated since the creation of government.  The question boils down to one of line drawing.  Where is the line drawn between liberty and security?  What human freedoms do we allow the collective to violate in order to save the individual.  Throughout time mankind has made these decisions and all to often on the basis of the decisions is the whim of personal opinion.

“There is, in fact, no recognised principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested.  People decide according to their personal preferences. Some, whenever they see any good to be done, or evil to be remedied, would willingly instigate the government to undertake the business; while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil, rather than add one to the departments of human interest amenable to governmental control.  And men range themselves on one or the other side in any particular thing which it is proposed that the government should do, or according to the belief they entertain that the government would, or would not, do it in the manner they prefer; but very rarely on account of any opinion to which they consistently adhere, as to what things are fit to be done by a government.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

We, as a society, must realize that we are an advanced people and that we have set up limitations on our government of which they cannot impede.

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.  Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.  But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.” John Stuart Mill 1859

Since September 11, 2001 there has undeniably been a need to protect Americans from an outside force.  What Americans have been cheated of is the ability to debate, and be informed of, the extent and amount of liberties that have been suffered in this battle.  The very limits that have been established to constrain the power of our governing officials has presumably been violated.  They cannot violate these rights any more than I can sell a house I do not own.

The persons who claim to accede their liberty in return for protection from terrorists know not what they accede.  Our government has not allowed its citizens to see how the laws it has passed has been interpreted.  It is each individual’s right to decide what they will accede in the fight against terrorism.  Until we understand what is at stake we cannot begin to bargain.  Americans have had the terms hidden, yet asked to sign away the rights and privileges guaranteed under the Constitution.  Our basic liberties are at stake and our government has asked us to sign a blank check upon which the cost is never revealed.

I refer again to John Stuart Mill as he has expressed the essence of the very liberties we are perilously risking.

“This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.  It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.  The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.  Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject of such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.  Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.  The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.  Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.  Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”  John Stuart Mill 1859

A valid objection may be formed to argue that I speak mostly of basic liberties and avoid the questions of the dangers we face.  This is necessarily because the dangers we face are as classified as the liberties we have sacrificed.

I watch as the ‘Freedom Tower’ rises outside of my office window.  We are approaching the 12 year anniversary of those horrific acts.  Exigency can only last for so long.  A truly free society deserves to know what entreaties their government has taken upon their liberties.  No matter who temporarily is elected into positions in our government we exist as a government of, by, and for the people.  It is not for our politicians to decide in secret what laws they will or will not obey.  It is exceedingly unfortunate that we learn that all branches of our government were involved in this mass deception.  To date the media cannot inform of us of the dangers we face and the liberties we have sacrificed in the name of protecting us from these dangers.  Until they can inform us of the specifics they should not give credence to the argument that some find it acceptable to sacrifice some liberty for security.