When security actions become unconstitutional snooping

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Fred Cate still has his button that reads, “Another Hysterical Librarian.”

The message invokes a remark made by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft when the USA Patriot Act of 2001 was first being debated in Congress. One major concern was that the government would be able to access private individuals’ reading records from public libraries, and Ashcroft’s irreverent quip became a rallying cry.

fredcate02-15col.jpg Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Fred Cate is one of the country’s leading experts in privacy and security laws. (IL Photo/ Aaron P. Bernstein)

Twelve years after the passage of the Patriot Act, Americans are learning the surveillance is much broader than anyone ever imagined. Classified information released by National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this year revealed the federal government had expanded its program from watching suspected terrorists to spying on foreign nationals, foreign heads of state and domestic citizens.

“We’d be happy if it was just librarians,” Cate said.

The Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor and director of the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research has had a front row seat to the debate between protection against terrorism and privacy rights of individuals. His service on a standing cybersecurity committee with the Department of Homeland Security and with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Department of Defense have given him access to classified information and a deeper look into the government’s surveillance activities.

Still, he was shocked not only by what Snowden disclosed but also that Snowden, as an employee at a defense contractor, had access to such high-level information.

Even with the passage of the Patriot Act in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, no one expected the government would cross the line of conducting surveillance on U.S. citizens. Cate thought the executive branch might overreach at times but only in special circumstances.

However, the so-called “Snowden flakes” have opened a pathway to challenging what the government has been doing. Cate, along with IU Maurer professor David Fidler, has now joined an effort to use this pathway to nudge the Supreme Court of the United States to start reigning in the secret surveillance program.

Cate was the lead author of an amicus curiae brief (signed by Fidler and 12 other professors from universities around the country) in support of a petition asking the nation’s highest court to take the extraordinary step of issuing a writ of mandamus and vacate a previously secret order for the collection of domestic telephone records.

If the Supreme Court acts, Cate said, it would indicate the court thinks the situation is severe enough to get involved. It would send a signal that the government is not free to do anything it wants.

‘Telephony metadata’

Among the documents Snowden unveiled was an April 2013 order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court compelling Verizon Business Network Services Inc. to turn over daily phone records of calls made from the United States to foreign countries as well as totally within the continental borders.


fidler-david-mug Fidler

Under terms of the federal law, the activities of FISC are secret and never brought to the public’s attention. The collection of “telephony metadata” on all of Verizon’s nearly 100 million customers who are not directly connected to any specific investigation is viewed as stepping well outside the power granted by the Patriot Act.

“It boggles the mind to understand how this is possible,” Fidler said.

The disclosure of the Verizon order gave the Electronic Privacy Information Center an avenue to bring a judicial challenge. In July, EPIC submitted a petition asking the Supreme Court to grant a writ of mandamus and vacate the order as well as prohibit such future orders.

EPIC, a public-interest research center focusing on privacy and civil liberties, argued it has the ability to challenge the order because it is a Verizon customer. Since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was drafted specifically to bar outside individuals and organizations from seeking a review of any order, EPIC asserted it can only obtain relief with a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, acknowledged while the court has the power to act on the petition, it traditionally has not deployed that authority. But, he said, if ever there was a writ of mandamus petition the Supreme Court should consider, this is it.

Writing the amicus brief was not a labor of love, Cate said. He wanted to push the court to act, in part, because of the work he and other professors have done for the government. As citizens and scholars, he and his colleagues were misled and had their good will taken advantage of, he said.

“The First Amendment concerns are real and substantial,” Cate wrote in the brief. “Although not including the content of communications, the call detail records and telephony metadata of millions of U.S. persons disclosed under the Verizon Order can be highly revealing in ways that may be intrinsically harmful or chill the exercise of protected liberties.”

While the chance of the Supreme Court granting the writ is uncertain, Rotenberg said Cate’s participation will draw the court’s attention as he is “one of the leading experts on surveillance law in the nation.”

Needles in haystacks

Ironically, while the federal government maintains its covert surveillance is keeping the country safe, Cate sees the actions as actually posing a danger to national security and personal privacy.

The National Security Administration is collecting such a vast amount of data, but it is not analyzing the data or, as Cate said, connecting the dots. Even though the NSA has maintained it needs to have a lot of data to find the threat, only a small part of the “black budget” that covers the national intelligence program is spent on data analysis, he said.

Using the government’s analogy of needing more hay to find needles, Cate argued that adding more hay, or data, does not improve the chances of finding a terrorist. Rather than adding more hay, he said, the government really needs a mechanism to find needles.

Fidler pointed out just a few years ago the collection of metadata from all phone calls was not plausible. Now, once again, advances in technology have outpaced the language of the law.

Each innovation sparks a more expansive reading of what is allowed by law. This is going to be a constant source of friction in American democracy in the foreseeable future, Fidler said, which will require a return to debate time and time again.

Rather than trying to put the genie back in the bottle, he said, society should build a new bottle. The country should look for smarter ways to protect itself that are not unconstitutional.

Neither Cate nor Fidler believe the surveillance activities, known to date, are threatening the very foundation of the United States. The current situation is nothing like the risk to democracy brought by the Civil War.

Yet, the revelations have diminished the country’s standing in the world, the Maurer professors said. The U.S. reputation as being a beacon of freedom has been dimmed. Now the world sees the country as a violator of democracy and liberty.

Closer to home there is anger and disappointment. Over the summer, every time the White House issued a denial, Snowden would release contradicting information. The activities of the NSA reached far beyond what Congress and the public had ever been told.

Cate said he is most disheartened that the president did nothing to stop the lying.•


  • Great article
    Very interesting read..."another hysterical librarian" indeed...will be interesting to see how this develops...thanks for the story IL, and good luck Mr. Cate.

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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.