August 7, 2013
A startling new Reuters story shows one of the biggest dangers of the surveillance state: the unquenchable thirst for access to the NSA’s trove of information by other law enforcement agencies.
As the NSA scoops up phone records and other forms of electronic evidence while investigating national security and terrorism leads, they turn over “tips” to a division of the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) known as the Special Operations Division (“SOD”). FISA surveillance was originally supposed to be used only in certain specific, authorized national security investigations, but information sharing rules implemented after 9/11 allows the NSA to hand over information to traditional domestic law-enforcement agencies, without any connection to terrorism or national security investigations.
But instead of being truthful with criminal defendants, judges, and even prosecutors about where the information came from, DEA agents are reportedly obscuring the source of these tips. For example, a aw enforcement agent could receive a tip from SOD—which SOD, in turn, got from the NSA—to look for a specific car at a certain place. But instead of relying solely on that tip, the agent would be instructed to find his or her own reason to stop and search the car. Agents are directed to keep SOD under wraps and not mention it in “investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony,” according to Reuters.
“Parallel construction” is really intelligence laundering
The government calls the practice “parallel construction,” but deciphering their double speak, the practice should really be known as “intelligence laundering.” This deception and dishonesty raises a host of serious legal problems.
First, the SOD’s insulation from even judges and prosecutors stops federal courts from assessing the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance practices. Last year, Solicitor General Donald Verilli told the Supreme Court that a group of lawyers, journalists and human rights advocates who regularly communicate with targets of NSA wiretapping under the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) had no standing to challenge the constitutionality of that surveillance. But Verrilli said that if the government wanted to use FAA evidence in a criminal prosecution, the source of the information would have to be disclosed. When the Supreme Court eventually ruled in the government’s favor, finding the plaintiffs had no standing, it justified its holding by noting the government’s concession that it would inform litigants when FAA evidence was being used against them.
Although the government has been initially slow to follow up on Verrilli’s promises, it has begrudgingly acknowledged its obligation to disclose when it uses the FAA to obtain evidence against criminal defendants. Just last week DOJ informed a federal court in Miami that it was required to disclose when FAA evidence was used to build a terrorism case against a criminal defendant.
Terrorism cases make up a very small portion of the total number of criminal cases brought by the federal government, counting for just 0.4 percent of all criminal cases brought by all U.S. Attorney offices across the country in 2012. Drug cases, on the other hand, made up 20 percent of all federal criminal cases filed in 2012, the second most prosecuted type of crime after immigration cases. If the government acknowledges it has to disclose when FAA evidence has been used to make a drug case—even if it’s a tip leading to a pretextual traffic stop—the number of challenges to FAA evidence will increase dramatically.
SOD bypasses the Constitution
Even beyond the larger systemic problem of insulating NSA surveillance from judicial review, criminal defendants whose arrest or case is built upon FISA evidence are now deprived of their right to examine and challenge the evidence used against them.
Taken together, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments guarantee a criminal defendant a meaningful opportunity to present a defense and challenge the government’s case. But this intelligence laundering deprives defendants of these important constitutional protections. It makes it harder for prosecutors to comply with their ethical obligation under Brady v. Maryland to disclose any exculpatory or favorable evidence to the defense—an obligation that extends to disclosing evidence bearing on the reliability of a government witness. Hiding the source of information used by the government to initiate an investigation or make an arrest means defendants are deprived of the opportunity to challenge the accuracy or veracity of the government’s investigation, let alone seek out favorable evidence in the government’s possession.
Courts must have all the facts
The third major legal problem is that the practice suggests DEA agents are misleading the courts. Wiretaps, search warrants, and other forms of surveillance authorizations require law enforcement to go to a judge and lay out the facts that support the request. The court’s function is to scrutinize the facts to determine the appropriate legal standard has been met based on truthful, reliable evidence. So, for example, if the government is using evidence gathered from an informant to support its request for a search warrant, it has to establish to the court that the informant is reliable and trustworthy so that the court can be convinced there is probable cause to support the search. But when law enforcement omits integral facts—like the source of a tip used to make an arrest—the court is deprived of the opportunity to fulfill its traditional role and searches are signed off without the full knowledge of the court.
Ultimately, if you build it, they will come. There’s no doubt that once word got out about the breadth of data the NSA was collecting and storing, other law enforcement agencies would want to get their hands in the digital cookie jar. In fact, the New York Times reported on Sunday that other agencies have tried to get information from the NSA to “curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement.”
Teaming up to play fast and loose with criminal defendants and the court, the DEA and NSA have made a mockery of the rule of law and the legal frameworks intended to curb abuses.