Except for the definition and mechanism of proving treason, no area of the Constitution addressing the rights of all persons when the government is pursuing them is more specific than the Fourth Amendment. The linchpin of that specificity is the requirement that the government demonstrate probable cause to a judge as a precondition to the judge issuing a search warrant. The other specific requirement is identity: The government must identify whose property it wishes to search or whose behavior it wishes to monitor, because the Fourth Amendment requires that all warrants specifically describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.
The principal reason for these requirements is the colonial revulsion over general warrants. A general warrant does not specifically describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized, and it is not based on the probable cause of criminal behavior of the person targeted by the government.
With a general warrant, the government simply gets authority from a judge to search a haystack looking for a needle, and in the process, it may disturb and move all the straw it wants. Stated differently, a general warrant permits the government to intrude upon the privacy of persons as to whom it has no probable cause of criminal behavior and without stating what it is looking for.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has been issuing general warrants to the National Security Agency (NSA) since 1978, but it was not until last June that we learned that these general warrants have been executed upon the telephone calls, text messages, emails, bank records, utility bills and credit card bills of all persons in America since 2009.
The constitutional requirement of probable cause is not political fancy; rather, it saves us from tyranny. Probable cause is a quantum of evidence that is sufficient to lead a neutral judge to conclude that the person about whom the evidence has been presented is more likely than not to possess further evidence of criminal behavior, or has more likely than not engaged in criminal behavior that is worthy of the government’s use of its investigatory tools such that the government may lawfully and morally invade that person’s natural right to privacy.
Last week, Robert S. Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which runs the NSA, engaged in a curious colloquy with members of the president’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Litt complained that presenting probable cause about individuals to judges and then seeking search warrants from those judges to engage in surveillance of each of those individuals is too difficult.
This is a remarkable admission from the chief lawyer for the nation’s spies. He and the 60,000 NSA employees and vendors who have been spying on us have taken oaths to uphold the Constitution. There are no loopholes in their oaths. Each person’s oath is to the entire Constitution — whether compliance is easy or difficult.
Yet the “too difficult” admission has far-reaching implications.
This must mean that the NSA itself acknowledges that it is seeking and executing general warrants because the warrants the Constitution requires are too difficult to obtain. Stated differently, the NSA knows it is violating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, because that amendment expressly forbids general warrants.
In my career as a lawyer, judge, law professor, author and television commentator, I have heard many excuses for violating the Constitution. I reject all of them when they come from one who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, yet I understand the intellectually honest excuses — like exigent circumstances — when they are based on duty. The NSA’s excuses are not intellectually honest, and they are not based on duty. They are based on laziness.
But there was more than met the eye in Litt’s testimony last week. Two days after Litt admitted to the use of general warrants, and while the president was in Europe, the White House leaked to the press its plans to curtail the massive NSA spying. Those plans, which would change only the appearance of what the NSA does but not its substance, have three parts.
The first change relieves the NSA of the need for general warrants to require delivery of massive amounts of data about innocent Americans as to which the NSA has no probable cause, because the second change requires the computer servers and telecoms to preserve their records — instead of the NSA preserving them — and make them “immediately” available to the NSA when it comes calling. And the third is the requirement of a warrant from a FISA judge before the NSA may access that stored data. But because that warrant is not based on probable cause but rather on NSA whim, it is a foregone conclusion that the general warrants for examination, as opposed to delivery, will be granted. The FISA court has granted well in excess of 99 percent of the general warrants the NSA has sought.
Litt must have known what the White House planned to leak when he made his “too difficult” complaint, as it fits nicely with this new scheme. Yet the scheme itself, because it lacks the requirement of probable cause that the Constitution requires, is equally as unconstitutional and morally repugnant as what the NSA has been doing for five years. Moreover, the NSA will not exactly go hat in hand to the computer servers and telecoms once it wishes to hear telephone calls or read emails or credit card bills. Its agents will simply press a few buttons on their computers when they wish, and the data they seek will be made available to them.
These so-called changes should be rejected by Congress, which should overhaul the NSA instead. Hasn’t Congress seen enough? The NSA and the CIA spy on the courts, Congress, the military, the police and everyone in America. This keeps none of us safer. But it does lessen our freedom when those in whose hands we repose the Constitution for safekeeping look the other way. What other freedoms are slipping because Congress, too, thinks upholding the Constitution is too difficult?
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