Warrantless Wiretapping, FISA Reform, and the Lessons of Public Liberty: A Comment on Holmes' Jorde Lecture
26 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2009
Date Written: April 23, 2009
This Essay responds to Stephen Holmes’ Jorde Lecture, which was delivered at Boalt Hall on November 5, 2007. It builds on his model of “public liberty” by discussing how private liberty, and information privacy in particular, is a precondition for public liberty. For Holmes, private liberty is largely a negative right - a right to be free from governmental interference. In contrast, this Essay considers privacy to be an element of public rights. Participation in a democracy requires individuals to have an underlying capacity for self-determination, which requires some personal privacy.
This Essay analyzes a number of Holmesian concepts through the lens of the recent amendment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In Part I, I describe the background of FISA, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless surveillance program in violation of this statute, and the amendments to this law in the Protect America Act of 2007, a short term statutory “fix” that has expired, and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which remains in effect.
In Part II, I turn to an analysis of the challenges to private and public liberty posed by the NSA’s surveillance. I organize this Part around three topics: (1) past wisdom as codified in law; (2) the impact of secrecy on government behavior; and (3) institutional lessons. As we shall see, a Holmesian search for the wisdom previously collected in law proves quite difficult. FISA regulated some aspects of intelligence gathering and left the intelligence community entirely free to engage in others. Over time, moreover, technological innovations and altered national security concerns transformed the implications of the past policy landscape. As a result, the toughest questions, which concern surveillance of foreign-to-domestic communications, do not receive an easy answer from the past.
Regarding the impact of secrecy on government behavior, the analysis is, at least initially, more straightforward. As Holmes discusses, the Bush administration was adept at keeping secrets not only from the public and other branches of government, but from itself. It is also striking how little Congress knew about NSA activities while amending FISA. The larger lessons, however, prove yet more complicated: strong structural and political factors are likely to limit the involvement of Congress and courts in this area. This Essay concludes by confronting these institutional lessons and evaluating elements of a response that would improve the government’s performance by crafting new informational and deliberative structures for it.
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