Intelligence Legalism and the National Security Agency's Civil Liberties Gap
6 Harvard National Security Journal 112 (2015)
95 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2014 Last revised: 20 Feb 2015
Date Written: October 27, 2014
This paper examines the National Security Agency, its compliance with legal constraints and its respect for civil liberties. But even if perfect compliance could be achieved, it is too paltry a goal. A good oversight system needs its institutions not just to support and enforce compliance but also to design good rules. Yet as will become evident, the offices that make up the NSA’s compliance system are nearly entirely compliance offices, not policy offices; they work to improve compliance with existing rules, but not to consider the pros and cons of more individually-protective rules and try to increase privacy or civil liberties where the cost of doing so is acceptable. The NSA and the administration in which it sits have thought of civil liberties and privacy only in compliance terms. That is, they have asked only “Can we (legally) do X?” and not “Should we do X?” This preference for the can question over the should question is part and parcel, I argue, of a phenomenon I label “intelligence legalism,” whose three crucial and simultaneous features are imposition of substantive rules given the status of law rather than policy; some limited court enforcement of those rules; and empowerment of lawyers. Intelligence legalism has been a useful corrective to the lawlessness that characterized surveillance prior to intelligence reform, in the late 1970s. But I argue that it gives systematically insufficient weight to individual liberty, and that its relentless focus on rights, and compliance, and law has obscured the absence of what should be an additional focus on interests, or balancing, or policy. More is needed; additional attention should be directed both within the NSA and by its overseers to surveillance policy, weighing the security gains from surveillance against the privacy and civil liberties risks and costs. That attention will not be a panacea, but it can play a useful role in filling the civil liberties gap intelligence legalism creates.
Part I first traces the roots of intelligence legalism to the last generation of intelligence disclosures and resulting reform, in the late 1970s. Part I then goes on to detail the ways in which intelligence legalism is embedded in both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) and Executive Order 12,333, which governs American intelligence practices, and why the result is a civil liberties gap. Part II discusses the ways in which NSA’s compliance and oversight institutions likewise embody intelligence legalism. I then move in Part III to some shortcomings of this system, and in particular the ways in which the law and NSA’s compliance regulations and infrastructure fall short of full civil liberties policy evaluation. In Part IV, I examine some of the many reforms that have recently been proposed, analyzing in particular those that might fill that gap. In light of the existing institutional arrangements, I sketch some thoughts on how they could do so most effectively.
Keywords: surveillance, civil liberties, administration, national security
JEL Classification: H56
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation