More on How the FISC Justifies the Legality of Requiring Telephone Providers to Turn Over Entire Databases of Metadata

A month ago, on the day that The Guardian released the FISC order requiring Verizon to turn over all of its telephone metadata, I wrote:

If the order is what it appears to be, then the order points to a problem in Section 1861 that has not been appreciated. Section 1861 says that the “things” that are collected must be relevant to a national security investigation or threat assessment, but it says nothing about the scope of the things obtained. When dealing with a physical object, we naturally treat relevance on an object-by-object basis. Sets of records are different. If Verizon has a database containing records of billions of phone calls made by millions of customers, is that database a single thing, millions of things, or billions of things? Is relevance measured by each record, each customer, or the relevance of the entire database as a whole? If the entire massive database has a single record that is relevant, does that make the entire database relevant, too? The statute doesn’t directly answer that, it seems to me. But certainly it’s surprising — and troubling — if the Section 1861 relevance standard is being interpreted at the database-by-database level.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Siobhan Gorman have an article, Secret Court’s Redefinition of ‘Relevant’ Empowered Vast NSA Data-Gathering, shedding light on the underlying FISC opinion:

The National Security Agency’s ability to gather phone data on millions of Americans hinges on the secret redefinition of the word “relevant.”

. . . In classified orders starting in the mid-2000s, the [FISC] accepted that “relevant” could be broadened to permit an entire database of records on millions of people, in contrast to a more conservative interpretation widely applied in criminal cases, in which only some of those records would likely be allowed, according to people familiar with the ruling.

. . . The court’s interpretation of the word enabled the government, under the Patriot Act, to collect the phone records of the majority of Americans, including phone numbers people dialed and where they were calling from, as part of a continuing investigation into international terrorism.

“Relevant” has long been a broad standard, but the way the court is interpreting it, to mean, in effect, “everything,” is new, says Mark Eckenwiler, a senior counsel at Perkins Coie LLP who, until December, was the Justice Department’s primary authority on federal criminal surveillance law.

“I think it’s a stretch” of previous federal legal interpretations, says Mr. Eckenwiler, who hasn’t seen the secret ruling. If a federal attorney “served a grand-jury subpoena for such a broad class of records in a criminal investigation, he or she would be laughed out of court.”

Two senators on the Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Mark Udall (D., Colo.), have argued repeatedly that there was a “secret interpretation” of the Patriot Act. The senators’ offices tell the Journal that this new interpretation of the word “relevant” is what they meant.

. . .
Under the Patriot Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can require businesses to hand over “tangible things,” including “records,” as long as the FBI shows it is reasonable to believe the things are “relevant to an authorized investigation” into international terrorism or foreign intelligence activities.

The history of the word “relevant” is key to understanding that passage. The Supreme Court in 1991 said things are “relevant” if there is a “reasonable possibility” that they will produce information related to the subject of the investigation. In criminal cases, courts previously have found that very large sets of information didn’t meet the relevance standard because significant portions—innocent people’s information—wouldn’t be pertinent.

But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, FISC, has developed separate precedents, centered on the idea that investigations to prevent national-security threats are different from ordinary criminal cases. The court’s rulings on such matters are classified and almost impossible to challenge because of the secret nature of the proceedings. According to the court, the special nature of national-security and terrorism-prevention cases means “relevant” can have a broader meaning for those investigations, say people familiar with the rulings.