Archive for the ‘National Security’ Category

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

On this latest Miranda thing…

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

So after catching one of the guys thought to have committed the Boston Marathon bombing (and a string of violent acts thereafter), the government said they weren’t going to read him his rights. Not just yet. Invoking the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule, they said they wanted a chance to find out who he was working with, where other bombs might be, etc., before telling him he’s allowed to clam up.

Predictably, a lot of people were upset about this. But why?

Yes, it was wrong of the administration to say that. But not for the reasons everyone’s saying. Not because it’s further eroding our rights (it’s not), but because it’s just stupid.

It conflates intelligence with evidence — stupid. It misses the whole point of Miranda — stupid. It defeats the purpose of intel — stupid. And pisses off those who love the Constitution — stupid.

And of course, it’s nothing new.

About three years ago, the Obama administration made it DOJ policy to permit “unwarned interrogation” not only in situations involving immediate public safety (“where’s the bomb?”), but also cases where cops believe getting intel outweighs your right to remain silent.

The 2010 memorandum states:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

On top of that, the Obama administration wanted Congress to specifically pass legislation allowing longer interrogations before Miranda need be invoked. (A brilliant writer blogged about that memo a couple of years ago, concluding that it was “An Unnecessary Rule.”)

The administration is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Miranda does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. The Fifth Amendment does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. They can interrogate people all they want, in any way they want, and the Constitution doesn’t say jack about it. But if they force you to incriminate yourself against your own will, they’re just not allowed to use those statements against you to prove your guilt in a criminal proceeding. That doesn’t mean they can’t force you to incriminate yourself, and it doesn’t mean they can’t use those statements for other purposes.

But the government wants to be able to do both. It wants to be able to override your free will, force you to condemn yourself, and use your words both to prevent future attacks (laudable) and to convict you so the State can punish you (contemptible).

Their saying this out loud is idiotic, because everyone sees how contemptible it is, and the government looks even more like an enemy of the public, rather than its protector. And of course giving a heads-up to the real bad guys about what we’ll be doing. (And announcing it in a specific case, as they did this week, just lets everyone in the bomber’s organization know that we’re learning everything that guy could tell us. Stupid. You never want the enemy to know how much you know.)

But it’s also stupid because it misses the ENTIRE POINT of Miranda.

Sorry to break this to you, but Miranda isn’t about protecting your rights. It never was.

Miranda is about giving the police a free pass. It always has been.

The Fifth Amendment is there to make sure we don’t have another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its power to override your free will, and make you confess to a crime so it can punish you. Lots of confessions are purely voluntary. In fact, most probably are. But sometimes the government has to force it out of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

But it’s hard for courts to tell voluntary confessions from involuntary ones. They have to look at facts and assess things on a case-by-case basis. That’s hard. And it’s hard for police to know if they’re crossing the line, when the line is different for every individual. So the Miranda rule creates an easy line that applies to everyone:

Say the magic words, and the law presumes that the confession was voluntary.

See how easy that was? Not hard. Easy.

All a cop has to do is recite the Miranda litany as they’re taking a suspect into custody, and BAM! they get to interrogate all they want, and everything the guy says can be used in evidence at his trial.

It is hard to imagine a more pro-law-enforcement rule. In one stroke, Miranda dispensed with actual voluntariness, and replaced it with “as a matter of law” pretend voluntariness.

And yet law enforcement — even our nation’s top officials, who went to law school and everything — astoundingly persist in thinking Miranda is bad for them. They think that, if you mirandize someone, they’ll shut up, and you’ll lose all that delicious intel and lovely evidence. (NYPD officers are actually trained NOT to mirandize people on arrest, for this very reason. Yeah, TV ain’t real life.)

But here’s the kicker: People don’t clam up when they’ve been read their rights. The people who clam up remain silent regardless of whether they’ve been mirandized or not. In fact, there is evidence that people are MORE likely to talk once they’ve been read their rights. They don’t know what those rights mean, but they know they’ve got them, and TV has conditioned them to expect the magic words. So when they hear them, they relax. All is well. Their rights are being acknowledged. And they start blabbing.

So not only do the magic words let you use all those statements, compelled or not, but they actually get the statements flowing.

So wanting to hold off on saying them is just stupid. Counterproductive. Idiotic.

So there’s lots of reasons to dislike what the government is saying in this case. But eroding our rights just isn’t one of them.

You lost those rights in 1966.

A Slightly Longer Answer

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The other day, we said the short answer is that the killing of Osama bin Laden was lawful.  Some have asked for a bit more detail in the answer.  We can’t give the full answer, of course, but we can give a slightly longer one than we did.  A full answer is going to require more facts than we’ve been able to glean from the papers, and is going to have to come from the DoD and the State Department anyway.  They haven’t given a full legal analysis yet (and that’s fine, by the way), and the actual facts seem to change each time we read about what happened.  Fortunately, the law doesn’t change with the facts.  So though we can’t give a full answer, we can make a few assertions with a fair amount of confidence.

First, lawful military targets do not only include those who are in the middle of shooting guns at your soldiers.  Anyone who is an identified member of a hostile enemy is going to be a lawful military target.

Al Qaeda is a known hostile enemy, one which has been involved in combat against the United States for a long time now.  Any identified member of that hostile enemy would be a lawful military target.  It doesn’t matter whether that person was armed or not.  Let’s repeat that: it doesn’t matter whether he was armed or not.  It doesn’t matter whether he poses any immediate threat.  All that matters is that he was an identified member of a hostile enemy.

With uniformed services, this is easy.  If you see a uniformed enemy officer, you’re free to take him out.  The uniform identifies him as a lawful target.  He could be walking down the street, minding his own business — it doesn’t matter.

But with non-uniformed enemies, there has to be some reason to believe the guy walking down the street is a member of that hostile enemy.  There has to be a reasonable certainty that he’s one of them.  In other words, you’ve got a positive I.D.

If you’ve got someone who is an identified member of a hostile enemy — either by uniform or by positive I.D. — then a soldier is allowed to shoot them, even if they pose no particular threat at the moment.  The lawfulness comes not from what they’re doing, but from who they are.

The only real exception is when they are hors de combat — a term of art that essentially means “no longer in a position to fight.”  Examples include the wounded, POWs, and those who have surrendered.

The only variable in Osama bin Laden’s case is whether he was hors de combat at the time he was shot.  Unless that exception applies, he was a perfectly lawful target.  The orders to kill him were lawful, and those carrying out the kill mission were acting lawfully in following those orders.

We weren’t there, and neither were you, so it’s impossible to say whether bin Laden had been incapacitated or had surrendered prior to being shot.  The facts reported thus far is that this wasn’t the case.  He doesn’t seem to have been the type to surrender in the first place.  And even if he had wanted to, the burden is not on the soldiers to figure that out — he’d have to make it extremely clear.  Which can be difficult in the middle of a firefight.

So there’s no reason to believe he was hors de combat. Given that, and given that there was a reasonable certainty that he was a member of al Qaeda, a known hostile enemy, he was a lawful military target, and it was lawful for the SEALs to take him out.

And that’s really all there is to it.

We’re Glad You Asked That

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

It’s only been a few days since Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military assault on his compound in Pakistan.  And in those few days, the internet has been buzzing with discussions, debates and hand-wringing over whether the U.S. acted lawfully.  We’ve been reading thoughts of people on every continent, regular folks with access to a computer, who may or may not even know what they’re talking about.  And all we have to say is this:

We’re glad to be living in a world where such hand-wringing is possible.  More than that — a world where it’s actually meaningful (rather than silly) to wonder whether a precise military action by the world’s single greatest military power, against its universally-acknowledged military enemy, comported with some higher and overriding law.  A world where such hand-wringing is done at great length by that same great power, prior to engaging in the military action to begin with.

Imagine that, just for a moment.  Has this ever before been the norm, in the entire history of mankind?  Because it sure is now.

-=-=-=-=-

How did we get here?  How did the world evolve to a point where the Rule of Law is the rule, not the exception?  Where everyone pretty much expects that even the greatest military power is not above the law?

It’s been a long time coming.  International law has been developing for centuries.  But credit has to go to the  U.S. and to the U.N., both for living by the Rule of Law (most of the time) and spreading the ideal and the idea.  It matters that the world’s superpower acknowledges the law, and cares deeply whether its actions are lawful, no matter which party happens to hold the presidency at the moment.  It also matters that the world has an engine for forming and enforcing (somewhat) rules that are binding not only on those who would be bound, but also on the strongmen and thugs who would not.

Of course, we’re not all the way there yet.  There still are plenty of places where the Rule of Law doesn’t exist.  They suffer for it — not just atrocities and depredation, but failed economies, corrupt governments, and dearth of opportunity.  If there is one thing above all that separates the first world from the third world, it is the Rule of Law.  Especially in this globalized world, the places that succeed are those where contracts can be counted on, everyone has to play by the same rules, and the rules are actually enforced.  Once you’ve got that, you can kind of predict what’s going to happen with enough certainty to invest one’s time, labor or capital to actually do something.

And it’s easy to spot the countries without the Rule of Law.  For example:

Still, the world is on the right path.  Let’s hope that there really is some sort of “arrow of history” like the one Francis Fukuyama proposed back in ’92 (though he did subsequently back away from the idea).  We’re hardly Utopian in outlook — our own mother calls us “old doom and gloom” — but it’s not unrealistic to hope for at least a trend towards more and more Rule of Law in the world, with the result of more and more general safety, security and opportunity.

-=-=-=-=-

But we’re getting off topic.

The point is, we’re glad to be living in a world that can be full of hand-wringers over whether the U.S. acted lawfully in taking out an apparently unarmed Osama bin Laden, without instead capturing him and putting him through a criminal process of some sort with due process, etc.

(And for those who really want to know whether it was lawful or not, the short answer is yes.  The medium answer is he was a lawful target of a lawfully authorized kill mission during a war in which both he and the U.S. soldiers were combatants.  From all that we’ve read, it was done by the book.)

An Unnecessary Rule: FBI Memo on Mirandizing Terror Suspects is a Waste of Paper

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

So on Thursday the WSJ reported that the Obama administration has changed the rules of investigating terror suspects, to permit interrogation without Miranda warnings in certain circumstances:

A Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum reviewed by The Wall Street Journal says the policy applies to “exceptional cases” where investigators “conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat.” Such action would need prior approval from FBI supervisors and Justice Department lawyers, according to the memo, which was issued in December but not made public.

We made a few notes, hoping to get a minute to blog on the issue.  It just struck us as a stupid and unnecessary thing to do, if prevention of terrorist acts is the goal.  Miranda is just a protection affecting evidence that can be used at the trial of the person being interrogated.  That has to do with evidence of past crimes; it’s irrelevant to the prevention of future acts.  And if the goal is to gather evidence for a criminal trial, then it’s just unconstitutional.  It’s stupid no matter which way you look at it.  But our current never-ending trial is demanding pretty much every waking moment, and nothing got written.

Then yesterday the NYT published the text of the October 2010 FBI memo.  The relevant paragraph provides that:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

At the words “prompt presentment,” we (figuratively) slapped our forehead.  It all came back to us.  In May 2010, when the Obama administration first floated the idea, (more…)

Right for the Wrong Reasons: Why terrorists and enemy combatants don’t belong in civilian criminal courts

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Last week, the House passed a bill that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts (by cutting off the funds to do so).  The Senate is now considering it as part of the 1,900-page omnibus spending bill.  This is largely seen as a reaction to the acquittal of Ahmed Ghaliani — the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court — of more than 280 charges stemming from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

The Obama administration is fighting against it, with AG Holder writing a (fairly lame, in our eyes) letter insisting that we absolutely must use civilian courts to deal with terrorists and captured combatants.  Essentially, his argument is that civilian courts are a tool that has worked before, so why deny that tool to the executive branch and make it fight the bad guys with one hand tied behind its back?

Ignore the ham-handed attempt to co-opt a common complaint about the left’s frequent insistence on soldiers doing actual fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, lest they rile someone’s sensibilities.  It’s a dumb argument.  Guantanamo detainees didn’t commit crimes within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.  Their acts are acts of war, or of transnational combat that is more like war than anything else.

Congress is gearing up to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.  The principle should not be “we can’t do this because we might lose in court” — that’s not even a principle.  It’s just a weakling’s worry.  The principle should be “we can’t do this because it’s wrong.”

First off, soldiers are (more…)

Defending Assange

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Now that Julian Assange has been arrested in the U.K., his fight for the moment is to prevent extradition to Sweden, which wants to arrest him for questioning about allegations of sexual misconduct.  But given the comparative laxity of any punitive measures Sweden might impose even in the worst case scenario, a more troubling concern is the possibility of extradition to the United States for criminal prosecution for espionage.

If that happens,  however, he might have a pretty good shot at winning.

The Espionage Act of 1917, 18 USC §§792-799, is what he’d have to deal with (there are reports that the DOJ is already preparing these charges).  Here are the parts that are most likely to apply:

§793(c) gets you up to 10 years in prison for receiving anything pertaining to U.S. national defense, if you did it while having “reason to believe” that it was illegally obtained, and that it would be used either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country.

§793(e) gets you up to 10 years in prison if you’re in possession of such stuff, and you have “reason to believe” that it “could be used” either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country, and you go ahead and disseminate it or cause it to be disseminated.

Well, wait, you say.  Those sound pretty much exactly like what Assange freely admits to having done.  A private in the U.S. Army apparently downloaded a whole bunch of confidential documents, and provided them to Wikileaks.  Assange ordered the documents to be released, publicized what he was doing, and publicized that it would likely injure the United States.  Forget all of Assange’s bluster about the harm being minimal.  His actions seem to hit all the statutory elements.  So how can he win?

As several have (more…)