Monday, November 8, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning in a case testing the interplay between the state secrets privilege and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Here's my argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Does Section 1806(f) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires certain judicial procedures when the government seeks to protect evidence in certain cases in the national security, displace the state-secrets privilege?
Case at a Glance
For at least 14 months between 2006 and 2007, the FBI operated a surveillance program within the Muslim community in Southern California in order to identify potential terrorists. Members of the community sued, arguing that the program and its agents engaged in illegal searches, and that the program and its agents illegally targeted members of the community because of their religion. The government moved to dismiss the claims under the state-secrets privilege.
The state-secrets privilege is an evidentiary privilege with constitutional underpinnings that allows the government to move to block certain evidence that could threaten the national security. At the same time, Section 1806(f) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prescribes a judicial process in certain circumstances for determining whether evidence could threaten the national security. This case tests the interplay of the state-secrets privilege and Section 1806(f).
Does Section 1806(f) displace the state-secrets privilege?
For at least 14 months between 2006 and 2007, the FBI operated a surveillance program in Southern California called Operation Flex. According to the FBI, the purpose of the program “was to determine whether particular individuals were involved in the recruitment and training of individuals in the United States or overseas for possible terrorist activity.” According to the plaintiffs, the “central feature” of the program was to “gather information on Muslims.”
As part of the program, the FBI engaged Craig Monteilh to be a confidential informant. Monteilh’s supervisors, FBI Special Agents Kevin Armstrong and Paul Allen, instructed him to gather information on Muslims, particularly religious Muslims and individuals who might influence young Muslims.
In July 2006, Monteilh started attending the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI) in order to gather information. Monteilh attended daily prayers, classes, and special events; declared his desire to convert to Islam; and adopted the name Farouk al-Aziz. He also visited at least seven other mosques in Orange County, and infiltrated the local Muslim community in other ways, too.
On instructions from Armstrong and Allen, Monteilh secretly recorded nearly all of his interactions and took extensive hand-written notes. Monteilh ultimately gave the FBI “hundreds of phone numbers; thousands of email addresses; background information on hundreds of individuals; hundreds of hours of video recordings of the interiors of mosques, homes, businesses, and associations; and thousands of hours of audio recordings of conversations, public discussion groups, classes, and lectures.”
In early 2007, Armstrong and Allen instructed Monteilh to start asking more direct questions about the community’s willingness to engage in violence. Monteilh told several members of the community that he believed that he had a duty as a Muslim to take violent action and that he had access to weapons.
Several IOCI members reported Monteilh to community leaders, and one of them, in turn, called the FBI and instructed concerned members to call the Irvine Police Department. The IOCI sought and received a restraining order against Monteilh.
In October 2007, the FBI released Monteilh. His identity as an informant was revealed in February 2009, as part of a criminal prosecution for naturalization fraud of one of the IOCI member who initially reported Monteilh. The FBI, Monteilh, and others subsequently confirmed that Monteilh worked for the FBI. While the FBI disclosed some information about Monteilh’s activities, it maintains that “certain specific information” must remain secret in the interest of national security.
In September 2011, three members of the local Muslim community sued as a putative class. (Plaintiff Sheikh Yassir Fazaga was an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation; plaintiffs Ali Uddin Malik and Yasser AbdelRahim are practicing Muslims who regularly attend services at the ICOI.) They alleged that the FBI and its agents violated a variety of constitutional and statutory provisions, falling into two broad categories: unconstitutional search claims and religious-freedom claims. The plaintiffs’ religion claims allege that the defendants violated the First Amendment Religion Clauses, equal protection, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).
The government moved to dismiss the case on a variety of grounds. As relevant here, the government invoked the state-secrets privilege and moved to dismiss the religion claims (but not the search claims) on that ground. (The state-secrets privilege protects evidence that, if revealed, could threaten the national security.) The government argued that the religion claims could not proceed without risking disclosure of certain evidence protected by the privilege. In support of its claim, the government submitted public and classified declarations by Department of Justice leaders.
The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ FISA claim against the government on other grounds, and allowed the plaintiffs’ FISA claim against individual agents to go forward.
In a separate order addressing the government’s motion to dismiss under the state-secrets privilege, the court dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ remaining religion claims and the Fourth Amendment search claim (even though the government did not seek dismissal of the search claim under the state-secrets privilege). In so ruling, the court relied “heavily” on the government’s classified declarations and supplemental memorandum.
The court did not use the procedure for review of the evidence set out in Section 1806(f) of the FISA, which prescribes an in camera, ex parte process for courts to use when the government claims that “disclosure [of particular evidence] in a case or an adversary hearing would harm the national security of the United States.” The court said that Section 1806(f) did not apply to non-FISA claims. (Remember that the government moved to dismiss only the non-FISA religion claims based on the state-secrets privilege. The court addressed the FISA claims separately.)
The Ninth Circuit reversed. The appellate court held that the Section 1806(f) procedure “displaces the dismissal remedy of the common law state secrets privilege as applied to electronic surveillance generally.” It ruled that the district court therefore should have used the Section 1806(f) procedures to evaluate the evidence and determine whether the state-secrets privilege applied. It directed the lower court, on remand, to apply Section 1806(f)’s ex parte and in camera procedures to “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.” The Ninth Circuit wrote that the lower court, in making this determination under Section 1806(f), could disclose to the plaintiffs “portions of the application, order, or other materials relating to the surveillance” if disclosure was “necessary to make an accurate determination.”
The FBI then brought this appeal.
Section 1806(f) of the FISA directs a court to apply certain procedures whenever the government claims that disclosure of evidence in certain types of cases could threaten the national security. In particular, the Section requires the court to “review in camera and ex parte the application, order, and such other materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary to determine whether the surveillance of the aggrieved person was lawfully authorized and conducted.” The Section goes on to say that “the court may disclose to the aggrieved person, under appropriate security procedures and protective orders, portions of the application, order or other materials relating to the surveillance only where such disclosure is necessary to make an accurate determination of the legality of the surveillance.”
The state-secrets privilege, in contrast, is an evidentiary privilege, with constitutional, separation-of-powers roots, that allows the government to protect evidence in proceedings when the government certifies that the evidence, if revealed, could threaten the national security. At the outside, the privilege allows the government to move to dismiss an entire case, if the putatively protected evidence is so central to the case that the case cannot move forward without it.
The case asks whether the Section 1806(f) process “displaces” the state-secrets privilege. This question, in turn, depends on the scope and operation of the state-secrets privilege and the interplay between the two.
The government argues first that the Ninth Circuit erred in ordering the district court to apply the Section 1806(f) procedure in the first place. The government points out that Section 1806(f) is available in only three limited situations defined in the Section itself, and that none of these includes a civil action like the plaintiffs’ case. The government says that the Ninth Circuit wrongly shoehorned this case into two of those three situations. First, the government contends that the Ninth Circuit erroneously considered the government’s motion to dismiss the case as notice of the government’s intent “to enter into evidence or otherwise use or disclose” the privileged information “against an aggrieved person,” thus satisfying one of the three situations that trigger a Section 1806(f) process. The government says that this misconstrues the state-secrets privilege, which is designed to protect information, not signal its disclosure and use. Second, the government asserts that the Ninth Circuit wrongly considered the plaintiffs’ request for relief in its civil suit as a “motion or request * * * to discover, obtain, or suppress evidence or information obtained or derived from electronic surveillance,” another of the three situations that trigger a Section 1806(f) process. The government contends that the plaintiffs’ prayer for relief in their civil case is simply not a “motion.”
Moreover, the government argues that the Ninth Circuit erred in applying the Section 1806(f) procedure. The government claims that the Ninth Circuit “reasoned that Section 1806(f) provides a mechanism for litigating a civil plaintiff’s claims to final judgment.” (Remember that the Ninth Circuit’s remand order directed the district court to “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.”) But the government says that “nothing in Section 1806(f) suggests that it was intended to be used to litigate, ex parte and in camera, the merits of a case.” Instead, the government contends that a Section 1806(f) proceeding culminates only in a grant or denial of a motion related to the admissibility of evidence, not a “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.”
The government argues next that Section 1806(f) does not displace the state-secrets privilege. It says that nothing in FISA even mentions the state-secrets privilege, much less suggests that FISA displaces it. And it says that Section 1806(f) is perfectly compatible “with the continued vitality of the privilege.” The government contends that even if there were any doubt, the government should interpret Section 1806(f) as not displacing the privilege.
Finally, the government argues that the state-secrets privilege has constitutional roots and is an essential aspect of presidential power. It claims that any congressional effort to displace or abrogate the privilege must therefore include a clear statement, and neither Section 1806(f) nor any other provision of FISA does.
The plaintiffs counter first that the state-secrets privilege does not support dismissal of their case. They contend that the state-secrets privilege, like other evidentiary privileges, supports the exclusion of evidence from a case so that no party can use it. But the plaintiffs say their religion claims don’t depend on secret evidence. And in any event, they contend that the government seeks both to exclude secret evidence and to use that evidence in its own defense in support of dismissal. They claim that the government’s effort both to exclude and to use the evidence is inconsistent with the very nature of a privilege (which is designed to entirely exclude evidence from a case).
Moreover, they assert that the government, in so arguing, improperly conflates the state-secrets evidentiary privilege with a categorical bar to litigation, which the Court has only applied in “government-contracting lawsuits where the “very subject matter’ of the suit is secret.” The plaintiffs say that they never contracted with the government, and never assumed the risk that they would forfeit judicial review of any contract, and so the categorical bar does not apply. The plaintiffs contend that the district court improperly dismissed their case, and that it should have simply excluded any privileged evidence and allowed the case to move forward.
The plaintiffs argue next that even if the state-secrets privilege would support dismissal, Section 1806(f) displaced it in cases involving electronic surveillance. They contend that Section 1806(f) applies here, because the government seeks to “use” secret information in its defense to the plaintiffs’ religion claims, and because the plaintiffs are “aggrieved persons” who asked, through their prayer for relief in their complaint, to “obtain” information that the government illegally gathered. Contrary to the government, they say that they therefore satisfy the threshold requirements for Section 1806(f).
The plaintiffs claim that the government’s arguments to the contrary are not supported by Section 1806(f)’s plain text, which, they say, is not limited to procedural motions. Moreover, they contend that the government’s reading would render meaningless Section 1810 of FISA, which creates a civil damages remedy for victims of unlawful electronic surveillance. They explain: “Defendants’ argument would leave the government free to win dismissal of virtually any Section 1810 suit simply by asserting that the underlying conduct was secret—whether or not it was lawful—thus nullifying the civil damages remedy Congress created to ensure surveillance remains constrained by law.”
The plaintiffs argue, contrary to the government, that FISA does, in fact, clearly displace the state-secrets privilege. They say that while FISA does not use the phrase “state secrets privilege,” it nevertheless refers to the privilege when it uses the phrase “national security,” which raises exactly the same concerns. The plaintiffs contend that this poses no constitutional problem, as the government argues, because Congress has clear authority to displace the state-secrets privilege as part of its authority to regulate surveillance and establish evidentiary rules for civil litigation over that surveillance. Moreover, the plaintiffs assert that displacement raises no constitutional problem for individual government agents, because FISA itself, in Section 1806(g), requires that any remedies must be “in accordance with the requirements of law,” including the Constitution.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the government’s position raises serious constitutional problems. They say that the government, by seeking both to protect secret information and to use that information in its own defense, effectively deprives the plaintiffs of “any judicial determination of whether the Government broke the law.” This aggrandizes the power of the executive at the expense of the judiciary and Congress, and leaves the plaintiffs without a judicial remedy.
On the face of it, this case asks an extremely narrow and hyper-technical question—whether Section 1806(f) of the FISA displaces the state-secrets privilege. But in order to answer that question, the Court will likely have to address a much bigger issue, that is, the scope and operation of the state-secrets privilege.
In particular: How should courts treat and evaluate the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege over information that the government obtained through surveillance?
The government adopts a muscular view of the privilege. It emphasizes the privilege’s constitutional roots; argues that Congress cannot displace it or channel its operation through ordinary legislation like Section 1806(f); and contends that the courts must broadly defer to the government’s assertion of the privilege, and even dismiss cases when the government claims that they cannot be litigated without revealing privileged information that could threaten the national security. In other words, the government claims that courts must take the government’s say-so when it invokes the privilege, based only on the government’s affidavits in support, and without independently assessing—even ex parte and even in camera—the putatively protected material. And because of the privilege’s constitutional roots, the government claims that Congress cannot displace, or even channel, this deference through ordinary legislation. At risk of stating the obvious, the government’s interpretation of the privilege puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the executive branch to conceal particular evidence and even shut down cases entirely. (The government doesn’t have a particularly reassuring track record in this regard. In the very case where the Court established the modern privilege, United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953), the government turned out to have misled the courts about its need to invoke the privilege to protect the national security.)
The plaintiffs, for their part, proffer a much narrower view of the privilege. They emphasize the privilege’s common-law roots, and argue that Congress can, and did, displace it through Section 1806(f). But this approach could lead to the disclosure of secret information, even if only to a judge, alone in chambers, exercising discretion in a Section 1806(f) process, and thus threaten national security. This approach could also lead to the disclosure of secret information to other parties, as a judge might determine necessary, even further threatening national security.
The Court may have to decide between these approaches (or a third, middle way) and address the scope of the privilege for the first time since Reynolds.
I say “may” because the Court has an off ramp, maybe even two, and could dodge harder questions about the scope of the state-secrets privilege, at least for now. For one, the Court could simply rule that the plaintiffs’ case does not qualify for the Section 1806(f) process, as the government argues, and dodge the harder question whether Section 1806(f) displaces the state-secrets privilege. If so, the Court could simply reverse the Ninth Circuit and remand for further proceedings (which would presumably include consideration of the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege). For a second, the Court could rule on the displacement question without fully expounding the state-secrets privilege. If so, the Court could rule on the merits and, if it ruled for the government, remand the case for further proceedings (which again would presumably include consideration of the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege). Either way, the Court could avoid the harder questions about the scope of the state-secrets privilege. But either way, the case would almost certainly come back to the Court.
One final note. This is one of two cases this Term to raise issues related to the state-secrets privilege. (That’s extraordinary, by the way. But it’s also much needed, given that the Court hasn’t said anything serious about the privilege since Reynolds.) The other case is United States v. Zubaydah, argued on October 6, and previewed in the last issue of Preview. Zubaydah raises different questions about the privilege. But between the two cases, the Court this Term has a singular opportunity to define the scope of the privilege and state determinatively how it shall operate in the courts.