How secrecy works

This is how state secrecy has traditionally worked:

In February, the Supreme Court dismissed a case challenging its constitutionality because the plaintiffs, led by Amnesty International, could not prove they had been wiretapped. Mr. Verrilli had told the justices that someone else would have legal standing to trigger review of the program because prosecutors would notify people facing evidence derived from surveillance under the 2008 law.

But it turned out that Mr. Verrilli’s assurances clashed with the practices of national security prosecutors, who had not been alerting such defendants that evidence in their cases had stemmed from wiretapping their conversations without a warrant.

In other words, it is almost impossible to try this in court and so there is no real oversight. That might be changing:

Five years after Congress authorized a sweeping warrantless surveillance program, the Justice Department is setting up a potential Supreme Court test of whether it is constitutional by notifying a criminal defendant — for the first time — that evidence against him derived from the eavesdropping, according to officials.

Prosecutors plan to inform the defendant about the monitoring in the next two weeks, a law enforcement official said. The move comes after an internal Justice Department debate in which Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued that there was no legal basis for a previous practice of not disclosing links to such surveillance, several Obama administration officials familiar with the deliberations said.

Of course, it won’t be easy:

The department’s practices came under scrutiny after a December 2012 speech by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee. During debate over extending the 2008 law, she warned that terrorism remained a threat. Listing several terrorism-related arrests, she added, “so this has worked.”

Lawyers in two of the cases Ms. Feinstein mentioned — one in Fort Lauderdale and one in Chicago — asked prosecutors this spring to confirm that surveillance under the 2008 law had played a role in the investigations of their clients so they could challenge it.

But prosecutors said they did not have to make such a disclosure. On June 7, The New York Times published an article citing Ms. Feinstein’s speech and the stance the prosecutors had taken.

As a result, Mr. Verrilli sought an explanation from national security lawyers about why they had not flagged the issue when vetting his Supreme Court briefs and helping him practice for the arguments, according to officials.

The national security lawyers explained that it was a misunderstanding, the officials said. Because the rules on wiretapping warrants in foreign intelligence cases are different from the rules in ordinary criminal investigations, they said, the division has long used a narrow understanding of what “derived from” means in terms of when it must disclose specifics to defendants.

Yes, it was a misunderstanding. Expect to see lots of this in the future.

But in a twist, in the Chicago and Fort Lauderdale cases that Ms. Feinstein had mentioned, prosecutors made new court filings saying they did not intend to use any evidence derived from surveillance of the defendants under the 2008 law.

When defense lawyers asked about Ms. Feinstein’s remarks, a Senate lawyer responded in a letter that she “did not state, and did not mean to state” that those cases were linked to the warrantless surveillance program. Rather, the lawyer wrote, her point was that terrorism remained a problem.

Expect to also see this a lot–information is found using such surveillance and they use this information to find evidence while denying they used surveillance initially (of course it will be almost impossible to know in which cases this happens).

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