When one conspires to violate federal law, it helps to have a government agency or two as one’s co-conspirators when law enforcement comes poking around, as telecom giant AT&T and others learned recently when the Defense Department (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) successfully pressured the Justice Department (DOJ) to agree secretly not to prosecute blatantly illegal wiretaps conducted by AT&T and other Internet service providers at the request of the agencies.
Although some press reports have termed this an authorization of activity that would otherwise be illegal, this is a misnomer. The executive branch lacks the power to retroactively declare criminal conduct to be lawful, but it can choose to ignore it by waiving prosecution pursuant to “prosecutorial discretion.”
Although the secret DOJ prosecution waiver initially applied to a cyber-security pilot project—the DIB Cyber Pilot—that allowed the military to monitor defense contractors’ Internet links, the program has since been renamed Enhanced Cybersecurity Services and is being expanded by President Obama to allow the government to snoop on the private networks of all companies operating in “critical infrastructure sectors,” including energy, healthcare, and finance starting June 12.
“The Justice Department is helping private companies evade federal wiretap laws,” warned Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which obtained more than 1,000 pages of government documents relating to the issue via a Freedom of Information Act request. “Alarm bells should be going off.”
The wiretap law referenced by Rotenberg is the Wiretap Act, codified at 18 USC 2511, which makes it a crime for a network operator to intercept communications carried on its networks unless the monitoring is a “necessary incident” to providing the service or it occurs with a user’s “lawful consent.” Since neither of those exceptions applied, DOD and DHS pressed DOJ attorneys to agree not to prosecute what were clearly prosecutable offenses by issuing an unknown number of “2511 letters,” which are normally used by DOJ to tell a company that its conduct fit within one of the lawful exceptions to the Act.
The purported “retroactive authorization” is similar to the “retroactive immunity” given the telecoms by Congress for their participation in illegal wiretapping and eavesdropping between 2001 and 2006. Likewise, former DHS official Paul Rosenzweig compared the case of the “2511 letters” to the CIA asking the Justice Department for legal memos justifying torture a decade ago. “If you think of it poorly, it’s a CYA [“cover your ass] function,” Rosenzweig says. “If you think well of it, it’s an effort to secure advance authorization for an action that may not be clearly legal.” Or may be clearly illegal.
In any event, Obama‘s own expansion by mid-June of the snooping “to all critical infrastructure sectors,” defined as companies providing services whose disruption would harm national economic security or “national public health or safety” will proceed.