The NSA’s Surveillance is Unconstitutional

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Due largely to unauthorized leaks, we now know that the National Security Agency has seized from private companies voluminous data on the phone and Internet usage of all U.S. citizens. We’ve also learned that the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the constitutionality of these seizures in secret proceedings in which only the government appears, and in opinions kept secret even from the private companies from whom the data are seized.

If this weren’t disturbing enough, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform, is compiling a massive database of citizens’ personal information—including monthly credit-card, mortgage, car and other payments—ostensibly to protect consumers from abuses by financial institutions.

All of this dangerously violates the most fundamental principles of our republican form of government. The Fourth Amendment has two parts: First, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Second, that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

By banning unreasonable “seizures” of a person’s “papers,” the Fourth Amendment clearly protects what we today call “informational privacy.” Rather than seizing the private papers of individual citizens, the NSA and CFPB programs instead seize the records of the private communications companies with which citizens do business under contractual “terms of service.” These contracts do not authorize data-sharing with the government. Indeed, these private companies have insisted that they be compelled by statute and warrant to produce their records so as not to be accused of breaching their contracts and willingly betraying their customers’ trust.

As other legal scholars, most notably Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, have pointed out, when the Fourth Amendment was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, government agents were liable for damages in civil tort actions for trespass. The Seventh Amendment preserved the right to have a jury composed of ordinary citizens pass upon the “reasonableness” of any searches or seizures. Because judges were not trusted to jealously guard the liberties of the people, the Fourth Amendment restricted the issuance of warrants to the heightened requirements of “probable cause” and specificity.

Over time, as law-enforcement agents were granted qualified immunity from civil suits, it fell mainly to judges to assess the “reasonableness” of a government search or seizure during a criminal prosecution, thereby undermining the original republican scheme of holding law enforcement accountable to citizen juries.

True, judges have long been approving search warrants by relying on ex parte affidavits from law enforcement. With the NSA’s surveillance program, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has apparently secretly approved the blanket seizure of data on every American so this “metadata” can later provide the probable cause for a particular search. Such indiscriminate data seizures are the epitome of “unreasonable,” akin to the “general warrants” issued by the Crown to authorize searches of Colonial Americans.

Still worse, the way these programs have been approved violates the Fifth Amendment, which stipulates that no one may be deprived of property “without due process of law.” Secret judicial proceedings adjudicating the rights of private parties, without any ability to participate or even read the legal opinions of the judges, is the antithesis of the due process of law.

In a republican government based on popular sovereignty, the people are the principals or masters and those in government are merely their agents or servants. For the people to control their servants, however, they must know what their servants are doing.

The secrecy of these programs makes it impossible to hold elected officials and appointed bureaucrats accountable. Relying solely on internal governmental checks violates the fundamental constitutional principle that the sovereign people must be the ultimate external judge of their servants’ conduct in office. Yet such judgment and control is impossible without the information that such secret programs conceal. Had it not been for recent leaks, the American public would have no idea of the existence of these programs, and we still cannot be certain of their scope.

Even if these blanket data-seizure programs are perfectly proper now, the technical capability they create makes it far easier for government to violate the rights of the people in the future. Consider why gun rights advocates so vociferously oppose gun registration. By providing the government with information about the location of private arms, gun registries make it feasible for gun confiscation to take place in the future when the political and legal climate may have shifted. The only effective way to prevent the confiscation of firearms tomorrow is to deprive authorities of the means to do so today.

Like gun registries, these NSA and CFPB databanks make it feasible for government workers to peruse the private contents of our electronic communication and financial transactions without our knowledge or consent. All it takes is the will, combined with the right political climate.

Congress or the courts must put a stop to these unreasonable blanket seizures of data and end the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to secretly adjudicate the constitutionality of surveillance programs. Both practices constitute a present danger to popular sovereignty and the rights retained by the people.

Mr. Barnett is a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University and the author of “Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty” (Princeton University, 2005).