FISA Reflections: FISA and The FCC

Well, the foul FISA Amendments Act is signed. I shall have more refections as time permits. But I did have one thought here. FISA and the FCC.

The Title II of the FISA Amendment Act of 2008, the “Protection for Electronic Communications Service Providers,” provides for protection from any “covered civil law suit.” As John Dean first observed, the bill does not refer to criminal immunity. Personally, however, I think that is a bit of a red herring, although I am curious as to whether the pardon power really runs to corporations and other artificial person that exist solely as a function of law. But lets assume it does. So let us assume that on his last day, Bush pardons anyone and everyone involved in the whole sorry affair. Where does that leave us?

The Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC is not a “court” of the United State as defined by the act. A complaint brought to the FCC under the Customer Premise Network Information (CPNI) rules, or even the broader provisions of Section 202 “just and reasonable practices,” does not fall within the purview of a “covered civil action.” In the event that a pardon is considered to cover possible administrative sanction, I would observe that a Petition for Declaratory Ruling that the conduct disclosed violated the CPNI rules is not a criminal action or civil liability, but would still entitle the Commission under its broad powers pursuant to Section 4(i) and Section 403 to investigate. Indeed, under Section 403, the Commission is free to conduct an investigation into the matter on its own motion — if it so desires. The Commission is not limited by the Article III “cases or controversies” requirement. It can investigate anything pertinent to its regulation of all communications by wire or radio, particularly when related to administration of any provision of the Act.

The upside is that, short of a statute specifically prohibiting the FCC from investigating anything related to the domestic spying program, it is damn hard to take this broad investigative authority away. As noted above, even the absence of any criminal or civil liability cannot divest the FCC of its authority to investigate communications carriers — particularly those regulated as common carriers under Title II. Given that the Chair of the FCC cannot be removed by the President, and I would need to check about the applicability of an executive order to the FCC, nothing short of a direct Act of Congress again could deprive the FCC of its ability to investigate. (I imagine we will need to watch the appropriations bills very carefully to see if some clever person sneaks it in under the radar.)

The downside, of course, is that this lies entirely within the discretion of the agency. Even a filed complaint or Petition for Declaratory ruling cannot compel the agency to action.

So we shall just have to see what happens after the election. If we have an FCC interested in letting the American people know how their government spied on them, what actual benefit accrued, if any, and what the FCC might do under existing law to keep that from happening again in the future (all, of course, consistent with national security, blah, blah), we can at least find out what went on and shame these companies into being more careful the next time around. OTOH, if we have an FCC that believes that “national security” means giving the telcos a free ride if the Administration asks nicely, then we can’t find out jack.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold,

    That is a fascinating point.

    Can the FCC compel witnesses to testify?

  2. The FCC has the power to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify under oath with regard to matters under its jurisdiction.

  3. If the commission calls AT&T execs to testify, Bush and the execs will start chanting “National Security!” The FCC may have the authority to demand answers anyway, but will they have the moxie to act on it?

  4. Nice theory, Harold, but the Bush Administration would invoke the “state secrets” privilege in about 30 seconds flat.

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