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The Obama administration says it has discovered that it unintentionally misled the Supreme Court last year. That happened when the administration told the justices that the United States always informs terrorism defendants when evidence against them was acquired with a warrantless wiretap. Now the Justice Department is making sure its policy does match what it told the High Court.
NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In many ways, the key figure in this saga is Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the government's chief advocate in the Supreme Court. Just about a year ago, he was in the court chamber arguing that human rights groups had no legal standing to challenge parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.
That law, as amended in 2008, allows the government to conduct electronic surveillance of individuals abroad without a warrant, even though the surveillance may incidentally capture the voices and messages of U.S. citizens. The human rights groups in the case contended that the law was unconstitutional, because their communications with their clients abroad were almost certainly being picked up without a warrant.
When the case got to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Verrilli argued that the groups had no legal standing to challenge the law, because they could not prove that they were spied upon. Several justices pressed Verrilli in open court, asking who then would have standing to challenge the law.
Here's what Verrilli said.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
TOTENBERG: In short, someone who is being criminally prosecuted, and the Supreme Court reiterated that understanding in its subsequent decision.
But in June, Verrilli read a New York Times article reporting that in two terrorism cases, federal prosecutors had refused to disclose whether the defendants had ever been overheard on a warrantless wiretap. The usually soft-spoken solicitor general was furious, according to Justice Department sources.
Verrilli is not the first solicitor general to be burned by his own side. During the presidency of George W. Bush, his solicitor general, Paul Clement, assured the Court in 2004 that the U.S. did not engage in even a little torture. Later that day, the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs were published. In this case, Verrilli set about personally to change the administration's policy.
The issue is complex. To understand it, let's take a fictitious, but likely example. Let's say Bob Smith in the U.S. emails a known terrorist in Pakistan several times. There's nothing obviously incriminating in the emails. But intelligence officials decide they should take a closer look at Bob, and they soon find there are grounds for worry. Based on that, they obtain a warrant.
Listening in on his communications, they collect evidence and charge him with plotting to blow up a bridge in New York. The legal question then is: Does the U.S. government have to tell Bob's lawyers that the government initially got onto him from a warrantless wiretap?
Until recently, Justice Department prosecutors had said no, they didn't have to tell Bob's lawyers. That's where Verrilli disagreed. His reading of the FISA law was that it had a specific requirement. When evidence has been, quote, "derived from a warrantless electronic surveillance," the government, quote, "shall disclose that fact to the defendant." Then the defendant, armed with that knowledge, can file a motion in court to suppress all the other information gathered subsequently, on the grounds that it traces back to the original warrantless surveillance.
Verrilli, according to sources, believed that most, if not all defendants could not make that case in court. He believed that the government could justify the way it compiled evidence independently. But he believed the law still required that the defendants be informed.
National security prosecutors initially had a fit. They said that if defendants were to be told about such things, the intelligence agencies might stop helping the Justice Department make criminal cases. Eventually, lawyers for both the Justice Department and the intelligence agencies had a sit-down. Sources say a consensus was reached that the law does require informing criminal defendants. And if that's going to cause problems, then Congress will have to change the law.
So, sometime in the next few weeks, the Justice Department is expected to inform an accused terrorist in custody that his communications were first picked up before there was a warrant. And that could well send the whole issue back to the Supreme Court.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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