The first time Adis Medunjanin tried to call Robert C. Gottlieb in mid-2009, Gottlieb was out of the office. Medunjanin was agitated. He had to speak to an attorney. Gottlieb’s assistant told him Gottlieb would be back soon. When Medunjanin spoke to the lawyer a little later, he was told he might need legal representation. He thought he might be under investigation.
Over the next six months and in forty-two phone calls, Medunjanin sought legal advice from Gottlieb. When he was arrested in January 2010 on charges that he tried to bomb the New York subway, it was Gottlieb who defended him, receiving security clearance to review government documents pertinent to the case in the process.
Gottlieb was preparing Medunjanin’s defense when a federal officer in charge of information distribution e-mailed him that there was new classified information he needed to review at the US Eastern District Court in Brooklyn. “I went over to the Brooklyn Federal courthouse, went up to the secured room, gained entry with the secret security codes, opened the file cabinet that is also secure and in the second drawer was a CD,” Gottlieb told me. On that CD were recordings of every single one of his forty-two phone calls with Medunjanin before he was taken into custody and indicted on January 7, 2010.
Such calls are normally sacrosanct under the principle of attorney-client privilege, the ability to speak confidentially with your lawyer. But a leak to The Guardian last summer of National Security Agency (NSA) procedures that are supposed to protect privileged calls showed that some attorney-client privileged calls are not subject to internal rules that detail the instances when a wiretap should be turned off. A later version of the procedures declassified by the NSA last August contains the same language.
These “minimization” procedures, as they are known, are the rules and regulations for wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). They tell NSA agents when they can listen, and when they have to turn the tap off, when they can record and when they should not be recording. There are rules for which kinds of communications can be monitored—for example, domestic communications are off limits, although communications from agents of foreign powers and suspected terrorists don’t count as domestic—and there is a section that provides for the protection of attorney-client calls.
Section four of the declassified 2011 guidelines is the part of that document that governs wiretapping attorney-client calls. At first glance, it seems quite clear: when the agent realizes that he or she is monitoring an attorney-client communication, “monitoring of that communication will cease and the communication will be identified as an attorney-client communication in a log maintained for that purpose.”
But given a second reading, section four doesn’t apply to all attorney-client calls. It provides only for the minimization (and protection) of the calls of “a person who is known to be under criminal indictment in the United States”—someone who has already been charged under US law. This is because indicted persons have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel. People who aren’t indicted don’t have this right, and so their calls are not minimized. When I asked an NSA press officer, Vanee’ M. Vines, how attorney-client privilege was protected, she referred me to the Department of Justice. I left several messages, but the DOJ never contacted me back.