Facebook’s new general counsel is a Trump adviser who helped author Patriot Act

23 Apr 2019

Facebook notifications bar on browser. Image: grinvalds/Depositphotos

Facebook’s latest addition has an impressive if not eyebrow-raising résumé that has seen her hold significant positions in both the Trump and Bush administrations.

Facebook has named Jennifer Newstead, a legal adviser to the US state department, as its chief lawyer. She will replace longtime general counsel Colin Stretch, who announced his departure in July 2018 but will stay on until this summer to aid that transition.

Newstead has previously served in a number of senior government roles, worked as a partner at prestigious law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell, and previously clerked for a supreme court judge.

“Jennifer is a seasoned leader whose global perspective and experience will help us fulfil our mission,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a statement about the appointed released by Facebook on Monday (April 22).

One aspect of her admittedly impressive CV, however – which has elicited some raised eyebrows among tech news outlets and political pundits alike – is her significant role in the creation of the controversial Patriot Act.

As Buzzfeed News reported in 2017, when Newstead was first nominated for the state department job, she joined the justice department in 2001 as a deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal policy. She was later namechecked in a 2002 justice department press release by then head of the office, Viet Dinh, who praised her “enhanced leadership duties and her excellent service on a range of issues – including helping craft the new USA Patriot Act to protect the United States against terror”.

Furthermore, infamous former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo wrote in his 2006 book that Newstead was the “day-to-day manager of the Patriot Act in Congress”.

Bar these statements, little information on the particulars of her role is publicly available, and Newstead has declined to comment on her involvement.

The Patriot Act was passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and brought in a series of new federal crimes related to terrorism. The legislation was broad and much of the government’s expanded surveillance powers stemmed from parts of the act. It enabled, among other things, the controversial Section 215, which was used to justify the National Security Agency’s phone records collection programme.

It also had a “roving wiretap” provision, which allowed government to place a tap on all of an individual’s personal devices based purely on the approval of the notoriously permissive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

As The Verge points out, the Patriot Act also initiated the practice of “national security letters”, a procedure by which intelligence agencies can informally request data without any kind of court or ex parte authorisation, citing threats to national security. Facebook fields thousands of these requests every year, the content of which is generally subject to gag orders and therefore remains publicly unknown. In her capacity as general counsel, Newstead will be able to approve or deny these requests.

Newstead will certainly have her work cut out for her. Facebook is embroiled in a seemingly never-ending stream of scandals, ranging from multiple government investigations to issues with privacy regulations around the world. It has been vilified for its failure to prevent manipulation of both the US presidential election and the UK vote to leave the European Union. Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp has also been accused of enabling the incitement of violence, as misinformation spread through the app has been linked to genocide in Myanmar and riots in India and Sri Lanka.

Facebook notifications bar on browser. Image: grinvalds/Depositphotos

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic