April 13, 2007
Reforming "National Security Letters"
By James Wilson
Perhaps the most controversial part of the PATRIOT Act is the expansion of the federal government's power to issue what are called "National Security Letters." A National Security Letter (NSL) is, as Wikiepdia explains,
a form of administrative subpoena used by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is a demand letter issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various record and data pertaining to individuals. They require no probable cause or judicial oversight. They also contain a gag order, preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued. ... Once passed in 2001, section 505 of the USA PATRIOT Act greatly expanded the use of the NSL, allowing their use in scrutiny of US residents or visitors who are not suspects in any criminal investigation. It also granted the privilege to other federal agencies, presumably to allow the department of Homeland Security the same ability to use NSLs. The USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization statutes passed during the 109th Congress added specific penalties for non-compliance or disclosure.
Investigating individuals without cause or warrant isn't "a power that can be abused," it is itself abuse. That's why a coalition of grassroots organizations, including, has sent its own letter to Congress calling on it to reform the FBI's National Security Letter powers under the Patriot Act. Letters put together by coalitions will not say things exactly the same way would on its own, but there is power in numbers. And reform is obviously needed, as the letter itself shows. An excerpt:
Five years ago, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, giving the FBI extraordinarily broad powers to secretly pry into the lives of Americans and others without any indication they had done anything wrong. The Patriot Act expanded the FBI’s authority to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) by reducing the standard and allowing the FBI to obtain telephone and e-mail records, financial information and consumer credit reports with only a certification that the records sought are “relevant” to an authorized investigation. Under the Patriot Act, information sought with NSLs no longer has to pertain to an agent of a foreign power and is no longer limited to the subjects of FBI investigations. How the FBI used these powers was a zealously guarded secret until March 9, 2007, when a Department of Justice Inspector General audit report was released, revealing widespread misuse and abuse of these NSL authorities. Despite statements to the contrary, the Inspector General found much more than just sloppy management and poor record keeping. The IG’s report documents systematic failures to follow statutory requirements, an inexplicable lack of internal controls, and intentional circumvention of the law. These results were entirely predictable because the violations the IG uncovered were the natural consequences of a statute that allows government agents to access sensitive information without suspicion of wrongdoing, in the absence of court oversight, and with complete secrecy compelled by a gag order enforceable with criminal consequences. The FBI and Department of Justice proved they are incapable of policing themselves. Congress must act now to fix the Patriot Act so these abuses will not continue.
The full letter, and its diverse group of signatories, is attached below.
Filed under Civil Liberties
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