Law in the News – National Security Letters

Since the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and its renewal in 2006, it has been a source of controversy. The USA Patriot Act was originally passed in the wake of the September 11th terrorist acts to give national law enforcement the powers it needed to pursue terrorists. The legislation was broad reaching and affected many different areas of the law including immigration, banking, and sentencing guidelines. Although subsequent federal courts have questioned the constitutionality of some aspects of the act, none of those instances has attracted as much media attention as the recent “National Security Letters” investigation. A March 10th 2007 Washington Post article broke the story that the Justice Department found “widespread abuse” of the FBI’s authority to obtain personal and sensitive information from tens of thousands of people without any court oversight through the use of the National Security Letters. As outlined in section 505, the USA Partiot Act expanded the circumstances and powers in which NSL provisions can be invoked. Originally, NSL compliance was not mandatory and even when it was amended to be mandatory, there was no penalty of non-compliance. The USA PATRIOT act expanded the reach of NSLs by allowing their use on people who are not even suspects in a crime and also adding strict penalties for non-compliance. NSLs can be used to obtain credit and financial information, email and telephone records with only the approval of an FBI district manager, not even a court order. The recent Justice Department report highlighted numerous instances of how the FBI improperly obtained thousands of personal records with out proper oversight. For example, the FBI forced the telephones companies to allow access to over 3,000

telephone numbers with cause or reason. The controversy that erupted also forced a public apology from the FBI Director, Robert Mueller, and assurances of restraint from the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzolaes. Top democrats have already promised to reign in powers through legislative actions. This is not the first controversy surrounding NSLs. During the re-authorization of the USA PATRIOT ACT, civil libertarians pointed out the large amount of national security letters that were handed out (30,000 a year according to the Washington Post). Often the people whose information is sought out by NSL have no relationship to terror. The ACLU suspects that the FBI is going on a "fishing expedition" by sending out mass letters and hopping that a relevant terrorist is found among them. I think that the FBI is going overboard with its ability to use national security letters. They are abusing their powers by being able to obtain all kinds of personal records and without any court oversight. Because the recipients of NSLs are subjected to a gag order and therefore can not share any information surrounding the circumstances of the letter. In the court case Doe v. Ashcroft, they have decided that section 505 of the USA PATRIOT act was unconstitutional; “it has the effect of authorizing coercive searches effectively immune from any judicial process”. However, given the questions surrounding the independence of the Justice Department, it is unlikely they will be aggressively pursuing any abuse of the National Security Letter by the FBI.

Works Cited “Abuse of Authority.” The Washington Post 11 Mar. 2007: B06. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/‌wp-dyn/‌content/‌article/‌2007/‌03/‌10/‌ AR2007031000983_pf.html>. “FBI Audit Prompts Calls for Reform.” The Washington Post 10 Mar. 2007: A01. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/‌wp-dyn/‌content/‌article/‌2007/‌03/‌09/‌ AR2007030902356_pf.html>. “Frequent Errors In FBI’s Secret Records Requests.” The Washington Post 10 Mar. 2007. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/‌wp-dyn/‌content/‌article/‌2007/‌03/‌ 10/‌AR2007031000445_pf.html>. “National Security Letters Gag Patriot Act Debate.” American Civil Liberties Union. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.aclu.org/‌safefree/‌nationalsecurityletters/‌index.html>. “Of liberty and libraries.” The Economist 14 Dec. 2005. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://economist.com/‌world/‌na/‌displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_VPDSGNJ>. “Of liberty and libraries.” The Economist 14 Dec. 2005. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://economist.com/‌world/‌na/‌displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_VPDSGNJ>. Smith, R. Jeffrey. “FBI Violations May Number 3,000, Official Says.” The Washington Post 21 Mar. 2007: A07. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/‌wp-dyn/‌ content/‌article/‌2007/‌03/‌20/‌AR2007032000921_pf.html>. U. S. Department of Justice. Office of the Inspector General. A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation&#8217;s Use of National Security Letters. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://www.usdoj.gov/‌oig/‌special/‌s0703b/‌final.pdf>.

Wikisource. 21 Mar. 2007 <http://en.wikisource.org/‌wiki/‌USA_PATRIOT_Act/‌ Title_V#Sec._505._Miscellaneous_national_security_authorities.>.