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In April 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Defense and the CIA to turn over documents concerning their use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to demand private and sensitive records about people within the United States without court approval. After they failed to comply, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in June 2007.
NSLs are secretly issued by the government to obtain access to personal customer records from Internet service providers, financial institutions, and credit reporting agencies. In almost all cases, recipients of the NSLs are forbidden, or “gagged,” from disclosing that they have received the letters. While the FBI has broad NSL powers and compliance with FBI-issued NSLs is mandatory, the Defense Department’s NSL power is more limited in scope, and, in most cases, compliance with Defense Department demands is not mandatory.
The New York Times first revealed in January 2007 that recipients of the letters reported confusion over the scope of the information requested and whether compliance with the NSL was legally required. The documents released to the ACLU confirm that the letters are coercive and do not make clear that compliance with the Defense Department’s “requests” for information is voluntary.
In October 2007, the ACLU received documents from the Department of Defense that reveal that DoD has secretly issued hundreds of NSLs to obtain private and sensitive records of people within the United States without court approval. A comprehensive analysis of 455 NSLs issued after 9/11 shows that the Defense Department seems to have collaborated with the FBI to circumvent the law, may have overstepped its legal authority to obtain financial and credit records, provided misleading information to Congress, and silenced NSL recipients from speaking out about the records requests.
All of the Defense Department documents obtained by the ACLU can be found online at: www.aclu.org/national-security/nsl-documents-released-dod