5 Myths About the Bush Administration's Use of National Security Letters

Document Date: March 19, 2007

MYTH #1: There were no intentional violations of NSL policy or procedure, so no one should be held accountable.

REALITY: The Inspector General (IG) found that agents intentionally went around the NSL statute to provide phony information requests to telephone companies based on false statements. In particular, the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit declared itself unbound by the NSL statute because the statute was “insufficient,” and contracted with the telephone companies to access information directly. Those contracts were approved by the FBI’s Office of General Counsel, and exploited by issuing “exigent” or emergency letters—which plainly do not exist in law –when no emergency existed. These are not innocent mistakes but the intentional violation of U.S. law to access private records.

MYTH #2: Sloppy management is to blame and can be fixed internally at the FBI.

REALITY: The IG’s report confirms that the FBI cannot police itself. The FBI has been given too much power and is abusing it to stockpile massive databases on innocent Americans. It’s time for Congress to create meaningful standards to regulate the issuance of NSLs. It is the current “relevance” standard, combined with a lack of judicial control and a gag order that binds NSL recipients from disclosing that they have received an NSL that planted the seeds for this debacle. In fact, even if management and technology challenges are met, hundreds of thousands of NSLs will continue to be issued to collect information on innocent Americans because that is exactly what the statute allows.

MYTH #3: The report confirms how useful NSLs are in the war on terror.

REALITY: The Inspector General was able to confirm only 1 terror-related conviction based on information discovered in an NSL. While 22 FBI offices (out of 46 who participated in the audit) said they referred cases to the criminal division for prosecution, they were for fraud, immigration and money laundering related charges. And out of 143,074 NSLs issued over three years, only 153 “criminal proceedings” ensued, and only one of those can be confirmed as having resulted in a terrorism conviction.

MYTH #4: A very small number of violations were found.

REALITY: 22 percent of files examined by the Inspector General contained unreported violations. Projected on to over 143,000 NSL requests, it is likely that there have been tens of thousands of violations between 2003 and 2005.

MYTH #5: Violations are not a civil liberty concern because this authority is targeting foreigners.

REALITY: Latest numbers confirm that a majority of NSLs seek information about U.S. persons. The proportion of Americans caught up in NSL requests is growing: NSL requests for information on US citizens and permanent residents increased from 39 percent of NSLs issued in 2003 to 53 percent of NSLs issued in 2005.

Related Issues