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WASHINGTON – The FBI’s general counsel and the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) testified today before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on the most recent IG report on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs). NSLs allow the FBI to secretly demand personal records about innocent customers from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), communications service providers, libraries, financial institutions and credit reporting agencies without suspicion or prior judicial approval. The FBI can then bar recipients of NSLs from disclosing anything about the records demands.
In January, the IG released a report on the FBI’s use of “exigent letters,” or emergency letters, to gain private records for investigations when no emergency existed. The FBI routinely issued NSLs after the fact in an attempt to legitimize the use of exigent letters. Today, the IG testified on the extent of the abuse of exigent letters and “other informal requests for telephone records.”
The NSL statute was greatly expanded under the Patriot Act, passed hastily by Congress in the days following 9/11. After the statute’s expansion, the IG’s office released a series of reports over the last several years, including its January report, outlining systemic misuse and abuse of NSLs by FBI agents. Late last year, to avoid expiration on December 31, 2009, Congress extended three provisions of the Patriot Act through February 28, 2010. Despite bills pending in both the House and the Senate to amend the expiring provisions, as well as the NSL provision, Congress decided instead to move ahead with a straightforward reauthorization in late February.
The following can be attributed to Laura W. Murphy, Director of the American Civil Liberties Washington Legislative Office:
“It has become painfully clear that unchecked Patriot Act power will inevitably lead to abuse, and National Security Letters are a poignant example. To ensure that our privacy and free speech rights are protected, there must be clear oversight and strict guidelines tied to their use. Innocent Americans have been swept into investigations and recipients have been barred from speaking about it publicly.
“Not only that, report after report from the FBI’s own Inspector General illustrates the blatant and systemic abuse of national security letters. Congress has less than a year before it must address the Patriot Act again. NSL reform must be made a priority this year instead of being kicked further down the road."
The ACLU Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of an ISP that received an NSL, challenging the FBI's authority to demand records through NSLs and to gag NSL recipients. A federal appeals court ruled in 2008 that parts of the NSL statute's gag provisions were unconstitutional and sent the case back to the lower court to decide whether the gag on the ISP could stand. In October 2009, a federal court ruled that the government can continue to enforce the now six-year-old gag order on the ISP even though the FBI abandoned its request for records several years ago.
To learn more about the ACLU’s work on the Patriot Act, go to: www.reformthepatriotact.org