ACLU Calls for Investigation into NSL Abuse

April 8, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday called on Department of Justice Inspector General Glenn Fine to begin an internal investigation into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) use of National Security Letters (NSLs), and whether they were used to funnel Americans’ private information to the Department of Defense (DOD). The NSL statute is a tool used by law enforcement to compel the release of information, such as communications or business records, without a court order. The revelation that the military is getting the FBI to issue NSLs in strictly DOD investigations was disclosed in documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The ACLU sent a letter to Fine yesterday asking him to investigate whether the FBI has aided the DOD in circumventing the law.

“If the DOD has, in fact, used the FBI to sidestep the law and gain access to Americans’ private information that they are not entitled to, there should be swift and severe consequences,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “The military has no business conducting domestic investigations. A tool as invasive and susceptible to abuse as the NSL authority should have as many safeguards as possible. Given the last two reports by Mr. Fine’s office regarding the FBI’s abuse of NSLs, it’s clear that both agencies are either unwilling or unable to police themselves when it comes to this intrusive power.”

The ACLU’s letter to Fine points out that Congress deliberately gave the DOD limited NSL authority. This authority does not include issuing forms of NSLs that permit access to phone and email communication records. This authority may only be used by the FBI, and must be in relation to an authorized investigation. The ACLU noted that the DOD’s use of the FBI suggests the department was attempting to subvert the law and get information beyond its reach.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) have each introduced bills in the House and Senate, respectively, aimed at narrowing the scope of the NSL authority. Both bills are entitled the “National Security Letter Reform Act.” The ACLU supports these efforts.

“The FBI has routinely abused the NSL statute, making it apparent that the agency cannot be trusted with this authority,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Laws have been broken, Americans’ civil liberties have been compromised, and yet the FBI is still allowed to demand Americans’ personal information without any judicial oversight. It is past time for Congress to rein in these abuses of power.”

Also yesterday, the ACLU released an interested persons memo on the latest reports by Inspector General Fine regarding the FBI’s ongoing abuse of its NSL and Section 215 authorities. In the memo, the ACLU highlights the FBI’s continuing use of gags on NSL recipients and notes, among other significant failings, the FBI has not established minimization procedures to limit the retention of private data as required by statute. The memo also highlights Fine’s misgivings about whether new internal controls established by the FBI and Department of Justice after the last NSL report will be successful, given the nature and scope of the problems he continues to uncover.

The ACLU’s memo can be read at:

To read the ACLU’s letter to DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine, go to:

To learn more about the ACLU’s work on NSLs, go to:

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