ACLU Demands Answers from FBI Chief

July 26, 2007 12:00 am

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Washington, DC -Today, the American Civil Liberties Union strongly urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold the FBI accountable for its abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) and its role in warrantless wiretapping. After passage of the Patriot Act, the NSL power was broadly expanded and broadly abused, according to a report issued by the FBI’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). This will be the first congressional appearance of Director Robert Mueller since former Assistant Attorney General James Comey revealed Mueller’s unease with the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program during his testimony before the Senate in May.

“Frankly, the FBI has a lot of explaining to do,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “From the rampant abuse of NSLs to the murky negotiations with the administration over domestic spying, there are far too many unanswered questions. The FBI is supposed to be enforcing the law, not trying to get around it.”

The ACLU has challenged both the NSL statute and the NSA program. In both cases, the district courts ruled in the ACLU’s favor. However, in the NSA case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to rule on the legality of the program, saying that the ACLU’s clients – criminal defense lawyers, journalists, scholars and non-profit organizations – could not prove with certainty they had been spied on. In the ACLU’s challenge to the NSL gag rule, the district court ruled the gag unconstitutional. Congress amended the law in 2006, fixing some problems with the statute but makes the “gag” provision even more oppressive. The ACLU challenged the amended gag law; arguments are scheduled for August 15 in the Southern District of New York.

On the legislative front, Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced a bill today that would make several changes to the existing NSL statute, which allows FBI agents to demand phone, computer and bank records without judicial review. The bill includes a proposal to fix the gag rule and mandates reports to Congress on their use. The bill would also limit the use of NSLs to those directly connected to a terrorism investigation, thereby preventing the fishing expeditions that became public in the OIG’s report.

“The NSL statute is in desperate need of repair,” added Fredrickson. “It is clear that the executive branch has run amok, and clearly, both legislative and judicial intervention must occur to realign our system of checks and balances. Congress must pass the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2007 as quickly and assuredly as it passed the Patriot Act.”

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