Internal Report Finds Flagrant National Security Letter Abuse By FBI

January 20, 2010 4:14 pm

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WASHINGTON – A report released today by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) and so-called “exigent letters” reveals a systemic, widespread abuse of power. The FBI’s authority to issue NSLs was widely expanded by the Patriot Act and it has been increasingly used to collect private information on American citizens without court approval. Congress recently extended three unrelated provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire last year until February 28, 2010. There are several bills in both the House and Senate that address those provisions as well as the NSL statute.

Today’s OIG report details the FBI’s use of exigent letters, or emergency letters, to gain Americans’ private phone records for investigations when no emergency existed and has significant and troubling redactions in portions dealing with those phone records. The report also details the bureau’s use of exigent letters to gain information on journalists in violation of the Attorney General Guidelines governing criminal and terrorism investigations. Today’s audit follows two prior OIG reports on the FBI’s use of NSLs that found serious breaches of department regulations and multiple potential violations of the law.

“Given this report, there is absolutely no excuse for Congress not to reform the NSL authority during the current Patriot Act debate,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative office. “Without an outside check, FBI agents are able to demand and obtain sensitive information at will. This is the kind of abuse that is inevitable when we broaden the government’s surveillance power and don’t modernize privacy standards. It has become very clear that the FBI cannot police itself. Congress must step in to institute and conduct rigorous and frequent oversight of the agency’s use of NSLs and exigent letters.”

In 2004, the ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of an ISP that the FBI served with an NSL. Because the FBI imposed a gag order on the ISP, the lawsuit was filed under seal. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2008 that the gag order provisions were unconstitutional, the “John Doe” NSL recipient in that case remains gagged.

“The Inspector General’s findings make crystal clear that the FBI engaged in a systemic abuse of power and those responsible must be held accountable,” said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “This report demonstrates the dangers of not only unchecked surveillance power but also the FBI’s unchecked gag power. By preventing NSL recipients from speaking out against the FBI’s intrusive practices, the government was able to illegally demand the records of thousands of innocent Americans for years. The government must remove any unjustified and unnecessary gag orders from NSL recipients.”

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