Legislation Introduced To Curtail Patriot Act Abuse

March 30, 2009 12:00 am

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New Legislation Will Rein In Overbroad National Security Letter Power WASHINGTON – Congressmen Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced legislation today to narrow the overbroad subpoena power in the National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act. The bipartisan bill, National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009, aims to curb rampant abuse of that power by federal law enforcement following the expansion of the Patriot Act and was introduced with 17 cosponsors. NSLs are secret subpoenas used to demand personal customer records from Internet Service Providers, financial institutions and credit companies without prior court approval.

“To ensure that Americans’ privacy and free speech rights are protected, there must be clear oversight and strict guidelines tied to the use of NSLs,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Mr. Nadler and Mr. Flake should be applauded for taking this legislative step. Their bill will realign the current NSL authority with the Constitution. Congress must take this opportunity to rein in the power of the NSL.”

NSLs were originally crafted to gain information about suspected terrorists but the Patriot Act expanded the statute to allow the subpoenas, which are issued in secrecy, do not require court review, and contain a gag order, to be used to obtain personal information about people who are simply deemed “relevant” to an investigation. After the statute’s expansion, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a series of reports over the last several years outlining systemic misuse and abuse of NSLs by FBI agents.

The ACLU is asking that Congress repeal the expanded NSL authorities that allow the FBI to demand information about innocent people who are not the targets of any investigation and reinstate prior standards limiting NSLs to information about terrorism suspects and other agents of foreign powers. In December of 2008, as a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the gag order provision was struck down as unconstitutional. The ACLU is now advocating that Congress legislate a constitutional alternative. The National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 would make these necessary changes.

“By expanding the scope of the statute’s power to collect information on innocent people, the Patriot Act failed to protect Americans’ privacy,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “It has become painfully clear that unchecked Patriot Act power inevitably leads to abuse, and National Security Letters are no exception. Innocent Americans have been swept into investigations and recipients have been barred from speaking about it publicly. Representatives Nadler and Flake should be praised for the introduction of this bill and we urge swift action by Congress to assure its passage.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU released a report entitled “Reclaiming Patriotism” that describes the widespread abuses that have occurred under the USA Patriot Act. The report, authored by policy counsel Michael German and Richardson, was delivered to congressional offices on Capitol Hill, as well as posted to the newly re-launched site www.reformthepatriotact.org in anticipation of the upcoming congressional debate surrounding three Patriot Act provisions due to expire on December 31, 2009.

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


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