WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today called on Congress to repeal a provision of the Patriot Act granting the FBI expanded powers to demand sensitive personal information without judicial supervision through the use of so-called National Security Letters.
According to a report issued today by the Justice Department’s own Inspector General, the FBI has issued significantly more NSLs than previously disclosed. The report found serious breaches of department regulations and numerous potential violations of the law. It also criticized FBI for lax managerial controls that invited abuse, and found that agents had claimed "exigent circumstances" where none existed, and that some recipients had provided more information than authorized by law.
"The Inspector General’s report should come as no surprise," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "And it should come as no surprise that Attorney General Gonzales is eager to blame the FBI, or that the FBI engaged in these abuses. The Attorney General and the FBI are part of the problem and they cannot be trusted to be part of the solution. Congress must act immediately to repeal these dangerous Patriot Act provisions."
The ACLU has successfully challenged the procedures for issuing NSLs in two separate lawsuits. The lawsuits challenge the National Security Letter provision of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to demand a range of personal records without court approval, such as the identity of a person who has visited a particular Web site on a library computer, or who has engaged in anonymous speech on the Internet. Under the expanded Patriot Act power, anyone who receives an NSL is forbidden, or "gagged" from telling anyone about the record demand.
In response to the court rulings, Congress made some minor changes to the law when it reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2005. As today’s report demonstrates, the ACLU, said, those changes are not enough.
"Alberto Gonzales continues to employ evasive tactics by dumping this latest problem into the FBI's lap," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "As the overseer of the FBI, the buck stops on his desk. It's the Attorney General's job to oversee the FBI and he clearly lacks the independence or credibility to offer effective oversight. How much more proof does Congress need before it conducts real investigations, performs true oversight and fixes the significant problems with these Patriot Act powers?"
In a September 2004 ruling striking down the draconian gag provision of the NSL power, Federal District Court Judge Victor Marrero said: "As our sunshine laws and judicial doctrine attest, democracy abhors undue secrecy. An unlimited government warrant to conceal, effectively a form of secrecy per se, has no place in our open society. Such a claim is especially inimical to democratic values for reasons borne out by painful experience."
Next month Judge Marrero is expected to hear arguments in the ACLU’s challenge to the gag and secrecy provisions of the NSL law as amended by Congress in 2006.
More information about the ACLU’s challenges to the NSL power is online at www.aclu.org/nsl