Imagine a country in which the government could order businesses to disclose personal information about you without your knowledge — the books and periodicals you read, the items you purchase and the Web sites you visit. Imagine if the government could order this information without court approval and without any reason to suspect you of a crime. Imagine if the government could require absolute secrecy of anyone ever served with such an order, so you would never know what the government knows. And, just for good measure, imagine that this government begins to compile all the information it collects about citizens in a massive database.
Can you imagine such a country? If you live in the United States, you need not look beyond your own borders.
If you have not done so already, immediately read Sunday’s report in The Washington Post, The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny. It details the FBI’s “exponentially growing practice” of using so-called national security letters to review the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans. The article reports that the FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year — and a single letter can encompass records relating to any number of individuals.
The Washington Post article provides a revealing look at this Orwellian practice. I’ve also found several Web sites and articles that provide more of a lawyer’s-eye view, including information on litigation challenging the law:
- ACLU National Security Letters. Background on two ACLU lawsuits challenging national security letters.
- EFF on NSLs.
- Congressional Research Service report: Administrative Subpoenas and National Security Letters in Criminal and Intelligence Investigations: A Sketch.
- Congressional Research Service report: Administrative Subpoenas and National Security Letters in Criminal and Foreign Intelligence Investigations: Background and Proposed Adjustments.
- Article: Suit Challenges Constitutionality of National Security Letters (includes PDF of complaint).
- Nat Hentoff: Cuffing Bush and the FBI.
As a lawyer, I find it outrageous that federal law enforcement would assume unbridled power to investigate ordinary citizens free from the check of judges and lawyers. I am glad to see that some are willing to challenge this practice and hope many others join them.