They don’t require approval by a court, a grand jury or even a prosecutor. They are issued in secret, with a recipient’s silence under penalty of law. But they allow the government to collect sensitive information such as personal financial records.
As Congress expanded the NSL authority in recent years I raised concerns about how the FBI handles information it collects on Americans. I noted that with no real limits imposed by Congress, the FBI could store this information electronically and use it against everybody in this room for that matter, or use it for large-scale data mining operations. We now know from the Inspector General, the Inspector General appointed during the Bush administration, we know the NSL authority was significantly misused. In 2008, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General issued a report on the FBI’s use of NSLs revealing serious overcollection of information, an abuse of that authority.
That 2008 Inspector Generals’ report contained a chart describing trends in National Security Letter use from 2003 to 2006 (see page 112):
While representatives of the United States Government have constantly asserted the need to go after those foreign terrorists, since 2003 more Americans than foreigners have been targeted by NSLs, and the number of NSLs issued regarding Americans has climbed every year.
Since the Inspector General’s report last year, the Department of Justice has made a further report to congressional leaders providing statistics on National Security Letter use during 2007 and 2008, unfortunately only updating those statistics regarding Americans. Those figures are reflected in the revised chart below:
The use of National Security Letters is accelerating, and they are being used against Americans.
It’s time for another chorus of the Fourth Amendment. Everybody sing along:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.