A love affair with secrecy

The FBI’s use of national security letter warrants Congressional action.

Last week, during a House committee meeting, the Justice Department’s inspector general estimated that since 2003 the FBI might have violated the law as many as 3,000 times in the way it secretly collected the telephone and financial records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals living in the United States. At the same committee meeting, the FBI general counsel assured Congress that the abuses were not calculated abuses, but poor practices.

Later that same week, The Washington Post gave a glimpse of FBI practices when it published an anonymous piece by someone who had received a national security letter from the FBI. Essentially, an NSL is the government equivalent of a subpoena. The letter asks for evidence or information, but unlike a subpoena, the government can issue an NSL without probable cause or judicial approval. Moreover, the government often delivers these letters with a gag order, preventing those who receive them from speaking out about their situation. In this particular instance, the author of the piece could only speak out if the newspaper kept his identity secret.

Even though the FBI no longer seeks the information, they still won’t give up the gag order that prevents the author from speaking out about his situation. “I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case – including the mere fact that I received an NSL – from my family and my friends,” the author writes. “When I meet with my attorneys, I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place she will not look.”

In light of these gag orders, it’s no surprise that public awareness of this practice remains scant – even though the FBI has made over 140,000 NSL requests since 2003. This increase in NSL requests has no doubt been a product of the precipitous decline in standards brought to us by the USA Patriot Act.

It’s time for Congress to restore oversight and accountability standards in our nation’s intelligence agencies. We cannot expect these arms of our government, so devoid of integrity, to do it themselves.