A Wake-Up Call for Reform
We were extremely troubled by revelations of widespread violations in the FBI's issuance of so-called "national security letters" to obtain reams of sensitive information about Americans. Our memo on the NSL abuse and the appropriate course for reform is here. National security letters are not new, but their use has skyrocketed since 2001, when the PATRIOT Act dramatically weakened the standards under which investigators can issue them. According to DOJ records the FBI issued 47,000 requests in 2005, compared with 8,500 in 2000, the year before the standards for issuing the letters were lowered. Investigators can issue the letters to obtain a wide range of telephone, e-mail and financial records without prior judicial approval. Investigators are supposed to certify that the letters are being issued to obtain information "relevant" to a current terrorism investigation. Additionally, there are supposed to be limits on the nature and amount of information that agents can demand using the letters. But the Inspector General report demonstrates the dangers of simply assuming that those guidelines are being followed absent any meaningful oversight. If any good is to come out of this latest round of privacy abuses, Congress must take them as a wake up call and act decisively to re-establish meaningful judicial oversight over the FBI's requests for Americans sensitive personal data.