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Use of Warrantless National Security Letters Against US Citizens Must End
Another Patriot Act Abuse
by MAUREEN WEBB

The FBI has been abusing its powers under the PATRIOT Act to obtain highly personal information on American citizens. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he is going to get to the bottom of it and "make things right as quickly as possible". FBI Director Robert Meuller blames himself for not putting more safeguards in place.

Why do their responses resemble the protestations of a fox caught inside a chicken coop? There are feathers sticking to their mouths.

The National Security Letters used by the FBI to make its information grab, were created in the 1970s as a narrow exception in consumer privacy law, allowing the FBI ­ without a court order– to look in secret at the communications, and financial and credit records of foreign agents. Widening the application of National Security Letters with s. 505 of the PATRIOT Act, the Bush Administration let the FBI loose to seize the records of American citizens without warrant, in the same way it would later let the National Security Agency loose to spy on their phone and email records.

According to the Washington Post, the FBI has issued more that 30,000 National Security Letters each year in the recent past, compared to approximately the 3,000 a year it used to issue. And it’s no wonder the FBI’s use of National Security Letters has been burgeoning. In guidelines issued to the agency on May 30, 2002 and October 31, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave "overriding priority to preventing attacks by any means possible". In late 2003 Ashcroft rescinded the guideline that required the FBI to destroy all information obtained about American citizens or residents when it was not relevant to the purposes for which it had been collected or when an investigation was closed. He replaced it with a guideline that required the FBI to retain all the records it collected and to develop data mining technology to find links between people, places and events in its growing cache of records. Heeding the guidelines, the FBI set up a new system called "Investigative Data Warehouse" based on the Oracle technology used by the CIA. This kind of retention and data mining of records allows the personal information of Americans to be scrutinized again and again as new records are added to the FBI’s stores.

As the NSA is doing with its domestic spy program, the FBI is using National Security Letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them. This is not the mistake of a few overeager agents ­ it’s the Administration’s plan. It is based on a law which is wide open to abuse, and supported by a culture which ensures abuse happens.

That’s why the use of warrantless National Security Letters to obtain citizens’ records must stop.

MAUREEN WEBB is the author of Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, just published by City Lights.