Letters of the Law

No warrant? No problem.

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A March report from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine confirmed what many critics of the PATRIOT Act had long suspected: Under the law, warrantless searches and seizures have skyrocketed, especially via the FBI's national security letters.

A national security letter (NSL) is a unilateral demand for information held by businesses or other third parties, including phone call, email, and credit card records. Before the PATRIOT Act passed in 2001, NSLs could be issued only in cases involving suspected foreign agents. The law allowed NSLs aimed at investigating terrorism, broadly defined, and not just to pursue leads but to develop them. It gave every FBI field office the authority to issue the letters, a power previously reserved for top officials at FBI headquarters.

Not surprisingly, the number of NSLs has increased dramatically, from 8,000 in 2000 to an average of 50,000 per year between 2003 and 2005. Meanwhile, the focus of NSLs has shifted: By 2005 the letters, once aimed at foreign agents, targeted U.S. citizens 53 percent of the time. Inspector General Fine also discovered that investigators did not follow the law when they issued NSLs in the absence of "exigent circumstances."

Worse, Fine found that the FBI did not keep track of all the NSLs it issued and couldn't name the agencies with which it shared NSL-procured information. Lack of timely information sharing, you'll recall, was a major hole in pre-9/11 anti-terror efforts.


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