!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News
Profile: National Security Letters
National Security Letters was a participant or observer in the following events:
President Ronald Reagan issues Executive Order 12333, which directs the US intelligence community to provide foreign intelligence data to the White House. The order reads in part, “[A]gencies are not authorized to use such techniques as electronic surveillance, unconsented physical searches, mail surveillance, physical surveillance, or monitoring devices unless they are in accordance with procedures established by the head of the agency concerned and approved by the Attorney General.” It establishes rules of conduct for the intelligence agencies, and mandates a certain level of Congressional oversight. [Executive Order 12333 -- United States intelligence activities, 4/5/2007] It also establishes the basis for what are later called “National Security Letters.” These NSLs, originally envisioned for use to compile information in hunts for foreign criminals and suspected terrorists, will later be used by the administration of George W. Bush to order US booksellers, librarians, employers, Internet providers, and others to turn over records and information they compile on US citizens, with strict adjuncts against allowing those targeted for surveillance to know about the NSLs and with virtually no government oversight (see October 25, 2005). [Washington Post, 11/6/2005] It does not, as some have later asserted, directly prohibit the assassination of targeted foreign subjects—i.e. terrorist suspects and even foreign leaders—though it does restrict the use of assassination by US government operatives to certain very restricted circumstances centered around critical aspects of national security. [Parks, 11/2/1989 ]
The US government issues a terror alert, based on intelligence that hints at a potential attack somewhere in Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. The FBI quickly assembles data on most of the 1 million “potential suspects,” which includes all tourists staying in Vegas for the holidays, and examines records on every hotel guest, car and truck rentals, guest lists for casinos, storage leases, and airplane travel. Those records are combed for any possible connections to terrorist organizations. When the city’s hospitality industry begins balking at the sweeping nature of the FBI’s information requests, National Security Letters (NSLs) are used to force industry officials to produce the data. Everything swept up by the Vegas data search remains in FBI databases. The terror alert will end on January 10, 2004, with no information about any terrorist actions or possible suspects located. [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]
Though the issue of abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) has become an issue of concern for many civil libertarians and constitutional scholars (see October 25, 2005 and January 2004), Congress fails to conduct any meaningful oversight on their use and abuse. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that the use of NSLs by the FBI is perfectly legal, “non-intrusive,” and “crucial to tracking terrorist networks and detecting clandestine intelligence activities.” The FBI provides enough information to Congress in “semi-annual reports [that] provide the committee with the information necessary to conduct effective oversight,” he says. Roberts is referring to the Justice Department’s classified statistics, which have only been provided three times in four years, and give no specific information about the NSLs. The Justice Department has repeatedly refused requests by committee members for a sampling of actual NSLs, a description of their results, or an example of their contribution to a particular case. In 2004, the Senate asks the Attorney General to “include in his next semiannual report” a description of “the scope of such letters” and the “process and standards for approving” them. The Justice Department fails to do so, or even to reply to the request. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a House Judiciary Committee member, says that congressional Democrats have little recourse: “The minority has no power to compel, and… Republicans are not going to push for oversight of the Republicans. That’s the story of this Congress.” The Justice Department notes that its inspector general, Glenn Fine, has not reported any abuses of the NSLs, but those reports beg the question: how can citizens protest searches of their personal records if they are never notified about such searches? Fine says, “To the extent that people do not know of anything happening to them, there is an issue about whether they can complain. So, I think that’s a legitimate question.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]
The FBI begins compiling a database of information about US citizens (see October 25, 2005). The database, ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft, uses as one of its primary sources information gleaned through so-called “National Security Letters,” or NSLs, which are documents ordering US citizens to reveal private information about their clients, relatives, or employees. Ashcroft overrides a 1995 guideline that mandates the destruction of such information obtained through NSLs if it proves “not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected.” Ashcroft orders the FBI to compile the information in its database, and even tells the agency that it can freely share that information with other government agencies if it desires. Ashcroft also orders the FBI to develop “data mining” technology to probe for “hidden links” among the citizens in its growing cache of electronic data. The FBI complies, using the same technology used by the CIA, which itself is barred from keeping such files on US citizens. Ashcroft extends the mandate even further, allowing the FBI to compile consumer data from private data-collection firms such as ChoicePoint and LexisNexis, though Ashcroft’s predecessors had ruled that compiling such data would violate citizens’ constitutional rights to privacy. Soon, FBI field offices will have access to ChoicePoiint databases in their squad rooms. Adding this commercially provided data to the NSL-based data gleaned by the FBI, and the FBI will soon have a wealth of data on hundreds of thousands of US citizens never accused of a crime. Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, and many others, strenuously object to the practice, but their concerns are largely ignored. [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]
The FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut receives an e-mail that looks like a terrorist threat. The agents there follow the normal routine: they ask the service provider, a group of Connecticut public libraries, for the real name, street address, and Internet logs of the sender. The agents have no search warrant, grand jury subpoena, or court order. What they do have is a National Security Letter (NSL) that describes the records needed. According to the expanded USA Patriot Act, the NSL is all the FBI needs, and the NSL statute bars the librarians from disclosing the request to anyone. The librarians will refuse to hand over the information, and will file a federal lawsuit challenging the NSL as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (see July 13, 2005). The e-mailed threat will turn out to be a hoax. Kevin O’Connor, the US attorney in Connecticut, later says the FBI suspected that the threat was a hoax from the outset, but believed they had an “obligation” to pursue it. “We weren’t tying up librarians or reading through books,” he will say. “All we wanted was identifying information. God forbid it isn’t a hoax.” The librarians who challenge the NSL, however, feel differently. George Christian, the point man in the librarians’ legal challenge, will say, “The idea that the government can secretly investigate what the public is informing itself about is chilling.” A judge will strike down the NSL gag order, allowing Christian and his three colleagues (by now dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media) to disclose the fact that they had received an NSL, with a judge calling the NSL gag order “antithetical to democratic concepts”. In April 2006, the government will drop its NSL request (see August 2005-May 2006). Christian will be unmollified. “The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground,” he will say. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]
George Christian. [Source: PBS]Librarian and data manager George Christian is served with a so-called “National Security Letter” (NSL) from the FBI demanding that his firm turn over private information on its patrons because of an apparent terrorist threat e-mailed from one of his libraries (see February 2005). Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, Inc., which manages catalog information, patron records, and circulation information for 27 libraries in and around Hartford, Connecticut, as well as providing telecommunications services to many of its member libraries. Christian is given the NSL, as well as a gag order preventing them from ever mentioning their receipt of the letter, or any details surrounding it. Christian is notified of the letter five days before actually receiving it; he spends those days frantically learning more about NSLs and the laws surrounding them (see October 25, 2005). He learns that a district court in New York had found the entire NSL statute unconstitutional because of what Christian calls “prima facie violations of the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments.” By the time they receive the letter, he has decided to oppose it. The letter, delivered by two FBI agents, orders Christian and Library Connection to turn over information about a specific IP address registered to the firm. One of the agents warns Christian that the gag order prohibits anyone in the firm from telling anyone that the FBI is attempting to secure information from its library business records. Christian, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSL in April 2007 (see April 11, 2007), says neither he nor his colleagues could “fathom any ‘exigent’ nature for the FBI request.” The letter was dated May 19, nearly two months before its delivery, was not addressed to Christian, and requested information from the use of the IP address five months earlier, February 15. Christian later says that while he and his colleagues want to assist the FBI in any way they can, and have no desire to “impede the investigation of a perilous situation that endanger[s] my country or my fellow citizens,” because of the date of the letter and the IP usage, they conclude that the FBI has not been in any rush to get the information. Christian tells the FBI agents that he believes the use of NSLs is unconstitutional and that he will consult his attorney. Library Connection’s attorney says that the only way to contest compliance with an NSL is to take the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, to court. Christian is understandably reluctant to involve his firm in such a court challenge without authorization, and takes the case to the Executive Committee of the firm’s board of directors. The three members, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek (who will soon be dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media), after conferring with the attorney and reviewing the New York court’s decision against NSLs, decide to go forward with the complaint. They secure representation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Together, they decide to ask for relief from the NSL, to seek a broader ruling that the use of NSLs is unconstitutional, and to have the gag order lifted so they can publicly discuss the incident as “part of the national debate over renewal of the Patriot Act” (see March 9, 2006). Christian will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We… felt we were defending our democracy by insisting that the checks and balances established in the Constitution be observed. We had no court order, and there was no evidence that an independent judge had examined the FBI’s evidence and found there to be probable cause justifying their request for information.… [W]e did not want to aid terrorists or criminals.… But we did not feel we would be helping the country or making anyone safer by throwing out the Constitution either.” Because of the way the computer system is set up, to give the FBI the information about the specific IP address and usage it required, Christian would have to give the FBI information about everyone using every computer in the particular library on the day in question. He later says, “[S]ince there was no way of determining who was using the computers in the library five months after the fact, we felt that [the FBI wanted] information we had on all the patrons of that library. That seemed like a rather sweeping request. Some would call it a fishing expedition.” The case goes to trial in August 2005 (see August 2005-May 2006). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] It is later learned that the original e-mailed threat is a hoax. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]
Entity Tags: Peter Chase, National Security Letters, Senate Judiciary Committee, Library Connection, Inc., Barbara Bailey, George Christian, American Civil Liberties Union, Janet Nocek, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Connecticut Four
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey. [Source: Robert Deutsch/ USA Today]A case filed against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by four plaintiffs from Connecticut’s Library Connection, Inc.—George Christian, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek—goes to trial in federal district court (see July 13, 2005). The trial is filed as Doe v. Gonzales because the government has filed a gag order against the plaintiffs forbidding them from identifying themselves or discussing the case publicly. The case involves a demand for information from the FBI for information concerning library usage by patrons of a Connecticut library; the four plaintiffs, on behalf of their data management firm Library Connection, have refused. The case revolves around the use of a National Security Letter (NSL) by the FBI; the plaintiffs, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, want the NSL voided, the gag order lifted, and such use of NSLs found unconstitutional. Christian and his three colleagues are not allowed to attend the hearings in person because of the possibility that they might be identified as the plaintiffs; they are forced to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit broadcast from a locked room in the Hartford courthouse. When the judge in the proceeding asks to review the government’s evidence for keeping the gag rule in place, Justice Department lawyers insist on submitting secret evidence directly to the judge, without providing that evidence to the plaintiff’s lawyers. The judge is not pleased, and rules, as did her predecessor in New York, that a perpetual gag order amounts to prior restraint, and thereby is unconstitutional. She adds that her review of the secret evidence gives no national security rationale for keeping the plaintiffs gagged. The Justice Department immediately appeals the ruling, and the plaintiffs stay silent and gagged. While the four plaintiffs remain silent about the NSL and the court case, the Justice Department’s primary lawyer, Kevin O’Conner, does not: O’Conner has frequently debated one of the plaintiffs, Chase, about the Patriot Act, and though Chase is now required to remain silent, O’Conner continues to make frequent public appearances touting the Patriot Act. Christian later says, in 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see April 11, 2007), that the continuing gag order causes the four “John Does” considerable professional and personal distress, especially after the national media begins reporting the story. The media eventually learns, through the careless redaction of information by government lawyers, of Chase’s identity as one of the four plaintiffs, and reveals that Library Connection is the firm involved in the lawsuit. Christian’s name comes to light shortly thereafter. The attorneys warn Christian and the others that even though their identities and their firm have been revealed, they still cannot comment at all on the case. Christian, for one, wants to testify before Congress in regards to the upcoming reauthorization of the Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006), but cannot. The four plaintiffs quickly become known in the media as the “Connecticut John Does” or the “Connecticut Four.”
Appeals Court - In November 2005, a New York court of appeals hears the case. Christian and his colleagues are allowed to be present at the case this time, but are required to conceal their identities by entering and leaving the court building separately, are not allowed to sit together, and are not allowed to confer with, or even make eye contact with, each other or their attorneys. The Justice Department lawyers argue that even revealing themselves as recipients of a NSL would violate national security, an argument refuted by submission of the raft of news articles identifying Christian, Chase, and Library Connection. The government argues that those news reports don’t matter because no one in Connecticut reads the primary newspaper carrying the story, the New York Times, and that surveys prove that most people don’t believe what they read in the news anyway. The Justice Department also tries to get the news articles to be kept under seal in court papers. Christian characterizes the entire proceeding as “absurd.” The court refuses to admit the plaintiff’s claim that 48 states, including Connecticut, have laws protecting the privacy of library patrons, but does admit into evidence the claims by Gonzales that there is no statutory justification for claims of privacy. In an attempt to get the gag order lifted before the Patriot Act reauthorization, the plaintiff’s attorneys make an emergency appeal directly to the Supreme Court, but are rebuffed. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] In June 2006, Nocek tells a reporter, “Imagine the government came to you with an order demanding that you compromise your professional and personal principles. Imagine then being permanently gagged from speaking to your friends, your family or your colleagues about this wrenching experience.… Under the Patriot Act, the FBI demanded Internet and library records without showing any evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law. We were barred from speaking to anyone about the matter and we were even taking a risk by consulting with lawyers.” [Interview: George Christian, 6/2/2006]
Gag Order Lifted, Case Dropped - Weeks after President Bush signs into law the Patriot Act reauthorization (see March 9, 2006), the FBI voluntarily lifts the gag order without waiting for a court order. The agency then tries to get the original ruling against the gag order vacated, an attempt that the appeals court refuses. The appellate judges are clearly disturbed by the breadth of the NSL gag provisions; one appellate judge writes, “A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens… Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence.” The appeals court refers the case back to district court, allowing the original opinion to stand. Weeks later, the FBI withdraws its NSL, saying that it no longer needs the information it originally requested. Christian later testifies, “In doing so, they removed the Patriot Act from the danger of court review.” Christian later says that he believes the entire procedure was managed as an attempt to prevent the case from becoming public knowledge before Congress could vote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]
Entity Tags: Peter Chase, Senate Judiciary Committee, National Security Letters, US Department of Justice, Library Connection, Inc., George Christian, George W. Bush, American Civil Liberties Union, Barbara Bailey, Connecticut Four, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Conner
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
President Bush signs Executive Order 13388, which dramatically expands the powers of the US government to monitor and collect data on US citizens. [Executive Order 13388 of October 25, 2005, 10/25/2005] The order augments the power of “National Security Letters,” authorized in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan (see December 4, 1981), but rarely used against US citizens until the advent of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act. Thanks to the order, the data files are even more accessible to what the order calls “state, local, and tribal” governments as well as the undefined “appropriate private sector entities,” presumably private data-mining corporations that collect personal and financial data on US citizens for the government.
Over 30,000 NSLs a Year - The FBI now issues over 30,000 NSLs a year, a hundredfold increase from earlier administration usages. NSLs are issued by FBI field supervisors at their discretion without court warrant or oversight by the judiciary or Congress. NSLs force their recipients—librarians, booksellers, employers, Internet providers, and others—to turn over any and all personal data on their customers and employees and are legally required not to tell the targets of the investigations about the letters or the data collection. An FBI supervisor can, without oversight or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, collect data on what a citizen makes, spends, invests, gambles, reads in books and on the Internet, buys online, and with whom that citizen lives, works, associates, telephones, and exchanges e-mails. Senior FBI officials admit that the huge spike in NSLs stems from the FBI’s new authority to collect tremendous amounts of data on US citizens not accused of criminal activities. And NSLs are now used to generate leads against terrorist suspects and not merely pursue them.
NSLs Handled With Discretion, Officials Insist - FBI and White House officials insist that NSLs are handled with discretion and with a recognizance of Americans’ right to privacy. Joseph Billy Jr, the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, says he understand that “merely being in a government or FBI database… gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” But innocent Americans “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]
George Christian, a Connecticut librarian and data manager who fought a National Security Letter from the FBI demanding information about his library’s patrons (see July 13, 2005 and August 2005-May 2006), testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Christian, who along with his three fellow plaintiffs, has repeatedly spoken about what he considers the Justice Department’s egregrous abuse of power and its invasion of privacy, and his opposition to the USA Patriot Act, which has given the FBI the ability to not only demand private information from libraries about their patrons, but require those librarians to keep quiet about the request. Though the court battle restored Christian’s ability to speak publicly about his encounter with the FBI, he testifies, “We feel an obligation to the tens of thousands of others who received National Security Letters and now will live under a gag order for the rest of their lives.” He tells the committee, “Our saga should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution about how our civil liberties are being sorely tested by law enforcement abuses of national security letters. The questions raised vindicate the concerns that the library community and others have had for over five years about the broad powers expanded under the USA Patriot Act.… We believe changes can be made that conform to the rule of law, do not sacrifice law enforcement’s abilities to pursue terrorists ,yet maintain civil liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution.” Libraries “should remain pillars of democracy, institutions where citizens could come to explore their concerns, confident that they could find information on all sides of controversial issues and confident that their explorations would remain personal and private.” He quotes one of his fellow plaintiffs: “[S]pying on people in the library is like spying on them in the voting booth.” Christian also says that while many believe that library records are now protected by the revised Patriot Act, in fact, they are not. He says that “a loophole inserted into the wording allows the FBI to use a national security letter to obtain library records anyway.” He notes that FBI director Robert Mueller has admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new language “did not actually change the law.” Similarly, the revised Patriot Act still gives the government the power to impose near-unlimited gag orders on NSL recipients—though the new law seems to give recipients the ability to challenge such gag orders, the law says that if the government declares that lifting such a gag order would “harm national security,” the court must accept that assertion and refuse to lift the order. “Hence, there is no prior judicial review to approve an NSL and, with rare exception, no legal way to challenge an NSL after the fact,” Christian testifies. “It is the secrecy surrounding the issuance of NSLs that permits their misuse. Because of the fact that all recipients of NSLs are perpetually gagged, no one knew the FBI was issuing so many. No one knew there was no public examination of the practice. No one could ask if over 143,000 National Security Letters in two years are necessary.… Secrecy that prevents oversight and public debate is a danger to a free and open society.” [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]
Suzanne Spaulding. [Source: Bipartisan Security Group]Suzanne Spaulding, a national security expert with twenty years of experience in the CIA, on various Congressional oversight committees, and executive director of two separate commissions on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of that body’s hearings on the improper use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by the FBI (see October 25, 2005). Spaulding has spoken out before against the NSA’s wiretapping program (see December 25, 2005). She says that the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agents need “the tools they need to do their job” and “clear guidance on just what it is that we want them to do on our behalf—and how we want them to do it. Clear rules and careful oversight provide essential protections for those on the front lines of our domestic counterterrorism efforts.” However, Spaulding testifies, “it appears both were lacking in the implementation of national security letter authorities.” Spaulding says that Congress should begin a much larger examination of domestic surveillance issues, saying, “The appropriateness of using FISA electronic surveillance to eavesdrop on Americans should be considered in light of other, less intrusive techniques that might be available to establish whether a phone number belongs to a suspected terrorist or the pizza delivery shop. It’s not the ‘all or nothing’ proposition often portrayed in some of the debates.” However, according to recent findings by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, “there is not sufficient guidance on how to apply that in the NSL context or in conjunction with other available collection techniques.” Therefore, there is a strong “need for a broader examination of domestic intelligence tools.”
Urges Congressional Review - Spaulding urges Congress “to undertake a comprehensive review of all domestic intelligence collection, not just by FBI but also by the other national security agencies engaged in domestic intelligence collection, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency. A Joint Inquiry or Task Force could be established by the Senate leadership, with representation from the most relevant committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Homeland Security and Government Affairs), to carefully examine the nature of the threat inside the US and the most effective strategies for countering it. Then Congress, and the American public, can consider whether we have the appropriate institutional and legal framework for implementing those strategies with adequate safeguards and oversight.”
FBI's Expanded Powers Need Review - In addition, she testifies, the FBI’s expanded ability to use NSLs under the Patriot Act must be examined. Currently, the law seems to allow the FBI to use NSLs to obtain evidence pursuant to a FISA warrant, thus allowing “the government to get information about individuals who are not themselves the subject of an investigation”—“parties two or three steps removed from their subjects without determining if these contacts reveal suspicious connections,” Fine reported. Spaulding expands on Fine’s findings: “In fact, the most tenuous of connections would seem to suffice for this NSL standard. For example, it’s not clear why an ‘investigation to protect against international terrorism’ couldn’t justify demanding information about all residents of, say, Dearborn, Michigan [home to a large Arab-American community], so that you could run them through some logarithmic profile to identify ‘suspicious’ individuals. In fact, Congress should examine the facts surrounding the nine NSLs in one investigation that were, according to the IG Report, used to obtain information regarding over 11,000 different phone numbers.”
Data Mining Efforts Should Be Examined - Also, she says, data mining efforts by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies should be carefully examined and addressed: “NSLs should not become a mechanism for gathering vast amounts of information about individuals with no known connection to international terrorism for purposes of data mining.” Spaulding also notes that the Patriot Act allows FBI special agents in charge (SACs) to issue NSLs; instead, she says, only attorneys in the Justice Department’s National Security Division should be able to issue NSLs. Yet another problem Spaulding notes is the FBI’s policy of retention of data gathered on US citizens through NSLs, even when those citizens have no connection to terrorist activities. Spaulding expressed similar concerns in a previous op-ed for the Washington Post (see December 25, 2005). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.