National Security Letters Reform Act To Curtail Patriot Act Abuse

New legislation was introduced today by Congressmen Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to rein in Patriot Act abuse.

The bipartisan bill, National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009, aims to curb rampant abuse of that power by federal law enforcement following the expansion of the Patriot Act and was introduced with 17 cosponsors. NSLs are secret subpoenas used to demand personal customer records from Internet Service Providers, financial institutions and credit companies without prior court approval.

“To ensure that Americans’ privacy and free speech rights are protected, there must be clear oversight and strict guidelines tied to the use of NSLs,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Mr. Nadler and Mr. Flake should be applauded for taking this legislative step. Their bill will realign the current NSL authority with the Constitution. Congress must take this opportunity to rein in the power of the NSL.”

NSLs were originally crafted to gain information about suspected terrorists but the Patriot Act expanded the statute to allow the subpoenas, which are issued in secrecy, do not require court review, and contain a gag order, to be used to obtain personal information about people who are simply deemed “relevant” to an investigation. After the statute’s expansion, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a series of reports over the last several years outlining systemic misuse and abuse of NSLs by FBI agents.

The ACLU is asking that Congress repeal the expanded NSL authorities that allow the FBI to demand information about innocent people who are not the targets of any investigation and reinstate prior standards limiting NSLs to information about terrorism suspects and other agents of foreign powers. In December of 2008, as a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the gag order provision was struck down as unconstitutional. The ACLU is now advocating that Congress legislate a constitutional alternative. The National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 would make these necessary changes.

The ACLU report identifies sections of the Patriot Act that need to be amended. These are:

National Security Letters (NSLs):  Using this data, the government can compile vast dossiers about innocent people. Government reports confirm that upwards of 50,000 of these secret record demands go out each year.

The 2008 IG audit also revealed that high-ranking FBI officials, including an assistant director, a deputy assistant director, two acting deputy directors and a special agent in charge, improperly issued 11 “blanket NSLs” in 2006 seeking data on 3,860 telephone numbers. None of these “blanket NSLs” complied with FBI policy and eight imposed unlawful non-disclosure requirements on recipients.

This is a good start to undoing the damage to our civil rights, another legacy of the Bush Administration.  When our civil liberties are infringed upon it is usually the innocent that get harmed, case in point, Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney falsely linked to terrorism.

Mayfield was subject to unconstitutional surveillance under the Patriot Act and subsequently arrested and held without charge.

“Mr. Mayfield’s case is a cautionary tale,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.  “Mr. Mayfield’s experience has taught us that expanding government powers without checks and balances can actually effect and ruin people’s lives. Congress has an obligation to make certain that innocent Americans and their rights are protected.”

“When legislation is written that waters down the standard of the Fourth Amendment, it is not the guilty who suffer, but the innocent,” said Mayfield in his statement. “The Patriot Act weakened the requirements the government needed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in order to bug my home and office, and this weakening of the law.”

1 thought on “National Security Letters Reform Act To Curtail Patriot Act Abuse

  1. Why not do it right and just repeal the damned cause of the problem? It’s massive melanoma on the face of the Constitution.

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