Stop National Security Letters, Says Transpartisan Coalition

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                        CONTACT:   Jesse R. Benton
March 12, 2007                                                                                                                     202-246-6363

Stop National Security Letters, Says Transpartisan Coalition
In light of abuse, longtime critics of Patriot Act provision call for end to this highly intrusive practice

WASHINGTON, DC – The Liberty Coalition, a transpartisan public policy group dedicated to preserving the Bill of Rights, personal autonomy and individual privacy has called on Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller to end the use of National Security Letters (NSL’s) after a newly released Department of Justice (DOJ) audit confirmed fears that the FBI has improperly and unlawfully misused the controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act.

Upon taking his post, FBI director Robert Mueller pledged to uphold the United States Constitution. Civil liberties advocates have long argued that these secret, coercive demands for privacy records violate people’s fundamental privacy rights because they allow the FBI to require telephone companies, internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus, insurance companies and other businesses to produce highly personal records about their customers without any evidence the person whose records are demanded has done anything wrong and without any judicial or independent check to protect individual rights.

“National Security Letters are a clear and dangerous violation of Americans’ expectation of privacy in their financial, communications and insurance records unless they have done something wrong,” said Liberty Coalition national director Michael Ostrolenk. “If Director Mueller wants to uphold both his word and duty, he will not oppose reforms of this intrusive, unchecked power.”

NSL’s were created in 1978 to circumvent the Right to Financial Privacy Act, but were limited strictly to foreign agents. Compliance was voluntary, and states’ consumer privacy laws often allowed institutions to decline these requests.

In 2001, section 505 of the USA Patriot Act greatly expanded the use of NSL’s, allowing their use in scrutiny of US residents who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. It also granted the privilege to other federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. Patriot Act reauthorization in 2005 added specific penalties for companies that failed to comply, giving FBI agents powerful tools to further coerce business owners to turn over customer information.  The customers whose records are turned over to FBI databases is never told their private records are now held and distributed across the federal government, even if they have not done anything wrong and are never charged with any crime or other violation.

The DOJ audit, conducted by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, found that FBI agents demanded individual’s personal data without proper authorization and improperly obtained telephone records under the guise of “emergency” in non-emergency circumstances.  In addition, the FBI significantly underreported to Congress for three years how it forced businesses to turn over customer data.  The Justice Department also misled the American people and Congress about the explosion in the use of these intrusive demands, at one point denying investigative reporting that over 30,000 requests had been made in a single year—this report documented that, in fact, over 50,000 had been made in a year for a total of almost 150,000 in a three year period.  .

“The Inspector General’s report, which was required by the Patriot Act reauthorization over the administration’s objections, serves to underscore the danger when any government agent, regardless of intention, is given unchecked power to secretly gather the private records of people who have done nothing wrong,” continued Ostrlolenk. “Congress must truly reform the National Security Letter power to focus these intrusive demands on those conspiring with al Qaeda and subject such demands to judicial checks to ensure that innocent people’s privacy is not swept away by false claims of emergency or other inappropriate grounds.”

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