Federal Judge: National Security Letters "Unconstitutional"
September 6, 2007 4:26 PM
The controversial aspect of the USA Patriot Act has once again been struck down
A federal judge struck down the controversial National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the revised USA Patriot Act, with Federal District Judge Victor Marrera ruling it "unconstitutional." A favorite tool of the FBI, NSLs were found to violate the principle of seperation of powers and the First Amendment.
National Security Letters are a form of subpoena that allows the FBI or other government agencies to gather data from companies or individuals in secret and without court approval. Oftentimes ISPs find themselves targetted and are forced to turn over phone records, web surfing histories, or e-mail. However, the powers of NSLs have also been used against financial, credit, or even library records. NSL recipients are bound under a gag order and forbidden from discussing any aspect of the NSL to anyone, including close family or friends.
Government orders require judicial oversight, wrote Judge Marrera: "as this decision recognizes, courts have a constitutionally mandated role to play when national security policies infringe on First Amendment rights. A statute that allows the FBI to silence people without meaningful judicial oversight is unconstitutional." In a 106-page ruling, Juedge Marrero called the NSL "the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values."
Although only part of the NSL provision was found to be unconstitutional, all of it was struck down as Judge Marrera found the offending parts to be inseperable from the rest of the law.
"The courts play an important role in balancing the requirements of national security against the constitutional protections that safeguard our basic freedoms and liberties," said New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Arthur Eisenburg. "We are delighted that the court fulfilled that important function in this case."
While the FBI has had the power to issue NSLs for years, the number of national security letters issued has risen tremendously since the expansion of its abilities as enacted in the USA Patriot Act, culminating with 19,000 NSLs issued in 2005 seeking over 47,000 various pieces of information, sent mostly to telecommunications and ISPs. In an internal audit, conducted by the FBI against approximately 10% of all NSLs issues from 2002 to 2007, it was discovered that these requests violated agency rules or federal law over 1,000 times. Actual numbers are sketchy, however, as the FBI has consistently underreported NSL statistics. A report issued by the Justice Department's Inspector General puts the number of NSLs issued between 2003 to 2005 at over 143,000.
The NSL provision of the Patriot Act was originally struck down in a 2004 ruling also issued by Judge Marrera as part of
Doe v. Gonzales,
who noted that "democracy abhors undue secrecy." The case, which was filed on behalf of an anonymous ISP that had been served with an NSL, was later appealed by the government -- however the law was changed before the court could issue a decision.
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