November 10, 2005
-- by Thomas Leavitt
The Washington Post has an excellent and detailed article on the FBI's increasingly profligate use of "National Security Letters" (warrantless demands to produce information).
The upshot is: the government can demand a huge amount of information about you from third parites (your ISP, your local public library, the telephone company, etc.) without a warrant, on the flimsiest of excuses, and even after determining that you are not a threat to the United States, can retain that information indefinitely. Even better: no one they ask for information is legally permitted to inform you of the request. Oh, and the information can be released to "appropriate private sector entities" (left undefined)... are we contracting out law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts, now?
The Bush Administration, of course, is resisting any and all attempts by Congress to exercise any oversight. Their line and that of the FBI's bureaucracy is "trust us, we're your government, we won't abuse the information" and "what harm can it do, if you're innocent of any wrongdoing?". The quotes on the subject, from Jeffrey Breinholt, deputy chief of the Justice Department's counterterrorism section, and Michael Mason, who runs the Washington field office and has the rank of assistant FBI director, are astonishingly naive.
The counter to thier assertions is simple: what would Nixon have done with this power? The answer: he would have had a field day with it. As will any President or executive branch member inclined to abuse their authority and "get" their enemies. Perhaps I should quote Dave here, and say, "Watch your back."
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.
Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.
The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined.
Also, check out the story about the manhunt in Las Vegas, where they seriously attempted to assemble a real-time record of every visitor to the city over a two week period. ... all that information is still on file somewhere, waiting for a fishing expedition to use it. Along with everything else produced by other National Security Letters.
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