My National Security Letter Gag Order

– This story comes from The Washington Post.

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It is the policy of The Washington Post not to publish anonymous pieces. In this case, an exception has been made because the author — who would have preferred to be named — is legally prohibited from disclosing his or her identity in connection with receipt of a national security letter. The Post confirmed the legitimacy of this submission by verifying it with the author’s attorney and by reviewing publicly available court documents.

The Justice Department’s inspector general revealed on March 9 that the FBI has been systematically abusing one of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act: the expanded power to issue “national security letters.” It no doubt surprised most Americans to learn that between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 specific demands under this provision — demands issued without a showing of probable cause or prior judicial approval — to obtain potentially sensitive information about U.S. citizens and residents. It did not, however, come as any surprise to me.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand — a context that the FBI still won’t let me discuss publicly — I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Rather than turn over the information, I contacted lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, and in April 2004 I filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSL power. I never released the information the FBI sought, and last November the FBI decided that it no longer needs the information anyway. But the FBI still hasn’t abandoned the gag order that prevents me from disclosing my experience and concerns with the law or the national security letter that was served on my company. In fact, the government will return to court in the next few weeks to defend the gag orders that are imposed on recipients of these letters.

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