Senate questions national security letters

Senate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised questions Sunday about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s use of national security letters to obtain private data on innocent Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing.

“It appears to me that this is, if not abused, being close to abused,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who is a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed, saying the government’s expanded power highlights the risks of balancing national security against individual rights. “It does point up how dangerous this can be,” said Hagel, who appeared with Biden on ABC’s “This Week.”

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI issues more than 30,000 national security letters allowing the investigations each year, a hundred-fold increase over historic norms, The Washington Post reported yesterday, quoting unnamed government sources.

The security letters, which were first used in the 1970s, allow access to people’s phone and e-mail records, financial data and the Internet sites they visit. The 2001 Patriot Act removed the requirement that the records sought be those of someone under suspicion.

As a result, FBI agents can review the digital records of a citizen as long as the bureau can certify that the person’s records are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation. — Washington Post

The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted today that Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ed Kennedy, D-Mass., also expressed concern about the national security letters on television Sunday. And Bruce Schneier picked up the story as well, saying, “The FBI is spying on us,” while linking to a different summary from TalkLeft.

I posted on this issue yesterday.

It’s about time this got some serious attention. The use of national security letters, or any device, to obtain private data of innocent Americans without probable cause, is a serious abuse of power. Especially since there is virtually no way to be sure if you were targeted, except by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, and even then you can’t be certain.