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National Security Letters

Thursday, March 06, 2008

So, to my chagrin, there seems to be a new report that the FBI abused its power, yet again, when it was issuing national security letters. Quoting from this AP article:
An audit by the inspector general last year found the FBI demanded personal records without official authorization or otherwise collected more data than allowed in dozens of cases between 2003 and 2005. Additionally, last year's audit found that the FBI had underreported to Congress how many national security letters were requested by more than 4,600.
But, what is a national security letter? Quoting again from the AP article:
National security letters, as outlined in the USA Patriot Act, are administrative subpoenas used in suspected terrorism and espionage cases. They allow the FBI to require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce highly personal records about their customers or subscribers without a judge's approval.
It's basically a search warrant issued by the barer without the oversight of a third party to verify its legitimacy.
These are nothing new. In colonial times, they went by a different name, but had the same effect. In those days, they were called a Writ of Assistance. Quoting from Wikipedia:
A Writ of Assistance is a legal document that serves as a general search warrant.
Unlike the warrant, it is generally open-ended, and requires all parties to support the officer to whom it was issued. Its normal use is in support of customs and excise inspections. The writ authorizes an officer to search any person or place they suspect and it does not expire. They were legalized by the Townshend Act of 1767. While they were condemned in England in 1766, general writs of assistance continued to be issued until 1819.
If you keep reading down Wikipedia's page, you'll run into this very interesting paragraph:
In response to the much-hated writs, several of the colonies included a particular requirement for search warrants in their constitutions when they declared independence in 1776. Several years later, the Fourth Amendment also contained a particularity requirement that outlawed the use of writs of assistance (and all general search warrants) by the federal government. Later, the Bill of Rights was incorporated against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, and writs of assistance were generally proscribed.
Yep, you read that correctly. The issue and use of general search warrants by the federal government is specifically outlawed. So, here's my question for you: why are we reading about a federal agency violating the privacy rights of American citizens by issuing national security letters when they are illegal in the first place?


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