In 2011 alone there were 16,511 national security letter requests for information regarding 7,201 people made by the FBI which they used to collect unlimited kinds of “sensitive” and confidential information.
On Friday, US District Judge Susan Illston ruled that the FBI’s “national security letters,” which they have been issuing by the thousands every year since congress passed the Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were unconstitutional. The letters are sent to banks, phone companies, and many other types of businesses “demanding customer information” from the recipients. There is no judicial review of the letters, and they are accompanied by a gag order that prohibits the recipients from informing their customers that their information has been accessed.
According to the Associated Press, Judge Illston made the ruling because, “The government has failed to show that the letters and the blanket non-disclosure policy ‘serve the compelling need of national security’ and the gag order creates ‘too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted.'” She ordered that the letters be stopped, but then followed up her ruling by placing a 90 day hold on the order to give the US Department of Justice time to appeal if they so choose. The DOJ said that it is “reviewing the decision,” but issued no other statement concerning the ruling.
In 2007, the Justice Department’s inspector general found widespread violations in the FBI’s use of the letters, including demands without proper authorization and information obtained in non-emergency circumstances. The FBI has tightened oversight of the system.
Illston also stated that the limited power judges have to lift the gag orders is troubling. Currently judges can only lift the gag order if “they have no reason to believe that disclosure may endanger the national security of the United States, interfere with a criminal counter-terrorism, or counterintelligence investigation, interfere with diplomatic relations, or endanger the life or physical safety of any person.” But Judge Illston asserts that provision is also a violation of the Constitution due to the fact that it “blocks meaningful judicial review.”
A Judge in the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York passed down a similar ruling concerning the gag orders, but decided to allow the FBI to continue issuing the letters “if it made changes to its system such as notifying recipients they can ask federal judges to review the letters.” However, in her ruling on Friday, Judge Illston said that it is not up to the courts to “tinker” with the letters, but instead that Congress is responsible for that task.