In a recent decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California struck down the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs) as unconstitutional. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the FBI has been issuing thousands of NSLs every year. The letters demand that recipients, such as banks and telephone companies, provide customers’ information such as their transactional records, phone numbers dialed, and email addresses mailed to and from. This doesn’t involve the content of the phone calls or emails but does involve the names of addressees or participants. One reason most Americans didn’t know about these letters is because more than 95 percent of them contain gag orders, barring the recipient from disclosing their content or even their existence.
This case began nearly two years ago, in May 2011, when a nonprofit advocacy group, the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), filed suit on behalf of an unnamed telecom company that had received an NSL. In defense of the NSLs, the government argued that this level of secrecy is necessary to protect the nation against potential security threats. NSLs were designed in the 1970s as a means to gather information on suspected foreign spies during terrorism and espionage investigations. However, the Patriot Act greatly expanded their reach to allow the FBI to secretly compel companies to provide data on American citizens.
The constitutionality of NSLs is dubious for two distinct reasons. Not only does the nondisclosure clause infringe on their recipients’ free speech, but, unlike a standard subpoena or search warrant, the NSLs do not have to be authorized by a judge. Accordingly, Illston concluded that NSLs and their nondisclosure provisions violate the First Amendment and separation of powers principles, and she ordered the FBI to stop issuing NSLs and cease enforcing all gag provisions. That said, we are uncertain whether Illston’s order will ever go into effect. Due to the gravity of the First Amendment and national security issues at stake, Illston issued a 90-day stay, giving the government time to appeal her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed anonymously, various media sources have suggested that the unnamed defendant may be Credo Mobile, a phone provider that supports progressive causes. The day after the ruling was released, Credo’s CEO Michael Kieschnick released the following statement:
“This decision is notable for its clarity and depth. From this day forward, the US government’s unconstitutional practice of using national security letters to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the first amendment rights of national security letter recipients have finally been stopped by our courts.”
According to Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney, the NSL gags “have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools,” and his unnamed client “looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss the issue.”
As we await the higher court’s ruling, which we hope leaves Illston’s decision in place, one thing has already been accomplished of a positive nature. A federal district judge has shined some light on a little-known and highly dubious federal law enforcement technique.