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Improper Use of National Security Letters by the FBI

Peter Swire Testifies Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution

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Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Peter Swire testifies today before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters. NSLs are a form of subpoena used by the FBI to demand records and information from organizations or companies about individuals without their knowledge.

The Patriot Act greatly expanded the allowed uses of NSLs in 2001, but even so, suspicion of misuse led the Inspector General to conduct a recent audit of the program. The audit determined that about 22 percent of NSLs ordered by the FBI violate the law. The public was also misled about the number of NSLs issued. The Washington Post quoted officials in 2003 saying that ‘scores’ of NSLs had been used, but the new audit shows the actual number was over 39,000 in 2003 alone.”

Swire’s testimony argues that the current NSL program bears little resemblance to the program that Congress agreed to under the Patriot Act, which was reauthorized in 2006. The testimony emphasizes that:

1. The Patriot Act fundamentally changed in the nature of NSLs in ways that have created unprecedented legal powers and pose serious risks to privacy and civil liberties.

2. Congress has never agreed to anything like the current scale and scope of NSLs.

3. The gag rule under NSLs is an especially serious departure from good law and past precedent.

4. Amendments such as those in the SAFE Act and H.R. 1739 provide desirable alternatives to the current legal rules.

  • Read the letter the Center for American Progress Action Fund and coalition partners sent to House and Senate leaders regarding NSLs

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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