US federal appeals court upholds National Security Letters

National Security Letters (NSLs) are types of warrantless subpoenas issued by US government agencies. They are typically used to force organizations or companies to surrender information pertaining to individuals or groups. In the late 1970s, NSLs were used in rare instances by the FBI during investigations. The 2001 USA PATRIOT Act marked an unparalleled expansion of the power of NSLs, allowing their use against American citizens even in cases when they are not targets of criminal investigations. The USA PATRIOT Act also ratified a gag order provision preventing NSL recipients from disclosing the letter’s existence. The CIA, FBI and the US Department of Defense are all known to have issued several NSLs in recent years. A US government report issued last March revealed that 143,000 NSLs were issued between 2003 and 2005. In 2004, an unnamed Internet service provider teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in an effort to challenge the constitutionality of an NSL it had been served by the FBI. Last year a lower district court sided with the plaintiffs and struck down the authority of NSLs on constitutionality grounds. Yesterday, however, a federal appeals court reversed the previous decision, reaffirming the constitutionality of the NSL. Nevertheless, the court’s three-judge panel narrowed the language of NSL provisions in a number of ways. For more information on the court’s decision read the exhaustive Ars Technica report here. [IA]

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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