A National Security Letter (NSL) is a form of administrative subpoena used by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and reportedly by other U.S. Government Agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. It is a demand letter issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various record and data pertaining to individuals. They require no probable cause or judicial oversight. They also contain a gag order, preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued. The gag order was ruled unconstitutional as an infringement of free speech, in the Doe v. Ashcroft case. From 2003 to 2006 the bureau issued 192,499 national security letter requests.Ruling the gag order unconstitutional evidently did not lift existing orders. This week, one man who filed suit against an NSL, Nicholas Merrill, came forward once his gag order was finally partially lifted.
From the Washington Post's story:
[F]ollowing the partial lifting of his gag order 11 days ago as a result of an FBI settlement, Merrill can speak openly for the first time about the experience, although he cannot disclose the full scope of the data demanded.192,499. I suppose the authorities got the information they demanded most of the other times.
On a cold February day in 2004, an FBI agent pulled an envelope out of his trench coat and handed it to Merrill, who ran an Internet startup called Calyx in New York. At the time, like most Americans, he had no idea what a national security letter was.
The letter requested that Merrill provide 16 categories of "electronic communication transactional records," including e-mail address, account number and billing information. Most of the other categories remain redacted by the FBI.
Two things, he said, "just leaped out at me." The first was the letter's prohibition against disclosure. The second was the absence of a judge's signature.
"It seemed to be acting like a search warrant, but it wasn't a search warrant signed by a judge," said Merrill. He said it seemed to him to violate the constitutional ban against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The letter said that the information was sought for an investigation against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Merrill said he thought it "outlandish" that any of his clients, many of whom were ad agencies and major companies as well as human-rights and other nonprofit groups, would be investigated for terrorism or espionage.
Although Merrill cannot further discuss the types of data sought, he said, "I wouldn't want the FBI to demand stuff like that about me without a warrant." The information an Internet company maintains on customers "can paint a really vivid picture of many private aspects of their life," he said, including whom they socialize with, what they read or write online and which Web sites they have visited.