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EFF Challenges National Security Letter Statute in Landmark Lawsuit

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July 17, 2012
By Matt Zimmerman
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Since the first national security letter statute was passed in 1986, the FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of such letters seeking private telecommunications and financial records of Americans without any prior approval from courts. Indeed, for the period between 2003 and 2006 alone, almost 200,000 requests for private customer information were sought pursuant to various NSL statutes. Prior to 2011, the constitutionality of this legal authority to investigate the records of Americans without court oversight had been challenged in court — as far as we know — exactly one time. EFF is today releasing FBI-redacted briefing from a major new ongoing case in which it is challenging one of the NSL statutes on behalf of a telecommunications company that received an NSL in 2011. Not only does this briefing show that the Department of Justice continues to strongly protect the FBI’s NSL authority, it highlights a startlingly aggressive new tactic used by the Department of Justice: suing NSL recipients who challenge the FBI’s authority, arguing that court challenges to such authority themselves amount to breaking the law.

National security letter statutes — five in all — are controversial laws that allow the FBI to easily bypass courts and issue administrative letters on their own authority to telecommunications companies and financial institutions demanding information about their customers. The NSL statutes permit the FBI to permanently gag service providers from revealing the fact that the demand was made, preventing them from notifying either their customers or the public. While the statute has many deficiencies, one of the core constitutional issues (already recognized by one federal appeals court) is that it turns the First Amendment’s procedural prior restraint doctrine on its head by allowing the FBI to issue a never-ending prior restraint on its own, then requiring the recipient service provider to undertake a legal challenge. Another fundamental problem with the NSL statutes is that courts are all but written out of any part of the process: the FBI can issue demands for records and gag provisions without court authorization, and recipient telecommunications and financial companies have no way to determine whether and how the government might be overreaching or otherwise abusing its authority. Not surprisingly, given these significant structural barriers, legal challenges are extraordinarily rare.

EFF brought its challenge on behalf of its client in May of 2011, raising these and other fundamental due process and First Amendment concerns about the structure of these problematic statutes. In response, the Department of Justice promptly filed a civil complaint against the recipient, alleging that by “stat[ing] its objection to compliance with the provisions of” the NSL by “exercis[ing] its rights under” the NSL statute to challenge the NSL’s legality, the recipient was “interfer[ing] with the United States’ vindication of its sovereign interests in law enforcement, counterintelligence, and protecting national security.” While it ultimately agreed to a stay, temporarily suspending its suit against the recipient, the government has moved to compel disclosure of the subscriber information and to uphold the gag. The petition to set aside the NSL is currently pending before the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Whether the recipient will be permitted to speak out about its specific experiences — and whether the FBI will be permitted to issue NSLs, at least in one district — should soon be known.

Related Cases: In re: 2011 National Security Letter