The FBI's Secret Scrutiny
Sunday, November 6, 2005
The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.
Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow.
Christian refused to hand over those records, and his employer, Library Connection Inc., filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public. The Washington Post established their identities -- still under seal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit -- by comparing unsealed portions of the file with public records and information gleaned from people who had no knowledge of the FBI demand.
The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.
Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.
The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined.
National security letters offer a case study of the impact of the Patriot Act outside the spotlight of political debate. Drafted in haste after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the law's 132 pages wrought scores of changes in the landscape of intelligence and law enforcement. Many received far more attention than the amendments to a seemingly pedestrian power to review "transactional records." But few if any other provisions touch as many ordinary Americans without their knowledge.
Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau's new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Criticized for failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot, the bureau now casts a much wider net, using national security letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them. Casual or unwitting contact with a suspect -- a single telephone call, for example -- may attract the attention of investigators and subject a person to scrutiny about which he never learns.
A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.
As it wrote the Patriot Act four years ago, Congress bought time and leverage for oversight by placing an expiration date on 16 provisions. The changes involving national security letters were not among them. In fact, as the Dec. 31 deadline approaches and Congress prepares to renew or make permanent the expiring provisions, House and Senate conferees are poised again to amplify the FBI's power to compel the secret surrender of private records.
The House and Senate have voted to make noncompliance with a national security letter a criminal offense. The House would also impose a prison term for breach of secrecy.