In their Nov. 12 letter about the Nov. 6 front-page article "The FBI's Secret Scrutiny," Rachel Brand, an assistant attorney general from the Justice Department, and John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, said, "Contrary to the impression left by Barton Gellman's article, national security letters do not allow the FBI . . . to listen in on phone calls or to read e-mails."

Mr. Gellman never said that they did. He specifically said that national security letters "cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail."

Ms. Brand and Mr. Pistole also said, "National security letters do not allow the FBI to spy on ordinary Americans." What definitions of "spy" and "ordinary Americans" do they have in mind? My dictionary gives several definitions for "spy," including keeping "close and secret watch on the actions of and words of another or others" -- which is exactly what national security letters seek to do.

Moreover, in Mr. Gellman's description of the national security letter that begins his article, the letter's recipient is required to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a certain computer. By what thinking would an "ordinary American" escape being swept up in the category of "any person"?

Finally, Ms. Brand and Mr. Pistole said that national security letters "are limited to requests for information relevant to international terrorism and espionage investigations." But that's exactly what they are not limited to; the new standard is broader than "relevance" (itself a fairly broad standard).

Mr. Gellman pointed out that under the standard now, the FBI need only certify that the records it requires are "sought for" or "relevant to" an investigation of terrorism or espionage. Even a first-year law student would know that "sought for" is, in effect, no standard at all.



The writer was an attorney with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1980 to 1995 and worked closely with Justice Department officials on national security issues.