Thanks to the Patriot Act’s expansion of investigative powers, for years the FBI has been using National Security Letters to gather information about US citizens. Now the Internet Archive, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the ACLU managed to get the FBI to rescind one such request and make some details public.
National Security Letters are particularly dangerous because there’s no judicial approval or oversight, and they come with a nasty gag order that prevents you from talking to anyone about it other than your attorney. Imagine trying to fight an NSL in court, unable to tell your friends or family why you’re going to court — remember, you can’t even admit that you’ve been served with an NSL! While the FBI claims that NSLs can only be used in cases relevant to an authorized FBI national security investigation, they’ve instead used it to skirt the laws restricting domestic surveillance. And for such a powerful tool, the FBI is remarkably lax in keeping track of NSLs, telling Congress they can only estimate how many NSLs they’ve issued. Worse, they have consistently underestimated the number to Congress.
The need for secrecy leads to the desire for secrecy regardless of need. Without oversight, review or appeal, secrecy feeds on itself, and government agents turn to it because it makes their investigations easier. It’s good to see a case where that unneeded secrecy is publicly challenged and stopped.