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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) made expansive and inappropriate use of new authority to issue “national security letters,” compulsory requests for companies to supply consumer and financial information. The bureau had long used these letters to obtain information about agents of foreign powers; in 2001 the USA Patriot Act gave the FBI the power to issue them in investigations of international terrorism. In 2000, the FBI issued about 8,500; then, from 2003 to 2006, agents annually issued more than 30,000, and by 2006 more than half related to investigations of Americans. The letters asked information about telephone calls, e-mails, financial transactions, even library records – while forbidding their recipients from disclosing that they had received the request. Three separate recipients sued to overturn the gag order and, citing First Amendment rights, Judge Victor Marrero struck it down in 2004; the government is appealing. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General found that the bureau could not justify use of the letters in many cases and that the FBI often received information it was not authorized to obtain, yet catalogued and examined it along with the rest of the data provided. Other intelligence-gathering agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, have made use of similar, but non-compulsory, letters. Such requests for personal information occasionally may advance counterterrorism investigations, but watchdog groups warn that American citizens have no legal recourse to fight back against a program with such little transparency. FBI officials stress that they have responded promptly to the inspector general’s concerns, and that the Bureau “conducted an extensive, nationwide internal review” of its use of national security letters and moved to ensure that all requests were first reviewed by an attorney and that staff were better trained on the issue.

The reauthorized Patriot Act of 2006 overhauled the provisions governing national security letters to address privacy concerns. A forthcoming report from the DOJ inspector general will address informal requests that agents have made without issuing national security letters.

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