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The decision comes as good news to the publisher of Capitol Hill Blue because the agency attempted to use such a letter to obtain records of the news site through its web host in 2006.
That attempt by the agency failed because it failed to realize that the publisher, Doug Thompson, owned the data facility that hosted Capitol Hill Blue and was aware of the letter when it was served.
Under “National Security Letter” rules, the FBI has been able to obtain records on U.S. citizens from companies without disclosure to the person or organization being investigated. At the time the FBI issued its National Security Letter on Capitol Hill Blue, the news site had published a number of articles critical of the administration of President George W. Bush.
The letter was withdrawn after Capitol Hill Blue went public with the issue.
Neither Thompson nor Capitol Hill Blue was involved in the current case ruled upon by Judge Susan Illston of the District Court for the Northern District of California.
The letter in that case was issued to an unnamed telecommunications company and sought “subscriber information” and warned the company that disclosing the letter to the subscribers would result “in a danger to the United States.” The company did not turn the information over to the government but chose instead to challenge the constitutionality of such letters in federal court.
The government has not shown that is is generally necessary to prohibit recipients from disclosing the mere fact of their receipt of NSLs.
According to federal records, the FBI issues more than 15,000 such letters in a year.