FBI’s privacy-invading ‘National Security Letters’ gag orders ruled unconstitutional

fbi_1A federal judge in California Thursday ruled that the FBI usages of secretcy in so-called “National Security Letters” is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment of the United States.

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The letter was withdrawn after Capitol Hill Blue went public with the issue.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.

Wrote Illston:

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.

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3 Responses to "FBI’s privacy-invading ‘National Security Letters’ gag orders ruled unconstitutional"

  1. bryan mcclellan  March 16, 2013 at 8:57 am

    J Edgar would be proud that his tentacles will continue to probe long after his death. I’m glad you stood up to them Doug. Thanks..

  2. Pondering_It_All  March 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    One thing we all should keep in mind: The Court ruled that requiring the recipient of one of these demand letters to keep that fact secret is unconstitutional, NOT the FBI demanding the information they want. They can still investigate anybody they want, without probable cause, a warrant, etc.

    But how many telephone companies, internet service providers, and online vendors, are actually going to act contrary to the FBI’s wish that they keep the investigation secret, even if they are not subject to criminal charges if they publish that fact or notify the person being investigated?

    Doug saw this as unconstitutional restraint of his Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, but he is a cantankerous old idealist (some would say fool) who values our freedoms more than a cozy relationship with the powers that be. How many people running a business, large or small, would make that choice?

  3. Jon  March 18, 2013 at 6:24 am

    “in a danger to the United States ['s police apparatus as it is currently constituted and would prefer to remain; unaccountable and all-powerful].”

    Fixed that for them.

    Bravo, Publisher Thompson.

    J.

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