Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone Records

The Blotter, an ABC News blog, reports that the Justice Department has disclosed that in 2005, it issued national security letters authorized by the Patriot Act to obtain phone records and other documents of 3,501 people.

Assistant Attorney General William Moschella told Congress last month that 9,254 National Security Letters were issued in 2005 involving 3,501 people.

....Federal law enforcement sources say the National Security Letters are being used to obtain phone records of reporters at ABC News and elsewhere in an attempt to learn confidential sources who may have provided classified information in violation of the law.

Barton Gellman of the Washington Post did an exhaustive analysis of national security letters in November, 2005. (See also, the FBI is Spying on You and Me.) From Gellman's article:

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.

What exactly is a national security letter?

Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.

You can view a sample letter here.(pdf)

Before the Patriot Act, National Security letters were more difficult to obtain:

Under the old legal test, the FBI had to have "specific and articulable" reasons to believe the records it gathered in secret belonged to a terrorist or a spy. Now the bureau needs only to certify that the records are "sought for" or "relevant to" an investigation "to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." That standard enables investigators to look for conspirators by sifting the records of nearly anyone who crosses a suspect's path.

The letters do not allow conversations to be recorded. The Justice Department would have you believe they are similar to grand jury subpoenas. Here's the difference:

Grand juries tend to have a narrower focus because they investigate past conduct, not the speculative threat of unknown future attacks. Recipients of grand jury subpoenas are generally free to discuss the subpoenas publicly. And there are strict limits on sharing grand jury information with government agencies.

Gellman also tied the use of national security letters to data-mining:

[Ascroft's new] order directed the FBI to develop "data mining" technology to probe for hidden links among the people in its growing cache of electronic files. According to an FBI status report, the bureau's office of intelligence] began operating in January 2004 a new Investigative Data Warehouse, based on the same Oracle technology used by the CIA. The CIA is generally forbidden to keep such files on Americans. Data mining intensifies the impact of national security letters, because anyone's personal files can be scrutinized again and again without a fresh need to establish relevance.

Gellman reported that the FBI issued 30,000, not 9,254 NSL letters a year. And, it contracted with private firms:

Ashcroft's new guidelines allowed the FBI for the first time to add to government files consumer data from commercial providers such as LexisNexis and ChoicePoint Inc. Previous attorneys general had decided that such a move would violate the Privacy Act. In many field offices, agents said, they now have access to ChoicePoint in their squad rooms.

As I wrote here,

So when you get stopped for a traffic ticket and are told to wait in your car while the officer radios in your driver's license information, what he gets back from headquarters likely will include everything from a credit report to lawsuits you've been involved in to information about the time your neighbor called the police to complain your dog was barking too loud. Unless, of course, his squad car is equipped with its own terminal, and then he can access this information directly on the highway.

A big problem with the letters is that the Justice Department (which includes the FBI) only has to tell Congress the number of of letters issued. As Gellman noted,

In the executive branch, no FBI or Justice Department official audits the use of national security letters to assess whether they are appropriately targeted, lawfully applied or contribute important facts to an investigation.

The ACLU has been actively involved in ligitation over the use of national security letters.

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can demand the disclosure of personal records about innocent people without getting approval from a judge. Simply by issuing a National Security Letter, the FBI can force Internet service providers, universities and other institutions to turn over customer records.

Even more disturbing, anyone who receives an NSL is gagged forever from telling anyone that the FBI demanded records. Secrecy surrounding NSLs has made it difficult for the public and Congress to know just how the FBI is using its new power.

....Our most recent lawsuit reveals that even library records aren't safe from the prying eyes of the FBI. In August 2005, the ACLU disclosed that the FBI had used an NSL to demand records from an organization that possesses sensitive information about library patrons, including borrowed reading materials and Internet usage.

Phone records, bank records, library records....in the name of the war on terror, the Government is trampling our privacy. Today it's reporters whose records are being seized and examined. Don't think you can't be next.

< Verizon Denies Released Phone Records to Government | Rove Indictment Watch >
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    OT, but when is Jason Leopold going to reveal all those exclusive sources of his? He said there were "more than two" of them, and that he was the only reporter they talked with. Inquiring minds need to know who the mystery men/women are.

    I get it now. The Bush Community is now two branches the first being the executive branch that gives the orders regardless "The Jesse James Bunch" roster FBI,CIA,Homeland Security, Isreal,NSA. The Crusaders are Al Queda,Flight 93,Fox News,Moussaui,Saudi Terrorists,and now the most recent AT&T,Sprint,Verison,and..

    OT, but when is Jason Leopold going to reveal all those exclusive sources of his? He said there were "more than two" of them, and that he was the only reporter they talked with. I heard an interview with Jason on the Ed Schultz show last night. He's standing by his story and had fully expected major news outlets to also come out with the story a day or two later. He said these were the same sources who gave him the story he broke in Feb. about the 250 emails, which we all know turned out to be true. He also said that he knows three news organizations, Knight Ridder, MSNBC and (I'm unsure of my memory on the last) the NY Times each had a single source on the same story, but can't run it without at least one second source. Ed joked about Luskin's cat excuse and thought it sounded really bizarre. Jason said that he planned on calling every single vet within a 20 miles radius of Luskin's home to see if he could get a confirmation on the cat. Jason also said he had documentary proof that Fitz was in Washington and would be happy to email it to Ed, but Ed declined and said he believed him. Ed genuinely liked the guy and didn't understand why he was getting such a roughing up in the blogosphere and felt, too, who are we to believe anything Luskin or Corallo says. Jason told him of a story about Corallo from 1998 wherein Corallo, representing Bob Livingston, was denying 100% that Livingston was going to resign as Speaker of the house and two days later Livingston did just that. FWIW

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#6)
    by oldtree on Wed May 17, 2006 at 08:00:44 AM EST
    as we thought, the only thing our government cares about is spying on the people trying to keep them honest this is treason

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#7)
    by Edger on Wed May 17, 2006 at 08:06:59 AM EST
    bumbaclatt, Jason Leopold said he would disclose his sources if it turns out they lied. I assume, even though he didn't explicitly say so, that he also meant he would if they (even unknowingly) fed him false information. We won't know untill Fitgerald announces a decision on indicting rove. What's your hurry?

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#8)
    by Al on Wed May 17, 2006 at 08:14:04 AM EST
    This phrase by a bureaucrat in the Washington Post article caught my eye:
    Anyone caught up in an NSL investigation never gets notice.
    I urge everyone to read "The Trial" by Franz Kafka. If you have read it, you will understand why that phrase sends shivers up my spine.

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#10)
    by soccerdad on Wed May 17, 2006 at 02:21:32 PM EST
    Yes fascism just keeps creeping along
    A prominent Republican on Capitol Hill has prepared legislation that would rewrite Internet privacy rules by requiring that logs of Americans' online activities be stored, CNET News.com has learned.
    LINK And Bush has the gall to lecture Putin on Democracy. What an F'ing joke.

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#11)
    by kdog on Wed May 17, 2006 at 03:06:57 PM EST
    Seems they got enough 'logs' to build a cabin. I can't stand nosy people.

    edger: only that leopold said the rove indictment would be opened within 24 business hours, so that would have been tuesday at the latest. plus, i've never heard of a prosecutor saying here's a copy of your indictment, but we'll keep it unofficial until you can get your affairs in order. something fishy about those sources. mind you, i hope rove does gets indicted and i think he probably will, but leopold's story seems to have some holes in it.

    Re: Justice Dept. Issued 3,501 Requests for Phone (none / 0) (#13)
    by Johnny on Thu May 18, 2006 at 01:37:44 AM EST
    Wrong-wingers who voted for Busha re directly to blame for the approaching fasist revolution in this country. They are setting up the future. Any succeeding president will want to reduce the amount of spying the gov't does, but they will not because the wrong-winger crowd will whine in the corner about "turrusts will win whah whah whah"... Bush's regime has succeeded in permanently turning this into a country where millions of people are complacent about spying! Amazing! I knew it took a 2 cent head to vote for Bush, but I didn't know you got change!