A First Hand Account of Receiving a National Security Letter

The Washington Post today publishes the first-hand account of a recipient of an FBI national security letter. His name isn't included because he's gagged from discussing it, so the Post verified it with his lawyer and publicly available documents (which I assume are the pleadings in his lawsuit brought by the ACLU which is ongoing.)

The author, who ran "a small internet access and consulting business," never gave up the documents on his client demanded in the letter and eventually the FBI said it no longer needed them. But he's still challenging the gag order that prevents him from discussing the matter.

He describes what his life was like living under a gag order.


Living under the gag order has been stressful and surreal. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case -- including the mere fact that I received an NSL -- from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

We know the FBI has misused its power to issue national security letters because of the Inspector General's report last week saying they did.

The inspector general's report confirms that Congress lacked a complete picture of the problem during a critical time: Even though the NSL statute requires the director of the FBI to fully inform members of the House and Senate about all requests issued under the statute, the FBI significantly underrepresented the number of NSL requests in 2003, 2004 and 2005, according to the report.

More on the report is here. Background on the use of secret national security letters is here.

The author makes the valid point that perhaps without the gag orders, he and other recipients would have come forward to alert Congress and the public to their abuse. He concludes:

At some point -- a point we passed long ago -- the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy. In the wake of the recent revelations, I believe more strongly than ever that the secrecy surrounding the government's use of the national security letters power is unwarranted and dangerous. I hope that Congress will at last recognize the same thing.

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