November 6, 2005 | By Kevin Bankston

New Evidence: PATRIOT Act's National Security Letters Used to Spy on Vast Number of Innocent Americans

Today's Washington Post contains a shocking (and breathtakingly thorough) investigative piece, worth reading in its entirety, which reveals how the FBI has been using its surveillance powers—greatly expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act—even more aggressively than we feared:

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters—one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people—are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.

This dramatic increase in domestic surveillance is the direct result of Section 505 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and has probably subjected the intimate details of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens' lives to government scrutiny.

PATRIOT removed the critical requirement that National Security Letters (NSLs) only be issued to get the records of suspected spies and terrorists. Now, the FBI can use the letters to get deeply personal records about non-suspects without judicial oversight, so long as it thinks they are relevant to an investigation. Even worse, the letters are accompanied by a never-ending gag order. If your phone company, Internet provider or bank gets an NSL, it must remain silent?no public statements, no notice to you and no way for you to challenge the FBI's fishing expedition.

The Post?s new information comes at a critical time: not only is the Second Circuit Court of Appeals currently judging the constitutionality of NSLs in a case that EFF briefed, but Senators and Congressman are now finalizing a bill to renew the PATRIOT Act — and new checks on the NSL power are still being considered.

We'll be issuing a new action alert calling for PATRIOT reforms shortly; in the meantime, give the Post's story a good read — it's the most explosive, in-depth investigative reporting on a PATRIOT power we?ve seen yet.

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