EFF Lawsuit Uncovers History of Surveillance Mistakes

Washington, D.C. - Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) show years of chronic problems with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to collect Americans' personal information and that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has long been aware of these problems.

The documents were disclosed after EFF sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) earlier this year for records related to a scathing Justice Department critique of FBI NSL activity. The records detail more than 40 instances of improper, unauthorized collection of information about individuals, including unlawful access to phone records and email. The records show that Gonzales himself was sent several of these problem reports, including one less than a week before he told a congressional committee that no civil liberties abuses have resulted from the USA PATRIOT Act. He also voiced surprise when the Justice Department report on NSL misuse was made public earlier this year.

"These chronic privacy problems have long been known within the Justice Department but still were kept secret from those who really needed to know -- members of the American public, including those who were surveilled," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "The FBI can't be trusted to police its own agents. It's time for Congress to provide oversight to protect American citizens."

The FBI's use of NSLs was expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, allowing federal agents to gather private records about anyone's domestic phone calls, emails, and financial transactions without any court approval -- as long as an FBI agent claims that the information could be related to a terrorism or espionage investigation. EFF submitted a FOIA request about the reported misuse of NSLs in March, and when no documents were forthcoming, EFF sued the FBI for their immediate release. Last month, a judge held that the FBI was required to release records related to the inspector general's report beginning on July 5, with more documents to be disclosed every 30 days. In all, 1138 pages of NSL records were released to EFF late last week in the first batch of documents complying with the court's order.

"This is by no means the whole story on NSL abuse," said EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel. "We're looking forward to receiving the rest of the documents. Americans deserve the whole story on the FBI's deeply flawed program to issue NSLs."

For the complete FBI documents and more analysis:


Marcia Hofmann
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

David Sobel
Senior Counsel
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Rebecca Jeschke
Media Coordinator
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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