A federal judge in California ruled today that the FBI cannot secretly demand data from banks and phone companies in national security cases. The judge said orders that keep those requests secret violate the First Amendment.
NPR’s Carrie Johnson filed this report for our Newscast unit:
“The demands known as ‘national security letters’ became a quick and popular tool for the FBI to gather information without a judge’s pre-approval in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“The letters give counter terrorism agents the power to get information without notifying the targets of their investigations.
“But U.S. District Judge Susan Illston says those gag orders run afoul of the freedom of speech and the separation of powers.
“The judge stayed her ruling to give the Justice Department time to appeal.
“A Justice spokesman said the department is reviewing the decision.”
“National security letters date back to the 1980s and were strengthened under the USA Patriot Act, the counterterrorism law put into place after Sept. 11. The letters allow the FBI to get data on phone, financial and electronic records without a judge or grand jury, as long as the head of an FBI field office certifies that the records would be relevant to a counterterrorism investigation. They typically come with strict secrecy orders, barring the recipient from acknowledging the case to anyone but attorneys.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the unnamed telecommunications company that challenged the national security letters statute, said they were “pleased that the court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute.”
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