The dread PATRIOT Act created many new powers for law-enforcement, including the ability to secure the prized super-warrants called National Security Letters without judicial oversight. In the time since PATRIOT was passed, their use by the FBI has increased by 10,000 percent. Each of these warrants can be used to invade the lives of many Americans, and none of them are being issued with a judge's oversight after presentation of evidence justifying these intrusions into the lives of private individuals. These warrants are issued on a copper's say-so, without the due process that is the hallmarks of democracy.
How far can one FSA go? Well, in 2003, one was used to secure the records of guests in hotels in Las Vegas over a four-day period: 250,000 people (the investigation was inconclusive). The use of NSLs is common, but us hearing about them is rare: NSLs come with gag-orders that prohibit those who receive them from discussing them.
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.
The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined...
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.
(via Deep Links)