[JURIST] The US Department of Defense (DOD) secretly issued hundreds of national security letters (NSLs) [CRS backgrounder, PDF; FBI backgrounder] to obtain financial, telephone and Internet records without court approval, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said Sunday when it released documents obtained from the Defense Department [press release; summary]. The ACLU filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] in June to compel the DOD and CIA to hand over documents relating to the organizations' use of NSLs to obtain personal records. The ACLU studied 455 NSLs issued after September 11, 2001, and found that:
that the Defense Department seems to have collaborated with the FBI to circumvent the law, may have overstepped its legal authority to obtain financial and credit records, provided misleading information to Congress, and silenced NSL recipients from speaking out about the records requests...Under the USA Patriot Act, FBI-issued NSLs require mandatory compliance, but recipients of an NSL from the Defense Department are not required to comply in all circumstances. According to the ACLU, "the letters are coercive and do not make clear that compliance with the Defense Department's 'requests' for information is voluntary," and in some circumstances the FBI may have issued NSLs on behalf of the DOD, allowing the DOD to access documents it otherwise would not have been entitled to access.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said:
The documents make clear that the Department of Defense may have secretly and illegally conducted surveillance beyond the powers it was granted by Congress. It also appears as if the FBI is serving as a lackey for the DoD in misusing the Patriot Act powers. At the very least, it certainly looks like the FBI and DoD are conspiring to evade limits placed on the Department of Defense's surveillance powers.In March, US Department of Justice Inspector General Glenn Fine told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing that confusion and abuses surrounding the use of NSLs was "unacceptable and inexcusable" [JURIST report], and indicated that the FBI illegally gathered data [JURIST report] from telephone and financial records of both US citizens and foreigners while searching for terrorists. In July, the FBI and the Department of Justice proposed the launch of two oversight offices [JURIST report] dedicated to reviewing the DOJ's National Security Division and the FBI's compliance with privacy laws. AFP has more.