The Washington Post reports “an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act,” which Congress approved four years ago. The practice of “national security letters” was started in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, 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. 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 burgeoning use of 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. Senior FBI officials acknowledged that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau’s new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Criticized for failure to detect the Sept. 11, 2001, plot, the FBI casts a much wider net, using national security letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them.