The Connecticut librarians’ legal challenge to FBI National Security Letters provides a rare public glimpse into of the vast amount of banking, credit, telephone, and Internet records that anti-terrorism or counterintelligence investigators can have simply by asking, reports USA Today. The 2001 USA Patriot Act said the letters can be issued if a local FBI official merely certifies that the information sought is “relevant” to an international terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. The FBI served 9,254 National Security Letters concerning 3,501 individuals in 2005.
Because the recipients of National Security Letters are hardly ever named, little is known about how the letters have been used. USA Today pieced together details of one successful computer surveillance operation from public records. It involved Mohammad Junaid Babar, who frequently visited the New York Public Library to send e-mails to “terrorist associates around the world,” charged a federal prosecutor. In another case, a federal judge in New York City found that the letters were unconstitutional because they provided no way for a recipient to challenge them in court. The judge also struck down the letter’s non-disclosure provision as a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Now, recipients are permitted to challenge a letter in court and to petition to have their names made public, though a judge need not grant the requests.