A federal judge has declared unconstutitonal controversial portions of the USA Patriot Act, reports the Washington Post. Judge Victor Marrero in New York City ordered the FBI to stop its wide use of a warrantless tactic for obtaining e-mail and telephone data from private companies for counterterrorism investigations. The decision said the FBI’s use of secret “national security letters” to demand such data violates the First Amendment and constitutional provisions on the separation of powers, because the FBI can impose indefinite gag orders on the companies and the courts have little opportunity to review the letters.
The secrecy provisions are “the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values,” Marrero wrote. His strongly worded opinion was a rebuke of both the administration and Congress, which had revised the act in 2005 to take into account an earlier ruling by the judge on the same topic. Depending on the result of an appeal, the decision could eliminate or curtail the FBI’s issuance of tens of thousands of national security letters (NSLs) each year to telephone companies, Internet providers, and other communications firms. The FBI says it typically orders that such letters be kept confidential to make sure that suspects do not learn they are being investigated, as well as to protect “sources and methods” in terrorism and counterintelligence probes.