The FBI is serving national security letters up all over the country. If you haven’t heard of them, somewhere in Washington, D.C. an FBI agent is smiling. If you are served with one, the FBI prohibits you from telling anybody that you received one. Ever.
The FBI gives national security letters to libraries, Internet service providers, business owners and hotels to sweep up information on American citizens without their knowledge and without approval from a judge. Since the USA Patriot Act was passed, the number of these letters has increased from roughly 300 a year to 30,000 a year. A single one was used to force the Mirage in Las Vegas to turn over the records of everyone staying at their hotel on New Year’s Eve in 2003. A different change brought by the Patriot Act is that the government may now keep all of the information it gathers on U.S. citizens indefinitely, just in case.
A lack of judicial oversight makes media attention the only check on this executive power to spy on U.S. citizens. In previous abuses such as the no-fly list, intense public scrutiny was focused on practices Americans deemed unjust. What makes national security letters special is that the American people have been cut out of the debate. I really wish I could regale you with other Patriot Act abuses — the 88-year-old nun who got herself on the no-fly list, the more than 1,000 immigrants detained without trial in the wake of Sept. 11 and the plight of the Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been in a hellish legal purgatory for four years now. But that is the frightening part: No one can tell you these stories of national security letter abuse because no one is allowed to talk.
A Yale Daily News article concerning national security letters quotes FBI spokesman Bill Carter as saying there has never been a verified abuse of national security letters. This should not come as a great surprise, given that recipients are prevented from contacting anyone that might know if the request is abusive. The lack of abuse is purely tautological; no one can verify whether searches are legitimate if no one can know when they are used.
Thankfully, one story broke through the government-imposed gag and made its way to the Washington Post on Nov. 5. The Post was able to ascertain that George Christian from Connecticut was served with a national security letter to compel him to use library software he manages to get information on patrons of 36 state libraries. Christian, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, has taken the FBI to court. He is not even suing to defend the patron’s right to privacy, but for the right to protest the FBI in public. Until he wins, all court documents are sealed. If the FBI wins, the American people will never know just how much information their government has on their private lives.
As the war on terror drags on, people must answer a question of critical and historic importance: How can we reconcile our desire for national security with our fealty to the civil liberties that give us the freedom we hold so dear? Former Attorney General John Ashcroft offered one answer to this question, saying, “Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty […] aid terrorists.” I would argue that broad, ineffective sweeps of innocent people make us neither free nor secure. This debate over liberty and security will play out in editorial pages, debate clubs and city councils across the nation, and I do not know what solution the American people will choose.
What I can tell you, though, is that debate will never happen if abuse of the national security letter continues. The Patriot Act threatens freedom by attacking the civil liberties of all Americans while providing little protection from terrorists. National security letters threaten democracy because they prevent Americans from even debating how powerful they want their government to be.
Some Americans are liberal, some are conservative. Some believe the Patriot Act will make them safer; I proudly place myself in the group that knows it will not. But more importantly, all Americans should be united in the desire to know what government is doing. Otherwise, we are left to trust that the government knows what it is doing each of the 30,000 times the FBI knocks on a door, demands information on U.S. citizens without probable cause and prohibits anybody from finding out about it. We are neither free nor secure under such abuse. We are blindfolded and gagged even from questioning.
Jason Blau is a sophomore in Morse College. He is acting chairman of the Yale College chapter of the ACLU.