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FBI Widens Use of National Security Letters

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 8 years ago | from the wishing-for-1984 dept.

Privacy 379

An anonymous reader writes "The Washington Post reports that the FBI has drastically increased its use of National Security Letters (NSL), which permit it to collect information without judicial oversight. According to the article, the use of NSLs is up by a factor of 100, and the records are kept forever (in the past they were thrown away if the subject was cleared). Deep in the article, the author reports that NSLs were used to collect records '[...] of every hotel guest, everyone who rented a car or truck, every lease on a storage space, and every airplane passenger who landed in [Las Vegas]' for a two week period, in response to a terrorism threat in 2003. Those records, apparently, will be kept forever by the federal government. There's an ombudsman, and a procedure to resolve complaints, but the mere existence of an NSL is secret, so it's not clear how anyone can complain!

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379 comments

Ombudsman? (5, Funny)

TheSpoom (715771) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964460)

Man, I want THAT job.

Person: Are you the ombudsman for National Security Letters?

Me: Yes.

Person: I'd like to complain about the FBI's issuance of one against me. I was cleared and they're now storing all my personal information forever.

Me: Sir, you're not supposed to know about that.

Person: But I...

Me: I'm afraid you're now a threat to National Security.

Person: Wait, what the... No, I'm an innocent man! I'M INNOCENT DAMN-*gunshots* *silence*

Me: I love my job.

Re:Ombudsman? (2, Interesting)

penguinrenegade (651460) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964651)

Makes you wonder if the Freedom of Information Act applies? Just exactly how long will those letters remain "classified?"

Re:Ombudsman? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964836)

Until every last terrorist has been eliminated.

Re:Ombudsman? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964986)

Well, slap a "Mission Accomplished" sign on that sucker.

Future's so bright, gotta wear shades! (4, Funny)

lotusleaf (928941) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964465)

Just track everyone: Piggy back RFID/GPS chips on every sperm that swims

Re:Future's so bright, gotta wear shades! (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964490)

That's SO inefficient. It's better to attach a RFID/GPS to every egg.

Censored by Department of Homeland Security (1)

GeekyMike (575177) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964711)

Due to disclosures detrimental to the interests National Security, and generally ruining the suprise, the parent of this thread will be flogged. Oh yeah, insert vague refererences to war on terrorism, Bin Laden, Al Queda, and the Easter Bunny as precident and justification for said flogging.

Please don't audit me (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964478)

I was in Las Vegas during said time and won 3 million dollars gambling but never declared to the NRA. Thank goodness for chef boyardee.

Tourisme (2, Insightful)

Councilor Hart (673770) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964504)

Another reason not to visit America.
When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to emigrate to the US of A. At the moment, I don't even want to visit it as a tourist.
How things can change in less than a decade...

Re:Tourisme (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964523)

yes, I wanted to emigrate there. however north korea sounds like a more liberal, safer place to me.

seriously, I'm considering emigrating from the UK, as we're getting some similar nasty laws, we're just a few years behind the US.

Re:Tourisme (1, Flamebait)

Karma_fucker_sucker (898393) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964544)

...I'm considering emigrating from the UK...

If you have skills, consider Cananda. They're looking for immigrants because they want to increase their labor pool and subsequently the tax base so they can keep supporting their social programs. Also, you won't have to worry about terrorist attacks or being at war with something or someone all the time, you know: terror, drugs, Iraq, maybe Iran, N. Korea....

Re:Tourisme (1)

VJ42 (860241) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964609)

I'm also in the UK, and was thinking exactly the same thing, after I finish my degree* I really need to emigrate and having been to canada, and knowing people who live or have lived there, it's my chosen destination (if they let me in).

*I hope they need software engineers.

Re:Tourisme (1)

NidStyles (794619) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965014)

The UK is worst. You guys have bans on firearms and sharp knives. Then your crime rates with illegal firearms goes up, and you claim it's a benefit for societies.

you ain't alone (-1, Troll)

poptones (653660) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964531)

Many of us don't even want to live here any more.

Goddamn motherfucking christians. They'll put goddamn satan in the fucking whitehouse if they think it means no more roe v wade.

Re:you ain't alone (-1, Flamebait)

Master of Transhuman (597628) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964590)

Naah...They didn't put Satan in the White House - just his son...

Oh, wait, his father was President earlier, wasn't he?

Never mind.

Besides, Roe v Wade is only half of it. It's that bit about Israel ruling the Middle East before Armageddon and the Second Coming that really drives these nutjobs. Israel just loves that since THEY know there's no such thing as a Second Coming - since Jesus was never crucified - and was a Jew in the first place - so they get to use the US to take over all the oil.

Nice how you can use morons and their beliefs to get what you want. Wish I could figure out how to do that...

Oh, wait, we Transhumans are letting the monkeys develop the tech to create Transhumans - then we trash you.

Never mind.

Re:you ain't alone (0, Offtopic)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964645)

I don't think any of the Jews I know are any more in touch with those "hidden facts" about Jesus you cite than are any of the non-batshitcrazy christians I know. I guess just Transhumans are privy to the secret Jewish conspiracy. How do they get those horns under those little hats, anyway?

Re:you ain't alone (-1, Flamebait)

technos (73414) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964594)

But is he so bad? Without him in the White House to declare a state religion, overturn half the important court decisions of the last century by executive fiat, the vast majority of the country will be condemned to eternal damnation for their sinful ways! With him there, only the Christians who sold their souls to Him will boil, everyone else legislatively goaded into Heaven!

Hey, I'd deal with eight years of radical Christian legislative climate if it meant a thousand years of debauchery after! Err.. So that means I get my debauchery in aught eight, right?

Re:you ain't alone (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964597)

Don't want to live here? Put up or shut up. I'm sick of hearing this whiny " Many of us don't even want to live here any more.", and then they just sit on their ass.

And you know you will. You won't move a damn inch. You're a freakin' hypocrite.

"Goddamn motherfucking christians."

And a religion bigot too! Nice.

bigot? (1)

poptones (653660) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964802)

Aren't you christians the ones who invented that whole "it's a choice" argument?

Religion is a choice, not a matter of birth. People are born black (or gay) - no one is born a christian.

Slashdot post... (5, Funny)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964533)

Well, I would imagine that just by posting to Slashdot you are registered 'for all eternity' in some federal register. So, what's your point?

Re:Slashdot post... (3, Insightful)

Councilor Hart (673770) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965058)

There is some difference between a nickname on /. and having a full cavity search when entering the states.
It's not just this one thing. It's everything. The more I learn about and watch develop the current shape of the USA, the less I like it. The less I want to cross the atlantic, the less I want to be an American.
There is also a difference between the EU, where I have a right to view the data they have on me (and have it alter if necessary) and the US, where privacy is being eroded. And everything happens in back rooms, under the pretence of terrorism, deepening the culture of fear.
Was the culture of fear the best the states could create the last few hundred years?

Re:Tourisme (5, Interesting)

trollable (928694) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964586)

Same here. In fact, I also canceled a trip to a professional conference in S.F last summer. Didn't feel to be tracked (photograph, fingerprints, ...). Better go to china, you just need a visa.

Re:Tourisme (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13965123)

"In fact, I also canceled a trip to a professional conference in S.F last summer. Didn't feel to be tracked (photograph, fingerprints, ...). Better go to china, you just need a visa."

Ditto. My trip to the US was actually to help out the US Airforce with something (defence contractor etc.), so they lost out a little when I said no way, not with the fingerprinting and PATRIOT act and all that

Re:Tourisme (4, Insightful)

patricksevenlee (679708) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964661)

Another reason not to visit America. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to emigrate to the US of A. At the moment, I don't even want to visit it as a tourist. How things can change in less than a decade...

Right before 9/11, I was offered a job in the US, but it fell through (guess for what reason) and at the time, it was really difficult because I wanted to leave Canada for the US. Looking back now, the job not coming through is the best thing that could have happened to me because I definitely would be making a quick exit out of the US of A.

As well, I used to love driving to Buffalo, NY to spend money shopping, and took yearly vacations to places like Florida and Alaska, but since 9/11, I have not even come close to American soil. The last thing I need is to be body cavity searched or interrogated. Sure, I have nothing to hide, it doesn't mean I want to submit myself to a complete loss of my personal freedoms. America, it's been a slice, I hope one day you'll become a place of freedom again, when it does, I'll be the first in line to come over to celebrate.

Re:Tourisme (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964844)

I hope one day you'll become a place of freedom again, when it does, I'll be the first in line to come over to celebrate.

Same here. We used to spend time south of the border every year, but we've not bothered going since Bush's regime started to see and treat visitors as potential terrorists. Hopefully the coming president will turn the United States back to the beacon for freedom.

It's better here than anywhere else (1, Troll)

ThreeE (786934) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964719)

OK, I'll bite. Why would any of this make any difference to you or, for that matter, an American? Contrary to the FUD found here, this is just the collection of information and in no way strips any rights from you (well, you're not American so that's a given) or any American. That information collection gives law enforcement the tools to fight that nasty thing you might have seen in the news: terrorism. By the way -- we do a better job of fighting it than anyone else.

And while we're at it, where is home for you? I suspect you are in better shape when you get off the plane here in the states than you are back in your Euro-hamlet. Do you even have a Bill of Rights? Perhaps you'd like to roast marshmellows in Paris?

Re:It's better here than anywhere else (1)

Chowderbags (847952) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964803)

Why should a government collect information on the very citizens that it is supposed to be responsive to and then have the gall to keep the information secret in perpetuity? Law enforcement doesn't need to know everyone who went in and out of Las Vegas for two weeks to prevent a terrorist attack, and it certainly doesn't need to keep that information for years down the line. What ever happened to detective work, to actually figuring things out without spying on everyone? And even if we did a better job fighting terrorism than anyone else (which is hard to determine, and very likely untrue given Israel's existance), it still wouldn't mean that we're fighting effectively. We fought the Vietnamese better than anyone, but Ho Chi Minh ended up winning because out tactics still sucked. Oh, and France does have it's version of the Bill of Rights. It's called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Re:It's better here than anywhere else (0, Troll)

ThreeE (786934) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964955)

I'd say we have been very effective fighting terrorism. Have you seen any terrorism here in the states since 9/11? You would like us to model our terrorism fighting on Israel's success??? The dynamic in Vietnam had nothing to do with terrorism and was all about the Cold War. In fact, that comment makes my point -- we should have used a nuke or two across the border in Vietnam.

I'm sure France does have its version of the Bill of Rights. It also has its version of fighting too -- with a white flag, thus, its capital is burning for the upteenth time tonight.

Label me troll, jingoist, whatever...

Re:It's better here than anywhere else (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964811)

Who modded the parent as a Troll? Come on, this jingoistic post was hilarious! I suspect it wasn't meant as a joke, but it certainly made me laugh.

MOD PARENT F*CKIN' HILARIOUS!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13965115)

That's gotta be one of the most wittily ironic posts yet. I still can't tell if ThreeE was trying to be funny, or if he really is such a pathetic tool.

Re:Tourisme (0, Troll)

Py to the Wiz (905662) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964999)

Are you really serious? Now I must preface with this by saying that I don't necessarily support this kind of stuff, but honestly, it just isn't that big of a deal. I live in America and plan to for the rest of my life and I just don't see it affecting me in any serious way. I'm a more or less law-abiding citizen, and if my government wants to collect some information on me like whether I stayed at a hotel or not, I really just don't care that much. They don't personally know me and I will probably never come in contact with any of the people that know I stayed at that hotel. Even if I did, SO WHAT? I just don't buy all these conspiracy theories like what if the government thinks you're a terrorist and interrogates you and holds you without trial, etc, etc. Sure, there are a few horror stories (and I'm pretty sure most of them are embellished) but in reality that kind of stuff just doesn't happen.

Now I don't want to sound like a troll, but it seems like most of the privacy nazis posting on here are the type of people that just want to fight the system.
They are generally against government because of some kind of latent teenage rebellion or what have you. In general the government is not out to get you and does not need to be constantly treated by contempt.

Re:Tourisme (5, Insightful)

IdleTime (561841) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965067)

Well, I've been living in USA since 1999 and over the years I have realized that USA:
- Is not free
- Is not democractic
- Don't have free speech
- Has more criminals than any other country and put a larger percent of it's population behind bars than any other country.
- Has a cruel and barbaric justice system
- Has a completly corrupt and criminal political system
- Has more poverty than any other 1st world country
- Has an increasingly horrible education system
- Have their own world history which differs quite a bit from the history that the rest of the world knows.
- Indoctrinates it's people about the same as old Soviet Union did and about the same as todays North Korea and China.

I cpuld go on and on about these things but I'll stop here. Now I will be labeled as a USA hater, when it is the opposite. I actually love USA enough to care about what it does and how it is conceived around the world. If you hate USA, the current course if fine and you really don't have to say anything, just continue to support it's actions. That is hating USA when you really don't care what the rest of the world thinks.

Re:Tourisme (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965117)

Uh, your desire to emigrate was based on Hollywood movies, and you have no sense of what it's like to live life in America as an American. The reality is quite different. I myself have been abroad for the better part of 3 years, and every day is a breath of fresh air.

Three words... (4, Funny)

Chickenofbristol55 (884806) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964506)

Double edged sword.

One the one hand it's useful, but on the other it contradicts our constitutuion. Man I love polidicks[sic].

Re:Three words... (1)

Py to the Wiz (905662) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965051)

" One the one hand it's useful, but on the other it contradicts our constitutuion."

No, actually it doesn't. That's something privacy nazis seem to forget. There is NOT a right to privacy in the constitution. The right to privacy is a result of several Supreme Court decisions over the years, but it is not written in the constitution at all.

Of course, I was assuming you were talking about the gathering of the information (which may or may not be a violation of the right to privacy). If you were talking about holding the information well then you really just don't know what the fuck you're talking about.

P.S.

Before making any more statements about what is / is not in the constitution please check out http://www.usconstitution.net/constnot.html [usconstitution.net]

In unrelated news (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964519)

In unrelated news, the price of Aluminium today is up by a factor of 100.
"I don't know why people are buying so much metal, but it's great for business!" says one happy new investor.

Translation into American (3, Funny)

OzPeter (195038) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964568)

In unrelated news, the price of Aluminum today is up by a factor of 100.

Damn those slashdot editors .. can't even trust them to correct^h^h^h^h^h^h^hchange the spelling of Anonymous cowards even

Re:Translation into American (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964908)

Obviously you don't work for the administration. Your story doesn't include a single keyword or have any effect on public perception. How the heck to you expect to bury a story without getting a little crosstalk in the mix.

Here. Let ABC show you how it is done...

Original Story (19 Oct):
http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/SYD103799 .htm [alertnet.org]

ABC News (22 Oct):
http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=1 236555 [go.com]

Notice how we go from identifying the the specific unit and soldier to "coulda been anybody" (achieved by muting the audio track).

Re:In unrelated news - It's called a JOKE, mods!! (-1, Offtopic)

WidescreenFreak (830043) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964977)

Leave it up to the Slashdot crowd to not realize that the aluminum joke is in reference (at least partly) to Slashdot's beloved "foil" hats.

Clue for the clueless: So-called "tin foil" no longer contains tin as it used to. It's now almost entirely aluminum. Nowadays, "tin foil" hats would be more appropriately called "aluminum foil" hats, hence the joke.

Offtopic indeed. Slashdot's clueless moderators strike yet again.

Remember kids, what happens in Vegas stays in... (5, Insightful)

fuzzy12345 (745891) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964522)

Langley, Fort Meade, and Washington D.C.

Did you guys really vote for all this, um, stuff? Take your country back.

Re:Remember kids, what happens in Vegas stays in.. (1)

lotusleaf (928941) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964588)

"Take your country back" Who should, the Native Americans?

Re:Remember kids, what happens in Vegas stays in.. (1)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964648)

"Take your country back" Who should, the Native Americans?

Some scientists are talking of trying to restore the US to a pre-human state, BEFORE even they settled the Americas, they've found several large species that died out around 12k-14k years ago because of various pressures of humans that arrived in the Americas.

Re:Remember kids, what happens in Vegas stays in.. (1)

honestmonkey (819408) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964845)

Reminded me of an old (say 20 years ago) Steve Martin joke.

"I believe Ronald Reagan can make this country what it once was - a vast frozen wasteland covered in ice."

Re:Remember kids, what happens in Vegas stays in.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964702)

You should have more faith in our benevolent overseers. Sure, they might act all sneaky and underhanded, but they're only trying to do their jobs. [safetystate.com]

The thing is... (2, Insightful)

commodoresloat (172735) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964837)

Vegas is probably the most surveilled city in the U.S. Keeping rental car records and hotel receipts pales in comparison to the information stored by the casinos. What's frightening is that the government collecting such information about ordinary Americans doesn't amount to much on its own in terms of fighting terrorism, but it would offer unscrupulous feds a convenient database of information for blackmail purposes (as well as for a variety of investigations, both legal and illegal). A call by the feds to your hotel/casino could probably garner fairly detailed information about your activities in the city, including video of most of your public activities on the strip and in many cases even your activities in your room. Again, if the suspect isn't holding a terrorist or mafia meeting in Vegas, such information is probably not worth much for investigative purposes, but imagine its utility for blackmail purposes.

Sarcasm (3, Insightful)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964536)

When we have sensible Supreme Court justices installed, who understand we're at war with an ideology that will never die, national security rules by the president will never be subverted by the meddlesome Congress. Or the people, who don't know enough about security intelligence to keep ourselves safe by electing Congressmembers. We need more justices like Roberts who insist on the privilege of the president to keep us safe, and out of the danger of risky "due process". Too bad we can't get Miers back, who saw the towering intelligence of our current defender. But Alito's committment to the security power of the supreme executive should keep us perfectly safe.

Re:Sarcasm (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13965088)

The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. - Malcolm X

Who cares? (1, Interesting)

mozingod (738108) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964543)

Yea yea, it's the "gateway drug" and I'm sure they'll use it to pass similar, and worse, laws later on, but does anyone really care about this? I don't. If they want to keep on record that I rented a car and a hotel room for a week in Vegas 3 years ago, kudos to them. I have other things to worry about.

Are you comfortable with paying for that (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13965039)

out of your taxes? Because this stuff isn't just dumped - it is backed up, tested for classification. When the uber search is going on, its' moise will be trawled through and will take time.

Are you happy with your taxes going on this and millions of other such wastes of resources?

You know who else knows that information? (3, Informative)

the_skywise (189793) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964593)

My credit card company!

Which I used to rent the car, purchase the plane tickets and secure my rental garages.

They also know where I live, my phone # and my mother's maiden name!

Re:You know who else knows that information? (2, Insightful)

raoul666 (870362) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964657)

Two points. One, you signed up willingly. Two, your credit card company doesn't have the power to tap your phone, arrest you, or interrogate you.

Re:You know who else knows that information? (1)

kryten_nl (863119) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964793)

You should have used the preview button, luckily I corrected your typo.

Two points. One, you signed up willingly. Two, your credit card company doesn't have the power to tap your phone, arrest you, or interrogate you yet.

Re:You know who else knows that information? (1)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964672)

At least the credit card companies have some plausible pretense of needing that information. The FBI does not, they shouldn't be conducting city-wide dragnets of people and information.

The worst part of this is that... (5, Insightful)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964596)

Only criminals will go to the trouble to avoid being caught in such a web of information collection, leaving innocent private citizens as the only victims in this process.

Like is said for gun control laws, if you outlaw it, only the criminals will have it. This sort of crap will ensure that only criminals are outside of the jurisdiction of legal daily surveilance, thus achieving nothing but ill will and a semi-police state.

If you think this is a troll, try again... When the government invents a reason to spy on you without your permission or that of the courts, they have found a way to be the big brother that we all despise and fear. Never mind tin-foil hats, when they know what you had for breakfast without having to lift a finger, the tin-foil hat does no good.

How long will it be before it is made illegal to thwart such efforts by use of misleading electronic activities, and botnets that spoil the information gathered with false information and misleading information. How long before identity theft is not the real problem, but being accused of anti-american activities is the problem because of clever botnets that have seeded the government databases with information about you and your activities?

Where is the oversight to stop the government from doing that, then arresting you on trumped up charges based on bad information... damn, the US started an entire war on bad information...

FSCK, this is bad!

Who can complain? (4, Insightful)

DeadVulcan (182139) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964602)

...the mere existence of an NSL is secret, so it's not clear how anyone can complain!

There's an easy solution.

Everyone should complain.

Re:Who can complain? (1)

pla (258480) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964851)

There's an easy solution.
Everyone should complain.


I had the same thought...

Let's see how much they want to keep abusing this power if, once a year, they get 250 million requests for mediation!

Of course, sadly, in reality only a few of us "paranoids" will bother to complain, and rather than taking us out of their records for not having committed any crimes, it will simply red-flag us for further scrutiny...

The times, they are a changin' (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964607)

I recall posts from about 7 years ago where our American brethren would profusely claim such laws would (could) never exist in the U.S., and it was kind of comforting to know such a human-rights haven existed (contrast: we don't have a bill of rights in Australia).

But it's frightening how Uncle Sam has managed to sidestep such safeguards in the name of "national security".

I shake my head in disgust when I think of the governments trouncing basic rights to protect us against a threat that claims as many people per decade as cancer does in one day !!

this isn't cancer (1)

poptones (653660) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964841)

When someone drops dead of cancer it's their family's problem. No one who dies of cancer does so in a fiery ball that destroys a Billion dollars worth of infrastructure.

It doesn't matter how many people die. What matters is how much money it costs us in the process. It's always about the money.

Re:this isn't cancer (2, Insightful)

ceejayoz (567949) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964905)

No one who dies of cancer does so in a fiery ball that destroys a Billion dollars worth of infrastructure.

No, but when you add up the $100,000+ treatment costs of the millions of uninsured Americans who do get cancer that the government pays... well, guess what? Billions of dollars.

Newsy (2, Informative)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964618)

Hey, where's the poster complaining that this FBI privacy invasion story isn't "News for Nerds"? Are nerds finally starting to find a consensus that they're just like everyone else, and "News for Police State Residents" is also news for them, too? Maybe those nerds who have always realized that security/privacy is nerdy will finally get recognition, if only from other nerds... nah, nerds are no good at that kind of social awareness.

Re:Newsy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964722)

Hey, where's the poster complaining that this FBI privacy invasion story isn't "News for Nerds"?

All of the Republicans are cowering in shame over the current administration. All of the Libertarians have died of shock over all of the massive growth of an invasive Federal government. All of the Democrats are in closed door meetings about wars based on lies.

Re:Newsy (1)

fabs64 (657132) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964724)

ugh.. and what of those of us that don't live in said "police-state"?
I gotta say, the weekly post on how privacy in America is going down the crapper is starting to get on my nerves, if the people who have to live there aren't kicking and screaming and stopping the shit then why do the International community need to hear about it?

Except to gloat of course, which admittedly is a whole lot of fun ;-)

Re:Newsy (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964858)

That police state we've got will get into your own homes abroad just as fast as did the Internet you like so much. Probably faster, as fascism wasn't invented here, though it's certainly popular. If you don't understand how the loss of liberty in America is a blow to liberty worldwide, including yours, you're going to be an easy target when the tide of fascism forces its koolaid on you.

They can't really analyze all of this (3, Interesting)

ibn_khaldun (814417) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964630)

I'm not sure how reassuring this is, but keep in mind that most reports indicate that the FBI is fabulously inept at analyzing the information that they have already, and this is merely going to further overwhelm them. To be sure, there are genuine civil liberties issues here, but I'd be far more concerned if they were investing the same resources doing things the old-fashioned way (infiltrating groups, hanging out taking notes, reading mail, tapping phones, etc)

Re:They can't really analyze all of this (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964758)

Hi:
This is not a defense any more than hoping your competitors are idiots is a business plan. This means your government officials may end up arresting the wrong people for the wrong reasons rather than people who are actually trying to commit criminal acts.
 

Re:They can't really analyze all of this (1)

Brushfireb (635997) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964812)

What exactly do you think the NSA is for?

Thats what they do. And now without silly rules to prevent data sharing, they will have free-reign.

Remember, the NSA gets more money than the FBI and CIA. With their powers combined, they can rule the planet!

Or just make the average citizens life horrible. You pick.

Re:They can't really analyze all of this (1)

mrchaotica (681592) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964834)

but I'd be far more concerned if they were investing the same resources doing things the old-fashioned way (infiltrating groups, hanging out taking notes, reading mail, tapping phones, etc)
What are you smoking?! If they were doing things the "old-fashioned way" they'd have a court order, and would be infiltrating actual criminals instead of just "any citizen who visited Las Vegas"!

Re:They can't really analyze all of this (1)

rodgster (671476) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964926)

For some strange reason I'm not comforted by the fact that the people doing the investigating have historically been fabulously inept. Actually that is even more scary.

Want to fix it? (5, Interesting)

imunfair (877689) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964638)

Well, in today's present society the first step would be to automate voting, and get rid of the electorate delegates - that would ensure the majority actually does rule (assuming the techonology is implemented correctly).

Second step would be (this I'm sort of deriving from an article I read) - to send the senators and representatives home, and allow them to use video conferencing instead. I think this would allow more "real" people to eventually get elected - and be *willing* to get elected, since they wouldn't have to move out of their home towns - leaving friends, family, and a sense of what's going on locally in their state behind them.

On certain issues you could also institute country wide referendums. More technical issues would have to be decided by the senate/house - which is why electing competent people would still be important.

Last but not least, it might be a good idea to make being a senator/representative a part time job, and let them keep their day jobs. That would keep them in touch with daily life, and also effectively curb the amount of useless legislation that's passed each year. (Along with mitigating the effects of lobbyists - since they wouldn't fear losing their jobs, they would merely be doing a service for their country.)

Oh, and term limits might also fit into that plan quite well to enforce the idea that "this is not your permanent job".

Not that the scenario will ever happen in my lifetime without a nation-wide catastrophy or revolt, but it doesn't hurt to throw the ideas out there.

Marjority rule is what is killing us (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964728)

And as we ping-pong between a left and then a right majority, the government grows more intrusive in areas the left and then the right desire. What we need is more consideration for the minority view and more of a live and let live America.

Re:Want to fix it? (1)

tumbleweedsi (904869) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964746)

The american's are now the anti-french... the polar opposite to the french... they will go to war against any foreigner with an ideology different to their own but they will roll over like pussies and accept any crack pot dictator so long as he comes from within their ranks.

Fixing Gov't (4, Interesting)

Create an Account (841457) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964842)

- that would ensure the majority actually does rule (assuming the techonology is implemented correctly)

I'm not sure we want the majority to rule. The purpose of a democratic republic is to seat a group of informed representaives.

make being a senator/representative a part time job, and let them keep their day jobs.

Nah. People pay attention to where their bowl of rice is coming from. We don't want them paying less attention to their senator/representative job than they already do. This would make them (if possible) even more susceptible to bribes and lobbying.

term limits might also fit into that plan quite well

I object to term limits because imagine you have really good representation, a really good, effective member. Couple years, bang! He's fired. Someone new comes in, probably not as good as what you had. I know it's hard to imagine now, but let's don't force good people out of office.

I think a better start would be to revoke the corporation's right to free speech, and forbid them from contributing to campaigns. Period. Corporations are not people and do not act like people, so we should not let them drive our elections. They are far too able to throw large volumes of cash at election campaigns. They have too much say over how we are governed.

I also think we should try really hard to break up the power structures in the two big parties. There is such a huge interlocking collection of debts and favors controlling who gets to be a nominee that it is (usually) impossible for anyone fresh and different to get on the ticket. Does anyone really believe that there is nobody in the Republican Party better qualified to lead the US than George W.? Neither party puts forward their best candidate anymore. They put forward the one who best manipulates the existing power structure.

the problem is (1)

everphilski (877346) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965025)

... the majority is stupid. Plus 50% of the general populace didn't vote for the last election, and that's a once every 4 years occurance, what makes you think people will care about the little stuff?

The current system works, the problem is people don't pay enough atttention when they are electing their representattives.

-everphilski-

Re:Want to fix it? (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964890)

Term limits are stupid. They do nothing to prevent the election of incompetent representatives and prevent the re-election of competent representatives. I don't mean to suggest that there should be laws designed to prevent incompetent representatives(that's what voting is supposedly for...), but a law that accomplishes little other than limiting voter choice is stupid.

Trying to fix a broken system by breaking it more is silly.

Re:Want to fix it? (1)

mrchaotica (681592) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964897)

Well, in today's present society the first step would be to automate voting, and get rid of the electorate delegates - that would ensure the majority actually does rule (assuming the techonology is implemented correctly).
Are you crazy?! The "majority" consists of hysterical, bible-thumping idiots! If we had true majority rule, we would have voted ourselves a police state as soon as we saw the footage of the planes hitting the towers on TV.

In fact, I'd say the reason we've come so close anyway is that we're too democratic as it is! If we really wanted to fix our problems, we'd repeal the direct election of US senators and shift power away from the federal government and to the states -- there, at least, the politicians are close enough to keep an eye on (and our votes aren't so diluted that they're meaningless)!

(The "part-time job" and "term limits" bits make sense, though.)

Re:Want to fix it? (1)

CastrTroy (595695) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965066)

A system that works in Canada is that if your party doesn't win, you still get to have a few seats in parliament if you won any jurisdictions at all. I think that it would have a profound effect in the states, where there are "Red" and "Blue" states. The states that end up voting for the losing part get 4 years of not having their voice heard. In Canada, if your area votes in the losing party, your representative still gets to sit in parliament and speak their views.

looking closer... (5, Insightful)

xeoron (639412) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964647)

I think the submitter missed an important part of the article, which is this quote[ ...In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined. ...]

This lack of respect to privacy is troubling....

Re:looking closer... (1)

game kid (805301) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964700)

These "appropriate private sector entities" could easily be taken to mean "private" places, like homes of suspects. Mod Parent Insightful® etc.

Re:looking closer... (1)

whathappenedtomonday (581634) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964848)

This lack of respect to privacy is troubling....


let's see, the topic is federal police collecting massive amounts of personal data bypassing constitution, and the administration plans on making that info available to... well, undefined entities (read: whoever pays). troubling seems kind of disproportionate here. ...but then again, it's your country.
look very close.

Re:looking closer... (1)

mrchaotica (681592) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964941)

Exactly! "Absurd," "evil" "unconstutional," "un-American," and "cause for rebellion" would be more appropriate!

Yeah, that sounds good: "This lack of respect to privacy is cause for rebellion!" What do you all think?

Forget Bin Laden! (4, Insightful)

Elrac (314784) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964922)

GWB and his administration are the most dangerous threat that the Constitution and the American Way of Life have faced in the past century, easily topping even McCarthy.

To quote one 'Madpride' from another board:
Somebody hurry up and give George Bush a blowjob so we can impeach his worthless ass!

Re:looking closer... (1)

grimJester (890090) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964947)

Look at the bright side! "appropriate private sector entities" must mean Google can now use your suspicious anti-American activities to tailor ads to your liking!

Snitches playing FBI for a bunch of chumps (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#13964666)

And I thought the FBI was wasting time on porn cases and such, but the waste of time and effort that must of gone into that vegas data mining with such a wide net was epic. What could they hope to have found, considering the FBI hasn't managed to handle their other low level basic database problems so well. And considering all these false alarms they get as they roust people all over the world. Our street-level intelligence is truly clueless and out of touch and adding the epic waste of mass data mining is surely going to have the FBI chasing ghosts as our freedoms erode.

I for one ... (1)

ta ma de (851887) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964830)

was planning on surrendering to the secret gulag to begin my sentence, but alas I can't find it. Would someone please let the authorities know I'm at 48 e 26th street in baltimore. I haven't done anything wrong ... I just figured the sooner I put this part of my life behind me the better.

Article Text (4, Informative)

Clockwurk (577966) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964952)

The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.

Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow.

Christian refused to hand over those records, and his employer, Library Connection Inc., filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public. The Washington Post established their identities -- still under seal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit -- by comparing unsealed portions of the file with public records and information gleaned from people who had no knowledge of the FBI demand.

The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration 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, according to government sources, 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 executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.

The burgeoning use of national 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. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined.

National security letters offer a case study of the impact of the Patriot Act outside the spotlight of political debate. Drafted in haste after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the law's 132 pages wrought scores of changes in the landscape of intelligence and law enforcement. Many received far more attention than the amendments to a seemingly pedestrian power to review "transactional records." But few if any other provisions touch as many ordinary Americans without their knowledge.

Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews 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 plot, the bureau now casts a much wider net, using national security letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them. Casual or unwitting contact with a suspect -- a single telephone call, for example -- may attract the attention of investigators and subject a person to scrutiny about which he never learns.

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.

As it wrote the Patriot Act four years ago, Congress bought time and leverage for oversight by placing an expiration date on 16 provisions. The changes involving national security letters were not among them. In fact, as the Dec. 31 deadline approaches and Congress prepares to renew or make permanent the expiring provisions, House and Senate conferees are poised again to amplify the FBI's power to compel the secret surrender of private records.

The House and Senate have voted to make noncompliance with a national security letter a criminal offense. The House would also impose a prison term for breach of secrecy.

Like many Patriot Act provisions, the ones involving national security letters have been debated in largely abstract terms. The Justice Department has offered Congress no concrete information, even in classified form, save for a partial count of the number of letters delivered. The statistics do not cover all forms of national security letters or all U.S. agencies making use of them.

"The beef with the NSLs is that they don't have even a pretense of judicial or impartial scrutiny," said former representative Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.), who finds himself allied with the American Civil Liberties Union after a career as prosecutor, CIA analyst and conservative GOP stalwart. "There's no checks and balances whatever on them. It is simply some bureaucrat's decision that they want information, and they can basically just go and get it."

'A Routine Tool'

Career investigators and Bush administration officials emphasized, in congressional testimony and interviews for this story, that national security letters are for hunting terrorists, not fishing through the private lives of the innocent. The distinction is not as clear in practice.

Under the old legal test, the FBI had to have "specific and articulable" reasons to believe the records it gathered in secret belonged to a terrorist or a spy. Now the bureau needs only to certify that the records are "sought for" or "relevant to" an investigation "to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

That standard enables investigators to look for conspirators by sifting the records of nearly anyone who crosses a suspect's path.

"If you have a list of, say, 20 telephone numbers that have come up . . . on a bad guy's telephone," said Valerie E. Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, "you want to find out who he's in contact with." Investigators will say, " 'Okay, phone company, give us subscriber information and toll records on these 20 telephone numbers,' and that can easily be 100."

Bush administration officials compare national security letters to grand jury subpoenas, which are also based on "relevance" to an inquiry. There are differences. Grand juries tend to have a narrower focus because they investigate past conduct, not the speculative threat of unknown future attacks. Recipients of grand jury subpoenas are generally free to discuss the subpoenas publicly. And there are strict limits on sharing grand jury information with government agencies.

Since the Patriot Act, the FBI has dispersed the authority to sign national security letters to more than five dozen supervisors -- the special agents in charge of field offices, the deputies in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and a few senior headquarters officials. FBI rules established after the Patriot Act allow the letters to be issued long before a case is judged substantial enough for a "full field investigation." Agents commonly use the letters now in "preliminary investigations" and in the "threat assessments" that precede a decision whether to launch an investigation.

"Congress has given us this tool to obtain basic telephone data, basic banking data, basic credit reports," said Caproni, who is among the officials with signature authority. "The fact that a national security letter is a routine tool used, that doesn't bother me."

If agents had to wait for grounds to suspect a person of ill intent, said Joseph Billy Jr., the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, they would already know what they want to find out with a national security letter. "It's all chicken and egg," he said. "We're trying to determine if someone warrants scrutiny or doesn't."

Billy said he understands that "merely being in a government or FBI database . . . gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up." Innocent Americans, he said, "should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law."

He added: "That's not going to satisfy a majority of people, but . . . I've had people say, you know, 'Hey, I don't care, I've done nothing to be concerned about. You can have me in your files and that's that.' Some people take that approach."

Woods, the former FBI lawyer, said secrecy is essential when an investigation begins because "it would defeat the whole purpose" to tip off a suspected terrorist or spy, but national security seldom requires that the secret be kept forever. Even mobster "John Gotti finds out eventually that he was wiretapped" in a criminal probe, said Peter Swire, the federal government's chief privacy counselor until 2001. "Anyone caught up in an NSL investigation never gets notice."

To establish the "relevance" of the information they seek, agents face a test so basic it is hard to come up with a plausible way to fail. A model request for a supervisor's signature, according to internal FBI guidelines, offers this one-sentence suggestion: "This subscriber information is being requested to determine the individuals or entities that the subject has been in contact with during the past six months."

Edward L. Williams, the chief division counsel in Mason's office, said that supervisors, in practice, "aren't afraid to ask . . . 'Why do you want to know?' " He would not say how many requests, if any, are rejected.

'The Abuse Is in the Power Itself'

Those who favor the new rules maintain -- as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, put it in a prepared statement -- that "there has not been one substantiated allegation of abuse of these lawful intelligence tools."

What the Bush administration means by abuse is unauthorized use of surveillance data -- for example, to blackmail an enemy or track an estranged spouse. Critics are focused elsewhere. What troubles them is not unofficial abuse but the official and routine intrusion into private lives.

To Jeffrey Breinholt, deputy chief of the Justice Department's counterterrorism section, the civil liberties objections "are eccentric." Data collection on the innocent, he said, does no harm unless "someone [decides] to act on the information, put you on a no-fly list or something." Only a serious error, he said, could lead the government, based on nothing more than someone's bank or phone records, "to freeze your assets or go after you criminally and you suffer consequences that are irreparable." He added: "It's a pretty small chance."

"I don't necessarily want somebody knowing what videos I rent or the fact that I like cartoons," said Mason, the Washington field office chief. But if those records "are never used against a person, if they're never used to put him in jail, or deprive him of a vote, et cetera, then what is the argument?"

Barr, the former congressman, said that "the abuse is in the power itself."

"As a conservative," he said, "I really resent an administration that calls itself conservative taking the position that the burden is on the citizen to show the government has abused power, and otherwise shut up and comply."

At the ACLU, staff attorney Jameel Jaffer spoke of "the profound chilling effect" of this kind of surveillance: "If the government monitors the Web sites that people visit and the books that they read, people will stop visiting disfavored Web sites and stop reading disfavored books. The FBI should not have unchecked authority to keep track of who visits [al-Jazeera's Web site] or who visits the Web site of the Federalist Society."

'Links in a Chain'

Ready access to national security letters allows investigators to employ them routinely for "contact chaining."

"Starting with your bad guy and his telephone number and looking at who he's calling, and [then] who they're calling," the number of people surveilled "goes up exponentially," acknowledged Caproni, the FBI's general counsel.

But Caproni said it would not be rational for the bureau to follow the chain too far. "Everybody's connected" if investigators keep tracing calls "far enough away from your targeted bad guy," she said. "What's the point of that?"

One point is to fill government data banks for another investigative technique. That one is called "link analysis," a practice Caproni would neither confirm nor deny.

Two years ago, Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline directing that information obtained through a national security letter about a U.S. citizen or resident "shall be destroyed by the FBI and not further disseminated" if it proves "not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected." Ashcroft's new order was that "the FBI shall retain" all records it collects and "may disseminate" them freely among federal agencies.

The same order directed the FBI to develop "data mining" technology to probe for hidden links among the people in its growing cache of electronic files. According to an FBI status report, the bureau's office of intelligence began operating in January 2004 a new Investigative Data Warehouse, based on the same Oracle technology used by the CIA. The CIA is generally forbidden to keep such files on Americans.

Data mining intensifies the impact of national security letters, because anyone's personal files can be scrutinized again and again without a fresh need to establish relevance.

"The composite picture of a person which emerges from transactional information is more telling than the direct content of your speech," said Woods, the former FBI lawyer. "That's certainly not been lost on the intelligence community and the FBI."

Ashcroft's new guidelines allowed the FBI for the first time to add to government files consumer data from commercial providers such as LexisNexis and ChoicePoint Inc. Previous attorneys general had decided that such a move would violate the Privacy Act. In many field offices, agents said, they now have access to ChoicePoint in their squad rooms.

What national security letters add to government data banks is information that no commercial service can lawfully possess. Strict privacy laws, for example, govern financial and communications records. National security letters -- along with the more powerful but much less frequently used secret subpoenas from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- override them.

'What Happens in Vegas'

The bureau displayed its ambition for data mining in an emergency operation at the end of 2003.

The Department of Homeland Security declared an orange alert on Dec. 21 of that year, in part because of intelligence that hinted at a New Year's Eve attack in Las Vegas. The identities of the plotters were unknown.

The FBI sent Gurvais Grigg, chief of the bureau's little-known Proactive Data Exploitation Unit, in an audacious effort to assemble a real-time census of every visitor in the nation's most-visited city. An average of about 300,000 tourists a day stayed an average of four days each, presenting Grigg's team with close to a million potential suspects in the ensuing two weeks.

A former stockbroker with a degree in biochemistry, Grigg declined to be interviewed. Government and private sector sources who followed the operation described epic efforts to vacuum up information.

An interagency task force began pulling together the records of every hotel guest, everyone who rented a car or truck, every lease on a storage space, and every airplane passenger who landed in the city. Grigg's unit filtered that population for leads. Any link to the known terrorist universe -- a shared address or utility account, a check deposited, a telephone call -- could give investigators a start.

"It was basically a manhunt, and in circumstances where there is a manhunt, the most effective way of doing that was to scoop up a lot of third party data and compare it to other data we were getting," Breinholt said.

Investigators began with emergency requests for help from the city's sprawling hospitality industry. "A lot of it was done voluntary at first," said Billy, the deputy assistant FBI director.

According to others directly involved, investigators turned to national security letters and grand jury subpoenas when friendly persuasion did not work.

Early in the operation, according to participants, the FBI gathered casino executives and asked for guest lists. The MGM Mirage company, followed by others, balked.

"Some casinos were saying no to consent [and said], 'You have to produce a piece of paper,' " said Jeff Jonas, chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, who previously built data management systems for casino surveillance. "They don't just market 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' They want it to be true."

The operation remained secret for about a week. Then casino sources told Rod Smith, gaming editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that the FBI had served national security letters on them. In an interview for this article, one former casino executive confirmed the use of a national security letter. Details remain elusive. Some law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to divulge particulars, said they relied primarily on grand jury subpoenas. One said in an interview that national security letters may eventually have been withdrawn. Agents encouraged voluntary disclosures, he said, by raising the prospect that the FBI would use the letters to gather something more sensitive: the gambling profiles of casino guests. Caproni declined to confirm or deny that account.

What happened in Vegas stayed in federal data banks. Under Ashcroft's revised policy, none of the information has been purged. For every visitor, Breinholt said, "the record of the Las Vegas hotel room would still exist."

Grigg's operation found no suspect, and the orange alert ended on Jan. 10, 2004."The whole thing washed out," one participant said.

'Of Interest to President Bush'

At around the time the FBI found George Christian in Connecticut, agents from the bureau's Charlotte field office paid an urgent call on the chemical engineering department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. They were looking for information about a former student named Magdy Nashar, then suspected in the July 7 London subway bombing but since cleared of suspicion.

University officials said in interviews late last month that the FBI tried to use a national security letter to demand much more information than the law allows.

David T. Drooz, the university's senior associate counsel, said special authority is required for the surrender of records protected by educational and medical privacy. The FBI's first request, a July 14 grand jury subpoena, did not appear to supply that authority, Drooz said, and the university did not honor it. Referring to notes he took that day, Drooz said Eric Davis, the FBI's top lawyer in Charlotte, "was focused very much on the urgency" and "he even indicated the case was of interest to President Bush."

The next day, July 15, FBI agents arrived with a national security letter. Drooz said it demanded all records of Nashar's admission, housing, emergency contacts, use of health services and extracurricular activities. University lawyers "looked up what law we could on the fly," he said. They discovered that the FBI was demanding files that national security letters have no power to obtain. The statute the FBI cited that day covers only telephone and Internet records.

"We're very eager to comply with the authorities in this regard, but we needed to have what we felt was a legally valid procedure," said Larry A. Neilsen, the university provost.

Soon afterward, the FBI returned with a new subpoena. It was the same as the first one, Drooz said, and the university still had doubts about its legal sufficiency. This time, however, it came from New York and summoned Drooz to appear personally. The tactic was "a bit heavy-handed," Drooz said, "the implication being you're subject to contempt of court." Drooz surrendered the records.

The FBI's Charlotte office referred questions to headquarters. A high-ranking FBI official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the field office erred in attempting to use a national security letter. Investigators, he said, "were in a big hurry for obvious reasons" and did not approach the university "in the exact right way."

'Unreasonable' or 'Oppressive'

The electronic docket in the Connecticut case, as the New York Times first reported, briefly titled the lawsuit Library Connection Inc. v. Gonzales . Because identifying details were not supposed to be left in the public file, the court soon replaced the plaintiff's name with "John Doe."

George Christian, Library Connection's executive director, is identified in his affidavit as "John Doe 2." In that sworn statement, he said people often come to libraries for information that is "highly sensitive, embarrassing or personal." He wanted to fight the FBI but feared calling a lawyer because the letter said he could not disclose its existence to "any person." He consulted Peter Chase, vice president of Library Connection and chairman of a state intellectual freedom committee. Chase -- "John Doe 1" in his affidavit -- advised Christian to call the ACLU. Reached by telephone at their homes, both men declined to be interviewed.

U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall ruled in September that the FBI gag order violates Christian's, and Library Connection's, First Amendment rights. A three-judge panel heard oral argument on Wednesday in the government's appeal.

The central facts remain opaque, even to the judges, because the FBI is not obliged to describe what it is looking for, or why. During oral argument in open court on Aug. 31, Hall said one government explanation was so vague that "if I were to say it out loud, I would get quite a laugh here." After the government elaborated in a classified brief delivered for her eyes only, she wrote in her decision that it offered "nothing specific."

The Justice Department tried to conceal the existence of the first and only other known lawsuit against a national security letter, also brought by the ACLU's Jaffer and Ann Beeson. Government lawyers opposed its entry into the public docket of a New York federal judge. They have since tried to censor nearly all the contents of the exhibits and briefs. They asked the judge, for example, to black out every line of the affidavit that describes the delivery of the national security letter to a New York Internet company, including, "I am a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ('FBI')."

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, in a ruling that is under appeal, held that the law authorizing national security letters violates the First and Fourth Amendments.

Resistance to national security letters is rare. Most of them are served on large companies in highly regulated industries, with business interests that favor cooperation. The in-house lawyers who handle such cases, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, "are often former prosecutors -- instinctively pro-government but also instinctively by-the-books." National security letters give them a shield against liability to their customers.

Kenneth M. Breen, a partner at the New York law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, held a seminar for corporate lawyers one recent evening to explain the "significant risks for the non-compliant" in government counterterrorism investigations. A former federal prosecutor, Breen said failure to provide the required information could create "the perception that your company didn't live up to its duty to fight terrorism" and could invite class-action lawsuits from the families of terrorism victims. In extreme cases, he said, a business could face criminal prosecution, "a 'death sentence' for certain kinds of companies."

The volume of government information demands, even so, has provoked a backlash. Several major business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, complained in an Oct. 4 letter to senators that customer records can "too easily be obtained and disseminated" around the government. National security letters, they wrote, have begun to impose an "expensive and time-consuming burden" on business.

The House and Senate bills renewing the Patriot Act do not tighten privacy protections, but they offer a concession to business interests. In both bills, a judge may modify a national security letter if it imposes an "unreasonable" or "oppressive" burden on the company that is asked for information.

'A Legitimate Question'

As national security letters have grown in number and importance, oversight has not kept up. In each house of Congress, jurisdiction is divided between the judiciary and intelligence committees. None of the four Republican chairmen agreed to be interviewed.

Roberts, the Senate intelligence chairman, said in a statement issued through his staff that "the committee is well aware of the intelligence value of the information that is lawfully collected under these national security letter authorities," which he described as "non-intrusive" and "crucial to tracking terrorist networks and detecting clandestine intelligence activities." Senators receive "valuable reporting by the FBI," he said, in "semi-annual reports [that] provide the committee with the information necessary to conduct effective oversight."

Roberts was referring to the Justice Department's classified statistics, which in fact have been delivered three times in four years. They include the following information: how many times the FBI issued national security letters; whether the letters sought financial, credit or communications records; and how many of the targets were "U.S. persons." The statistics omit one whole category of FBI national security letters and also do not count letters issued by the Defense Department and other agencies.

Committee members have occasionally asked to see a sampling of national security letters, a description of their fruits or examples of their contribution to a particular case. The Justice Department has not obliged.

In 2004, the conference report attached to the intelligence authorization bill asked the attorney general to "include in his next semiannual report" a description of "the scope of such letters" and the "process and standards for approving" them. More than a year has passed without a Justice Department reply.

"The committee chairman has the power to issue subpoenas" for information from the executive branch, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a House Judiciary Committee member. "The minority has no power to compel, and . . . Republicans are not going to push for oversight of the Republicans. That's the story of this Congress."

In the executive branch, no FBI or Justice Department official audits the use of national security letters to assess whether they are appropriately targeted, lawfully applied or contribute important facts to an investigation.

Justice Department officials noted frequently this year that Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reports twice a year on abuses of the Patriot Act and has yet to substantiate any complaint. (One investigation is pending.) Fine advertises his role, but there is a puzzle built into the mandate. Under what scenario could a person protest a search of his personal records if he is never notified?

"We do rely upon complaints coming in," Fine said in House testimony in May. He added: "To the extent that people do not know of anything happening to them, there is an issue about whether they can complain. So, I think that's a legitimate question."

Asked more recently whether Fine's office has conducted an independent examination of national security letters, Deputy Inspector General Paul K. Martin said in an interview: "We have not initiated a broad-based review that examines the use of specific provisions of the Patriot Act."

At the FBI, senior officials said the most important check on their power is that Congress is watching.

"People have to depend on their elected representatives to do the job of oversight they were elected to do," Caproni said. "And we think they do a fine job of it."

Researcher Julie Tate and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

you've never been to Alpha Centauri? (4, Funny)

swissfondue (819240) | more than 8 years ago | (#13964974)

"There's an ombudsman, and a procedure to resolve complaints, but the mere existence of an NSL is secret, so it's not clear how anyone can complain!"

I eventually had to go down to the cellar. With a torch. The notice was on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "beware of the leopard".

Some deaths more important than others? (5, Insightful)

alphorn (667624) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965057)

In the last ten years, traffic has killed about 400.000 Americans. Terrorism has killed less than 4.000. I'm still amazed how the American public is prepared the give up all kinds of civil liberties just to fight the risk that is 100 times smaller, not to mention that the success chances are doubtful. Accepting a small - tiny! - terrorism threat is a small price to pay for a free society.

National Security Letters are unenforceable (3, Informative)

Animats (122034) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965061)

So far, the first court ruling [steptoe.com] indicates that National Security Letters are unenforceable and that the law authorizing them is unconstitutional. The Government is appealing, and the case was heard by the Second Circuit this fall. A decision is pending.

If you receive one, you need to get legal advice before complying.

The proposed legislation to criminalize NSL noncompliance, S.1680, has no cosponsors and isn't going anywhere.

The FBI can still go before a judge and get a subpoena, but that requires judicial authorization, and you can fight a subpoena in court if it's overreaching.

Blatantly Unconstitutional (4, Insightful)

jcr (53032) | more than 8 years ago | (#13965122)

This kind of thing is very clearly illegal under the fourth and fifth amendments. The lesson here, is that the constitution is no guarantee of our liberty. Freedon ultimately depends on the will of people to demand and enforce limits on government's continuous attempts to expand its power.

This will go on until someone who is presented with a "national security letter" says, "Fuck you, get a warrant", and is preparted to fight the case all the way to the supreme court.

-jcr
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