Last updated on: 10/5/2007 | Author:

Do National Security Letters Give Excessive Surveillance Power to the Government?

PRO (yes)


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated in a July 2003 report titled “Unpatriotic Acts” that:

“National Security Letters (NSLs) allow the FBI to obtain certain kinds of sensitive personal records without obtaining any kind of court order… The absence of judicial oversight means that, when it comes to the use of NSLs, the FBI has a free hand…

Before the PATRIOT Act became law in October 2001, the FBI could issue an NSL against you only if it had reason to believe that you were a foreign spy. Now, however, the FBI can issue an NSL against you even if it knows you are completely innocent of any such activity. The only requirement is that the NSL be ‘sought for’ an ongoing investigation…

Does it really serve national security to allow the FBI to engage in such aggressive surveillance – including surveillance of ordinary, law-abiding Americans – without any judicial oversight whatsoever?”

July 2003


The ACLU wrote a press release on Aug. 7, 2006 titled “Reauthorized Patriot Act Still Unconstitutional, ACLU Says,” that pertained to the case Doe v. Gonzales:

“The secrecy surrounding the FBI’s use of national security letters is excessive and dangerous… By permitting the FBI to operate without meaningful public or judicial oversight, Congress has undermined important safeguards against abuse… The Patriot Act dramatically expanded the FBI’s authority to monitor the communications and activities of people living in the United States… Yet by permitting the FBI to silence those with direct experience of the new laws, Congress has denied the public any means of ensuring that the new surveillance authorities are being used lawfully and responsibly.”

Aug. 7, 2006


Barton Gellman wrote in a Nov. 6, 2005 article titled “The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny,” published in the Washington Post, that:

“[National Security] 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… 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…

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.”

Nov. 6, 2005

CON (no)


Rachel Brand, JD, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice, and John Pistole, JD, Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wrote in their Nov. 8, 2005 op-ed titled “Safeguards Are in Place,” published by USA Today:

“The Justice Department cannot secure our nation against terrorist attack unless investigators are equipped with tools that allow them to disrupt plots before they can be carried out. These same tools must protect civil liberties. National Security Letters (NSLs) satisfy both requirements…

An NSL is simply a request for information. It does not authorize the FBI to conduct a search or make a seizure…

The NSL statutes do prohibit an NSL recipient from disclosing the fact that he received it. In international terrorism and espionage investigations, there are obvious reasons for this. If a terrorist were tipped off to the fact that the FBI was asking for his billing records, he might flee, destroy evidence, or even accelerate plans for an attack.

The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the USA against terrorist attack while using its authorities carefully, lawfully and consistent with civil liberties. The NSL authorities facilitate this mission.”

Nov. 8, 2005


Jeff Sessions, JD, Senator of Alabama, stated in a Dec. 13, 2005 interview during a “USA PATRIOT Act Debate” on NewsHour that:

“Electronic surveillance, the issue of subpoenas, the national security letters are all well within the traditions of law enforcement in America. They are absolutely crucial, however, to investigating terrorist cells where you need some secrecy here, some ability which you can do today really by asking a court to do so but in national security cases you go to the FISA court or to the national security letter and you can obtain this information without the entity notifying the terrorist group that you’re investigating them. This can be a life-and-death matter.”

Dec. 13, 2005


Michael Mason, Assistant FBI Director in the Washington Field Office, supported the use of National Security Letters in a Nov. 6, 2006 article titled “The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny,” published in the Washington Post:

“I have 675 terrorism cases… Every one of these is a potential threat. And anything I can do to get to the bottom of any one of them more quickly gets me closer to neutralizing a potential threat…

I don’t necessarily want somebody knowing what videos I rent or the fact that I like cartoons… 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?”

Nov. 6, 2006