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Tales from Stasiland: The letter that makes you disappear by Scott Horton

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Jefferson23 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-11-10 08:43 AM
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Tales from Stasiland: The letter that makes you disappear by Scott Horton
* Bizarro World

August 10, 3:47 PM, 2010

One of the creepier weapons in the arsenal of the national-security state is the national-security letter or NSL. Its no ordinary letter, and it travels postage-free, but at enormous expense to the taxpayers. The FBI issues roughly 50,000 of them a year, and the Justice Departments own internal review in 2007 concluded that many of them were issued abusively, skirting the law and internal rules. The idea is simple: the device is something like a subpoena, though it doesnt require approval of a judge to issue. Instead, the FBI requires the recipient to help it in an investigating targeting a third party. It might be dropped on a librarian, with a demand that she tell the FBI every book that a certain subscriber checked out, every magazine he perused, and every time he accessed the Internet using a computer at the library. Or it might go to an Internet service provider, requiring information about every website viewed by a certain customer.

But the NSL also imposes a gag order on its recipient: you may not tell anyone you got this letter. On several occasions, the issuance of an NSL has been challenged by the recipient, but then the gag order applies to the litigation as well. The suit is brought by John Doe, and the claimant is required to keep the whole matter secret. One recipient wrote an anonymous op-ed in the Washington Post:

living under the gag order has been stressful and surreal. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the casefrom my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been.

But how can long-term gag orders be reconciled with the Constitutions protection against warrantless search and seizure and the protection of free speech and press? Judge Richard Cardamone, writing a concurring opinion for the Second Circuit in one NSL case, acknowledged that a gag order might be imposed for a short period, but he observed that a perpetual gag on citizen speech of the type advocated so strenuously by the government may likely be unconstitutional.

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