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2004: Congress Fails to Exert Oversight on Use of National Security Letters

Though the issue of abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) has become an issue of concern for many civil libertarians and constitutional scholars (see October 25, 2005 and January 2004), Congress fails to conduct any meaningful oversight on their use and abuse. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that the use of NSLs by the FBI is perfectly legal, “non-intrusive,” and “crucial to tracking terrorist networks and detecting clandestine intelligence activities.” The FBI provides enough information to Congress in “semi-annual reports [that] provide the committee with the information necessary to conduct effective oversight,” he says. Roberts is referring to the Justice Department’s classified statistics, which have only been provided three times in four years, and give no specific information about the NSLs. The Justice Department has repeatedly refused requests by committee members for a sampling of actual NSLs, a description of their results, or an example of their contribution to a particular case. In 2004, the Senate asks 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. The Justice Department fails to do so, or even to reply to the request. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a House Judiciary Committee member, says that congressional Democrats have little recourse: “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.” The Justice Department notes that its inspector general, Glenn Fine, has not reported any abuses of the NSLs, but those reports beg the question: how can citizens protest searches of their personal records if they are never notified about such searches? Fine says, “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.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Zoe Lofgren, US Department of Justice, Pat Roberts, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Glenn Fine, Senate Intelligence Committee, House Judiciary Committee, National Security Letters

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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