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US Civil Liberties

National Security Letters (NSLs)

Project: US Civil Liberties
Open-Content project managed by Paul, KJF, mtuck, paxvector

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President Ronald Reagan issues Executive Order 12333, which directs the US intelligence community to provide foreign intelligence data to the White House. The order reads in part, “[A]gencies are not authorized to use such techniques as electronic surveillance, unconsented physical searches, mail surveillance, physical surveillance, or monitoring devices unless they are in accordance with procedures established by the head of the agency concerned and approved by the Attorney General.” It establishes rules of conduct for the intelligence agencies, and mandates a certain level of Congressional oversight. [Executive Order 12333 -- United States intelligence activities, 4/5/2007] It also establishes the basis for what are later called “National Security Letters.” These NSLs, originally envisioned for use to compile information in hunts for foreign criminals and suspected terrorists, will later be used by the administration of George W. Bush to order US booksellers, librarians, employers, Internet providers, and others to turn over records and information they compile on US citizens, with strict adjuncts against allowing those targeted for surveillance to know about the NSLs and with virtually no government oversight (see October 25, 2005). [Washington Post, 11/6/2005] It does not, as some have later asserted, directly prohibit the assassination of targeted foreign subjects—i.e. terrorist suspects and even foreign leaders—though it does restrict the use of assassination by US government operatives to certain very restricted circumstances centered around critical aspects of national security. [Parks, 11/2/1989 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, National Security Letters, Bush administration (43)

Category Tags: Other Legal Changes, Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

The newly adopted USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) allows FBI field offices to issue, without court orders, so-called “national security letters,” or NSLs, that require recipients—telecommunications firms, employers, libraries, anyone—to provide detailed information on their clients, employees, and patrons. The FBI’s Office of General Counsel warns each field office of the potential for abuse inherent in such powerful and relatively unrestricted instruments, writing in part: “NSLs are powerful investigative tools in that they can compel the production of substantial amounts of relevant information. However, they must be used judiciously.… In deciding whether or not to re-authorize the broadened authority, Congress certainly will examine the manner in which the FBI exercised it. Executive Order 12333 and the FCIG [Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Foreign Intelligence Collection and Counterintelligence Investigations] require that the FB[I] accomplish its investigations through the ‘least intrusive’ means. Supervisors should keep this in mind when deciding whether or not a particular use of NSL authority is appropriate. The greater availability of NSLs does not mean that they should be used in every case.” This warning not to overuse NSLs is not always heeded (see February 2005 and Before Mid-March, 2007). [Wired News, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of General Counsel (FBI), USA Patriot Act

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters

The US government issues a terror alert, based on intelligence that hints at a potential attack somewhere in Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. The FBI quickly assembles data on most of the 1 million “potential suspects,” which includes all tourists staying in Vegas for the holidays, and examines records on every hotel guest, car and truck rentals, guest lists for casinos, storage leases, and airplane travel. Those records are combed for any possible connections to terrorist organizations. When the city’s hospitality industry begins balking at the sweeping nature of the FBI’s information requests, National Security Letters (NSLs) are used to force industry officials to produce the data. Everything swept up by the Vegas data search remains in FBI databases. The terror alert will end on January 10, 2004, with no information about any terrorist actions or possible suspects located. [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: National Security Letters, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, Other Surveillance, 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

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

The FBI begins compiling a database of information about US citizens (see October 25, 2005). The database, ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft, uses as one of its primary sources information gleaned through so-called “National Security Letters,” or NSLs, which are documents ordering US citizens to reveal private information about their clients, relatives, or employees. Ashcroft overrides a 1995 guideline that mandates the destruction of such information obtained through NSLs if it proves “not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected.” Ashcroft orders the FBI to compile the information in its database, and even tells the agency that it can freely share that information with other government agencies if it desires. Ashcroft also orders the FBI to develop “data mining” technology to probe for “hidden links” among the citizens in its growing cache of electronic data. The FBI complies, using the same technology used by the CIA, which itself is barred from keeping such files on US citizens. Ashcroft extends the mandate even further, allowing the FBI to compile consumer data from private data-collection firms such as ChoicePoint and LexisNexis, though Ashcroft’s predecessors had ruled that compiling such data would violate citizens’ constitutional rights to privacy. Soon, FBI field offices will have access to ChoicePoiint databases in their squad rooms. Adding this commercially provided data to the NSL-based data gleaned by the FBI, and the FBI will soon have a wealth of data on hundreds of thousands of US citizens never accused of a crime. Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, and many others, strenuously object to the practice, but their concerns are largely ignored. [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Robert “Bob” Barr, LexisNexis, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Letters, John Ashcroft, ChoicePoint

Category Tags: Patriot Act, Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

Congress expands the Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) by approving an intelligence spending bill with a provision that gives the FBI the power to subpoena business documents and transactions from a broad range of businesses and entities—including libraries, travel agencies, and even eBay—without court warrants. This reduces oversight of the FBI and shifts power away from the judiciary. The Patriot Act already allows the FBI to acquire bank records and communications records by issuing a National Security Letter (NSL) affirming that the information it seeks is relevant to an open investigation; the targeted institution is legally “gagged,” unable to inform anyone, especially the subject of the investigation, of the subpoena. The new law expands the use of NSLs by redefining “financial institution” to include insurance companies, real estate agents, the US Postal Service, travel agencies, casinos, pawn shops, car dealers and any other business whose “cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters.” The provision is one of the most controversial parts of the so-called “Patriot II” act (see February 7, 2003) that was withdrawn after the public learned of its elements. Like most intelligence spending bills, this one was drafted in secret and passed with little debate or public comment. Law professor Chris Schroeder, a former Justice Department assistant attorney general, says the insertion of the provision shows that “people who want to expand the powers of the FBI didn’t want to stop after Patriot II was leaked. They are going to insert these provisions on a stealth basis. It’s insidious.” James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology agrees: “On its face, it’s a cryptic and seemingly innocuous amendment. It wasn’t until after it passed both houses that we saw it. The FBI and CIA like to try to graft things like this into intelligence bills.” CIA Director Porter Goss, when he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the provision, saying it is necessary to keep pace with terrorists and the changing economy. “This provision brings the definition of ‘financial institution’ up to date with the reality of the financial industry,” Goss told House members. “This provision will allow those tracking terrorists and spies to ‘follow the money’ more effectively and thereby protect the people of the United States more effectively.” Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union says the bill goes too far in expanding executive branch powers. “The more that checks and balances against government abuse are eroded, the greater that abuse,” Edgar says. “We’re going to regret these initiatives down the road.” [Wired News, 11/24/2003]

Entity Tags: Tim Edgar, US Department of Justice, USA Patriot Act, Porter J. Goss, House Intelligence Committee, Central Intelligence Agency, Center for Democracy and Technology, American Civil Liberties Union, James Dempsey, Chris Schroeder, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Expansion of Presidential Power, Patriot Act, Government Classification, National Security Letters

The FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut receives an e-mail that looks like a terrorist threat. The agents there follow the normal routine: they ask the service provider, a group of Connecticut public libraries, for the real name, street address, and Internet logs of the sender. The agents have no search warrant, grand jury subpoena, or court order. What they do have is a National Security Letter (NSL) that describes the records needed. According to the expanded USA Patriot Act, the NSL is all the FBI needs, and the NSL statute bars the librarians from disclosing the request to anyone. The librarians will refuse to hand over the information, and will file a federal lawsuit challenging the NSL as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (see July 13, 2005). The e-mailed threat will turn out to be a hoax. Kevin O’Connor, the US attorney in Connecticut, later says the FBI suspected that the threat was a hoax from the outset, but believed they had an “obligation” to pursue it. “We weren’t tying up librarians or reading through books,” he will say. “All we wanted was identifying information. God forbid it isn’t a hoax.” The librarians who challenge the NSL, however, feel differently. George Christian, the point man in the librarians’ legal challenge, will say, “The idea that the government can secretly investigate what the public is informing itself about is chilling.” A judge will strike down the NSL gag order, allowing Christian and his three colleagues (by now dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media) to disclose the fact that they had received an NSL, with a judge calling the NSL gag order “antithetical to democratic concepts”. In April 2006, the government will drop its NSL request (see August 2005-May 2006). Christian will be unmollified. “The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground,” he will say. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Connecticut Four, American Civil Liberties Union, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Connor, National Security Letters, USA Patriot Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters

Months after the Bush administration successfully convinced the New York Times to hold off publishing its report on the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Early November 2004, December 6, 2005, and December 15, 2005), one of the reporters on the story, Eric Lichtblau, attempts to get a response on the program from one of the few Democrats briefed on it, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Jane Harman (D-CA). In his 2008 book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Lichtblau will write about covering a House hearing where Harman launches into a passionate call for stronger civil liberties safeguards in the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006). According to his recollection, Lichtblau approaches Harman and says, “I’m trying to square what I heard in there with what we know about that program.” He will write: “Harman’s golden California tan turned a brighter shade of red. She knew exactly what I was talking about. Shooing away her aides, she grabbed me by the arm and drew me a few feet away to a more remote section of the Capitol corridor. ‘You should not be talking about that here,’ she scolded me in a whisper. ’ They don’t even know about that,’ she said, gesturing to her aides, who were now looking on at the conversation with obvious befuddlement.” Harman tells Lichtblau, “The Times did the right thing by not publishing that story,” but will not discuss the details. When asked what intelligence capabilities would be lost by informing the public about something the terrorists already knew—that the government was listening to them—she simply replies, “This is a valuable program, and it would be compromised.” Lichtblau will add: “This was clearly as far as she was willing to take the conversation, and we didn’t speak again until months later, after the NSA story had already run. By then, Harman’s position had undergone a dramatic transformation. When the story broke publicly, she was among the first in line on Capitol Hill to denounce the administration’s handling of the wiretapping program, declaring that what the NSA was doing could have been done under the existing FISA law.” [TPM Muckraker, 3/19/2008]

Entity Tags: Eric Lichtblau, Bush administration (43), New York Times, House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman

Category Tags: Government Acting in Secret, National Security Letters, Media Involvement and Responses

George Christian.George Christian. [Source: PBS]Librarian and data manager George Christian is served with a so-called “National Security Letter” (NSL) from the FBI demanding that his firm turn over private information on its patrons because of an apparent terrorist threat e-mailed from one of his libraries (see February 2005). Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, Inc., which manages catalog information, patron records, and circulation information for 27 libraries in and around Hartford, Connecticut, as well as providing telecommunications services to many of its member libraries. Christian is given the NSL, as well as a gag order preventing them from ever mentioning their receipt of the letter, or any details surrounding it. Christian is notified of the letter five days before actually receiving it; he spends those days frantically learning more about NSLs and the laws surrounding them (see October 25, 2005). He learns that a district court in New York had found the entire NSL statute unconstitutional because of what Christian calls “prima facie violations of the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments.” By the time they receive the letter, he has decided to oppose it. The letter, delivered by two FBI agents, orders Christian and Library Connection to turn over information about a specific IP address registered to the firm. One of the agents warns Christian that the gag order prohibits anyone in the firm from telling anyone that the FBI is attempting to secure information from its library business records. Christian, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSL in April 2007 (see April 11, 2007), says neither he nor his colleagues could “fathom any ‘exigent’ nature for the FBI request.” The letter was dated May 19, nearly two months before its delivery, was not addressed to Christian, and requested information from the use of the IP address five months earlier, February 15. Christian later says that while he and his colleagues want to assist the FBI in any way they can, and have no desire to “impede the investigation of a perilous situation that endanger[s] my country or my fellow citizens,” because of the date of the letter and the IP usage, they conclude that the FBI has not been in any rush to get the information. Christian tells the FBI agents that he believes the use of NSLs is unconstitutional and that he will consult his attorney. Library Connection’s attorney says that the only way to contest compliance with an NSL is to take the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, to court. Christian is understandably reluctant to involve his firm in such a court challenge without authorization, and takes the case to the Executive Committee of the firm’s board of directors. The three members, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek (who will soon be dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media), after conferring with the attorney and reviewing the New York court’s decision against NSLs, decide to go forward with the complaint. They secure representation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Together, they decide to ask for relief from the NSL, to seek a broader ruling that the use of NSLs is unconstitutional, and to have the gag order lifted so they can publicly discuss the incident as “part of the national debate over renewal of the Patriot Act” (see March 9, 2006). Christian will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We… felt we were defending our democracy by insisting that the checks and balances established in the Constitution be observed. We had no court order, and there was no evidence that an independent judge had examined the FBI’s evidence and found there to be probable cause justifying their request for information.… [W]e did not want to aid terrorists or criminals.… But we did not feel we would be helping the country or making anyone safer by throwing out the Constitution either.” Because of the way the computer system is set up, to give the FBI the information about the specific IP address and usage it required, Christian would have to give the FBI information about everyone using every computer in the particular library on the day in question. He later says, “[S]ince there was no way of determining who was using the computers in the library five months after the fact, we felt that [the FBI wanted] information we had on all the patrons of that library. That seemed like a rather sweeping request. Some would call it a fishing expedition.” The case goes to trial in August 2005 (see August 2005-May 2006). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] It is later learned that the original e-mailed threat is a hoax. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, National Security Letters, Senate Judiciary Committee, Library Connection, Inc., Barbara Bailey, George Christian, American Civil Liberties Union, Janet Nocek, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Connecticut Four

Category Tags: Court Procedures and Verdicts, Patriot Act, Freedom of Speech / Religion, Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters

The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey.The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey. [Source: Robert Deutsch/ USA Today]A case filed against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by four plaintiffs from Connecticut’s Library Connection, Inc.—George Christian, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek—goes to trial in federal district court (see July 13, 2005). The trial is filed as Doe v. Gonzales because the government has filed a gag order against the plaintiffs forbidding them from identifying themselves or discussing the case publicly. The case involves a demand for information from the FBI for information concerning library usage by patrons of a Connecticut library; the four plaintiffs, on behalf of their data management firm Library Connection, have refused. The case revolves around the use of a National Security Letter (NSL) by the FBI; the plaintiffs, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, want the NSL voided, the gag order lifted, and such use of NSLs found unconstitutional. Christian and his three colleagues are not allowed to attend the hearings in person because of the possibility that they might be identified as the plaintiffs; they are forced to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit broadcast from a locked room in the Hartford courthouse. When the judge in the proceeding asks to review the government’s evidence for keeping the gag rule in place, Justice Department lawyers insist on submitting secret evidence directly to the judge, without providing that evidence to the plaintiff’s lawyers. The judge is not pleased, and rules, as did her predecessor in New York, that a perpetual gag order amounts to prior restraint, and thereby is unconstitutional. She adds that her review of the secret evidence gives no national security rationale for keeping the plaintiffs gagged. The Justice Department immediately appeals the ruling, and the plaintiffs stay silent and gagged. While the four plaintiffs remain silent about the NSL and the court case, the Justice Department’s primary lawyer, Kevin O’Conner, does not: O’Conner has frequently debated one of the plaintiffs, Chase, about the Patriot Act, and though Chase is now required to remain silent, O’Conner continues to make frequent public appearances touting the Patriot Act. Christian later says, in 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see April 11, 2007), that the continuing gag order causes the four “John Does” considerable professional and personal distress, especially after the national media begins reporting the story. The media eventually learns, through the careless redaction of information by government lawyers, of Chase’s identity as one of the four plaintiffs, and reveals that Library Connection is the firm involved in the lawsuit. Christian’s name comes to light shortly thereafter. The attorneys warn Christian and the others that even though their identities and their firm have been revealed, they still cannot comment at all on the case. Christian, for one, wants to testify before Congress in regards to the upcoming reauthorization of the Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006), but cannot. The four plaintiffs quickly become known in the media as the “Connecticut John Does” or the “Connecticut Four.”
Appeals Court - In November 2005, a New York court of appeals hears the case. Christian and his colleagues are allowed to be present at the case this time, but are required to conceal their identities by entering and leaving the court building separately, are not allowed to sit together, and are not allowed to confer with, or even make eye contact with, each other or their attorneys. The Justice Department lawyers argue that even revealing themselves as recipients of a NSL would violate national security, an argument refuted by submission of the raft of news articles identifying Christian, Chase, and Library Connection. The government argues that those news reports don’t matter because no one in Connecticut reads the primary newspaper carrying the story, the New York Times, and that surveys prove that most people don’t believe what they read in the news anyway. The Justice Department also tries to get the news articles to be kept under seal in court papers. Christian characterizes the entire proceeding as “absurd.” The court refuses to admit the plaintiff’s claim that 48 states, including Connecticut, have laws protecting the privacy of library patrons, but does admit into evidence the claims by Gonzales that there is no statutory justification for claims of privacy. In an attempt to get the gag order lifted before the Patriot Act reauthorization, the plaintiff’s attorneys make an emergency appeal directly to the Supreme Court, but are rebuffed. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] In June 2006, Nocek tells a reporter, “Imagine the government came to you with an order demanding that you compromise your professional and personal principles. Imagine then being permanently gagged from speaking to your friends, your family or your colleagues about this wrenching experience.… Under the Patriot Act, the FBI demanded Internet and library records without showing any evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law. We were barred from speaking to anyone about the matter and we were even taking a risk by consulting with lawyers.” [Interview: George Christian, 6/2/2006]
Gag Order Lifted, Case Dropped - Weeks after President Bush signs into law the Patriot Act reauthorization (see March 9, 2006), the FBI voluntarily lifts the gag order without waiting for a court order. The agency then tries to get the original ruling against the gag order vacated, an attempt that the appeals court refuses. The appellate judges are clearly disturbed by the breadth of the NSL gag provisions; one appellate judge writes, “A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens… Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence.” The appeals court refers the case back to district court, allowing the original opinion to stand. Weeks later, the FBI withdraws its NSL, saying that it no longer needs the information it originally requested. Christian later testifies, “In doing so, they removed the Patriot Act from the danger of court review.” Christian later says that he believes the entire procedure was managed as an attempt to prevent the case from becoming public knowledge before Congress could vote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, Senate Judiciary Committee, National Security Letters, US Department of Justice, Library Connection, Inc., George Christian, George W. Bush, American Civil Liberties Union, Barbara Bailey, Connecticut Four, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Conner

Category Tags: Court Procedures and Verdicts, Freedom of Speech / Religion, Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

President Bush signs Executive Order 13388, which dramatically expands the powers of the US government to monitor and collect data on US citizens. [Executive Order 13388 of October 25, 2005, 10/25/2005] The order augments the power of “National Security Letters,” authorized in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan (see December 4, 1981), but rarely used against US citizens until the advent of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act. Thanks to the order, the data files are even more accessible to what the order calls “state, local, and tribal” governments as well as the undefined “appropriate private sector entities,” presumably private data-mining corporations that collect personal and financial data on US citizens for the government.
Over 30,000 NSLs a Year - The FBI now issues over 30,000 NSLs a year, a hundredfold increase from earlier administration usages. NSLs are issued by FBI field supervisors at their discretion without court warrant or oversight by the judiciary or Congress. NSLs force their recipients—librarians, booksellers, employers, Internet providers, and others—to turn over any and all personal data on their customers and employees and are legally required not to tell the targets of the investigations about the letters or the data collection. An FBI supervisor can, without oversight or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, collect data on what a citizen makes, spends, invests, gambles, reads in books and on the Internet, buys online, and with whom that citizen lives, works, associates, telephones, and exchanges e-mails. Senior FBI officials admit that the huge spike in NSLs stems from the FBI’s new authority to collect tremendous amounts of data on US citizens not accused of criminal activities. And NSLs are now used to generate leads against terrorist suspects and not merely pursue them.
NSLs Handled With Discretion, Officials Insist - FBI and White House officials insist that NSLs are handled with discretion and with a recognizance of Americans’ right to privacy. Joseph Billy Jr, the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, says he understand that “merely being in a government or FBI database… gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” But innocent Americans “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), USA Patriot Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Letters, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Other Legal Changes, Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

An FBI investigation into Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, is halted by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, according to three former top national security officials. The investigation was to determine whether she agreed to use her influence on behalf of accused Israeli spies in return for Israeli support in being named chairman of the committee (see Summer 2005, October 2005 and December 2, 2006). In contrast to the former officials’ claims, the media will report that the investigation is ended due to “lack of evidence” of impropriety or illegal behavior on Harman’s part. However, according to the former officials, Gonzales wants Harman to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which is about to be revealed by a long-simmering New York Times story (see December 15, 2005). The evidence against Harman includes NSA wiretaps of a conversation between her and an Israeli agent. Reporter Jeff Stein will write, “As for there being ‘no evidence’ to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that ‘bull****.’” Another former national security officer will confirm Harman’s presence on the wiretaps. “It’s true,” the official will say. “She was on there.” Justice Department attorneys in the intelligence and public corruption units have concluded that Harman had committed what they called a “completed crime,” meaning there was evidence to show that she had attempted to complete it; they were prepared to open a case on her that would include wiretaps approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). CIA Director Porter Goss certified the FISA wiretapping request, and decided to inform House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) of the impending FBI investigation. At this point, say Stein’s sources, Gonzales intervenes to stop the investigation. Two officials with knowledge of the events will say that, in Gonzales’s words, he “needed Jane” to help support the warrantless wiretapping program once it became public knowledge. Gonzales tells Goss that Harman had helped persuade the Times to refrain from publishing the story in late 2004 (see Early November 2004, December 6, 2005, and Mid-2005), and although the Times would no longer wait on the story, Harman could be counted on to help defend the program. She will do just that (see December 21, 2005 and February 8-12, 2006). Hastert and Pelosi are never told of the FBI investigation. Stein will also learn that Goss’s successor, Michael Hayden, will later be informed of the potential investigation, but choose to take no action. Likewise, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte will oppose any such investigation. Former officials who will pursue the Israeli espionage case for years will say, in Stein’s words, that “Harman dodged a bullet… [s]he was protected by an administration desperate for help.” A recently retired national security official closely involved in the investigation will add: “It’s the deepest kind of corruption. It’s a story about the corruption of government—not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption.” [Congressional Quarterly, 4/19/2009]

Entity Tags: Jeff Stein, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dennis Hastert, Alberto R. Gonzales, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Jane Harman, Michael Hayden, Porter J. Goss, John Negroponte, House Intelligence Committee, New York Times, Nancy Pelosi

Category Tags: Government Acting in Secret, National Security Letters

President Bush signs the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law. The bill, which extends and modifies the original USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001), was driven through Congress primarily by the Republican majorities in both Houses. However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cosponsored the Senate bill, numerous Democrats in both Houses voted with the Republicans in favor of the bill, and the final bill sailed through the Senate by an 89-10 vote on March 2. [GovTrack, 3/9/2006; Library of Congress, 3/9/2006] In the signing ceremony, Bush calls the Reauthorization Act “a really important piece of legislation… that’s vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people.” He repeatedly evokes the 9/11 attacks as a reason why the new law is needed. [Government Printing Office, 3/9/2006]
Provisions for Oversight Added - One of the reasons why the reauthorization bill received such support from Congressional moderates on both sides of the aisle is because Congress added numerous provisions for judicial and Congressional oversight of how government and law enforcement agencies conduct investigations, especially against US citizens. Representative Butch Otter (R-ID) said in 2004 that Congress came “a long way in two years, and we’ve really brought an awareness to the Patriot Act and its overreaches that we gave to law enforcement.” He adds, “We’ve also quieted any idea of Patriot II, even though they snuck some of Patriot II in on the intelligence bill” (see February 7, 2003). [Associated Press, 1/23/2004]
Opposition From Both Sides - Liberal and conservative organizations joined together in unprecedented cooperation to oppose several key provisions of the original reauthorization and expansion of the Patriot Act, including easing of restrictions on government and law enforcement agencies in obtaining financial records of individuals and businesses, “sneak-and-peek” searches without court warrants or the target’s knowledge, and its “overbroad” definition of the term “terrorist.” Additionally, lawmakers in Congress insisted on expiration dates for the various surveillance and wiretapping methodologies employed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies (see Early 2002). [Associated Press, 5/23/2005] The final bill mandates that anyone subpoenaed for information regarding terrorist investigations has the right to challenge the requirement that they not reveal anything about the subpoena, those recipients will not be required to tell the FBI the name of their lawyer, and libraries that are not Internet service providers will not be subject to demands from “national security letters” for information about their patrons. Many of the bill’s provisions will expire in four years. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/3/2006]
Reauthorizing Original Provisions - The bill does reauthorize many expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain “tangible items,” such as business records from libraries and bookstores, in connection with foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. Port security provisions are strengthened, and restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine that can be used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine are imposed, forcing individuals to register their purchases of such medicines and limiting the amounts they can buy. [CBS News, 3/9/2006]
Bush Signing Statement Says He Will Ignore Oversight Mandates - But when he signs the bill into law, Bush also issues a signing statement that says he has no intention of obeying mandates that enjoin the White House and the Justice Department to inform Congress about how the FBI is using its new powers under the bill. Bush writes that he is not bound to tell Congress how the new Patriot Act powers are being used, and in spite of what the law requires, he can and will withhold information if he decides that such disclosure may “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.” [Statement on Signing the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, 3/9/2006; Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says that Bush’s assertion that he can ignore provisions of the law as he pleases, under the so-called “unitary executive” theory, are “nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law.” Law professor David Golove says the statement is illustrative of the Bush administration’s “mind-bogglingly expansive conception” of executive power, and its low regard for legislative power. [Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Author and legal expert Jennifer Van Bergen warns of Bush using this signing statement to avoid accountability about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, writing: “[I]t is becoming clearer every day that Bush has no qualms about violating either international laws and obligations or domestic laws. The recent revelations about the secret NSA domestic surveillance program revealed Bush flagrantly violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was specifically enacted to prevent unchecked executive branch surveillance. … His signing statements, thus, are nothing short of an attempt to change the very face of our government and our country.” [Institute for Public Accuracy, 3/27/2006]
Request to Rescind Signing Statement - In late March, Democratic House members Jane Harman and John Conyers will write to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting that the administration rescind the signing statement, writing: “As you know, ‘signing statements’ do not have the force of law. Legislation passed by both Houses and signed by the president does. As Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution states: ‘Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it.’” Bush and Gonzales will ignore the request. [US House of Representatives, 3/29/2006]

After an investigation into whether an Israeli lobbying organization improperly tried to influence House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) into naming Jane Harman (D-CA) as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (see Summer 2005 and October 2005) becomes public knowledge, Harman calls the allegations “irresponsible, laughable, and scurrilous.” Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, a Republican just hired by Harman to represent her in the matter, tells Time reporter Timothy Burger: “Congresswoman Harman has asked me to follow up on calls you’ve had. She is not aware of any such investigation, does not believe that it is occurring, and wanted to make sure that you and your editors knew that as far as she knows, that’s not true.… No one from the Justice Department has contacted her.” Burger notes that “[i]t is not, however, a given that Harman would know that she is under investigation.” Olson confirms that Harman hired him because even though she doesn’t believe the media reports of the investigation, she takes the possibility seriously. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), allegedly Harman’s partner in the scheme, also denies any wrongdoing, and says it takes no position on the question of who wins the committee assignment, which was perceived to be a contest between Harman and fellow committee member Alcee Hastings (D-FL). AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton says: “Both Congressman Hastings and Congresswoman Harman are strong leaders on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community and would be exemplary Democratic leaders for the House intelligence committee. AIPAC would never engage in a quid pro quo in relation to a federal investigation or any federal matter and the notion that it would do so is preposterous. AIPAC is not aware that the Justice Department is looking into issues involving the intelligence committee, and has not been asked any questions or contacted by the government on this matter, but certainly would cooperate with any inquiry.” Dorton adds that AIPAC has previously been assured that the organization and its current employees are not being investigated. [Time, 10/20/2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Alcee Hastings, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, Nancy Pelosi, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Timothy Burger, Patrick Dorton

Category Tags: Government Acting in Secret, National Security Letters

A report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, finds that the FBI used self-issued subpoenas known as National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain phone, e-mail, and financial information on at least 143,074 targets between 2003 and 2005. The report’s main conclusions include:
bullet More than half of those targeted are US citizens;
bullet In many cases FBI officials evaded limits on NSLs and sometimes illegally issued them;
bullet 60% of the audited NSLs do not follow the FBI’s rules of issuance, and a further 22% contain unreported possible violations of the law, including improper requests and unauthorized collections of information;
bullet The number of surveillance targets is probably far higher than the audit finds, because the FBI practices poor record-keeping that allow at least 22% of surveillance to go unreported;
bullet Fine finds that agents had routinely issued the letters even when they had no open investigation, as required by law;
bullet One office made arrangements with telecommunications firms to get information instantly, even before issuing NSLs, by sending “exigent letters” claiming it needed the requested information because of an emergency, and that the letters and necessary court warrants were in preparation (see Before Mid-March, 2007). But, the audit finds, “we could not confirm one instance in which a subpoena had been submitted to any US attorney’s office before the exigent letter was sent to the phone companies” and that “many were not issued in exigent circumstances.”
Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants hearings. “The Inspector General’s report is a scathing critique of FBI misuse of the secretive process,” Markey says. Although the FBI has used NSLs for years, their usage soared after the USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001) eased the restrictions on them. Now, FBI agents in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations can issue NSLs themselves, without court warrants or even the approval of a supervisor, as long as the agent affirms that the information they seek is “relevant” to an open investigation. The information obtained by NSLs remains in a massive “data warehouse,” where it can be accessed again for data-mining or subsequent investigations. [Wired News, 3/9/2007]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Edward Markey, USA Patriot Act, Glenn Fine, US Department of Justice, House Homeland Security Committee

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters

FBI director Robert Mueller orders a criminal probe into FBI officials who used misleading “exigent letters”—letters used in lieu of National Security Letters (NSLs) that demand information on an emergency basis—to acquire thousands of US citizens’ phone records. Mueller tells civil liberties groups of the probe, which focuses on the activities of the Communications Analysis Unit (CAU). The probe could result in criminal prosecutions for misuse of Patriot Act investigative tools. NSLs are powerful subpoenas that can be issued by FBI supervisors without court supervisions, and have played central roles in previous allegations of misuse (see February 2005). The probe is investigating incidents where CAU officials wrote “exigent letters” to telecommunications firms requesting immediate wiretaps and promising that court warrants would be forthcoming—but the warrants had never been applied for and were never issued. Some FBI employees have already been granted immunity in return for their testimony. NSLs are routinely used to provide investigators in terrorism and espionage cases with data from phone companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and Internet service providers on any US citizens considered “relevant” to an ongoing investigation. This information is then stored in three separate computer systems, including a shared data-mining system called the Investigative Data Warehouse. Though warned in 2001 to use this power with restraint, FBI agents have so far issued over 47,000 NSLs, more than half of those targeting Americans. In the case of the CAU, a support bureau which analyzes suspected terrorist communications and provides intelligence to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, its officials cannot issue subpoenas, but must have counterterrorism investigators do so. But the CAU has issued at least 739 “exigent letters” to AT&T, Verizon, and MCI seeking information on over 3,000 phone numbers; some of the individual letters contained requests for over 100 numbers. The letters read in part, “Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided. Subpoenas requesting this information have been submitted to the US Attorney’s Office who will process and serve them formally to [telecom firm] as expeditiously as possible.” [Wired News, 7/12/2007] (Reporter Ryan Singel notes, The most striking thing about these exigent letters… is that they all use the same pathetic, passive bureaucratese.”) [Wired News, 7/10/2007] No such subpoena requests had been filed with the particular US attorneys, and only some of the requests were later followed up with proper legal processes. CAU chief Bassem Youssef says he ended the problem after he took over the unit in 2005, and says his attempts to provide post-facto legal processes were often hampered by uncooperative field offices. Youssef is suing the FBI over his complaints that the bureau was wasting his Arabic-language skills and antiterrorism experience and the bureau’s alleged retaliation. [Wired News, 7/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Verizon Communications, USA Patriot Act, Ryan Singel, Robert S. Mueller III, Bassem Youssef, Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), AT&T, MCI, Investigative Data Warehouse, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Classification, National Security Letters

Suzanne Spaulding.Suzanne Spaulding. [Source: Bipartisan Security Group]Suzanne Spaulding, a national security expert with twenty years of experience in the CIA, on various Congressional oversight committees, and executive director of two separate commissions on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of that body’s hearings on the improper use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by the FBI (see October 25, 2005). Spaulding has spoken out before against the NSA’s wiretapping program (see December 25, 2005). She says that the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agents need “the tools they need to do their job” and “clear guidance on just what it is that we want them to do on our behalf—and how we want them to do it. Clear rules and careful oversight provide essential protections for those on the front lines of our domestic counterterrorism efforts.” However, Spaulding testifies, “it appears both were lacking in the implementation of national security letter authorities.” Spaulding says that Congress should begin a much larger examination of domestic surveillance issues, saying, “The appropriateness of using FISA electronic surveillance to eavesdrop on Americans should be considered in light of other, less intrusive techniques that might be available to establish whether a phone number belongs to a suspected terrorist or the pizza delivery shop. It’s not the ‘all or nothing’ proposition often portrayed in some of the debates.” However, according to recent findings by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, “there is not sufficient guidance on how to apply that in the NSL context or in conjunction with other available collection techniques.” Therefore, there is a strong “need for a broader examination of domestic intelligence tools.”
Urges Congressional Review - Spaulding urges Congress “to undertake a comprehensive review of all domestic intelligence collection, not just by FBI but also by the other national security agencies engaged in domestic intelligence collection, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency. A Joint Inquiry or Task Force could be established by the Senate leadership, with representation from the most relevant committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Homeland Security and Government Affairs), to carefully examine the nature of the threat inside the US and the most effective strategies for countering it. Then Congress, and the American public, can consider whether we have the appropriate institutional and legal framework for implementing those strategies with adequate safeguards and oversight.”
FBI's Expanded Powers Need Review - In addition, she testifies, the FBI’s expanded ability to use NSLs under the Patriot Act must be examined. Currently, the law seems to allow the FBI to use NSLs to obtain evidence pursuant to a FISA warrant, thus allowing “the government to get information about individuals who are not themselves the subject of an investigation”—“parties two or three steps removed from their subjects without determining if these contacts reveal suspicious connections,” Fine reported. Spaulding expands on Fine’s findings: “In fact, the most tenuous of connections would seem to suffice for this NSL standard. For example, it’s not clear why an ‘investigation to protect against international terrorism’ couldn’t justify demanding information about all residents of, say, Dearborn, Michigan [home to a large Arab-American community], so that you could run them through some logarithmic profile to identify ‘suspicious’ individuals. In fact, Congress should examine the facts surrounding the nine NSLs in one investigation that were, according to the IG Report, used to obtain information regarding over 11,000 different phone numbers.”
Data Mining Efforts Should Be Examined - Also, she says, data mining efforts by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies should be carefully examined and addressed: “NSLs should not become a mechanism for gathering vast amounts of information about individuals with no known connection to international terrorism for purposes of data mining.” Spaulding also notes that the Patriot Act allows FBI special agents in charge (SACs) to issue NSLs; instead, she says, only attorneys in the Justice Department’s National Security Division should be able to issue NSLs. Yet another problem Spaulding notes is the FBI’s policy of retention of data gathered on US citizens through NSLs, even when those citizens have no connection to terrorist activities. Spaulding expressed similar concerns in a previous op-ed for the Washington Post (see December 25, 2005). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Department of Defense, USA Patriot Act, Senate Judiciary Committee, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Suzanne Spaulding, National Security Letters, National Security Agency

Category Tags: Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Privacy, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, Database Programs, NSA Wiretapping / Stellar Wind, National Security Letters

Wired News reporter Ryan Singel examines the documents released as part of the FBI’s probe into the possibly illegal use of National Security Letters (NSLs) by its agents (see Before Mid-March, 2007). Singel finds that all of the letters originate from the same room in the FBI’s Washington headquarters, Room 4944. Almost all of them refer to a “Special Project,” and the only name on any of the letters is Larry Mefford. At the time the letters were written, Mefford was the Executive Assistant Director in charge of the Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division. His job primarily focused on preventing domestic terror attacks. Having Mefford’s name on the letters adds another layer of interest, Singel writes: “… Mefford’s name is on documents that requested personal information on Americans. Some of those requests included information known to be false to the agents signing them. That’s a federal crime, according to one former FBI agent.” It is unclear what the “Special Project” is, outside of its existence within the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit (CAU), which issued the NSLs in question. Why some of the NSLs requested over two pages of phone numbers as part of a single request is also unclear. Singel observes, “The documents also show that these ‘exigent letters’—essentially end runs around the rules set up to keep the FBI from trampling on citizens rights—weren’t devised by some rogue Jack Bauer-style agent [a reference to the popular TV action drama 24.]. The form letters originated from inside FBI Headquarters and in some cases, bear the name of a senior level FBI official who should have been aware of the letters’ legal grey status and possibility for abuse.” [Wired News, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division (FBI), Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Larry Mefford, Ryan Singel

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Continuity of Government, Government Acting in Secret, National Security Letters

Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress.Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress. [Source: Associated Press]Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lied to Congress during Congressional hearings over the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006). In testimony before Congress, Gonzales asserted that he knew nothing of any abuses of National Security Letters (NSLs), documents that require employers, librarians, and others to turn over information on their employees and patrons to the government, and further require that those served with NSLs remain silent about them and the information being given over. But internal FBI documents made available on this day reveal that Gonzales indeed had been briefed about such abuses. (The Justice Department is fighting two court cases from plaintiffs seeking to halt the indiscriminate and allegedly unconstitutional use of NSLs to demand information about US citizens that, by law, should remain private.) George Christian, a Connecticut librarian who fought the FBI over its demand for information about his library patrons (see July 13, 2005 and April 11, 2007), says, “Having experienced first-hand the impact of the government’s abuse of surveillance powers, it is particularly disheartening to learn more and more about the deceit surrounding that abuse. I and my colleagues were fortunate enough to have the gag order against us lifted, but thousands more believed to have received national security letters are not so lucky, and must suffer the injustice in silence. It’s bad enough that these abuses occur, but salt is added to the wound when the top law enforcement agent in the country knows about the abuses, does nothing to correct them, and then plays ignorant when confronted with them.” [American Civil Liberties Union, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, George Christian, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alberto R. Gonzales

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters, Other Surveillance

Newly released CIA documents show that the agency uses “national security letters” (NSLs) to secure financial and other information about US citizens from employers, financial institutions, libraries, and other private and public firms (see January 2004). The documents were requested by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI has used NSLs for years, and drawn heavy criticism for its use of the instruments (see February 2005), but until now, the CIA’s use of NSLs has been a closely guarded secret. Like the FBI NSLs, the CIA’s letters come with “gag orders” that force the recipients to remain silent about the demand for information, or that there was even such a demand. According to ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman, often the recipient of an NSL cannot keep a copy of the letter or even take notes about the information turned over to the CIA. A CIA spokesman denies that its use of NSLs was ever kept secret, and the information has always been requested on a voluntary basis for “such legitimate purposes as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2008]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, American Civil Liberties Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Freedom of Information Act, Melissa Goodman

Category Tags: Privacy, Impositions on Rights and Freedoms, Government Acting in Secret, Government Classification, National Security Letters

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