Since 9/11, the federal government each year has issued more than 30,000 "national security letters" demanding business and personal records without a judge's approval, all under authority from the Patriot Act. ("Lawmakers call for limits on F.B.I. power to demand records in terrorism investigations," Nov. 7)
In response to the news, not just liberals but conservative Republicans decried the misuse of authority. "We should not ever give up freedom on the basis of fear, and any freedom that we give up should be limited in time and limited in scope," said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
ACLU has undertaken extensive litigation and lobbying efforts to oppose abuses of these "national security letters." Now for the first time it's become clear that the librarians and internet service providers who litigated these letters are just the tip of the iceberg -- many thousands more acquiesced in these federal fishing expeditions.
Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said on "This Week" that he was worried about "the overreach of the Patriot Act," adding, "I have always been concerned about centralization of power and eroding individual rights."
But as part of the conference negotiations, some Republicans, including Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, are pushing to give the F.B.I. additional power to demand records without a warrant by expanding its authority to issue administrative subpoenas in terrorism investigations.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachussetts Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said he was particularly concerned about a change in policy that allows the bureau to retain and disseminate to other agencies information collected through the letters. Prior policy had required that the material be destroyed if it was not relevant to an investigation.
That would be a minimalist reform, but a welcome one. An even better idea would be to re-empower judges to oversee such requests for information in the first place. There's already a word for such requests -- they're called "subpoenas." The creation of national security letters' extra-judicial power has undermined the role of our judicial system, to the detriment of our rights.