In re National Security Letter
- EPIC Obtains FBI's Updated Media Guidelines: In response to EPIC's Freedom of Information Act request, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has released documents (part 1, part 2, part 3) concerning the agency's use of National Security Letters to obtain information from the media. The disclosure to EPIC includes a revised policy that followed criticisms of government surveillance of journalists. In an earlier amicus brief, EPIC recommended enhanced oversight of National Security Letters. (Mar. 4, 2019)
- Federal Court Lifts Gag Order on National Security Letter Recipient: For the first time, a federal court has lifted a national security letter gag order, allowing an Internet Service Provider to publish the FBI's demands for records of user web browsing history, IP addresses, online purchases, and location information. The FBI issues thousands of NSLs each year, forcing companies to disclose troves of consumer records without probable cause. Recipients are preventing from acknowledging these warrantless searches. EPIC filed an amicus brief in In re National Security Letter, arguing that NSL gag orders frustrate the public's right to know about government surveillance programs. (Dec. 1, 2015) More top news »
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a national security letter (NSL) to an unnamed telecommunications provider seeking "subscriber information." In response, the provider filed a petition with the District Court for the Northern District of California, challenging the NSL and the FBI's authority to issue the letter. Specifically, the provider argued that (1) the NSL nondisclosure provision is an unconstitutional prior restraint under the First Amendment; (2) the judicial standard of review of NSL nondisclosure requirements violates separation-of-powers principles; and (3) that both the NSL itself and the accompanying nondisclosure requirement do not satisfy strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.
District Court Orders
The case was filed in the Northern District of California and was decided on March 14, 2013. The lower court held that the nondisclosure provisions were unconstitutional based on the First Amendment standards established in Freedman v. Maryland. In re Nat'l Sec. Letter, 930 F. Supp. 2d 1064. The court found that (1) the NSL statute did not satisfy Freedman because it does not require the Government to institute judicial proceedings; (2) the statute prohibits the mere fact of receipt of an NSL even though disclosure of that fact will not cause harm in many cases; (3) the NSL nondisclosure provisions are indefinite unless the recipient brings a judicial challenge; and (4) the statute "impermissibly attempts to circumscribe a court's ability to review the necessity for nondisclosure orders." The court found that the nondisclosure provisions were not reasonably severable from the substantive NSL provisions, and struck down the entire NSL provision. The court issued an injunction, but stayed its order pending appeal.
On May 6, 2013, attorneys for the Department of Justice, Attorney General, and FBI appealed the court's order.
After the district court stayed its injunction, the NSL recipient filed a separate petition to set aside two additional NSLs, and the government filed a cross-petition to enforce them. Notwithstanding its prior opinion, the court denied the petition to set aside the NSLs and granted the Government's cross-petition to enforce them. The recipient then appealed the order, and both cases are now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
National Security Letters and Nondisclosure Provisions
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies use National Security Letters to obtain sensitive personal information about Americans: their financial records, telephone billing records, credit records, and other customer records. See 18 U.S.C.§ 2709 (Electronic Communications Privacy Act); 12 U.S.C. § 3414(a)(5) (Right to Financial Privacy Act); 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681u-1681v (Fair Credit Reporting Act); 50 U.S.C. § 3162 (National Security Act of 1947). Under these NSL provisions, companies are compelled to disclose their customers’ private records and, in almost every case, are simultaneously prohibited from disclosing any details about (even the mere existence of) the government’s requests.
Originally Section 2709(c) (the NSL provision at issue in this case) automatically forbade every recipient from disclosing information about the FBI's request. That nondisclosure provision was found unconstitutional by a district court, and Congress subsequently amended the statute in 2006. As amended, the nondisclosure rule applies whenever the FBI certifies that disclosure "may result in a danger to the national security of the United States, interference with a criminal, counterterrorism, or counterintelligence investigation, interference with diplomatic relations, or danger to the life or physical safety of any person." 18 U.S.C. § 2709(c)(1). But according to a 2007 Department of Justice Inspector General report, the FBI issues these certifications with 97% of the NSLs it issues.
The recipient of an NSL may request that a court modify or set aside the nondisclosure order that accompanies an NSL. 18 U.S.C. § 3511(b). If the petition is filed within one year of the date the recipient receives the NSL, the court may modify the order only if it finds that “there is no reason to believe that disclosure may endanger the national security of the United States” or other enumerated interests. 18 U.S.C. § 3511(b)(2). In making this determination, the court must treat an official certification as “conclusive unless the court finds that the certification was made in bad faith.” Id. If the petition is filed more than one year after receipt of the NSL then the government must either “terminate the nondisclosure requirement or re-certify that disclosure may result in danger to national security” within 90 days. 18 U.S.C. § 3511(b)(3).
Review By the Second Circuit
After these amended nondisclosure provisions were enacted by Congress, they were ruled unconstitutional in Doe v. Gonzales. 500 F. Supp. 2d 379 (S.D.N.Y. 2007). On appeal, in Doe v. Mukasey, 549 F. 3d 861 (2d Cir. 2008), the Second Circuit affirmed in part and only upheld the remaining provisions after it imposed new constraints on the FBI’s ability to authorize and enforce its nondisclosure orders. The court made clear that the government bears the burden of persuading “a district court that there is a good reason to believe that disclosure may result in one of the enumerated harms.” Id. at 876.
EPIC tracks and reports on the governments use of National Security Letters and other Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities based on the current reports provided by the Attorney General to congress. These annual letters provided a basis to evaluate these programs, but lack the specificity and nuance of the annual Wiretap Reports prepared by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Without additional public information about the use of National Security Letters, EPIC and other public interest organizations will be limited in their ability to effectively inform the public about government surveillance activities. EPIC has previously testified before congressional committees on the need for additional transparency and oversight of national security investigations. For more information, see EPIC: National Security Letters.
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
- Opinion of the Court
- [Under Seal]'s Reply Brief in 13-15957 & 13-16731 and in 13-16732
- Government's Answering Brief in 13-16732
- Government's Third Brief in 13-15957 & 13-16731
- [Under Seal]'s Opening Brief in 13-16732
- [Under Seal]'s Opening Brief in 13-15957 & 13-16731
- Government's Opening Brief in 13-15957 & 13-16731
- Notice of Appeal
- Amicus Curiae Briefs in Support of [Under Seal]
United States District for the Northern District of California
- In re National Security Letter, 930 F. Supp. 2d 1064, 2013 WL 1095417 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 14, 2013)
- Government's Reply in Support of a Motion to Compel
- Petitioner's Opposition to Motion to Compel and Reply in Support of Petition to Set Aside NSL
- Government's Motion to Compel Compliance with NSL
- Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion to Compel Compliance with NSL
- Government's Opposition to Petition to Set Aside NSL
- Declaration in Support of Petition to Set Aside NSL (with Redacted NSL)
- Petition to Set Aside NSL
- Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Petition to Set Aside NSL
- Government's Civil Complaint
- EPIC: National Security Letters
- EPIC: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court Orders 1979-2011
- EPIC: House Judiciary Testimony on the Need for Additional Transparency in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (May 31, 2012)
- National Security Letters May Be Unconstitutional, But That's No Reason to Disobey Them, Says Judge, The Guardian, June 1, 2013
- National Security Letters Have Their Day in Court--and Lose, MotherJones, March 16, 2013
- A Federal Judge Lifts the Cone of Silence Over National Security Letters, LA Times, March 15, 2013
- Federal Judge Finds National Security Letters Unconstitutional, Bans Them, Wired, March 15, 2013
- Gagging Recipients of National Security Letters Found Unconstitutional, Ars Technica, March 15, 2013
- National Security Letters Ruled Unconstitutional, Seattle Times, March 16, 2013
- Appeals Court Puts Restrictions on NSL Gag Orders, Ars Technica, December 15, 2012
- Kate Molony, Crowell and Moring E-Discovery Law Insights Gagging the FBI--The Unconstitutionality of National Security Letters, April, 16 2013.
- Pullman and Comley LLC, Cybersecurity, Privacy and Infrastructure Protection Alert, FBI Prohibited from Issuing National Security Letters, 2013.
- Kevin Gosztola, FireDogLake, Court Finds FBI-Issued National Security Letters 'Significantly Infringe Upon Speech', March 16, 2013.
Share this page:
EPIC relies on support from individual donors to pursue our work.
Subscribe to the EPIC Alert
The EPIC Alert is a biweekly newsletter highlighting emerging privacy issues.