No Comment — August 10, 2010, 3:47 pm

Tales from Stasiland: The letter that makes you disappear

One of the creepier weapons in the arsenal of the national-security state is the “national-security letter” or NSL. It’s 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 Department’s 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 doesn’t require approval of a judge to issue. Instead, the FBI requires the recipient to help it in an investigation 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 case…from 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 Constitution’s 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.”

Now as a result of a partial settlement in one of several cases in which the FBI’s use of NSLs is being successfully challenged, one of the recipients has been allowed to emerge from the shadows. His name is Nicholas Merrill, a Manhattan native who ran an Internet start-up named Calyx. He was hit with an NSL demanding that he “provide 16 categories of ‘electronic communication transactional records,’ including e-mail address, account number and billing information.” That isn’t all of it—but the FBI insists that most of its requests remain secret. The FBI withdrew its NSL to Merrill in 2006, apparently after concluding it had bitten off more than it could chew. Ellen Nakashima profiles Merrill in a piece in the Washington Post:

For six years, Nicholas Merrill has lived in a surreal world of half-truths, where he could not tell even his fiancee, his closest friends or his mother that he is “John Doe” — the man who filed the first-ever court challenge to the FBI’s ability to obtain personal data on Americans without judicial approval. Friends would mention the case when it was in the news and the normally outspoken Merrill would change the subject. He would turn up at the federal courthouse to hear the arguments, and in an out-of-body moment he would realize that no one knew he was the plaintiff challenging the FBI’s authority to issue “national security letters,” as they are known, and its ability to impose a gag on the recipient.

What led Merrill to mount a challenge against the use of NSLs?

Two things, he said, “just leaped out at me.” The first was the letter’s prohibition against disclosure. The second was the absence of a judge’s signature. “It seemed to be acting like a search warrant, but it wasn’t a search warrant signed by a judge,” said Merrill. He said it seemed to him to violate the constitutional ban against unreasonable searches and seizures. The letter said that the information was sought for an investigation against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Merrill said he thought it “outlandish” that any of his clients, many of whom were ad agencies and major companies as well as human-rights and other nonprofit groups, would be investigated for terrorism or espionage.

In the view of the national-security state, however, the prohibition on warrantless searches and seizures doesn’t apply to national security matters. They’ve argued this proposition for some time, with a good deal of success—especially with judges appointed by George W. Bush, who seem inordinately beholden to the concept of national security. Although other judges have found that the Fourth Amendment can’t simply be brushed aside, the experience with NSLs is a good demonstration of how the civil liberties envisioned by the Framers are being frittered away–in the hypothetical interest of national security.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2016

Trump’s People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Long Rescue

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Television

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Improbability Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump's supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man's search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Photograph (detail) © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Article
Trump’s People·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”
Photograph by Mark Abramson for Harper's Magazine (detail)
Article
The Long Rescue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

He made them groom and feed the half-dozen horses used to transport the raw bricks to the furnace. Like the horses, the children were beaten with whips.
Photograph (detail) © Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Newscom
Article
The Old Man·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Illustration (detail) by Jen Renninger
Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men.
Still from The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story © FX Networks

Amount an auditor estimated last year that Oregon could save each year by feeding prisoners less food:

$62,000

Kentucky is the saddest state.

An Italian economist was questioned on suspicion of terrorism after a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight witnessed him writing differential equations on a pad of paper.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today