In an extraordinary sealed case, the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the FBI's unchecked authority to issue "National Security Letters" (NSLs), which demand sensitive customer records from Internet Service Providers and other businesses without judicial oversight. Before the Patriot Act, the FBI could use the NSL authority only against suspected terrorists and spies. Thanks to Section 505 of the Patriot Act, the FBI can now use NSLs to obtain information about anyone at all.
The ACLU's legal papers argue that the NSL statute violates the First and Fourth Amendments because it does not impose adequate safeguards on the FBI's authority to force disclosure of sensitive and constitutionally protected information.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit under seal to avoid penalties for violating the NSL statute's broad gag provision, a provision that the ACLU is challenging on First Amendment grounds. Similar gag provisions are attached to other controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, which the ACLU has challenged in another lawsuit.
While the challenge to the NSL provision was filed on April 6, it took nearly three weeks for the ACLU to reach an agreement with the government that allowed the disclosure of anything at all about the case. A redacted version of the complaint is now publicly available, but many details about the case are still under seal. The ACLU believes that the public has a right to more information about the government's use of the Patriot Act and is committed to unsealing more information about the case as quickly as possible.