Did you know that the FBI can issue a letter to an Internet Service Provider or a financial institution demanding that they turn over data on a customer? The letter doesn’t require probable cause. No judge must authorize the letter. The FBI simply issues the letter and gets the information. There’s a gag order, too, preventing the institution receiving the letter from mentioning this fact.
A recent lengthy Washington Post article examines National Security Letters (NSLs) in depth:
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters — one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people — are extending the bureau’s reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.
Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.