What Is A National Security Letter

What Is A National Security Letter

National Security Letters are administrative orders that compel their recipients to provide information to federal investigators. These letters include gag orders, which forbid the recipient from discussing its contents and instructions with anyone else. They do not require a judge’s authorization or judicial review in order for them to be issued, nor does it need a warrant when used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Who can issue an NSL?

In accordance with the laws that established the National Security Letter authority, a variety of agencies can issue them. However, one commonly used type can be issued directly by the FBI director and assistant directors as well as all special agents in charge stationed across different field offices nationwide.

Role Of Judge In NSL Process

A judge does not have to approve the National Security Letter or an accompanying gag order. Under current statutes, there are only two occasions in which a judge is required to review an NSL. The first occurs when a recipient files a legal challenge, and Congress changes laws regarding these letters’ use by government agencies.

Information Obtained with NSLs

The most common type of National Security Letter allows the FBI to target telephone and Internet companies, financial institutions, or credit agencies to get relevant records for an investigation into terrorism.

NSL’s can be issued to:

  • Credit reporting agencies
  • Telecommunications providers
  • Financial institutions
  • Travel agencies

Can the FBI obtain content like e-mails or the content of phone calls with an NSL?

While each type of NSL allows the FBI to obtain different types of information, that information is limited to records such as subscriber and toll billing records from telephone companies.

Legal Standard For Issuing An NSL

Under the commonly used NSL statute, the FBI must certify that the records sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation” and prohibits investigations of protected activities. However, there is no judicial oversight, so it provides little actual protection.

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