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FOIA Note #17 (February 7, 2011)

Internal Reports: FBI Scrawling Handwritten Changes on National Security Letters to Expand Surveillance, Evade Oversight

Snapshot

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The Disclosure

EPIC obtained internal reports of intelligence law violations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent to the Intelligence Oversight Board. The documents detail intelligence practices that do not comply with Attorney General guidelines.

One report details agents in the Phoenix, AZ field office making unlawful, handwritten changes onto a National Security Letter in an attempt to expand surveillance. The Attorney General's National Security Letter Guidelines explicitly require field offices to clear all National Security Letter requests through the National Security Law Branch of the FBI or the Chief Division Counsel, which reviews requests for legality. The handwritten changes violate this safeguard and frustrate oversight.

Click here to read about the entire response to EPIC's FOIA request.

The Issue

The FBI's National Security Letters Program

The Background

On July 2, 2009, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking all reports made by the FBI to the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) and the Director of National Intelligence from January 1, 2006 to present detailing potential legal violations arising out of intelligence gathering activities.

The IOB is a standing committee of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, responsible for reviewing activities of the intelligence community. National Security Letters (NSLs) are an extraordinary search procedure, which give the FBI the power to compel the disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet Service Providers, and others. These entities are prohibited, or "gagged," from telling anyone about their receipt of the NSL, which makes oversight difficult. The number of NSLs issued has grown dramatically since the Patriot Act expanded the FBI's authority to issue them.

The Significance

FBI Field Offices made unauthorized changes to National Security Letters, absent any internal legal review. This incident is yet another instance of the FBI's NSL practices failing to abide by constitutional protections and the rule of law.

About the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act establishes a legal right for individuals to obtain records in the possession of government agencies. The FOIA is critical for the functioning of democratic government because it helps ensure that the public is fully informed about matters of public concern. The FOIA has helped uncover fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government. It has become particularly important in recent years as the government has tried to keep more of its activities secret.