Recent revelations of FBI abuse of the expanded National Security Letter authority it was granted in the USA PATRIOT Act point up the need for judicial control.

An NSL is a simple form document issued by FBI officials compelling disclosure of sensitive information held by Internet Service Providers, banks and credit companies, and sensitive financial information held by travel agencies, telegraph companies, car dealerships, boat dealers, jewelry dealers, casinos, and even the U.S. Postal Service.

The FBI’s own internal audit of its use of NSL’s has turned up evidence that the FBI had violated the law or its own internal guidelines more than 1,000 times in connection with its use of this power, the Washington Post reported on June 14. The FBI used NSL’s to obtain information it was prohibited by law from using an NSL to get, to obtain information to be used in intelligence or terrorism investigations that did not even exist, and to obtain and retain indefinitely information it did not even request, the Washington Post reported.

As CDT pointed out in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, NSL’s are outdated and should be replaced with a system that requires judicial approval.

New guidance the FBI issued its agents on how to use NSL’s does not obviate the need for judicial review. Indeed, the FBI’s abuse of this power proves that self-policing does not work. More than 47,000 pieces of information were sought with NSL’s in 2005, and the FBI audit found a 5-10% error rate in the use of NSL’s. NSL’s represent a risky power that sits outside the normal privacy rules. It is past time for Congress to step in and rein in use of this intrusive investigative tool.