Your cell phone company or Internet provider receives a letter from the F.B.I. It requests all information concerning your account; who you call, who calls you, who you email and who emails you, what sites you visit and all online activity. The company cannot tell you that you are under investigation. The company cannot tell anyone, but their lawyer, they even got a letter. The company can challenge the letter in secret, but the government will file a civil complaint accusing them of violating national security...among other things.
In 2006 alone, 49,000 of these requests were issued. The Patriot Act expanded their use. Almost none of those tens of thousands of requests were opposed by the companies served. You might be asking about your 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure? You might ask about the need for a warrant, probable cause and judicial review before a letter can be issued? You might, but you would be out of luck. A National Security Letter can be sent as long as the local F.B.I. office says the records would be relevant to a counterterrorism investigation. No judge, no warrant or probable cause is necessary to secretly investigate any American the F.B.I. desires. National Security Letters are a fishing license granting the government the right to churn for, and vacuum up, any information they desire with no fear of a constitutional challenge.
The Justice Department even claims no judge or court has the right to review the constitutionality of the letters. The F.B.I. claims it is outside the reach of the constitution where these letters are concerned. The Justice Department says the court would be interfering with the "sovereign immunity" of the United States if it tried to review the legality of the letters. In other words, when it comes to spying on its own citizen's online activity, or phone use, the checks and balances put in place by the founding fathers no longer apply. The government is literally claiming it is above the law, any law, when investigating "terrorist" activity.
One company is fighting back. The Wall Street Journal speculates the company is "Credo", a subsidiary of S.F. based Working Assets Inc, which uses some of its profits to support progressive causes.
I can hear some of you arguing once again, "...why do you care if you haven't done anything wrong? Let them investigate anything they want." The problem is they, the government, are the ones who determine what is wrong and what to prosecute or ignore. There are thousands of federal laws, requiring federal prison terms, which can snare you even if you don't know you broke them or did anything wrong. It's left up to the government to decide whether to go after you or not.
An excellent definition of a fascist state is one where everything is illegal and the government decides what to enforce and what to ignore. National Security Letters fit this definition perfectly. They are issued in secret. The recipient must keep them secret. The subject of the investigation cannot defend themselves or demand a judge assess the legal relevance of the request. There is no oversight to see if these letters are used or abused.
In 2007, the Inspector General of the F.B.I. was forced to look at the use of these letters and reported the agency illegally abused the use of hundreds of them. Even worse, telecom company representatives were embedded with the F.B.I. and gave the government access to customer records without even being shown a letter. (sound familiar? Remember the telecoms rolling over and playing dead after September 11, 2001 and giving the National Security Agency any customer information it wanted even though it was illegal at the time?)
If indeed the N.S.L. is aimed at "Credo", this gets even more disturbing. Credo is engaged in helping to organize progressive political events including one calling for jail for Wall Street crooks, and another calling on the F.C.C. to revoke the broadcast licenses of Rupert Murdoch. It has fought against the Patriot Act and donates to groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Credo has also started a Super PAC to defeat Tea Party members of Congress.
There has been a continuous assault on the 1st and 4th amendments ever since the passage of the Patriot Act. Civil liberties have been weakened and diluted and Americans are more vulnerable to persecution and harassment by the government than anytime in the last 30 years. National Security Letters did not prevent the shoe bomber, underwear bomber, or Times Square bomber. N.S.L.'s did not stop the shooting at Ft. Hood or the anthrax attack on members of Congress. The F.B.I. claims they helped to break up plots in New York and Virginia, but these are plots orchestrated by F.B.I. informants and insiders which never came close to fruition. They are low hanging fruit at best.
This nation is not stronger or safer if the constitution is neutered or the government has free rein to secretly spy on its citizens. The biggest threat to the security of this country is internal, not external. If, in order to protect us, our civil liberties have to be eviscerated, I object. To be honest, I am more scared of "us" than I am of "them".