September 15, 2015

Court stops gag order on one National Security Letter: 300,000 more to go

Intercept - A federal district court judge in New York has fully lifted an 11-year-old gag order that the FBI imposed on Nicholas Merrill, the founder of a small Internet service provider, to prevent him from speaking about a National Security Letter served on him in 2004.

It marked the first time such a gag order has been fully lifted since the USA Patriot Act in 2001 expanded the FBI’s authority to unilaterally demand that certain businesses turn over records simply by writing a letter saying the information is needed for national security purposes.

Like other NSL recipients, Merrill was also instructed that he could not mention the order to anyone.

Merrill said the court ruling allowing him to discuss the details of the sealed request in full will allow him to ignite a debate among Americans about the unchecked surveillance powers of the U.S. government.

“For more than a decade, the FBI has fought tooth and nail in order to prevent me from speaking freely about the NSL I received,” Merrill said in a press release published by the Calyx Institute, where he serves as director.

U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero’s decision “vindicates the public’s right to know how the FBI uses warrantless surveillance to peer into our digital lives,” Merrill said. “I hope today’s victory will finally allow Americans to engage in an informed debate about proper the scope of the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.”

Merrill is not free to talk quite yet, however – he will remain under gag order for 90 days, giving the government time to appeal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation estimates that over 300,000 National Security Letters have been issued since 2001. The Justice Department concluded in 2008 that the FBI had abused their power, often gathering information on large numbers of U.S. citizens, infringing on their First Amendment rights, and leaving hardly any paper trail, until changes were adopted in 2006.

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