Friday, March 23, 2007

The American Stasi

You may recall that the FBI has recently been found to have abused one of its Patriot Act powers by issuing National Security Letters (essentially subpoenas but without the piddling detail of court approval) without following even the very loose requirements of the Act. Between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued over 140,000 of them.

I'd like to highlight a fascinating letter in today's Washington Post written by a person who was issued one of those letters, someone who remains anonymous, because, like all such persons, he continues to be compelled to refrain from revealing his identity because of a gag order forbidding him to reveal any details of the situation to anybody.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Given his doubts, Mr. Doe went to the ACLU who took up his case, with the effect that he never complied to the NSL, which, um, request, has since been dropped after all. It seems that Mr. Doe's potential information wasn't quite so vital to national security after all.

Most interesting to me are the effects of the gag order under which Mr. Doe continues to toil.

Living under the gag order has been stressful and surreal. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case -- including the mere fact that I received an NSL -- from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

In the bad old days of the cold war the East German secret police (Stasi) were infamous for their penetration into the everyday lives of their comrades.

Their effectiveness was based in large part on their use of "Unofficial collaborators", by the end of the cold war employing over 300,000 of these citizen spies.

It's not clear to me how many of these spies were willing collaborators and how many were coerced by the Stasi to co-operate.

But it is certainly a sad commentary on the present state of affairs that the FBI's behavior bears such a startling similarity to that of the dreaded Stasi.

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