National Security Letters in Foreign Intelligence Investigations

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January 20, 2014


A Jan. 3, 2014 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report details the history, legal ramifications, and recommended changes to the current use of National Security Letters (NSLs). NSLs are an investigative tool used mainly by the FBI to collect information such as bank, telephone and email records. Concerns about the broad use of NSLs prompted the Inspector General to release three reports between 2007 and 2010, criticizing the FBI’s casual use of the letters as well as a lack of judicial review.

Two circuit courts have reviewed NSLs, finding their gag orders constitutionally suspect on the grounds that it violates freedom of speech. A review group, established by President Obama in the wake of the National Security Agency's data gathering program, proposed changes to the current use of NSLs, including:

  • limiting the use of collected information,
  • requiring that information collected, and how it is used be made public in regular reports, 
  • and, that the gag orders on the recipients be issued only in cases involving human safety, or substantial governmental concern.