A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered the FBI to stop issuing "national security letters" to phone companies and Internet service providers, denying the bureau an investigative tool it has used with alarming frequency to secretly gather logs of Americans' calls, emails and related activity. It was the second time a federal court found a key aspect of such letters — the gag order that almost invariably accompanies them — to be unconstitutional. Congress should swiftly change the law to bring more oversight to the process and narrow the letters' use.
Congress created the letters in the 1980s to help the FBI track communications by foreign agents in the United States without a court's prior approval or oversight, but over time lawmakers broadened the letters' use and reach. The USA Patriot Act ushered in the largest expansion, causing the number of letters to rise from about 8,500 in 2000 to more than 56,500 in 2004.
Critics worry that even though the letters don't authorize the government to eavesdrop on targets, the "transactional" records about email and mobile Internet usage, including email addresses and potentially Web browsing logs, are much more revealing than conventional telephone logs were. Just how revealing they may be is impossible to say, given that the law doesn't compel the government to disclose what it collected from whom, even after an investigation is closed. Nor can anyone else make such disclosures, because of the gag order that service providers typically receive along with the letter.