The latest report to Congress on the Justice Department’s use of foreign intelligence surveillance powers has just been released, and it shows a truly stunning increase in the number of Americans whose sensitive phone, Internet, and banking records were obtained by the FBI — without judicial oversight — pursuant to National Security Letters. In 2009, a total of 14,788 NSL requests were issued targeting U.S. persons — a number that excludes requests for “basic subscriber information” as opposed to phone or e-mail logs — and 6,114 different Americans were affected by those demands for information. In 2010, the number of NSL requests targeting Americans rose to 24,287.
What’s really shocking, however, is the number of people affected. A whopping 14,212 American citizens and permanent residents had records of their financial, telephone, and online activity seized last year. The previous record, set in 2005, was 9,475. Were you one of those 14,212? If so, what did the FBI get? Thanks to the gag orders that come with NSLs, you will almost certainly never get to find out. But even if the Bureau decides there’s no reason to continue investigating you, whatever data they obtained — lists of phone numbers, credit card purchases, financial transactions, e-mail correspondents, or IP addresses visited — are likely to remain in a massive government database indefinitely
This pattern suggests that the Bureau is doing broader but shallower investigation — sweeping more people into the information vacuum, but issuing fewer requests per person, presumably because the results of the initial request provide few grounds for further scrutiny. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those people are not terrorists — and, indeed, are probably guilty of nothing more than a second- or third-degree connection to the subject of an investigation. Remember, as expiring Patriot Act provisions come up for reauthorization at the end of this month: These tools are fundamentally not about spying on terrorists. The government has always had ample power to do that. They’re about authority to spy on the innocent.