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National Security Letters in Foreign Intelligence Investigations: A Glimpse of the Legal Background and Recent Amendments

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Five statutory provisions vest government agencies responsible for certain foreign intelligence investigations (principally the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI]) with authority to issue written commands comparable to administrative subpoenas. These National Security Letters (NSLs) seek customer and consumer transaction information in national security investigations from communications providers, financial institutions, and credit agencies. Section 505 of the USA PATRIOT Act expanded the circumstances under which an NSL could be used. Subsequent press accounts suggested that their use had become widespread. Two lower federal courts, however, found the uncertainties, practices, and policies associated with the use of NSL authority contrary to the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, and thus brought into question the extent to which NSL authority could be used in the future. The USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, P.L. 109-177, 120 Stat. 192 (2006) (H.R. 3199), and P.L. 109178, 120 Stat. 278 (2006) (S. 2271), amend the NSL statutes and related law to address some of the concerns raised by critics and the courts.

This is an abridged version of CRS Report RL33320, National Security Letters in Foreign Intelligence Investigations: Legal Background and Recent Amendments, without the footnotes, appendices, and most of the citations to authority found in the longer report.


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