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Phone Company Fights FBI to Protect Customers' Records

PHOTO: Man with map and telephone.
PHOTO: Man with map and telephone.
July 20, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - It's a story that's hard to tell. A phone company is taking the rare step of challenging a request for customer records, saying the FBI is overreaching.

Matt Zimmerman is a lawyer representing the company, which he cannot identify. In fact, his lips are sealed about almost everything in this case, because of the use of what is called a national security letter (NSL). According to Zimmerman, it is often employed in hunting for terrorism, post-9/11.

"It allows the FBI to seek information and to gag recipients without any kind of court oversight ahead of time."

The Justice Department says NSLs have helped uncover terrorist cells in the United States, although officials have acknowledged NSLs also have been abused by the FBI. To Zimmerman, it's a false choice to suggest that privacy and security can't co-exist within the legal system. And he says the FBI has plenty of other tools to use.

Zimmerman says it isn't hard to see how national security letters can be misused.

"The Office of Inspector General issued three reports over the past several years documenting and highlighting the kinds of abuses that the FBI committed surrounding the use of national security letters."

The Wall Street Journal analyzed documents released by the FBI and speculated that the phone company fighting the NSL may be Working Assets, which operates a long-distance call service and donates to progressive such causes as Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Zimmerman can't say.

"No recipient of a national security letter can identify the content of the information sought or identify who the ultimate target is. And neither can their lawyers."

Zimmerman and the mystery company are challenging the gag provision and, he says, the underlying legality of the statutory scheme that allows the FBI to issue these kinds of requests.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - CA