The FBI sometimes seems out of control
Jenna McLaughlin reports in The Intercept:
The target of a federal investigation that set off a more than decade-long battle over secret subpoenas called national security letters was a Muslim prison reform advocate the FBI wanted to become an informant.
Nick Merrill, who fought to make the information public, revealed that information for the first time at a hacker conference in New York City.
Merrill was the head of an Internet hosting company when the controversy began. He had launched a small New York-based internet service provider called Calyx Internet Access in the 1990s, and he also consulted on digital security.
In 2004, the FBI sent him a national security letter demanding extensive records on one of his customers.
National security letters are secret subpoenas the FBI can send to internet and technology companies to demand various types of records about their customers’ online behaviors without ever getting a court order. In Merrill’s case, that request was particularly broad — for browsing records, email address information, billing information, and more.
In response, Merrill launched a court battle challenging the constitutionality of the letter itself, and then, when the FBI withdrew it, to free himself from the gag order forbidding him from ever speaking about it.
Speaking during the Hackers of Planet Earth, or HOPE, conference last week, Merrill shared previously nonpublic information about the nearly 12 years he spent first trying to challenge the FBI’s request itself, and then trying to lift the gag order placed on him after the FBI withdrew it. He disclosed additional details to The Intercept following his talk.
Merrill told The Intercept that the target of the national security letter was someone whose website he was hosting. He said the target was Muslim, but gave no further details, to protect his identity. He did not explain why the FBI considered this a national security matter.
Merrill’s national security letter was issued before President George W. Bush’s Department of Justice told the FBI it didn’t have the power to ask for such extensive records without consulting a judge — though as The Intercept reported in June, it’s not clear the agency ever actually stopped asking for such records.
Merrill said that as far as he knows, the target of the FBI investigation was never charged with a crime and turned over his hard drives voluntarily. The man had trouble finding jobs and boarding airplanes during the investigation, according to Merrill’s presentation.
Merrill said he maintained contact with the man for the entire 12 years, walking on eggshells when it came to the case and what he could share. One time, he told The Intercept, the target even sent him a photo of something he found on the bottom of his car — a device Merrill says a friend told him was a military-grade tracker. . .
As noted in the article, the DoJ inspector general has repeatedly criticized the FBI for not following the rules in filing national security letter, and even when specifically told that a national security letter is not allowed, the FBI used it anyway. The FBI, like other law enforcement agencies, has many in it who believe that they are above the law. And, of course, they are not held accountable for their actions, just as police are rarely held accountable for their own law-breaking.
Do read the entire article.