My National Security Letter Gag Order
March 23, 2007 1:37 PM   Subscribe

My National Security Letter Gag Order "Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case -- including the mere fact that I received an NSL -- from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie."
posted by grouse (61 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating read.
posted by chimaera at 1:48 PM on March 23, 2007


The greatest danger to national security is the use of "national security" as an excuse to justify acts that have nothing whatsoever to do with national security.
posted by Balisong at 2:02 PM on March 23, 2007


"At some point -- a point we passed long ago -- the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy."

This should be Dick Cheney's epitaph.
posted by oncogenesis at 2:18 PM on March 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


"The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." -Patrick Henry

Since all we have now are concealed transactions, one wonders what that says about our nation and where it's headed.
posted by SaintCynr at 2:37 PM on March 23, 2007


can't we all just get over the fact that there are airliners in our skyscraper?
posted by quonsar at 2:39 PM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting this.
posted by selfmedicating at 2:41 PM on March 23, 2007


thanks, interesting post.
posted by advil at 2:50 PM on March 23, 2007


America: partying like it's 1984.
posted by flippant at 3:21 PM on March 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


Wow. Thanks.
posted by Dasein at 3:21 PM on March 23, 2007


Maybe this is a stupid question, but if it comes as an actual letter in an envelope (either delivered by USPS or a process server type), can't you just send a blanket email to all your customers before opening it to the effect of "I just got a letter from the FBI and if I don't tell you anything further after opening it then I am probably not allowed to. Draw what conclusions you will." I know that legal types tend to dislike such clever evasions, but it seems like it might work. Just wondering.
posted by frieze at 3:22 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


While I appreciate very much that there are issues of civil liberty, constitutionality, and governmental abuse of power at stake here, the author's tone of melodramatic foreboding makes it hard to take him seriously.

He has to hide papers from his girlfriend? He has to lie to a coworker who asks a random question? Quelle horreur!

I hope that he's triumphant with his ACLU lawsuit and all, and I hope that the printing of this letter in the WaPo reminds people of the biggest issue: "between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 specific demands under this provision -- demands issued without a showing of probable cause or prior judicial approval -- to obtain potentially sensitive information about U.S. citizens and residents."

But saying his life was made "stressful and surreal" due to his being "silenced" -- over just about the same amount of secrecy and effort one would have to put into hiding a birthday present, and less effort than it would take to compete on the average reality show -- dilutes his point. There are people suffering from abuse of the same government power grab that would give anything for the relative comfort of surreal stress.

Maybe if he'd focused on the part that is scary to the reader -- that my very own ISP could be giving info about me to the FBI -- rather than "wah, wah, I don't get to mention going to the attorney's office," the story would have more punch.
posted by pineapple at 3:38 PM on March 23, 2007


Well I would undoubtedly talk openly and honestly and at great length about this with anyone I came into contact with. I simplely cannot keep a secret.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:45 PM on March 23, 2007


pineapple, I hear ya.

But I daresay being under investigation by the FBI may well rank among the most stressful things a fellow may ever face in his life. Especially if he thinks that he may end up "disappeared" and in GITMO, never able to communicate to anyone ever again.

So having to hide it from everyone, notably the people that may help him deal with that stress, is probably far more significant than you may be suggesting.
posted by darkstar at 3:49 PM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


He has to hide papers from his girlfriend? He has to lie to a coworker who asks a random question? Quelle horreur!

I think it would be pretty damn stressful for an honest person. It's one thing to go through a trying ordeal, but imagine if you had some sort of Kafkaesque requirement in place that made it illegal for you to even talk about it. That's seriously fucked up
posted by delmoi at 3:54 PM on March 23, 2007


Pineapple, I think you drastically underestimate the difficulty of keeping such a thing secret, especially when you must visit with your attorneys over the situation or if you have friends who are vocally against such things.

I know my girlfriend wouldn't be very happy if I went off somewhere for a couple of hours every other week and refused to tell her what was up. I know a lot of people whose relationships would be destroyed by such sneaking around, but they have insane wives and girlfriends who automatically assume any sneaking around means the man is with another woman. ;)

If I suddenly had to become silent on the subject of (what I perceive as) government abuses of power like this, I would never hear the end of it as they tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Maybe I just know nosy people.

All in all, pineapple's post comes off much more whiny than the WaPo piece. "Tell the story the way I like it or I'll say 'meh.'"
posted by wierdo at 4:00 PM on March 23, 2007


Blah! I would never hear the end of it from my friends as they...

Maybe some day I'll learn to use the preview button. :p
posted by wierdo at 4:01 PM on March 23, 2007


But saying his life was made "stressful and surreal" due to his being "silenced" -- over just about the same amount of secrecy and effort one would have to put into hiding a birthday present, and less effort than it would take to compete on the average reality show -- dilutes his point. There are people suffering from abuse of the same government power grab that would give anything for the relative comfort of surreal stress.

Clearly, you have never been in the situation where you are forbidden from disclosing something. I was subpoenaed for witness testimony that I am forever prohibited from disclosing. It still bugs me and it is more than a decade later. Being forced to do something and then be forced not to do something lets you know that you are powerless in a way I am just not comfortable with. His situation is about a 1000X worse as he is in a lawsuit against a government that is demonstrably punitive and has shown a disregard for the law. Accusing the law of breaking the law is pretty scary for someone with social support. Doing it without support says to me the guy has stones that drag on the ground.
posted by srboisvert at 4:04 PM on March 23, 2007 [6 favorites]


frieze, I seem to remember something about the patriot act and forbidding libraries from alerting their patrons if library records had been seized by the feds. Because of this, some libraries had put up signs that read, "We have not yet had to reveal patron records to the FBI. Watch this space."
posted by Richard Daly at 4:04 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wierdo, way to make it personal. My comment wasn't about the man himself or what he's being put through, but about the tone of his article.

My point remains that I'm Jane Q. Citizen, who hasn't ever been subpoenaed for witness testimony nor been investigated by the FBI*. I'm also a bleeding heart liberal who'll side with anyone who sides with the ACLU. And still my immediate gut reaction was "this guy is making much ado about nothing."

That doesn't mean it is nothing... just that if the average reader needs to have been on the wrong side of the FBI or sworn to judicial secrecy or involved in some other sooper-seekrit-scary proceedings in order to relate, the editor of this piece might have picked a stronger angle.

Regardless, it was a good read and a good link.

* that I know of. Watch this space.
posted by pineapple at 4:17 PM on March 23, 2007


Because of this, some libraries had put up signs that read, "We have not yet had to reveal patron records to the FBI. Watch this space."

jessamyn, I think, posted an img saying "The FBI has not been here. Watch closely for the removal of this sign". If i recall correctly it was in use in her library. She posted it to metafilter a while back. I miss the img tag.
posted by dazed_one at 4:19 PM on March 23, 2007


See, I think that tone may have helped his case, at least with some people.

There are those of us who are already opposed to this sort of government intrusion, and for us, yeah, the personal details dilute the sheer moral outrage at what's going on here. But we're the proverbial choir; no need to preach to us. Then, there's the unconverted. To them, just saying "The government tried to get this information on my clients" doesn't provoke a moral reaction either way. But saying "The government's made me lie to me girlfriend and my colleagues; this is so creepy and Kafkaesque" might get a bit of a response.

So I think he's (wisely) choosing to preach to the unconverted, and that means bringing in vivid emotional issues that us converted folk may find irrelevant or distracting. Political arguments, you may have noticed, often work like that.

(Also, even as a Card Carrying Member Of The ACLU™ I gotta say I found the personal details interesting, not distracting. I know he's aiming to convince and not entertain, but still, I got a kick out of reading about the sheer weirdness of it all.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:29 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can you imagine the conversation?

"Honey we are going to have to cancel our trip to Jamaica because I can't afford tickets. I spent thousands on lawyers"

"lawyers, why?"

"........" "This is some lovely weather we're having"
posted by Megafly at 4:30 PM on March 23, 2007


pineapple, I should have said "as whiny." You seemed to be dismissing it just because you didn't like the tone of the piece.
posted by wierdo at 4:31 PM on March 23, 2007


How is this not a bill of attainder? Isn’t “information” property? Certainly one’s civil rights are nullified without trial or evidence. Obviously the Schiavo business comes to mind, but the exec branch can do these things too. And this certainly seems like something used to to outlaw people, suspend their civil rights, confiscate their property, or punish them without a trial.
(Although the Fifth says you can’t confiscate property without compensation that ain’t working out too well either under the seizure laws.)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:41 PM on March 23, 2007


The FBI has placed a gag order on the batshitinsane tag.
posted by furtive at 4:57 PM on March 23, 2007


How is this not a bill of attainder?

Because Congress isn't declaring you guilty. Attaintedness is when Congress (or Parliamenet) passes a law that says you are guilty of something, and you are subject to this penalty.

Here, it's the *executive* that's doing the work, so it's not a bill of attainder. I think it's unconstitutional in otherways, but if five of nine certain people say differently, I'm wrong.
posted by eriko at 5:00 PM on March 23, 2007


Then, there's the unconverted. To them, just saying "The government tried to get this information on my clients" doesn't provoke a moral reaction either way. But saying "The government's made me lie to me girlfriend and my colleagues; this is so creepy and Kafkaesque" might get a bit of a response.

I hope so! I can't believe that more people aren't outraged about this stuff. And if it takes some over the top "and I had to lie to my girlfriend, too!" storytelling to make the point, then so be it.

It reminds me of the time I worked for a bunch of really ultra-liberal attorneys in Boston. The kind who'd tell stories about bringing garbage bags full of marijuana to their Lawyer's Guild meetings in the 1970s. I'd written something pretty obnoxious on my website about Bush. (remember when he got on the air at the beginning of the war to tell the Iraqis not to hurt their oil wells! nooo!? sigh)

My mom called me crying, begging me to take it down. She was convinced the Secret Service would be on my door the next day. So our joke around the office was "if I'm more than 30 minutes late for work, someone call [attorney X] and get them down to the federal courthouse to look for me."

These days I'm not sure that would even help, they'd probably have you in Gitmo before you could say boo. And the fact that I can have that thought without the slightest touch of "oh, not really" is pretty scary, too.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 5:19 PM on March 23, 2007


Jessamyn's Five Technically Legal Signs for Your Library
posted by donnagirl at 6:12 PM on March 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


Secret gag orders and secret laws--that's how military dictatorships often get started. If there was any honesty left in Washington, Henry Kissinger would have been prosecuted for war crimes (relating to the Chilean coup of 1973), and Mr. Cheney would be under indictment. Yet both of them still walk free, regarded as "great statesmen" by some number of Washington insiders.

Freedom, my ass.
posted by metasonix at 7:58 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


pineapple proves that, no matter how bad a thing mentioned is, someone on Metafilter will complain it's not SO bad.

Something about anyone being told to forever withhold a piece of information makes me extremely angry. We're talking Hulk Smash here. Rarr.
posted by JHarris at 8:13 PM on March 23, 2007


I say it's getting on time for Canada to invade. I think the Americans will greet us as Liberators. Six days, six weeks... I doubt it would take six months.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:43 PM on March 23, 2007


pineapple writes "He has to hide papers from his girlfriend? He has to lie to a coworker who asks a random question? Quelle horreur!"

For some honest people this kind of thing is very stressful.
posted by Mitheral at 9:00 PM on March 23, 2007


five fresh fish, sign me up for the Official Collaborators list! I'm only 20 miles from the border. Of course, the border's in the middle of Lake Erie, but that's what submarines are for, right?
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:04 PM on March 23, 2007


"At some point -- a point we passed long ago -- the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy."

This should be Dick Cheney's epitaph.




No, this should be Dick Cheney's epitaph.
posted by mds35 at 9:12 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


For as long as we have laws made and enforced by small groups of people, there will be small groups of people who think they are above the law.
posted by tehloki at 9:28 PM on March 23, 2007


While I appreciate very much that there are issues of civil liberty, constitutionality, and governmental abuse of power at stake here, the author's tone of melodramatic foreboding makes it hard to take him seriously.

He has to hide papers from his girlfriend? He has to lie to a coworker who asks a random question? Quelle horreur!


I can't even buy a cup of pudding (which I shouldn't be eating) without feeling terrible if I don't tell my wife about it, because we don't believe in keeping secrets from each other. The thought of being prevented -- by a law that might not even be legitimate -- from telling her that I'm in a lawsuit against the government? Ho-lee crap.
posted by davejay at 9:33 PM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


by a law that might not even be legitimate

That's the sort of thing I still don't understand. You're saying someone would need to make it legal for the FBI to illegally silence you before you'd be ok with it?

Either something is ethical, or it isn't. This isn't. Legal or not.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:53 PM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


There is no way I would keep this secret from my girlfriend or my family, or even my close friends. I couldn't live that way. It amazes me to think that many people would cooperate with this in the first place.
posted by homunculus at 10:03 PM on March 23, 2007


they live we sleep
posted by bruce at 12:38 AM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


pineapple proves that, no matter how bad a thing mentioned is, someone on Metafilter will complain it's not SO bad.

I have zero problem being the one dissenting opinion, in this case.

nebulawindphone made the most reasonable argument for the author's tone. The "in my house we talk about everything always no matter what" contingent are just indicating to me further that the article is resonating differently with people with different personal experiences.

My father was in law enforcement for decades. I have friends that work in highly classified roles for government agencies.* And it's just not that strange to me that someone would have to keep a secret from a family member. Sometimes, it's for their own safety.

It's just part of the job, and it's understood that when one loved one says to another, "I can't talk about that. I hope sometime in the future to be able to, but I can't right now and I appreciate you respecting that," there won't be a loss of trust or a bunch of histrionics about it.

Yes, those people opted in to those situations with full knowledge, which WaPo Guy did not, and it must be incredibly frustrating for him. Yes, those people are keeping secrets legally and voluntarily, and are not being forced by the FBI to hide things from their families.

But just because I can see this from a perspective that some people can't, doesn't mean that I personally have issues with honesty, or an inability to keep a secret, or a broken moral compass, or don't love my spouse enough, or am a government apologist.

* I don't agree with them ideologically, or with the things that their agencies do or with their agencies' agendas, but I respect their right to have those jobs, and I acknowledge I can be friends with them regardless.
posted by pineapple at 7:18 AM on March 24, 2007


Pineapple, it's not the fact that he has to keep a secret from his family that most of us have got our panties in a bunch about. The issue is that he is fighting an unconstitutional law, and the law which he is fighting itself prevents him from discussing what he is fighting.

What if they took it one step further, and said "You can't fight this law at all", for reasons of national security? Remember that we're not always angry about what's currently happening, but what we fear may happen.
posted by tehloki at 7:27 AM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pineapple, I've had top secret clearance before...

(interned for a government agency overseas, had probably the most hilarious clearance interview ever when the semi-retired DEA agent they sent to talk to me haltingly tried to ask if I was having sex with all my male roommates, and I had to a. refrain from laughing and b. keep myself from making up a story about it being on the fridge's chore roster)

...and yes, you go into those positions with full knowledge that you might have to keep secrets from family and friends. (I turned down the CIA later in life, and they didn't take it very well. That was funny, too).

But tehloki has a point. Today you're not allowed to talk about it, tomorrow you're not allowed to fight it and someday when they finally figure out how to read minds, they zap you when you have badthink about our Wonderful Government. How comfortable are you with the fact that people have been (and are being held) for months and years without access to lawyers, their families, etc... all in the name of fighting tarror-ism (pronounce a la Bush)?
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:37 AM on March 24, 2007


I'm probably late to the fun, but pineapple, the difference is that he doesn't not have the option of saying "I can't talk about that". The nature of these gag orders is that it's illegal to acknowledge that there is a gag order. If he says, "I can't talk about that", he's breaking the law.

It's a subtle, but extraordinarily important difference.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:43 AM on March 24, 2007


Er, "he doesn't have the option". Damned extra negative.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:44 AM on March 24, 2007


I say it's getting on time for Canada to invade. I think the Americans will greet us as Liberators. Six days, six weeks... I doubt it would take six months.

But what's in it for Canada? America's oil is already in Canada and Canadian coca-cola tastes better.
posted by srboisvert at 8:47 AM on March 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'll bake everyone cookies, srboisvert? Or butter tarts! I know the Canadians love them some butter tarts! Oooh, I'd forgotten about sweet, sweet Canadian Coke -- have to restock my supply when I'm in Ontario next month.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:50 AM on March 24, 2007


Nothing is in it for Canada. All y'all would be a right royal pain in the arse. But it would be the humanitarian thing to do.

And anyone who wishes to send me buttertarts may feel completely free to do so. I loves me the buttertarts.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:06 AM on March 24, 2007


it's not the fact that he has to keep a secret from his family that most of us have got our panties in a bunch about. The issue is that he is fighting an unconstitutional law, and the law which he is fighting itself prevents him from discussing what he is fighting.
Exactly. And yet, to my read, the really important issue (the unconstitutional law and the fight) is getting diluted in the article because of the pervasive "woe is me, I have to keep a secret" tone.

(I'm wondering if we're not all basically having the same reaction to the issue, and I'm just not expressing myself well over one editorial nitpick?)
the difference is that he doesn't not have the option of saying "I can't talk about that".
Fair enough, that is a distinct and crucial difference.
posted by pineapple at 9:25 AM on March 24, 2007


...the really important issue (the unconstitutional law and the fight) is getting diluted in the article because of the pervasive "woe is me, I have to keep a secret" tone.

The author does not share your opinion of what the really important issue is. The article is explicitly about the secret and especially the personal difficulties it is causing for one person. The article is called "My National Security Letter Gag Order," not "My Fight Against My National Security Letter." If it were otherwise, and the story told were not so poignant, I would not have found it interesting enough to post.

If you want to write an article about the evils of National Security Letters sans gag orders, do it yourself. Right now, the government can issue a gag order, and prevent you from talking not only about the specifics of the order, but also the fact that the order even exists, is far scarier in my opinion than any of the other aspects of the NSL regime.
posted by grouse at 10:26 AM on March 24, 2007


I think it's disengenuous to not differentiate between consenting to restrictions associated with having security clearance in a paid job, and "being conscripted as a secret informer for the government"
posted by Babylonian at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2007


It's like saying there is no difference between voluntarily being a homebody, and being locked in a jail cell against your will
posted by Babylonian at 10:51 AM on March 24, 2007


The gag order would presumably prevent you only from talking about the case with people who did not already know about it. Since Congress was required to have been informed, why would this prevent the person in question under the gag order from discussing the situation with his Senator?
posted by Caviar at 2:38 PM on March 24, 2007


I have had two run-ins with the FBI. The first one was when I was interviewed and asked lots of questions about an old friend of mine. They would not tell me why they were questioning me but they did ask me not to tell my friend about it. That was the end of it so far as I know, except that I did tell my friend. But that was around 40 years ago.

The second time, was when my parents received a threatening letter demanding money to keep from being bombed. Two FBI agents took up residence with us for the five days it took to catch the guy. We got to know them and like them a lot. But they told us that, should we ever see them again, we must not acknowledge them, They might acknowledge us, but we must pretend not to know them. They also told us that they were not allowed to reveal to anyone, not even their wives, what their job was. Only that they worked for the government. So it would, seem that FBI agents take secrecy for granted as a norm in their own lives.

Having said all this, it still makes me think immediately about the Stasi in East Germany, life in Eastern Europe during the Stalin era, and the days in Nazi controlled Europe when even one's children might be secret agents of the Gestapo.
posted by donfactor at 3:11 PM on March 24, 2007


The author does not share your opinion of what the really important issue is. The article is explicitly about the secret and especially the personal difficulties it is causing for one person. The article is called "My National Security Letter Gag Order," not "My Fight Against My National Security Letter." If it were otherwise, and the story told were not so poignant, I would not have found it interesting enough to post.

That's fine, grouse, and it's a great link and all and I'm glad you posted it regardless.

But get over the fact that one person does not interpret the article in your link, or its thematic value, or the most important takeaway the same way you do. I didn't read it as poignant, I read it as melodramatic. Both and neither of us are right.

In fact, even the author and I can disagree on "what the really important issue is," and thank God for the Constitution that allows that!

Last I checked, we don't have to all 100% agree on every single FPP in order to comment, nor does not seeing it your way on your article mean I am somehow obligated to "go write my own."
posted by pineapple at 5:18 PM on March 24, 2007


It's funny that the person who keeps harping on the same points repeatedly is the one telling me to get over it after my first comment. Anyway.

Both and neither of us are right.

Actually, I think you are wrong. Your argument seems to be that the author should have picked other aspects of the Patriot Act that would appeal to a broader audience. But that would eliminate what seems to be the intent of this author—to bring the gag orders in particular to people's attention. Insofar as discussing primarily other aspects would prevent him from doing this, it's obvious that wouldn't actually serve his purposes.

If you can't be bothered about the gag orders, then that is your prerogative. If your opinion is that the style of the article is too melodramatic, then that is a fair comment (albeit one I disagree with). But if, when confronted with a unique essay about a particular topic, you say that the essay really should have been written about a related but essentially different topic, I think that is silly.

Last I checked, we don't have to all 100% agree on every single FPP in order to comment, nor does not seeing it your way on your article mean I am somehow obligated to "go write my own."

I wonder if your irritation at the melodrama of others extends to your own melodramatic straw men.
posted by grouse at 6:06 PM on March 24, 2007


America: REDACTED like it's REDACTED.

Alternately... Metafilter: REDACTED like it's REDACTED.
posted by sparkletone at 6:39 PM on March 24, 2007


“Last I checked, we don't have to all 100% agree on every single FPP in order to comment...” - pineapple

You can disagree....but you can’t talk about it.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2007


Metafilter: You can disagree....but you can’t talk about it.
posted by dazed_one at 12:08 PM on March 26, 2007


FBI Monitoring 1,000 People a Day on Watch List
posted by homunculus at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2007


Operation TIDE - why, exactlythefuck, is this a “left” issue?
Is it that damned simple that the GOP has the upper hand right now (somewhat, and lessening)?
I mean I’d bitch about stuff like this under Clinton (the bank records thing, et.al) and I’m a ‘right wing’ conspiracy nutjob.
Bitch about this stuff - same damned principle - and people don’t believe I’m conservative.
Seriously, is it that damned facile? People don’t care about government encroachment on their rights as long as it’s “their guys” doing the encroaching?
posted by Smedleyman at 4:59 PM on March 26, 2007


Pretty much, I guess.

It's that whole tribalism thing.
posted by darkstar at 1:54 AM on March 27, 2007


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