Suits and civil libertarians

The Chamber of Commerce and the ACLU join forces against against National Security Letters.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s European edition, the ACLU’s lonely fight against extending the Patriot Act has picked up an unexpected ally: the business community, as represented by the U.S. Chamber of\ Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Realtors, and something called the Financial Services Roundtable. The most troublesome provision is the National Security Letter, a sort of latter-day Writ of Assistance under which, without obtaining a warrant or even specifying a reason, the government can demand that firms give up information about their clients’ financial activity, Internet usage, and so on, and do without telling the client. (That’s right. If someone at DHS decided it would be fun to see what websites you’d visited recently, what you’d charged to your credit card, or what deposits and withdrawals you had made to your bank account, you would never know, even if in the end no charge was brought; in fact, it would be a crime for your ISP to tell you that your records had been rifled.)

It turns out that firms are tired of doing expensive paperwork and worried that compliance with the act may run afoul of privacy laws in countries still benighted enough to believe in privacy. Business lobbyists claim that there are “tens of thousands” of NSL demands per year; the government denies it, but since the actual number is classified there’s no way of judging whether that denial is the truth, or merely another Bushism. (And it’s hard to figure out why the businessfolks would tell such a lie.)

The Administration tried reminding the corporations that it had practically turned the government over to them over the past five years, but they’re not having any. With Bush looking weaker every day, the Republicans in Congress seem more inclined to listen to their corporate paymasters, even if it means defying the President on what’s allegedly a national-security issue and joining forces with the ACLU. Naturally, the individuals whose privacy is being violated won’t get any relief, but the companies will probably be allowed to go to court to challenge the orders (something they’re not now allowed to do) on grounds that, e.g., the information is proprietary. Still on the table: whether the government should have to state a reason for a records demand.

Can you say “strange bedfellows”? I was sure you could.

Footnote: The story was in Monday’s print edition; I can’t find a link, which is no doubt behind a paywall in any case. Here’s an earlier Bloomberg story on the same theme.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: