FBI chief defends national security letters

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 9, 2014 

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New FBI Director James Comey during a news conference in Washington, D.C.

OLIVIER DOULIERY — MCT

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday pushed back against proposed changes in a controversial investigative tool he called key to fighting terrorists.

While a White House advisory panel is urging tighter judicial oversight of the FBI's so-called "national security letter" program, Comey said the proposed revisions could fatally impede investigations.

Meeting with 20 reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the advisory panel's recommendation to boost judicial oversight of the national security letters would "actually make it harder to conduct a national security investigation than a bank fraud investigation."

"It's a very important tool, and one that's essential to the work we do," Comey said, adding that "I don't know why you would make it harder to get a (national security letter) than a grand jury subpoena."

Using national security letters, the FBI can demand that individuals or organizations turn over credit, financial and internet subscriber information. In Fiscal 2012, the FBI issued 21,000 national security letters. They are a form of administrative subpoena, issued without court order.

In a report issued last month, the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recommended that stricter standards apply to the issuance of national security letters, noting that the current standard is "very low."

"We are unable to offer a principled reason why NSLs should be issued by FBI officials" when other national security orders require a court order, the advisory panel stated.

Comey, though, said that the current procedures allow the FBI to issue a national security letter "in hours or days" while proposed changes would slow the process down to "weeks."

"I don't see anything that is broken," Comey said.

At the same time, Comey said he was sympathetic to the advisory panel's additional recommendation to change the current non-disclosure provision that permanently prohibits recipients of national security letters from making them public.

"Their point about permanent non-disclosure was reasonable," Comey said.

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