Dead letters


A federal judge has ruled that the FBI’s secret surveillance of American citizens violates the constitutional separation of powers and the right of free speech. If anything, the judge understated the case.

So-called national security letters are secret writs by the FBI that demand personal information about citizens as part of the federal government’s war on terror. The targets need not be terrorists or terror suspects, or have criminal records. Nor must they be notified that their government is spying on them.

Judge Susan Illston of the U.S. District Court based in San Francisco said such letters violate the First Amendment. In this case, she said, “John Doe” was denied the right to discuss what his government was doing to him.

Even more clearly, he was denied due process of law — the linchpin of our Constitution and the essential concept at the heart of the rule of law. The secret writs also represent a violation of privacy, an implied constitutional right.

National security letters are exempt from judicial review, because they do not depend on warrants. That’s a violation of checks and balances, as the judge notes, but it is far more. Undermining judicial review attacks the essence of constitutional liberty.

Americans should be thankful for the judge’s ruling. National security letters are an assault on liberty and an insult to the Constitution.