Two still-secret Justice Department documents about legal interpretations of a controversial provision of the Patriot Act may not actually be classified on national security grounds, according to a letter released Friday. If what appear to be Office of Legal Counsel opinions about use of so-called National Security Letters are indeed unclassified, some additional information about them is almost certain to become public and it's at least possible portions of them could be made public. Section 215, also known as the business records provision, allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain court orders to demand any "tangible thing" from any person, company, local government, or non-profit group in the U.S. for use in an international terrorism or counterintelligence investigation. For years, some critics, most notably former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have complained that the government is interpreting the provision very broadly and broadly vacuuming up information in a way that the critics say would startle many Americans. Just Thursday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter declaring that "most Americans would be stunned" about the prevailing interpretation of the law. "There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows," Wyden and Udall wrote, pleading with Holder to disclose what they regard as "secret law." The Justice Department letter that became public Friday was sent in connection with Freedom of Information Act lawsuits the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times filed last fall seeking information about the government's use of Section 215.
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