An error by the US Department of Justice's document-redaction staff has inadvertently let slip a secret that the DoJ has spent months battling in the courts to protect – albeit one that will come as a surprise to no one.
The DoJ has long maintained that the practice of using National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain information from tech companies about their customers must be absolutely hush-hush. The letters are so secretive, in fact, that companies that receive them aren't allowed to discuss them or even admit that they exist.
That's why, when the US District Court for the Southern District of New York published a document filed by a tech company arguing that the First Amendment to the US Constitution gives it the right to talk about NSLs it has received, every single mention of the company's name was blacked out.
That is – as the Wall Street Journal observed on Monday – all but one. Oops.
An apparent oversight by the DoJ censor spilled the beans on page 6 of the document, where one paragraph begins, "On June 6, 2013, the public's already healthy interest in Google's receipt of, and response to, national security legal process skyrocketed."
And with that one little slip-up, the DoJ's protracted fight to keep the company in question's name a secret was instantly rendered a total waste of time.
Not that anything has changed under the government's interpretation of the law. Google is still gagged from talking about the specifics of any NSLs requesting data on its customers, or even to give an accurate count of how many it has received. (In March it won the right to report that it had received anywhere between none and 999.)
Even after the DoJ's blunder, the Chocolate Factory still wouldn't even admit to the WSJ that it was the company mentioned in the redacted court documents, adding only that it "[finds] the government's position in this case disappointing."
For anyone who has taken even a casual interest in this matter, however, it wouldn't have been hard to guess that Google was the company in question. The online ad giant has made no secret of its own efforts to loosen the gag orders surrounding national security requests.
Adding further delicious irony to the situation, the futility of the government's efforts to keep its NSL program a secret was precisely the topic of the improperly redacted document that was published on Friday.
"Since June 6," the document reads, "nearly every major Western publication has run stories (most of them inaccurate) regarding ________ receipt of and compliance with national security process. Whereas the government's request to redact ________ identity may have made sense on June 5, maintaining the redaction now serves only to protect a secret that everyone already knows." ®