NBC News reports that Ladar Levinson, the head of encrypted mail service provider Lavabit, who shut down his company rather than comply with a secret government demand, was threatened with arrest for taking that action.
But a source familiar with the matter told NBC News that James Trump, a senior litigation counsel in the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va., sent an email to Levison’s lawyer last Thursday – the day Lavabit was shuttered — stating that Levison may have “violated the court order,” a statement that was interpreted as a possible threat to charge Levison with contempt of court.
The court order that prompted the action is believed by legal observers to be a sealed subpoena or a national security letter requiring him to cooperate in surveillance related to the Snowden investigation. Recipients of such legal orders are barred from publicly comment on them. Levison said he believes this prohibition is a violation of his First Amendment rights while the underlying request violated the Fourth Amendment rights of his customers. “I’m fighting it in every way,” said Levison, adding that he is challenging the government’s action in a federal appeals court.
“Because the government has barred Lavabit from disclosing the nature of its demands, we still don’t know what information the government is seeking, or why it’s seeking it,” said Ben Wizner, a national security lawyer for the ACLU. “It’s hard to have a debate about the reasonableness of the government’s actions — or Lavabit’s response, for that matter — when we don’t know what we’re debating.”
These ‘national security letters’ that the government issues to people forcing them to do things and not allowing them to discuss the contents with anyone, even their lawyers, or let it be known that they even received such a letter, are one of the worst aspects of the national security state. It is government secrecy run totally amuck. In March 2013 the practice was struck down as unconstitutional by a US District Court judge but it was allowed to continue while the government pursues an appeal.