Utilizing a little known Pentagon power, the military and the CIA are obtaining and scrutinizing the banking and credit records of Americans in their search for terrorist and spying suspects.
Officials confirmed over the weekend that the practice of using “national security letters” to obtain financial records has been taking place. High-ranking members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, were quick to defend the surveillance as a necessary part of the broader fight against terrorism.
The practice can be carried out without violating any right to privacy, but some members of Congress are vowing to take a closer look at the actions of the Pentagon and the intelligence agency, Cheney remarked.
Cheney Defends Activity
“The Department of Defense has legitimate authority in this area,” Cheney said during a recent television appearance. “This is an authority that goes back three or four decades. It was reaffirmed in the Patriot Act. It’s perfectly legitimate activity. There’s nothing wrong with it or illegal. It doesn’t violate people’s civil rights.”
The Pentagon’s power stems from the fact that it operates scores of military bases across the country that are on U.S. soil and are likely terrorist targets, giving it domestic anti-terrorism responsibilities similar to that of the CIA or other agencies, he added.
Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), who recently took over the post of chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he intends to have his committee examine the practice.
“Any expansion by the Defense Department into intelligence collection, particularly on [U.S.] soil, is something our committee will thoroughly review,” Reyes said. “We want our intelligence professionals to have strong tools that will enable them to interrupt the planning process of our enemies and to stop attacks against our country. But in doing so, we also want those tools to comply fully with the law and the Constitution.”
Word that the Pentagon and CIA are using bank records to actively spy on Americans could represent a significant expansion of the controversial domestic spying already taking place.
Civil liberty groups have already filed suit against telecommunications companies that have cooperated with the FBI by saving records of millions of phone calls. The FBI is also known to have sought bank records as part of its surveillance efforts, citing the need to track the source of funding that is the lifeblood of terrorist attacks.
The national security letters have been used by the FBI as well as the Pentagon and, more rarely, the CIA. The Pentagon has issued approximately 500 of these letters over the last five years, The New York Times reported Sunday.
Civil liberties groups were quick to call on Congress to use its oversight powers to ask tough questions.
“This country has a long tradition of rejecting the use of the CIA and the Pentagon to spy on Americans, and rightfully so,” said Caroline Frederickson, director of the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The use of the letters raises a host of new questions, including in what circumstances the letters are being issued, what information is being gathered and how widely it is being shared, Frederickson said.
“Congress should investigate these issues immediately, especially in light of previous revelations that the Pentagon compiled anti-terrorism dossiers on domestic organizations that had done nothing more than peacefully exercise their constitutional right to protest,” she added.
The ACLU is also concerned that the security letters are being accompanied by gag orders preventing those who receive them from acknowledging that they are turning over records to the government. The ACLU noted that as a result of two suits it has brought, such gag orders have been ruled unconstitutional when used in other settings.
Escalation or Status Quo?
The new spying revelations make for a “dramatic story” but the efforts were part of a “legitimate security effort that’s been under way for a long time,” Cheney said, adding, “It does not represent a new departure from the standpoint of our efforts to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks.”
The Bush administration has criticized the reporting of past spying revelations, as well, with Bush himself lashing out at media reports about the FBI-enabled surveillance of phone records.
Although the passage of the controversial Patriot Act gave the executive branch broad powers of surveillance, Bush has repeatedly said those powers would not be used to spy on ordinary Americans.
Meanwhile, privacy experts say the practice of obtaining financial records is likely legal under existing law. In fact, many banks’ privacy statements include an exemption for instances when government agencies seek those records.
The issue for lawmakers, however, may be the legitimacy of the Pentagon’s use of powers set aside for anti-terrorism efforts on domestic soil.