Sunday, January 14, 2007

U.S. military boosts domestic surveillance: NY Times

U.S. military boosts domestic surveillance: NY Times

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Pentagon has been using a little-known power to get banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or espionage in the United States, The New York Times said on its Web site on Saturday.

Citing intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, the newspaper said the investigations, part of an expansion by the military into domestic intelligence gathering, also included CIA issuance of what are called national security letters to get access to financial records from U.S. companies.

The officials say that banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions receiving the letters have generally turned over documents voluntarily, allowing government investigators to examine financial assets and transactions of U.S. military personnel as well as civilians.

According to the Times, the FBI has issued thousands of national security letters involving hundreds of cases since the September 11 attacks, drawing criticism and court challenges over what some see as unjustified intrusions into private lives.

But "it was not previously known" that the Pentagon and the CIA have been using their own "noncompulsory" versions of the letters, even as Congress rejected several attempts by the agencies for authority to issue mandatory letters, the Times said.

A spokesman for the director of national intelligence said agencies like the CIA used the letters only on a limited basis, the Times said.

Pentagon officials said the letters were part of a broader move since the 2001 attacks to more aggressive intelligence-gathering.

They "provide tremendous leads to follow and often with which to corroborate other evidence in the context of counterespionage and counterterrorism," the newspaper quoted Pentagon spokesman Maj. Patrick Ryder as saying.

Government lawyers say the legal authority for the Pentagon and CIA to use national security letters in gathering records dates back some three decades and, to their minds, was bolstered by the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

That law, however, does not specifically mention military intelligence or CIA officials in connection with the letters, the Times said.

Military officials said the documents have not usually established links to terrorism and have rarely led to criminal charges being filed, but rather often eliminate suspects, the Times said.