Military Is Expanding Its Intelligence Role in U.S.
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 — The Pentagon has been using a little-known power to obtain banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or espionage inside the United States, part of an aggressive expansion by the military into domestic intelligence gathering.
The C.I.A. has also been issuing what are known as national security letters to gain access to financial records from American companies, though it has done so only rarely, intelligence officials say.
Banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions receiving the letters usually have turned over documents voluntarily, allowing investigators to examine the financial assets and transactions of American military personnel and civilians, officials say.
The F.B.I., the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national security letters since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provoking criticism and court challenges from civil liberties advocates who see them as unjustified intrusions into Americans’ private lives.
But it was not previously known, even to some senior counterterrorism officials, that the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have been using their own “noncompulsory” versions of the letters. Congress has rejected several attempts by the two agencies since 2001 for authority to issue mandatory letters, in part because of concerns about the dangers of expanding their role in domestic spying.
The military and the C.I.A. have long been restricted in their domestic intelligence operations, and both are barred from conducting traditional domestic law enforcement work. The C.I.A.’s role within the United States has been largely limited to recruiting people to spy on foreign countries.
Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said intelligence agencies like the C.I.A. used the letters on only a “limited basis.”
Pentagon officials defended the letters as valuable tools and said they were part of a broader strategy since the Sept. 11 attacks to use more aggressive intelligence-gathering tactics — a priority of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The letters “provide tremendous leads to follow and often with which to corroborate other evidence in the context of counterespionage and counterterrorism,” said Maj. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.
Government lawyers say the legal authority for the Pentagon and the C.I.A. to use national security letters in gathering domestic records dates back nearly three decades and, by their reading, was strengthened by the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act.
Pentagon officials said they used the letters to follow up on a variety of intelligence tips or leads. While they would not provide details about specific cases, military intelligence officials with knowledge of them said the military had issued the letters to collect financial records regarding a government contractor with unexplained wealth, for example, and a chaplain at Guantánamo Bay erroneously suspected of aiding prisoners at the facility.
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