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.
Usually, the financial documents collected through the letters do not establish any links to espionage or terrorism and have seldom led to criminal charges, military officials say. Instead, the letters often help eliminate suspects.
“We may find out this person has unexplained wealth for reasons that have nothing to do with being a spy, in which case we’re out of it,” said Thomas A. Gandy, a senior Army counterintelligence official.
But even when the initial suspicions are unproven, the documents have intelligence value, military officials say. In the next year, they plan to incorporate the records into a database at the Counterintelligence Field Activity office at the Pentagon to track possible threats against the military, Pentagon officials said. Like others interviewed, they would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Military intelligence officers have sent letters in up to 500 investigations over the last five years, two officials estimated. The number of letters is likely to be well into the thousands, the officials said, because a single case often generates letters to multiple financial institutions. For its part, the C.I.A. issues a handful of national security letters each year, agency officials said. Congressional officials said members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed on the use of the letters by the military and the C.I.A.
Some national security experts and civil liberties advocates are troubled by the C.I.A. and military taking on domestic intelligence activities, particularly in light of recent disclosures that the Counterintelligence Field Activity office had maintained files on Iraq war protesters in the United States in violation of the military’s own guidelines. Some experts say the Pentagon has adopted an overly expansive view of its domestic role under the guise of “force protection,” or efforts to guard military installations.
“There’s a strong tradition of not using our military for domestic law enforcement,” said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former general counsel at both the National Security Agency and the C.I.A. who is the dean at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific. “They’re moving into territory where historically they have not been authorized or presumed to be operating.”
Similarly, John Radsan, an assistant general counsel at the C.I.A. from 2002 to 2004 and now a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said, “The C.I.A. is not supposed to have any law enforcement powers, or internal security functions, so if they’ve been issuing their own national security letters, they better be able to explain how they don’t cross the line.”
The Pentagon’s expanded intelligence-gathering role, in particular, has created occasional conflicts with other federal agencies. Pentagon efforts to post American military officers at embassies overseas to gather intelligence for counterterrorism operations or future war plans has rankled some State Department and C.I.A. officials, who see the military teams as duplicating and potentially interfering with the intelligence agency.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has complained about military officials dealing directly with local police — rather than through the bureau — for assistance in responding to possible terrorist threats against a military base. F.B.I. officials say the threats have often turned out to be uncorroborated and, at times, have stirred needless anxiety.
The military’s frequent use of national security letters has sometimes caused concerns from the businesses receiving them, a counterterrorism official said. Lawyers at financial institutions, which routinely provide records to the F.B.I. in law enforcement investigations, have contacted bureau officials to say they were confused by the scope of the military’s requests and whether they were obligated to turn the records over, the official said.
Companies are not eager to turn over sensitive financial data about customers to the government, the official said, “so the more this is done, and the more poorly it’s done, the more pushback there is for the F.B.I.”
The bureau has frequently relied on the letters in recent years to gather telephone and Internet logs, financial information and other records in terrorism investigations, serving more than 9,000 letters in 2005, according to a Justice Department tally. As an investigative tool, the letters present relatively few hurdles; they can be authorized by supervisors rather than a court. Passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001 lowered the standard for issuing the letters, requiring only that the documents sought be “relevant” to an investigation and allowing records requests for more peripheral figures, not just targets of an inquiry.
Some Democrats have accused the F.B.I. of using the letters for fishing expeditions, and the American Civil Liberties Union won court challenges in two cases, one for library records in Connecticut and the other for Internet records in Manhattan. Concerned about possible abuses, Congress imposed new safeguards in extending the Patriot Act last year, in part by making clear that recipients of national security letters could contact a lawyer and seek court review. Congress also directed the Justice Department inspector general to study the F.B.I.’s use of the letters, a review that is continuing.
Unlike the F.B.I., the military and the C.I.A. do not have wide-ranging authority to seek records on Americans in intelligence investigations. But the expanded use of national security letters has allowed the Pentagon and the intelligence agency to collect records on their own. Sometimes, military or C.I.A. officials work with the F.B.I. to seek records, as occurred with an American translator who had worked for the military in Iraq and was suspected of having ties to insurgents.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld directed military lawyers and intelligence officials to examine their legal authorities to collect intelligence both inside the United States and abroad. They concluded that the Pentagon had “way more” legal tools than it had been using, a senior Defense Department official said.
Military officials say the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978, which establishes procedures for government access to sensitive banking data, first authorized them to issue national security letters. The military had used the letters sporadically for years, officials say, but the pace accelerated in late 2001, when lawyers and intelligence officials concluded that the Patriot Act strengthened their ability to use the letters to seek financial records on a voluntary basis and to issue mandatory letters to obtain credit ratings, the officials said.
The Patriot Act does not specifically mention military intelligence or C.I.A. officials in connection with the national security letters.
Some F.B.I. officials said they were surprised by the Pentagon’s interpretation of the law when military officials first informed them of it. “It was a very broad reading of the law,” a former counterterrorism official said.
While the letters typically have been used to trace the financial transactions of military personnel, they also have been used to investigate civilian contractors and people with no military ties who may pose a threat to the military, officials said. Military officials say they regard the letters as one of the least intrusive means to gather evidence. When a full investigation is opened, one official said, it has now become “standard practice” to issue such letters.
One prominent case in which letters were used to obtain financial records, according to two military officials, was that of a Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who was suspected in 2003 of aiding terror suspects imprisoned at the facility. The espionage case against the chaplain, James J. Yee, soon collapsed.
Eugene Fidell, a defense lawyer for the former chaplain and a military law expert, said he was unaware that military investigators may have used national security letters to obtain financial information about Mr. Yee, nor was he aware that the military had ever claimed the authority to issue the letters.
Mr. Fidell said he found the practice “disturbing,” in part because the military does not have the same checks and balances when it comes to Americans’ civil rights as does the F.B.I. “Where is the accountability?” he asked. “That’s the evil of it — it doesn’t leave fingerprints.”
Even when a case is closed, military officials said they generally maintain the records for years because they may be relevant to future intelligence inquiries. Officials at the Pentagon’s counterintelligence unit say they plan to incorporate those records into a database, called Portico, on intelligence leads. The financial documents will not be widely disseminated, but limited to investigators, an intelligence official said.
“You don’t want to destroy something only to find out that the same guy comes up in another report and you don’t know that he was investigated before,” the official said.
The Counterintelligence Field Activity office, created in 2002 to better coordinate the military’s efforts to combat foreign intelligence services, has drawn criticism for some domestic intelligence activities.
The agency houses an antiterrorist database of intelligence tips and threat reports, known as Talon, which had been collecting information on antiwar planning meetings at churches, libraries and other locations. The Defense Department has since tightened its procedures for what kind of information is allowed into the Talon database, and the counterintelligence office also purged more than 250 incident reports from the database that officials determined should never have been included because they centered on lawful political protests by people opposed to the war in Iraq.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company