The Pentagon has misled Congress and the US public by conniving with the FBI to obtain hundreds of financial, telephone and Internet records without court approval, civil-rights campaigners said Sunday.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has successfully challenged key planks of US anti-terrorism legislation, said it had uncovered 455 "National Security Letters" (NSLs) issued at the behest of the Department of Defense.
Before the ACLU's challenge, the USA Patriot Act had allowed the FBI to issue gag orders to prevent those receiving NSLs -- usually Internet service providers, banks and libraries -- from disclosing anything about the request.
Beyond the gag orders, the ACLU said its analysis of the letters showed the Pentagon and FBI had collaborated "to circumvent the law" and "provided misleading information to Congress" about the nature and reach of the requests.
"Once again, the Bush administration's unchecked authority has led to abuse and civil liberties violations," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said.
The claim came as Democrats and Republicans battle in Congress over updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which critics say has been abused by President George W. Bush to spy on Americans.
"At the very least, it certainly looks like the FBI and DoD are conspiring to evade limits placed on the Department of Defense's surveillance powers," Romero said.
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While the Federal Bureau of Intelligence enjoys broad powers of surveillance under the Patriot Act, the Pentagon's authority is more limited and it is normally expected to go through the FBI for such information.
The documents show that in many cases, the FBI has merely acted as a front for the Pentagon, enabling defense officials to gain access to records they are "not entitled to receive," according to the ACLU.
The group said it had obtained the records after suing the two government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The expanded role of the military in domestic intelligence gathering is troubling," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project.
"These documents reveal that the military is gaining access to records here in the US -- in secret and without any meaningful oversight."
Pentagon spokespersons were not immediately available Sunday to respond to the report.
© 2007 Agence France Presse