Pentagon acted with little oversight in spying on Americans, documents show
The Department of Defense has conspired with the FBI to "circumvent the law" in accessing hundreds of Americans' telephone, e-mail and financial records, say two civil liberties groups that released reams of new documents obtained in a contested public records request.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged the Bush Administration's post-Sept. 11 spying authority, says the Pentagon has issued 455 National Security Letters in concert with the FBI to obtain Americans' private information it is not entitled to receive.
"The documents make clear that the Department of Defense may have secretly and illegally conducted surveillance beyond the powers it was granted by Congress," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said. "It also appears as if the FBI is serving as a lackey for the DoD in misusing the Patriot Act powers. 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."
The 455 letters were issued to investigate potential terror threats posed by people directly connected to the Defense Department, including civilian employees, contractors, active duty troops, reservists and their families, military officials told the New York Times.
Recipients of the letters -- usually financial institutions, telephone companies or internet service providers -- are prohibited from disclosing that they received them, the ACLU says. And although the Pentagon-issued letter do not require cooperation, those from the FBI are mandatory, records show that the letters are coercive and unclear that compliance to Defense-issued letters is voluntary.
"The expanded role of the military in domestic intelligence gathering is troubling. These documents reveal that the military is gaining access to records here in the U.S. – in secret and without any meaningful oversight," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "There are real concerns about the use of this intrusive surveillance power."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation joined the ACLU in filing a request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The groups filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department when it tried to withhold the documents earlier this year.
The New York Times first reported in January that the Pentagon was issuing National Security Letters, but the documents released this weekend provide the first glimpse at internal machinations behind their use.
A Pentagon review initiated after the Times article appeared, which was included in the heavily redacted documents, shows the letters were issued "with little guidance or training, no coordination within the military, no real recordkeeping, and an inadequate review process," the ACLU says.
"The Fourth Amendment protects against the government's effort to rummage broadly through the papers and documents of individuals without narrow and specific justifications," said Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which joined in the suit. "Yet the excessive secrecy surrounding the military's use of national security letters opens the door to abuse. Without oversight and accountability, there is nothing to stop the Defense Department from engaging in broad fishing expeditions."