The Pentagon and to a lesser extent the CIA have been using a little-known power to snoop into the banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or espionage within the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman admitted Saturday the Defense Department “makes requests for information under authorities of the National Security Letter statutes … but does not use the specific term National Security Letter in its investigatory practice.”
Whitman did not indicate the number of requests that have been made in recent years, but said authorities operate under the Right to Financial Privacy Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the National Security Act.
“These statutory tools may provide key leads for counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations,” Whitman said. “Because these are requests for information rather than court orders, a DOD request under the NSL statutes cannot be compelled absent court involvement.”
However, the office responsible for overseeing such activities does not actually monitor the practice but simply takes the word of the spy agencies.
“It is our understanding that the intelligence community agencies make such requests on a limited basis,” said Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the Office of the National Intelligence Director, which oversees all 16 spy agencies in the government.
The national security letters permit the executive branch to seek records about people in terror and spy investigations without a judge’s approval or grand jury subpoena.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national security letters since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Whitman said Defense Department “counterintelligence investigators routinely coordinate … with the FBI.”
The national security letters have prompted criticism and court challenges from civil liberties advocates who claim they invade the privacy of Americans’ lives, even though banks and other financial institutions typically turn over the financial records voluntarily.
The New York Times reported on expanded use of the technique by the Pentagon and CIA in an article posted Saturday on the Internet.
The vast majority of national security letters are issued by the FBI, but in very rare circumstances they have been used by the CIA before and after 9/11, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
The CIA has used these non-compulsory letters in espionage investigations and other circumstances, the official said.
“It is very uncommon for the agency to be issuing these letters,” the official said. “The agency has the authority to do so, and it is absolutely lawful.”
Another government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said one example of a case in which the letters were used was the 1994 case of CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who eventually was found to have been selling secrets to the Soviet Union.
None of the officials reached by the Associated Press commented about the extent of use by the Defense Department agencies, but the Times said military intelligence officers have sent the letters in up to 500 investigations.
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.
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.
(This article includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and The New York Times)