Vice-President Dick Cheney has admitted that the US military and CIA have been spying on the financial dealings of Americans — intelligence gathering normally authorized only by civilian policing agencies.
The New York Times broke the story overnight, reporting that the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency had been using “national security letters” to obtain the banking and credit records of Americans and foreigners suspected of terrorist activities in the United States.
The US military and the CIA have long been restricted in their spying activities inside the United States and are barred from conducting traditional domestic law enforcement work in the country.
But Cheney confirmed the main outlines of the report and defended the Pentagon and CIA activities as legal and necessary to protect military installations inside the United States.
“This is a dramatic story, but I think it’s important for people to understand here this is a legitimate security effort that’s been underway for a long time and it does not represent a new departure from the standpoint of our efforts to protect ourselves against terrorist attack,” he said on Fox News Sunday.
“The defense department gets involved because we’ve got hundreds of bases inside the United States that are potential terrorist targets,” he said.
He called the spying “a perfectly legitimate activity” that the military and CIA had authority to carry out going back “three or four decades” and more recently confirmed in the Patriot Act adopted following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
“It doesn’t violate people’s civil rights, and it’s an institution that receives one of these national security letters disagrees with it, they’re free to go to court to try to stop its execution,” he said.
Citing unnamed intelligence officials, The New York Times said the Pentagon and CIA actions were part of an aggressive expansion by the military into domestic intelligence gathering which is traditionally the realm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The newly revealed activities involve using national security letters — a form of subpoena — to gain access to financial records from American companies, the Times said.
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, the paper wrote.
The letters “provide tremendous leads to follow and often with which to corroborate other evidence in the context of counterespionage and counterterrorism,” the paper quotes Major Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, as saying.
While they would not offer details about specific cases, officials told the Times the military had issued the letters to obtain financial records on a government contractor with unexplained wealth as well as a chaplain at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The chaplain was mistakenly suspected of aiding prisoners at the facility.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 Agence France Presse