Freedom takes a holiday

It’s not just the FBI that may be surreptitiously looking at your banking and credit records. The Pentagon and CIA may be examining them as well.

In the case of the Pentagon, especially, according to The New York Times, this is “part of an aggressive expansion by the military into domestic intelligence gathering.”

The vehicle for this is a national security letter. Unlike the FBI’s national security letters, compliance by a bank or lender is voluntary. But like the FBI’s, it doesn’t require a warrant or a subpoena to issue, simply the OK of a superior.

The letters may have been used in as many as 500 investigations into terrorism and espionage and for military intelligence gathering. By law and tradition, the military and the CIA have been banned from domestic law-enforcement functions.

The agencies say the authority is longstanding — if so, not many were aware of it — and it was enhanced by the USA Patriot Act. The problem with the military and the CIA doing domestic snooping is that it is done outside of public view, court review and congressional scrutiny.

There seem to be no restrictions on the use or dissemination of the information and there are plans, the Times said, to incorporate the information into a counterintelligence database.

The nation need think back only as far as the Nixon administration to know that a government with the power to snoop will almost assuredly abuse it sooner or later. And the military has already been found to have compiled dossiers on Iraq war protesters.

The Constitution seemed pretty clear — although maybe not as clear as we thought — that searches require a warrant. Since the government sees the powers to skip this requirement emanating from the murky recesses of the Right to Financial Privacy Act and the USA Patriot Act, maybe Congress should go back and reiterate precisely what it meant.