Bill Would Give Cover to Pentagon Spies in U.S.
by : Greg Miller, LA Times
Tuesday October 4, 2005 - 16:37
In an effort to thwart domestic terror, some privacy protections would be rolled back.
By Greg Miller
October 1, 2005
WASHINGTON - Pentagon intelligence operatives would be allowed to collect information from U.S. citizens without revealing their status as government spies under legislation approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee and publicly released this week.
The bill would end a long-standing requirement that military intelligence officers disclose their government ties when approaching an American citizen in the United States - a law designed to protect Americans from domestic intelligence activities by the Defense Department.
The provision is one of several sections of the legislation that would roll back privacy-related protections as part of an effort to improve the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to detect and prevent domestic terrorist plots. Another provision would make it easier for U.S. spy agencies to gain access to sensitive government records on citizens that are generally prohibited from being disseminated under privacy laws.
The changes are part of an intelligence authorization bill that calls for what officials described as a significant increase in funding for U.S. spy agencies; it would shift money away from controversial spy satellite programs that many lawmakers consider outdated and unnecessary.
Actual budget numbers are classified, but annual intelligence spending is said to exceed $40 billion. The authorization bill was approved by the Intelligence Committee in closed session last week, but the text of the legislation was not made public until Thursday, when the bill was filed with the full Senate.
Although the bill was endorsed unanimously by committee members, two Democrats expressed concerns with the privacy provisions in written comments attached to the legislation. Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon said they considered the military intelligence provision a mistake. Pentagon operatives "should be required to tell United States citizens in the United States who are not suspected of any wrongdoing that they work for the government," the senators wrote.
They said they intended "to support changes to this authority as the legislation moves forward."
Supporters of the provision noted that it would extend to Pentagon intelligence operatives authority that CIA case officers already have.
The CIA is barred from collecting intelligence on U.S. citizens, but agency officers routinely approach American business executives and overseas travelers to glean information on foreigners.
The bill states that the terrorism threat highlights "the need for greater latitude to assess potential intelligence sources, both overseas and within the United States."
It also stipulates that the changes do not expand the intelligence collection mission of the military: The changes are designed primarily for "assessment contacts" in which operatives try to learn more about a source before asking him or her to spy.
The provision would mainly apply to the Defense Intelligence Agency, a Pentagon spy service with officers around the world responsible for collecting military-related intelligence from human sources.
Levin and Wyden also expressed concern over a provision that would ease protections on the personal data federal agencies collect on U.S. citizens. The legislation would allow intelligence services to share such data with one another, and to request records from domestic agencies that have counter-terrorism responsibilities.
Federal privacy laws would continue to restrict sharing of health records collected by the Veterans Administration, for instance, because the agency does not have a domestic security function.
But Levin and Wyden complained that a proposed new rule would allow the CIA to obtain sensitive records on American citizens from the Justice Department Civil Rights Division "as long as the records related to a lawful and authorized foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activity."
The senators said they thought it unwise to relax such protections.
Critics said the privacy provision would erode protections implemented in 1974 to guard against abuses by the FBI and other agencies in collecting data on U.S. citizens.
"This allows intelligence agencies to go fishing ... for totally unrelated information to flesh out their investigations," said Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "You’d be surprised how wide a net could be cast with this exemption."
The new rules would expire in four years, requiring Congress to reevaluate the record-sharing program before implementing it permanently.
The authorization bill is expected to be considered by the full Senate this month.
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