ACLU Warns Against Domestic Spying Role For CIA; Urges Congress to Reject Flawed Bush Proposal

May 2, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged Congress to reject a Bush Administration proposal to allow the Central Intelligence Agency and the military broad authority to spy on Americans and raised concerns about how the Administration attempted to push the proposal through a closed Senate hearing.

“Such a radical change in U.S. law must be never be debated behind closed doors,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “This proposal would allow the CIA and the Pentagon to snoop through Americans’ personal records with no oversight by the courts or Congress. It is dangerous and un-American.”

The proposal was secretly tucked into an intelligence authorization bill now pending in Congress. Democrats discovered the language, which would allow the CIA and the military to use what are called “national security letters” to gather sensitive personal information about Americans, and raised strong objections to the sweeping provision during a closed Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday.

National security letters, currently only a tool of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are subpoenas issued by government agents that require Internet providers, credit card companies, libraries and other organizations that maintain records to disclose highly personal information like phone records, Internet surfing histories, financial records and e-mail logs. Such subpoenas are not subject to court approval.

Reportedly, Senate Democrats were able to get the provision temporarily pulled from the authorization bill but, according to the New York Times, Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) said he would explore the issue further.

“Even during the deepest freeze of the Cold War, when fears of nuclear attack were at their peak, nobody thought to grant the CIA and the military such sweeping authority to spy on Americans,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

In its 1947 charter, the CIA was prohibited from spying against Americans because, among other things, President Truman was afraid that it would engage in political abuse. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services – the CIA’s predecessor – had become known for its skill at blackmail, extortion and the collection of information through other dubious methods. President Truman feared the implications of such behavior during peacetime on America’s basic democratic institutions. The policy against military involvement in law enforcement investigations is even more venerable. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids military involvement in civilian policing, keeping troops focused on their military mission.

“We keep the FBI in check because agents generally want to make sure that information they gather about American citizens can be introduced as evidence in a court of law,” Edgar said. “Military and CIA snooping would have no such natural firewall against the abuse of power.”

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