Michael Isikoff / Newsweek – 2004-06-21 11:03:11
(June 21, 2004) — Last February, two Army counterintelligence agents showed up at the University of Texas law school and demanded to see the roster from a conference on Islamic law held a few days earlier. Their reason: they were trying to track down students who the agents claimed had been asking “suspicious” questions.
“I felt like I was in ‘Law & Order’,” said one student after being grilled by one of the agents. The incident provoked a brief campus uproar, and the Army later admitted the agents had exceeded their authority.
But if the Pentagon has its way, the Army may not have to make such amends in the future. Without any public hearing or debate, Newsweek has learned, Defense officials recently slipped a provision into a bill before Congress that could vastly expand the Pentagon’s ability to gather intelligence inside the United States, including recruiting citizens as informants.
Ever since the 1970s, when Army intel agents were caught snooping on antiwar protesters, military intel agencies have operated under tight restrictions inside the United States. But the new provision, approved in closed session last month by the Senate Intelligence Committee, would eliminate one big restriction: that they comply with the Privacy Act, a Watergate-era law that requires government officials seeking information from a resident to disclose who they are and what they want the information for.
Granting the Pentagon, CIA-like Powers
The CIA always has been exempt – although by law it isn’t supposed to operate inside the United States. The new provision would now extend the same exemption to Pentagon agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency – so they can help track terrorists.
A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee says the provision would allow military intel agents to “approach potential sources and collect personal information from them” without disclosing they work for the government.
The justification: “Current counterterrorism operations,” the report explains, which require “greater latitude … both overseas and within the United States.” DIA officials say they mainly want the provision so they can more easily question American businessmen and college students who travel abroad.
Sacrificing the Bill of Rights for ‘Force Protection’
But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman concedes the provision will also be helpful in investigating suspected terrorist threats to military bases and contractors inside the United States. “It’s a new world we live in,” he says. “We have to do what is necessary for force protection.”
Among those pushing for the provision, sources say, were officials at northcom, the new Colorado-based command set up by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to oversee “homeland defense.”
Pentagon lawyers insist agents will still be legally barred from domestic “law enforcement.” But watchdog groups see a potentially alarming “mission creep.” “This… is giving them the authority to spy on Americans,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a group frequently critical of the war on terror. “And it’s all been done with no public discussion, in the dark of night.”