Officials: Pentagon Probed Finances
Sunday, January 14, 2007
The Defense Department has used a long-standing authority to acquire the personal financial records of American citizens in military-related criminal and other investigations as part of an expansion of the Pentagon's gathering of counterterrorism intelligence at home, officials said yesterday.
"There are certainly types of information and transactions that are valuable to the department when conducting counterintelligence and counterespionage investigations," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Whitman emphasized that although the FBI can compel banks, credit card companies and other private institutions to produce such records by issuing a National Security Letter, the military is authorized only to request that the institutions turn them over.
The CIA has long had similar "noncompulsory" authority, although intelligence officials said that such requests are rare and tend to relate to espionage investigations of the CIA's own officials. The authority was used during the investigation of Aldrich Ames, the CIA operations officer who was convicted in 1994 of spying for the Russians.
The military's expanded use of the records authority was first reported yesterday on the Web site of the New York Times, which said that military officials had made more than 500 such requests since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Quoting unnamed military intelligence officials, the Times said that the actual number of letters was probably well into the thousands, because a single investigation often resulted in requests to multiple institutions.
By law, the FBI is charged with conducting investigations of U.S. citizens and with counterterrorism activities in this country.
Domestic intelligence-gathering by the CIA and the military is sharply restricted. In the military's case, such activities have generally involved investigations of direct threats to military installations and personnel in the United States, as well as inquiries into possible criminal activities by uniformed or civilian Defense Department employees.
Under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon expanded its collection of intelligence within the borders of the United States -- a development that stirred concern among members of Congress and prompted stern criticism and lawsuits from civil liberties advocates.
These efforts are overseen by the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity agency, or CIFA, which was established in September 2002 by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.
CIFA is charged with coordinating policy and overseeing the domestic counterintelligence activities of Pentagon agencies and the armed forces. The agency's size and budget are classified, but congressional sources have said that the agency spent more than $1 billion through October. One counterintelligence official recently estimated that CIFA has 400 full-time employees and 800 to 900 contractors working for it.
In written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing last month, Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert M. Gates, pledged to look "in greater detail" at CIFA's activities.
The agency was criticized in December 2005 after it was revealed that a database managed by CIFA, called TALON, contained unverified, raw threat information about people who were peacefully protesting the Iraq war at defense facilities, including recruiting offices. In August, CIFA Director David A. Burtt II and his top deputy, Joseph Hefferon, resigned in the wake of a scandal involving CIFA contracts that went to MZM Inc., a company run by Mitchell J. Wade. Wade pleaded guilty last February to conspiring to bribe then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif).