As part of the expanding counterterrorism role being taken on by the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency covert operatives need to be able to approach potential sources in the United States without identifying themselves as government agents, George Peirce, the DIA's general counsel, said yesterday.
"This is not about spying on Americans," Peirce said in an interview in which he defended legislative language approved last week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The provision would grant limited authority for DIA agents to clandestinely collect information about U.S. citizens or emigres in this country to help determine whether they could be recruited as sources of intelligence information.
"We are not asking for the moon," Peirce said. "We only want to assess their suitability as a source, person to person" and at the same time "protect the ID and safety of our officers." The CIA and the FBI already have such authority, he added, and the DIA needs it "to develop critical leads" because "there is more than enough work for all of us to do."
The legislative proposal has been controversial on Capitol Hill and has drawn criticism from groups concerned with privacy and civil liberties. The House's intelligence authorization bill, which passed in June, does not include the provision, which is similar to a proposal that was eliminated last year from the legislation.
The Senate intelligence panel approved the new authority for the DIA last week and forwarded it to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which reviews sections related to the Defense Department. One senior Armed Services Committee staff member said yesterday that the DIA provision "will get close review here."
"I'm pretty alarmed" by the proposal, said Timothy Edgar, the American Civil Liberties Union's national security policy counsel, saying it could conceivably be used by Pentagon intelligence officers "as a loophole to attend political or other meetings as part of an initial assessing contact."
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Securities Studies, said the language in the Senate intelligence committee bill is part of a Pentagon effort to loosen already weak legal restrictions that "are meant to ensure that Americans' privacy is not threatened by Pentagon spying." Martin said she is concerned that the language was approved without hearings that could explore "the actual practices and necessity and justification for the program."
In the interview, Peirce said the new authority "would not be used very often and only on an exceptional basis." He pointed out there are requirements in the Senate committee language that the intelligence sought be "significant" and that it "cannot be reasonably obtained by overt means." It also dictates that collecting the information may not be undertaken "for the purpose of acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of any U.S. person."
Noting that there are large emigre and expatriate populations in the United States, Peirce described as a hypothetical case a situation in which the DIA learns that a new U.S. citizen is about to be visited by close relatives who are high-ranking officers in a foreign military service. To assess whether the new citizen would serve as a source of information obtained from the relatives, or even to attempt to recruit him, the DIA might feel that an open approach, in which an intelligence officer identifies himself as such, would not work. "We want to protect the identity and assess his willingness to help," he said.
The DIA and other Pentagon agencies are increasing their human intelligence activities in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and threats to U.S. military bases and facilities at home and abroad. Peirce said one reason the new authority is needed is that there is "evidence the enemy is inside the U.S. perimeter."