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Military Spies Seek Authority in U.S.

The Pentagon's DIA wants officers to be able to go undercover when talking to new residents.

October 08, 2005|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senior officials with the Defense Intelligence Agency took the rare step Friday of describing the service's intelligence-gathering operations in the United States in an effort to counter concerns by privacy advocates that it could abuse new spying authority being considered by Congress.

Existing laws have prevented DIA officers from approaching U.S. residents, including recent arrivals from Iraq and other nations in the Middle East, who might have valuable information on developments in their home countries, the officials said. The restrictions hinder domestic intelligence collection on an array of important foreign targets, said George Peirce, the DIA's general counsel.

However, legislation sought by the DIA and recently approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee would exempt DIA and other military intelligence officers from laws requiring them to disclose their Pentagon ties before seeking information from U.S. citizens or residents, freeing the DIA to collect information undercover.

If Congress approves the measure, Peirce said, the DIA "might be able to more effectively seek leads in the United States on identification of bomb makers in Iraq." The agency, he said, would also be in better position "to obtain information voluntarily from immigrants, now resident aliens, who have contacts in the old country that might provide critical details on WMD capabilities and programs."

Peirce's comments in a telephone interview were an unusual public acknowledgment of the Pentagon's domestic spying operations. Peirce and a senior deputy agreed to the interview in large part to respond to critics who have expressed concern that relaxing restrictions on domestic intelligence gathering could lead to abuses by the Pentagon in spying on Americans.

Jim Schmidli, deputy general counsel for operations at the DIA, said the proposed legislation would mainly be useful in allowing agency operatives to use different "cover" arrangements when approaching recent arrivals to the United States. He declined to elaborate, but logical cover arrangements could involve posing as business executives or officials of other government agencies.

"The ones we are primarily interested in are permanent resident aliens -- green card holders," Schmidli said. "They come from countries where [contact with] intelligence services or security services aren't good things to have happen in your life. It has a meaning to them that is very unpleasant."

Still, privacy advocates said it was risky to roll back protections put in place in the 1970s when the Pentagon and intelligence agencies were caught spying on protest groups and others in the United States.

"Not revealing [their true identities] will allow military intelligence to infiltrate groups and do the kinds of things that we rejected when we learned about them 30 years ago," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. A similar provision in last year's intelligence authorization bill was removed after privacy groups protested.

The CIA and FBI are exempt from the disclosure requirements when approaching U.S. residents. The DIA is the Pentagon's primary human intelligence gathering service and is known for its network of overseas officers recruiting spies in other countries.

But the DIA also has a significant presence in the United States -- akin to the CIA's National Resources Division -- that seeks information from U.S. residents who frequently travel overseas or have ongoing contact with relatives or business partners in key countries. Rewards for cooperative sources often include money or immigration assistance.

DIA officers would have to get permission from the director of the agency before making an undercover approach, Schmidli said, and would have to disclose their true positions before recruiting an informant to spy.

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