WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has been requesting information from financial institutions and telecommunications companies to investigate people within the United States suspected of spying or terrorism, the Defense Department said Saturday.
The little-known practice could raise questions on Capitol Hill about the military conducting domestic investigations, which are traditionally reserved for the FBI. The American Civil Liberties Union said Saturday that the Pentagon activity raised concerns.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department was not spying on random American citizens and was primarily requesting the information in counterintelligence investigations, such as when department officials or contractors were accused of spying.
The Pentagon practice was first reported Saturday evening by the New York Times, which said officials estimated that the Pentagon had asked for the information in as many as 500 investigations over five years.
The CIA has gathered similar information from U.S. companies and other sources, but has done so less frequently, according to U.S. intelligence officials contacted by the Los Angeles Times.
The information requests are similar to "national security letters" issued by the FBI, which compel institutions to turn over records. The FBI's use of such letters has been controversial, and the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged their use in at least two cases. Congress put new restrictions on the use of the letters when it reauthorized the Patriot Act last year.
Defense officials said Saturday they had used similar letters to request information from financial institutions, telephone companies and credit agencies.
Although they are used in terrorism investigations, Whitman said, the requests have mainly been used in cases of suspected espionage. If a Defense Department employee or contractor appeared to have excessive amounts of money, for example, the Pentagon might use the letters as part of a preliminary counterintelligence probe.
Whitman emphasized that the Pentagon letters requested -- but did not compel -- banks, phone companies and others to turn over customer information. Although the Pentagon can ask a court to compel the release of those records, Whitman said he was not aware of any requests for court orders.
The Pentagon has been using the letters at least since 2003.
One U.S. intelligence official said the CIA had been "involved in such letters on a very limited basis over the years."
The CIA practice predates the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said. The Justice Department is often involved in the CIA and Pentagon investigations, officials said.
ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson said the Pentagon and CIA actions raised "serious concerns," in part because of recent disclosures of expanded government spying, such as the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping. She said she wanted to know more about the cases that prompted the information requests.
"There are serious concerns about whether the Pentagon is improperly intruding into the privacy of Americans and improperly conducting domestic intelligence without any legal authorization.... The Pentagon has its own regulations which severely limit their ability to conduct domestic intelligence, and those regulations come out of a strong tradition in this country of opposing military involvement in domestic affairs," Beeson said.
Although the CIA and Pentagon have extensive overseas intelligence-gathering operations, both are tightly restricted from domestic spying. But the Pentagon does perform limited law enforcement work, and each military service has a criminal investigation agency.
Lawmakers have resisted giving the Defense Department the right to force financial companies to reveal information about clients. But the Pentagon has the authority to request information under the Right to Financial Privacy Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the National Security Act, said Army Lt. Col. Brian Maka, a Pentagon spokesman. Whitman said the authority also was derived from the Patriot Act.
Maka said the ability to request transaction information was "invaluable" to the Defense Department "in conducting counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations."
Defense Department agencies authorized to issue the letters are all criminal or counterintelligence agencies, including the Army Criminal Investigation Command, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Air Force Office of Special Investigations and Army counterintelligence.
The New York Times reported that one such letter was used in the case of a Muslim chaplain suspected of aiding prisoners accused of terrorism being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The chaplain was cleared of any espionage charges.
New Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to take a less aggressive stance toward intelligence operations than predecessor Donald H. Rumsfeld.