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Cheney defends Pentagon

Its data requests protect U.S. security and don't violate privacy, he says. A House Democrat says he'll hold hearings.

January 15, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is not violating privacy rights by requesting information from financial institutions, telephone companies or credit bureaus in suspected espionage and terrorism cases, Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.

He defended the requests as a "perfectly legitimate activity" that serves in part to protect personnel on hundreds of military bases within the United States -- "potential terrorist targets," in Cheney's words.

The issuance of "national security letters," he told "Fox News Sunday," is a critical investigative tool that allows "us to collect financial information, for example, on ... people we have reason to suspect."

But new House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said Sunday that he would hold hearings on the Defense Department requests. The law bars the agency from domestic espionage activities.

"Any expansion by the department into intelligence collection, particularly on U.S. soil, is something our committee will thoroughly review," he said in a statement issued by his office.

Unlike the controversial national security letters issued by the FBI, which compel institutions to turn over information, these letters merely request data. Companies that receive letters are not obligated to provide the information, officials said.

In the last five years, the Pentagon has issued requests in as many as 500 investigations, according to a report Saturday by the New York Times.

Intelligence officials contacted by the Los Angeles Times said the CIA -- which also is prohibited from domestic activity -- had made similar requests, though far less frequently.

Cheney told "Fox News Sunday": "This is an authority that goes back three or four decades. It was reaffirmed in the Patriot Act that was renewed here about a year or so ago.

"It's a perfectly legitimate activity. There's nothing wrong with it or illegal. It doesn't violate people's civil rights. And if an institution that receives one of these national security letters disagrees with it, they're free to go to court to try to stop its execution."

According to a privacy-law expert, a person's bank records are not deemed private in national security investigations, so government agencies, including the Pentagon, can request these records without a warrant.

"This is almost surely legal. It is not like warrantless wiretapping," said James X. Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington policy center that studies civil liberties in the digital age.

Bank privacy laws make an exception for government requests in investigations related to "intelligence or counterintelligence or international terrorism," and the Pentagon says it can gather intelligence to protect its bases from spies and saboteurs.

But just because the activity is legal "doesn't mean it's a good idea," Dempsey said. "The Defense Department is exploiting a gray zone in the law."

In the past, the Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between what is truly private and what may be searched by the government.

For example, homes and phone conversations are deemed private, and the government cannot enter a home or listen to a phone call without a search warrant from a judge.

However, in the 1970s, the court said that bank records and lists of phone numbers called were not truly private, and that officials could obtain these records if they had a good reason.

Afterward, Congress passed laws requiring banks and phone companies to keep customers' records private, but these measures included exceptions for national security investigations.

Though the FBI has the legal authority to require banks and other institutions to turn over records, the Pentagon is simply asking to see the records, officials emphasize.

"This puts the bank between a rock and hard place," Dempsey said. "They want to be a good citizen, especially if there is a terrorism threat. They also want to stay within the letter of the law."

And because the request is secret, it is not likely that the person whose records are being sought will complain: Under bank privacy laws, "no financial institution, or officer or employee shall disclose to any person that a government authority [conducting an intelligence investigation] has sought or obtained access to a customer's financial records."

Dempsey questioned why the Pentagon, and not the FBI, was conducting these investigations.

"This concept of 'force protection' is elastic. There is no firm definition in the law," he said.

"I don't see why [the Defense Department] is going it alone and not involving the FBI. This suggests they are still not connecting the dots."

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