Banking on increased spying at home

New reports of spying on Americans under Bush reveal the Pentagon and CIA encroaching on the FBI's turf.

Published January 15, 2007 8:29PM (EST)

It's a relatively quiet news day as the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But discussion continues about the latest revelation regarding the Bush administration's domestic spying on American citizens -- a subject with no small relevance to the life of the great civil rights leader.

According to reports Sunday in the New York Times and Washington Post, the U.S. military and the CIA have expanded domestic intelligence-gathering operations, using "non-mandatory" national security letters to secretly acquire personal financial records of an unknown number of American citizens in military-related criminal and other investigations. The activity raises "some disturbing issues," says Jonathan Winer, on the Counterterrorism blog. "Notably, Congress has previously refused to provide these agencies with the authority to subpoena such documents, on the basis that the FBI already had this authority and that it was a bad idea to get the CIA and Defense Department to engage in domestic spying," Winer writes. "Given that the FBI already had this authority and has been using it at the rate of some 9000 times per year, it is not clear why the CIA and Defense Department have needed it. The initial efforts to justify it raise more questions than they answer."

On "Fox News Sunday," Vice President Cheney called the spying "perfectly legitimate activity," and essential for investigating terrorism cases in the United States. Cheney did not mention that the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity Office, which houses a growing antiterrorist database of intelligence tips and reports known as "Talon," was exposed by the media for collecting information on antiwar meetings attended by Americans at churches, libraries and elsewhere. The office later reportedly purged more than 250 incident reports from the database, after officials determined that they should never have been included because they centered on lawful political protests.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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