Associated press
Sat Jan 20, 2007 22:54

LOLITA BALDOR, Associated press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon and to a lesser extent the CIA have
been using a little-known power to look at the banking and credit
records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or
espionage within the United States, officials said Saturday.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Saturday the Defense Department
"makes requests for information under authorities of the National
Security Letter statutes ... but does not use the specific term
National Security Letter in its investigatory practice."

Whitman did not indicate the number of requests that have been made in
recent years, but said authorities operate under the Right to
Financial Privacy Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the National
Security Act.

"These statutory tools may provide key leads for counterintelligence
and counterterrorism investigations," Whitman said. "Because these are
requests for information rather than court orders, a DOD request under
the NSL statutes cannot be compelled absent court involvement."

"It is our understanding that the intelligence community agencies make
such requests on a limited basis," said Carl Kropf, a spokesman for
the Office of the National Intelligence Director, which oversees all
16 spy agencies in the government.

The national security letters permit the executive branch to seek
records about people in terror and spy investigations without a
judge's approval or grand jury subpoena.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on domestic
counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national
security letters since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Whitman said Defense Department "counterintelligence investigators
routinely coordinate ... with the FBI."

The national security letters have prompted criticism and court
challenges from civil liberties advocates who claim they invade the
privacy of Americans' lives, even though banks and other financial
institutions typically turn over the financial records voluntarily.

The New York Times reported on expanded use of the technique by the
Pentagon and CIA in an article posted Saturday on the Internet.

The vast majority of national security letters are issued by the FBI,
but in very rare circumstances they have been used by the CIA before
and after 9/11, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke to The
Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the issue's

The CIA has used these non-compulsory letters in espionage
investigations and other circumstances, the official said.

"It is very uncommon for the agency to be issuing these letters," the
official said. "The agency has the authority to do so, and it is
absolutely lawful."

Another government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity,
said one example of a case in which the letters were used was the 1994
case of CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who eventually was found to have
been selling secrets to the Soviet Union.

None of the officials reached by the AP commented about the extent of
use by the Defense Department agencies, but the Times said military
intelligence officers have sent the letters in up to 500 investigations.

Associated Press Writer Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.


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