Privacy advocates decry accessing of bank records under security law

The New York Times reported Sunday that the Defense Department and CIA have been utilizing a special subpoena power to scour bank and credit-card records.

Civil libertarians want Congress to investigate the Pentagon's use of an anti-terrorism law to collect financial records of American citizens and those suspected of terrorism or espionage in the United States.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the Defense Department and CIA have been utilizing a special subpoena power built into the recently reauthorized USA PATRIOT Act to scour bank and credit-card records.

The provision is best known for allowing the FBI to search library and Internet service files without warrants and has been successfully challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union. The law bars recipients of "national security letters" from disclosing the requests.

Caroline Fredrickson, who heads the ACLU's Washington office, said the latest revelation raises a host of questions, including how often agencies use the authority and under what criteria. "This country has a long tradition of rejecting the use of the CIA and the Pentagon to spy on Americans, and rightfully so," she said, adding that lawmakers should tackle the issue promptly.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said "any expansion by the department into intelligence collection, particularly on U.S. soil," will be reviewed thoroughly by his panel.

"We want our intelligence professionals to have strong tools that will enable them to interrupt the planning process of our enemies and to stop attacks against our country," Reyes said. "But in doing so, we also want those tools to comply fully with the law and the Constitution."

A spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said her boss is requesting additional information from the Defense Department, CIA and FBI "on all aspects of the use of national security letters."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that past abuses of domestic surveillance "have blemished our history" and resulted in the current law, which allows only the FBI to investigate citizens and counter-terrorism activities inside the country. "Americans deserve to know more about how our military and the CIA are conducting domestic surveillance on our own citizens," he said.

The Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group that represents Bank of America, Capital One, Citigroup and others, would not comment on the issue.

Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, said it was "difficult to be surprised" by the news, given repeated illustrations by President Bush that he believes "he is the law unto himself, unbound by statutes or constitutional limits on his power."

She said the Pentagon's purported plan to preserve "private information about Americans who are supposedly 'cleared'" in a new database called Portico gives the agency a chance to "maintain sensitive information about innocent Americans indefinitely."

Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said Tuesday that intelligence agencies "rarely" use the record requests. Pentagon officials said the letters were part of a more aggressive information-gathering strategy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said the revelation, paired with telecommunications companies' compliance with domestic spying by the National Security Agency, "points to a pattern of secret, voluntary cooperation between government and businesses that Americans rely on every day."

In this case, financial institutions are culpable ethically, if not legally, he said. "Banks didn't have to give up records by law. If they respected their customers' privacy, they would not have."