Newsweek reports that the US Department of Defense is looking for the right to gather information from, and about, Americans, without having to tell them that they are doing so. "Without a public hearing or debate," the news magazine reports, "Defense officials recently slipped a provision into a bill before Congress that could vastly expand the Pentagon's ability to gather intelligence inside the United States, including recruiting citizens as informants."
Currently all military intelligence organizations must comply with the Privacy Act. The act is a Watergate-era law that requires that any government official who is seeking information from a resident of the US disclose who they are and why they are seeking the information. But Newsweek reports that last month the Senate Intelligence Committee, in closed session, added the provision that would exempt the Pentagon from this restriction.
Among those pushing for the bill was "NORTHCOM," the new North American command set up by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Colorado. NORTHCOM's mission is to over see "homeland defense."
A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee says the provision would allow military intel agents to "approach potential sources and collect personal information from them" without disclosing they work for the government. The justification: "Current counterterrorism operations," the report explains, which require "greater latitude ... both overseas and within the United States." ... Pentagon lawyers insist agents will still be legally barred from domestic "law enforcement." But watchdog groups see a potentially alarming "mission creep." "This... is giving them the authority to spy on Americans," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a group frequently critical of the war on terror. "And it's all been done with no public discussion, in the dark of night."
Spencer Ackerman, of The New Republic, writes on how the operation of the office of undersecretary of defense for intelligence in March of 2003, currently filled by the controversial Stephen Cambone, has turned into a power struggle for the control of intelligence between the Pentagon and the CIA.
Currently, all intelligence agencies, even military ones, fall under the titular control of the director of central intelligence - the soon-to-be retired, George Tenet. But the creation of the new undersecretary position, Mr. Ackerman writes, has prompted intelligence observers to suggest that Mr. Rumsfeld is trying to create a new center of gravity for the US intelligence community in the Pentagon.
The Pentagon's increasing assertiveness on intelligence matters is already cause for concern, as Abu Ghraib shows. But there's a broader issue beyond the scandal. The rise of a new intelligence czar at the Pentagon sets the stage for another round of bruising bureaucratic turf wars between the Department of Defense and the CIA - one with large implications for the war on terrorism - at a time when Langley, weakened by George Tenet's abrupt departure last week, is ill-prepared to do battle with Rumsfeld and his deputies.
Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, writing in the Washington Times, argues that it would be a mistake for President Bush to allow Rumsfeld and Mr. Cambone to gain control of US intelligence.
If in fact [Rumsfeld]and his military intelligence team, headed by [Cambone], are able to take advantage of the leadership uncertainty at the CIA, and if Mr. Bush allows this to happen or encourages it by naming a military person to replace Mr. Tenet, then the goal of a truly independent foreign intelligence apparatus to serve the president objectively - a goal the Defense Department has resisted for 55 years - will be unceremoniously laid to rest. The mistakes of the past will be, sadly, then repeated.