Defense agents seek to work under cover

DIA officials deny they'd abuse power they're asking of Congress

October 08, 2005|By GREG MILLER | GREG MILLER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Senior officials with the Defense Intelligence Agency took the rare step yesterday of describing the service's intelligence-gathering operations in the United States in an effort to counter concerns by privacy advocates that it could abuse new spying authority being considered by Congress.

Existing laws have prevented DIA officers from approaching U.S. residents - including recent arrivals from Iraq and other nations in the Middle East - who might have valuable information on developments in their home countries, the officials said.

However, legislation sought by the DIA and recently approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee would exempt DIA and other military intelligence officers from laws requiring them to disclose their Pentagon ties before seeking information from U.S. citizens or residents, freeing the DIA to collect information under cover.

If the measure is approved by the full Congress, said George Peirce, the general counsel of the DIA, the agency "might be able to more effectively seek leads in the United States on identification of bomb-makers in Iraq."

The agency, he said, would also be in better position "to obtain information voluntarily from immigrants, now resident aliens, who have contacts in the old country."

Peirce's comments in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times were an unusual public acknowledgment of the Pentagon's domestic spying operations. Peirce and a senior deputy agreed to the interview in large part to respond to critics who have expressed concern that relaxing restrictions on domestic intelligence gathering could lead to abuses by the Pentagon in spying on Americans.

Jim Schmidli, the deputy DIA general counsel for operations, said the proposed legislation would be useful mainly in allowing operatives to use different "covers" when approaching recent arrivals to the United States.

"The ones we are primarily interested in are permanent resident aliens, green card holders," Schmidli said. "They come from countries where [contact with] intelligence services or security services aren't good things to have happen in your life. It has a meaning to them that is very unpleasant."

Still, privacy advocates said it is risky to roll back protections put in place in the 1970s when the Pentagon and intelligence agencies were caught spying on protest groups and other targets in the United States.

"Not revealing [their true identities] will allow military intelligence to infiltrate groups and do the kinds of things that we rejected when we learned about them 30 years ago," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. A similar provision in last year's intelligence authorization bill was removed after protests from privacy groups.

The CIA and FBI are exempt from the disclosure requirements when approaching U.S. residents. The DIA is the Pentagon's main human intelligence-gathering service and is mainly known for its network of overseas officers recruiting spies in other countries.

But the DIA also has a significant presence in the United States - akin to the CIA's National Resources division - that seeks information from U.S. residents who frequently travel overseas or have contact with relatives or business partners in key countries. Rewards for cooperative sources often include money or immigration assistance.

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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