Audit flags Pentagon ills

Military personnel credit, banking data hard to gather

October 14, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- An internal Pentagon review this year found systemic problems and poor coordination in the military's efforts to obtain records from American banks and consumer credit agencies in terrorism and espionage investigations, according to Pentagon documents and interviews.

In response to the review, Defense Department officials have ordered changes intended to strengthen legal safeguards and impose new training standards for use of the letters, which are used to examine the financial assets of U.S. military personnel and civilians involved in military investigations.

But military officials said the review had reinforced their judgment that the program had operated within legal limits.

The problems at the Pentagon that are described in the documents appear to mirror some of those confronted by the FBI, where an internal investigation this year into the bureau's use of thousands of national security letters found widespread problems and little oversight in the way the demands for records were issued.

The documents, totaling more than 1,000 pages, provide additional confirmation of the military's expanding use of what are known as national security letters under powers claimed under the Patriot Act.

The documents show that the military has issued at least 270 of the letters since 2005, and about 500 in all since 2001.

The documents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by two private advocacy groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The documents raise a number of apparent discrepancies between the Defense Department's internal practices and what officials have said publicly and to Congress about their use of the letters.

The documents suggest, for instance, that military officials used the FBI to collect records for what started as purely military investigations. And the documents also leave open the possibility that records could be gathered on nonmilitary personnel in the course of the investigations.

Military officials said in interviews that their review of the national security letters showed that they had been used exclusively to gather information on people connected to the Defense Department - including active duty personnel, civilians, contractors, reservists and their families - in cases where there was reason to suspect a possible terrorist or espionage threat.

Investigators, for instance, could use the letters to examine the assets of a military contractor who seemed to have sudden and unexplained wealth, said Maj. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

He said Defense Department policy prohibited the military from using the letters to collect records on nonmilitary personnel.

However, numerous internal memos and policy guidelines issued by Defense Department agencies on their use of the letters made no such distinction and, in some cases, seemed to encourage the gathering of records on nonmilitary personnel.

Civil liberties advocates said recent controversy over the Department of Defense's collection of information on anti-war protesters made them suspicious of the assertion that the letters had been used exclusively to target military personnel.

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