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White House may expand power of a Pentagon agency

It would be able to investigate crimes

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department has expanded its programs aimed at gathering and analyzing intelligence within the United States, creating new agencies, adding personnel, and seeking additional legal authority for domestic security activities in the post-9/11 world.

The moves have taken place on several fronts. The White House is considering expanding the power of a little-known Pentagon agency called the Counterintelligence Field Activity, which was created three years ago. The proposal, made by a presidential commission, would transform the agency from an office that coordinates Pentagon security efforts -- including protecting military facilities from attack -- to one that also has authority to investigate crimes within the United States such as treason, foreign or terrorist sabotage, or even economic espionage.

The Pentagon has pushed legislation on Capitol Hill that would create an intelligence exception to the Privacy Act, allowing the FBI and others to share information gathered about US citizens with the Pentagon, CIA, and other intelligence agencies, as long as the data is deemed to be related to foreign intelligence. Backers say the measure is needed to strengthen investigations into terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

The proposals, and other Pentagon steps aimed at improving its ability to analyze counterterrorism intelligence collected inside the United States, have drawn complaints from civil liberties advocates and a few members of Congress, who say the Defense Department's push into domestic collection is proceeding with little scrutiny by the Congress or the public.

''We are deputizing the military to spy on law-abiding Americans in America. This is a huge leap without even a [congressional] hearing," Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a recent interview.

Wyden has since persuaded lawmakers to change the legislation, attached to the fiscal 2006 Intelligence Authorization bill, to address some of his concerns, but he still believes hearings should be held. Among the changes was dropping a provision to let Defense Intelligence Agency officers hide the fact that they work for the government when they approach people who are possible sources of intelligence in the United States.

Modifications were made in the provision allowing the FBI to share information with the Pentagon and CIA, requiring the approval of the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, and requiring the Pentagon to make reports to Congress on the subject. Wyden said the legislation ''now strikes a much fairer balance by protecting critical rights for our country's citizens and advancing intelligence operations to meet our security needs."

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said the data-sharing amendment would still give the Pentagon greater access to the FBI's massive collection of data, including information on citizens not connected to terrorism or espionage.

The measure ''removes one of the few existing privacy protections against the creation of secret dossiers on Americans by government intelligence agencies," she said. She added that the Pentagon's ''intelligence agencies are quietly expanding their domestic presence without any public debate."

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Conway, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said the most senior Defense Department intelligence officials are aware of the sensitivities related to their expanded domestic activities. At the same time, he said, the Pentagon has to have the intelligence necessary to protect its facilities and personnel at home and abroad.

''In the age of terrorism, the US military and its facilities are targets and we have to be prepared within our authorities to defend them before something happens," Conway said.

Among steps taken by the Pentagon that enhanced its domestic capabilities was the establishment after 9/11 of Northern Command, in Colorado Springs, to help military forces in reacting to terrorist threats in the continental United States. Today, the Command's intelligence centers in Colorado and Texas fuse reports from the Counterintelligence Field Activity, the FBI, and other US agencies, and are staffed by 290 intelligence analysts. That is more than the roughly 200 analysts working for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and far more than those at the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition, each of the military services has begun its own post-9/11 collection of domestic intelligence, primarily aimed at gathering data on potential terrorist threats to bases and other military facilities at home and abroad.

Perhaps the prime illustration of the Pentagon's intelligence growth is the Counterintelligence Field Activity, which remains one of its least publicized intelligence agencies.

Neither the size of its staff, said to be more than 1,000, nor its budget is public, Conway said. The Pentagon agency's brochure said its mission is to ''transform" the way counterintelligence is done, ''fully utilizing 21st century tools and resources."

The Pentagon agency's abilities would increase considerably under the proposal being reviewed by the White House, which was made by a presidential commission on intelligence.

The commission's chairmen were Laurence Silberman, a retired judge, and former senator Chuck Robb, Democrat of Virginia. The commission urged that the Pentagon agency be given authority to carry out domestic criminal investigations and clandestine operations against potential threats inside the United States.

The Silberman-Robb panel found that because the separate military services concentrated on investigations within their areas, ''no entity views non-service-specific and department-wide investigations as its primary responsibility."

A 2003 Defense Department directive kept the Pentagon agency from engaging in law enforcement activities such as ''the investigation, apprehension, or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of criminal offenses against the laws of the United States."

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