Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee will begin questioning Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, about the National Security Agency's collection of U.S. citizens' telephone records.
The scrutiny of the NSA is deserved, but the Senate and the American public may be missing a broader and more disturbing development. For the first time since the Civil War, the United States has been designated a military theater of operations. The Department of Defense -- which includes the NSA -- is focusing its vast resources on the homeland. And it is taking an unprecedented role in domestic spying.
It may be legal. But it circumvents three decades of efforts by Congress to restrict government surveillance of Americans under the guise of national security. And it represents a profound shift in the role of the military operating inside the United States. What's at stake here is the erosion of the principle, embedded in the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, that the U.S. military not be used for domestic law enforcement.
When the administration declared the United States to be a theater of military operations in 2002, it created a U.S. Northern Command, which set up intelligence centers in Colorado and Texas to analyze the domestic threat. But these are not the military's only domestic intelligence efforts. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Pentagon controls "a substantial portion" of U.S. national intelligence assets, the traditional turf of the FBI and CIA.
In 2003, Congress created the job of undersecretary of Defense for intelligence to oversee the department's many intelligence bodies -- including a new entity called Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA.
CIFA was ordered to maintain a "domestic law-enforcement database" on "potential terrorist threats" to U.S. military installations, and it began collecting information on U.S. citizens.
In 2005, a presidential commission suggested that CIFA, set up as a clearinghouse for information, be empowered to conduct domestic investigations into crimes such as treason, espionage and terrorism. Astoundingly, the commission declared that such an expansion of military powers would not require congressional approval; a presidential order and Pentagon directive would suffice. One Defense Department program feeding information to CIFA is TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice), which is supposed to obtain data from "concerned citizens and military members regarding suspicious incidents" that could herald terrorist attacks. But the military appears to have interpreted its mandate broadly. A TALON report was filed on a protest against "war profiteering" by Halliburton, Newsweek reported. The protesters alleged the defense contractor overcharged for food for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Counterintelligence reports were also filed on New York University's OUTlaw, a decades-old organization of openly gay law students. "The term 'outlaw' is a backhanded way of saying it's all right to commit possible violence," concluded one misguided military investigator in a document obtained last month under the Freedom of Information Act." NBC reported that about four dozen TALON database entries on "suspicious incidents" were not about terrorism but about opposition to the Iraq war and military recruiting.
These misguided military forays into domestic surveillance harken back to Vietnam War-era abuses. This time, they are the result of a much broader intelligence-gathering effort by the military on U.S. soil. President Bush said last week, "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." But a 2004 survey by the General Accounting Office found 199 data-mining operations that collect information ranging from credit-card statements to medical records. The Defense Department had five programs on intelligence and counterterrorism.
The Defense Intelligence Agency, created in 1961 to provide foreign military intelligence, now uses "Verity K2" software to scan U.S. intelligence files and the Internet "to identify foreign terrorists or Americans connected to foreign terrorism activity," and "Inxight Smart Discovery" software to help identify patterns in databases. CIFA has reportedly contracted with Computer Sciences Corp. to buy identity-masking software, which could allow it to create fake websites and monitor legitimate U.S. sites without leaving clues that it had been there. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is collecting data from 133 U.S. cities; intelligence sources told the Los Angeles Times that, when collection is completed, the agency would be able to identify occupants in each house, their nationality and even their political affiliation.
In 2002, the Defense Department launched the granddaddy of all data-mining efforts, Total Information Awareness, to trawl through all government and commercial databases available worldwide. In 2003, concerned about privacy implications, Congress cut its funding. But many of the projects simply transferred to other Defense Department agencies. Two of the most important, the Information Awareness Prototype System and Genoa II, moved to NSA headquarters.
The Pentagon argues that its monitoring of U.S. citizens is legal. "Contrary to popular belief, there is no absolute ban on intelligence" agencies collecting information on Americans or disseminating it, says a memo by Robert Noonan, deputy chief of staff for intelligence. Military intelligence agents can receive any information "from anyone, any time," Noonan wrote.
Throughout U.S. history, we have struggled to balance security concerns with the protection of individual rights, and a thick body of law regulates domestic law enforcement agencies' behavior. Congress should think twice before it lets the behemoth Defense Department into domestic law enforcement.