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Spying in America: How the Pentagon is Overcoming Privacy Laws to Spy At Home

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A new provision buried in an intelligence appropriations bill moving through Congress would exempt Pentagon agencies from the Privacy Act, vastly expanding their ability to gather intelligence inside the United States, including recruiting citizens as informants. [Includes transcript]

We spend the rest of the hour taking a look at government spy operations here in the United States.

In the 1970s, army intelligence agents were caught spying on antiwar protesters and Congress passed the Privacy Act, which requires officials seeking information to disclose who they are and what they want the information for.

Now, a provision buried in an intelligence appropriations bill moving through Congress would exempt Pentagon agencies from the Privacy Act, vastly expanding their ability to conduct domestic spy operations.

But recent events show how domestic military intelligence gathering can lead to a government assault on free speech.

In February, Army intelligence officers visited the University of Texas law school days after a student-organized conference on Islamic Law and Women’s Rights. The agents questioned participants and demanded a non-existent roster of attendees. The Army later apologized for acting outside its jurisdiction, but under the new intelligence provision, such investigations may become more common. The intelligence bill is scheduled to go before the House Intelligence Committee tomorrow.

  • Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for Newsweek who first reported this story in this week’s issue.
  • Sahar Aziz, Student at University of Texas Law School and organizer of a conference on Islamic Law and Women’s Rights held in February 2004, which was visited by an Army intelligence officer, prompting an apology from the Army for operating outside their jurisdiction.
  • Kate Martin, Director of the Center for National Security Studies.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone by Kate Martin, Center for National Securities Study. The student at the University of Texas Law School who organized The Islamic Law and Women’s Rights conference, Sahar Aziz and Michael Isikoff, who first reported this story in this week’s issue of “Newsweek” magazine. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Michael, why don’t you give us an overlay of exactly what this bill is and the provision that not a lot of people know about.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it is not entirely clear because, like so much that the intelligence committees do, this was done behind closed doors, in closed session. No public hearings, no public debate. And apparently not much questioning of the Pentagon about why they wanted this provision in. But if you take a look at it, and you take a look at the report that the senate intelligence committee has since made public about the provision, it does raise a lot of questions. So, what it does, is lists this restriction of The Privacy Act so that Pentagon Intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the Separate Service Agency — Intelligence branches, the Army intelligence, Navy intelligence, can question U.S. citizens, U.S. persons, greencard holder, anybody who is residing in the United States, without identifying who they are and what the Pentagon says it need this is provision for, is so it can recruit sources inside the United States to help the War on Terrorism. Now the main explanation given by D.I.A., and I talked to some of their officials quite a bit about this a week so ago is, they want to be able to question Americans who are traveling abroad, businessmen, college students, who are going into countries where they have a hard time getting access to, where there might be large u.s. Troop concentrations. But when you probe a little deeper beyond that, you find that there are others in the pentagon who have been interested in this provision as well. Stephen Cambone, the Undersecretary For Intelligence, signed off on it. There is this new northern command created by Secretary Rumsfeld two years ago In Colorado Springs, whose assignment is home land defense. They want to — they’re interested in this provision as well and the broad rubric of force protection, which is what military intelligence is assigned to do, would allow it, according to pentagon officials, to conduct intelligence gathering on any suspected terrorist plot to a u.s. Military base or U.S. military contractor. That’s a pretty broad mandate in which this provision can be used and it does raise questions, then, certainly about how it will be used.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you tell us what happened this past February at your student conference, University of Texas?

SAHAR AZIA: Well, it was actually quite an unexpected event after the fact. The conference was very successful. It was very well attended by Muslims and Non-Muslims, by students and non-students and, you know, we ended the conference feeling very proud of ourselves and having complete add successful one and were congratulated by numerous people. And then a week later suddenly special agent from the Army Intelligence shows up out of nowhere and roamed the campus looking for this nonexistent roster and a video tape of the conference and in order to get that he was asking for me because everyone kept telling him well, she was the one that organized the conference n. The process made many people intimidated and just shocked. I was very shocked because there was nothing at the conference that would have made one even believe that something like this would happen. So, it was definitely a major chill on free speech and on academic freedom. I was very concerned that if something like this happens in the future, at another conference, will anyone show up because people will be scared that they’re spied on and won’t feel comfortable to speak freely about issues that is are very important because we’re very heavily involved and we need to understand the culture and the religion and, you know, the people, etc., of the region.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up soliciting an apology from them?

SAHAR AZIA: Well, we held a press conference a few days after he came to campus and made it very clear, you know, through the media that we were not pleased with what happened. We questioned whether they had jurisdiction and we were very concerned about the chilling of academic freedom, etc. And through our press conference, we encouraged actually the journalists to do investigative research and challenged the Army Intelligence and The Intelligence Community to explain, you know, why this happened. Because they didn’t have any legal papers, you know, warranting their right to this information. And at the same time there was no one in uniform there. We didn’t know that anyone from the intelligence community was at the conference. So, that was the way — that was our indirect way of asking for an explanation. We were pleased that they gave us an apology. We didn’t expect one, to be honest. But at least they did admit that they were out of their jurisdiction and I think the public suddenly realized there were a lot of things going on that they didn’t realize was happening about, you know, with regards to domestic surveillance and how they were being impacted, especially Non-Muslims. I think some people think it’s not me. It is just this group, this subculture that I don’t know anything about that I don’t really care about. But it’s really expanded. Not to say that that’s justified. But even just anyone who associates now with this topic or with this, you know, these people or this group is now, guilty by association based on nothing, you know, based on just wanting to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Sahar Aziz is a student at University Of Texas Law School that organized the women and Islamic Law Conference this past February. Kate Martin, Director For National Security Studies. Can you give us the history of domestic spying and how this fits in?

KATE MARTIN: Well, this is very troubling because it looks like it’s a resurgence of something that we thought had ended. You know, everybody knows or most people know about the history of the C.I.A. And the F.B.I. Spying for the Anti-Vietnam War Movements and on the Civil Rights Movement and on a lot of other groups, including up in through the 1980’s perform basically what happened is government agents used undercover agents to go into groups and, in many cases, act as agents provocateurs to encourage illegal acts by the groups, to make the people in the groups feel par noise with lots of justification and turn on each other and then they wrote it all down in files. So, we had this phenomenon of literally hundreds of thousands of files being created on Americans and on their First Amendment protective political activities. There were reforms in the 1970’s and 19 90’s that were intended to end that — 80’s that were intended to end that and make sure that the agencies doing surveillance inside the U.S. Concentrate on criminal activities and one of the ways that was done was to say the C.I.A. and the defense department have no business spying on Americans. Another way that was done was to say we’re going to have public guidelines on how the F.B.I. conducts surveillance. And so while there are a lot of problems with those guidelines, we at least know here’s what the F.B.I. is supposed to be doing, for example, when it uses undercover agents. What this — what’s being proposed here is an elimination of one of the key prohibitions that prevented or the defense department from undertaking the kind of surveillance that was just described at the University Of Texas. If this bill were to pass, the next time they show up, they can pretend to be somebody else, like a student from another university organizing a conference, ask for the roster of everyone who attended the conference and then put it in their data bank. Where it will sit forever and then be — they can data mine it, etc. And no one will even know. You know, this is all part of — and this is the way it happened the first time is that, you know, they’ve always had — the Defense Department’s always had military bases, of course, in the U.S. And if the mission of protecting those bases. But now they have this new mission of, quote, “homeland defense”. And we really need a lot more public discussion about what that means to have the military inside the u.s. Concentrating on counterterrorism. Because we don’t have — while we have terrible attacks, it is hard to think how the military plays a role in finding the next al-Qaeda terrorist inside the u.s. And instead of having any public explanation from the military about how they might do that, they might have this stealth effort to allow themselves to on an undercover basis both collect information from Americans about themselves and about their neighbors and friends.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, you write about this in this week’s “Newsweek” about recruiting citizens to spy on each other. There was a collective revulsion against the total information awareness program in the pentagon and ultimately John Poindexter was forced out. How much of this is a continuation of this and what exactly is laid out there?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it is hard to say. As I said before, this was sort of done, you know, in closed session, no public hearings, no explanations. From the republic explanations by the Pentagon. One thing that strikes me about this is you have the 9/11 commission wrapping up its work. It’s got its public hearings this week and recommendations next month. One of the principle issues they’ve been grappling is should we create a domestic intelligence agency, i.e.m.a.-5 in Great Britain and the argument made against that in the debate what are the Civil Liberties implications of creating a is separate agency whose responsibility would be intelligence gathering inside the united states and surveillance. That has been a public debate and there’s been a lot written about it. Yeah, here you have the pentagon essentially making a move to sort of do the same thing without anybody paying any attention to it. And, you know, if that happens, what kind of oversight would there be, what precisely would be the mission? None of these questions have been asked today.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the bill go from here?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It has been passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is coming up, a similar vote is coming up before the house intelligence committee tomorrow. And then it will have to be thrashed out in conference and passed by both houses. But it will be interesting to see first if the house intelligence committee will do this debate, take this up in public session and, secondly, if they will be asking anymore questions than the senators did and, you know, what I’m told, almost no questions were asked

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we have to leave it there. MICHAEL ISIKOFF, investigative correspondent for “Newsweek,” Sahar Aziz, student at the University Of Texas Law School, and Kate Martin for the Center For International Securities Program.

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