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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
And I'm Deborah Amos.
AMOS: Is the Defense Department engaged in domestic spying?
Over the past five years, the Defense Department had issued more than 450 so- called national security letters. Legal experts say it is unusual because the letters are usually used by law enforcement agencies to conduct criminal investigations.
NPR's defense correspondent, Guy Raz, has more.
GUY RAZ: To understand why it is that the Pentagon may be involved in domestic law enforcement, we have to go back to October 2001. That's when Congress passed the Patriot Act. It gave law enforcement agencies newly expanded powers to conduct surveillance inside the United States. But it also gave government agencies like the Pentagon or the Energy Department new powers to use so-called national security letters. Depending on which agency sends the letters out, it can be either a request or a demand for personal information on an individual, for example, to a bank or an Internet service provider.
Before the Patriot Act, these national security letters were rarely issued by the Pentagon, but since 2001, the Defense Department has sent out nearly 500 of them.
MELISSA GOODMAN: It provides another piece of evidence that there's kind of this expanded military role in domestic intelligence gathering.
RAZ: This is Melissa Goodman. She's a lawyer with the ACLU. Back in June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit to gain access to the Pentagon's national security letters. Over the weekend, some of those documents were released, albeit heavily blacked out or what's called redacted.
GOODMAN: The documents do reveal that the military is using these tools, national security letters, to gain access to personal, financial and consumer records. And they do it in secret, and they do it without meaningful oversight.
RAZ: Pentagon officials were not available to go on tape but in a statement, spokesman Bryan Whitman said that the Pentagon only issues national security letters when investigating Defense Department employees or those affiliated to the Pentagon. And, he added, it's an important tool used by the department to investigate legitimate national security threats.
But Bruce Fein, who served as an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, is skeptical about that. Fein now heads a conservative group that monitors executive branch power. He says if the Pentagon issued nearly 500 of these letters since 2001, it suggests there is a serious security breach within the Defense Department.
BRUCE FEIN: So that means that they have suspected 450 of their employees of being involved in terrorism.
RAZ: A senior Pentagon official close to the issue told NPR that far fewer than 450 people are under investigation, and some of those people are not Defense Department employees - a category, the official says, that includes contractors and people who, quote, "made approaches to Pentagon employees." But this is precisely what worries ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman.
GOODMAN: Part of our concern is that we know from previous revelations that the Defense Department has used its counterintelligence power to investigate civilians, to investigate folks who are conducting anti-war protests, for example.
RAZ: The Pentagon has already conducted an internal review of how it issues the letters. The Department insists it's not in the business of domestic spying, but former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein argues the Pentagon shouldn't be doing these kinds of investigations at all, that they are better left to the FBI.
FEIN: The question is why is the Defense Department, without any law enforcement authority, doing this?
RAZ: Over the coming weeks, the ACLU expects to receive a new batch of soon-to- be declassified documents.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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