ACLU Says Intelligence Czar Should Not Spy on Americans

December 9, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to reports that Congress will recommend a cabinet-level intelligence “”czar”” with unspecified powers, the American Civil Liberties Union today cautioned that an unprecedented, and unnecessary, internal spy agency would result if the czar were to assume the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence functions.

“”An intelligence czar should not be given domestic powers,”” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”We rejected the idea of the American government spying on citizens who have done nothing wrong during even the most frigid periods of the Cold War – why revisit it now?””

At issue are reports that the joint Congressional inquiry into intelligence failures before September 11th will soon recommend that President Bush establish a cabinet-level intelligence czar, responsible for overseeing the 13 separate intelligence agencies currently at work in the federal government. Problems would occur, the ACLU said, if the new cabinet official were given the authority – currently vested in the FBI’s counterintelligence wing – to engage in domestic surveillance and monitoring of Americans.

Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) is a lead supporter on Capitol Hill of such a domestic intelligence agency, modeled after the CIA and designed to take over the FBI’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence functions. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, White House officials, including Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, visited the United Kingdom last month to study that country’s internal intelligence agency, known as MI5.

The ACLU questioned the common – and patently false – rationale for such a separate domestic intelligence agency: that the FBI does not have enough power to prevent terrorism, that it needs to wait for “”blood in the streets”” before acting. The FBI actually has wide latitude to investigate individuals and organizations if it has a dash of criminal suspicion – and to prevent serious crimes and terrorism from ever occurring.

“”The FBI can do the job if its management is reformed and coordination is improved,”” Edgar said. “”We shouldn’t establish – for the first time in our history – a secret agency whose main purpose is to allow those in power to investigate Americans who are not engaged in any criminal activity.””

When the peacetime Central Intelligence Agency was formed in 1947, its founders included an explicit prohibition in its charter on domestic covert operations and intelligence gathering. President Truman himself was deeply concerned that the CIA – if allowed to operate on U.S. soil – would use its espionage techniques, including blackmail and extortion, against lawful American citizens.

“”The Hoover FBI ruined lives by going outside the law and engaging in covert investigations without suspicion of crime,”” Edgar said. “”Why would the government ever want to institutionalize something so dangerous?””

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