WASHINGTON - In response to President Bush's announcement last night that he will integrate federal intelligence units under one umbrella agency headed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the American Civil Liberties Union today expressed concern that the initiative would put the CIA back in the business of spying on Americans.
"The CIA uses every dirty trick in the book to accomplish its missions overseas," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "To allow those methods to govern intelligence gathering on American soil is an invitation for disaster. The President must ensure that appropriate curbs on its authority are imposed."
The President announced the new agency in his State of the Union address last night. The new agency, called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, would collect both foreign intelligence and domestic counter-intelligence units from the FBI, CIA and other agencies under one administrative framework, led by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, which would then be responsible for analyzing, directing and disseminating intelligence information on terrorism to other federal, state and local agencies.
The ACLU's concerns stem from the vagueness of the authority given to Tenet. If the CIA were allowed to step outside of its statutory charter, the ACLU said, and engage in domestic intelligence gathering, serious infringements on civil liberties - similar to those visited on civil rights and anti-war dissidents in the 1960s - would be the inevitable result.
"When the government is permitted to spy and investigate without prior suspicion of criminal activity or intent," Edgar said, "unwarranted harassment, blackmail, detention, interrogation, wiretapping and blacklisting inevitably follow."
Historically, the CIA's most notorious political spying and harassment program, codenamed "Operation CHAOS," exhibited the problems with the CIA operating on American soil, the ACLU said. The program, initiated in the 1960s, collected dossiers on upwards of 7,000 Americans, a clear violation of its founding charter and mission.
Other intelligence agencies that would logically be a part of the new umbrella agency have checkered histories as well, which mirror the Operation CHAOS excesses of the CIA. Military intelligence units operated a domestic political spying program called CONUS (Continental United States) during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which had dossiers on 100,000 peace activists and frequently infiltrated political meetings and rallies. The FBI established the infamous COINTELPRO political spying unit under J. Edgar Hoover, which engaged in concerted and illegal character assassination campaigns against civil rights leaders, most notably the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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