With guidance from the Pentagon, the White House is exploring ways of extending the Defense Department's reach in terms of domestic intelligence gathering and analysis. The stated objective is to preempt acts of future terror as well as treason and economic espionage.
This obviously raises some concerns among civil libertarians -- and with some justification. There already is significant concern that the Patriot Act has been abused as law enforcement officials use its permissions to pursue alleged drug criminals, tax evaders and others beyond the act's original justification.
That said, it's also vital to consider the vulnerabilities that nations face as the weaponry of mass terror inevitably becomes more mobile, compact and deadly in the coming years. Given the porous borders of countries like America, one could argue that our greatest line of defense in the long term is indeed intelligence.
The key issue at present has been the move to expand a little-known DOD organization known as the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA. As the Washington Post reports:
Neither the size of its staff, said to be more than 1,000, nor its budget is public, said [Lt. Col. Chris] Conway, the Pentagon spokesman. The CIFA brochure says the agency's mission is to "transform" the way counterintelligence is done "fully utilizing 21st century tools and resources."
One CIFA activity, threat assessments, involves using "leading edge information technologies and data harvesting," according to a February 2004 Pentagon budget document. This involves "exploiting commercial data" with the help of outside contractors including White Oak Technologies Inc. of Silver Spring, and MZM Inc., a Washington-based research organization, according to the Pentagon document.
For CIFA, counterintelligence involves not just collecting data but also "conducting activities to protect DoD and the nation against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, assassinations, and terrorist activities," its brochure states.
Note the interest in "commercial data." One might be led to believe that domestic intelligence organizations increasingly will pull from the same data sources that corporations now rely on to identify prospects and better understand their customers.
Clearly, the White House wants to see defense intelligence organizations obtain more leeway to gather, integrate and analyze intelligence relative to domestic threats. This suggests that current organizations such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are considered to be incapable by some of effectively handling these tasks on their own.
All of which raises interesting concerns that must be weighed and considered in relation to the terror threats that loom in the future. Of data sharing legislation now making its way through Congress, Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, says it would give the Pentagon significant access to the FBI's massive data stores, including information on citizens that are not linked to terrorist or espionage activities. The measure, she contends, "removes one of the few existing privacy protections against the creation of secret dossiers on Americans by government intelligence agencies."
Contrary to the visceral views of civil libertarians, one might reasonably accept that "dossier assembly" is an inevitable aspect of terror prevention in the post-9/11 world. The question is whether such activities will be performed in a sensible, precise and diligent fashion with strictly defined objectives (ie. prevent terrorist acts) or if they will become just another blunt instrument of law enforcement. If the latter proves to be the case, the government will not only be wasting the limited resources now devoted to pre-empting terror, it will fatally undermine the public's trust and support.