Spreading the Surveillance Net
At home, the FBI wants greater access to records
BOSTON — LET'S say you are a prominent Irish-American who is phoned by a member of the entourage of Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, who is visiting Washington this week, and you are invited to a reception.
Under a bill pending before the Senate, your employment history, banking locations, and current and previous addresses could be investigated by the FBI without your knowledge - even if you didn't go to the reception. The FBI only had to know about the call.
The new legislation, which is vigorously opposed by civil libertarians, is part of a little-noticed intelligence authorization bill working its way through the Senate that would give the FBI access to credit agency information on citizens who have contact with foreign powers or groups - or that the FBI suspects have had such contact.
According to the bill, anyone who ''has been, or is about to be, in contact with'' a foreign power or ''faction'' can be investigated.
The get-tough measure is one of several aimed at curbing terrorism and espionage that Capitol Hill lawmakers vote on this fall, including the White House's controversial antiterrorism bill.
FBI access to credit information alone will not dramatically increase the bureau's power, say experts - though some express concerns about an erosion of privacy rights.
''This is part of an incremental chipping away at privacy,'' says James Dempsey of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington. ''The FBI is good at small yearly victories. They are slowly developing a significant increase in the unreviewable power of government agencies.''
A press spokesman for the FBI declined to comment.
This spring, the FBI sought greater access to credit information in the House version of the counterterrorism bill. But in that bill, the credit access process was subject to judicial oversight.
No such oversight exists in the Senate intelligence bill. The lack of criminal cause or judicial review in gaining access to private records concerns civil libertarians and others. They also worry about the scope of who could be investigated.
''Everyone who went with Hillary Clinton to China, including Hillary, could be reviewed,'' says Greg Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. ''All the FBI has to show is that the women met with a foreign political organization or a foreign agency charged with preserving women's rights.''
Justice Department and FBI officials argue that efficient and speedy new measures are needed to battle espionage and terrorist threats following the Aldrich Ames spy fiasco, and the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings.
Under current law, the police or FBI can look at bank records and telephone calls without a judicial review. What makes this difficult is that the location of banks and credit accounts can be obtained only through court intervention under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
''If someone is in touch with a terrorist, the bureau might want to know where that person is ... and how they operate,'' says a senior Justice Department official who requested anonymity. ''The Fair Credit Reporting Act has no mechanism to find out about banking and money spending.''
Pursuing information through credit agencies cuts down on the time it takes to learn about a potential suspect, officials say. Previous methods may have required FBI agents to follow an individual to his or her bank, or paw through garbage or waste receptacles. ''Not only is this more efficient, it is also less intrusive,'' the Justice Department source says.
Critics argue that current legal standards requiring ''reasonable suspicion'' or ''probable cause'' before gaining access to records are adequate and more- proper means of investigating potential criminality.
Through various legislative efforts, the bureau has sought access to credit records for eight years, say Justice sources - efforts that were consistently blocked by former House Banking Committee chairman Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas.
But fallout over the Ames case, along with the early rapid success of the counterterrorism bill, gave the initiative new life. So has the takeover of Congress by Republicans, many of whom are advocating tougher anticrime measures.