A new law teams the Central Intelligence Agency with America's top law-enforcement organizations in an effort to bring international terrorists, drug kingpins, and nuclear-weapons peddlers to justice in US courts.
It marks the first time since the CIA was created in 1947 that the spy agency will be explicitly sanctioned to play a role in law-enforcement operations abroad, and in some cases, could snare US citizens.
That is a prospect that has civil libertarians worried.
Supporters of the new law at the Justice Department and in the intelligence community say the arrangement will foster a new era of cooperation between the nation's spies and cops. They say it will help preclude the kind of conflict between intelligence operations and law enforcement that led to bungled investigations, such as the international banking scandals at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in the 1980s.
But the measure, tucked into the intelligence authorization bill and adopted this week without any public hearings, has sparked concern among civil libertarians and defense lawyers. They say CIA involvement in collecting evidence against international criminals will introduce a new level of secrecy into American trials.
Some worry that intelligence information collected overseas by CIA operators through break-ins, unauthorized wiretaps, and strong-arm interrogations may ultimately be used as evidence in US courts.
"This is going to be dangerous. It is ripe for abuse," says David Greenfield, a defense attorney who represented a co-defendant in the recent Ramzi Ahmed Yousef terrorism trial in New York.
Under the new provision, the CIA is now empowered to collect evidence outside the US against foreigners suspected of violating US criminal laws. CIA involvement is triggered by a request from the FBI or other US law-enforcement agencies.
The CIA is barred from collecting evidence relating to anyone who is a US citizen or a US resident. But legal experts say the law permits an important exception to this rule. If information implicating an American in a crime is obtained while targeting a foreign suspect, that evidence could be used in an American court against the US citizen - even if the evidence was obtained via methods that are illegal by US standards.
The new law "does not require the CIA to act within the law," says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group in Washington.
"It is one thing for the US to send its spies to collect information on foreigners in whatever way it can, to be used by the president, the State and Defense Departments in making and carrying out foreign policy," Ms. Martin says. "It is quite different for the US to announce that the recently opened FBI offices in foreign countries are authorized to task the CIA to illegally spy on foreign citizens so that the US government can use that information to arrest and prosecute them."
For nearly 50 years the CIA has confined its activities to the collection of foreign intelligence that is used to warn Washington of grave threats to US national security. Most of the agency's efforts were aimed at the former Soviet Union.
With the fall of communism, the vast, expensive bureaucracy of spies and analysts faced a new danger. Unless the agency could identify new international threats, the CIA might fall victim to substantial budget cuts.
Terrorism, drug trafficking, and international organized crime have long been the domain of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Customs Service, and other law-enforcement agencies. Those agencies have been pushing to expand their presences overseas. The FBI recently announced plans to double the number of its offices in foreign cities from 23 to 46 by the year 2000.
"In the modern world we are going to need substantial investigative resources around the world," says Philip Heymann, a law professor at Harvard University and a member of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security. "There is a big overlap between what we think of as national security, the subject of intelligence gathering, and our law-enforcement powers to make criminal what drug dealers do overseas and what terrorists do overseas," he says.
Mr. Heymann sees the new provision as a means of enhancing the effectiveness of US law enforcement abroad. "The world is getting smaller faster," he says.
But the professor also warns there is a danger when intelligence agents are used as proxy police officers.
"As a matter of international citizenship, we can't go looking for evidence by breaking into people's apartments in Paris or Rome. They have to be very careful that when the CIA is responding to law-enforcement requests that it behave in a lawful way," he says. "They'd better set up systems to make sure the CIA officers aren't confused about this."
One thing CIA officers aren't confused about is the protection of their sources and methods. Some intelligence officials are concerned that the new relationship with law enforcement might cause some federal judges to order the agency to open its files to prove that evidence supplied by CIA operatives is credible.
"The pressure is going to be on the CIA to release not only the information but the sources. That is going to cause trouble, because the CIA is reluctant to lose a good source," says David Whipple, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers and a 35-year veteran of the CIA's Operations Directorate.