In 1986, the FBI was quietly given extraordinary powers to look into the most private files of Americans “suspected of being in the employ of a foreign power.”
This latest invasion of privacy was provided for in the Intelligence Authorization Bill for 1987 which was passed by Congress with little debate or press coverage in the heat of the end-of-session scramble when Congressmen and Senators were anxious to return home. In the aftermath of the Sakharov/Daniloff “spy” incidents and exchange, the FBI counterintelligence officials persuaded a gullible Congress the bill was needed because they lacked the resources and information to catch Americans selling secrets to the enemy.
Specifically, the bill gives the FBI access to financial records and telephone toll logs of individuals suspected of espionage. Those files include data from banking institutions and telephone companies which reveal some of the most intimate and private details of a person’s daily activities.
A government official reportedly can learn more from a peek into a checkbook or telephone record than from a month of court-ordered wiretaps.
Historically this type of information was considered off-limits to the government. Three years ago, the Internal Revenue Service attempted to obtain listed, unlisted, and unpublished telephone numbers directly from the phone companies. The effort was well publicized and the proposal was abandoned. Subsequently, citing the need to track down drug smugglers, the Justice Department tried to amend the 1978 Right To Financial Privacy Act to tap into bank records and pass the information along to various law enforcement agencies. That proposal also was dropped.
Now, however, the Intelligence bill passed by Congress, which amends the 1978 Privacy Act, may make those previous attempts to obtain the files unnecessary; the amendments provide that information obtained by the FBI under the counterintelligence provisions can be passed to any other government agency which has a relevant interest in the information.
There are some protections written into the language of the bill, however, since there is no oversight of how the bill is to be used, the public may never know if the FBI is adhering to the rules.
There also is some question as to whether the legislation was necessary. An official with the American Banking Association in Washington said that while he was consulted on the changes, he argued that the current law was adequate for the FBI’s counterintelligence operations.
Once again, the personal privacy expected by Americans has been assaulted in the name of “national security.” And, once again, the press has failed to let the people know they have lost another right guaranteed by the Constitution.
THB NATIONAL REPORTER, Fall/Winter 1986, “News Not In The News: Reach Out and Crush Someone,” by Don Goldberg, pp 6-7.