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Fbi reach in citizens financial records { November 12 2003 }

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November 12, 2003
F.B.I.'s Reach Into Records Is Set to Grow

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 A little-noticed measure approved by both the House and Senate would significantly expand the F.B.I.'s power to demand financial records, without a judge's approval, from car dealers, travel agents, pawnbrokers and many other businesses, officials said on Tuesday.

Traditional financial institutions like banks and credit unions are frequently subject to administrative subpoenas from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to produce financial records in terrorism and espionage investigations. Such subpoenas, which are known as national security letters, do not require the bureau to seek a judge's approval before issuing them.

The measure now awaiting final approval in Congress would significantly broaden the law to include securities dealers, currency exchanges, car dealers, travel agencies, post offices, casinos, pawnbrokers and any other institution doing cash transactions with "a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters."

Officials said the measure, which is tucked away in the intelligence community's authorization bill for 2004, gives agents greater flexibility and speed in seeking to trace the financial assets of people suspected of terrorism and espionage. It mirrors a proposal that President Bush outlined in a speech two months ago to expand the use of administrative subpoenas in terrorism cases.

Critics said the measure would give the federal government greater power to pry into people's private lives.

"This dramatically expands the government's authority to get private business records," said Timothy H. Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "You buy a ring for your grandmother from a pawnbroker, and the record on that will now be considered a financial record that the government can get."

The provision is in the authorization bills passed by both houses of Congress. Some Democrats have begun to question whether the measure goes too far and have hinted that they may try to have it pulled when the bill comes before a House-Senate conference committee. Other officials predicted that the measure would probably survive any challenges in conference and be signed into law by President Bush, in part because the provisions already approved in the House and the Senate are identical.

The intelligence committees considered the proposal at the request of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, officials said. Officials at the C.I.A. and the Justice Department declined to comment on Tuesday about the measure.

A senior Congressional official who supports the provision said that "this is meant to provide agents with the same amount of flexibility in terrorism investigations that they have in other types of investigations."

"This was really just a technical change to reflect the new breed of financial institutions," the official added.

Asked what had prompted the measure, the official said: "This is coming from 3,000 dead people. There's an ever-expanding universe of places where terrorists can hide financial transactions, and it's only prudent and wise to anticipate where they might be and to give law enforcement the tools that they need to find them."

Christopher Wray, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, also addressed the issue last month at a Senate hearing.

Mr. Wray said that compared with the antiterrorism law that allowed agents to demand business records with court approval, the F.B.I.'s administrative subpoenas were more limited. The administrative subpoenas "do provide for production of some records," he said, but "they don't cover as many types of business records."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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