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Shackles loosened on U.S. intelligence Limits on agencies, imposed following the post-Watergate discovery of abuses, have been relaxed in the war on terror
By John Diamond
WASHINGTON -- One by one, barriers erected in the post-Watergate era to prevent abuses and excesses by U.S. intelligence agencies are yielding to pressure to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.
Spying on Americans, toppling adversary regimes, even eliminating certain foreign leaders -- all actions long regarded as forbidden for the CIA and other agencies -- are back as policy options in the wake of Sept. 11. The shift has taken place with little public debate or formal government action.
Many of the restrictions being eased today were imposed in the wake of the so-called Church Committee investigations of the 1970s. Named after Idaho Sen. Frank Church, a special Senate committee and a House of Representatives counterpart investigated disclosures in 1975 and 1976 about CIA and National Security Agency activities, including surveillance of anti-war activists, assassination plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders and routine surveillance of civilian telegraph cables. The committee also looked into the agencies' failure to keep Congress informed. The limits set after the committee's investigation include an executive order barring assassination as a tool of foreign policy.
Now the Bush administration is using classified intelligence findings and other below-the-radar actions to empower the CIA, FBI, NSA and other agencies. (An intelligence finding is essentially a presidential authorization to carry out a secret operation.) To sidestep legal protections that might benefit terror suspects, the Pentagon and Justice Department have developed rules of detention and trial separate from the U.S. court system.
One of the few publicly debated changes, the USA-Patriot Act, makes it easier for law enforcement to spy on Americans for counterterrorism purposes. The bill passed, with limited floor debate and overwhelming support, in the weeks after Sept. 11.
Among the indications of the easing of restrictions on U.S. intelligence and law enforcement:
* Though assassinations remain forbidden, President Bush has asked the CIA to develop clandestine plans against Iraq that could involve killing Saddam Hussein in battle, according to national security officials.
* CIA operatives have direct launch control of Hellfire missiles mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling Afghanistan for signs of al-Qaeda terrorists. It's the first time the CIA has been given operational control of a weapon.
* The president must formally authorize all CIA covert operations in secret findings, and Congress must be informed, a legacy of the Church Committee. But the political dynamic has changed. Lawmakers used to routinely question why CIA did so much. Now the pressure is on the agency to do more.
* The administration is targeting specific adversary regimes, an approach not seen since President Reagan's efforts against leftist Latin American governments and the elder President Bush's invasion of Panama in the 1980s. The Afghan Taliban regime was first to fall to this new policy. Iraq is next on the administration's list.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow says the agency strictly abides by procedures in place for decades governing covert operations. What has changed is the national mood and the political support in Washington for more aggressive action. The result is that the CIA is doing more, though staying within the rules.
''We've been given added authorities to allow us to go after the terrorist target around the world, to go into what was a sanctuary in Afghanistan and help root them out,'' Harlow says. ''We've been at war with terrorism since long before Sept. 11, but now we've got increased authorities, increased funding, increased capabilities to do a better job.''
Former Colorado senator Gary Hart, who was a member of the Church committee, said it found ''widespread abuses of constitutional rights, civil liberties, on the grounds that we needed to do this to prosecute the Cold War.''
''There's certainly a pendulum swing back, which is pretty typical for our country in time of stress,'' says Hart, who was a member of a blue-ribbon panel that last year recommended creation of a department of homeland security. In the tug between security and individual liberty, ''we're probably going to err on the side of security.''
One of the most enduring legacies of the Church Committee was the creation of the House and Senate intelligence committees to oversee intelligence agencies. Today, some lawmakers question the ability of those panels to adequately investigate intelligence lapses before Sept. 11. They say the committees are too politicized to review the facts impartially.