Intelligence Improperly Collected on U.S. Citizens

WASHINGTON — In February, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence official wrote a “threat assessment” for the police in Wisconsin about a demonstration involving local pro- and anti-abortion rights groups.

That report soon drew internal criticism because the groups “posed no threat to homeland security,” according to a department memorandum released on Wednesday in connection with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The agency destroyed all its copies of the report and gave the author remedial training.

That was just one of several cases in the last several years in which the department’s intelligence office improperly collected information about American citizens or lawful United States residents, the documents show.

In March 2008, the office produced a “terrorism watch list” report about a Muslim conference in Georgia at which several Americans were scheduled to speak, even though it “did not have any evidence the conference or the speakers promoted radical extremism or terrorist activity,” and such speech is constitutionally protected, an internal report said.

And in October 2007, the office sent a report, “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risks,” to hundreds of federal officials. Department guidelines had called for the files to be destroyed because the assessment of the group had lasted more than 180 days without uncovering evidence of potential terrorism.

In all three cases, after other Homeland Security Department officials raised concerns, copies of the reports were destroyed. The agency also held a workshop on intelligence-gathering “while ensuring the protection of civil rights and civil liberties” after the Nation of Islam incident.

The documents were released by the Department of Justice in connection with a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. It had sought reports to the Intelligence Oversight Board, a watchdog panel appointed by the president, by various agencies documenting violations of law, executive orders or presidential directives.

Marcia Hofmann, a staff lawyer with the foundation, praised agency officials for destroying the reports but said the public needed to know about such incidents.

“I think it’s a positive sign that these agencies responded to this and took steps to correct the situation,” Ms. Hofmann said, adding, “We would never have known that this happened had we not seen these internal reports.”

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said, “We take very seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people while” protecting the country.

Other documents released Wednesday were heavily censored because they involved classified information.

A February 2008 report from the National Security Agency, for example, has four pages almost entirely redacted, under the heading of intelligence activities “that violate law, regulation, or policy substantiated during the quarter, as well as actions taken as a result of the violations.”

In a 2007 report, top security agency officials said “intelligence oversight training is not managed effectively” at the National Security Agency and called procedures regarding training “confusing.”

A spokeswoman for the N.S.A., Judith A. Emmel, said that since 2007 the agency had “improved its oversight training program and continues to refine it.”

“Ensuring our work force is thoroughly and properly trained is something we take very seriously,” Ms. Emmel said.

Another memorandum disclosed that a Defense Intelligence Agency employee said that in May 2002, in response to a Congressional inquiry, the Joint Forces Intelligence Command provided false information about its activities related to Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks. The document offered few details.

The Justice Department also released other documents Wednesday from other Freedom of Information Act lawsuits related to national security policies during the Bush administration.

Among them was a letter written in 2002 by George J. Tenet, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, suggesting that a C.I.A. ban on using journalists as spies was not airtight.

After Islamic militants killed Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter whom they had falsely accused of working for the C.I.A., leaders of the American Society of Newspaper Editors asked Mr. Tenet to “declare unequivocally” that the agency’s spies never posed as journalists.

Mr. Tenet replied that for 25 years, the agency’s policy had been “that we do not use American journalists as agents or American news organizations for cover.” But he refused to make what he described as “a blanket statement that we would never use journalistic cover.”

Instead, he wrote, “the circumstances under which I would even consider any exception to this policy would have to be truly extraordinary.”

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