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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union said Sunday that newly uncovered documents show that the Pentagon secretly sent hundreds of letters seeking the financial records of private citizens without court approval.
The ACLU said an analysis of 455 so-called national security letters issued after Sept. 11, 2001 shows that the Pentagon collaborated with the FBI to circumvent the law and may have overstepped its legal authority to obtain financial and credit records. The ACLU has been reviewing the letters and the accompanying documentation over the past few days.
"Once again, the Bush administration's unchecked authority has led to abuse and civil liberties violations," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero in a statement. "The documents make clear that the Department of Defense may have secretly and illegally conducted surveillance beyond the powers it was granted by Congress."
No spokesman for the Pentagon was available for comment Sunday.
The New York Times first disclosed the military's use of the letters in January, and members of Congress and civil liberties groups said the practice conflicted with traditional Pentagon rules against domestic law-enforcement operations.
Vice President Dick Cheney defended the practice as a "perfectly legitimate activity" used to investigate possible acts of terrorism and espionage.
The documents relating to the letters were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Times reported Sunday that the documents show that the Pentagon's own review of the program found systemic problems and poor coordination.
According to the Times, the documents suggest that military officials used the FBI to collect records for what started as purely military investigations.
The Times said military officials defended the letters, which they said had been used to gather information about military personnel and contractors.
Maj. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Times that investigators could use the letters, for example, to examine the assets of a military contractor who seemed to have sudden and unexplained wealth.
But the Times said internal memos issued by Defense Department agencies seemed in some cases to encourage the gathering of records on nonmilitary personnel.
Recipients of national security letters, including Internet service providers, financial institutions and credit reporting agencies, are generally forbidden to disclose that they have received the letters.
The ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests with both the Defense Department and the CIA in April seeking all documents related to their use of the letters to gain access to personal records of people in the United States. And in June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit to force those agencies to turn over the documents.
"The expanded role of the military in domestic intelligence gathering is troubling," Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "These documents reveal that the military is gaining access to records here in the U.S. in secret and without any meaningful oversight. There are real concerns about the use of this intrusive surveillance power."