Washington – The Pentagon is expected to shut a controversial intelligence office that has drawn fire from lawmakers and civil liberties groups who charge that it was part of an effort by the Defense Department to expand into domestic spying. The move, government officials say, is part of a broad effort under Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to review, overhaul and, in some cases, dismantle an intelligence architecture built by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The intelligence unit, called the Counterintelligence Field Activity office, was created by Mr. Rumsfeld after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an effort to counter the operations of foreign intelligence services and terror groups inside the United States and abroad.
Yet the office, whose size and budget is classified, came under fierce criticism in 2005 after it was disclosed that it was managing a database that included information about antiwar protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting halls.
The Pentagon’s senior intelligence official, James R. Clapper, has recommended to Mr. Gates that the counterintelligence field office be dismantled and that some of its operations be placed under the authority of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the government officials said.
Pentagon officials said Mr. Gates had yet to approve the recommendation.
Mr. Gates, a former director of central intelligence, has promised to improve coordination of the Pentagon’s intelligence collection with other spy agencies and help rebuild some of the relationships bruised under Mr. Rumsfeld’s tenure. Mr. Rumsfeld and some of his aides had expressed deep suspicion toward the Central Intelligence Agency in particular, and some people accused Mr. Rumsfeld of trying to build an intelligence empire of his own.
Shortly after taking over the Pentagon last year, Mr. Gates ordered a broad review of its intelligence operations and of the Defense Department’s relationships with other spy agencies.
It is unclear whether Mr. Clapper is also recommending tighter restrictions on Pentagon counterterrorism and counterespionage operations in the United States.
Some civil liberties groups said they worried that the change might be cosmetic and that the Pentagon might be closing the office to farm out its operations to other agencies that receive less scrutiny.
Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the recommendation to close the office had nothing to do with its troubled history. The move is aimed, Colonel Ryder said, at “creating efficiencies and streamlining” Pentagon efforts to thwart operations by foreign intelligence services and terror networks.
Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the decision long overdue.
Mr. Reyes said the office “was a Rumsfeld-era relic that triggered major concern about domestic intelligence gathering by the Pentagon against Americans.”
The work of coordinating the Pentagon’s various counterintelligence activities would remain important, Mr. Reyes said, but “vigorous oversight” would be needed under the new structure.
Some current and former Pentagon officials expressed concern that putting the mission of countering foreign intelligence services under the Defense Intelligence Agency could signal a decline in its priority. But Colonel Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said the recommendation to close the counterintelligence office was intended to strengthen counterintelligence operations.
Pentagon officials said that the database that housed information about the war protesters was built to track terrorist threats against domestic military bases and that reports about war protesters were put into it by mistake. Mr. Clapper ordered an end to the database, called Talon, last year.
The disclosure that the Pentagon was collecting information about citizens in the United States prompted memories of its activities decades ago, when the military used electronic surveillance to monitor civilians protesting the Vietnam War. The Pentagon is traditionally barred from conducting domestic intelligence operations.
The counterintelligence office was also brought into the scandal surrounding Representative Randy Cunningham, a California Republican, who resigned from Congress in 2005 after pleading guilty to taking bribes from military contractors. Some of the contracts that Mr. Cunningham channeled to Mitchell J. Wade, a longtime friend, were for programs of the counterintelligence office.
Newly declassified documents released on Tuesday shed more light on another activity coordinated by the Pentagon’s counterintelligence office, issuing letters to banks and credit agencies to obtain financial records in terrorism and espionage investigations.
The Pentagon has issued hundreds of so-called national security letters, which are noncompulsory, as a tool to examine the income of employees suspected of collaborating with a foreign spy service or international terrorist network.
The documents, released as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, include an internal review begun in 2007 that examined the Pentagon’s use of the letters. The review found poor coordination and a lack of standardized training inside the Defense Department about using the letters, but uncovered no instances where the department broke any laws.
The Pentagon is authorized to issue the letters, sometimes in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to obtain financial records of civilian and military Defense Department employees and their families.
Colonel Ryder said that since the Sept. 11 attacks there had been six cases where the letters were used to obtain records about the family members of Defense Department employees.
The New York Times