CITING national security concerns, federal agents have continued
a cold war policy of secretly searching the homes and offices of
American citizens suspected of aiding foreign powers.
These "black-bag jobs," conducted without court orders, have
gotten the go-ahead from President Clinton and Attorney General
Janet Reno, just as they did from two previous presidents.
Key members of Congress, who worry that White House policy
violates the Constitution, are now engaged in a quiet debate over
ways to safeguard civil liberties without undercutting the
government's counter-intelligence agencies.
A Senate-passed intelligence bill (S. 2056) would require that
the White House get permission from a special federal court before
conducting break-ins at the homes of United States citizens or at
foreign embassies in Washington, D.C.
Unlike their predecessors, Mr. Clinton and Ms. Reno have
encouraged Congress to clear up legal uncertainties over black-bag
The issue recently gained new urgency with the case of CIA
official Aldrich Ames, a Soviet spy. Mr. Ames' home in Arlington,
Virginia, was the target of two secret federal searches in June and
However, if the case had come to trial, Ames's attorney
threatened to use the government's warrantless break-ins to attack
the case against his client.
The Fourth Amendment assures "the right of the people to be
secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures...." It guarantees that
warrants will not be issued unless there is "probable cause" and
that the warrant must describe the "persons or things to be
None of these safeguards were carried out in the Ames case.
According to a source on the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence, Reno was deeply concerned about a potential
constitutional challenge by Ames.
She was reported to have said, essentially: That's it. We're not
going to do any more of this.
The Senate bill, however, is itself a subject of controversy on
Capitol Hill. The House, where some members say S. 2056 contains
inadequate safeguards, has so far refused to go along. The issue
will be the subject of a House-Senate conference in late September.
The Senate bill would require that government get approval from
the little-known Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court prior to
a secret physical search of homes, offices, and embassies.
The FISA court, named after the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act of 1978, consists of seven federal district judges
appointed by the chief justice of the US. The judges serve for a
maximum of seven years. …