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Rod Smith
 

Sources: FBI Gathered Visitor Information Only in Las Vegas

7 January 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Only in Las Vegas did the FBI require all hotel operators to surrender guest lists and airlines to turn over arriving passenger manifests, sources at the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.

The program, which started Dec. 22, a day after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terrorist alert level from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high," was terminated Jan. 1 with the end of the holidays, local FBI spokesman Todd Palmer said.

Casino operators said they turned over the names and other guest information on an estimated 270,000 visitors after a meeting with FBI officials and after receiving national security letters requiring them to yield the information.

FBI spokespeople in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., however, declined to confirm whether any of the information gathered on local hotel guests and airline passengers led to individual investigations.

Industry sources who asked not to be identified complained they were intimidated into providing the information because of their vulnerability to the decisions of federal and state regulators.

"When you put this data-mining together with other powers granted the FBI, the potential for massive abuse is obvious," Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday.

He explained the FBI has new authority to make follow-up demands for whatever information it wants on individuals included on the original lists, and hotel operators and local law enforcement agencies are banned by the recently signed Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 from disclosing any investigations stemming from the lists.

Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the national ACLU, said part of the group's legislative program this year will be to rein in the overly broad authority granted the FBI and other law enforcement agencies by the USA Patriot Act and the intelligence authorization bill.

However, he said that does not necessarily mean the problem won't be repeated.

"This is an area where the government is using the threat of its powers to compel compliance, but the compliance (may appear to be) voluntary," Edgar said.

If that is the case, the FBI could still create dossiers on large numbers of individuals not suspected of committing any crime more serious than visiting Las Vegas for a holiday vacation, he said.

"The federal government has been saying we don't have anything to worry about because it will only use its powers sparingly and to investigate terrorists. Obviously, what they're doing is much broader than that," Edgar said.

In Las Vegas, the only city where visitors have been targeted since the new powers were granted, Peck said there is no reason "to believe anything the government is telling us on how many people are being investigated or for what."

"In fact, there is every reason not to believe them because they asked for the blanket gag order so they wouldn't have to tell," he said.

Spokesmen for Las Vegas casinos said they were under specific instructions not to discuss any information-gathering with customers or with the media.

The program requiring hotels and airlines to turn guest and passenger information over to the FBI could be started again whenever the alert level is raised, although Palmer said that decision will be made on a case-by-case basis.

He declined to discuss whether the first use of the new government authority, which lasted 11 days, turned up any information on suspected terrorist activities or affected security measures put in place for the Christmas and New Year's Eve holidays.

Peck said the "massive data-mining and snooping" violate individuals' rights and "cannot help but be bad for our state's leading industry and economy."

Bill Thompson, University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor and casino industry expert, said any repeat of the program would be bad news for Las Vegas.

Either there is credible evidence of a specific threat to Las Vegas, which would be good reason for visitors to stay away, or the FBI is sweeping up massive amounts of information on individual citizens for no credible reason, he said.

The FBI and local law enforcement agencies have said there was no specific and credible terrorist threat aimed at Las Vegas over the recent holiday.

"It's bad if we're singled out, but it'd also be bad if we're a real target. Las Vegas is ready to take off when Steve Wynn's resort opens next year, and this is the only monkey wrench," Thompson said.

"People come here for some stupid reason, and we want them to. That's our slogan. How does the FBI program match up with `What you do here stays here?' " he asked.

"If there are a lot of stories about this, especially high rollers are going to decide to stay away. It's going to be a selective deterrent for some people, and they'll tend to be good gamblers," Thompson said.

Meanwhile, national and local American Civil Liberties Union officials called the policy "truly Orwellian" and said they plan to seek protection from Congress from the allegedly unconstitutional dumping of judicial safeguards and privacy protection measures.

In Washington, D.C., Edgar said there needs to be a distinction between situations in which individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as when they check into a hotel, and others in which they have diminished expectations, such as when they cross the border into the United States or board a commercial aircraft.

"Putting everyone under investigation creates the danger of a surveillance society in which everyone is watched all the time," he said.