WASHINGTON – A Defense Department database project with the capacity to scour financial, educational, medical and government records of every American is catching heat from lawmakers, including one who wants Congress to approve DoD's data-mining methods before the program is fully operational.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., on Thursday introduced a bill that will halt the Total Information Awareness program at the Pentagon until Congress can study the practice of data-mining and the various aspects of TIA. The measure would be an amendment to a $390 billion spending bill for the current budget year under debate in the Senate.
"This unchecked system is a dangerous step that threatens one of the values we are fighting for - freedom," Feingold told reporters. "The administration has a heavy burden of proof that such extreme measures are necessary."
Feingold wants to ensure that Americans' privacy is protected as the federal government continues such surveillance projects in the name of national security.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would place a moratorium on data-mining in the Defense Department and the new Department of Homeland Security. It would also require all federal agencies to report within 90 days about all data-mining systems under development or in use and the steps they are taking to protect privacy.
TIA, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is already up and running. If fully implemented, TIA would link various databases used by consumer, banking and health outlets to enable authorities to pinpoint suspicious patterns and look for clues that will help them catch terrorists.
DARPA officials, led by Adm. John Poindexter, a key figured in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, say they are working out kinks in the program to address privacy matters, an area of concern not only to Feingold and other lawmakers, but to civil liberties groups who say no national security threat is so great that it must violate individual privacy to that extent.
DARPA's Information Awareness Office "is not building a 'supercomputer' to snoop into the private lives or track the everyday activities of American citizens," DARPA's Web site states.
The goal of TIA is to "revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists -- and decipher their plans -- and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully pre-empt and defeat terrorist acts," the site reads.
Last Friday, Feingold and two other key Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a list of oversight questions to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding data-mining activities going on within the Bush administration. Feingold, and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Maria Cantwell of Washington asked for more information on projects such as TIA and the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force.
Leahy spokesman David Carle said Thursday that the Justice Department has not yet responded to the letter. Carle could not say whether Leahy will support Feingold's legislation.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, earlier this week complained the Pentagon hasn't given Congress enough information on TIA.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa sent a letter to Defense Department Inspector General Joseph Schmitz last November asking the agency to conduct a complete review of TIA and its implications. Grassley aides since then have met with Schmitz's staff and concluded that preliminary findings haven't alleviated any of the senator's concerns, a Grassley spokeswoman said.
However, Grassley has not decided yet whether to support Feingold's legislation.
"I think Sen. Grassley wants to get all the facts before he decides something needs to be legislated again," the spokeswoman said. "I think he's going to wait for the inspector general's report to come back."
A coalition of groups that joined Feingold Thursday, including the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for National Security Studies and American Conservative Union, earlier this week expressed their opposition to the Defense program, asking Congress to put the database on hold until lawmakers take a closer look.
"TIA would put the details of Americans' daily lives under scrutiny of government agents, opening the door to a massive domestic surveillance system," the groups wrote in a letter to various congressional committees. "The very workings of TIA would depend on access to massive amounts of personal information stored in electronic databases. By definition, the program is privacy-intrusive."
The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, released a study Wednesday concluding that the United States has reached a point where a total "surveillance society" has become a realistic possibility.
"Many people still do not grasp that Big Brother surveillance is no longer the stuff of books and movies," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program and co-author of the report (<http://www.aclu.org/Privacy/Privacylist.cfm?c=39>). "Given the capabilities of today's technology, the only thing protecting us from a full-fledged surveillance society are the legal and political institutions we have inherited as Americas."
The ACLU report argues that even as surveillance capacity grows like a "monster," the legal "chains" needed to restrain it are being weakened. The report sites the TIA program as a prime example of U.S. spy activities at a hilt.
"From government watch lists to secret wiretaps -- Americans are unknowingly becoming targets of government surveillance … it is imperative that our government be made accountable," said Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the ACLU in North Carolina.
The federal government has invested around $128 billion in TIA and related programs, according to the privacy groups. The fiscal 2003 Defense appropriations bill included an additional $112 million.
DARPA says it is seeking to create a database to detect patterns in transactions that may be used to "coordinate and conduct attacks against Americans." The systems will use language transition technologies, data search and pattern recognition technologies and other tools to find terrorists and will only use data that is legally available.
"The DoD recognizes American citizens' concerns about privacy invasions," DARPA says. "The goal is to achieve a quantum leap in privacy technology to ensure data is protected and used only for lawful purposes."