WASHINGTON – When Congress killed the Pentagon (search)'s vast computerized terrorism surveillance project, it secretly transferred some of the research and tools to other agencies but won't spell out exactly which ones.
The 2004 defense appropriations bill Congress sent President Bush on Thursday would close former Adm. John Poindexter's old office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (search) and bar DARPA from proceeding with all but four small, uncontroversial partrch program.
DARPA was allowed to continue research on terrorism war-gaming software, on speeding detection of bioterror attacks and on software to automatically translate foreign documents and broadcasts.
But the House-Senate conference report on the bill and comments by Senate aides indicated the conferees moved some of the TIA software research and tools to other government agencies for use in gathering foreign intelligence -- information about the intentions, plans and capabilities of foreign governments or groups.
U.S. agents are allowed to gather this data with few restrictions from foreigners or U.S. citizens abroad or from foreigners in this country, but U.S. laws restrict the tools government agents can use to gather such data from U.S. citizens inside this country.
A TIA opponent, Sen. Ron Wyden (search), D-Ore., declared that the changes mean that "Americans on American soil are not going to be targets of TIA surveillance that would have violated their privacy and civil liberties."
But Lara Flint, staff attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocate of online privacy, said Congress' action fell short of protecting the privacy of Americans. "This measure doesn't stop other agencies or the private sector from going forward with this type of research," Flint said. "We would like to see standards written for data-scanning, pattern-recognition technology."
A senior Senate aide, requesting anonymity, said the transferred TIA money and programs included collaborative tools, which means software designed to help analysts connect the dots between isolated intelligence tidbits now scattered among agencies like the CIA, FBI and State Department.
Investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks concluded the hoarding of such data by separate agencies diminished the opportunities to detect the attacks in advance. Before leaving DARPA last month, Poindexter said testing of this collaborative software on foreign data by the Army's Intelligence and Security Command had produced analyses in one-tenth the time previously required.
But was any of Poindexter's most criticized effort -- the scanning of vast computer databases of travel, credit card, medical and other personal records of Americans and foreigners -- shifted elsewhere in secret? Not clear.
The Senate aide said secrecy prevented disclosing precisely which TIA programs or how much money was shifted and to which agencies. CIA, State, Defense and host of other agencies participate in the National Foreign Intelligence Program, which the conferees specifically authorized to use "processing, analysis and collaboration tools for counterterrorism foreign intelligence purposes."
The fate of another TIA project, Human Identification at a Distance, also remained unclear. At Georgia Tech, researchers had achieved some success identifying people several hundred yards away by using radar to analyze the way they walk. Other researchers were using videocameras to try to identify people at a distance through facial and gait recognition software.
Poindexter's most controversial idea was that U.S. analysts studying past terror attacks and imagining future ones could produce a list of telltale actions terrorists might take in preparing attacks -- such as in the case of Sept. 11, recently arriving from the Mideast, taking flying lessons and buying boxcutters.
Poindexter believed such telltale actions could be detected by scanning a huge number of computer databases -- credit card records, travel data, housing and medical information -- held privately or by governments here and abroad. The Associated Press disclosed last spring that Poindexter contemplated developing software that could rapidly scan multiple petabytes of data. Just one petabyte of computer data could fill the Library of Congress more than 50 times.
Meanwhile, a smaller-scale program with similarities to TIA is being developed at the Transportation Security Agency: the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, which would scan a much narrower set of private records to assess the security risk posed by each air traveler. It would not look at credit card transactions or medical histories. Congress recently sent Bush a homeland security bill that postpones CAPPS II implementation until February.