WASHINGTON – The Senate voted unanimously to restrict a controversial Pentagon data-mining program after various lawmakers equated it with domestic spying.
The provision, passed by unanimous consent, was part of a huge $390 billion omnibus spending bill financing most federal agencies passed. It would ban funding of the hotly debated program until the Defense Department fully explains it and can promise lawmakers that Americans' civil liberties will not be comprised by its use.
The program, called the Total Information Awareness program, has been under increased scrutiny from Capitol Hill and privacy groups concerned about its ability to scour the financial, educational, medical and government records of every American.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sponsored the measure halting the funding of TIA. Wyden said the program couldn't be deployed without congressional approval, although it allowed exceptions for national security. Under the Wyden amendment, no funds may be guaranteed for the TIA program unless the attorney general, secretary of defense, and director of Central intelligence provide a detailed report on their plans within 60 days of the Wyden proposal becoming law.
"As originally proposed, the Total Information Awareness program is the most far-reaching government surveillance plan in history," Wyden said. "The Senate has now said that this program will not be allowed to grow without tough congressional oversight and accountability, and that there will be checks on the government's ability to snoop on law-abiding Americans."
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, say they are working out kinks in the program to address privacy matters, an area of concern not only to lawmakers but to civil liberties groups.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., last week introduced his own bill as an amendment to the spending measure that would halt TIA until Congress could study the practice of data-mining and the various aspects of TIA. That measure was co-sponsored by Wyden and Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J. Feingold supported Wyden's amendment.
"This amendment was a first step in addressing the threat that the Total Information Awareness Program poses to our civil liberties," Feingold said in a statement, adding that he will continue to fight for passage of his own bill.
"The administration must suspend not only the TIA but all other data-mining initiatives in the departments of defense and homeland security until Congress can determine whether the proposed benefits come at too high a price for our privacy and personal liberties," he added.
The Wyden amendment will now be passed along as part of the larger package to House and Senate negotiators who will hammer out their differences in the spending package. The House version of the spending bill does not include any limits on TIA. If passed in conference, it will go the president for his signature.
Earlier this month, several Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft voicing concern about the project. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also has expressed reservations about data mining in talks with the Defense Department's inspector general, Joseph Schmitz. Grassley stressed that more congressional oversight is needed.
Thursday's vote is a small victory for privacy circles who argue that TIA would impose on the lives of ordinary Americans. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Democracy, and the Technology and Free Congress Foundation also sent a letter to lawmakers earlier this month asking them to stop funding of TIA until the program's details were further explained.