House vote stymies TIA spy plan

Lawmakers approve a spending bill that removes funding for Terrorism Information Awareness, effectively nixing the plan that sought to assemble computerized dossiers on Americans.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a spending bill that eliminates money for the Terrorism Information Awareness project, effectively putting an end to the controversial Pentagon antiterrorism plan, which sought to assemble computerized dossiers on Americans.

The 407 to 15 vote on Wednesday approved a conference bill drafted by a joint House-Senate committee. The approval vote is the result of a year of fierce lobbying by privacy advocates to eliminate TIA (formerly named "Total Information Awareness") and of Pentagon efforts to defend it against mounting public and congressional criticism. Adm. John Poindexter, who ran the U.S. Department of Defense's Information Awareness Office, which managed the TIA project, resigned last month.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who led opposition to the TIA project on Capitol Hill, said in a telephone interview that the "program that would have been the biggest and most intrusive surveillance program in the history of the United States will be no more. The lights are going out at the office."

Originally, only the Senate version of the annual Defense Department appropriations bill included the funding restriction, while the House bill did not. Members of the closed-door joint committee decided to keep the language that restricted the budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), saying they were "concerned about the activities of the Information Awareness Office, and direct that the office be terminated immediately."

Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for DARPA, said on Thursday: "I don't want to make a comment. The congressional language speaks for itself."

The legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate, does permit TIA or a similar system to be used for data mining--as long as the targets are not U.S. citizens or residents. It says "the conference agreement does not restrict the National Foreign Intelligence Program from using processing, analysis and collaboration tools for counterterrorism foreign intelligence purposes."

Wyden stressed that provision would effectively curb the reach of TIA. "What they did say was that some of the technology programs can be used by some of the foreign intelligence programs," he said. "This is significant, because it ensures that American citizens on American soil will not become targets of TIA surveillance programs that could have seriously violated their privacy."

The National Foreign Intelligence Program is a broad term that covers the budgets of any federal agency with an intelligence-related mission, including the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Defense Department. Those agencies are defined in Executive Order 12333. In January, Defense Department Inspector General Joseph Schmitz acknowledged that the FBI was considering "possible experimentation with TIA technology in the future."

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Poindexter's resignation this summer indicated that TIA would not survive the conference committee.

"I think there was consensus from both Democrats and Republicans that TIA was poorly conceived and poorly executed," Rotenberg said. "The point is important, because people were reacting to the underlying premise that you would gather up this data, and the fact that people like John Poindexter were gathering up this stuff."

TIA became a lightning rod of criticism, in part because President George W. Bush chose Poindexter, who was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, to run DARPA's Information Awareness Office. As a protest gesture, activists and critics of TIA posted Poindexter's personal information online, which may lie behind the removal of information from the TIA Web site on at least three occasions.

If it had been fully implemented, TIA would have linked databases from sources such as credit card companies, medical insurers and motor vehicle departments for law enforcement purposes in hopes of snaring terrorists. Although TIA was the subject of the most attention, the conference report appears to slice funding for other related projects at DARPA. These include Human ID at a Distance and database-related projects like Genisys, Genoa, and Genoa II.

The funding restriction is likely to pose problems for dozens of contractors--including the University of Southern California, Colorado State University, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and defense contractor Science Applications International--that had expected to receive millions of dollars for research that was aimed at implementing TIA.