TIA proponents defend domestic spy plan

Backers of the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness project dismiss criticism of the plan as "hysterical vociferous cries" from privacy advocates.

NEW YORK--A Pentagon data-mining project to sift through corporate and government records and spot suspicious activity is necessary to thwart terrorism, two proponents said on Wednesday afternoon.

The Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, being developed by the U.S. Defense Department, is an example of using the latest technology to guard against future terrorist attacks, representatives of two conservative groups said during a debate at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference. If fully implemented, TIA would link databases from sources such as credit card companies, medical insurers and motor vehicle agencies in hopes of identifying terrorist activities.

Heather MacDonald, a lawyer and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, dismissed criticism of TIA as "hysterical vociferous cries" from privacy advocates who oppose making government more efficient at snaring wrongdoers and protecting innocent Americans. "If you don't trust government to protect us from terrorists, good luck doing it yourself," MacDonald said.

"We have to use every legal mechanism in our power to make sure we don't have a 9-11 type of attack," MacDonald said. She accused her opponents of taking "a Luddite approach that says al-Qaida can get its hands on the best possible technology to attack us, but we're stuck with (an) outdated mechanism."

Over the last few months, TIA has become a lightning rod for criticism, with Republican and Democratic legislators speaking out against it on privacy and security grounds. On Feb. 20, as part of a large spending bill for the federal government, Congress approved additional scrutiny of research and development on the TIA project.

Those restrictions do not halt TIA research. They would permit dozens of grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to be fully funded if DARPA sends Congress a "schedule for proposed research and development" that includes a privacy evaluation, or if President George W. Bush certifies that TIA is necessary for national security.

During Wednesday's debate, opponents of TIA characterized the system as unacceptable, unworkable, and liable to be abused by people with access to it. It's a "sharp departure from the long-standing principle that you have the right to be left alone," said Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Corrigan said it was difficult to debate TIA because it remained an "amorphous and to date very secret concept" that the Bush administration has not discussed in any detail.

MacDonald, from the Manhattan Institute, said critics were guilty of "knee-jerk opposition" and spreading "patent falsehoods" about how the system would work if implemented.

Michael Scardaville, a homeland security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said: "Can it be abused? Yes. Is that what DARPA is trying to do? Absolutely not...It is not the Orwellian monster described by many critics."