Pentagon database plan hits snag on Hill

A plan to link databases of credit card companies, health insurers and others--creating what critics call a "domestic surveillance apparatus"--raises concern on Capitol Hill.

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.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
WASHINGTON--A Pentagon antiterrorism plan to link databases of credit card companies, health insurers and others--creating what critics call a "domestic surveillance apparatus"--is encountering growing opposition on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., is planning to introduce a bill on Thursday to halt the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program. A representative said on Wednesday that if passed, the legislation would suspend the TIA program until Congress can "review the data-mining issues."

Even if Congress never acts on Feingold's proposal, the unusual step of trying to suspend a military program may prompt the Defense Department to review the TIA program in a way few other tactics could. The bill will also provide TIA critics with a focal point for activism.

If fully implemented, TIA would link databases from sources such as credit card companies, medical insurers and motor vehicle departments for police convenience in hopes of snaring terrorists. It's funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Over the last two months, scrutiny of TIA has been growing, with newspaper editorials claiming that one of the project's leaders, Adm. John Poindexter, is unfit for the job because of his participation in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. As a protest gesture, activists and critics of TIA have posted Poindexter's personal information online, which may lie behind the removal of information from the TIA Web site on at least three occasions.

On Tuesday, a coalition of civil liberties groups sent a letter to Congress asking that hearings be convened to investigate TIA.

"Why is the Department of Defense developing a domestic surveillance apparatus?" the letter asked. "What databases of personal information would TIA envision having access to?"

In a statement posted last month on the TIA Web site, the Defense Department defended the project as privacy neutral.

"The DoD recognizes American citizens' concerns about privacy invasions," the statement said. "To ensure the TIA project will not violate the privacy of American citizens, the Department has safeguards in place. In addition, (we) will research and develop technologies to protect the system from internal abuses and external threats. The goal is to achieve a quantum leap in privacy technology to ensure data is protected and used only for lawful purposes."

Last week, Feingold and two fellow Democrats--Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Maria Cantwell of Washington state--sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him to disclose how the Justice Department and the Defense Department were using TIA or similar programs.

One person with knowledge of the situation said Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has been approached as a cosponsor of the TIA moratorium. The endorsement of a Republican would lend the moratorium measure additional heft.

"There are many questions surrounding data-mining initiatives of the government," said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. "Sen. Feingold's bill would impose a moratorium on data-mining activities by the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security until the program is justified, assuming it can be justified, and assuming the privacy concerns are satisfied, assuming they can be satisfied."

David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, suggests an inquiry into whether the TIA program would violate federal privacy laws or the U.S. Constitution. Sobel said the Feingold bill is "a way to begin a legislative debate on the legality of TIA and other data-mining initiatives."

Sobel pointed to executive order 12333, which regulates the operation of U.S. spy agencies. It says that those agencies may collect information on Americans "only in accordance" with specific procedures.

A DARPA representative could not immediately be reached for comment.