Republican senator slams database plan

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is lending his voice to criticism of a Pentagon data-mining project that could result in detailed electronic dossiers compiled on Americans.

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 Republican senator is lending his voice to criticism of a Pentagon data-mining project that could result in detailed electronic dossiers compiled on Americans.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he will support legislation to curb the scope of the controversial Total Information Awareness (TIA) project and limit the FBI's involvement with it. The full Senate could vote on the proposal as early as Thursday as an amendment to a spending bill.

Grassley, who is a frequent critic of government abuses of power, did not go as far as some Democratic senators and call for a broad moratorium on TIA, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Instead, his proposal says TIA may not be used for "domestic intelligence or law enforcement purposes."

"Like many people, I have been concerned that this program could be used to invade the privacy of Americans by snooping around in our bank accounts, personal Internet computers, phone records and the like," Grassley said in a statement. If fully implemented, TIA would link databases from sources such as credit card companies, medical insurers and motor vehicle departments for police use toward snaring terrorists.

Support from Grassley, a senior Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, substantially increases the chances that Congress will place at least some limits on the development and use of the TIA system.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday, Grassley charged that the Justice Department and FBI are closer to using TIA than the agencies previously have acknowledged. That came after a letter to Grassley from Defense Department Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, who said the FBI is considering "possible experimentation with TIA technology in the future."

As previously reported, efforts in Congress to block the TIA program began last week with a Democratic proposal championed by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. It's a standalone bill called the Data-Mining Moratorium Act that would create a moratorium on TIA.

A third proposal is backed by Democratic senators including Ron Wyden of Oregon, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The Wyden-drafted amendment to the omnibus appropriations bill being debated this week goes further than Grassley's proposal, and bans TIA after two months unless Congress receives a detailed report, or President Bush certifies that halting TIA would "endanger the national security of the United States."

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."

The TIA project became public in early 2002, when Bush chose Adm. John Poindexter--a central character in the Iran-Contra scandal--to run DARPA's Information Awareness Office. But criticism of the project from privacy advocates and newspaper editorial pages has spiked in the past two months, with politicians becoming increasingly interested in TIA's details after the 108th Congress convened this month.