Oregon Defeats the Pentagon and TIA!
Senator Ron Wyden says, "It looks like Congress is getting the message from the American people loud and clear and that is: Stop the trifling of the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans."
WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 — House and Senate negotiators have agreed that a Pentagon project intended to detect terrorists by monitoring Internet e-mail and commercial databases for health, financial and travel information cannot be used against Americans.
The conferees also agreed to restrict further research on the program without extensive consultation with Congress.
House leaders agreed with Senate fears about the threat to personal privacy in the Pentagon program, known as Total Information Awareness. So they accepted a Senate provision in the omnibus spending bill passed last month, said Representative Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who heads the defense appropriations subcommittee.
Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, said of the program, "Jerry's against it, and I'm against it, so we kept the Senate amendment." Of the Pentagon, he said, "They've got some crazy people over there."
The only obstacles to the provision becoming law would be the failure of the negotiators to reach an agreement on the overall spending bill in which it is included, or a successful veto by President Bush of the bill.
Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the program, saying, "The Department of Defense still feels that it's a tool that can be used to alert us to terrorist acts before they occur." He said, "It's not a program that snoops into American citizens' privacy."
One important factor in the breadth of the opposition is the fact that the research project is headed by Adm. John M. Poindexter. Several members of Congress have said that the admiral was an unwelcome symbol because he had been convicted of lying to Congress about weapons sales to Iran and illegal aid to Nicaraguan rebels, an issue with constitutional ramifications, the Iran-contra affair. The fact that his conviction was later reversed on the ground that he had been given immunity for the testimony in which he lied did not mitigate Congressional opinion, they said.
The negotiators' decision was praised by Democrats and Republicans and by outside groups on the right and the left. Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who sponsored the Senate amendment, said, "It looks like Congress is getting the message from the American people loud and clear and that is: Stop the trifling of the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans."
Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who co-sponsored the Wyden amendment, said: "Protecting Americans' civil liberties while at the same time winning the war against terrorism has got to be top priority for the United States. Congressional oversight of this program will be a must as we proceed in the war against terror. The acceptance of this amendment sends a signal that Congress won't sit on its hands as the TIA program moves forward."
Lisa Dean, director of the Center for Technology at the Free Congress Foundation, said, "I am thrilled to see Congress taking responsibility in oversight, given the depth of the debate on this issue."
Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "This is a positive first step toward protecting the privacy of Americans. Congress represents the people's interests and appropriately responded to broad public concern about a program that does not reflect the goals of making us both safe and free."
The negotiators' decision meant almost complete failure for a last-minute Pentagon effort, begun Friday, to protect the program from the Wyden amendment by establishing advisory committees to oversee the program.
The total information concept would enable a team of intelligence analysts to gather and view information from databases, pursue links between individuals and groups, respond to automatic alerts, and share information, all from their individual computers. It could link such different electronic sources as video feeds from airport surveillance cameras, credit card transactions, airline reservations and records of telephone calls. The data would be filtered through software that would constantly seek suspicious patterns.
The Defense Department had already begun to discuss the use of the system with the F.B.I. and perhaps other agencies. Now, without a new law specifically authorizing its use and a new, specific appropriation to pay for it, the program could not be used against United States citizens. But it could be employed in support of lawful military operations outside the United States and lawful foreign intelligence operations conducted wholly against non-United States citizens.
The negotiators did agree to extend from 60 to 90 days the time the Defense Department would have to provide a detailed report to Congress, including its costs, goals, impact on privacy and civil liberties and prospects for successes against terrorists. Unless that report was filed, all further research on the project would have to stop immediately. But President Bush could keep the research alive by certifying to Congress that a halt "would endanger the national security of the United States."
Senator Wyden's curb on the program slid through the Senate with no overt opposition, and among the House-Senate negotiators it has found no vocal opposition, either, making it an almost incidental decision in a conference fighting over billions of dollars for thousands of programs.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said today, "If there is one thing that should unite everybody, from the very conservative member to the very liberal member, it is a concern that our own government should not spy on law-abiding citizens."
Publicly, most of the criticism of Total Information Awareness has come from Democrats. Except for Senator Grassley, Republicans have been silent in public, unwilling to attack a project of a Republican administration. But as Senator Wyden noted today, no one from either party has been ready to speak up in its favor.
add a comment on this article
add a comment on this article