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Budget Panel Bans Funding for Data Mining Program

A House and Senate panel of negotiators has agreed to include a provision in the compromise spending bill banning funding for the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. The controversial data mining program aims to capture the "information signature" of people in order to track potential terrorists and has been sharply criticized by privacy and civil liberties groups.

Last month, the Senate decided on a voice vote to stop all funding for the program until the Pentagon can prove to Congress the program does not violate privacy rights. The amendment to the budget bill then went to the joint conference committee to thrash out differences between the two bodies' budget proposals.

The Pentagon sought to appease Congress last week by announcing it will establish two oversight boards to monitor the program. According to a Pentagon statement, the two boards, one internal and one external advisory committee, will oversee TIA in order to make sure the program is developed in in accordance with "U.S. constitutional law, U.S. statutory law and American values related to privacy."

The conference committee was apparently unimpressed by the Pentagon effort, keeping the Senate amendment in the final budget bill. The provision bans any use of the program against U.S. citizens without specific Congressional approval. It also calls for denying all funding requests for the program unless the White House submits a report to Congress within 90 days on the program's civil liberties impact.

The TIA program is a project of the Information Awareness Office (IAO), which is under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is headed by former Reagan administration national security advisor John Poindexter.

The IAO's stated mission is to "imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption; national security warning; and national security decision making."

Washington think thank Cato Institute interprets that as "a colossal effort to assemble and 'mine' massive databases of our credit card purchases, car rentals, airline tickets, official records and the like. The aim is to monitor the public's whereabouts, movements and transactions to glean suspicious patterns that indicate terrorist planning and other shenanigans."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.), who authored the amendment to cut all funding to the TIA, also wants a list of all federal agencies that would be interested in using TIA and why.

"My concern is the program that has been developed by Mr. Poindexter is going forward without congressional oversight and without clear accountability and guidelines," Wyden said in a floor statement last week. "That is why I think it is important for the Senate, as we reflect on the need to fight terrorism while balancing the need to protect the rights of our citizens, to emphasize how important it is a program like this be subject to congressional oversight, and that there be clear accountability."

Wyden said the TIA is seeking to develop a way to integrate databases into a virtual centralized grand database.

"They would be in a position to look at education, travel, and medical records, and develop risk profiles for millions of Americans in the quest to examine questionable conduct and certainly suspicious activity that would generate concern for the safety of the American people," Wyden said. "I am of the view the Senate has a special obligation to be vigilant in this area so we do not approve actions or condone actions by this particular office that could compromise the bedrock of this nation: our Constitution."

Wyden added, "It is time for the Senate to put some reins on this program before it grows exponentially and tips the balance with respect to privacy rights and the need to protect the national security of this country in a fashion that is detrimental to our nation."