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Senate Moves to Kill TIA Funding

The U.S. Senate is considering banning all funding for the Pentagon's controversial data mining system now known as the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program. While privacy concerns have held up funding for the implementation of the program, Congress has been willing to allow the Pentagon to continue doing research and development of the software.

Under a current defense budget proposal, though, all funding to the project would be denied.

Once called the Total Information Awareness program, the TIA 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."

In February, Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) sponsored an amendment to a spending bill to stop all funding for the proposed surveillance program until the Pentagon can prove to Congress the program does not violate privacy rights. The amendment also called for a report on the TIA within 90 days, which DARPA completed on May 20.

Last month, Wyden responded to the TIA report with skepticism.

"Your report states that 'the TIA Program is not attempting to create or access a centralized database that will store information gathered from various publicly or privately held databases,'" Wyden wrote in a letter to Dr. Anthony Tether of DARPA. "Nonetheless, it is clear that the TIA Program will access any number of such databases and then sort through the information."

Wyden added, "I remain deeply concerned that TIA technology will be used to plow through large amounts of private information on individual Americans in search of hypothetical threat situations."

The questions in Wyden's letter cover a number of privacy and civil liberties issues, including what information will be obtained for TIA, whether citizens will be used voluntarily or involuntarily when some technologies are tested, and what information will be made available to Congress as the program moves forward.

The White House opposes the amendment denying the TIA funding.

"This provision would deny an important potential tool in the war on terrorism," the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said a statement this week. "The administration urges the Senate to remove the provision that prohibits any research and development for the Terrorism Information Awareness [TIA] program."

The Senate expects to vote on the full defense budget before it breaks for its annual August recess next week. A similar version passed the House 399-19 on July 8.