The U.S. Senate Thursday decided on a voice vote to stop all funding for the controversial Defense Department program known as Total Information Awareness (TIA) until the Pentagon can prove to Congress the program does not violate the privacy rights of Americans.
Thursday’s vote also prohibits the Pentagon from transferring the program to any other agencies in a back door bid for funding.
However, the measure is not yet law. The amendment is attached to a Senate spending bill and still must survive a joint House-Senate negotiating committee that will thrash out differences between the two bodies’ budget proposals. After that, both the House and the Senate must then approve the deal between the negotiating committee before moving on to President George W. Bush for final approval.
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 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.
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.”