Congress has pulled the plug on a data-mining computer program criticized by privacy advocates as a supersnoop system to spy on American citizens and is closing the Pentagon office that created it.
“The outcome is we are not going to have Americans picked up by their ankles and turned upside down then shaken to see if anything funny falls out,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and leading opponent of the office’s activities.
“We won’t see Americans on American soil being targeted under the biggest surveillance program in the history of the U.S.,” Mr. Wyden said.
A House and Senate conference committee late Wednesday agreed on instructions to close the Information Awareness Office (IAO) and included the instructions in the final defense spending bill for 2004. The bill cannot be amended and is expected to pass both legislative bodies and then signed by President Bush, despite the administration’s support for the program.
“The conferees are concerned about the activities of the Information Awareness Office and direct that the office be terminated immediately,” the legislation says.
Congress will allow the continuation of research projects at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which oversaw the IAO, that do not involve data mining, and will not restrict the National Foreign Intelligence Program from using technology tools developed under TIA for foreign intelligence purposes overseas.
The IAO created the Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program that designed software to mine data, including credit card, medical and travel records, in its search for terrorists.
“Congress is shutting down TIA, but we are not forgoing the use of technology to sharpen our homeland security efforts and track terrorists here and around the world,” Mr. Wyden said.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the legislative language “speaks for itself” and declined further comment.
The TIA was opened after the September 11 terrorist attacks and was led by retired Navy Vice Adm. John Poindexter, whose conviction for deceiving Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s was overturned.
Under pressure from Congress and advocacy groups, the office, first dubbed Total Information Awareness, changed its name, then its logo, and eventually its leadership. Adm. Poindexter resigned last month after Congress threatened to eliminate another program to establish an online gambling parlor to predict Middle East terrorist attacks.
“The Poindexter program was over the line, and what has been decided by Congress is the lights are going out on what John Poindexter conceived,” Mr. Wyden said.
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the legislation to delete TIA shows that Congress is willing to regulate antiterrorism initiatives that threaten the privacy rights of Americans.
However, Mr. Sobel said other proposed and ongoing programs in the federal government should be investigated and canceled.
The Transportation Security Administration has proposed a data system to conduct background checks on the nation’s airline passengers, who number more than 2 million a day. JetBlue Airways Corp. acknowledged that it disclosed personal consumer information from millions of its customers to an information-mining company for a trial run.
“The idea of predicting the activity of people based on background checks has always been very suspect. There are serious questions surrounding the effectiveness of this kind of approach,” Mr. Sobel said.