The Pentagon announced yesterday the creation of two boards to oversee an experimental anti-terrorism program designed to snoop on financial transactions.
The Bush administration hopes the dual committees, one internal and one an outside advisory panel, will blunt fierce attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike of Total Information Awareness. Critics say activating TIA will mark a massive government intrusion into the private lives of citizens.
“What were talking about is to give myself and the Department of Defense one more degree of confidence that were doing the right thing with the project,” said Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
The Senate last month unanimously passed an amendment to the 2003 omnibus spending bill that blocks funding for TIA until the Pentagon assures that there will be no privacy violations.
“Were working with the Congress on their amendment,” said Mr. Aldridge, who will be chairman of the internal committee. “We think we can probably come to a compromise that is acceptable to us.”
TIA is trying to develop computer software that can analyze millions of financial and visa transactions, such as airline-ticket purchases and car rentals, and identify a pattern unique to international terrorists. Advocates say such a program could stop terrorists and save lives.
The September 11 terrorists, for example, completed hundreds of transactions to prepare to hijack four airliners and fly them into targets in New York and Washington.
But privacy advocates say such snooping would violate constitutional protections. Some want the Bush administration to cancel TIA, which is overseen by retired Navy Vice Adm. John Poindexter, a figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Instead, the Pentagon is setting up two boards. One, inside the Defense Department comprising senior civilian officials, will establish policies on how any TIA technologies would be transferred to law enforcement or intelligence agencies for their use.
The second, a federal advisory committee, has been appointed to advise Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on how TIA proposals mesh with privacy laws.
The latter committees members are Newton Minow, director of the Annenberg Washington program and the Annenberg professor of communications law and policy at Northwestern University, as chairman; civil rights lawyer Floyd Abrams; corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, director of the Markel Foundation; Griffin Bell, former U.S. attorney general and appeals court judge; Gerhard Casper, president emeritus of Stanford University; William Coleman, former chairman and chief executive of BEA Systems Inc. applications and infrastructure company; and Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel.
Mr. Aldridge yesterday refused to either commend or criticize TIA, which is under the Pentagons Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“I really dont want to debate the merits of TIA,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Adm. Poindexter has given several speeches on TIA but refused press interviews. The Pentagon issued its first statement yesterday defending Adm. Poindexters research.
“TIA does not plan to create a gigantic database,” the Pentagon said. “Further, TIA has not ever collected or gathered and is not now collecting or gathering any intelligence information. This is and will continue to be the responsibility of the U.S. foreign intelligence/counterintelligence agencies, which operate under various legal and policy restrictions with congressional oversight.”
Adm. Poindexter is spending $10 million in this years defense budget on TIA that was already approved by Congress. President Bush has asked lawmakers to double the amount to $20 million in fiscal 2004.
A TIA spokeswoman has said that if the program develops usable software, it will transfer the technology to agencies that then must abide by federal privacy laws. TIA is using fabricated data to test the software.
Mr. Aldridge said his committee will ensure that “if the technology is, in fact, successful weve got the right protocols to transfer that with all the necessary provisions of privacy and things that give us the confidence, supplemented by the external board, which will also review this, and to give us additional confidence that were doing the right thing.”
Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, said Congress should still enact the Senates amendment.
“This administrations flagrant willingness to trample on citizens civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism should make us skeptical of relying on the administration to police itself,” Mr. Neas said.
“The decision to create Pentagon oversight boards is a welcome recognition that there are serious privacy concerns with the Total Information Awareness program. But advisory boards cannot be considered a substitute for real congressional oversight.”