- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Four influential Democrats yesterday asked Attorney General John Ashcroft for "appropriate safeguards" against the misuse of a Pentagon-based computer tracking system for identifying terrorists.

Outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, and fellow Democratic panelists Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Maria Cantwell of Washington want to know what the Justice Department is doing to guarantee adequate program oversight.

"We are interested in learning the extent to which the department is relying on data mining to deal with the terrorism threat or other criminal activity, and how this technology is being used," the three said in a letter to Mr. Ashcroft.

"Improved access to and the sharing of information among intelligence and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels is crucial in promoting our national security interests," they said. "These national security interests are most effectively and efficiently served, however, when the information being collected and shared is relevant, reliable, timely and accurate."

Separately, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, also called on the Senate defense Appropriations subcommittee to investigate the tracking system, known as the Total Information Awareness System and headed by retired Vice Adm. John Poindexter of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"I am very concerned about the Total Information Awareness Project, its legality and the threat it poses to the privacy of law-abiding Americans," Mr. Harkin said. "Just as troubling is the choice of Adm. John Poindexter to head up this project."

Mr. Harkin said he wants to know how Adm. Poindexter was picked to head the project, given that he was convicted of conspiracy, lying to Congress, defrauding the government and destroying evidence in the Iran-Contra scandal. The convictions were later overturned on appeal.

"I think it is important for Congress to have an opportunity to hear from the man who developed and runs this project before we write next year's defense-spending bill," Mr. Harkin said.

The computer tracking program is designed to monitor the daily personal transactions by Americans and others, including tracking the use of passports, driver's licenses, credit cards, airline tickets and rental cars, with the goal of turning over the information to law enforcement agencies.

The investigation of the September 11 attacks showed that the 19 hijackers involved made scores of credit-card, travel and passport transactions as they entered and left the country, and received money to finance their deadly acts. Those transactions would be traceable under the new software system.

"Advances in the technological capability to search, track or mine commercial and government databases and Americans' consumer transactions have provided powerful tools that have dramatically changed the ways that companies market their products and services," Mr. Leahy said.

"Collection and use by government law enforcement agencies of such commercial transactional data on law-abiding Americans poses unique issues and concerns, however," he said, noting the potential for excessive government surveillance that may "intrude" on privacy interests and "chill" First Amendment guarantees.

Mr. Leahy said the sheer volume of information collected may make updating the data and checks for reliability and accuracy difficult, warning that the reliance on data mining by law enforcement agencies may produce an increase in false leads and law enforcement mistakes.

In their letter, the three senators asked Mr. Ashcroft to explain how the Justice Department is addressing concerns for appropriate safeguards on the collection, use and dissemination of the information obtained.

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