- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Quick action by the historically slow-moving Senate to freeze funding for a Pentagon program to track terrorists shows lawmakers are serious about protecting civil liberties, a watchdog group said yesterday.
The bipartisan measure passed unanimously Thursday night to halt the Total Information Awareness program until congress can review possible privacy invasions or civil liberty violations.
"It makes a very powerful statement. Given how quickly it came about, it's a very thoughtful first step," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
"Given how early we are in the session, there is an awful lot going on, and the bottom line is that congress wants answers."
The amendment to the spending bill was sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, but Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa climbed on board and the measure quietly was passed on the floor.
"Our amendment should make sure the TIA program strikes the very careful balance that's needed to protect civil liberties while at the same time protecting Americans against terrorists," Mr. Wyden and Mr. Grassley said in a statement.
TIA would use a massive electronic database to track terrorist movements by monitoring credit-card transactions and travel records. It has been dubbed "Big Brother" by critics who fear it will collect personal information on regular citizens.
The Defense Department says TIA, which is still in its infancy, is to seek patterns in transactions to stop terrorist plots. The program was quietly established last year and is run by retired Vice Adm. John Poindexter, who was convicted of deceiving Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal. The conviction was later overturned.
Because of the bill's overwhelming support in the Senate, Mr. Sobel said the House would be hard-pressed to pull the measure when it reaches a joint conference committee for final negotiations.
"We thought it was important this be bipartisan, and in the end it was," Mr. Sobel said. "The House has not weighed in, but it will be difficult for the House to ignore the unanimous and bipartisan position that has emerged in the Senate."
As originally proposed, Mr. Wyden said, the Total Information Awareness program is the most "far-reaching government surveillance plan in history."
"The Senate has now said that this program will not be allowed to grow without tough congressional oversight and accountability, and that there will be checks on the government's ability to snoop on law-abiding Americans," Mr. Wyden said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the program requires careful monitoring it hasn't had yet.
"Thus far, it has been developed and expanded without any meaningful congressional oversight and input," Mrs. Feinstein said.

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