Bill would halt 'virtual bloodhounds'

Two Senate Democrats introduced legislation today to stop the Homeland Security Department and the Pentagon from mining data about Americans in the hunt to find terrorists.

Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Ron Wyden of Oregon said they want a moratorium on the data-mining project known as Total Information Awareness (TIA) while Congress investigates it.

Feingold and others described the system as Orwellian, a reference to the George Orwell novel "1984" in which the government is depicted as knowing every movement of each of the country's citizens.

"Do we really need a file on everyone from the small town of Lodi, Wisconsin, to protect national security?" Feingold asked.

Wyden, who introduced an amendment Jan. 15 to stop all federal money for the project, said, "America should not unleash virtual bloodhounds to sniff into the records" of innocent Americans. He said he expected the Senate to approve the amendment to the fiscal 2003 spending bill as early as next week.

Unlike past government surveillance efforts that primarily stored information on index cards, Wyden said this time the government is seeking to use technology to mine information about Americans from their spending habits, health records, travel itineraries and other personal data stored in databases.

Although the Bush administration has remained silent about the increasing drumbeat of protests, the lawmakers were joined by an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative groups that oppose the TIA project. The groups range from the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group.

The TIA project, the coalition said, would cost $137 million in fiscal 2003 alone and more than $575 million from fiscal 2004 to 2007.

John Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, is leading the TIA project. He heads the Information Awareness Office, which began developing methods a year ago to use data surveillance and profiling technology that can analyze reams of data from everyday transactions in an effort to detect terrorist activities.

In a statement on its Web site, the Information Awareness Office, which is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, denied there was a plan to snoop into the everyday activities of Americans.

"The research into data search and pattern recognition technologies is based on the idea that terrorist planning activities or a likely terrorist attack could be uncovered by searching for indications of terrorist activities in vast quantities of transaction data," the statement said.

"For this research, the TIA will use only data that is legally available and obtainable by the U.S. government."

Regarding the introduction of the legislation, a spokeswoman from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said, "We have read the press reports regarding these bills but haven't yet seen copies of any formal bills. We defer our comment until such time that we have been able to review the introduced bill.

"However, we continue to believe that the research and development planned under the Total Information Awareness program is important to our nation," the DARPA representative said. "TIA will develop innovative information technology tools that will give the Department of Defense's intelligence, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism communities important capabilities to prevent terrorist attacks against the U.S."

Dan Caterinicchia contributed to this report.

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