Senate votes to block TIA system

The Senate approved an amendment Jan. 23 blocking use of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness (TIA) system unless Congress specifically authorizes it after the Bush administration submits a report about the program's effect on privacy.

Using a voice vote, senators approved the amendment, which was introduced Jan. 15 by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and added it to the omnibus continuing appropriations bill for fiscal 2003, which is under consideration in the Senate.

In theory, TIA would enable national security analysts to detect, classify, track, understand and pre-empt terrorist attacks against the United States by using surveillance and spotting patterns in public and private transactions.

"As originally proposed, the [TIA] program is the most far-reaching government surveillance plan in history," Wyden said in a statement. "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."

The system, parts of which are already operational, incorporates transactional data systems—including private credit card and travel records—biometric authentication technologies, intelligence data and automated virtual data repositories. The goal is to create an "end-to-end, closed-loop system" that will help military and intelligence analysts make decisions related to national security, said Robert Popp, deputy director of DARPA's Information Awareness Office (IAO), which is heading up the effort.

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 and heads DARPA's IAO.

Numerous lawmakers and many privacy and government watchdog groups have expressed reservations about Poindexter's involvement in the program. But no one may have taken a tougher stance against Poindexter than New York Times columnist William Safire, who in a scathing Nov. 14, 2002, editorial, wrote: "He is determined to break down the wall between commercial snooping and secret government intrusion. The disgraced admiral dismisses such necessary differentiation as bureaucratic 'stovepiping.'"

Wyden explained that his amendment does not "kill the program."

Rather, he said, "the amendment shifts the burden to the executive branch to make the case for the program. The amendment would restrict funding for the program unless the secretary of Defense, the attorney general and the director of central intelligence send to Congress within 60 days a report answering a series of questions about the TIA program, or the president certifies to Congress in writing that that cessation of TIA's research and development work would endanger U.S. national security." The Wyden amendment does contain a presidential waiver provision allowing spending to move forward if—and only if—the president certifies that submitting the report is not possible, or that stopping research and development for TIA would endanger national security.

Even if the president submits such a waiver, Congress still must give final approval for any deployment of any technology TIA develops.

Following final Senate passage of the omnibus spending bill, the House and Senate will enter a conference to agree on the final wording of the spending legislation. That agreement, once approved by both chambers, will move to the president's desk for his signature.

Despite the Senate vote, a DARPA spokeswoman said the agency still believs in the TIA program.

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


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