WASHINGTON - Privacy and civil-rights groups have hailed Congress' decision to effectively kill a controversial Pentagon program to construct a powerful computerized surveillance system that critics feared would lead to unprecedented spying into the private lives of U.S. citizens.
The program, whose name was changed from "Total Information Awareness" to "Terrorist Information Awareness after an initial outcry late last year, was the brainchild of ret. Admiral John Poindexter, former President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser who was convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s.
In a bid to save the program, Poindexter resigned his position in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last month, but a conference committee of House and Senate members agreed to delete funding for TIA when it met earlier this week to finish reconciling the two houses' versions of the 2004 defense appropriations bill. The conference committee said it was "concerned about the activities of the Information Awareness Office (that had been headed by Poindexter) and directed that the office be terminated immediately." The final bill also banned the government from using the technology envisioned by TIA in any other program.
I've always said I believe that you can fight terrorism vigorously without cannibalizing civil liberties, and TIA did not meet that test.
Time and time again, the Defense Department sought to cross the line on privacy and civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. The appropriators have wisely chosen to end this program.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who led the fight against TIA
The House of Representatives voted 407-15 to approve the conference committee's bill on Wednesday, while the House approved it Thursday by a vote of 95-0.
"Congress has reaffirmed the fundamental privacy rights of all Americans," said Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which had lobbied against the TIA since its existence was first exposed by the New York Times one year ago. "This is a resounding victory for individual liberty."
"I've always said I believe that you can fight terrorism vigorously without cannibalizing civil liberties, and TIA did not meet that test," said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who led the fight against TIA and related projects in the Senate. "Time and time again, the Defense Department sought to cross the line on privacy and civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. The appropriators have wisely chosen to end this program."
Congress' decision came amid increasing concern among a broad spectrum of groups about the 2001 USA Patriot Act and proposals by the administration of President George W. Bush for a new set of counter-terrorism measures that critics say will restrict civil rights even more.
One proposal would grant new authority for federal agents to demand private records and compel testimony without the approval of a judge or even of a federal prosecutor. Backed by a two-year-old coalition that includes such groups People for the American Way on the left and the Eagle Forum on the right, Democratic and some Republican lawmakers have spoken out against the proposals which have yet to be formally introduced.
Recent efforts by Attorney General John Ashcroft to defend the more-controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, as well as the pending proposals, have also not been well-received in the nation's major media, particularly in newspaper editorials.
Nonetheless, few programs have been as thoroughly panned as Poindexter's TIA project.
It proposed using the latest data-mining technology to sift through vast amounts of personal data, including credit-card purchases, travel, library, medical and even video-rental records, financial and banking statements, personal internet usage, email correspondence, and other information in hopes of finding "suspicious patterns" that would permit intelligence or law-enforcement agencies to identify likely terrorists.
The project, whose symbol, designed by Poindexter himself, included the all-seeing eye depicted on the U.S. dollar bill, was described as something out of George Orwell's classic work on totalitarianism, '1984.'
The administration and some conservatives tried to defend it. "The threat of another horrific attack is simply too grave to justify prematurely cutting off such a promising anti-terrorism tool as TIA," said one supporter, Paul Rosenzweig, at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
But more-libertarian thinkers on the right, such as New York Times columnist William Safire, warned that the plan was a "supersnoop's dream" and cited the "blessed stupidity" of Pentagon officials in appointing Poindexter to head the project.
Last February, the Senate voted unanimously to adopt an amendment authored by Wyden to immediately suspend all funding for the project pending a thorough review.
Indeed, Poindexter's involvement in the project actually strengthened the opposition, as noted by Marc Rotenberg of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), another leading critic of the program. "[P]eople were reacting to the underlying premise that you would gather up this data, and the fact that people like John Poindexter were gathering up this stuff," he told BusinessWeek Online Thursday.
"This was a hugely unpopular program with a mission far outside what most Americans would consider acceptable in our democracy," said the ACLU's Edgar. "By its very nature, TIA would have--regardless of any checks and balances--invaded our privacy. Our daily lives would have been minutely and accurately inventoried, even though we'd done nothing wrong."
Poindexter, whose criminal convictions were eventually thrown out by a judge who ruled that Congress had granted him immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony on which the government relied to convict him, defended the scheme until the very end. In a lengthy column published by the New York Times earlier this month, he said TIA had been misunderstood and that the system had never been intended "for use in surveillance against Americans."
The former national security adviser, who was also damaged earlier this summer by revelations about another proposal to set up an online futures markets for betting on developments, such as assassinations of key leaders in the Middle East, said he was the victim of Washington's "highly-charged political environment."
"I regret we have not been able to make our case clear and reassure the public that we do not intend to spy on them," he wrote in his resignation letter in early August.
Nonetheless, some aspects of the program may endure. The appropriations bill authorizes a classified program for "processing, analysis, and collaboration tools for counter-terrorism foreign intelligence," although it cannot be applied to domestic use against U.S. citizens. No further clarification was available.
Copyright 2003 OneWorld.net