Surveillance Program Tramples Rights

Posted February 21, 2003 at 9:14am

Americans concerned that their own government is out to violate their privacy and civil liberties may be breathing a bit easier these days. This month, Congress voted against the virtual frisking of this country’s citizens by choosing to curb Admiral John Poindexter’s proposed Total Information Awareness program at the Pentagon.

The omnibus spending bill passed this month now requires Congressional oversight of TIA, which seeks to integrate and mine existing electronic databases for information about Americans’ daily lives. But Congress still has work to do to calm America’s understandable

concern. Now it is incumbent on the House and Senate to exercise their oversight vigorously and prudently for the protection of all Americans.

The TIA provision I introduced with Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and which benefited from the support of Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and others, makes spending for technology research and development for the Total Information Awareness program dependent on a Department of Defense report to Congress on its plans for that technology. The provision also establishes proper Congressional oversight of the most far-reaching government surveillance program ever proposed by requiring Congressional approval for deployment of any TIA technology to spy on U.S. citizens.

The total information awareness concept requires keeping track of individuals and understanding how they fit into models — for instance, does a seemingly innocent individual conduct himself or herself according to a pattern that terrorists have exhibited in the past?

To find out whether any current U.S. citizens fit the model of a terrorist living among us, the TIA program would develop a way to integrate the databases that already track our daily lives — bank records, online purchases and travel plans, for instance. Once integrated, these disparate databases would serve as one big repository of information on most or all of the computer-linked transactions an individual makes. Then the government runs the models — and sees who looks like a terrorist.

Some people may say that much of this information is already shared in the private sector, and so Americans shouldn’t be concerned. But that’s precisely why the TIA proposal engenders such nervousness. The Office of Total Information Awareness will take current policies that already threaten the privacy of the American people and combine them in one big effort that could undermine privacy protections once and for all.

If the arguments of this program’s proponents are true — that the TIA program is not as far-reaching or as threatening to privacy as it seems — they now have the opportunity and the duty under law to come to Congress and explain that.

The report to Congress, which is to be delivered by the Defense Department within 90 days of this law’s enactment, should more fully explain the intentions and scope of the TIA program. In addition, I hope the prescribed parameters of the report will encourage my colleagues to consider the full range of issues that may be impacted by this program. By law, the report must include:

• an assessment of the likely impact of the implementation of TIA on privacy and civil liberties;

• a detailed explanation of the actual and intended use of funds for each project and activity of TIA, including an expenditure plan;

• the schedule for proposed research and development on each project;

• target dates for deployment of TIA technology and its transfer to other agencies;

• assessment of the likelihood that TIA systems will provide valuable evidence to predict the plans, intentions or capabilities of terrorists or terrorist groups;

• a list of the laws and regulations that govern the information to be collected by TIA and any modifications to such laws that will be required to use the information in the manner proposed; and

• recommendations by the attorney general for implementation of TIA that will minimize any adverse effects TIA will have on privacy and other civil liberties.

I believe it is absolutely essential for Congress to carefully review these issues in the report to ensure that privacy and the civil liberties of Americans are not infringed upon by the very design of the TIA program. In recent weeks, I have been gratified to learn that not only do my Congressional colleagues agree, but so do the members of the recently appointed internal TIA oversight boards. [IMGCAP(1)]

While the conferees met to finalize the omnibus spending bill, the Defense Department and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced the formation of two oversight boards for the TIA program — one within the TIA and another federal advisory board.

This is a positive step to address the growing concern of the American people about TIA. But even several of the highly respected members of those new boards said that their empanelling is no substitute for tough Congressional oversight.

That oversight goes a step further in this new law’s second key component, which says that no TIA technology may be deployed, or transferred to another government agency for deployment, without the express approval of Congress.

This provision reflects an understanding of the need to explore new ways of rooting out terrorists in our society, but it also reflects a steadfast commitment to one bedrock principle: the war on terrorism must not cannibalize these fundamental rights of law-abiding Americans. While TIA research may continue pursuant to the filing of the initial report, the buck stops with Congress when it comes to putting these new technologies on the street. That is a safeguard the American people have demanded.

This new law does not prohibit those who support this program from coming back to Congress and showing why additional threats warrant additional action. Instead, it ensures that if this program moves forward, it does so in a fashion sensitive to American freedoms, with constitutional protections and safeguards. Congress has a duty to make sure the TIA program does not cross the line into the lives of law-abiding Americans. I believe the Wyden amendment offers a clear chance to do so.

All across this country, Americans have said that while a vigorous response to terror is necessary, a system designed to spy on Americans in America is not. It’s not only unnecessary — it’s contrary to the freedoms that the war on terror aims to protect.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.