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Since the attacks of Sept. 11, one of the many things we have learned regarding our nation's intelligence services is that their increasing reliance on signal intelligence, as opposed to the use of agents and informants on the ground, has been a serious mistake. While technological wizardry has often captivated the spy world, it turns out that having the capacity to capture worldwide communications doesn't make us safer when we don't know where to focus our listening. If anything, listening in on every communication, everywhere, all the time, makes finding terrorists even more difficult.
Knowing this, why is the government embarking on a series of new efforts to use computers and databases as a way to find terror suspects? These "data-mining" systems will not assist agents in tracking the movements of people suspected of being associated with al-Qaida, but they are designed to look for ostensibly menacing patterns in the minutia of the everyday lives of Americans. They make all of us potential suspects.
The Transportation Security Administration, the FBI and the Defense Department have all begun developing data-mining programs to collect and analyze huge amounts of personal information on every American.
The most pernicious of these is titled Total Information Awareness, a Defense Department program headed by Adm. John Poindexter, a former national security official in the Reagan administration and a leading figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. Already, $128-million has been invested in TIA, and the Defense Department's appropriations bill for fiscal year 2003 includes an additional $112-million. The idea behind it is simple: Intelligence officials believe if they know every move, transaction and personal connection made by every person in this country, they can discern who among us are terrorists.
The intelligence benefits of this technology are entirely untested. Putting aside whether it is possible to pick up the trail of terrorists by looking at credit card purchases, telephone records, medical records, travel records and driving infractions, if we allow government to watch everything we do, how can we continue to call ourselves a free society?
Some members of Congress are finally waking up to the threat to privacy posed by TIA and other data-mining systems. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has introduced legislation to place a moratorium on TIA until Congress has the opportunity to review the issues raised by data-mining. Similarly, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, has introduced an amendment to the omnibus spending bill that would halt spending on TIA.
The actions demonstrate that, even with the great deference Congress has given the Bush administration in prosecuting the war on terrorism, there is increasing unease with the executive branch's rapid expansion of domestic surveillance. The data-mining programs under development are being implemented without congressional oversight.
While Democrats seem to be leading the opposition so far, the privacy issues surrounding TIA cross partisan lines. A coalition of nine groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union recently sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for a hold on TIA until important policy issues have been examined.
Congress should take control of TIA and the other data-mining systems before they are fully unleashed. American privacy and freedoms must not become casualties of this war.