ACLU Hails Privacy Victory as Congress Curbs Pentagon Data Program; Says Further Congressional Action Required on Super Snoop System

February 12, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to the reported acceptance by congressional negotiators of legislation limiting the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program, the American Civil Liberties Union today called the move a victory for privacy and urged Congress to continue to ensure that the super-snoop program not be allowed to spy on Americans’ private lives.

“Inclusion of this measure is a major win for privacy rights in the United States and a significant first step in the limitation of Total Information Awareness,” said Katie Corrigan, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Congress, however, must take further concrete steps to ensure safety and freedom for all Americans.”

A front-page article in The New York Times this morning reported that negotiators working on the omnibus appropriations measure have agreed to maintain an amendment – sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and included in the Senate version of the spending bill – that would limit the implementation of the cyber-surveillance program known as Total Information Awareness, currently being built by the Pentagon.

Specifically, the amendment would halt development of the program for 90 days, during which time it mandates that the Pentagon prepare a report to Congress on the viability, cost and impact to civil liberties and privacy of the system. The amendment also prohibits deployment of Total Information Awareness against Americans.

The system, which has attracted added controversy given that its development team is led by former National Security Advisory John Poindexter, the highest-ranking Reagan administration official to be implicated in the Iran-Contra Scandal, would data-mine vast amounts of commercial and government information in the hopes of “detecting” terrorism activity before it occurs. Technical experts question whether such a mission is even feasible.

The decision by House and Senate conferees to retain the Wyden measure came despite last-minute efforts by the Pentagon to kill the amendment by announcing several advisory boards to oversee the system’s development. While the ACLU supported the creation of the advisory boards, it said that civilian advisory boards cannot substitute for stringent oversight by the people’s elected representatives in Congress.

The ACLU pledged to continue to work to completely eliminate the Total Information Program and said that the program has drawn broad opposition from a left-right coalition that in addition to the ACLU includes Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Eagle Forum, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Free Congress Foundation and People for the American Way.

The ACLU and other coalition partners also support legislation proposed by Sen. Russell Feingold(D-WI) which would limit implementation of other similar data mining programs, such as the passenger profiling system known as “CAPPS-II.” The Feingold bill , the Data Mining Moratorium Act of 2003 (S. 188), is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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