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2 Panels Named to Oversee Data-Search Project

February 08, 2003|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department, under pressure from Congress and privacy advocates, on Friday announced the formation of two panels to oversee a project aimed at scouring computer databases for terrorist threats.

Critics, both liberal and conservative, have expressed worry that the Total Information Awareness project will trample privacy rights by allowing for electronic surveillance of personal data of all Americans.

The Pentagon has argued that the goal of the project is to detect patterns in such transaction data as credit card bills and travel records to nip terrorist plots in the bud. They say the concept is "promising" but still in the early stages.

Friday's move came two weeks after the Senate passed a measure to bar funding for the program until the Pentagon fully explains it and assesses its impact on civil liberties.

Edward "Pete" Aldridge, under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said he will head an internal oversight board created within the Defense Department whose members will be senior Pentagon officials.

He said a federal advisory committee established outside the Pentagon will be headed by Newton Minow, a professor of communications law at Northwestern University in Illinois.

During a Pentagon briefing, Aldridge said retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, a former Reagan White House national security advisor, remained in charge of the program.

But Aldridge did not answer directly when asked if Poindexter would head the project into the future, saying, "I don't want to get into personalities, and I really don't want to debate the merits of TIA." He later said he was not suggesting any changes in leadership.

The project's critics have expressed concern that the project is headed by Poindexter, who was convicted of deceiving Congress in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal. His conviction was set aside on the grounds that his immunized congressional testimony had been improperly used against him.

President Bush's budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 calls for the TIA project to get $20 million, Aldridge said. It gets $10 million in the current year's budget.

A spending bill that contains the Senate amendment barring the project's funding is in the hands of a committee of Senate and House negotiators.

Aldridge said he believed the creation of the two boards addresses some of the concerns of congressional critics, and said the Pentagon had briefed Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and sponsor of the amendment, about the move.

Another Pentagon official, Michael Wynne, said with the establishment of the two boards, "we are instituting the kind of oversight that, in fact, they wanted us to."

The internal Pentagon panel is slated to oversee and monitor the way terrorist-tracking tools are employed and set rules for how such methods are used within the department and how they would be used outside the department, officials said.

Its first meeting is set for later this month.

The seven-member outside advisory board is intended to advise the secretary of Defense on policy and legal issues prompted by the development and possible application of advanced technology to help identify terrorist threats, officials said.

Other members include noted 1st Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Griffin B. Bell and former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler.

The boards will help ensure that the project develops its methods in a manner consistent with "U.S. constitutional law, U.S. statutory law and American values related to privacy," the Pentagon said in a statement.

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