House Agrees to Bar Total Information Awareness Program

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On Thursday, February 13, Congress passed a $397.4 billion omnibus spending package that includes an amendment that would bar deployment without congressional oversight and approval of a Pentagon project called the Total Information Awareness program (TIA). This represents good news for civil liberty groups, which contend that TIA could severely affect the privacy of American citizens.

The aim of the Pentagon's TIA program is to develop technology that would allow government authorities to track terrorists by scanning information in Internet mail and compiling and mining data from businesses' databases, which conceivably could include both library and bookstore transaction and customer records. The project is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and is headed by former Reagan administration National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter.

The amendment to bar development of TIA was first introduced in the Senate's omnibus appropriations bill by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and was co-sponsored by Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA). On January 23, the Senate voted unanimously to adopt the provision, due to the project's potential impact on Americans' personal privacy. House leaders agreed with the Senate and accepted the provision in its own omnibus spending bill.

The House approved the 2003 federal budget by a 338-83 vote on February 13; a few hours later, the Senate approved the package by a vote of 76-20. Wyden's amendment means the Department of Defense must submit a report detailing its procedures and privacy protections or halt TIA within 60 days, and, if the technology is developed, Congress must then approve deployment. (For more on TIA, click here.)

"Protecting Americans' civil liberties, while at the same time winning the war against terrorism, has got to be the top priority for the United States. Congressional oversight of this program will be a must as we proceed in the war against terror," said Senator Grassley in a press statement. "The acceptance of this amendment sends a signal that Congress won't sit on its hands as the TIA program moves forward." -- David Grogan