Pentagon plans superspy system

Pentagon plans superspy system

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

A super computer system capable of creating a huge electronic dragnet and search for personal information as part of the hunt for terrorists across the globe, including the United States, is being developed by the Pentagon.

The New York Times reported the director of the project, Vice-Admiral John Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame, said the new system will furnish intelligence analysts and law enforcement with instant access to information from e-mail and calling records, credit card and banking transactions and travel documents—all without a search warrant.

Under the Posse Comitatus Act, military and intelligence agencies have not been allowed to spy on Americans without unusual legal authorization. But Poindexter, former national security adviser for the Reagan administration, believes the government needs broad new powers to process, store and cull billions of tiny details about electronic life in the United States.

The Times quoted Poindexter: “We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options.”

The Homeland Security Act, expected to be passed by Congress this week, says among the functions to be transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security are: the National Communications System of the Department of Defense, the National Infrastructure Protection Center of the FBI and the Computer Security Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Poindexter returned to the federal government last January to head the Office of Information Awareness at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The office is charged with developing new surveillance technologies.

The new system will be known as the Total Information Awareness system. New legislation will be needed to deploy it and that, to some extent, is part of the Homeland Security Act. The legislation would amend the Privacy Act of 1974, intended to limit what government could do with private information.

Government spokesmen declined to discuss the computer project in any detail, claiming ignorance of the details. The Pentagon had asked a panel of computer scientists and policy experts to review the privacy implications of the system. Some members of that panel said terrorists might find means of avoiding detection by the system and that it might easily be abused.

“A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and worry about the potential uses to which this technology might be put, if not by this administration, then by a future one,” said Barbara Simon, a computer scientist and past president of the Association of Computing Machinery. “Once you’ve got it in place, you can’t control it.”

Others in the group support Poindexter’s position, saying linking of databases is necessary to track potential enemies inside the United States.

Civil libertarians, however, say if the new system is put into operation, it would rapidly bring a surveillance state. They argue that potential terrorists would quickly learn how to avoid detection.

The Homeland Security Act has a provision that allows the director of the new agency to waive employee protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act, which shields employees from retaliation for speaking out about agency waste, fraud or abuse.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said: “Whistleblowers are key to exposing a dysfunctional bureaucracy. With these restrictions comes a greater danger of stopping the legitimate disclosure of wrongdoing and mismanagement, especially about public safety and security. Bureaucracies have an instinct to cover up their misdeeds and mistakes, and that temptation is even greater when they can use a potential security issue as an excuse.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, federal agencies have placed increasing emphasis on secrecy and restricted information, citing national security.

Ridge’s new department would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The director would have veto power over inspector general audits and investigations.

Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “It’s very scary. The public needs to know what the government is doing. Sometimes it hurts Democrats; sometimes it hurts Republicans, but it’s always informative and even more necessary to protect whistleblowers in Homeland Security than any other government agency. It’s not just tax dollars spent wisely, but doing what we need to do to keep people safe.”

Intelligence networks now are focusing on the Internet. Under the USA Patriot Act, the FBI, National Security Agency, the CIA and several other smaller law enforcement agencies are hunting for ways to monitor the Internet and to collect useful intelligence from it.

While they say they are looking for information to counter future terrorist activity, civil libertarians fear this practice will be aimed at ordinary Americans. The definition of “terrorist” is being expanded to include non-violent groups using the Internet to organize opposition to corporate globalism. Politicians already are equating dissent with a lack of patriotism and, somehow linking it to terrorism.

At the same time, a battalion of software companies, consultants and defense contractors are lining up to rake in billions of dollars in the next few years peddling surveillance and information-gathering systems to government agencies and the private sector.

The new Pentagon system would rely on a set of computer-based pattern recognition techniques known as “data mining.” The system would permit a team of intelligence analysts to gather and view information from databases, pursue links among groups and individuals, respond to automatic alerts and share information—all from individual computers.

The project is one of a number under way inside the government to tie together both commercial and government data to look for patterns of terrorist activities.

Michael Ratner, attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, observed: “There has been no indication that the FBI needs expanded spying powers. We should learn from history; spying on dissent is not only unlawful but it is abusive.”

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