Thursday, February 23, 2006

Total public unawareness

TIA Lives On:
A controversial counter-terrorism program, which lawmakers halted more than two years ago amid outcries from privacy advocates, was stopped in name only and has quietly continued within the intelligence agency now fending off charges that it has violated the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Research under the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program -- which developed technologies to predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States -- was moved from the Pentagon's research-and-development agency to another group, which builds technologies primarily for the National Security Agency, according to documents obtained by National Journal and to intelligence sources familiar with the move. The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.

Roberts and Poindexter
Total Information Awareness and it's creepy all-seeing eye died a very public death because privacy advocates from across the political spectrum thought it was a colossally bad idea for the government to have a massive database of every credit card purchase and every electronic transaction a person undertook. Congress threatened, the DoD stood firm, and finally Congress withdrew funding from the program.
This was widely seen as a win for civil liberties and the basic principle that the government shouldn't be spying on citizens. Plus, the man in charge was forced to resign since a man responsible for illegally selling arms in exchange for hostages was not really trustworthy enough to run such a sensitive program.

This too was seen as a win for civil liberties and the basic principle that criminals convicted of lying to Congress, defrauding the government, and the alteration and destruction of evidence shouldn't run highly classified programs.

Senator Roberts endorsed Admiral Poindexter's resignation, saying "I think his decision was probably a wise one."

To my knowledge, no convicted criminals are still working on TIA's scattered offspring. Huzzah!

The Kansas City Star was not enthusiastic about the program in 2002. Rick Montgomery wrote "Big Brother? Or weapon against terror?" (a title which would make Orwell cringe, as Big Brother was sold precisely as a weapon against terror). Along the way, there is this revealing exchange with Admiral Poindexter:

Poindexter said that while he was sensitive to privacy concerns, his mission was to develop technology. It was up to Congress and policy-makers to construct policy.

"We can develop the best technology in the world, and unless there is public acceptance and understanding of the necessity, it will never be implemented," he said. "We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting privacy."
Even Poindexter called for Congressional oversight, both to establish safeguards and to promote public comfort with the program.

"The violation of our privacy is already happening, with all these credit companies and telemarketers buying and selling personal data on us," said sociologist Amitai Etzioni, author of The Limits of Privacy.

"If we can tolerate these violations for profit, then why not for national security?" he asked.

"The consequences are hardly the same," replied Mihir Kshirsagar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The hassle of throwing away a bunch of junk mail is quite different than being wrongly arrested in a terrorism probe."
Exactly. And that's why, if programs like this are indeed the way of the future, now is the time to establish safeguards in a clear, open and public process.

Senator Pat "Where are my memory pills?" Roberts chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was presumably aware that a program Congress had ordered dead was being reconstructed in his jurisdiction, and that Admiral Poindexter's reanimated remains were blowing smoke in his face. He apparently chose to do nothing. He also chairs the subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in the Armed Services Committee, again exercising oversight over the Son of TIA.

While America believed that a Very Bad Idea had died an ignominious death, Pat Roberts watched its resuscitation and said nothing. Either he was not aware of what was happening in the parts of the government he oversees, or he kept this vital information from us, participating in the coverup.

His doormat impression is wearing thin.