January 29, 2003 1:06 PM PST

Bush proposes antiterror database plan

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A forthcoming government database will compile information from all federal agencies and the private sector on people deemed possible terrorist threats, President Bush said Tuesday evening.

Bush used his State of the Union address to announce the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), a mammoth data-collection project intended to fuse information collected domestically by police and internationally by spy agencies.

"Our government must have the very best information possible, and we will use it to make sure the right people are in the right places to protect all our citizens," Bush said to applause from the joint houses of Congress.

The White House offered few details about how TTIC will evolve, but critics of an existing data-mining program under development by the U.S. government were quick to draw comparisons to the controversial Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. Last week, citing privacy concerns, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to slap restrictions on that agency, which is run by Adm. John Poindexter at the Defense Department.

"It's potentially a huge repository of information concerning American citizens," David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said of the TTIC. "There's nothing in what has been made publicly available that would contain a limitation on such collection. To what extent, if any, will this system collect and maintain information on U.S. citizens?"

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions on Wednesday about what information on Americans would be accessible to the TTIC. One government official with knowledge of the center, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was not designed to supplant Poindexter's efforts but was instead "an effort by the president to bring together elements of agencies that are focused on terrorism."

Bush's announcement of the TTIC is the latest step in a massive push after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to increase data-sharing between U.S. police and spy agencies. Congress removed many barriers to data exchange in the USA Patriot Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft in September 2002 announced rules designed to formalize the "sharing of information between federal law enforcement and the U.S. intelligence community."

Ashcroft applauded the project in a statement distributed after Bush's speech. "The TTIC will ensure that terrorist threat-related information is integrated and analyzed comprehensively across agency lines and then provided to the federal, state and local officials who need it most," Ashcroft said. "We will be able to optimize our ability to analyze information, form the most comprehensive possible threat picture and develop the plans we need to prevent terrorist attacks."

The project's head, once selected, will report to CIA Director George Tenet. The center will operate in collaboration with the FBI and the new Department of Homeland Security and have access to "all intelligence information" available to the government, including data collected by the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency.

TTIC also will "maintain an up-to-date database of known and suspected terrorists that will be accessible to federal and nonfederal officials and entities, as appropriate," according to a fact sheet prepared by the White House.

Lee Tien, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said: "Maybe their strategy is to duck all those questions and go ahead with programs that don't have any connection to Poindexter and get away from the swamp that TIA is in. It sounds to me that in anticipation of folks like (Sen. Chuck) Grassley, who have complained about the Defense Department being involved domestically, they're trying to ward off that criticism."

Grassley, a prominent Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance committee, this month lent his voice to the growing criticism of the Pentagon's TIA project. Grassley said he was concerned that the FBI was closer to using that project than it had previously acknowledged. Last year, Bush chose Poindexter to oversee TIA, a move that drew sharp criticism because of the former admiral's central involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said the senator would review the TTIC proposal but did not immediately have a comment.

It's not clear how much data-mining TTIC will do, but the White House's description says it will "fuse and analyze all-source information" and ensure that "information from all sources is shared, integrated, and analyzed seamlessly."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has introduced a bill to regulate "data-mining technology" in use by the government that could, if enacted, apply to TTIC.

The TTIC is charged both with overseeing a "national counterterrorism tasking and requirements system" and with maintaining shared databases.

That means the center will be able to order the FBI, CIA or NSA to collect information on someone, according to Jim Dempsey, the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"The fact that you can task and that you can access the raw intelligence, the raw take of the collectors, makes it almost irrelevant that you don't have your own collection," Dempsey said. "This presents the centralization of control over collection and access to information on a scale we've never seen before."

 

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