Pentagon defends domestic spying experiment System called terror protection
Nov. 21, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - The Pentagon on Wednesday defended an anti-terrorism technology experiment that critics have likened to domestic spying on the financial transactions of ordinary citizens.
Pete Aldridge, the chief of technology for the Defense Department, told reporters that the project is intended to test whether new computer tools can comb through masses of information, such as credit card and bank transactions, car rentals and gun purchases, and spot clues to the planning of terrorist acts.
"This is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act," Aldridge said in a statement designed to address criticism about the project's civil liberty implications.
An editorial in Wednesday's edition of the Daily Camera of Boulder, Colo., titled "Uncle Sam, the spy," said the Pentagon is trying to build a "huge digital dragnet" to unjustifiably monitor private lives.
The New York Times, in an editorial Monday, called on Congress to shut down the program pending an investigation.
A Washington Post editorial on Saturday questioned the wisdom of the Pentagon's choice of retired Rear Adm. John Poindexter to run the project. Poindexter was convicted in the wake of the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing a congressional investigation into the matter. The convictions were overturned on appeal.
Aldridge said he chose Poindexter because the project was his idea and he exhibited the needed enthusiasm for it. "John Poindexter has a passion for this project . . . and we want an enthusiastic leader," he said. If it is successful and eventually put to use by police and intelligence agencies, Poindexter will have no role, he said.
The project, called Total Information Awareness, is being run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that normally focuses on military applications of new technologies. Aldridge said the agency was an appropriate place for the anti-terror research because the agency is part of the war on terrorism.
"It is absurd to think that DARPA is somehow trying to become another police agency," Aldridge said.
Aldridge said the program, with a budget of about $10 million, is composed of three main technologies that would:
Permit rapid language translation, from foreign languages into English.
Search for connections between databases that amass data on passports, visas, work permits, driver's licenses, credit cards, airline tickets, rental cars, gun purchases and chemical purchases.
Enable various federal and state agencies to gain access to the information and have the ability to analyze the mountains of data.
Aldridge said the system was "several" years away from completion.
Once the technology is turned over to law enforcement agencies, he said, "they will use the same process they do today. They would have to go through whatever legal proceedings they would go through today to protect the individual's rights." The agency will conduct an experiment using data "fabricated to resemble real-life events" such as police arrests as well as some genuine data. The goal is to see if this "data mining" can pinpoint indicators of terrorist planning - "connecting the dots" of suspicious activities in ways that could not be done prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Aldridge said.
If the experiment is successful, then the technologies, including rapid language translation, will be turned over to intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement agencies "as a tool to help them in their battle against domestic terrorism," he said.
In comments Monday during a visit to Santiago, Chile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said critics were overheated in their criticisms of the project. "The hype and alarm approach is a disservice to the public," he said.
At an industry conference in August, Poindexter likened the system to anti-submarine warfare, in which the U.S. Navy monitors the sounds of the ocean with sophisticated listening devices in order to detect enemy submarines. He said similar devices are required to monitor what he called "transaction space."
"If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space," Poindexter said.
"Certain agencies and apologists talk about connecting the dots, but one of the problems is to know which dots to connect," he said, adding that the information-gathering device would provide that service.
According to a coalition of privacy groups, the system could erode the privacy of typical Americans because the paper trail of their lives could be vacuumed up for study.