Justice officials defend data mining as anti-terror tool
Speaking on two separate panels about privacy and civil liberties at the Federalist Society, Assistant Attorney Generals Viet Dinh and Michael Chertoff both said information is a key weapon in combating terrorism.
Chertoff, head of the criminal division and a key drafter of last year's major anti-terrorism law, said in a Friday morning panel that critics of Bush administration's civil liberties record are overstating their case.
Chertoff specifically defended data-mining by the government, comparing it the sort of information that Amazon.com aggregates about an individual user's book preferences. "It is hard to say that my privacy has been significantly invaded because the government, in protecting me, can use the same technologies as people who want to market to me."
Under guidelines implemented by Attorney General John Ashcroft in June, FBI agents may use commercial-sector databases. Some privacy advocates are also worried about a $500 million authorization for the proposed Homeland Security Department to engage in such data mining. That provision appears in the House-passed bill.
Speaking on the same panel, American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen called data mining the "power to snoop on every act of every American." Chertoff replied that data analysis had "obvious utility" in detecting "certain types of money flows" in terrorist financing.
Dinh, head of Justice's Office of Legal Policy, addressed a related subject at a Thursday afternoon panel. Both criminal prosecutors and counter-terrorism officials need to have access to similar information, he said.
He followed George Terwilliger, deputy attorney general to the former President Bush, who said Justice should avoid the temptation to turn the FBI into a domestic surveillance agency. At the same time, he said, "It is abundantly clear now, that there is a widespread recognition on the part of citizens that we are going to win this war against terrorism with knowledge, with information."
"We need to recognize the clear difference between criminal investigations and domestic efforts to combat terrorism," said Terwillinger. "As a matter of organization, over time, we need to break away from the FBI national security into a different agency acting under express authority for a more limited purpose" that focuses specifically on counterterrorism.
"It will be better to protect against foreign enemies and better for the health and welfare of individual rights in the country in the long term," he said.
Dinh strongly disputed that analysis. The previous legal regime prohibited law enforcement agencies from engaging in domestic surveillance, establishing a sharp barrier within the FBI between counterterrorism and criminal prosecutors.
"Sept. 11 showed us the significance of that mistake and its peril," he said. "Terrorism is a matter of national security, but it is also a matter of criminal investigation" and both sources of authority needed to be available to the same government officials.
The ability to do this is the reason for Justice's first-time-ever appeal of a decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Dinh said.