Privacy group sues Pentagon for documents on 'total information' project

A group that advocates keeping personal information out of government hands wants a federal judge to intercede in its fight against the Pentagon.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) requested a temporary restraining order in U.S. district court Tuesday, asking the judge to overturn the Defense Department's decision not to release information about a controversial research project. The restraining order, which cannot be appealed, would force the Pentagon to give EPIC any documents related to the legal authority for the project, its impact on privacy and civil rights, and the activities of the project director, former National Security Adviser John Poindexter.

The Pentagon launched the project, called the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, almost a year ago as part of its ongoing research into counterterrorism strategies. Researchers are testing ways to electronically search databases of personal transactions-such as credit card purchases or phone records-to look for relationships among the data that might indicate a terrorist attack is being plotted.

Defense has denied EPIC's request for information about the TIA system, saying that the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to the organization. That law requires the government to release information to the news media. If granted, a restraining order would probably compel the Pentagon to expedite EPIC's access to the information, perhaps even requiring that the information be turned over immediately. However, the department could protest the ruling and seek to block access on different grounds, possibly arguing that releasing the information would jeopardize national security.

Furthermore, since a temporary restraining order usually expires after 10 days, it is often converted into a preliminary injunction. Unlike a restraining order, the injunction can be appealed. John Bates, U.S. district court judge for the District of Columbia, will ultimately decide all the legal matters, including whether EPIC qualifies as a news entity, but months could pass before he does so, and the release of any information would probably be stayed during that time.

The Defense project has been criticized by numerous civil liberties groups, privacy advocates and media commentators. Last week, members of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington claimed any system that grew out of the research would violate people's privacy rights and undermine commerce.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the Defense inspector general to investigate the project and report back on the particulars of Poindexter's employment with the government. The department hired Poindexter as a contractor when he approached officials with the idea for the information system.

The choice of Poindexter to head the TIA system has stirred the ire of many in Washington. Poindexter was convicted on five felony counts of lying to Congress after the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, but the convictions were overturned on appeal.

While the TIA system has been in the public spotlight for weeks, the government is actively pursuing a number of technological projects that could have the same impact the system's critics fear.

The government currently maintains a so-called "no-fly list," for example, which contains the names of people who aren't allowed on airplanes because of potential security risks. The list has reportedly kept some innocent people whose names match those on the list from traveling.

The Transportation Security Administration now uses a computer system to check the backgrounds of airline passengers, and is planning to expand that system to search more public and private databases.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who called for Poindexter's resignation, in March proposed building a "law enforcement supercomputer" to serve as a repository for law enforcement and intelligence information. That information has historically been kept separate for fear of blurring the lines between domestic law enforcement operations and intelligence activities that constitute spying.

The TIA system is still in the early stages of research, and work won't be finished for about three years, according to Robert Popp, the deputy director. At that time, Defense will share the plans for the system with agencies interested in building and using it on their own.

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