Senators press Ridge on privacy, first responders

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Wednesday faced tough questions on issues surrounding privacy and technology, as well as funding for "first responders" to emergencies and the status of departmental programs.

"The public and certainly Congress is in the dark when it comes to data mining" being done by the federal government, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the fiscal 2005 request for Homeland Security. "And there are no privacy rules."

"I can assure you nothing we are doing in the Department of Homeland Security has been designed to collect information or spy on Americans," Ridge said in response to Wyden's questioning about data-mining activities. "We are getting access to personal information and to some extent, proprietary information."

Ridge said the department would not proceed on a pre-screening program for airline passengers without congressional approval and is waiting for a General Accounting Office report on the matter. Wyden requested a list of all data-mining activities and related costs where Homeland Security is involved.

In an interview after the hearing, Wyden called the administration "clueless" on data-mining issues. "Nobody is in charge, nobody knows how many programs involve data mining, nobody knows how much money is being spent, or how many agencies, and no one knows whether there are any privacy protections," he said.

He also asked about a requirement in the 2002 law that created the Homeland Security Department to establish a centralized technology clearinghouse to evaluate new technologies for possible government procurement. "It is not as complete as you want it to be," Ridge said. "We're in the process of streamlining that."

"That is something we hear again and again from small businesses as they traipse around Washington" trying to offer their products, Wyden replied.

Wyden also asked about a requirement in the 2002 law to set up a National Emergency Technology Guard, or NET Guard, of volunteer science and technology experts to respond to terrorist attacks. Ridge said he does not know the status and vowed to get back to Wyden.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., challenged the Bush administration's budget request for first responders and the plan to give states and localities funds based on threats. Nickles raised numerous examples of city programs using funding intended for homeland security activities for unrelated purposes. He warned Ridge that the committee would carefully scrutinize the department's budget request for fiscal 2005.

"I want to be your ally but can also be your enemy if I find there is waste," Nickles said.

Ridge acknowledged there have been "undesirable" outcomes to the provision of federal funds to states and localities but said the department is just one year old, adding that it is a "shared responsibility and shared accountability" between the federal and state governments.

Ridge also said efforts are incomplete on developing ways for local governments to communicate with their citizens if television and radio are knocked out and was questioned on whether emergency responders have compatible communications systems, among other issues.

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