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Counterterrorism project assailed by lawmakers, privacy advocates

Lawmakers, privacy advocates and civil libertarians are criticizing a controversial Defense Department research project as an invasion of personal privacy, and are questioning whether it should be scrapped.

In January, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began a multi-year effort to look for ways that technology could be used to pre-empt terrorist attacks. Known as the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, much of the work centers on theoretical ways to use information technology and human analysis to analyze transactions, such as credit card purchases or phone calls, to find patterns that might indicate a terrorist attack is being plotted.

The project has outraged groups that support restrictions on the use of personal data. At a press conference Monday in Washington, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the TIA system was the "hub" of a far-reaching effort by the government to "extend surveillance of the American public."

Rotenberg objected to the appointment of John Poindexter as the project's director. Poindexter, who brought the idea for the system to the Pentagon, served as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and was convicted for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. The conviction was overturned.

Rotenberg called Poindexter "the architect of a program to extend surveillance of private databases," pointing to his involvement in a 1984 policy directive that privacy advocates and some lawmakers feared would give the National Security Agency control over privately held information. The 1987 Computer Security Act voided the directive.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday, urging him to fire Poindexter. On ABC's "This Week," Schumer said Poindexter shouldn't head such a sensitive project, given his past. "If we need a 'Big Brother,' John Poindexter is the last guy on the list that I would choose," Schumer said.

In a recent interview, Robert Popp, the deputy director of the TIA system, said DARPA has made no decision about what technologies the system eventually might include. The agency is using fictional data to test some components, but ultimately DARPA will not actually build a working machine, Popp said. Rather, its mission is to build a conceptual prototype and then to share that design information with agencies that want it.

Rotenberg said "the picture coming into focus" about DARPA's work suggests the system would result in a sweeping monitoring of citizens' everyday activities. But Popp stressed that work on the system is in the early stages, and that DARPA has no authority to decide what information the government should gather or analyze. That decision would be left to individual agencies and to Congress.

Part of DARPA's role is to determine if using technology to predict terrorist attacks is even feasible. Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists' projects on government secrecy and intelligence, said he doubts that technology can be precise enough to distinguish a few suspicious transactions in a sea of activity. "I don't know that they will ever be able to detect a meaningful signal above the background noise," he said.

Popp said protecting the privacy of citizens is a chief concern of the project team, which is experimenting with ways to remove a person's name from any transactional data that an unauthorized government employee might see. The agency has asked companies to propose devices that would "protect the privacy of individuals not affiliated with terrorism," according to a solicitation notice posted on DARPA's Web site.

Congressional hearings on the TIA system are likely, given the opposition of some lawmakers to the program. On Friday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked that the Defense Department's inspector general review the project and examine the particulars of how Poindexter was hired.

Grassley's spokeswoman accused the Pentagon of "getting into domestic law enforcement issues" by supporting the project. Grassley wants to know whether DARPA officials have coordinated with federal law enforcement officials about the TIA system, and whether the agency received their input before funding began.