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Think tank debate focuses on counterterrorism tools

Information technology can be used to help fight terrorism because it places huge amounts of searching information at the fingertips of law enforcement, but the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and a Sept. 16 presidential directive has some people concerned about the impact that such initiatives may have on civil rights.

The September directive on the integration and use of screening information worries Dan Gallington, a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute, because "it may be the first step in the creation of a terror watch list that would be U.S.-person centric," he said. The directive tells the attorney general to establish an organization to consolidate the government's approach on terrorism screening and requires agency heads to provide data to the TTIC.

Other surveillance measures have been foreign-citizen centered, with special protections afforded to U.S. citizens, Gallington noted, and "that is a huge distinction." The lack of congressional oversight also is troubling, he said.

While acknowledging that the government must have access to information and be able to connect dots to identify potential terrorist threats, "the executive branch is not making the task any easier" with some of its decisions, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"Creating TTIC was a mistake," he said, because it repeated functions delegated to the Homeland Security Department, which is subject to congressional oversight. TTIC is not subject to oversight, and that raises red flags for civil libertarians, he added.

The now-defunct Terrorism Information Awareness program for mining data to try to identify potential terrorists also raised concerns that the administration could use it to create dossiers on U.S. citizens and prompted Congress to yank the funding.

Dempsey said it was a shame that funding was cut because the program was worth studying. He noted that the capabilities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project did not meet expectations but that the hype created by DARPA probably killed the idea.

Brandon Milhorn, a counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee, bemoaned the demise of the project, saying that it is like asking the intelligence community to fight terrorism "with pen and paper and a phone." He dismissed the complaints that the data mining planned as part of the project could have been used against U.S. citizens, saying that the intelligence community "has enough work as it is to track terrorists, let alone to track normal people."

Jay Stanley, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said officials never offered sufficient assurances that the program could not be abused. Oversight and safeguards are necessary to ensure against investigations of law-abiding citizens, he said.

But Robert Popp, special assistant to the director of strategic matters at DARPA and someone who worked on TIA, still believes in the use of technology to efficiently investigate concerns.

Dempsey argued that no one wants to deprive the government of terror-fighting tools but that the government has many tools already, including the criminal code.