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Democrats spar with Ashcroft over agency information sharing

As the nation's attorney general came before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday to extol the benefits of information sharing among federal agencies, Senate Democrats cautioned that the information could be mishandled and harm American citizens.

As the nation's attorney general came before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday to extol the benefits of information sharing among federal agencies, Senate Democrats cautioned that the information could be mishandled and harm American citizens.

America's ability to protect itself "has been undermined significantly by restrictions to limit the intelligence and law enforcement communities' access to and sharing of our most valuable resource. ... That resource is information," Attorney General John Ashcroft told the committee.

Some of that information will come through the Operation Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) that has recruited 1 million volunteers to act as informants and report any suspicious activities. The Justice Department group overseeing that program had proposed keeping the information in a database, a proposal that concerns lawmakers.

Ashcroft assured the committee that he has recommended that TIPS not create a database but instead pass information to relevant departments and agencies, which already have information-retention rules in place. He said he believes that suggestion will be followed.

However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that in the past, such ideas that were set up to be "vigilant ended up being vigilante," and that was before law enforcement had computers with databases. "I am very, very concerned that we don't end up with a databank of innocent activity at a time of justifiable concern" that will hurt innocent citizens.

As law enforcers try to combat terrorism and implement changes to their agencies to do so, Leahy told Ashcroft he should do so with the Constitution in mind. "This country has an operation manual. It's called the United States Constitution," Leahy said, adding that any measures the Justice Department takes to gather information should fall within its limits.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned Ashcroft on whether problems might arise if the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center is transferred to the proposed Homeland Security Department. The center was created to anticipate threats and serve as the principle means of facilitating and coordinating the federal government's response to threats on any of the nation's infrastructures, including physical and cyber-based systems.

People who investigate computer crimes will remain at the FBI, Ashcroft said. Additionally, the employees who can offer guidance on protecting critical computer systems will move to the new department, Ashcroft noted, saying that employees in the two departments will remain in close contact and share information.

The ability to share information among agencies and to have the tools and the right to seek information over new technology, whether by tapping mobile phones or accessing information through the Internet, is integral to preventing future attacks, Ashcroft said.

Leahy and other committee members criticized the Justice Department for not providing lawmakers with information they have requested. "We really do want answers to our requests," Leahy said, noting 23 outstanding requests by senators, some of which date back a year. The senator also noted that House lawmakers face the same problem.

Ashcroft told Leahy he would investigate the matter and get the answers for Congress.