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Foes of data-mining plan reiterate their criticisms

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Wednesday joined a conference call designed to pressure House and Senate negotiators to preserve the moratorium on funding a controversial data-mining project known as Total Information Awareness (TIA).

Wyden authored the language that would ban TIA funding, and the Senate adopted it as part of the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2003, which is now in a conference committee. "The only way to guarantee the safeguards of the amendments that we offered is to keep the amendment in the conference report," Wyden said.

The conference call was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of privacy advocates and conservative organizations, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Eagle Forum and the Free Congress Foundation.

With the exception of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, congressional Democrats have been more visible in the debate against TIA, a program designed to search for clues about terrorists amid dozens of commercially available databases. Administration officials have defended the program by noting that it is under development and, according to Wyden, by saying that they would not use it for nefarious purposes.

"There is bit of indecision on the Republican side of the aisle," said Lisa Dean, vice president for technology policy at Free Congress Foundation. "The reason is they are torn between supporting the administration" and supporting privacy.

But Robert Fike, the federal affairs manager for the Americans for Tax Reform, said the Senate's unanimous vote for the funding ban "spoke volumes. While we would like to see a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers come out [against TIA]," he said, "what matters is how they vote at the end of the day."

"I believe that the protections for privacy and civil liberties are so important that they need to be locked into the law," Wyden said, adding that any pledges from the current executive branch would not bind future administrations from abuse.

Wyden also said he wanted to call attention to a second feature of his moratorium. In addition to halting TIA funding until the heads of the CIA and the Justice, Defense and Homeland Security departments report to Congress, the amendment says that Congress would have to affirmatively authorize such a system before it could be deployed.

"Congress has to approve any TIA [system] to spy on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil," he said. "In order to actually use the technology that TIA envisions, you have to have congressional approval."

Privacy groups joining the call included the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.