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Panel urges balanced privacy debate

A panel of experts and scholars on privacy, intelligence and defense policy are calling for a more balanced and open debate on whether civil liberties are suffering in post-Sept. 11 America.

The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-area nonpartisan science and technology think tank, convened the panel Thursday as part of its Project Guardian, an initiative to balance civil liberties and privacy concerns with the use of technologies such as data mining that could be used to inspect private information. "Many are afraid [these technologies] will be abused…by government," said Michael Swetnam, the organization's chief executive officer and chairman.

While the panelists spoke generally about privacy and government's use of technology, which could be used to inspect people's purchases, communications or health information, the discussion ultimately turned to the controversial Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, a research effort looking for ways to analyze private databases for signs of a pending terrorist attack.

The Bush administration has released little information on the project, which is headed by John Poindexter, a Reagan-era national security adviser who was convicted, and later exonerated, for lying to Congress in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which manages TIA, has been sued for not releasing documents about the program under freedom of information laws, and Poindexter refuses to give press interviews.

Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, said he believes Poindexter and members of the administration haven't been more forthcoming about their work because they fear a backlash of public opinion and misrepresentation of TIA in the news media.

Numerous published articles have lambasted the project, and some have incorrectly linked its authorization and funding to homeland security legislation. Also, opponents of TIA have set up Web sites with copies of information DARPA has stripped off TIA's Web site in recent weeks. Others have posted photographs and personal information of TIA managers and their family members. Poindexter's phone number, as well as purported photographs of his home, have been posted on hundreds of Web sites, according to some accounts.

Perle said he had no firsthand knowledge of why Poindexter and his associates haven't defended themselves more publicly, but indicated that the frenzy surrounding the project, and Poindexter's past, was dissuading them from doing so. However, he said he wasn't sure keeping quiet was the right policy.

A noted privacy scholar said extreme rhetoric on either side of the privacy debate isn't benefiting the public's understanding of the legal and policy issues involved. "This language of extremism hinders our developing reasonable policies," said Amitai Etzioni, author of the controversial book The Limits of Privacy, which argues for a new privacy law doctrine.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, argued that current law supports limited investigation of people's activities for specific law enforcement purposes. The TIA project, he said, steps outside those boundaries because it would collect information on people who could never be considered criminal suspects. Even a narrowly focused TIA system could be used for illegitimate purposes, so debate about the project's scope and intentions must be open to the public, he said.

So far, a public debate over the merits and plans of TIA hasn't occurred. In recent interviews, TIA Deputy Director Robert Popp argued that critics have misrepresented the project's goals and that it wouldn't be used as expansively as some have suggested.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the chief TIA opponents in Congress, dismissed Popp's clarification. Wyden has introduced legislation that would shut down funding for the project, which he said "amounts to unleashing virtual bloodhounds," unless the administration fully discloses its particulars and how it might be used.

Poindexter has briefed officials at the Defense and Homeland Security departments, as well as the FBI, about how TIA might be used in the current war on terrorism. Rotenberg said those actions show TIA is not simply a research project, and bolster the argument for full disclosure.