Washington, Jan. 24 (Reuters): Saying they feared government snooping against ordinary Americans, US senators voted yesterday to block funding for a Pentagon computer project that would scour databases for terrorist threats.
By a voice vote, the Senate voted to ban funding for the Total Information Awareness programme, under former national security adviser John Poindexter, until the Pentagon explains the programme and assesses its impact on civil liberties.
The measure, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, also said the computer dragnet being developed could not be deployed without congressional approval, although it allowed exceptions for national security.
It was tacked onto a spending package in the Senate, but it is not yet law.
It is now expected to go to House and Senate negotiators. If the negotiators keep the provision in the spending package, it will advance to the House and Senate for final passage before going to the President for signing into law.
“This makes it clear that Congress wants to make sure there is no snooping on law-abiding Americans,” Wyden said.
He said the electronic data dragnet as proposed was “the most far-reaching government surveillance programme in history.”
The defence department says the aim of the Total Information Awareness project, which is still in its infancy, is to seek patterns in transactions data like credit card bills and travel records to stop terrorist plots.
Wyden and other Democrats announced last week they would try to block funding for it, citing concerns that it will amount to electronic surveillance of personal data of all Americans by the government and trample privacy rights.
Senior Republican senators worked with Wyden on the wording of the Senate measure, including Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.
He said he was worried the lines were getting blurred between domestic law enforcement and military security efforts.
Critics of the project also have expressed concern that the project is being directed by Poindexter, a retired admiral who was convicted of deceiving Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal. His conviction was set aside on the grounds his immunised congressional testimony had been used against him.
A Pentagon spokeswoman defended the programme after the Senate vote yesterday, saying officials continued to believe that the research and development planned was important.
“TIA will develop innovative information technology tools that will give the department of defence’s intelligence, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism communities important capabilities to prevent terrorist attacks against the US,” the Pentagon spokeswoman said.
The Senate measure requires the Pentagon to report to Congress on the goals of the programme within 60 days of the Bill’s final passage, including recommendations from the attorney general.