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Originally Published: 3/12/2008


By The Issue Wonk



In 2003 Congress terminated funding for Total Information Awareness (TIA), a data mining program conceived and implemented by John Poindexter in the Information Awareness Office of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the Department of Defense. DARPA is “responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military.” (Note: Poindexter was forced to resign as TIA chief in August 2003 “amid howls that his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal . . . made him unfit to run a sensitive intelligence program.”1) TIA “collected electronic data about people in the U.S. to search for suspicious patterns.”2 However, while funding ceased with the clear intent to end the program, it has continued in various forms and is quickly spreading throughout intelligence and police agencies.


Research under the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program – which developed technologies to predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States – was moved from the Pentagon’s research-and-development agency to another group, which builds technologies primarily for the National Security Agency . . . The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.1 [Emphasis added.]


TIA has survived in various places under names like Genoa II, Basketball, and Topsail. Do all or any of these programs have any connection to the warrantless surveillance now being reviewed in Congress? Apparently they do. All were repeatedly described by Poindexter has “early-warning systems.” President Bush has used the same language to defend his warrantless surveillance program, describing it as a kind of “early-warning system.”1 That there’s a connection seems logical, but I found no evidence to prove it.


This week Siobahn Gorman of The Wall Street Journal2 reported that the National Security Agency (NSA), “once confined to foreign surveillance, has been building essentially the same system [as TIA].” Gorman said the NSA’s “efforts have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people’s communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” Two government officials said, “A number of NSA employees” are concerned “that the agency may be overstepping its authority by veering into domestic surveillance.”2


The NSA program “monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.” It also receives this “transactional” data from other agencies and from private companies. Its sophisticated software programs analyze the various transactions for suspicious patterns. All this is supposed to produce “leads” to terrorists. Then NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program kicks in.


The NSA’s enterprise involves a cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs, all of which sparked civil-liberties complaints when they came to light. . . They include a Federal Bureau of Investigation program to track telecommunica-tions data once known as Carnivore, now called the Digital Collection System, and a U.S. arrangement with the world’s main international banking clearinghouse to track money move-ments. . . The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called “black programs” whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach. Among them, current and former intelligence officials say, is a longstanding Treasury Department program to collect individual financial data including wire transfers and credit-card transactions.”2


The federal surveillance programs aren’t the only problem. After President Richard Nixon’s domestic spying came to light, new laws, like FISA, were put in place, creating a “wall” between intelligence gathering and police activities. Now that “wall” is being knocked down. For quite some time local law enforcement has been crossing into federal territory. The U.S. Postal Service has approved almost all requests, more than 10,000 since 1998, from local law enforcement agencies to record information on the outside of letters and packages. And this doesn’t take into account mail that has been monitored by federal security investigations. Unlike other government surveillance, which has to be approved by a judge, requests for surveillance by the postal service is approved by the USPIS’ chief inspector. No judge. “Correspondence and packages transported by private carriers, such as FedEx and UPS, are not subject to the surveillance.”3


After 9/11 the U.S.A. Patriot Act was passed. It gives the police amazing autonomous surveillance powers, along with the ability to monitor financial transactions.4  The “wall” is now almost non-existent.


Local law enforcement agencies were originally required to dump all of their criminal and investigative records “into shared digital repositories called data warehouses, giving investigators and analysts new power to discern links among people, patterns of behavior and other hidden clues.” This month the program will be expanded. Local and state law enforcement agencies are going to connect to a new Justice Department system known as N-DEx (National Data Exchange), a domestic intelligence system developed by Raytheon for $85 million.5 “Federal authorities hope N-DEx will become what one called a ‘one-stop shop’ enabling federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to automatically examine the enormous caches of local and state records for the first time.”5


The interesting thing is that local law enforcement agencies don’t just feed into the federal system. They can get information out. A system coming into use is called Coplink, developed by Knowledge Computing. It’s more data-mining.


With Coplink, police investigators can pinpoint suspects by searching on scraps of information such as nicknames, height, weight, color of hair and the placement of a tattoo. They can find hidden relationships among suspects and instantly map links among people, places and events. Searches that might have taken weeks or months – or which might not have been attempted, because of the amount of paper and analysis involved – are now done in seconds.5


It’s easy to see how these systems can be attractive. Catching terrorists and criminals with the same system sounds like a great idea. Unless you’re not a terrorist or a criminal and get caught up in this thing.


The expanding police systems illustrate the prominent roles that private companies play in homeland security and counterterrorism efforts. They also underscore how the use of new data–and data surveillance–technology to fight crime and terrorism is evolving faster than the public’s understanding or the laws intended to check government power and protect civil liberties . . .”


. . .


Authorities are aware that all of this is unsettling to people worried about privacy and civil liberties. Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who is now a security consultant for FTI Consulting, said that the mining of police information by intelligence agencies could lead to improper targeting of U.S. citizens even when they’ve done nothing wrong.”5 [Emphasis added.]


If you’re not concerned yet, consider this. There is a new Coplink product called “predictor” which would use data and software to make educated guesses.5 Federal funding for local projects, however, require some safeguards designed to maintain the “wall.” Information collected in the process of law enforcement is supposed to be kept separate from intelligence gathered on gangs, drug dealers, etc. However, while "many" police agencies do this, not all do. Concerns continue.


But even some advocates of information-sharing technology worry that without proper oversight and enforceable restrictions the new networks pose a threat to basic American values by giving police too much power over information. Timothy Sample, a former intelligence official who runs the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, is among those who think computerized information-sharing is critical to national security but fraught with risks. “As a nation, our laws have not kept up,” said Sample, whose group serves as a professional association of intelligence officials in the government and intelligence contracting executives in the private sector.5 [Emphasis added.]


All this sounds just dandy to keep us “safe.” But, what if you haven’t done anything, except maybe go to a demonstration or meeting, or anything that someone determines is “unamerican?” While much of what is going on is within the laws that have been established, there’s still a question of whether it’s constitutional. We need to ask if the perceived “safety” is worth the loss of liberty.




1  Harris, Shane. TIA Lives On. National Journal, February 23, 2006.


2  Gorman, Siobhan. NSA’s Domestic Spying Grows as Agency Sweeps Up Data: Terror Fight Blurs Line Over Domain; Tracking Email. Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2008.


3  Johnson, Kevin. Police, Feds OK’d to Check on Mail: 99.5% Approve in ’06 to Note Names, More. USA Today, March 6, 2008.


4  Lichtblau, Eric & Risen, James.  Bank Data is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror.  The New York Times, June 23, 2006.


5  O’Harrow, Robert, Jr. & Nakashima, Ellen. National Dragnet Is a Click Away: Authorities to Gain Fast and Expansive Access to Records. Washington Post, March 6, 2008.



© The Issue Wonk, 2008




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