TOPICS > Politics

Government Surveillance

November 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon has launched plans to create a computer surveillance system to sift through personal information as a way of tracking down terrorists. Called Total Information Awareness, the government would use a technique known as data mining, to access everything from personal e-mail and credit card purchases to banking transactions.

The man in charge is retired vice admiral John Poindexter, he was the national security advisor under President Reagan, and the highest ranking official convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran Contra scandal. That conviction was later overturned.

For two views on the Poindexter plan, we turn to retired Colonel Edward Badolato, who served former Presidents Reagan and Bush as deputy secretary of energy focusing on counter terrorism. And Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. The center is challenging the project.

Colonel Badolato, we’re talking about instant access to personal records of an unprecedented nature, or at least scope and breadth without a search warrant. Why is that needed?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): Right now we’re fighting a major war against terrorism. A war that’s going to take years to win and defeat the shadowy groups that we know little about at present. This technology is our strength, our asymmetric capability to defeat terrorism, and what we’re seeing is a research project that is going to be put in place to test new systems to do data mining and network this information base that we need to provide to our law enforcement groups to be able to find these terrorists and bring them to justice before they create another World Trade Center 9/11 event.

GWEN IFILL: We talked about data mining, I mentioned it; you mentioned it. What is that exactly?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): Data mining is the ability to take large amounts of information, be it gained from various sources, and go through it in an automated way with computers to determine what in that various large amount of information is flagged and useful for a particular purpose that we want. It’s being used today by marketers to find out what kind of cosmetics you like, what kind of car you might buy, and so forth. This is taking it over into another area to determine what groups of people mean us harm.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rotenberg, this is taking it into another area. Is this an area that we need to be going into?

MARC ROTENBERG: I think it’s very important to understand first of all that this is a technology that will be directed toward the American public. It is our credit reports, our educational records, our travel records that will be dropped into this big database that the Department of Defense is currently designing. This raises substantial constitutional questions as well as legal questions, because we have safeguards in this country to protect the right of privacy and to ensure that when the government conducts investigations it does so in a lawful manner.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Badolato just said and a lot of other people have said that everything is different after 9/11, that we should not be closing doors to ways to track down these terrorists. What’s wrong with that point of view?

MARC ROTENBERG: Well, I certainly think it’s important to pursue the use of technology in defense of the country and to protect public safety. I don’t think there’s my dispute on that point. I think the debate that is taking place right now is whether that means that we suspend the Constitution, whether we get the government to conduct essentially warrant-less surveillance on the American public. And I don’t think the case for that has been made by any means. In fact, I think there’s a real argument to be made at this point that this project should be suspended by the U.S. Congress until further investigation of the capability and ends imagined are understood.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Badolato, you have spent a good deal of your career working on counter terrorism initiatives. What is technically feasible here; is this even technologically doable?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): Yes, it is. Well, we think it’s going to be technologically feasible, we’re not sure yet. It’s going to be a tough program, it’s going to take a while and we’re not sure if we can get through the hurdles that have been brought up in the privacy area, we’re not sure if technologically we can really do it. And we’re not sure if we can get all of the databases, particularly those in the foreign environment, and the foreign governments, to cooperate with us. It’s going to be tough. And I think that we have the right team, we’ve got the right office to do it. Now there are built-in privacy safeguards here in this program. I don’t think that anybody wants to go out in this office at DARPA that is being run to create a Big Brother, things of that nature. Additionally, we have in the Department of Homeland Security a privacy officer, who is going to be, when this is actually fielded and it’s a five-year research program, to build a prototype, when it’s actually fielded, this privacy officer, who reports to Congress incidentally, will be looking at how to protect just the concerns that my colleague has.

GWEN IFILL: Why not search warrants, which what is the law calls for in this kind of case, are search just an unnecessary hindrance at this point?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): No, they’re not a hindrance. But I have to say, Gwen, that if you look back in these terrorist incidents that have taken place and we start with the Beirut bombing and work our way up and go all the way through Khobar Towers and the U.S.S. Cole, the attack on the embassies and so forth, the ex post facto looking at the results and learning about what happened, we could have probably defeated and deterred every one of those incidents with a system that could produce the results that this system has.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rotenberg, you focus on privacy issues. Are there enough privacy safeguards, the privacy officer that he was just talking about, is that enough —

MARC ROTENBERG: No, there aren’t. I mean, I’ve looked at the provision in the act; I don’t think it’s a sufficient check. I think this raises questions about the enforcement of the Privacy Act, which is a law that safeguards the rights of Americans. And I also want to say in terms of the search for technological solutions, I think we have to be very careful about throwing technology and money at problems, particularly problems as serious as this one. There are a lot of challenges that the U.S. Government faces in trying to deal with terrorism. One of the biggest challenges is having an adequate number of linguists trained to assist law enforcement agents and the intelligence officers to understand the information that they obtain. I think at this point in time, that would be a much higher priority than a system of surveillance directed toward the American public.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re suggesting we’re getting ahead of ourselves on this?

MARC ROTENBERG: I think we’re trying to throw technology at a problem and not particularly understanding the technology. And that’s really a recipe for disaster. I don’t think it’s going to leave us any safer.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Badolato, how do we differentiate the suspects in a case like this from the innocents? For instance, we learned over the weekend that United States is tracking Iraqis and Iraqi Americans living in this country with the idea of trying to find out if there are any connections to the regime in Iraq. Some of these people are American citizens, obviously. Is that, at what point are we sacrificing the perfect for the good or the good for the perfect in this case?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): Right. I think it’s really something that has to be considered and the necessary safeguards; the system as I’ve seen it has filters in it for security, for privacy and security. We have to be careful and treat in a different manner U.S. citizens than those individuals, for example, the 19 perpetrators of the crimes on 9/11. These are the type of individuals we really want to flag and go after. And right now the privacy groups are really concerned about U.S. citizens, the Constitution, and so forth, and justifiably so. In my view, that will be addressed, and there is no intention that I can see anywhere in this research project of doing away with the Constitution and harming U.S. citizens, as long as they are not cooperating and working with these terrorists to do harm to the nation.

GWEN IFILL: We’re talking about a $200 million research project, it’s not just on paper at this point. Contracts have actually been let, right?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): That’s right. It’s $200 million over a five-year period. And I might add that there are many components to it, one of which I think would be of interest, there are components to look at, the databases, the networking, look at facial recognition., and more importantly, develop systems that can read and understand in a computer sense Arabic, Chinese and languages of that nature so we can take advantage of determining what terrorist communications are taking place.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rotenberg, right now all of this right now is being orchestrated or at least planned out of the Pentagon. Should this be a Pentagon function or should it be a Justice Department function, given your Fourth Amendment concerns?

MARC ROTENBERG: Well, I think it should be within the Justice Department certainly as to the applications. In fairness to the defense agency, there has been a lot of significant research done over the years by the Department of Defense leading to such developments as the Internet itself. But nonetheless I have to disagree with my colleague here about the implications of this program. The system for face recognition imagines that it would be possible to track a person on the mall here in Washington, scan their face, match them up with a database and try to determine whether or not that’s a suspicious individual.

That capability is obviously not going to be directed toward a person just with terrorist intent; it is toward people who live in Washington, who visit the city, who work in the city, and it has enormous implications for privacy. If I could make one other point as well, because my organization has done a lot of work over the years trying to assess the privacy impact of some of these new systems of surveillance, such as Clipper or Carnivore or face recognition, invariably we find that when the agencies finally reveal the full details of the program, there’s more going on than was told the public. When the FBI pursued the Carnivore wiretap scheme and said it would only capture the target information in the warrant of the criminal suspect, eventually we uncovered the information which showed that in fact it was capturing a lot more information than that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me give Colonel Badolato a chance to respond to that in the last few seconds we have left.

Do we overreach to the point that what the government says the protections will be don’t actually surface?

COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): There have been some indications in the past, for example the example of Carnivore with the FBI and others, that didn’t go the way it was supposed to. I think and I understand right now that this is going to be a different ball game in the way we look at this. And I hope that we can bring groups such as my colleagues into this. I can’t speak for DARPA in this particular project, but we have to work closely with them on the privacy rights, and if we don’t we’re never going to get there.

GWEN IFILL: Ed Badolato, Marc Rotenberg, thank you very much for joining us.