ON THURSDAY, the US House Science and Technology Committee voted to deny the FBI $11 million to continue work on a massive database of government records on virtually all American citizens. The vote came after the FBI refused to tell Congress about its plans.
The database project, called the National Security Analysis Center (NSAC), was conceived after 9/11 to correlate hundreds of millions of electronic records created or collected by various government agencies at all levels. The idea was to use all that data to somehow predict who might be a potential so-called " terrorist" -- without a hint of probable cause to indicate any specific individual was linked to any radical or extremist group or ideology.
It is the sort of plan that the former East German STASI, the secret police thought to have employed up to one in three East Germans as government informants, would have wet its pants to have implemented. Terms that come to mind are "Panopticon" and "Orwellian."
But it would appear that the wanna-be Big Brothers at the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and FBI outsmarted themselves.
Security and information technology professionals have serious doubts as to whether such predictive data mining can be effective. Also, the FBI has an unbroken and spectacularly dismal track-record of botching such large IT projects, including wasting $170 million on a massive Virtual Case File effort that produced nothing useful and had to be scrapped.
The uptight FBI also has a long history from the days of J. Edgar Hoover of violating the privacy and civil rights of American citizens in its zeal to " protect" the country from the likes of trade unionists, civil rights and anti-war activists, hippies, inconvenient standup comedians, users of recreational drugs, political dissidents, and everyone disliked by the American corporate power structure -- which means virtually everyone who isn't them.
Therefore, Representatives Brad Miller, James Sensenbrenner and John Tierney of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Science and Technology Committee asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), to look into the NSAC project. The subcommittee asked the GAO to find out the answers to three questions from the FBI:
1. What is the specific role and purpose of the NSAC?
2. What types of records or databases will be incorporated, obtained, or utilized?
3. How will the NSAC ensure that any records collected or accessed will comply with existing privacy or other laws, regulations, policies?
But the DoJ and FBI insisted on shrouding their NSAC plans in secrecy. In a subsequent letter to committee chairman David Obey, Miller wrote, "It took repeated attempts by GAO even to obtain an initial meeting with Justice Department officials...."
When the GAO finally got a meeting, Miller said, "Justice Department officials bluntly told GAO that they would provide no information and GAO had no right to see any records... regarding the purpose and scope of NSAC and what data they planned to obtain. The Justice Department said the requested information dealt with intelligence data and a 'national security system' which... was 'exempt' from GAO's jurisdiction."
Later, the federal plod changed tactics, Miller added. The FBI claimed it had "no written plans" that "would provide any meaningful details," since NSAC was not yet "operational." However, the DoJ budget still requested millions of dollars to "continue the development of initial operating capabilities of the NSAC." In other words, the FBI refused to tell the GAO and Congress about NSAC because it hadn't built it yet, but it wanted millions of dollars.
Miller observed that NSAC was "being built on the backbone of an FBI task force whose original mission" was to find "aliens suspected of having ties to terrorist organizations."
NSAC is part of the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF), which the FBI had created in its acute embarrassment following 9/11 in order to, in the FBI's words, "provide information that helps keep foreign terrorists and their supporters out of the U.S. or leads to their removal, detention, prosecution or other legal action."
But that original mission had creeped alarmingly, Miller's letter noted, saying: "But the mission of NSAC has expanded far beyond that limited purpose and scope and the Justice Department claims that with this new data mining center's access to billions of personnel records the 'universe of subjects will expand exponentially.' The potential for abuse and the possibility that innocent American citizens will become wrongfully ensnared within the FBI's growing web of potential suspects is a grave concern."
The FBI's sulky continued insistance on secrecy eventually gave the committee all the rope it needed to hang NSAC. "By refusing to answer even the most basic questions about this program, the Department of Justice has given us little choice. In fact, we're only doing what they told us to do," Representative Miller said in a statement.
"The Department of Justice... said that if Congress didn't like what they were doing, we could pull their funding. Well, that's what we've done... Until an agency can provide reasonable explanations, and assurances that our citizens' privacy won't be violated, it would be irresponsible to give the Department of Justice this large increase in funds."
Bad FBI, no $11 million for you. But NSAC already has 33 employees and a budget of $47.5 million as of FY2007. The FBI is asking for 66 more NSAC employees and a total FY2009 budget of $78.7 million.
That's sure a lot of money for a programme that supposedly has no written charter, requirements, concept of operations, or detailed plans. Given the FBI's flat refusal to submit to Congressional oversight regarding NSAC, the US House of Representatives ought to cut NSAC's entire FBI budget and shut the project down completely.
http://www.theinquirer.net/gb/inquirer/ ... se-project