|Thursday, November 21,
WASHINGTON — A massive
database that the government will use to monitor every
purchase made by every American citizen is a necessary tool in
the war on terror, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology, told
reporters that the Pentagon is developing a prototype database
to seek "patterns indicative of terrorist activity." Aldridge
said the database would collect and use software to analyze
consumer purchases in hopes of catching terrorists before it's
"The bottom line is this is an important
research project to determine the feasibility of using certain
transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists
before they act," he said.
Aldridge said the database, which he called
another "tool" in the war on terror, would look for telltale
signs of suspicious consumer behavior.
Examples he cited were: sudden and large
cash withdrawals, one-way air or rail travel, rental car
transactions and purchases of firearms, chemicals or agents
that could be used to produce biological or chemical
It would also combine consumer information
with visa records, passports, arrest records or reports of
suspicious activity given to law enforcement or intelligence
The Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency is home to the Pentagon's brightest thinkers -- the
ones who built the Internet. DARPA will be in charge of trying
to make the system work technically.
Rear Adm. John Poindexter, former national
security adviser to President Reagan, is developing the
database under the Total Information Awareness Program.
Poindexter was convicted on five counts of misleading Congress
and making false statements during the Iran-Contra
investigation. Those convictions were later overturned, but
critics note that his is a dubious resume for someone
entrusted with so sensitive a task.
Aldridge said Poindexter will only "develop
the tool, he will not be exercising the tool." He said
Poindexter brought the database idea to the Pentagon and
persuaded Aldridge and others to pursue it.
"John has a real passion for this project,"
TIAF's office logo is now one eye scanning
the globe. The translation of the Latin motto: knowledge is
power. Some say, possibly too much power. "What this is
talking about is making us a nation of suspects and I am
sorry, the United States citizens should not have to live in
fear of their own government and that is exactly what this is
going to turn out to be," said Chuck Pena, senior defense
policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
Pena and others say the database is an even
greater violation of privacy rights than Attorney General John
Ashcroft's nixed proposal to turn postal workers and delivery
men into government tipsters. No matter what protections
Congress requires, Pena fears a database big enough and nimble
enough to track the entire nation's spending habits is ripe
"I don't think once you put something like
this in place, you can ever create enough checks and balances
and oversight," Pena said.
But proponents say big business already has
access to most of this data, but don't do anything with it to
"I find it somewhat counter intuitive that
people are not concerned that telemarketers and insurance
companies can acquire this data but feel tremendous
trepidation if a government ventures into this arena. To me it
just smacks of paranoia," said David Rivkin, an attorney
for Baker & Hostetler LLP.
The database is not yet ready and Aldridge
said it will not be available for several years. Fake consumer
data will be used in development of the database, he said.
When it's ready, Aldridge said individual
privacy rights will be protected. But he could not explain how
the data would be accessed. In some cases, specific warrants
would give law enforcement agencies access, he said. But in
other cases the database might flag suspicious activity absent
a specific request or warrant, and that suspicious activity
could well be relayed to law enforcement or intelligence
"I don't know what the scope of this is
going to be," Aldridge said. "We are in a war on terrorism. We
are trying to find out if this technology can work."