A summary of domestic spying activities in the war on terrorism

Since 9-11, domestic spying projects have become as American as apple pie, the Fourth of July and baseball.

And like baseball in the age of free agency — when eligible players can switch teams when their contracts expire — it's difficult to follow the multitude of spy ops without a scorecard. With "The Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003," otherwise known as the Patriot Act II, now under consideration by Congress, now is an opportune time to review some of the projects offered up by the Bush Administration since 9-11. Not every cranky proposal has passed muster: Some have already been kiboshed; some are operational; and some are still in development.

Let's start with the USA Patriot Act — whose full name is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."

The Patriot Act was introduced by the administration, sailed through Congress and signed into law less than two months after 9-11. It essentially gave the government "new power to wiretap phones, confiscate property of suspected terrorists, spy on its own citizens without judicial review, conduct secret searches, snoop on the reading habits of library users," says Matt Welch, the Los Angeles correspondent for the National Post, and an editor of the L.A. Examiner.

Patriot Act II aims to "fill in the holes."

There are Terrorist Watch Lists currently being maintained by nine federal agencies. These lists, while not standardized, contain a wide variety of data including biographical information and, in some cases, biometric data such as fingerprints. An April 2003 General Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that "the federal government's approach to developing and using terrorist and criminal watch lists in performing its border security mission is diffuse and nonstandard."

Early in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced his intentions to expand the Neighborhood Watch program. He earmarked $1.9-million in federal funds to help the National Sheriff's Association double the number of participant groups to 15,000 nationwide. Neighborhood Watch, which began as a fairly low-key crime-prevention tool focused on neighborhood break-ins and burglaries, was earmarked for a broader role — surveillance in the service of the "war on terrorism."

Highway Watch was established in 1998 by the American Trucking Association for truckers to report on a variety of common highway situations — stranded motorists, drunk drivers, changing road conditions, poor signage, accidents, etc. Now, watching for suspicious terrorist activity is a major part of its activities.

Recently, the Transportation Security Administration announced it is developing a system called the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program II (CAPPS II), which will screen names, addresses, birth dates and other data regarding airline passengers.

Local police departments in a number of cities have re-instituted domestic surveillance programs that had been barred after revelations that the government had spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other so-called subversive individuals and groups.

Some cities are experimenting with e-surveillance, which allows residents to log on to their computers and monitor strategically placed video cams for criminal or terrorist activities.

Then there are a number of what could be called "big-ticket items" under development, such as:

1. The controversial Total Information Awareness program, proposed by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), became Terrorism Information Awareness and is now facing extinction.

2. The granddaddy of all neighbor-versus-neighbor spy-ops, Operation TIPS, was killed by Congress but appears to have morphed into something called the Talon project — overseen by the omnipresent Paul Wolfowitz.

3. And LifeLog, a project that aims to gather as much information about an individual's activities as possible, is also under construction.

Total ... er, Terrorism Information Awareness

Last fall, DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, unveiled its Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. This project was the brainchild of retired Admiral John Poindexter, the Iran-Contra veteran who had been working as a DARPA contractor at the Arlington, Va.-based Syntek Technologies Inc., based in Arlington, Va. In November 2002, the Washington Post reported that Syntek "helped develop technology to search through large amounts of data."

Poindexter intended Total Information Awareness to be the mother of all data retrieval systems, sweeping information garnered from e-mail, Internet use, travel, credit-card purchases, telephone and bank records, driver's licenses and much more, into one very smart database.

Enough of a stink was raised about TIA that DARPA went back to the drawing board. In late May, the agency issued a 108-page report, which Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation found "disappointing." Tien told Wired News that "after more than a hundred pages, you don't know anything more about whether TIA will work or whether your civil liberties will be safe against it. DARPA is constantly trying to assuage privacy concerns. Their mantra is, 'We always operate within current law.'"

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.