Without fanfare, senators debating defense spending for next year have proposed eliminating all money for the Pentagon's development of a vast computerized terrorism surveillance program that has raised privacy concerns.
In the past, Congress has limited the Defense Department's ability to implement the system now known as Terrorism Information Awareness while allowing research to proceed, but the new provision goes further to ban funding outright.
"No funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense…or to any other department, agency or element of the federal government, may be obligated or expended on research and development on the Terrorism Information Awareness program," the provision says.
Jan Walker, spokeswoman for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where the program is being developed and tested under the supervision of retired Adm. John Poindexter, declined to comment on the provision. But the administration sent Congress an analysis of the proposed defense bill that said the provision would "deny an important potential tool in the war on terrorism."
The overall bill contains $368.6 billion for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Poindexter's plan is to develop computer software that can scan vast public and private databases of commercial transactions and personal data around the world in an effort to provide advance warning of terrorist attacks.
Concerned that the records of millions of law-abiding Americans would be subjected to government scrutiny, Congress earlier this year enacted an amendment offered by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The Wyden amendment, which expires Sept. 30, bans use of any funds, without further specific consent from Congress, to implement the surveillance program domestically against U.S. citizens. The amendment allows continued research and implementation abroad against anyone and in this country against non-U.S. citizens.
Testing of early components of the system has begun at the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command.
The Senate defense spending bill, like the similar one passed by the House last week, also contains language that would extend the Wyden amendment for another year, until Sept. 30, 2004.
The tougher language banning research was backed by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and had tacit approval from committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, according to an individual familiar with the progress of the legislation who requested anonymity.
Asked about the tougher language, Wyden spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said, "This shows his colleagues share Senator Wyden's concerns about the Terrorism Information Awareness program."
Inouye, Stevens and aides to them who were familiar with the bill were involved in the Senate debate and not immediately available for comment.
If the tougher language passed the Senate, a House-Senate conference committee would have to decide whether the final bill would contain the outright ban, the Wyden amendment or some third alternative.
The quiet emergence of a proposal to ban even research "reflects deep, deep skepticism in Congress of the Pentagon's assurances about this system," said James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates online privacy. "There appears to be some spillover skepticism from Iraq where they voted to go to war and now are questioning whether that was based on clever use of words or selective use of intelligence."
Dempsey said a total ban on the program would affect not only the data-mining that has drawn criticism but also some components of the programs that have raised lesser or even no privacy concerns, including improved computerized translation of foreign documents and broadcasts and efforts to exchange and analyze intelligence data now kept separately in various government agencies.
The program was once known as the Total Information Awareness program. According to a report to Congress, TIA would use classified and open databases to screen information against patterns deemed to suggest terrorist activity. It would also employ computers to detect linkages among people and groups that might be involved in terrorism.