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Military intelligence system draws controversy

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon said Wednesday that it's working to develop a powerful information-gathering system designed to uncover possible terrorists before they strike, but the plan is already coming under fire from civil libertarians who say it would violate Americans' constitutional rights.

The program, called the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, would be able to search through "vast amounts" of data -- such as credit card records, passport applications, driver's licenses, arrest records, and the purchases of guns, chemicals or airline tickets -- for patterns that could indicate terrorist activity, Defense Undersecretary Pete Aldridge said.

The system would have a rapid language translation feature that would connect domestic databases with ones in other countries, as well as decision-making tools to aid communication and analysis between agencies. Aldridge said agencies such as law enforcement departments, which can already get similar information, would be hooked into the network.

"We are in a war on terrorism, we are trying to prevent terrorists acts against our country. We are trying to give our people who understand and try to track down the terrorists ... a sufficient set of tools," Aldridge said.

Critics of the program have asked how much freedom Americans must give up in the pursuit of potential terrorists -- a debate over civil liberties vs. protecting the homeland.

"If the Pentagon has its way, every American -- from the Nebraskan farmer to the Wall Street banker -- will find themselves under the accusatory cyber-stare of an all-powerful national security apparatus," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington office for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"So much for the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy," said George Getz, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party. "Unless this Orwellian project is dismantled, innocent Americans will suffer under the kind of high-tech, 24-hour surveillance that the Stasi and the KGB would have envied."

Aldridge sharply disputed such claims, and said it is "absurd" to think the Defense Department is "trying to become another police agency."

"The bottom line is this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions to discover and respond to terrorists before they act," Aldridge said.

"If it proves useful, TIA will then be turned over to the intelligence, counter-intelligence, and law enforcement communities as a tool to help them in their battle against domestic terrorism."

He said those agencies would have to use the same processes they use now to make sure that individual rights are protected.

Concerns also have been raised about the project's developer, John Poindexter, the embattled Reagan national security adviser who was indicted and sentenced for giving false testimony to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. His conviction was later overturned.

"This is a program that incorporates all of the 'Big Brother' operations that the American public has feared from its government all these years and that the Constitution has protected us from -- spying, invasion of privacy, you name it," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "And Admiral Poindexter, of all people, is now in charge of that program."

Aldridge, however, was quick to note that Poindexter has a doctorate in physics and is more than capable of developing such a project. Aldridge also stressed that Poindexter would not be involved in intelligence gathering if the project is successful.

"What John Poindexter is doing is developing a tool, he is not exercising the tool, he will not exercise the tool. That tool will be exercised by the intelligence, counterintelligence, and law enforcement agencies," Aldridge said.

The new data-gathering technology is being developed under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

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