Counterterrorism authorities would be granted unprecedented access to law enforcement and commercial databases containing billions of records about private citizens under a bipartisan bill to restructure the intelligence system that the Senate began debating yesterday.
The proposed national information-sharing network eventually would link hundreds or thousands of local, state, federal and commercial computers, according to the bill's language and congressional aides familiar with the intent of lawmakers. The new network would enable authorized investigators to draw on details about where suspects live, the cars they drive, their associates, their police records and their possible ties to terrorist activities.
a The proposal, part of the Senate's version of the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, would be one of the most far-reaching changes in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But it has gone largely unnoticed amid intense debate over other proposed reforms, including creation of a national intelligence director and national counterterrorism center and House measures to beef up law enforcement powers and border controls.
The network was first recommended by the Markle Foundation Task Force, a group of academics, technology executives and counterterrorism officials seeking to balance anti-terrorism activities with concerns about personal privacy. The task force, headed by Zoe Baird, issued a report last December urging the Bush administration to assemble and coordinate burgeoning public and private data systems to help authorities prevent another catastrophic attack.
Philip D. Zelikow, who served as executive director of the Sept. 11 commission and supervised its recommendations, which served as the basis for the Senate legislation, was also executive director of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age.
"The network should make it possible for the government to effectively utilize not only information gathered through clandestine intelligence activities and law enforcement investigations, but also appropriate information held by private companies," said the task force's report, which lawmakers drew from.
Police and intelligence officials already have access to vast quantities of government and commercial records, but the information is often dispersed and not readily available. A supercomputer system dubbed Matrix, built by an information service after the Sept. 11 attacks, enabled authorities in participating states for the first time to instantly and simultaneously query commercial and confidential police records. But some civil liberties experts criticized that system, which was funded by the federal government, because it was developed in secret and, initially, without clear guidelines.
The Senate bill, introduced this month by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), contains a complex set of rules for expanding the sharing of information that would also restrict how the information is shared to limit possibilities for abuse.
Under those rules, an agency such as the FBI or CIA might only respond to a query by acknowledging that it has information that might be relevant and then arranging a meeting with the official seeking the records to discuss them. In other instances, one computer would respond to another computer request by instantly transmitting electronic records, officials said.
Government watch lists, meanwhile, would confirm whether someone appears to be a suspect, while commercial services would confirm that an individual exists and provide records about addresses, homeownership, telephone numbers and other background details. The level of access that police or intelligence officials are granted would depend on how much clearance they have. Electronic audits, also mandated by the law, would track how the system is used and alert authorities to abuses.
Baird said that although the government needs to use information to prevent terrorism, "the challenge of this will be writing the policy rules. That will be more challenging than the technology."
The proposal alarms some civil liberties activists and privacy specialists, who worry that the network will give authorities too much power to monitor people. They said they doubt that government officials and their advisers have the ability or the political will to restrain the use of such a sweeping network.
"There's no need to enact this so quickly when the effect is going to be to build the largest technological surveillance system we've ever seen," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties group.
Congressional aides and other involved in the drafting of the law played down the chance the network would be misused, saying that the law creates a civil liberties board to monitor its use
The House version of the intelligence reform legislation is very different from the Senate bill and does not contain the proposal for the information-sharing network. Leaders of both chambers said their respective bills reflect the findings and recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.
The commission's leaders have signaled that they prefer the Senate bill, but they have not openly criticized House members and they expressed hope the House bill will be changed.
Commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton said in an interview that the Senate bill "closely tracks the commission's recommendations" but added: "We are pleased the House is addressing many issues the commission raised." Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.