A new Pentagon database that would sift through Americans' records came under fire in Congress on Thursday as Democratic senators vowed to block funding until they can review the Bush administration program.
The Defense Department says the aim of the "Total Information Awareness" program, under the direction of former national security advisor John M. Poindexter, is to seek patterns in such data as credit card bills to identify terrorist threats.
But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Congress should put the brakes on the program now, while it is still under development, because it threatens Americans' privacy.
"Our country must fight terrorism, but America should not unleash virtual bloodhounds to sniff into the financial, educational, travel and medical records of millions of Americans," Wyden told a news conference.
Wyden has introduced an amendment to a spending package on the Senate floor that would ban any funding for the program. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced a separate bill to suspend the project until Congress has reviewed it thoroughly.
Last year, the Pentagon said the program had a budget of $10 million. But Feingold said such projects were expected to cost more than $137 million in the current fiscal year, adding that the Congressional Research Service predicts them to cost upward of $575 million for the following three years.
Officials said the database is supposed to sort through records such as visas, airline tickets and gun permits to detect suspicious patterns before terrorist activity occurs. But civil liberties groups worry that it would amount to electronic surveillance by the government on the personal data of all Americans.
Critics are not reassured by the fact that Poindexter, who was convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal, is directing the project. His conviction was later set aside. "It's ironic that Adm. Poindexter is leading the charge," said Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), who called the project "Orwellian."