June 26, 2008 -- A Congressional panel voted Wednesday against giving the FBI $11 million it requested to expand a controversial data-mining program, citing concerns about Americans' privacy and the lack of answers from the bureau on how the program operates.
The National Security Analysis Center (NSAC) brings together hundreds of millions of electronic records created or collected by the FBI and other government agencies, according to FBI documents. The bureau has said it expects that number to skyrocket in the coming years. Its annual budget, which the FBI had hoped to increase, is roughly $60 million.
Last year, lawmakers raised questions about the FBI's stated goal of using the vast ocean of data to "predict" who might be a potential terrorist, in the absence of intelligence linking the man or woman to any radical or extremist group. Leading experts, and even U.S. intelligence officials, have said the approach is not feasible.
In an earlier report to Congress, the FBI called NSAC "a dynamic organization with an evolving mission" and "the next essential step" in fulfilling President Bush's order to create a National Security Service within the Justice Department and FBI. The Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
"It is unclear how the Bureau intends to define these predictive models in such a way as to avoid needless intrusions into the privacy of innocent citizens," a House appropriations panel wrote in a report explaining its decision to withhold $11 million in money the FBI had requested to expand the program. The report also cites concerns about the program wasting agents' time by sending them out to run down false leads.
Concerns the administration was withholding information from Congress about the program were also raised by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., one of two lawmakers to initially raise concerns about the NSAC.
In a letter to the House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wisc. obtained by ABC News, Miller complained that the Bush administration had stonewalled efforts by investigators from Congress' Government Accountability Office to arrange meetings and obtain information about the program. Congress last year asked the GAO to investigate the program.
"It took repeated attempts by GAO even to obtain an initial meeting with Justice Department officials on the issue," Miller wrote. "At their initial meeting, Justice Department officials bluntly told GAO that they would provide no information and GAO had no right to see any records" regarding the role and purpose of the center, and what kinds of information it would hold, arguing that as a "national security system" it was "exempt" from Congressional oversight.
It was his understanding, Miller wrote, that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had instructed the department to withhold the information. A spokesman for McConnell who declined to be named confirmed his office had spoken with the Department of Justice on sharing information with GAO. According to the spokesman, McConnell's office believed the law said some intelligence matters could only be reviewed by the House and Senate intelligence committees, and not GAO. "Nevertheless, we have often made available information to GAO," he said.
While the House has voted to withhold the money, a Senate effort could get the funding reinstated, although observers say that is unlikely.