NORWALK, Calif.--Privacy rules will be closely regarded as intelligence
gathering and sharing get a boost, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said.
Collecting more information and correlating data from various law enforcement
agencies is crucial to national security, Chertoff told reporters late last week after
touring a new, high-tech law enforcement center in
this Los Angeles suburb. But increased intelligence gathering and sharing
doesn't equal less privacy for U.S. citizens, he said.
"As we have broadened information sharing, we have made sure that there are
strict rules in effect...that prevent people from misusing that information or
putting it out improperly," he said. "That's built into the DNA of this and all
of our intelligence-sharing capabilities."
While Chertoff offered privacy promises, his department has often raised the
ire of privacy watchers. The Department of Homeland Security has been embroiled
in a number of privacy flaps, including what independent government auditors
last year called illegal
data collection of some 250,000 airline passengers. This year, the
department picked as a top privacy official a lawyer who
defended the data collection as probably legal.
There are laws, including the USA Patriot Act, that strictly protect the
gathered data, Chertoff said. "We're very sensitive about the issue of privacy
in general when we maintain intelligence," he said. The Patriot Act is seen by
opponents as giving law enforcement too much
free rein in the name of national security.
Chertoff over the weekend visited the first-of-its-kind
Joint Regional Intelligence Center, which joins federal, state and local law
enforcement in one facility. Analysts and investigators at the center handle
intelligence from the various agencies on potential threats to national security, in particular terrorism, and correlate the data.
The center is part of a post-Sept. 11 effort to improve law enforcement
collaboration and to "connect the dots" so potentially valuable intelligence does not go unnoticed.
"The whole name of the game here with counterterrorism is information sharing
and early warning," Chertoff said. "Our radar for terrorism is intelligence...It
is the radar of the 21st century, and if we let that radar go down, we're going to be flying blind."
Chertoff blasted a U.S. District Court decision last week to strike
down the government's once-secret program for warrantless Internet and
telephone surveillance. "If (the decision) were in fact ultimately to prevail,
it would have a huge effect and a negative effect because it would really hamper our ability to collect intelligence," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit against the government,
claiming the program "ran roughshod" over the constitutional rights of millions
of Americans and ran afoul of federal wiretapping law. The government has
appealed the decision and can continue its surveillance program pending that appeal, Chertoff said.
"The ability to be nimble and efficient and use all of our tools--including
all of our surveillance tools--in order to capture plots before they come to
fruition is the No. 1 way we keep Americans safe," he said. He referenced the
foiled terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners as an example of good use
"We need to make sure we're not letting obstacles come in the way of sharing
information and of getting information and analyzing it," Chertoff said.
CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.