US Homeland Security chief promises privacy safeguards

Law enforcement leaders say agencies will take care not to overstep bounds in boosting their computing resources.
Written by Joris Evers, Contributor

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 of intelligence.

"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.

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