Legal issues hamper government intelligence database searches

Law prohibits agencies responsible for foreign intelligence gathering from domestic spying.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, Wednesday expressed concern that policy and legal hurdles prevent U.S. intelligence officials from easily accessing government databases, including those containing information on American citizens.

Senior intelligence officials testified at a committee hearing that the main obstacles to searching and matching information on suspected terrorists are policy and privacy related, as opposed to technological.

Increasingly, federal databases mingle information on foreigners and U.S. citizens, raising significant legal questions on how far intelligence analysts can go in scrubbing them, said Russell Travers, deputy director of information sharing and knowledge development at the National Counterterrorism Center. He said about 30 information networks feed into the center, but analysts there cannot easily search and alter information contained in federal agency databases.

Collins said she planned to pursue the issue. Lieberman agreed, calling the situation "unsettling."

"In an era when Google can aggregate information from scores of Web sites and databases throughout the world, it is unacceptable that NCTC does not have the same ability to search and aggregate information across all government intelligence databases," Lieberman said.

"We also need automated mechanisms to connect disparate data points 24/7 and flag potential threats for analysts to examine," he added. "If policy or legal barriers stand in the way, we need to discuss options for how we can address and overcome them."

But Lieberman said he left the hearing a little confused. He noted in an interview that during a previous hearing, the counterterrorism center's director indicated that his operation's biggest problem with database searches was technological.

Apparently among the legal issues is the long-standing federal law that prohibits agencies responsible for foreign intelligence gathering from domestic spying, including the collection of information on U.S. citizens and lawful residents.

Wednesday's hearing was the fourth the committee has held to examine government failures associated with the attempt to bomb an airliner over Detroit on Dec. 25. A Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been charged with attempted murder in connection with the incident.

Travers said about 10,000 names of suspected terrorists are sent to the counterterrorism center every day -- the highest number revealed to date. He said the center has the ability to search for information on names of suspected terrorists, including different spellings of the same name.

But much more challenging is the ability to search for disparate pieces of information associated with the names and make sense of that data, he said.

Travers added that the center could have identified Abdulmutallab before the bombing attempt had it known which disparate pieces of information to search for.

He also said the center is trying to move more toward using biometrics, such as fingerprint scans, to identify suspected terrorists, as opposed to relying on names and biographical data.

NEXT STORY: Sign Up for the Bataan March