WASHINGTON -- The incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chairman pledged greater scrutiny yesterday of computerized government anti terrorism screening after learning that millions of Americans who travel internationally have been assigned risk assessments over the past four years without their knowledge.
"Data banks like this are overdue for oversight," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who will take over as head of the committee in January. "That is going to change in the new Congress."
Millions of Americans and foreigners crossing US borders in the past four years have reportedly been assessed by the computerized Automated Targeting System, which is designed to help pick out terrorists and criminals.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge the risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years. Under specific circumstances, some or all data can be shared with state, local, and foreign governments, and even private contractors.
"It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow US citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores," Leahy said.
Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said that while it is critical for the government to have the tools necessary to thwart terrorists, "we must ensure that travelers ' privacy and civil liberties are appropriately respected."
The Homeland Security Department, which operates the Automated Targeting System, calls the system critical to national security .
But privacy advocates expressed alarm. "Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass 'risk assessment' ratings of its own citizens," said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea, or land is assessed based on an analysis of their travel records and other data, such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, seating preference, and what meal they ordered.
Government officials could not say whether ATS the Automated Targeting System has helped apprehended any terrorists. Federal agents turn back about 45 foreign criminals a day at US borders, according to Bill Anthony, a Homeland Security spokesman.