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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The FBI wants to start a new project to help combat the threat of terrorist sleeper cells in this country. The new team would use powerful computers to sift through billions of records. They say the idea is to search for patterns that might help identify terrorists before they strike.

Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston with more on the story.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI has asked Congress for $12 million to set up a new national security analysis center. It would employ almost 60 people, including five full-time agents to comb through FBI case information to find something that might tip them off to terrorists.

Mr. JOHN MILLER (Assistant Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): There's a database that tracks who is the subject of a FISA warrant. There's a database that will track who is on a terrorist watch list. There's a database that will track who's the subject of a case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: John Miller is an assistant director at the FBI.

Mr. MILLER: And the idea of this system is to get all of those databases to talk to each other. And when one or two or three or four of those things set off an alarm, to bring that individual or group of individuals up to the top of the list and say, a pattern's been identified here that needs to be looked at.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Critics of the proposed center say this is an FBI data-mining program by another name. In its budget request, the FBI said it expected the new center would be sifting through some six billion pieces of data by 2012. That translates to 20 records for every man, woman and child in America. And that much information in one place worries people like Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina.

Representative BRAD MILLER (Democrat, North Carolina): We need to make sure that the information we're collecting, the massive amount of information we're collecting about the American people is not abused.

TEMPLE-RASTON: His concern is that the new analysis team, something the FBI calls its proactive data exploitation unit, will go on an enormous data-fishing expedition, and will use data-mining techniques to ensnare innocent Americans. He's asked the Government Accountability Office to look at the FBI's proposal to find out exactly how the center would work and what safeguards would be in place to protect innocent Americans.

Congressman Brad Miller.

Rep. MILLER: The track record of the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies of handling information like this within the law has not been encouraging. It is not reassuring.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI's John Miller says the center is misunderstood. It isn't about data mining. He says the group will concentrate on people who are already considered suspects and listed in the FBI's array of databases. He says this is just a more efficient way to prioritize cases and see changes in a suspect's behavior. He points to two of the 9/11 hijackers.

Mr. MILLER: They were doing very little to hide. They were creating electronic footprints that went across the country. This is a way to try and develop systems that will give us better trip wires for people who are already the subjects of investigation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As the threat of terrorism grows, there are a good number of Americans who say they're willing to give up some privacy if it means preventing another attack. They say they have nothing to hide.

Jim Harper, a scholar at the Cato Institute, worries about the FBI program becoming more expansive and eventually including more personal information. He thinks Americans would object to that.

Mr. JIM HARPER (Scholar, Cato Institute): The people that argue, I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to worry about, I always ask them for their wallet and start to look through it. And they will blanch at that if not refuse outright. And that puts the lie to the idea that people don't want their own privacy. They do.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is why the FBI is likely to have a tough fight ahead. It has to convince skeptical lawmakers that they aren't just looking for a new way to sift through private information. To assuage their concerns, the budget proposal includes money for a full-time privacy officer at the new center.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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