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Why Orwell matters
Big Brother really is Watching You
I made a very deliberate decision not to tell the president so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability for the president if it ever leaked out. - John Poindexter, former national security advisor, after being found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and destruction of evidence
WASHINGTON - A Pentagon plan to build a giant computer system capable of mining thousands of databases containing the most private information about United States and foreign citizens are coming under fire from civil liberties groups and lawmakers in both major parties.
The Orwellian-sounding 'Total Information Awareness' (TIA) project, the brainchild of a leading player in the notorious Iran-Contra scandal during the government of former president Ronald Reagan, is designed to create "a virtual, centralized, grand database" that includes the financial, medical, communication and travel records of virtually everyone entering or living in the US.
The idea was brought to the Defense Department immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by retired Admiral John Poindexter, Reagan's national security advisor, who, since his disgraced role in the Iran-Contra affair, has been working in the data technology field.
Earlier this year, Poindexter was named to head the Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon office that works with the private sector to develop cutting-edge technologies (such as the Internet) with military or defense applications.
The TIA system would be designed to scan the patterns of people's conduct - including, for example, their use of the Internet, medical records and credit card purchases - to determine who might be engaged in terrorist or related hostile activity against the US.
Concern among civil libertarians - which has risen steadily since the attacks due to the expansion of the FBI's spying authority and a series of court decisions upholding the detention powers of the executive branch - has mushroomed since details about the project were first published by the New York Times earlier this month. Critics say the system could well lead to a "surveillance state".
The Fourth Amendment of the US constitution, which forbids unreasonable "searches and seizures", is one of the most sensitive in the Bill of Rights. In addition, the military has long been banned from engaging in domestic law enforcement and surveillance. "This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America," says Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
He noted that, once developed by the military, the technology would probably be given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the agency created as a result of the Homeland Security Act, which was signed into law by President George W Bush on Monday. "The outcome [would be] a system of national surveillance of the American public," added Rotenberg.
"If the Pentagon has its way, every American - from the Nebraska farmer to the Wall Street banker - will find themselves under the accusatory cyber stare of a powerful national security apparatus," said Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In opposing the plan, traditional civil libertarians are being joined by right-wingers, whose historic distrust of big government appears to be overcoming their fears of terrorism. Many on the far right have also grown increasingly angry with one of their own, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, for using the September 11 attacks as the justification to expand the powers of government prosecutors and the FBI at the expense of individual liberties.
The Justice Department "seems to be running amok and out of control", complained the just-retired Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, last month. "[It] is the biggest threat to personal liberty in the country."
Armey has reportedly signed on with the ACLU, as had former ultra-right-wing Bob Barr, to lobby Congress against any extension of the TIA. This weekend, Barr called the TIA "outrageous" and chided Congress for not yet acting to limit it. "You would think the Pentagon planning a system to peek at personal data would get a little more attention," he said.
Newspapers are also getting into the act. "Congress should shut down the program pending a thorough investigation," the Times said last week, while the Washington Post called at the very least for the appointment of an outside committee to oversee the office's plans before it proceeds.
The Pentagon insists that the plan is innocent and, when completed, any new search system will be run by domestic agencies subject to normal constitutional and legal safeguards. "It is absurd to think that DARPA is somehow trying to become another police agency," said Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Edward C "Pete" Aldridge at a briefing last week.
"DARPA's purpose is to demonstrate the feasibility of this technology. If it proves useful, [TIA] will then be turned over to the intelligence, counter-intelligence, and law enforcement communities as a tool to help them in their battle against domestic terrorism." He also insisted that only US$10 million had been budgeted for the project, an assertion strongly contested by civil liberties groups.
Citing DARPA's own documents, for example, EPIC's Rotenberg said Monday that $243 million had already been earmarked for the project.
Other critics have noted that the agency has a long history of secrecy. In a letter to Senate leaders a week ago, 30 civil liberties groups complained that DARPA has "resisted lawful requests for information about the program pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act".
Poindexter's position as head of the TIA office is probably not helping the government's cause. The unflappable, pipe-smoking admiral, who achieved the top of his class at the US Naval Academy, was the highest-ranking Reagan official convicted of lying to Congress about the illegal scheme to divert profits made from secretly selling weapons to Iran to the Nicaraguan Contras.
While an appeals court later overturned his conviction, Poindexter has never expressed regret for his part in the affair, which, among other things, included ordering then Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to lie about his role in the scandal.
When Poindexter's return to government was first announced last January, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended his appointment by saying, "The President thinks that Admiral Poindexter has served our nation very well."
Why Poindexter was chosen to run the TIA program was explained last week by Aldridge. "John Poindexter has a passion for this project. He has an enthusiasm for this project," said the Pentagon's Aldridge.
Adding to the sense that the TIA program is indeed something out of the pages of Orwell's classic novel 1984 are the symbols for Poindexter's office: a pyramid with an all-seeing eye and the Latin motto, Scientia Est Potentia (Knowledge is Power).
A Times | 11.27.02 | Jim Lobe
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