Polls show Americans regaining their skepticism of government and demanding that respect for civil liberties figure in anti-terrorist policies. But government officials don't appear to be paying attention. Instead, they seem to be pawing through a copy of "1984" with the idea of using George Orwell's cautionary tale as a blueprint for an America of the future.
In recent weeks, we've learned that the Defense Department wants to build a massive database that tracks everything that Americans do — and would, presumably, be administered by a proposed domestic spying agency. A federal appeals court has paved the way for wholesale eavesdropping by the Justice Department. And the Transportation Security Administration admits that it keeps a blacklist of people who are red-flagged for special scrutiny at airports.
The Pentagon's Total Information Awareness scheme comes courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Information Awareness Office, which makes no bones about its paranoia-inducing mission — the IAO's logo features an eye-in-a-pyramid scanning the Earth.
In a solicitation for bids on the new "anti-terrorism" project, IAO says, "The potential sources of information about possible terrorist activities will include extensive existing databases. Innovative technologies are sought for treating these databases as a virtual, centralized, grand database."
The government promises that its plan to paw through the world's existing stores of information on people's travel, purchases and communications will respect privacy rights — a claim we're expected to take at face value. One barrier to that trust is IAO's chief, Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, who first made headlines with his controversial involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. Poindexter's history of clandestine activity offers little assurance that his latest project will remain above-board.
Of course, Poindexter himself won't administer the Total Information Awareness system once it's up and running. That job may fall to the National Counter Terrorism Center. If the NCTC doesn't sound familiar, that's because it's still on the wish list of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, a committee sponsored by the Defense Department and chaired by former Virginia Governor James Gilmore.
Just weeks after the London Daily Telegraph reported that Tom Ridge, the president's Homeland Security Adviser, was meeting with British officials to discuss "the creation of a domestic spying organisation modelled on Britain's MI5," the Gilmore Commission (as it's known to those leery of sprained tongues) recommended doing just that. Gilmore and company propose "to consolidate in one entity the analysis of foreign-collected and domestically-collected intelligence and information on international terrorists and terrorist organizations threatening attacks against the United States."
The proposal document contains a dissenting statement from panel member Jim Greenleaf, who warns, "The issue of 'secret police' becomes more of a factor for the new organization rather than with the FBI."
In fact, the FBI itself is doing pretty well at the secret police business all by itself. Just a few months ago, the Foreign Intelligence Security Court rejected broad wiretap guidelines sought by the Justice Department in the name of battling terrorism. The court pointed out that the FBI had admitted to "misstatements and omissions of material facts" in 75 applications for surveillance authorization under existing rules. With the feds abusing the authority they already have, the court saw no reason to give them even greater leeway.
More recently, a federal appeals court ruled that the surveillance court was mistaken, and that the FBI's misbehaving snoops should be allowed to perform more eavesdropping with less oversight.
All of this snooping and subterfuge might have the privacy-minded contemplating an escape to some locale where federal writ doesn't run. If they go, however, they should avoid the airports.
For the past year, the possibility of a federal "no-fly" list of people flagged for special treatment at airports has been discussed on the Internet and in the left-wing and libertarian press. Now comes word from Salon, the online magazine, that the rumors have been confirmed. The Transportation Security Administration admits that it maintains a list of about 1,000 people considered "threats to aviation" and so banned from flying.
While the banned list apparently consists of terrorist suspects, a spokesman for the security agency implied that it keeps a separate list of political activists and journalists who can travel, but only after running a gauntlet of searches and background checks before every flight.
The red-flagged names are apparently submitted by a variety of government agencies according to their own criteria, so there's no certain way for targeted travelers to get off the blacklist.
Federal officials assure us that the snoops, spies, massive databases and blacklists are necessary tools against terrorism. We're at war, we're told, although where the enemy is located and how we'll know when we've won are left as open issues. Some sacrifices must be made so that we'll be safe from future attacks.
Safety is important, but so is the freedom that defines American life. Feeling secure in our homes shouldn't require us to learn to love Big Brother.
— Arizona Daily Sun