The Pentagon's high-profile effort to fulfill every paranoid Orwellian nightmare, the Total Information Awareness project, is itself under scrutiny. Members of Congress angered by competition to their own fervent efforts to turn American society into an ant farm are raising loud objections to the high-tech snooping scheme.
Republicans and Democrats alike say that TIA should be the subject of congressional hearings — not just a fait accompli handed to the country by the military. A coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum is demanding that TIA be blocked. And the American Civil Liberties union just released a comprehensive report on domestic surveillance that warns that TIA involves "turning the defense capabilities of the United States inward and applying them to the American people."
Pentagon officials can only blame themselves for the fuss. TIA's grandiose scheme to give U.S. intelligence agencies access to data stored in all of the world's government and commercial databases is the real-life expression of decades of warnings about government snoops. With TIA, we have tax-supported busybodies openly announcing their plan to learn everything about everybody.
The Pentagon's Information Awareness Office, the agency behind TIA, actively encouraged fears with its cartoon-villain logo, since dropped, featuring an eye in a pyramid scanning the world.
And heading the Information Awareness Office is John M. Poindexter, a controversial figure implicated in the cloak-and-dagger Iran-Contra scandal, and now entrusted with a surveillance system that would allow him access to the private details of the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
If it were a movie script, even Hollywood might find the situation too preposterous.
So it's understandable that Pentagon assurances that TIA will enhance national security without endangering the privacy of the innocent are falling on deaf ears.
Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, is among the legislators who have raised red flags in response to TIA. In a Novenber 2002 statement, he said, "we should be demanding that the Administration immediately suspend the Total Information Awareness initiative until Congress has conducted a thorough review and refrain from implementing this program …"
Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, sent a pointed letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Defense inquiring about TIA. Among his questions, he asked, "What protections are in place to ensure civil liberties are not violated?"
Such cross-aisle agreement is relatively rare, but the non-partisan nature of objections to the totalitarian scrutiny embodied in the Pentagon's scheme is also visible beyond the halls of Congress. The coalition of public-interest groups that has demanded an end to TIA includes: the American Civil Liberties Union, the American
Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Center for National Security Studies, the Eagle Forum, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Free Congress Foundation.
In its letter to ranking members of the House and the Senate, the coalition warned that "TIA would expand domestic intelligence activities to include the analysis of innocent people's personal information — credit card transactions, hotel reservations, or even prescription receipts. These so-called 'non-traditional data sources'
would put everyone's day-to-day transactions under government scrutiny. …. We urge you to act immediately to stop the development of TIA and other similar programs that create massive public surveillance systems."
TIA doesn't stand alone, unfortunately. The Pentagon's high-tech snooping plan came along as part of a flood of post-Sept. 11 proposals touted as means to improve Americans' security by bypassing traditional protections for privacy, liberty and due process. A new report from the ACLU, "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains," warns that "a combination of lightning-fast technological innovation and the erosion of privacy protections threatens to transform Big Brother from an oft-cited but remote threat into a very real part of American life."
The ACLU cites such high-tech toys as implantable microchips, along with eroding legal protections and schemes for tracking travelers as part of the tidal wave of privacy threats that are transforming America — a country that defines itself in terms of individual liberty — into an unfree society.
Stopping the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness scheme is only the first step in making sure that the U.S. retains some of the freedom that makes it worth protecting.
— Arizona Daily Sun