Commentary

Information Awareness Office Makes Us a Nation of Suspects

By Charles V. Peña
November 29, 2002
Embedded in the nearly 500 pages of the current House version of the Homeland Security Act is language that could give the federal government sweeping powers to secretly monitor e-mails, bank accounts, credit card transactions, telephone calling cards, medical records, and travel documents - all without a search warrant - and keep that data in a centralized database. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is already pursuing the creation of such a vast electronic dragnet.

Admiral John Poindexter, who heads the Information Awareness Office at DARPA, argues that the government needs to “break down the stovepipes” that separate commercial and government databases to find terrorists before they can attack the United States. That the person suggesting that the U.S. government needs to engage in extensive electronic data mining of potentially every American is the same person who was the mastermind of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration ought to be enough to send a chill down the collective spine of the public.

Legal experts (and perhaps the Supreme Court) would have to decide whether such a system - known as Total Information Awareness - violates the letter of the law of the Fourth Amendment guaranteeing “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizures.” But you don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer to figure out that it violates the intent of the Fourth Amendment, especially the parts about having a warrant and probable cause.

The TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention Service) program proposed by the Justice Department that would have made us a nation of snitches was bad enough. Total Information Awareness is much worse. It will make us a nation of suspects.

Call it what you want, but Total Information Awareness is the federal government creating a surveillance state to spy on its own citizenry. Of course, the rationale for such draconian action is that it will help catch would-be terrorists before they inflict harm on innocent Americans. This preys on the public’s new sense of vulnerability and places safety above liberty. As Benjamin Franklin said: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Total Information Awareness is a fishing expedition that will cast a net over all Americans. Indeed, data mining currently targets millions of Americans as potential customers for a variety of products and services. Yet how many people - who are supposed to fit the profile of a likely customer - receive unwanted telephone, mail, and electronic solicitations? Telemarketers and junk mail are an inconvenience and annoyance. Now imagine that the computers are correlating data to create lists of would-be terrorists. The result could amount to high-tech McCarthyism.

How many innocent Americans will be wrongfully accused? How many will be incarcerated, perhaps indefinitely, and possibly denied their Constitutional rights - including access to legal counsel - if declared “enemy combatants”? How many will share the same fate as Richard Jewell, who was suspected of the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing? It turned out that he actually acted to thwart the bombing. But because he was the sole focus of the FBI’s investigation and the subject of intense media scrutiny his life was nonetheless ruined, without so much as an apology from the federal government.

Or consider former U.S. Army biologist Steven Hatfill - the public focus of the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the fall 2001 anthrax attacks - who could apparently be the victim of a similar fate. Hatfill was recently terminated from his position at Louisiana State University helping emergency personnel prepare for terrorism attacks ostensibly because he is the subject of FBI scrutiny (although he has not been officially charged with anything).

President Bush criticized congressional Democrats who opposed legislation to create a new Department of Homeland Security as “not interested in the security of the American people.” But how is invading everyone’s privacy by monitoring e-mails, bank accounts, credit card transactions, telephone calling cards, medical records, and travel documents, and keeping a dossier on everyone going to make the country more secure against the threat of terrorism? It sounds more like the KGB making average people enemies of the state.

That’s the kind of homeland security we can live without. The first responsibility of the federal government is to protect its citizenry, not spy on it.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.