Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

By - Apr 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

The Bush administration’s use of the English language reads like something out of a dystopian political novel. Some of its recent concoctions, like The Department of Homeland Security; Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” bon mot; the Office of Information Awareness (OIA); the USA PATRIOT Act; Weapons of Mass Destruction; the Axis of Evil and the Information Exploitation Office (IEO) are just a few of the more Orwellian terms that seem to inspire a mix of the Weimar Republic and doom itself.

There are two new programs – one which has been stalled by Congress, while the other was just recently leaked to an unresponsive press – that seek to give the government broad powers to spy, gather information on and imprison American citizens on ill-defined national security grounds. The first, dubbed the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, is being developed by the OIA, but, for the moment, has been blocked by a bipartisan coalition of skeptical Congressmen and several watchdog groups.

The TIA- data mining for a safer America?

The TIA program is a Defense Department research project aimed at developing and implementing broad sweeps of commercial data, called “data mining.” Targets include credit card records, Internet logs, medical data, merchant purchases and travel records. The goal is to “mine” this data in search of suspicious patterns that may indicate possible terrorist movement. If the program worked properly, it would be a boon to investigators trying to weed out possible sleeper cells in the United States.

Data mining is already an established practice within companies that retain customer data. Large retailers, for example, comb customers purchase history, usually attached to indexes such as credit card numbers, customer names or other “index keys.” The information is used to identify customer habits, and ostensibly, to allow the company to make “more compelling offers” (in marketing speak) to their existing customer base.

The problem, however, is that none of the drafters of the program has come forward to explain how to avoid errors in its implementation that may result in people mistakenly being tagged as terrorists, making them subject to false arrest, smear campaigns or government harassment. According to the program, the government wouldn’t have to inform anyone about the investigation, allowing officials to gather information on private citizens with no public oversight or accountability.

Developed in February 2002 under the auspices of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose ancestor, ARPA, invented the Internet, the new office has quietly been instilled under the dubious leadership of John Poindexter, who was indicted in 1988 for defrauding the U.S. government and obstructing justice as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. Although the convictions were overturned in 1990 when Congress granted him immunity in exchange for his testimony, the joke was on Congress as the testimony he gave them turned out to be false. Since those good old days, Poindexter has been Vice President of Syntek Technologies, a major government technology contractor. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Syntek, with Poindexter at its helm, has been working closely with DARPA for years to develop a system called Genoa, a surveillance device that is a cross between an uber-GoogleTM search engine, an information harvesting program, and a “peer-to-peer” file sharing system.

There are several other problems with the TIA program that go deeper than the instinctual revulsion a citizen of a free and open society should feel when hearing about the massive invasion of privacy the program would entail. No one has stepped forward to tell us from where the Department is getting the information it wants to sift through, or whether it is intending to implement any safeguards to ensure the trustworthiness of that data.

Challenging John Ashcroft

The first big challenge to the program came on January 10, 2003, when Senators Leahy (D-VT), Feingold (D-WI) and Cantwell (D-WA) requested detailed information from Attorney General Ashcroft about ongoing data mining operations underway at the Justice Department and specifically, the TIA program. At the same time, a bipartisan coalition of NGOs (Non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations), including the American Civil Liberties Union, American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for National Security Studies, Eagle Forum, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Free Congress Foundation sent a letter ( to the Congressional Committee on Armed Services demanding a public accounting of the program. The group claimed that, “by definition, the program is privacy-intrusive,” and then urged the government “to act immediately to stop the development of TIA and other similar programs that create massive public surveillance systems… this program would provide a backdoor to databases of private information.”

The most significant challenge to TIA came later in January with the passage of the Wyden Amendment (sponsored by Sen. Wyden, (D) Oregon, and co-sponsored by Sen. Grassley, (R) Iowa) which held up funding for the program until Congress authorizes its use, and then only after the Bush administration submits a report to Congress outlining the program and its effect on privacy. One hundred Senators voted in favor, effectively putting TIA on the shelf for the time being.

USA PATRIOT Act II would finish the job

The other program, still in the planning stages, is called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, or as some have taken to calling it, the USA PATRIOT Act II. The act has yet to be shown to Congress, just as its predecessor was never shown to Congress before the White House bullied it through the terror-stricken body. The only reason the public knows any details of its contents is that on February 7, 2003 the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan think tank, posted an analysis of the bill on their website. They claim that the classified document had been leaked to them by a source inside the Federal government.

After the Center posted the document, the Justice Department stepped in and claimed that anything they were working on was just in its early planning stages and had not been fully reviewed, an odd statement in light of the fact that a an Office of Legislative Affairs “control sheet” obtained by the PBS program “Now With Bill Moyers” shows that a copy of the bill was sent to House Speaker Hastert and Vice President Cheney on January 10, 2003.

The bill covers those areas the authors of the first Act left out in their haste in October, 2001. The draft seeks nothing less than the expansion of law enforcement and intelligence gathering capabilities by reducing judicial oversight in matters of surveillance, information gathering and due process under the law. It also points to the stepped up authorization of secret arrests and the creation of a national “DNA database” based on the sole, unchecked discretion of the executive branch. In short, the Justice Department is taking a Mulligan on the USA Patriot Act, and keeping Congress and the American people in the dark about its intentions.

Will we trade freedom for ‘security’?

It’s yet to be seen when the bill will come before Congress, or what form it will eventually take, but one thing is clear: The administration is again running roughshod over the Bill of Rights and using the current national crisis as an excuse to push through its increasingly totalitarian decrees. While we’re not yet living in Orwell’s 1984, we’re beginning to see what a slippery slope it is from a free and open society to one that has been scared into giving up its most treasured freedoms while chasing after an ill-defined notion of ‘security’. The question every American must ask, and which we must demand our elected representatives ask, is what is more important, the freedom to live as we choose, or to live in a state which defines freedom for us?

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