Total outrage

A lot of crazy ideas have been batted around by the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, from secret trials for terror suspects to a bizarre plan to employ the country’s 11 million mailmen and meter readers to spy on their fellow Americans. But in terms of sheer Constitution-be-damned audacity, none of these can approach Total Information Awareness.

TIA is nothing less than a new, $200 million Pentagon plan to use computers and the Internet to conduct surveillance on everyone, all the time. Headed by John Poindexter, who masterminded the Iran-Contra scheme and was convicted of five felonies for lying to Congress during the subsequent coverup, the program calls for the government to secretly monitor your consumer purchases, e-mail, telephone calls, bank accounts, medical records, credit-card transactions, travel documents and more.

The idea, of course, is that this data could be employed to thwart terrorists. That’s not likely. More probable is that it will be abused by an administration that seems determined to use the tragedy of September 11 as a means to trample all constitutional limits on its power.

As an anti-terrorism defense, TIA is little more than a technological pipe dream that breaks down in the face of the sheer numbers involved. Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack is simple compared with sorting potential terrorist activity from the billions of ATM transactions, phone calls, e-mails and other data monitored. To cope with this sea of information, TIA will use a technique known as “data mining,” in which computers search vast fields of data to look for certain criteria—in this case, actions or characteristics the government deems indicative of possible terrorist action.

There are some obvious problems with this. One is that data mining only can unearth new terrorist plots that are very much like previous terrorist plots. Data mining can’t predict the characteristics of the next incident and thus can’t thwart future attacks.

More importantly, it’s frightening to realize that it will be up to the government to decide what data to search for and that, no matter what criteria is used, millions of law-abiding citizens will be swept up in the net. Bought a one-way airline ticket or a book on the Middle East? You’ll be flagged as a potential terrorist. That’s bad enough, but it’s also likely that racial and religious profiling will play a role. Have a Muslim surname? You can bet you’ll be watched. And it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this system could be hijacked for all sorts of nefarious purposes, including to monitor political enemies.

There are very good reasons why the Constitution includes limits on the government’s power to intrude upon the private lives of its citizens. Yet TIA tosses aside those limits and turns this country into a nation of suspects. Congress and the public at large should vehemently oppose this outrage before it’s too late.