Issue 88, Winter 2002/2003

Freedoms that Americans treasure could be gravely endangered by an Orwellian program Vice Admiral John Poindexter has devised for the Defense Department in the fight against terrorism. Known as the “Total Information Awareness” program (TIA), electronic “data mining” would allow the government to collect and analyze personal information about every individual in the United States. The system would enable the merging of commercial and governmental information in the expectation that patterns of terrorist activities would be revealed.

Alarm bells are ringing among civil libertarians over the massive invasion of privacy represented by the program, its potential for abuse, its ability to chill speech, and the role of John Poindexter whose Iran-contra record raises unsettling questions. Poindexter was convicted on five counts of lying to Congress in 1990, but was exonerated because he had been granted immunity for his testimony. Legislators and others question his suitability for this sensitive project. Senator Charles Schumer of New York has said, “If we need a ‘Big Brother,’ John Poindexter is the last guy on the list I would choose.”

William Safire, in the New York Times on November 14, wrote that if this program is not amended, “here is what will happen to you:

“Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend”all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as ‘a virtual, centralized grand database.’

“To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you—passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from noisy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance—and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a “Total Information Awareness” about every U.S. citizen.”

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center has said, “This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America,” warning that the system is the “hub” of a far reaching effort by the government to “extend surveillance of the American public.” The ACLU, similarly alarmed, has initiated a grassroots campaign in opposition to the program.

As the late Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “…[G]rave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.”