18 November 2002

The New York Times, November 18, 2002


A Snooper's Dream

The threat of terrorism has created a powerful appetite in Washington for sophisticated surveillance systems to identify potential terrorists. These efforts cannot be allowed, however, to undermine civil liberties. There is a program now in the research stage at the Pentagon that, if left unchecked by Congress, could do exactly that. Ostensibly designed to enhance national security, it could lead to an invasion of personal privacy on a massive scale.

The program, known as Total Information Awareness, is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which helped develop the Internet and a host of cutting-edge military technologies. It is run by John Poindexter, the retired Navy rear admiral who was Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and, in that capacity, helped devise the plan to sell arms to Iran and illegally divert the proceeds to the rebels in Nicaragua. Sentenced to six months in jail for lying to Congress (a conviction later overturned on appeal), the admiral was never particularly contrite about his deceit, asserting at one point that it was his duty to withhold information from the American people.

Mr. Poindexter is pursuing a scheme he thought up right after 9/11 and then sold to the Bush administration. Total Information Awareness, or T.I.A., aims to use the vast networking powers of the computer to "mine" huge amounts of information about people and thus help investigative agencies identify potential terrorists and anticipate terrorist activities. All the transactions of everyday life — credit card purchases, travel and telephone records, even Internet traffic like e-mail — would be grist for the electronic mill.

To civil libertarians, T.I.A., with its Orwellian dossiers on each and every American, would constitute a huge invasion of privacy. Mr. Poindexter says that he has no wish to trample on the Fourth Amendment, and that the technology can be designed so as to "preserve rights and protect people's privacy while helping to make us all safer." His associates say that his main role is to develop the technology, not the policy that governs its use.

This strikes us as disingenuous. Mr. Poindexter is a policy man to the core. Besides, there are enough federal agencies already engaged in the "mining" of information about all of us. The last thing we need is a vast new system of domestic surveillance engineered by John Poindexter.

Congress should shut down the program pending a thorough investigation. It could do this with an amendment denying further financing that could be attached to an appropriations bill or the homeland security bill now under discussion in the Senate. Either way, T.I.A. needs immediate oversight.