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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2002 / 13 Teves, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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The eye that never sleeps | While Attorney General John Ashcroft has been the principal target of civil libertarians across the political spectrum because of his war on terrorism -- with sustained collateral damage to the Bill of Rights -- the most startling Bush administration attack on the privacy of millions of Americans is coming from the Defense Department, headed by Donald Rumsfeld.

Without an official public notice or Congressional hearing, the Defense Department's Information Awareness Office -- directed by retired Navy Adm. John Poindexter -- is creating an omnivorous "centralized grand database" that, as The Washington Times reported on Nov. 15, "would be authorized to collect every type of public and private data" not only on immigrants and visitors but on American citizens -- all without judicial warrants.

By mining commercial and government databases, the Total Information Awareness program, when functioning, will scoop up medical records, telephone calls, the pay-per-view movies you order, prescription purchases, travel reservations, passport applications, records of divorces, court appearances and practically any piece of electronically recorded information about you.

Phil Kent, president of the conservative Southeast Legal Foundation, calls this actualization in real time of George Orwell's "1984" the "most sweeping threat to civil liberties since the Japanese-American internment."

Orwell, who died in 1950, could not have envisioned the extraordinary advances in surveillance technology that may lead to the end of any expectation of privacy. As Orwell prophesized in his novel, "How often, or in what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time."

On ABC-TV's Nov. 14 edition of "Nightline," Ted Koppel distilled the rising apprehension among both liberals and conservatives about this electronic dragnet that is symbolized in the emblem displayed by Poindexter's office. The symbol was described in the Nov. 12 Washington Post as an eye that "looms over a pyramid and appears to scan the world. The motto reads: 'Scienta Est Potentia' or 'Knowledge Is Power.'" That is, knowledge about all of us.

"Since all of this information is gathered privately, is used privately, is assessed privately by officials in the government who are accountable to no one for this information," asked Koppel, "how do you know how it's being used?"

How do you know whether it's being used on you?

When Congress returns in January, will there be hearings on this government eye that never sleeps? Will the press stay on this story to ensure that Congressional oversight committees question Poindexter and his boss, Rumsfeld (who has so far hardly been mentioned in the alarms being sounded around the country)?

After all, this vast collection of mostly very personal data will be shared by all the government intelligence agencies and is being assembled under Rumsfeld's watch. Perhaps one of the Washington reporters regularly beguiled by the defense secretary's witty televised press conferences will give Rumsfeld a copy of "1984."

I find curious the usually astute defense secretary's lack of political acumen in enlisting Poindexter to facilitate the Total Information Awareness program. As Georgetown law professor Jonathan Turley noted in the Nov. 17 Los Angeles Times, Poindexter was convicted of lying to Congress and deep-sixing documents in the Iran-Contra scandal (the conviction was later overturned on a technicality), "the criminal conspiracy to sell arms to a terrorist nation, Iran, in order to surreptitiously fund an unlawful clandestine project in Nicaragua. ... As a man convicted of falsifying and destroying information, he will now be put in charge of gathering information on every citizen."

Yet, Turley added, "when asked about Poindexter's prior criminal conduct, President Bush released a statement that he believed 'Adm. Poindexter has served the nation very well.'"

Who is watching the watchers over us all?

A great loss to those of us concerned about the rapidly diminishing right to privacy was Republican Conservative Bob Barr's failed Congressional re-election bid. That insistent civil libertarian regards the Pentagon's prospective all-seeing eye as "outrageous."

Barr is now a consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union on a six-month contract, along with retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey, another conservative libertarian. Both are even more needed at the Defense Department. It is because of Armey that "Operation Tips," allowing Americans to spy on each other in their daily lives, was not in the Homeland Security Department law signed by the president. He stripped it out.

Since the Bush administration is creating this truly Orwellian invasion of the privacy of all of us, it is up to us to insist that Congress repudiate it before it is beyond our control. We are the people of the Constitution.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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