Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2002/ 20 Kislev, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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The super snoops
are out to get you | The bad guys never give up. They understand that persistence trumps resistance every time.

The bad guys here, the government's snoops who are determined to turn the America we love into an Orwellian snooper state, are not really bad, just naive, foolish and blissfully ignorant of both history and human nature.

When this newspaper reported that the government was about to put the most intimate records of every American - every credit-card purchase, every magazine subscription, every drug prescription, every airline ticket purchased, every car rental, every book purchased, every movie (pornographic or not) bought, every event attended - on something called "a virtual, centralized grand database," the denials were long and loud.

Pshaw! they said. Never happen, they said. How could anyone think Congress would be a party to such a thing? All suspicious stuff had been stripped from the homeland-security legislation.

But perhaps Americans have been sufficiently intimidated, frightened, bullied and cowed so as not to object to anything done to them in the name of making them "safe" from Islamist terror. So now the Defense Department acknowledges that well, yes, the super snooper program is actually alive and well.

"The bottom line is this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act," Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of acquisitions and technology for the Department of Defense, announced this week.

He cited several examples of the kind of intimate details of the average American's life that the government lusts to catalog: sudden and large cash withdrawals, one-way air or rail travel, and purchases of guns, ammunitions, chemicals or agents that could be used to produce biological and chemical weapons, as well as "reports of suspicious activity given to law enforcement or intelligence services." There's no apparent reason why these "reports of suspicious activity" could not include tips given to cops or government agents by utility-meter readers, postmen or other workmen with access to American homes - just about what Attorney General John Ashcroft briefly floated several weeks ago.

Now the congressional advocates of the homeland-security legislation are eager to point out that the snooping apparatus is not in the homeland-security legislation. What is not clear is why Congress - so eager, Pilate-like, to wash its hands of any implication - doesn't tell the Pentagon to knock it off.

The Pentagon, with the bureaucracy's instinct for false assurance, identifies the man behind the program as Rear Adm. John Poindexter, the former national-security adviser to President Reagan who was convicted of lying to Congress about his cockamamie scheme to barter U.S. missiles to the Ayatollah Khomeini on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras. An appeals court overturned the convictions on a technicality.

"John has a real passion for this project," Mr. Aldridge said of the database caper. But a shortage of passion is not the problem, and indeed the problem-makers in the government always come with an excess of passion. "What this is talking about is making us a nation of suspects," Chuck Pena, a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, tells Fox News. "I am sorry to say that citizens should not have to live in fear of their own government, but that is exactly what this is going to turn out to be."

How could it not? The government that is big enough to give you everything you want, as Ronald Reagan used to say, is a government big enough to take away everything you have. A database "big enough and nimble enough," in Mr. Pena's characterization, renders abuse irresistible.

In fact, the Pentagon concedes that it doesn't really know what breed of beast it is setting loose. The Pentagon spokesman insists that individual privacy rights will be protected, but of course it's the government that will decide when those rights are sufficiently protected. "I don't know what the scope of this is going to be," he says.

If this sort of thing had been imposed by Bill Clinton, and turned over to Hillary and Janet Reno to administer and enforce, the foolish conservatives now leading the applause would be screaming outrage. An earlier generation of Americans would have had admirals strung from yardarms from here to San Diego for even suggesting such un-American scheming. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives would have supplied the rope, or at least the rail, with tar and feathers.

Alas, the government, in the name of mindless security, has convinced us that unless we give in to Orwellian solutions the oil tap will run dry, our wives and daughters will be fitted for burkas and we'll all sup on sheep's eyes and stuffed grape leaves in celebration of September 11. It seems not to have occurred to some of us that "our kind" might not be in charge of the database forever.

But it has occurred to some others of us. Scienta est potentia - "knowledge is power" - is the chilling Latin motto over Adm. Poindexter's office. The better advice is non illigitimi carborundum est - "Don't let the [illegitimate ones] grind you down." They will if we let them.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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