Published on Thursday, November 14, 2002 by the New York Times You Are a Suspect
WASHINGTON — If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, 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 nosy
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.
This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your
personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented
power he seeks.
Remember Poindexter? Brilliant man, first in his class at the Naval Academy,
later earned a doctorate in physics, rose to national security adviser under
President Ronald Reagan. He had this brilliant idea of secretly selling missiles
to Iran to pay ransom for hostages, and with the illicit proceeds to illegally
support contras in Nicaragua.
A jury convicted Poindexter in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading
Congress and making false statements, but an appeals court overturned the
verdict because Congress had given him immunity for his testimony. He famously
asserted, "The buck stops here," arguing that the White House staff, and not the
president, was responsible for fateful decisions that might prove embarrassing.
This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even more
scandalous than Iran-contra. He heads the "Information Awareness Office" in the
otherwise excellent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which spawned the
Internet and stealth aircraft technology. Poindexter is now realizing his
20-year dream: getting the "data-mining" power to snoop on every public and
private act of every American.
Even the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act, which widened the scope of the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws, raised
requirements for the government to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and
the courts. But Poindexter's assault on individual privacy rides roughshod over
He is determined to break down the wall between commercial snooping and
secret government intrusion. The disgraced admiral dismisses such necessary
differentiation as bureaucratic "stovepiping." And he has been given a $200
million budget to create computer dossiers on 300 million Americans.
When George W. Bush was running for president, he stood foursquare in defense
of each person's medical, financial and communications privacy. But Poindexter,
whose contempt for the restraints of oversight drew the Reagan administration
into its most serious blunder, is still operating on the presumption that on
such a sweeping theft of privacy rights, the buck ends with him and not with the
This time, however, he has been seizing power in the open. In the past week
John Markoff of The Times, followed by Robert O'Harrow of The Washington Post, have revealed the extent of Poindexter's
operation, but editorialists have not grasped its undermining of the Freedom of
Political awareness can overcome "Total Information Awareness," the combined
force of commercial and government snooping. In a similar overreach, Attorney
General Ashcroft tried his Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS),
but public outrage at the use of gossips and postal workers as snoops caused the
House to shoot it down. The Senate should now do the same to this other
exploitation of fear.
The Latin motto over Poindexter"s new Pentagon office reads "Scientia Est
Potentia" — "knowledge is power." Exactly: the government's infinite knowledge
about you is its power over you. "We're just as concerned as the next person
with protecting privacy," this brilliant mind blandly assured The Post. A jury
found he spoke falsely before.