WASHINGTON - Readers with keen memories will recall a blast in this space
three months ago at the proposed "Total Information Awareness" project,
which the Pentagon proudly described as "a virtual, centralized grand
In the name of combating terrorism, it would scoop up your lifetime paper
trail - bank records, medical files, credit card purchases, academic
records, etc. - and marry them with every nosy neighbor's gossip to the F.B.I.
about you. The combination of intrusive commercial "data mining" and new law
enforcement tapping into the private lives of innocent Americans was
described here as "a supersnoop's dream."
My even-tempered objection stirred the ire of uncivil anti-libertarians.
"Blather, nonsense, piffle, and flapdoodle," argued the judicious Stuart
Taylor in National Journal about my "hyperventilating." The Washington Post
also thought my reaction a tad "fast-breathing." William Kristol's Weekly
Standard sneered at "the ravings of privacy fanatics like the New York Times
columnist William Safire, who triggered the anti-T.I.A. stampede."
With the nation rightly worried about a new terrorist strike, and with
Washington supermarkets stripped of duct tape and bottled water by residents
dutifully following Homeland Security warnings, the privacy-be-damned crowd
casting its electronic dragnet seemed invincible. "Strangling this new
technology with a procedural noose is no answer to the threat of terrorism,"
intoned the Heritage Foundation.
Then the strangest thing happened. Those of us on the flapdoodle fringe -
from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum on the right to People for the American
Way on the left - found wide and deep bipartisan agreement in the usually
contentious Congress. An amendment to the budget bill by Senator Ron Wyden,
Democrat of Oregon, co-sponsored by Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, put
a bit in the mouth of the Pentagon's runaway horse.
The Wyden amendment held up funding for the Total Information Awareness
penetration of the American home until the administration (1) explained it
in detail to Congress, including its impact on civil liberties, and (2)
barred any deployment of the technology against U.S. citizens without prior
Congressional approval. One hundred senators voted in favor.
Why? One reason was that two respected old bulls, one on each side of the
Senate aisle - Alaska's Ted Stevens and Hawaii's Daniel Inouye - distrusted
the executive power grab, and would not be panicked by the pitch of those
zealots who held that the war on terror required the subversion of
Another reason was the blessed stupidity of Pentagon officials in entrusting
this dangerous surveillance to one Adm. John Poindexter. He was convicted of
five felony counts of lying to Congress about Iran-contra, but the jury's
verdict was overturned because Congress had immunized him. This was hardly
the person to ask elected officials to trust with unprecedented, unchecked
Belatedly, the Pentagon tried to get House leaders to kill the bill in
conference. But the House agreed with the Senate that enforceable limits
must be set on snooping into the private lives of innocent Americans.
Think about that: Even as the nation braces for more terrorist murders, a
Republican-led Congress absolutely refuses to give carte blanche to a
Republican war president to treat all citizens as suspects. These
legislators are attuned to the views of their voters; this means that a
courageous constituency exists to defend personal freedom.
The next assault will come from Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose
lawyers are drafting a law to enable the Justice Department to wiretap
citizens for two weeks before bothering to ask a judge for a warrant.
Among other abominations, Ashcroft's "Patriot II" would computerize genetic
information without court order or our consent. As in the Pentagon's
Poindexter project, Justice's aim is to avoid judicial or Congressional
control. President Bush, preoccupied with planning a just war, should shoot
down this unjust proposal before he is embarrassed again by a Congress
capable - on a personal-freedom issue - of rising above partisanship.
Am I breathing too fast again? We hyperventilating, raving privacy fanatics
may deal in piffle and flapdoodle, but we are not alone.