- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Some people read George Orwell's "1984" with a sense of dread. Others read it and think, "Hmmm, cool idea."
It must have taken such a mind to dream up the "data-mining proposal that is included in the Homeland Security Act that passed the House last week in a Republican-brokered agreement by a 299-121 vote.
It would enable law enforcement to peek into just about every public and private act of every American and without the ubiquitous cameras and "telescreens" that "Big Brother" used to control folks in Orwell's nightmare.
Just think of it. Think of all the stuff about you that is now stored in some computer somewhere.
In the commercial world, there are your credit card purchases, your academic record, your bank records, your vacation trips, your medical prescriptions, the Web sites you surf, your e-mails .
Then there's the stuff the government has on you, like your driver's license, passport records, tollway EZ-Pass records, marriage and divorce records.
Yup, there's all kinds of good stuff people would like to know about you that you might not like others to know.
Now the Defense Department reportedly wants to set up "a virtual, centralized grand database," a computerized dossier on everyone's private life, a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.
And who's seeking all of this? John Poindexter, the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan who was convicted of misleading Congress and making false statements in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. An appeals court later overturned the verdict because Congress had given Mr. Poindexter immunity for his testimony.
The retired vice admiral now heads the "Information Awareness Office" in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave us Internet and stealth aircraft technology.
"Data-mining" is his idea, according to stories that first appeared in the New York Times and The Washington Post.
Computers and analysts could sift through this available information to determine patterns of behavior, detect and identify terrorists, decipher plans and presumably enable the United States to pre-empt terrorist acts.
"This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario," New York Times columnist William Safire, a veteran of the Nixon administration, opined. "It is what will happen if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks."
Privacy is not a partisan issue. It's a tough question of what price is too high to pay in President Bush's "war on terror."
That's a big question lurking deep in the fine print of the Homeland Security Act, a question that has received surprisingly little attention as the measure speeds on a fast-track toward passage with President Bush's backing.
You could sort of understand how the U.S.A. Patriot Act zipped through Congress. It was right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. We, the public, were in a panic and grieving deeply.
So we let Congress and President Bush hastily sign away more than a dozen privacy laws, expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and relax some of requirements for government agents to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts.
In an atmosphere of fear and tragedy, Americans surrendered some of their privacy rights and gave law-enforcement officials more powers of surveillance than they really needed.
Make their jobs easier, goes the logic of such circumstances, and everyone will feel safer. Feeling safer is what security is all about.
But it's less easy to forgive us, the public, the media and the rest of the chattering classes for refusing to pay attention as more and more of our privacy protections are sucked into the dark abyss of legislative fine print.
That's what governments often itch to do take more power than they need when nobody's looking, or when nobody much cares.
Most of media attention the Homeland Security Act has received has been directed at the Republican-Democratic squabbles over Civil Service protections for government workers.
We in the media love such old-century partisan squabbles. They're easy to cover. Meanwhile, some of our most cherished liberties could go up in smoke.
Government needs to have access to information about potential bad guys and gals, but there also have to be limits. America's enduring form of government rests on a delicate system of checks and balances and oversight by one branch or agency over another.
Americans need to vigorously discuss and debate the new definitions of oversight that government officials want to have over the private lives of the rest of us.
It's easy to understand why government officials want these new powers. It is less easy to understand why the rest of us would surrender them without an argument.

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