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A bit in the mouth of Big Brother
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - In an amendment to an all-purpose 2003 spending bill, US lawmakers this week agreed to halt development of the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) project for 90 days, during which time the agency is to prepare a comprehensive report on the viability, cost and impact of the system on civil liberties and privacy.

The move is seen as a sharp defeat for President George W Bush's plans to construct a powerful new computerized spying system. "Inclusion of this measure is a major win for privacy rights in the United States and a significant first step in the limitation of total information awareness," said Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Congress, however, must take further concrete steps to ensure safety and freedom for all Americans."

While the congressional move, which was led by a coalition of lawmakers on both the political right and left, put the TIA on hold, new initiatives by the administration have cast a pall over their victory.

Draft legislation from the Justice Department, leaked to the Center for Public Integrity last Friday, has provoked a spate of new charges that the administration is using its war on terror to threaten basic freedoms.

The 80-page draft document, called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, would make it far easier for the government to withhold information from the public, further ease curbs on spying and information-sharing by law-enforcement agencies beyond the 2001 USA Patriot Act, and give the attorney general the power to strip US citizenship from any person found to have given "material support" to a group listed by the Justice Department as a "terrorist organization".

Besides weakening safeguards against law enforcement agencies spying on citizens, the Patriot Act makes it easier for authorities to detain indefinitely or deport non-citizens. The Justice Department, which had previously insisted that it was only discussing possible new measures that would refine the Patriot Act, has not yet commented on the status of the draft, which was quietly circulated to Republican leaders in Congress last month.

"It now seems clear that there is no civil right - even the precious right of citizenship - that this administration will not abuse to secure ever-greater control over American life," wrote Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, in Thursday's Los Angeles Times.

"We are fortunate that these proposals came to light now," he added. "Otherwise, the administration probably would have revealed them only after it began its war with Iraq, when political opposition would be inhibited by support for our troops."

The latest developments reflect the ongoing struggle between civil liberties and new security requirements that the administration says are warranted by the unprecedented threats posed by terrorism aimed against the United States.

It has already been roundly criticized, both here and abroad, for its treatment of hundreds of Muslim prisoners captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas and taken to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they have been denied due-process rights, including those required under the Geneva Conventions covering prisoners of war.

Similarly, roundups of hundreds more mainly South Asian and Arab men detained incommunicado for weeks and sometimes months in the weeks that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks have drawn comparisons to the internment of Japanese-American families during World War II.

The TIA has been widely viewed as a particularly ominous development in the administration's post-September 11 security strategy, not only due to its ambition, but also because of the man who conceived it, ret Admiral John Poindexter.

Poindexter, former president Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, was convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra affair of the mid-1980s, although those convictions were later thrown out by a court that found Congress had granted him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony about his role in the scandal.

The TIA system, whose vastness and intrusiveness evoked comparisons with the totalitarian mechanisms described in George Orwell's novel 1984, would have enabled the federal government to collect commercial, as well as public, information on law-abiding people - including driving records, tapes from airport surveillance cameras, high-school transcripts, book purchases, library and Internet usage, medical records, phone conversations and e-mail correspondence.

The system would then sift through these records in hopes of finding "suspicious patterns" that would help to identify terrorists and stop planned attacks. The plan drew sharp opposition from both left and right, and civil libertarians in both major parties. The Senate last month voted 100-0 to adopt the so-called Wyden amendment, named for its main author Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, to suspend all funding for the project until it can be far more thoroughly reviewed.

TIA, whose symbol - Poindexter's own design - includes the all-seeing eye depicted on the US dollar bill, has its supporters both in the law-enforcement community and among conservatives. "The threat of another horrific attack is simply too grave to justify prematurely cutting off such a promising anti-terrorism tool as TIA," according to Paul Rosenzweig of the Heritage Foundation.

He and a co-author recently wrote that efforts to depict the scheme as "an Orwellian monster" threatening basic constitutional liberties were not grounded in reality. Some neo-conservatives, such as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard magazine and chairman of the influential Project for the New American Century, accused TIA's critics of being "privacy fanatics".

But more libertarian thinkers on the right, including another neo-conservative, The New York Times' columnist William Safire, warned that the plan was a "supersnoop's dream". He cited the "blessed stupidity" of Pentagon officials in appointing Poindexter to head the project as a major reason for congressional opposition.

To try to save the program, the Pentagon agreed to appoint two independent panels to review it, but this was insufficient to prevent Wyden's bill from prevailing. Still, civil rights activists say they cannot afford to rest easy. Michael Posner, director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, noted that the amendment includes a "waiver" that can be invoked by Bush if he decides the program is "vital" to national security, and that TIA could still be used to support military operations outside the United States and in support of other foreign intelligence agencies working within the country against non-US citizens.

(Inter Press Service)
 
Feb 15, 2003



 

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