You Are a Suspectt

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.

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 such oversight.

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 president.

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 Information Act.

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.

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