ED112202: TIA Targets Terrorists, Not Privacy
"A supersnoop's dream," The Washington Times calls it. It will give
government agents "a computerized dossier on your private life,"
warns William Safire of The New York Times.
It's the federal government's Total Information Awareness (TIA)
program, and if it's not positively Orwellian, say civil
libertarians, it's at least X Files. Worse yet, they argue, the
program is being developed by John Poindexter -- the professorial,
pipe-smoking Reagan capo convicted (later overturned) of
redirecting money to the contras trying to overthrow the communist
government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
If this goes forward, critics ask, will Poindexter and his
beady-eyed bureaucrats know what Internet sites I like to frequent?
That I've maxed out a credit card? That I play the office football
pool? That my daughter has asthma?
Shouldn't I be worried about this?
Actually, only those already identified as terrorists have
anything to fear.
What the government seeks to do with TIA is piece together the
puzzles of terrorist networks before they launch their attacks. And
it wants to do this in such a way -- in fact, Poindexter and his
staff spend much of their time on it -- that our privacy and civil
liberties are protected to the maximum extent possible.
And they are doing, if not the Lord's work, the work of the
American people, who since Sept. 11, 2001, have called for some
systematic way for various intelligence and other fact-gathering
agencies to share and analyze information. Poindexter and his staff
have gone to great pains to make their deliberations as public as
possible. They have described the work of those seeking to launch
TIA in symposia around the country, and they even post information
on their Web site
Even if they wanted to, TIA employees simply won't have time to
monitor who plays football pools, who has asthma, who surfs what
Web sites or even who deals cocaine or steals cars. They'll begin
with intelligence reports about people already suspected of
terrorism, according to Ted Senator, project director of a
component of TIA.
Those already identified as terrorists or potential terrorists by
the intelligence community then could be monitored through existing
public and private databases to build an in-depth portfolio,
including contacts and frequent activities, Senator says. These
portfolios should enable authorities to determine whom to watch and
where to find them when they suspect a terror strike is
Access to this information should be limited to those with
appropriate clearances as well as by need to know, and programmers
are hard at work on filters for these purposes. Moreover, the
Genisys program, another component of TIA, is being designed to
separate identity information from transactions and match up the
information "only when we have evidence and legal authority to do
so," officials say.
The key to the program -- both in terms of its effectiveness and
its potential to gain acceptance from the millions of Americans who
rightly worry about privacy and erosion of civil liberties -- is to
limit its use to detecting terrorists and preventing future
attacks. That means the FBI, the CIA and the soon-to-be-created
Department of Homeland Security intelligence arm.
It does not mean state and local law enforcement or even those who
wish to use it for causes such as aviation security and health
surveillance -- monitoring for epidemics and biological warfare,
etc. Americans must be able to trust that extremely few people will
have access to these capabilities and that the punishment for
misuse will be severe.
To meet the needs of these other agencies, Poindexter's group or
the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA)
could -- and probably should -- develop limited spin-offs dedicated
to specific needs, such as linking city and state health
surveillance networks to the Centers for Disease Control or
cross-referencing airline passenger manifests with terrorist watch
Americans are right to hold the government to a high standard on
this. They are right to expect that officials won't comb through
the records of everything they buy, every time they visit the
doctor and so on.
But Americans also understand that technology exists to detect
perhaps even entire terrorist cells, to prevent future Sept.
11-scale attacks, and that we'd be foolish not to take advantage of
it. The trick, of course, is to strike the right balance between
citizens' expectations of privacy and government's need to protect
those citizens. Poindexter seems on track to do this.
Let's let him. It seems little enough to prevent another Sept. 11
-- or worse.
Scardaville is a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for
International Studies at The Heritage Foundation
(www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research
Distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard wire.