Poindexter and ‘Total Information Awareness’

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(Host) Commentator Cheryl Hanna has never subscribed to conspiracy theories, but in view of recent events that may change.

(Hanna) I never believed that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, or that the moon-landing was staged. But lately, I’ve begun to reconsider just how much trust any of us should have in the federal government.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times broke a story about the Pentagon’s proposal to build a giant computer system capable of mining thousands of databases containing private information about foreigners and Americans, including you and me. It’s called “Total Information Awareness,” or TIA, and it’s incredible in an Orwellian sort of way.

The super-computer will be used to access your phone records and bank accounts, read your email, discover where you’ve traveled, and where you plan to go. It’ll be able to track your credit card activity, review your online purchases, and even check what prescriptions you’re taking. Think about what that means. The government will be able to spy on us, it’s own citizens, without a search warrant, and without our knowledge.

Pentagon officials have said that TIA is meant to be used as a tool in the war against terrorism; that if you re not a terrorist, you don’t have to worry. But consider this worrisome fact: the person who first developed TIA and who is in charge of the program is Vice-Admiral John Poindexter. Poindexter was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor. He was eventually convicted of five felonies, including destroying evidence and lying to Congress about the Iran Contra affair. However, an appeals court eventually overturned his convictions because Congress had granted Poindexter immunity in exchange for his congressional testimony.

Nevertheless, Poindexter’s violations of the public trust were so outrageous that he became a symbol of what can happen when government officials disregard the rule of law in the quest for their own power. Even some of the president’s most conservative supporters, like columnist William Safire, have called Poindexter’s project a sweeping theft of privacy rights, and have suggested that TIA would be far less controversial if someone besides Poindexter was in charge.

But the president and his men remain adamant that Poindexter is the best man for the job (not just because he was the Vice President of Syntek Technologies, a government contractor that helped develop other surveillance technologies) but also because he’s an exemplary American.

Are they joking? Most Americans would probably agree that some information gathering system to identify terrorists is necessary, and a lot of us are willing to sacrifice some privacy rights, I think, in the name of national security. But the fact that the president insists that Poindexter be America’s top-ranking spy makes me wonder what’s really going on.

All right. Maybe there’s no conspiracy here. But to paraphrase Henry Kissenger: just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean people aren’t watching.

This is Cheryl Hanna

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

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