The Magazine

Total Misrepresentation

From the January 27, 2003 issue: There's a compelling case to be made for the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

-Never specify to what exactly in the proposed program you object. Every element of TIA is now legal and already in effect. The government already has access to private databases for investigatory purposes, but searching them is extremely cumbersome for lack of decent software. Likewise, the government can legally search its own computers, but that capacity, too, is constrained by primitive technology. TIA's enemies have not called for ending intelligence access to private or public databases, so their gripe ultimately boils down to the possibility that the government might do what it is already doing more efficiently. The rule appears to be of Luddite origin: The terrorists can expertly exploit our technology against us, but we must fight back with outdated, inadequate tools.

-Confuse cause and effect. TIA critics warn of impending totalitarianism should the research continue. A syndicated columnist for the Orlando Sentinel announced that the country was being "Stalinized." But totalitarian states do not arise because they marginally increase their access to personal data, they arise when social order is collapsing, as Amitai Etzioni has pointed out. The chance that the U.S. government will become a police state because it is better able to analyze private transactions for signs of terrorism is virtually nil; the chance would be greater, however, if the country were to experience a series of devastating attacks and confidence in the government's ability to protect the public safety were to evaporate.

The Pentagon's data mining project could easily go down in the next few months. A mongrel coalition of advocacy groups, ranging from the Free Congress Foundation and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform on the right to the ACLU on the left, has made the defeat of TIA its top priority for the year. Last year a similar effort killed off TIPS--a Justice Department proposal for reporting possible terrorist activity. Senator Ron Wyden introduced an amendment last week to defund TIA until Congress reviews it; other senators planning similar legislation include Dianne Feinstein, Daniel Inouye, and Russell Feingold. And the coalition of critics is pressuring a range of congressional committees to pull the plug. Should they succeed, Americans will be deprived of an essential tool to stop terrorist plots before they climax, even as al Qaeda's operatives are busily logging on and designing their next evil deed.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and the author of "Are Cops Racist? How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans" (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).