The Magazine

Total Information Unawareness

What we don't know can hurt us.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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The breadth of the Senate's overreaction is stunning. Until now, the government has been allowed to search its own databases and even--heaven forbid!--try to improve the efficiency of those searches. No more. The Senate bill, sponsored by Oregon's Ron Wyden, freezes government intelligence analysis in its current abysmal state. Under Wyden's ban, only anti-terror investigations conducted wholly overseas or wholly against foreigners may use TIA's ground-breaking technologies to search government intelligence more productively. This means that while the CIA or National Security Agency may adopt cutting-edge software to wade through the intelligence glut more effectively, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be stuck with the same grossly inadequate tools that led to 9/11. But remember that terror attacks on American soil are almost by definition rehearsed and executed, if not also planned, domestically. It is domestic law enforcement that will be the front line of defense against the next attack.

The hypocrisy of the Senate's leading Democrats is no less stunning. Many--including Hillary Clinton and presidential hopefuls John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards--have lambasted the Bush administration for not doing enough to protect the country against future al Qaeda assaults. Yet when it comes to applying America's greatest military advantage--the information technology expertise that could preempt terrorists' evil plans--the administration's critics would keep the country's defenses in a primitive state.

The Wyden bill is currently in a House-Senate conference committee. Committee members should delete the ban on deployment of TIA, and replace it with a requirement for continuing oversight and reporting. The burden should be on Congress to justify shelving a technology to link government (and possibly commercial) databases, not on the program's developers to justify deploying it.

Equally critical, the Bush administration must explain to the public why TIA is both important to the national defense and consistent with civil liberties. Even if the Wyden bill is corrected in committee, the breathtaking Feingold ban on all defense data-mining, soon to be matched in the House by Rep. Jerry Nadler, remains pending. The administration should challenge the Luddites, who want to keep U.S. anti-terror operations mired in inefficiency and error, to explain how they propose to defeat al Qaeda.

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."