Those compassionate conservatives in the Bush White House feel quite strongly that a convicted felon deserves a second chance (unless, of course, he or she is unlucky enough to be executed). How else would they explain their decision to hire Iran-contra mastermind John Poindexter? They have employed him not as a clerk or a chauffeur-positions for which the retired admiral and Navy physicist would be overqualified-but to oversee one of the government’s most sensitive departments.
Rehabilitation should be society’s hope for every nonviolent offender-even if, as in Dr. Poindexter’s case, said offender escaped a deserved jail sentence thanks to a technicality. (He had lied to Congress and shredded official documents to conceal the Reagan administration’s conspiracy to trade arms for hostages and then use the dirty money for covert operations.)
We now know that under the ethical code of the Bush loyalists, lying can be permissible, even admirable, but only if the lies protect a politician from accountability for activities like dealing with a terrorist regime. Lying about the oral endearments of a lovestruck intern would obviously be dishonorable.
As Ari Fleischer explained in his blandly sinister style last February, “Admiral Poindexter is somebody who this administration thinks is an outstanding American, an outstanding citizen, who has done a very good job in what he has done for our country, serving the military.”
For several months now, the rehabilitated admiral has directed a spooky-sounding outfit known as the Information Awareness Office, located within the Pentagon’s ultra-high-tech Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (The seal of the Information Awareness Office, illustrated on its Web site at www.darpa.mil/iao, may stimulate paranoia. It’s that occult pyramid with the all-seeing eye, gazing upon a globe. The agency’s motto: “Knowledge is power.”)
Dr. Poindexter aspires to create “Total Information Awareness,” a gigantic matrix that will track enemies of the state by amassing and analyzing every last byte of data in cyberspace, from E-ZPass tolls to Travelocity tickets to motel charges and far more. When an efficient bureaucrat like Dr. Poindexter says “everything,” he must be presumed to mean literally every I.R.S. return, every medical record, every telephone bill, every credit report, every bank-card swipe, every movie ticket, every book, everything that isn’t paid for in cash. All of that-plus every e-mail sent by anybody anywhere.
As described by Dr. Poindexter in an August speech at a meeting in California, T.I.A. will create “ultra-large-scale, semantically rich, easily implementable database technologies,” allowing intelligence agencies to access “the world-wide, distributed, legacy data bases as if they were one centralized data base.” Another priority, he reassured his listeners, is “to develop privacy protection technologies,” although he has yet to explain how privacy is compatible with an omniscient centralized data repository.
In an otherwise laudable column about the T.I.A. project, William Safire warned that its potentially massive invasion of privacy “is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.” That alarming statement isn’t quite accurate. For the moment, what Dr. Poindexter and his colleagues are developing is a prototype system, using a simulated information environment.
Yet in a larger sense, the Times columnist is right. T.I.A. seeks to breach all boundaries between commercial and governmental information systems, wiping out the distinction between public and private to an extent that is difficult to imagine. It carries the imperative to uncover terrorist plotting much too far.
What is innovative about this plan is Dr. Poindexter’s technological ambition. But there is nothing new about his blithe evisceration of the First and Fourth Amendments. The urge to snoop and intimidate seems to be an inherited trait of Republican administrations.
This unwholesome impulse can be traced back to the Huston Plan uncovered in the Watergate investigation, a massive domestic-espionage program justified by antiwar and racial unrest, which was named after Tom Charles Huston, a White House bureaucrat whose pedigree included activism in the Young Americans for Freedom. An enlarged version emerged again, ironically, during the Iran-contra investigation, when the Miami Herald exposed a Reagan administration plan to “suspend the Constitution in the event of a national crisis, such as nuclear war, violent and widespread internal dissent or national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad.” The most recent incarnation was Attorney General John Ashcroft’s ridiculous but threatening TIPS program.
The recruitment of a former Iran-contra operative such as Dr. Poindexter, one of several brought into this administration, underlines a disturbing disrespect for the Constitution. Vaguely ominous overtones of the phrase “homeland security” are gradually congealing into an authoritarian reality. But the Senate can still restrain this historic trespass against liberty.