The official seal of the Pentagon's new Total Information Awareness Office (TIA) bears a spooky eye above a pyramid -- you know the one, it's on the back of the one-dollar bill -- peering at the globe. The fact that the TIA was quietly funded under the auspices of the bill creating the new Department of Homeland Security suggests that its mission is a vital part of the war on terrorism. But Europe and Asia, the two main continents of the eastern hemisphere, which appear on the TIA logo, are not, in fact, its principal targets. You are.
Rear Admiral John Poindexter, the scandal-scarred Iran-Contra figure who heads the $62.9 million "data mining" operation for the Defense Department, says that the TIA's mission is "to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists -- and decipher their plans -- and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts." Sounds like a magnificent idea. So why do such unusual allies as the American Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times, William Safire, and Republican senator Charles Grassley say it's dangerous?
According to the TIA's Web site, Poindexter's new office will "develop architectures for a large-scale counter-terrorism database, for system elements associated with database population, and for integrating algorithms and mixed-initiative analytical tools ... invent new algorithms for mining, combining, and [refining] ... revolutionary new models, algorithms, methods, tools, and techniques for analyzing and correlating information in the database to derive actionable intelligence."
In English: Total Information Awareness will use sophisticated computer-modeling programs to search every database they can get their hands on. They'll scan credit card receipts, bank statements, ATM purchases, Web "cookies," school transcripts, medical files, property deeds, magazine subscriptions, airline manifests, addresses -- even veterinary records. The TIA believes that knowing if and when Fluffy got spayed -- and whether your son stopped torturing Fluffy after you put him on Ritalin -- will help the military stop terrorists before they strike.
Most of this raw data is already available to businesses trying to market their products. The TIA represents the first full-scale attempt by a government agency -- the Department of Defense -- to collect and analyze that information. "There has obviously been a growing problem within the private sector over collection of information for targeted marketing," says David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "What's different now is the government is putting major resources into getting access to privately collected data."
Critics are understandably anxious that the TIA is merely the Bush administration's latest effort to emulate the most unsavory aspects of Soviet society. "If the Pentagon has its way, every American -- from the Nebraskan farmer to the Wall Street banker -- will find themselves under the accusatory cyber-state of an all-powerful national security apparatus," warns Laura Murphy of the ACLU.
Is Poindexter more interested in digging up dirt on Bush's political foes than fighting Islamist terrorism? Should we believe him when he says that he respects the Fourth Amendment? Short of running a TIA profile on the man, there's no way to know whether he's hoping to turn the United States into a police state. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the TIA plans to respect our privacy rights and that it won't yield to the temptation to use its findings to smear political opponents.
Even if Poindexter and his domestic spying operation means well -- and that's a big if -- the TIA is a classic case of fighting your last battle all over again.
Like Attorney General John Ashcroft's Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information Prevention System) -- the Orwellian Justice Department program that asks cable installers, postal workers, and meter readers to turn in their customers if they see any suspicious behavior -- the TIA assumes that the next big attack will be committed by members of Arab "sleeper cells" living in the United States. Why do we assume this? Because that is what happened on September 11, 2001.
Presuming there will be an exact replay of September 11th has led to long security lines at airports and no screenings whatsoever at train stations and bus depots. Which targets would you go after if you were a terrorist?
As proven by their ability to elude arrest, Osama bin Laden and his allies are no fools. As al Qaeda operatives plot their next attack against the United States, they will exploit the weaknesses we aren't aware of or have chosen to ignore. Another plane hijacking is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. So are strikes carried out by illegal-immigrant operatives with a fondness for strip joints living in the United States. Terrorists are opportunists, not serial killers predictably utilizing identical methods for each act.
Whatever you least expect, expect.
Since most of the data the TIA analyzes relates to loyal American citizens, Total Information Awareness creates the potential for abuse of governmental power on an unprecedented scale. Because it won't track the most likely future terrorists -- people who live in, for example, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia -- it's a waste of money that furthers the illusion that our government is protecting us.
Since 9/11, George W. Bush has asked us to trade our precious freedoms for a little security. The TIA forces Americans to sacrifice privacy for nothing.
Ted Rall writes for AlterNet, where this article first appeared.