Terrorism is a serious problem for America. But when our elected representatives vote for telephone book-sized laws they have not read, it also represents a serious problem.
That's just what happened when Congress passed the "Homeland Security Act," a 484-page law most House members did not even read. And that should make us all a little, shall we say, insecure in our homeland.
The troubling details are now trickling out. Title II creates a Directorate for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection within the Department of Homeland Security. The directorate is given open-ended power to "access, receive and analyze" information from federal, state and local government agencies and the private sector, to integrate this information, and to disseminate it to government and private recipients.
The act's occasional lip service to privacy is a sham. As with recent medical privacy regulations, here too federal officials genuflect toward privacy while they strip it away.
The surveillance system outlined by the Homeland Security Act builds on prior federal laws that mandated creation of many of the databases that will be inputs to the proposed integrated system. Few complained when, over the years, federal officials ordered our banks, our schools, our doctors, our employers, and others to collect detailed information about us. Nor did many complain about the vast array of government databases gradually assembled by the IRS, FBI, SSA, and the Departments of Labor, Education, HHS, and the rest.
Piece by piece, the central government demanded creation of key components, which, if integrated, could be used to create a virtual surveillance state. That integration is now an explicit objective of the Homeland Security Act.
Of course, there are also good provisions in the act, such as a program to arm airline pilots. But that is the point. By combining a variety of measures, good and bad, in a nearly indecipherable 484-page bill, and giving legislators less than 24 hours to examine its contents, key officials facilitated passage of provisions that otherwise might not have been accepted by Congress or the public. Labeling the bill as the "Homeland Security Act" guaranteed that few would dare to oppose it.
Unfortunately, this episode is not an isolated incident. In the past few weeks, we have discovered the Pentagon's planned consolidated database on nearly 300 million citizens. That's right, on all of us. The traditional presumption of innocence is being supplanted by a presumption of guilt. Defense officials now want to know everything there is to know about you--your bank account, the checks you write, your credit card transactions and other purchases, your educational records, your e-mail, your travels, and more--all without a search warrant.
This database proposal is a brainchild of the "Office of Information Awareness," led by Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter and housed within the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its stated goal is to consolidate central government access to commercial as well as government databases. By centralizing analysis of such information, the government is doing what some have long feared, with predictable implications for privacy and liberty.
The office's emblem is an eye scanning the world, with the caption 'Scientia Est Potentia' (knowledge is power). That caption is chillingly accurate: Government officials' unrestrained acquisition of personal information about us will give them unprecedented power over us.
What is new about the surveillance contemplated by the Homeland Security Act and the Pentagon's "Total Information Awareness" system? For openers, surveillance is being centralized at the national level to an unprecedented degree. The government is further destroying barriers between commercial and government databases, seeking nearly unfettered access to private-sector information, and using data-mining to scrutinize innocent citizens. Ever more bureaucrats and business people are being granted access to government-compiled information about us without our knowledge or consent. While the pretense of court authorization sometimes remains, in actuality safeguards preventing surveillance of law-abiding citizens are being cast aside. The central government is openly seeking to spy on all Americans.
Congressman Bob Barr, R-Ga., has condemned the creation of these monster databases, but he tried to defend his colleagues in Congress by saying they were not fully aware of what they were voting for. Only in Washington, D.C., would such a "defense" be seriously advanced. This is not the America that I grew up in, but this is the America that will be handed to the next generation. We should all tremble for the future of our nation.
Charlotte A. Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, is author of Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2002).