In George Orwell’s book “1984,” the government used “doublespeak” to change the meaning of words to make the horrific appear commonplace. Thus the war department was called the Ministry of Love, and citizens were instructed that “slavery is freedom.”
Long thought dead, it now appears that Orwell is busy at work in the darkest recesses of the Bush administration and its new Information Awareness Office.
It is a title that is truly a masterpiece of doublespeak. After all, who could be against greater awareness of information?
What was not known until last week was what information the administration is seeking and how it wants to acquire it. With no public notice or debate, the administration has been working on the creation of the world’s largest computer system and database, one with the ability to track every credit card purchase, travel reservation, medical treatment and common transaction by every citizen in the United States.
It has been the dream of every petty despot in history: the ability to track citizens in real time and to reconstruct their associations and interests.
Welcome to the latest product from the good people at DARPA.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on this project, and the pending homeland security bill would lay the foundation for the system.
In a little-discussed provision, the bill combines huge government databases into a single, massive system. It further weakens protections under the Privacy Act of 1974, opening the door for DARPA to develop a prototype system.
With a requested $200-million down payment, the “Total Information Awareness” system could allow the government to study the purchases and activities of citizens to isolate people for further investigation, feeding names into the new massive surveillance system constructed after Sept. 11.
This project is the brainchild of a man who hardly needs a new technological boost into infamy: retired Vice Adm. and former National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter.
Poindexter’s previous noteworthy public service was as the master architect behind the Iran-Contra scandal, the criminal conspiracy to sell arms to a terrorist nation, Iran, in order to surreptitiously fund an unlawful clandestine project in Nicaragua.
Along with various other Reagan administration officials, Poindexter was convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying documents and obstructing Congress in its investigation. He was sentenced to jail but was saved on a technicality: a poorly crafted immunity grant by Congress that required some evidence to be suppressed.
One would think that a convicted felon who escaped by a technicality hardly would be welcome in the Bush administration. Yet when asked about Poindexter’s prior criminal conduct, President Bush released a statement that he believed “Adm. Poindexter has served our nation very well.”
In some ways, Poindexter is the perfect Orwellian figure for the perfect Orwellian project. As a man convicted of falsifying and destroying information, he will now be put in charge of gathering information on every citizen. To add insult to injury, the citizens will fund the very system that will reduce their lives to a transparent fishbowl.
What is most astonishing is the utter lack of public debate over this project.
Over the last year, the public has yielded large tracts of constitutional territory that had been jealously guarded for generations. Now we face the ultimate act of acquiescence in the face of government demands.
For more than 200 years, our liberties have been protected primarily by practical barriers rather than constitutional barriers to government abuse. Because of the sheer size of the nation and its population, the government could not practically abuse a great number of citizens at any given time. In the last decade, however, these practical barriers have fallen to technology.
This new, untapped power has been an irresistible temptation for many like Poindexter, who has reportedly been working on such ideas for years. Soon after Sept. 11, he appeared at the door of the administration like a J. Edgar Hoover vacuum salesman, promising a system that could digest huge amounts of information and produce neatly packaged leads on suspected citizens.
A government’s desire for “Total Information Awareness” of its citizens is nothing new. Our founders understood that the quality of government is determined not by the powers given but by those denied to it. A free society cannot be maintained under the continual surveillance of its government.
DARPA has finally brought us to a constitutional Rubicon. Yet all that is required is for citizens to do nothing. DARPA will do the rest.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University.