Shutting Down the Snoops
Amid the confusion and backdoor deals involved
with finishing up the federal government's nearly $400 billion appropriations bill, there have been bits of good news. We're
happy to note that the Senate and House conferees agreed to impose severe restrictions on Total Information Awareness, a Pentagon
surveillance scheme concocted by John Poindexter that could have threatened the civil liberties of ordinary Americans.
The program was designed to harness the vast networking powers of the computer to collect information
about individuals and groups, the theory being that this would unearth suspicious patterns of behavior and help investigative
agencies anticipate terrorist acts. All the raw material of ordinary life would be fair game for the project's computers credit
card transactions, telephone records, airline reservations and the like. Critics feared an invasion of privacy on a huge scale.
The fact that the program is headed by Mr. Poindexter, the retired admiral who ran the Reagan administration's illegal Iran-contra
operation, reinforced those fears.
Virtually without dissent, the House conferees accepted a bipartisan Senate provision written
by Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, stipulating that the program cannot be used against
American citizens. The conferees also agreed to end research on the program in effect shutting it down in 90 days unless the
Pentagon submits a detailed report on the program's cost, goals, impact on civil liberties and prospects for success against
terrorists. What this means, in effect, is that if the program continues at all, it will be as a low-intensity research project
under close Congressional supervision.
Congress made the right move. The only wonder is that the Pentagon allowed the program to proceed
as far as it did.