Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Least of Our Worries

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 26, 2002 --  

When right-wingers start worrying about expanding government powers, their rhetoric moves quickly to Orwell's Big Brother, and logic often takes a back seat to grand conspiracy theories. Left-wingers, on the other hand, worry about government power only when right-wingers and law enforcement officials are in control. When they are, the left's concerns are just as irrational as those of their rightist opponents. Thus, when both the right and the left come together to fight a particular expansion of government power, reason goes out the window.

Such is the case with the new Total Information Awareness Office, a high-tech domestic spy agency innocently tucked inside the Homeland Security Department legislation that President Bush signed yesterday. Since its first mention in the press last week, columnists and editorial writers have unleashed a firestorm of criticism. William Saffire, the New York Times' usually boring right-wing columnist, called it "a supersnoop's dream."1 The right-wing Washington Times was so frightened by Saffire's paranoid commentary, that it actually ran excerpts as its lead story.2

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, the leftish newspaper across town, the lead editorial lambasted the office because it is controlled by Admiral John Poindexter, the former Reagan administration official of Iran-Contra infamy. The Post's editorial broke tradition to include a picture with the editorial, showing the program's scary-looking seal that features an "all-seeing eye."3

To its detractors, the Total Information Awareness program is terrifying because it deals with the unknown world of technology. Computer-illiterate opinion writers -- who often never took a science class in college -- file stories on 1970s-era mainframe terminals (or even typewriters) and simply don't understand the current ubiquity of private information databases in both the private sector and government agencies. The fact that the Total Information Awareness Office seeks to merge private and public databases into one large combined database is certainly troubling, but hardly reason for panic.

The main reason not to fear the program is because of sheer government incompetence. America's government workers are usually too worried about early retirement, the next lunch break, or protecting their personal turf to get any actual work done. Unless the database ends up being mined by private-sector contractors, it is unlikely that an average Joe will ever face negative repercussions -- government workers are just too lazy to bother repressing American citizens. This is one of the main reasons that anti-government right-wing conspiracy theories are always wrong.

Managing complex databases and mining them for information are complex technical processes that government entities are ill suited to manage. Doing this is hard work. The government is much better at simple low-tech means of repressing citizens -- arresting them and throwing them in jail without a trial. This is exactly what is happening now, with Bush's "enemy combatant" designation of American citizens. The enemy combatant designation is far more frightening than the Total Information Awareness Office because it allows government workers to repress Americans without doing anything. In fact, it plays to their lazy instincts by allowing them to avoid all the hard work associated with the complex processes of the legal system.

Although we don't have to fear the Total Information Awareness Office, that doesn't mean it is a good idea. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is supposed to protect Americans from government searches without a warrant. Collecting an electronic dossier on every citizen certainly seems to violate the spirit, and maybe the letter of America's Bill of Rights.

But this is just one of the many parts of the Bill of Rights being violated in the Bush Administration's war on terrorism. Because the Total Information Awareness Office is doomed to fail, this rights violation is the least of our worries.


1. The Washington Times, "A Supersnoop's Dream," November 15, 2002

2. Ibid.

3. The Washington Post, "Total Information Awareness," November 16, 2002