1984 Is Here!

Nat Hentoff

Throughout our history, the Bill of Rights has been often held in contempt by our government—witness the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts; Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the mass jailing of opponents of his policies during the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson’s near-extinction of the First Amendment during the First World War; the “Red Scare” raids and deportations of the early 1920s; the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War; and the depredations of “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy. But the extent and depth of the subversion of civil liberties by the Bush administration is far more dangerous and will have much longer-lasting effects, because the war on terrorism is not going to have a definitive end for decades to come.

The difference between the present powers of the national government to track, chill, and punish dissent as sub-version has been underlined by George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley in the November 17 Los Angeles Times:

For more than two hundred 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.

George Orwell died in 1950, and as powerful a warning as 1984 was of the exportability of Stalinism, Orwell could not have envisioned how far advanced and pervasive electronic surveillance technology could become.

Now, at the Pentagon, in the Information Awareness Office, retired Navy Admiral John Poindexter is creating—with an initial $200 million of taxpayers’ money—a Total Information Awareness system that, as the November 15 Washington Times reported, “would be authorized to collect every type of public and private data” on any of us to discern patterns of activities that might reveal links to terrorism.

By mining the data banks of all American intelligence agencies—now mandated to share information under the Homeland Security Act, along with continually expanding commercial data banks—these interconnected computers will be able to scoop up: telephone calls, passport applications, medical records, court records, the pay-per-view movies we order; travel reservations; drugstore prescriptions; and much more, including e-mail messages and what else you write on your computers.

“How often, or in what system, the Thought Police plugged in an individual wire,” Orwell wrote, “was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”

The Total Information Awareness preparations have been underway without any congressional hearings, and with no official public notice. Once some of the press began to awaken to a future in which an unblinking government eye would be able to plug into any wire of any citizen, much of the attention was focused on Defense Secretary Rums feld’s strange choice to head this omnivorous spying operation. As Jonathan Turley summarized the past history of this new grandmaster of privacy invasions, Poindexter, convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress and destroying documents, was deeply involved in “the criminal conspiracy to sell arms to a terrorist nation, Iran, in order to surreptitiously fund an unlawful clandestine project in Nicaragua.” Otherwise known at the time as the Iran-Contra scandal. His conviction was overturned because he had been granted testimonial immunity.

The president, to whom Donald Rumsfeld reports, had only this to say about the Defense Secretary’s disgraced hire: “Admiral Poindexter has served the nation very well.”

There were a number of stories—mainly in print media—that went into chilling depth on the consequences of this massive electronic dragnet. But the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the impending war on Iraq, along with vivid crime news, have largely driven the Total Information Awareness program off the news pages and television channels.

However, worth keeping in mind was this augury in the November 12 Washington Post by Robert O’Harrow, Jr.: “Paul Werbos, a computing and artificial intelligence specialist at the National Science Foundation, doubted whether such [interconnected, far-flung technology] can be calibrated to filter out details about innocent people that should not be in the hands of the government. By definition, they’re going to send ‘highly sensitive, private personal data,’ he said. ‘How many innocent people are going to get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are going to slip through?’”

Conservative libertarian Republican Congressman Bob Barr called this inadvertent government tribute to Orwell “outrageous,” but he was defeated for re-election. One congressman concerned with reining in the real-time Big Brother, is Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the only member of that body to vote against John Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act, which itself enables the government to conduct secret searches of offices and homes as well as to get into what citizens send to—and receive from—the Internet.


Feingold demands that Congress immediately cut off the funding for Poindexter’s operation until a thorough review is conducted by the Senate and House of the Total Information Awareness system. It may well be, however, that the extent to which Congress will concentrate, and for how long, on getting control of this operation that can make us all suspects will depend on how outraged we are.

Will there be a cascade of e-mails, letters, and other forms of communication to members of Congress? The odds are not promising. And possibly, as a trial run of this developing eye that never sleeps, Admiral Poindexter may click into whatever protesting messages we send to our representatives, and electronically file them.

As of January, the Senate has temporarily delayed the Total Information Awareness system, but there is no guarantee that the privacy protection they want will be meaningful at all.

Nat Hentoff is a regular columnist for the Village Voice, Washington Times, and Editor & Publisher, a United Media syndicated columnist, and the author of Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press).

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).