"A supersnoop's dream," The Washington Times calls it. It will give government agents "a computerized dossier on your private life," warns William Safire of The New York Times.
It's the federal government's Total Information Awareness program, and if it's not positively Orwellian, say civil libertarians, it's at least "X Files." Worse yet, they argue, the program is being developed by John Poindexter — the professorial, pipe-smoking Reagan capo convicted (later overturned) of redirecting money to the Contras trying to overthrow the communist government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
If this goes forward, critics ask, will Mr. Poindexter and his beady-eyed bureaucrats know what Internet sites I like to frequent? That I've maxed out a credit card? That I play the office football pool? That my daughter has asthma? Shouldn't I be worried about this? Actually, only those already identified as terrorists have anything to fear.
What the government seeks to do with the program is piece together the puzzles of terrorist networks before they launch their attacks. And it wants to do this in such a way — in fact, Mr. Poindexter and his staff spend much of their time on it — that our privacy and civil liberties are protected to the maximum extent possible.
And they are doing, if not the Lord's work, the work of the American people, who since September 11, 2001, have called for some systematic way for various intelligence and other fact-gathering agencies to share and analyze information. Mr. Poindexter and his staff have gone to great pains to make their deliberations as public as possible. They have described the work of those seeking to launch the program in symposia around the country, and they even post information on their Web site.
Even if they wanted to, the program's employees simply won't have time to monitor who plays football pools, who has asthma, who surfs what Web sites or even who deals cocaine or steals cars. They'll begin with intelligence reports about people already suspected of terrorism, according to Ted Senator, project director of a component of the program.
Those already identified as terrorists or potential terrorists by the intelligence community then could be monitored through existing public and private databases to build an in-depth portfolio, including contacts and frequent activities, Mr. Senator says. These portfolios should enable authorities to determine whom to watch and where to find them when it is suspected a terror strike is imminent.
Access to this information should be limited to those with appropriate clearances as well as the need to know, and programmers are hard at work on filters for these purposes. Moreover, the Genisys program, a component of the larger program, is being designed to separate identity information from transactions and match up the information "only when we have evidence and legal authority to do so," officials say.
The key to the program — both in terms of its effectiveness and its potential to gain acceptance from the millions of Americans who rightly worry about privacy and erosion of civil liberties — is to limit its use to detecting terrorists and preventing future attacks. That means the FBI, the CIA and the soon-to-be-created Department of Homeland Security intelligence arm.
It does not mean state and local law enforcement or even those who wish to use it for causes such as aviation security and health surveillance — monitoring for epidemics and biological warfare, etc. Americans must be able to trust that extremely few people will have access to these capabilities and that the punishment for misuse will be severe.
To meet the needs of these other agencies, Mr. Poindexter's group or the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency could — and probably should — develop limited spinoffs dedicated to specific needs, such as linking city and state health surveillance networks to the Centers for Disease Control or cross-referencing airline passenger manifests with terrorist watch lists.
Americans are right to hold the government to a high standard on this.
They are right to expect that officials won't comb through the records of everything they buy, every time they visit the doctor and so on.
But Americans also understand that technology exists to detect perhaps even entire terrorist cells, to prevent future September 11-scale attacks, and that we would be foolish not to take advantage of it. The trick, of course, is to strike the right balance between citizens' expectations of privacy and government's need to protect those citizens. Mr. Poindexter seems on track to do this.
Let's let him. It seems little enough to prevent another September 11 — or worse.
Michael Scardaville is a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.