Conscientious objections

Barr bashes military's Big Brother plans

A few jaws probably dropped when word got out that Rep. Bob Barr would be gigging for the American Civil Liberties Union once his tour of duty with Congress expires in January. But while Barr may be best known as a conservative firebrand and Clinton antagonist, he's shown an admirable ideological consistency when it comes to privacy issues and civil liberties. So the marriage with the ACLU, where Barr will work as a consultant developing a strategy to move forward a privacy agenda, makes sense.

Indeed, during the battle over the USA PATRIOT Act, the ACLU singled out Barr for praise for his work to mitigate the more sinister aspects of the bill. And as he was preparing to leave office, the 7th District congressman passed a bill through the House that would require the government to issue a "privacy impact statement" on any new regulations and certify that it had taken steps to minimize their impact on the private lives of Americans.

The bill didn't win passage in the Senate, but Barr hopes it will be re-introduced when the new session begins in January. It couldn't come too soon. Knowledge of the Defense Department's "Total Information Awareness" project recently leaked out through, of all places, conservative New York Times columnist William Safire's column. Under the auspices of the recently passed Homeland Security bill, the program would create a massive database to spy on American civilians — everything from financial transactions to magazine subscriptions. To make matters worse, the program is headed by John Poindexter, a man who White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher identified as "somebody who this administration thinks is an outstanding American and an outstanding citizen ..." Too bad most people remember the retired Navy admiral because he was convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran Contra scandal.

In an interview with CL's Kevin Griffis, Barr explains how Total Information came about, how to stop it and whether the Bush administration has betrayed true conservative principles.

Creative Loafing: How worried should people be about Total Information?

Bob Barr: I would think people ought to be scared silly with what's happening, in a lot of different ways. For example ... a central concern for people ought to be "Why are we getting the Defense Department, that is the military, involved in developing electronic dossiers on virtually every American citizen?" The barrier that we've always adhered to between the military being involved in military matters abroad and not being involved in domestic law enforcement, including the gathering of evidence on U.S. citizens domestically, has always been a very bright line. Now we seem to be moving in the direction of completely blurring that, and that is a major policy shift, a fundamental policy shift for this country, and that ought to concern people.

This is not being done pursuant to a specific congressional authorization. Congress didn't pass legislation that explicitly said, "We want the Defense Department to set up a massive computer database in conjunction with private business, in other words commercial information, and then develop programs to cross-reference all this data to develop profiles." Yet [the Defense Department is] doing it. They apparently feel so emboldened in the current environment that they figure, "Well, we'll just do it." They're daring the American people to stop them.

Most importantly, American citizens ought to be very concerned that the government is going to be gathering evidence without probable cause, which is in direct violation of the 4th Amendment, on all sorts of law-abiding citizens without their consent, without their knowledge and manipulating it in a way that the American people have no idea it is being manipulated.

So it was just an initiative from the Defense Department?

What seems to have happened is that you have this office at the Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They're supposed to sort of sit there and think about the future, you know, "Where are we going in terms of defense technology and defense policy? How can we sort of look into the future?" That's fine. You want people sitting around a table thinking about these sorts of things. Then all of sudden now here we have Poindexter showing up and thinking, "Hey, wouldn't it be a great idea if we could develop technology so we could cross-reference all of this data floating around — people's travel records, records of gun purchases, certain types of financial transactions — because maybe if we do that, we can develop patterns to see how terrorists operate and then if a person engages in these different transactions or activities that other terrorists have engaged in, then bingo, we have a way of identifying terrorists." Well, that's probably nonsense. It's basically an example of a bunch of brainiacs sitting around up there saying, "We've got this technology, let's use it."

What needs to happen here?

Ultimately, the only thing that's going to make a difference, I think, is the American people. They have to let their representatives know that they don't want this type of program, that they don't want to be living in an Orwellian, thought police state. If enough people communicate that enough times to their members of Congress and their senators, then hopefully something will get done. In the absence of that, they'll just continue merrily on their way doing this, and pretty soon it will be too late to stop it. The best way to stop it now would be to provide for a specific budgetary prohibition next year, so that they can't use any funds for this specific program or this type of program.

The whole thing is almost laughable in how Orwellian it is, from the program's symbol to its very name. Why would anyone think this is a good idea? How does this happen?

When a government agency is faced with having made a mistake, they never admit that they made a mistake. The reaction, in my experience, always is that they come to the Congress, and they say, "This unfortunate incident happened" — Sept. 11 in this case — "not because we did anything wrong. Heaven forbid, but because you the Congress didn't give us enough money or you haven't given us enough power." Now, there's a natural reaction on the part of many members of Congress to say, "Oh. Yes. We certainly don't want to be accused of not paying attention to this and not doing everything we can to guarantee, or improve the chances of, not having another incident. So here's some more money or here's some more authority."

Tough questions should be asked and then if the agencies don't want to do the right thing, and that is, do a better job of using the powers that they already have, force them to do it through the budgetary process, for example. That's what ought to be done, but as a general rule of these bureaucracies, that's not the way things happen.

You could argue that conservatives are in the best position to bring up these issues, because if a liberal does it, he's accused of being soft on terrorism or national defense.

It is difficult to get some conservatives, and people generally, to proactively and overtly champion these issues, to demand a balance. It's not that we're not interested and concerned as the next person about going after the terrorists. That's not the point. The point is to do it in a way that is consistent with our national history, with our constitutional history, with constitutional powers. But a lot of conservatives, just like a lot of people in the political arena generally, are concerned that if they do that, they're going to be branded or identified as being soft on terrorism, and that causes a lot of folks who might otherwise be pre-disposed to assist in the effort to strike that balance, to back away. That's a real challenge for conservatives right now to overcome that hesitancy ... to overtly help in developing the national debate on security versus privacy.

If we decide that we're basically going to throw the 4th Amendment out the window, if we decide that we're going to throw out the principle of Posse Comitatus, that we're not going to have the military involved in domestic law enforcement and evidence gathering, if that's the direction our country wants to go, at least let's have a vigorous and comprehensive national debate on it. Let's not allow it to happen in some back room in the bowels of the Pentagon.

Has the administration made a mistake by being silent on Total Information?

Has it been telling the American people what it needs to know?

The answer to that would depend, to some extent, on how one defines success. If success is measured by getting real programs and policies implemented or to further your programs and policies, then they've been very successful. If you measure success from a more philosophical standpoint, that you are doing the right thing according to fundamental conservative principles of governing, that is, a maximum emphasis on openness, strict adherence to the rule of law, less government rather than more government, then no. It's been singularly unsuccessful, because we have more government, not less. We have less openness, not more. And we have very dubious adherence to constitutional principles.