Big Brother

THE OPENING OF the trial of Tim McVeigh this week for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma, and the collective suicide of 39 California cultists last week, are combining to whip the American public's security hysteria to a fever pitch. New calls for censorship of the Internet are the rallying cry for talk-jocks and pandering pols in the wake of the Rancho Santa Fe techno-hari-kari promoted over the Web.

But the Clinton administrations has already ceded to this mood. Indeed, it has led the charge in increasing government's police-state powers. As Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, puts it, "Not since Richard Nixon has there been an administration with less regard for the privacy rights of American citizens."

Take, for example, the insistence of Clinton's FBI--with full White House support--on forcing telephone companies to build surveillance systems into their new digital telephone networks. This means that in the years to come, the government would be able to listen in to virtually any private conversation at long distance, without recourse to the cumbersome on-site physical wiretaps of old. It would be extraordinarily easy with this new technology to flout Constitutional protections against electronic eavesdropping with untraceable impunity--whether as government policy or at the instigation of overzealous agents in an institution with a historic disregard for civil liberties.

The administration has also supported our federal police agencies' insistence on new powers to decode privately encrypted computer communications, which is nothing less than ceding to the government the ability to access every citizen's electronic mail. No wonder that privacy watchdog Rotenberg says all these surveillance powers "would have been the envy of the old East German government."

Another pernicious aspect of security hysteria is the inclusion in the administration's "airline safety" package--recently announced with much fanfare by Al Gore--of the use of passenger profiling to weed out potential terrorists. Now, these "profiles" are based largely on skin color and dress, and in practice led to institutionalized racism. Remember the unfortunate Arab American who was dragged off a plane, detained, stripped-searched, and interrogated in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, which in the end turned out to have been committed by good ol' white boys? Nor has personality profiling--currently employed by the FBI, DEA, and other agencies--been any more accurate: Richard Jewell was misidentified as the Atlanta Olympic Games bomber and had his life destroyed as a result of such profiling.

Already the administration has handed over background checks and security clearances on 40 percent of federal employees to a private security company. Who is to say whether this company, under pressure to make a profit, will keep such information private from its other clients? And to whom is it accountable for any errors or abuses?

Now we learn that the Clinton administration has tested a national identification card system, which would contain vital personal information on every American who wanted to seek a legal job. Although it is supposedly designed to combat illegal immigration by weeding out undocumented workers, this is a step toward the kind of "internal passport" that is a staple of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Establishing a national database on Americans is an invitation to abuse: There is a significant degree of inaccuracy in the information such databases contain (as anyone who has ever had billing problems with their credit card can tell you) and federal police agencies would inevitably press for access to such systems.

The mishandling of 900 FBI files on private citizens by the White House--which Clinton's own FBI director called "an egregious violation of privacy"--and the creation of a $1.7 million White House database with info on the ethnicity, politics, and policy preferences of some 355,000 Americans are only the most visible symptoms of the administration's willingness to shred the Bill of Rights for temporary political advantage.

Orwell's Big Brother is here--and his name is Bill Clinton.

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