HERE'S WHAT I did yesterday:
I went to my pharmacy, picking up refills of Aciphex and Acyclovir and a six-pack of Diet Coke and some ibuprofen. I made a deposit at my credit union and filled my '97 VW Jetta with unleaded, getting a candy bar at the mini-mart while I was there. I had lunch with a friend after meeting with the attorney I've retained to straighten out a long-neglected legal mix-up. I made several phone calls on my cell phone before returning to my office and listening to six more messages on my voice mail.
There, I found 142 messages in my e-mail in-box; I replied to about 15, checked several foreign and domestic newspaper Web sites, and called to cancel out on an evening meeting because I was feeling poorly. I went to bed early with my sweetie, discussing the news that her sister has just unexpectedly moved nearby from Maine.
All in all, it was a pretty dull day. But I mention all this because every single one of these activities can now be duly noted by the U.S. government, without my knowledge and without my being suspected of any wrongdoing at all.
THEY CAN look at my phone records, my credit-card purchases, my health- insurance claims, and my medical records; check my driving record and vehicle registrations; read my e-mail and listen to my calls; check my banking records. If, for whatever reason, something perks their interest, they might interview my friends and subpoena my attorney, have me followed, search my home or office or car without my knowledge. They can ban me from all air travel, or simply throw me in jail indefinitely, without charges or access to counsel or family. They can do any of this to me, you, or whomever they like—legally and with no judicial review.
Extreme? Sure. And it's likely to get worse. Check out what's gone on just in the past week or so:
The Senate passed the 500-page Homeland Security bill, a massive measure given to senators—like the USA Patriot Act—only days before the vote, without time to read hundreds of pages of newly inserted arcana. The privacy portions of the bill sailed through largely untouched.
With the Homeland Security bill came the first publicity for a new office headed by a convicted felon. John Poindexter's credentials regarding respect for the Constitution are highlighted by Iran-Contra, which was his brainchild. His convictions (later overturned on a technicality) for lying to Congress and shredding evidence of Iran-Contra's illegalities are likely viewed by the Bush administration not as a liability but as a crowning career achievement.
It turns out that for months Poindexter has been running the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office, with the goal of creating a gargantuan database of every financial, medical, employment, school, credit, and government record out there for every American.
How would such a database be run? Salon.com reported last week on government confirmation of a post-9/11 list of persons barred from air travel within the United States and over a thousand others who are to be exhaustively searched. That list contains numerous peace activists, Green Party officials, and other Bush administration critics. Still unknown is what agents use as the criteria to put someone on the list, or how (and whether) one can get off the list.
The Wall Street Journal recently described how an FBI list of people "wanted for questioning" after 9/11—not necessarily suspected of any crime—has taken on a life of its own after the FBI stopped updating and releasing it more than a year ago. It's still circulated on the Internet and used internationally among countless companies and agencies. Now even people who were listed due to mistaken identity are being identified all over the world as "suspected terrorists," and the FBI says there's nothing they can do.
THERE WAS PLENTY more last week: a secret appeals court decision allowing John Ashcroft's Justice Department to vastly expand wiretap and e-mail surveillance practices; dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainees imprisoned without access to counsel; the deportation of the mother of accused teen D.C. sniper Lee Malvo, her reward for alerting authorities that she was worried about the man her son had run off with. (That'll teach non-citizens to report terrorism tips!) And so on.
It was a ferociously bad week for the Constitution. And until the public gets duly alarmed about the desire of both Republicans and Democrats to shred the Bill of Rights, the government will continue to give itself powers that already, on paper, would make the old Soviet KGB green with envy. It's time to get angry, and get busy.
And to consider very carefully how to keep as many details of your life as possible out of the government's data banks.