As we know, crisis is the mother of state expansion. Once the authority of the state is expanded under the cover of crisis, it never returns to the previous levels post crisis. A few weeks ago, I posted on Attorney General Holder’s defense of targeted killings of US citizens abroad.
Today’s installment: the administration is seeking to limit restrictions on the use of retention of data collected about US citizens even when collected for non-security purposes. AG Holder signed new guidelines for the National Counterterroism Center. As Charlie Savage (NYT) explains:
The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.
What data are we speaking of? This is an important question, particularly given the efforts of the government in recent years to leverage private data sources.
The new rules are silent about the use of commercial data — like credit card and travel records — that may have been acquired by other agencies. In 2009, Wired Magazine obtained a list of databases acquired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the agencies that shares information with the center. It included nearly 200 million records transferred from private data brokers like ChoicePoint, 55,000 entries on customers of Wyndham hotels, and numerous other travel and commercial records.
Even though the administration failed to make draft guidelines available in advance, it nonetheless eased concerns of potential critics by noting (1) that it could already get this data, albeit in a more cumbersome fashion; and (2) there will be safeguards against abuse, including internal audits.
This reminds one of the Holder defense of the targeted killing of US citizens abroad. Ah yes, we could arrest and try US citizens and guarantee due process, but how cumbersome (particularly when the targets are in foreign countries that might not be fully cooperative). And in any event, Holder told us, there were internal safeguards that amounted to due process, even if it did not include the courts.
If all of this reminds you of the Bush-era Total Information Awareness program that was under development by John Poindexter, it should (for a refresher on this program in historical conext, see the Gene Healy 2003 piece at Cato, and the Savage article cited above).
At the time, the Bush administration made the same basic case for Total Information Awareness as the Obama administration is making now. Poindexter assured critics that the TIA program would “break down the stovepipes” that separate various data bases, both public and private. There were also assurances that the program would respect the constitutional expectations of citizens.
No one bought the argument in 2003, particularly the press that seemed intent on shining light on the Bush administration’s efforts to infringe on civil liberties.
One wonders: will the press will play a comparable role today?