Sacrificing liberty and safety

Joel Mowbray

6/12/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
The fingerprint-and-photograph tracking system announced last week by Attorney General John Ashcroft, though appealing at first blush, is an albatross that threatens to undermine both legitimate security measures and our civil liberties. Visitors and immigrants from five Middle Eastern nations—-Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria—-are already subject to the extensive tracking, and Ashcroft’s announcement was actually an expansion of an existing program. In addition to maintaining the database of fingerprints and photographs for at least 100,000 people from the Middle East just this year, the plan also calls for those staying longer than a month to make annual visits to check in with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents. Keeping a watchful eye on potential terrorists has enormous surface appeal—-bad guys would be monitored and halted before carrying out wicked deeds, the argument goes—-and people will no doubt sleep easier at night believing in that promise. But it would be a false sense of security. All of the Sept. 11th homicide hijackers entered the United States legally, and most did nothing overtly illegal—-aside from covertly planning the murder of 3,000 innocents-—that would have aroused INS suspicion. Sure, the tracking system might burden some would-be evil-doers, but it won’t provide an insurmountable hurdle for people with considerable resources. It certainly isn’t comfortable to admit that feel-good measures that appear effective actually aren’t. But no amount of self-delusion will change the simple fact that keeping tabs on hundreds of thousands of people won’t help us one iota in ferreting out the twenty who are quietly planning mass destruction. About the only thing the proposal will really do, other than overwhelming the INS and eroding our freedoms, is provide TV news programs with the photo and fingerprint of the terrorist to show viewers once the evil deed has been done. And then, we’ll feel even more helpless, knowing that we supposedly had John Q. Terrorist on our radar, yet still failed to thwart the attack. The most tragic consequence of expanding the tracking system—-which will have to be expanded even more in coming years-—is that it will divert scarce resources away from areas where we could do much more to keep us safe. Every dollar and man-hour we spend operating a massive monitoring database is a dollar and man-hour not spent on intelligence gathering or beefing up our borders. Although with seemingly unlimited budgets for anything even remotely linked to fighting terrorism it might be hard to believe that a tracking system will indirectly hobble more effective tactics, but it will. There are only so many highly qualified people running around, and the INS is going to need a mess of them for a project that a Justice Department spokesman admitted, “will be very difficult to set up and run.” Beyond the short-term implications of undercutting other elements of the war on terror, Ashcroft’s proposal poses a sinister threat in the long run for the rest of us. The civil liberties of foreigners is not a concern, but when things done to them set a dangerous precedent for American citizens, we need to proceed with caution, if at all. There is no magical line in the Constitution that divides citizens and non-citizens or protects us from the Orwellian tactics imposed on them. Establishing an enormous system for the purpose of storing personally-identifiable information and tracking people’s every moves lay the political and technical foundation for a national ID card. Anyone who doesn’t think so has taken a few too many puffs from the peace pipe. Once we have a colossal database with hundreds of thousands of records that engages in high-tech government stalking, the technical infrastructure for a national ID will be in place. Politically, it moves the debate one step closer to a system that at least stores sensitive information on citizens-—it’s not as much a far cry as it sounds. And as soon as the information is in the hands of the government, the slippery slope reaches maximum slickness. Clearly, the Attorney General’s intent is not to jeopardize our freedoms or hinder the war on terror, but his good intentions are no excuse for an inexcusable policy. Ashcroft is often quick to remind us that we need to strike a balance between liberty and safety, but we should never accept a proposal that sacrifices both.