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
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
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
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