Timing is, was and ever shall be . everything. On the very day that I wrote a column condemning the federal government's chilling proposal for a citizen-spy program - Operation TIPS for Terrorism Information and Prevention System - House Majority Leader Richard Armey was marking up legislation to kill the program.
Dang, I'm good. I think I'll get my car washed today and see if we can't bring an end to this drought. Then I think I'll light a cigarette and see if lunch arrives.
Seriously, we should all dust off our ecru paper and write a thank you note to Armey, R-Texas, who also included language to create a "privacy officer" in the Homeland Security Department. The officer would "ensure technology and new regulations from the department respect the civil liberties our citizens enjoy," said Armey.
By contrast, the TIPS program would have recruited workers such as letter carriers and utility workers to report suspicious activities to the Justice Department. The operation didn't specifically urge workers to spy on fellow Americans, according to the spokes-folks at the Justice Department, but rather encouraged them to keep an eye on neighborhoods they typically visit.
Even without TIPS, Armey's new privacy officer will have his work cut out for him. His creation, however, may be like air conditioning to dinosaurs - too little, too late. While we've all been huffing and puffing over the Homeland Security Act, another privacy wolf - The Patriot Act - has been blowing the house down.
The USA Patriot Act sounds awfully nice, though it doesn't have quite the zing it had last October immediately following the terrorist attacks. In those horror-filled days most of us would have donated our firstborn - or at least our first spouse - if President Bush had promised Osama bin Laden's death and national security in return.
Instead, Bush oversaw creation of a 157-page law (H.R. 3162) that's so dense and complicated, only lawyers could wade through and understand it. Which is a pretty clever way to keep the little people from getting in the way of important government work.
To jog your memory, USA PATRIOT ACT isn't about flags and marching bands. It stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." Which roughly means: The Federal Government Is Taking Over Your Life.
And, by the way, your bank accounts. Part of the act (jauntily titled "International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-Terrorist Financing Act of 2001") allows the federal government, as well as the CIA, to access your bank accounts and personal credit history. As a Florida financial planner, "Mr. Q," put it in a recent e-mail: "I feel that I've just been unwillingly drafted into this country's version of the KGB."
Mr. Q, who wishes to remain anonymous (good luck, honey), said he has been ordered to turn over his clients' confidential information, including checking account numbers, or risk losing his securities license. Uncooperative clients will be suspect and their trading account closed. Uncooperative financial planners will be beheaded at noon in the town square. OK, probably not, but who knows what's next?
The purpose of these financial disclosure orders is to combat money laundering used to finance terrorism. I don't doubt the original intent, but clearly the act was conceived in the same spirit of hysteria that placed professional blonde-molesters at airport security gates.
One is justified in asking what exactly the CIA has been doing. Doesn't the agency
know who's funneling large amounts of money into this country? Might we make more progress by considering the possibility that funds funneled into this country from known or suspected Islamists might warrant greater scrutiny than, say, the retirement accounts of Mr. and Mrs. Harry G. Brown in Bartow, Florida?
But no. Rather than single out likely suspects, the federal government and the CIA are investigating everybody - or at least creating mechanisms so they can - which is the equivalent of strip-searching Grandma at the Delta Air Lines checkpoint. Wasteful, stupid, intrusive and ineffective, yes, but at least no one can accuse us of profiling.
Sometimes I get the feeling I'm going to wake up, find a book open on my chest to the part where I fell asleep, and realize that this is all a fiction, a parody of how our government might handle a terrorist threat by ignoring the obvious and pursuing the absurd.
But just in case this is real, don't talk to your financial adviser on the phone. Under the new rules, Mr. Q says he'll have to tape your conversation. Better to meet him at the car wash. It's noisy there, and we could use the rain.