Government-technology alliance threatens individual liberties
May 1, 2011
by Joseph P. Tartaro
On Jan. 17, 1961, three days before his successor was sworn in, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower identified what he thought was a major threat to his fellow Americans and their personal freedoms as the “Military-Industrial Complex.”
His speech resonated with many at the time and for several years later. It was an especially quotable theme among liberals who have always hated both the military and “big business”although many of them are big business. To put the speech and public reaction to it in context, it came from a generally popular Republican president at the height of the Cold War. Kids were still learning “duck and cover” in school, U2s were flying over the USSR, and about a year and half later, America was face to face with the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the core of the discussion about US defense strategies then and now has been national security. Then and now, everyone was looking for easy answers to national and personal safety.
I was reminded of the 50-year-old Eisenhower warning about the military-industrial complex by today’s developments. And in checking it, I realized just how prophetic the former five-star general was. The threat to our traditions and liberties today comes from a “government-technological alliance,” headed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), with the aid of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the FBI.
Eisenhower recognized these continuing threats in his speech, saying “Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties….
“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment….
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist….
“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
“In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government….
“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Now, 50 years later, Michael A. Walsh, writing in the New York Post, finds what he claims is the worst homeland-security menace, and wonders how much of your freedom are you willing to give up in the name of your personal safety? (Michael Walsh, a former associate editor of Time, is the author (writing as David Kahane) of Rules for Radical Conservatives.)
His question is prompted, he said, by the latest news about the TSA, which has reportedly been contemplating expanding its controversial X-ray body-scanning program from airports to public events, mass transit and possibly even the streets where you live.
“In a politically correct attempt at perfect egalitarianism, we’ve created a bureaucratic monster. And, like all bureaucracies, it really has only one imperativenot defending the homeland, but protecting itself and expanding its reach, in order to justify its $56 billion budget,” Walsh wrote.
It doesn’t matter whether the administration is Republican or Democratic, he said. It doesn’t matter who’s president. “Poorly conceived and hastily created in the aftermath of 9/11, the leviathan DHSwith more than 200,000 employees, it’s the third-largest Cabinet departmentis a conceptual and practical disgrace to the American tradition of ordered liberty.”
While Walsh is right about the DHS-TSA intrusions on our liberties, his column didn’t go far enoughespecially with respect to guns and gunowners. Government agencies have been funding technological research and development for many years. Again with the promise of public safety, they have been egged on by anti-gunners in and out of government. And the prospect of a windfall from government contracts and continuing sales to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, has driven most of these technological innovations. The capabilities of modern computer technology and the miniaturization of circuitry have expanded far beyond what Eisenhower might have imagined. And so has the threat to our liberties.
Government agencies at all levels now have the ability to build and integrate all sorts of databases. It’s most notable at a border crossings or when a policeman stops a vehicle for a suspected traffic infraction. Through their computer terminalsat an inspection booth or in a patrol car, or in a room in a foreign countrythey can access all sorts of information about the driver of a vehicle. Meanwhile, digitized camera systems are deployed on city streets to observe not just motorists but pedestrians as well.
In the firearms field, individualized serial numbering has led to digital e-tracing of firearms to the original customer, not just in the US, but in over 30 other countries.
The ATF and FBI have been using specially designed software to build enormous databases about selected guns and ammunition components which come into law enforcement hands in the course of criminal investigations. They spent millions underwriting development of competing systems for automatically comparing recovered spent cartridge casings and bullets or bullet fragments. Now, they have a single NIBIN system, but it’s not cheap.
Meanwhile, New York and Maryland spent millions on developing state “libraries” of ballistic data on all new handguns, which, after more than 10 years in use, have made little, if any, contribution to crime solving.
But still technological entrepreneurs continue to develop ways for government to intrude on the ownership of firearms, and they are egged on by the anti-gun zealots who see these schemes as ways to limit if not eradicate private gun ownership.
User recognition technology, also called “smart guns,” has been on the technological drawing board for years. Years ago, New Jersey passed a “smart gun” law, but it hasn’t become effective because the technology has not been commercially viable.
Microstamping technology which is supposed to imprint a gun’s individual identifying information on cartridge cases is another example of a way someone can make money while individual rights are trampled. So far, patented microstamping technology has not paid off, even though California enacted a law requiring all new handguns sold to have that feature.
Then there is the scheme to imprint every bullet and cartridge case with a unique barcode so that every piece of ballistic evidence could be traced back to the finger that pulled the trigger. So far, no state has adopted legislation requiring such a costly and impractical concept.
But don’t relax. There are people working on new ways to use digital technology and radio frequency ID systems to keep track of guns and their individual owners. The Pandora’s box has been opened and the whole camel of government is gaining more space in what used to be your castle and your rights of travel, property and privacy.
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