Total Information Awareness and Frog Stew

by Deborah Lagutaris

Dissident Voice

December 8, 2002



It has been the dream of every petty despot in history: the ability to track citizens in real time and to reconstruct their associations and interests.


-- Jonathan Turley, Professor of Constitutional Law, George Washington    University School of Law. [1]


Americans’ understandable fright and horror in the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center has led them to allow an unprecedented wholesale takeover of civil society.  Who exactly is in the process of abridging our freedom and our civil liberties?  Why, the federal government.  You know, the one that is supposed to reflect the will of the people, not sap it, and turn it into support for the oil industry.


We might think that we as relatively law-abiding individuals have nothing to worry about.  We don’t do anything wrong, so what is so bad about allowing the government to invade our privacy without warrants, and to track our financial transactions and medical prescriptions?   This process, the brainchild of convicted felon John A. Poindexter, is called  “Total Information Awareness.” 


The issue is not whether we have done something wrong.  The issue is whether we want a total monitoring of American’s movements and transactions that may easily slide into total control.  If the trajectory of the Bush administration’s policies are any indication, this outcome is highly likely.  Since we have been persuaded of the need for the “total information state,” based on inflammatory rhetoric that is backed by little evidence, we may not even notice when it happens. 


In the 1960s, high schools began to teach George Orwell’s famous book 1984. Schools used this book because it was interpreted as a condemnation of communism.  More fully understood, it is a condemnation of totalitarianism.  Most of us were not taught that Orwell was an anarchist who fought in the 1936 Spanish Civil War against Franco’s Fascist regime.  It seems that most of us have forgotten the lessons we were taught from that book. 


The recently passed Homeland Security Act lays the foundation for Total Information Awareness.  The $200 million down payment is embedded in the Act, as well the legislative authorization for TIA’s infrastructure.  Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, explained that:


With no public notice or debate, the administration has been working on the creation of the world's largest computer system and database, one with the ability to track every credit card purchase, travel reservation, medical treatment and common transaction by every citizen in the United States.


Turley continues, “In some ways, Poindexter is the perfect Orwellian figure for the perfect Orwellian project.” He was convicted of five counts of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra arms scandal. He masterminded the sale of arms to Iran, a terrorist state, in order to fund a death-squad operation in Nicaragua.  “As a man convicted of falsifying and destroying information, he will now be put in charge of gathering information on every citizen. To add insult to injury, the citizens will fund the very system that will reduce their lives to a transparent fishbowl.”


We have been primed for this coup de grace since the mid 1990s.  First, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) abrogated rights that have been protected for quite some time.  AEDPA contains clauses that weaken the primary constitutional right of habeas corpus, and deny defenses based on inadequate assistance of counsel. Then in the wake of 911, our legislators passed the deeply flawed PATRIOT Act under serious pressure from the White House.  In fact, if government had effectively used the law enforcement tools in place, they may have been able to stop the horror that was 911.  Constituents, who likely did not know what they were giving away, were generally too mute with fright to kick up much of a fuss. 


Now, its Act III.  The behemoth Homeland Security Bill, nearly 500 pages in length, had its way greased through both Houses by the same impulses and pressures that allowed the passage of the PATRIOT Act with little time for review and debate.  “Homeland Security” abrogates our right to privacy.  Further, in a stunning tribute to political pork, it shelters pharmaceutical companies from liability for their production of potentially harmful vaccines.  The newly formed agency will deny its employees the right to collective bargaining.  Americans suffered and died to provide workers the right to collective bargaining.  


Apparently, no Congressional oversight of the agency is contemplated.  Senator Robert C. Byrd (D, W.Va) called the bill a “monstrosity.” [2]  He decried the massive shift of power to the executive branch of the government.  So, what can we do?  Take out that tattered, food-stained copy of Orwell, reread it, then mail it to your legislators as a refresher course on what “Homeland Security” really means.  Talk to your friends and family.  Remind them of the story of the “frog in a pot.”  If you place a frog in a pot of cold water, and put the pot on the stove, and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will remain in the pot, clueless, until he is frog stew.


Deborah Lagutaris is an alternative media activist and second-year student at UC Hastings College of the Law. Email:




[1] Jonathan Turley,  “Ashcroft’s Law—West—and East of the Pecos,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2002.,0,2629067.story


[2] John Tierney, “Byrd, at 85, Fills the Forum With Romans and Wrath,” New York Times, November 18, 2002.