Eye on the United States

Hello, Big Brother

Still from George Orwell's 1984
Edmund O'Brien in Michael Anderson's 1956 adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures Corporation). 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS): This is the name of a new agency, the bill for which was signed by U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday. Its staff will include 170,000 people. It will consolidate 22 presently uncoordinated departments and will cost the Department of the Treasury US$40 billion a year.

The new department aims to monitor 500 million people crossing the U.S. border annually and track more than 11 million trucks taking shipments into the country, 51,000 foreign ships, and 2.2 million rail cars. It will want to know everything about those shipments, everything about people who enter the country. Everything about airline passengers flying from one city to another. Everything about those visiting “suspicious” Web sites on the Internet, those who buy “suspicious” products and services, and those who carry out suspicious cash transactions.

This super-department has been established in a country that has always been almost deathly afraid of the powerful state, hatefully associating it with only one thing: dictatorship and totalitarianism. This in a country that in recent decades has set international standards of what is usually considered to be a civil society: inviolability of private life, human rights, and democracy in general. The U.S. president is confident that all these efforts will result in a society that is a lot safer for peaceful and law-abiding citizens and unbearable for terrorists. He hasn’t the slightest doubt that society itself will remain the same—democratic and free.

The United States of America is entering into one of the most serious historical experiments, an experiment to be carried out on the country itself. It should answer the most important question posed by modern history: how to fight terrorism without humiliating fellow citizens with dictatorship? Since this is a global war on terrorism involving the entire world, many other countries will be destined to follow in its footsteps. And they will end up having to answer the same questions. As always, the results will be very different.

Generally speaking, the idea of creating the super-department (the literal translation of its name has the ring of an obvious pretension to patriotic fervor) did not belong to George Bush Jr. or the Republicans (traditionally opposed to expanding state powers and the number of government agencies) but to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a former Democratic Party candidate for vice president.

However, in the summer, after a series of congressional hearings about the inefficiency of the struggle against terrorism (a traditional American alarmist verdict was reached each time: “The country is not ready to ward off attacks of thugs.”), Bush made up his mind to set up the DHS. Its establishment is the largest reorganization of the U.S. bureaucracy since 1947, when Harry Truman created a single unified Department of Defense. (Previously, the command of different military branches had been in different hands.) Thomas Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, has been appointed to lead the DHS. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has been in charge of a DHS prototype established at that time.

What is the mission of the DHS? In short, addressing everything that is directly or indirectly related to the struggle against terrorism on U.S. territory, in all areas and in all forms. The DHS will be composed of four large divisions. In addition, it will have its own, in-house secret service plus a bureau for coordination of actions with the authorities of all 50 states and local agencies, and also businesses. The CIA and FBI will retain almost all of their current functions, powers, and departmental independence with the exception of some structural units.

Establishing a super-department is a lot easier than making it operate effectively. For instance, it is easier not to allow anyone into the country than to check everyone arriving in the country for their good intentions. Male visitors 16 years and over from Arab countries are already being subjected to fingerprinting, forced for weeks to wait for a U.S. entry visa. Will it help? Needless to say, it will hardly improve relations with the Arab world. And how will the increased security measures affect freight transportation in terms of profitability and delivery schedule, let alone passenger transportation?

But the most important thing is the fine line between the need to ensure security and the inviolability of the individual who enjoys specific civil rights. The latter concept, however you look at it, plays an important, fundamental role in modern society. Strictly speaking, it is only by virtue of such an individual that society becomes modern, and progress and prosperity in the information age become possible.

In the overall scheme of things, we are not talking about such details of the 500-page law as arming airline pilots or full inspection of airline passengers’ luggage. Or, for example, the substantial deletions from the Freedom of Information Act, which serves as one of the pillars of the openness of modern American society. Or that in the near future, considering the war on terrorism, all 361 U.S. ports and the entire 150,000 kilometer-long U.S. border should be re-equipped to respond to the new challenges. Or about the compulsory introduction of state-of-the-art explosives detectors in all 429 U.S. airports. We are talking about a qualitatively new state of society. Will it absorb the war on terrorism as it did in its time the waves of millions of immigrants without sliding into xenophobia? Those immigrants who ultimately accepted the basic American democratic values as their own?

Against the background of the rising wave of the war on terrorism not long ago, quite a few ideas have emerged in the United States, ideas that one could only have read about in frightening dystopias—variations on the subject of Big Brother. Thus, for example, the Pentagon came up with the idea of monitoring all (all!) purchases so that this information could be later processed in a single database.

What if someone is buying materials suitable for an act of terrorism? Automatically entered into this database will also be, for instance, such “suspicious” data as “sudden” withdrawal of a large cash amount from a teller machine, purchase of a one-way airline ticket, purchase of a weapon, car rentals, and so on. Well, all kinds of things.

It is obvious they can’t manage without information about arrests and other offenses and conflicts with authorities either. An idea has been floated—nearly fully formed—within the Federal Communications Commission to determine the exact whereabouts of any mobile phone user (based on incoming/outgoing calls). Why don’t we let them do it? Technically, it’s feasible. That’s more than 140 million subscribers. Cellular communication providers say that it will be possible to provide such useful services as “prompting” the address of the nearest restaurant or help in avoiding traffic jams.…It will soon be possible. Only one small matter is holding things up: You have to want strangers to know your whereabouts.

At the same time, there is discussion about putting a stop to anonymous visits to Web sites. In large U.S. cities, a system of 24-hour-a-day video monitoring in public places, such as stores, museums, subways, and streets is being introduced. As part of it, the faces of passers-by will be scanned and matched against biometric data in a single computer database containing information on all suspicious individuals. It is only natural that with such an approach in place, the number of suspects may grow by leaps and bounds.

Air transportation has been a completely different story since Sept. 11, 2001. The issue of creating a travel case-record file of any potential air passenger is practically decided: where he/she flew before, where he/she is flying now—for the purpose of analyzing the advisability of such a route—and in addition, miscellaneous personal information (for instance, about living conditions and income, consumer habits, etc.). And if the computer decides there is something wrong (for example, you bought four airline tickets using one credit card for passengers who arrive at the airport separately and register for different seats on the plane), then you will be quietly taken aside, body-searched, interrogated, and most likely, strongly urged not to fly anywhere at all. So far, U.S. society and its elite have been reacting calmly to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and other antiterrorist innovations, without seeing them as a groundless encroachment upon civil rights.

Society seems to feel quite capable of absorbing this without letting authorities switch to banal repressive measures and humiliation of human dignity in an all-powerful bureaucracy (as is the case in some countries). All the more so because at the public level, where many thousands of different public organizations operate and thereby constitute the fabric of civil society, a strong legal culture with the rule of law in place has developed over many decades, together with an ability to stand up for one’s rights—in a court of law or, if necessary, right on the street.

No one in the United States will risk attacking freedom of speech either: The press will publicize violations of the law or abuses of power of any government agency or politicians, and it won’t be able to stand idly by without reacting in a constructive way.

The system of checks and balances among government branches acts as a safeguard against totalitarianism because no branch, even such a powerful department as the DHS, can go unsupervised. And so the DHS with Thomas Ridge in charge is by no means destined to become another NKVD-KGB [the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs and Committee for State Security], according to the model we know so well. Then again, we’ll see…