In November it was reported that the CIA has given birth to something called the Open Source Center. It sounds like Total Information Awareness revamped, only rebranded to sound less Big Brotherish.
The center is designed to gather all kinds of unclassified information and piece together a broad web of information that will give a better sense of where trouble is likely to arise. The International Herald Tribune says that the new center will “absorb the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a branch of the CIA that has already expanded beyond its historical duty of translating foreign broadcasts and periodicals to study Web sites and more obscure sources like T-shirt slogans in countries of interest,” as well as sermons in mosques and local newspapers in rural China.
This is an ambitious project, if an unsurprising one in an era when computers and nanotechnology make such globalized fishing expeditions possible. The Dutch government is already embarking upon a similar project of tracking all its citizens “from cradle to grave.” They plan to feed the data into a computer, which would flag certain people for intervention from a young age. Crime prevention, they say. The specialization of education, of welfare benefits. The greater good and all that. We’ll see, I suppose. But against that backdrop, I worry that the model of information-assemblage we are pursuing in the United States is for the lesser good.
There’s an interesting piece in the December issue of the Yale Law Journal by a scholar named David Pozen, titled “The Mosaic Theory, National Security and the Freedom of Information Act.” The “mosaic theory,” according to Pozen, “refers to the notion that a compilation of unclassified items of information may, in the aggregate, tend to disclose a sensitive or classified fact.” Pozen explores the extent to which the Bush Administration has used this theory to justify increased restrictions on disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. Things–any things, little things, things unnamed, things you could only imagine, things that go bump in the night!–might point the way to some larger plot, picture, plan, conspiracy, cabal, anarchic concatenation.
It is not that the government shouldn’t be collecting such information–it is the essence of what “intelligence” is supposed to do. The problem is that all this is occurring at a time when the President seems to think that the process of such collection is subject to no review whatsoever, and when courts seem to be abdicating their review function by rubber-stamping whatever does come before them.