Back in the days when the United States government was overtly and covertly assisting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the most extreme Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan, US Navy Rear Admiral John Poindexter was in the thick of it.

Serving as the Reagan administration’s national security adviser, Poindexter helped devise the secret Iran-Contra networks that the White House used to illegally sell arms to the fundamentalist dictators of Iran and then schemed to divert the ill-gotten gain to the Nicaraguan rebels who sought to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

Poindexter’s violations of the public trust were so extreme that in the late 1980s his story came to serve as an internationally recognized example of what happens when government officials begin to operate outside the legal and moral boundaries of civil society.

Poindexter beat several of his felony convictions (a jury convicted him in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading Congress and making false statements, only to have an appeals court overturn the verdict not because Poindexter was innocent but because Congress had given him immunity in return for his testimony). But few people associated with the scandal-plagued Reagan administration were more discredited than Poindexter. And nothing the retired admiral has done in the past 15 years has restored the faith of rational Americans – or international observers – in this troubled man’s sullied integrity.

Except, of course, within the Bush Administration.

With the election of George W. Bush, Poindexter returned to Washington’s good graces. Now, with a Congressional seal of approval that was tucked into the Homeland Security bill, he is developing the Total Information Awareness program within a new federal operation, the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA). The TIA project, which Poindexter devised, is an ambitious plan to use new software and computer-generated data collection that -in the words of the New York Times – seeks to “use the vast networking powers of the computer to ‘mine’ huge amounts of information about people.”

Under the aegis of the Pentagon, the TIA initiative is ostensibly being designed to help federal agencies identify and locate “potential” terrorists. In reality, the TIA initiative could result in shadowy federal agencies having unprecedented access to the private communications of Americans. Indeed, according to the Times, if Poindexter’s plans come to fruition, “all the transactions of everyday life – credit card purchases, travel and telephone records, even Internet traffic like e-mail – would be grist for the electronic mill.”

Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, refers to the initiative as “the most sweeping threat to civil liberties since Japanese-American internment.”

The federal government has a responsibility to take legitimate steps to protect Americans from terrorists and terrorism. But that responsibility must be balanced with another responsibility to respect the privacy of law-abiding Americans and to preserve the civil liberties that underpin our freedom.

There is nothing legitimate – or necessary – about creating the sort of massive, secret surveillance network that the TIA has the potential to become. If Poindexter’s latest scheme is fully realized, terrorist plotters won’t be the only ones posing threats to the security of average Americans. The most persistent threat may well come from reckless players within their own government – one of whom, John Poindexter, has a track record of lawlessness.

That’s something that responsible players in Congress ought to be concerned with.

The US Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution will be chaired until January by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Feingold, whose courageous opposition to the Patriot Act was based on his concerns about threats posed to civil liberties in general and privacy rights in particular, should use the last weeks of his chairmanship to examine, challenge and steps to place a check upon Poindexter’s TIA project. Poindexter and others associated with the Bush administration are still seeking additional legislative authority to undermine privacy rights — in particular, amendment of the Privacy Act of 1974 — and the debate over these moves can open the way for an examination of the sorry state of civil liberties in the age of the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Department. Feingold and other senators who raise these issues will find they have unexpected allies among conservative Republicans — an important factor, since Republicans will soon control all the key committees in the House and Senate. Conservative columnist William Safire has referred to Poindexter’s current project as “a sweeping theft of privacy rights.” Outgoing US Representative Bob Barr, R-Georgia, has been outspoken in his condemnation of the sections of the Homeland Security legislation that authorize the collection of public and private data into the Pentagon’s “centralized grand database,” saying: “You would think the Pentagon planning a system to peek at personal data would get a little more attention. It’s outrageous, it really is outrageous.”

If members of Congress had been more aggressive with Poindexter in the 1980s, the rule of law might well have been respected and many lives would have been saved in Central America. Now, with Poindexter threatening civil liberties at home, Congress again has an opportunity – and a duty – to remind this man that the United States has a Constitution and that it guarantees Americans a right to privacy.