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Mary McGrory

Snoopers With Blind Spots

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page B07

As far as I can make out, Adm. John M. Poindexter wants to know everything about me. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft is curious too, but he has limits: He draws the line at my gun purchases.

The thought of me armed with an assault weapon strikes terror in the hearts of those who know me and have watched my struggles with a can opener; it shatters the security they are supposed to derive from passage of the homeland security bill, which George W. Bush said was as essential as oxygen for him.

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Poindexter, whom I remember from the Iran-contra hearings, is welcome to paw through my records -- I hope he can make better sense out of them than I can. As I understand it, he wants to check my credit card charges and telephone records.

But I am afraid the phone bills would be a disappointment to him -- most of my outgoing calls are to lost-and-found departments of airports, banquet halls, restaurants and other public places where I may have dropped my keys, glasses, notebook or speech text. If absent-mindedness is a crime, I could get life -- or even death -- from this crowd.

Of course, it is flattering to have an admiral sniffing through your stuff, and I suppose he thinks he is defending the homeland while heading up the Information Awareness Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its acronym, DARPA, may sound like a ballet troupe, but to him it could be an aircraft carrier steaming toward Iraq. I don't especially like the idea of someone who barely escaped the slammer on charges of lying to Congress about the Iran-contra scandal passing judgment on us. I mean, it's okay for him to know that I like Jane Austen and chunky peanut butter, but if we're going much further than that I have to say I have reservations.

The admiral's emergence from obscurity bothers the administration not at all, because it's the kind of in-your-faceness that delights the right-wing constituency Bush so prizes. The wingers probably think the admiral should be secretary of the Navy and that his confederate, Oliver North, should be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As I say, John Ashcroft, author of the infamous "TIPS" (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) scheme -- which sought to convert truckers, plumbers and others pretending to serve you into James Bonds -- seems almost moderate by comparison. But his TIPS proposal was too much even for the crazy House of Representatives.

Ashcroft may have been a cheerleader for secret detentions, secret court hearings and other undemocratic practices that he justifies in the name of fighting terrorism, but he is a stickler for privacy in one respect: Gun purchases are sacred. So says the National Rifle Association. So says he. If Ashcroft finds out you have bought an assault weapon, and is shown the bill, he will avert his eyes and reprimand the aide who brought to him this forbidden fruit of domestic surveillance.

The way for me to test this liberalism on Ashcroft's part is to buy an assault weapon. The dealer might mistake me for a terrorist -- several airport screeners have made me take my shoes off. On the other hand, the homeland security bill authorizes the arming of airline pilots, and they might think that, late in life, I am aspiring to a second career.

Ashcroft says it's none of the government's business. The FBI differs; the G-men thought it would be helpful to trace bulk purchases of assault weapons, that such a check might lead to terrorists. But according to a recent report on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Ashcroft "stopped them in their tracks." The FBI was forbidden to see the gun purchasers' background check records.

Why? Because, said Ashcroft piously, "The only permissible use for the National Instant Check System is to audit the maintenance of that system. And the Department of Justice is committed to following the law in that respect."

At a Senate hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) expressed the general bewilderment: "I can't understand the logic, frankly, particularly when you have him [Ashcroft] talking about the unremitting effort that they are waging against terrorism, and then there's this blind spot about the NRA and guns and lists of people who buy them."

But instead of asking senators, who wrote the law, what their intent was, Ashcroft said sternly, "I intend to enforce the law as it has been written."

The hullabaloo over homeland security shows us again the GOP's solicitude for its big givers and high rollers -- and its ambivalence about government. Government is the enemy, the problem, the damper on free enterprise, the stumbling block to unfettered capitalism. It is, paradoxically, a fragile damsel that has to be protected from a treacherous, mischief-making citizenry that needs to be investigated, spied upon, wiretapped and hounded to do right. The attorney general will tell you what that is.

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