The Poindexter Effect

Digging into the architect of Total Information Awareness unearths good news: Ordinary Americans value civil liberties

Sure, wind and rain and hail have pummeled San Franciscans into sniffling, fender-bending, daytime-soap-opera-watching submission. And, sure, if one were in an "it was a dark and stormy night" mood, one might exploit this gloomy weather as a metaphor for a grousing, damn-those-unreasonable-San-Franciscans-and-Californians-and-Americans column that would be typical of this space.

But this issue of SF Weekly comes out on Christmas Eve, for Christ's sake! To readers who've turned to this page for yet another round of curmudgeonly complaints: for shame.

First (and second, and third), the good news.

As anyone who reads my column -- or watches Fox News; or listens to talk radio in Rockford, Ill., Richmond, Va., Denver, Colo., Portland, Ore., or several other American cities; or reads The Economist, Wired, the San Jose Mercury News, The Detroit News, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), BBC News, the Drudge Report, or about 130 other Web sites -- knows, this has been a really, really weird week in the Matt Smith household.

There was a time in my life when I thought I'd never personally identify with Cynthia and Crystal Mikula, the identical-twin aspiring fashion models taken into federal custody last year after choking and hitting flight attendants. But then I got caught in one of those Mikula media loops, the kind where some random, otherwise undistinguished person does something that catches the attention of a news reporter or two. The resulting stories draw the attention of more reporters.

And before you know it, your answering machine is clogged with requests from talk radio producers.

To reprise: Last month I wrote a column -- ironic I thought -- urging readers to telephone Adm. John Poindexter at home to ask about the Total Information Awareness Office, the Pentagon division that he leads, which is charged with mining government documents, financial accounts, travel records, medical files, and telephone and e-mail logs to look for suspicious, potentially terroristic patterns ("Calling All Yahoos," Nov. 27). Readers responded in earnest; SF Weekly received more than 60 letters to the editor on one day, which is a lot for us. Poindexter's phone number was disconnected. A story appeared on the Wired News Web site. I began being interviewed on talk shows.

And I began hearing good news.

I would have understood if I'd had to take flak from rural talk-radio callers; in San Francisco, I'm regularly lambasted for columns far less obnoxious than the one that Poindextered Poindexter. Readers responding to my column, after all, posted aerial photographs of Poindexter's house on the Internet. They launched a Web site called Total Poindexter Awareness, and otherwise conducted the sort of petty harassment our mothers raised us to disparage.(1) But this "campaign" received barely any criticism during my media whirlwind -- unless you count the fellow from Australia who wrote to say I resembled a wet rag when I appeared on the Fox News show The Big Story with John Gibson.

Rather, listeners and hosts seemed to uniformly endorse the premise that having Adm. John Poindexter in charge of spying on Americans is a terrible, terrible thing (except for Gibson -- but hey, he's got a job to do).

During a discussion with WNTA radio host Chris Bowman in Rockford, Ill., a town 60 miles northwest of Chicago, I got a call from a listener who prefaced his comments by saying he'd retired after 20 years as a military officer. This was a sure prologue, I feared, to a rant about patriotism and security and the War on Terrorism.

Instead the caller went on to say that during his career he'd been subject to numerous routine background checks for top-secret clearance. He said he felt perfectly comfortable having those investigative files stored in the Pentagon for the narrow purpose of granting security clearance. But it would be quite another thing to have those files compose part of a comprehensive database that government agents scanned looking for "patterns."

"I have an 8-year-old daughter. And I'd hate to have her grow up in a world where every possible piece of information about her was available like that," he said.

And so it went. In Richmond, Va., callers expressed concern about inappropriate use of law enforcement information. And on the Voice of America -- yes, the government's own radio network -- a host explained to me the potential merits of having citizens monitor government officials.

I realize that my survey of regional talk-show callers probably wouldn't stand up as rigorous sociological research. But I'll venture a generalization just the same: Based on the results of my electromagnetic tour of the hinterlands, I believe Americans are getting more nervous by the day about the collapse of civil liberties under the pretext of a war on terrorism. I think Democrats miscalculate madly when they presume Americans have little patience for criticisms of George Bush's concept of "homeland security." Notwithstanding Jay Leno jokes about Americans' inability to define the Bill of Rights, I think the country firmly apprehends, and wishes to preserve, the notion of personal liberty.


(1) Internet pioneer John Gilmore, the Sun Microsystems millionaire who retired at age 30 to subsidize hackers' legal defense, seems to still be spending free time on the Web. I just received a lengthy missive from him -- electronically, of course. This is an edited version of what arrived as several pages' worth of Poindexter family genealogical data. The truth, it would seem, is still out there.

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