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Take the money and run: Clark and CAPPS II

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted October 13, 2003

Wesley Clark

The recent revelation in The Washington Post by journalist Robert O'Harrow that retired General Wesley Clark, now a candidate seeking the Democrat's presidential nomination, received payments to help a company called Acxiom win a contract to participate in developing a system to screen airline passengers is cause for concern.

Indeed, the system is described in the Post as "one of the largest surveillance programs ever devised by the government."

Payments from Acxiom totaled $300,000 last year and Clark would have collected another $150,000 this year. The Post also noted that Clark holds stock in Acxiom valued at over $67,000.

Clark's efforts on behalf of the Arkansas-based data firm included helping it obtain a contract to supply data to establish the CAPPS II system.

Tough questions need to be asked of Clark about just where he stands on the issue of data mining and protecting constitutional liberties, although the Post article provides a good clue.

As O'Harrow wrote: "In a meeting at the Department of Transportation in January 2002, according to participants, Clark described a system that would combine personal data from Acxiom with information about the reservations and seating records of every U.S. airline passenger.

"With officials from an Acxiom partner sitting nearby, he explained that computers would examine the data -- massive amounts of information about housing, telephone numbers, car ownership and the like -- for subtle signs of terrorist intentions," wrote O'Harrow.

What is really being said is that the worst fears that defenders of constitutional liberties hold about the CAPPS II system would come true if Clark had his way -- notwithstanding his platitudinous assurances of balancing liberty and security: The innocent among air travelers could easily end up being viewed as the guilty.

If Clark really cared about balancing security with liberty, he would not be on the payroll of a company trying to sell data mining services for a system
like CAPPS II.

As an election year approaches, defenders of privacy and constitutional liberties need to not only continue watching what is happening in Congress on issues involving the PATRIOT Act and CAPPS II. You should start contacting candidates for federal and state office to raise awareness of our issues and to make every attempt possible to put them on record.

Very basic questions worth asking aspiring officeholders are:

1. If a congressional candidate: Would you support careful revisions of the PATRIOT Act along the lines suggested by the Protecting the Rights of Individuals Act?

2. If a congressional candidate: Would you vote to delay implementation of the CAPPS II program until there are iron-clad assurances that air passengers are able to view their records and to correct mistakes and are provided the opportunity to see that the corrections have been made?

3. If a candidate for state or local office: Would you sponsor -- or at least support -- a resolution calling for thoughtful revisions of the PATRIOT Act?

4. If a state legislative candidate: Would you support a reexamination of your state's mini-USA-PATRIOT Act to identify possible risks to constitutional liberties? If there were risks, would you work to revise the legislation to prevent the possibility of abuses from occurring?

The upcoming campaign provides a forum to air our issues and to start building even more support. Getting organizations to ask the questions would be even more effective. Publicizing the answers will help let other citizens with concerns about preserving our constitutional liberties know where our aspiring leaders line up on issues such as prudently rewriting the PATRIOT Act and whether CAPPS II should be implemented with important questions unanswered.

It will be tough. There are Americans who are only too ready to trade away liberties for the appearance of security that CAPPS II is intended to provide. They should know that air safety expert Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has asserted that the "excess confidence" that CAPPS II planners place in their system is not only unwise, but may actually "do us more harm than good." Or that Isaac Yeffet, former security expert for El Al, has called CAPPS II "nonsense" and cannot rightfully be called "aviation security."

The facts are on our side. If enough defenders of privacy and constitutional liberties speak up, then the politicians may be too.

Steve Lilienthal is Director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Constitutional liberties on standby by Steve Lilienthal (September 15, 2003)
    What's the latest threat to the personal liberty of Americans? Steve Lilienthal says it's called CAPPS II and it's a database that identifies passengers on airlines by a color-coded risk assessment
  • Homeland Insecurity: Deconstructing the Constitution by Tom DeWeese (November 18, 2002)
    The mid-term elections may have been an overwhelming Republican victory, writes Tom DeWeese, but constitutionalists and conservatives don't have much to cheer about in the coming months
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