Edgar Hoover would’ve given his pink tutu to have had such a sneaky surveillance toy as the F.B.I. now has. Never before have the feds been able to scoop up so much information from so many Americans so quickly and so surreptitiously.
Most Americans, however, won’t be so thrilled about this development, for the F.B.I.’s new electronic vacuum cleaner not only sucks up information — it also sucks up our constitutional right to privacy. This thing is as dangerous as its name implies: “Carnivore.”
Agents say that the name Carnivore was chosen because this black box of computer software literally gulps down e-mail messages, going to the meat of what you and I might be saying in our electronic messages. With the Carnivore system, the F.B.I. can plug into an Internet service provider, channeling every e-mail from every customer using that provider into the F.B.I.’s surveillance system. It gives the feds the ability to monitor who is sending e-mail to whom, and to read the content of any or all of the e-mails.
Tut-tut, says the agency, we’re only after terrorists and other “bad people,” plus we have to get a court order to use Carnivore, so it’s no different than a phone tap. Well tut-tut right back at them. First, this is not a tap on a single phone line, but on entire e-mail networks — more like getting a tap on, say, Bell Atlantic, grabbing millions of lines at once. Second, once it plugs into a network, Carnivore can take any information it wants — not just the e-mails of the bad guys. And, by the way, who gets to define “bad guys?” The F.B.I. itself, of course, and this is not an agency with a reassuring record of self-restraint.
Not to worry, though — the agency is already responding to public outrage: it plans to change the name of Carnivore to something less menacing.
A FUNGUS AMONG US
Have you had your fusarium oxysporum today?
It’s a powerful herbicide developed from a fungus, and assorted authorities from on high are proposing that it be sprayed on some of the food and around the habitats of us humans. Has it been tested for its impact on our health and our environment? No. If the idea of spreading this stuff around seems stupid to you, that’s because the fusarium oxysporum project comes from America’s drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, who specializes in stupidity.
The New York Times reports that the Little General, backed by the Clinton White House and Republican congressional leaders, wants to use this fungal pathogen against coca, marijuana, and poppy fields, since it can cause a wilt that kills these drug plants. Problem is, it can also kill tomatoes, potatoes, grains, and other crops, as well as who knows what other unlucky plants and animals that get doused by it. Problem number two is that once you turn the fungus loose, it has a life of its own, mutating, moving from plant to plant and living in the soil for years. For most living things, fusarium oxysporum is a disease, and it’s rarely considered good policy to spread disease.
Yet no risk is too silly for the General’s maniacal crusade to halt the production of all drug crops everywhere. Therein lies problem number three — there’s no evidence that this microbial fungus will even work, since scientists note that the narco-traders will simply breed their coca plants to be resistant to the disease.
Nevertheless, the hapless peasants of Colombia are about to become the unwilling guinea pigs of McCaffrey’s fusarium experiments. As part of the $1.3 billion Washington recently approved to prop up the beleaguered Colombian government, officials there had to agree to field tests of what amounts to a biological weapon.
Imagine how that makes the people there feel about us. Uncle Ugly goes to Colombia.
HIGHTOWER READS THE NEWS
Two news stories on the same day: One tells about a group of Americans falling behind, the other about a group getting ahead.
The Wall Street Journal has the first story, reporting a reality that millions of American families don’t need to read about, since they’re literally living the story. The headline declares “Working Full Time Is No Longer Enough,” and the article confirms that despite the widely ballyhooed fact that millions of new jobs are being created in today’s “boom” economy, the low pay of so many of these jobs is leaving full-time, year-round workers in poverty. Indeed, full-time poverty jobs are more prevalent today than they were thirty years ago. The reason, as the Journal reports, is that well-paying, unionized, manufacturing jobs are rapidly being shipped out of country, while the new “boom-time” jobs being created are in the retail and service industries — the two lowest-paying sectors.
Story number two was only a one-paragraph item in USA Today, covering a much happier bunch of American workers. This is a small group, but it’s doing very nicely, thank you, having just received its third pay raise in the past four years. The group is the U.S. House of Representatives, which recently reached a bipartisan agreement to reward itself with a $4,200 cost-of-living increase, bringing its annual paycheck to $145,500. This increase for our Congress critters is about 40 percent of the total gross annual paycheck of a full-time, minimum-wage worker. This generosity for themselves comes from a Congress that continues to dilly-dally over a proposal to raise the minimum wage by a pathetic dollar an hour — phased in over the next three years. Even then, a full-time employee would only make about $12,000 a year.
By the way, both parties agreed not to make the latest congressional pay raise an issue in this year’s election because, they said, it’s unpopular with voters. Yeah.
Jim Hightower’s radio talk show broadcasts nationwide daily from Austin. His new book is If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates. Find him at www.jimhightower.com, or write firstname.lastname@example.org.