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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Dossiers Take Us Back to the USSR

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WASHINGTON -- Not in some distant Brave New World, but in the here and now, the U.S. government is assembling dossiers on American citizens and then assigning them each their own Threat Assessment Color -- red, yellow or green.

Under a pilot program, from March until June the dossiers are being collected as soon as anyone buys a ticket on Delta Airlines to fly via a handful of unspecified airports.

The dossiers -- to be kept in a database for up to 50 years -- include "financial and transactional data." As the American Civil Liberties Union observes, that could include "credit card and other consumer-purchase data, housing information, communications records, health records and many other sources of information about us."

The dossiers will also include law enforcement and legal records, and things like whether one travels abroad often. "International travel will be an element of interest," cryptically notes a Transportation Department spokesman.

The idea is that this will help identify potential hijackers or terrorists. But airlines already have law enforcement watch lists to check against passengers and already (in theory) carefully scrutinize the luggage of passengers who do overtly suspicious things, such as paying for tickets in cash. So how does running a credit history on every airline passenger make us safer?

Congress just slapped down a similar beast, a Pentagon "research project" called Total Information Awareness and run by John Poindexter -- a man once in disgrace as a liar to the U.S. Congress, now back in power along with all of the other disgraced Iran-Contra schemers.

But apparently you can't keep an idea this wacky down.

The Transportation Security Administration reserves the right to "routinely" share its red or yellow file on a U.S. citizen with, well, just about anyone -- including state and local law enforcement, the CIA, even foreign governments and international agencies. All it needs is "an indication of a violation or a potential violation of civil or criminal law or regulation." (Does that mean the TSA could have you stopped at Sheremetyevo Airport as having the "potential" to double-park, or jaywalk, or lie on your currency declaration form? Yes, it does.)

No citizen will be able to challenge a dossier, or even see it; or even to learn whether he or she has been labeled a yellow citizen or a green, much less why. Green citizens are to be waved through airline boarding with the usual scrutiny, red citizens to be detained as likely terrorists; the big question is yellow citizens, who will be searched more suspiciously but then allowed onto the plane -- with their "yellow" designation winging through cyberspace ahead of them, to who knows whom and with what effect.

In short, as the ACLU puts it, we're flirting with "a permanent blacklisted underclass of Americans who cannot travel freely. ... Once the infrastructure for a system of government files and security ratings on American citizens is built, it won't be limited to air transportation for very long."

"Never before in the history of this country has the travel of free citizens been contingent on government permission," observes Boycottdelta.org, a campaign to pressure the airline into refusing to participate in the red-yellow-green data-mining scheme. But there is a precedent: "In the old Soviet Union, you had to have permission to travel between towns and provinces."

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes The Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine.