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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 01:02 am

Look out for the blimp that doesn’t blink

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A new surveillance blimp (circled) is being tested over Washington DC.
PHOTO BY CHUCK KENNEDY/MCT

I’ve always wondered: What was the guy who invented bagpipes really trying to make?

Well, at least that wheezing, whining invention turned out to be merely irritating, not actually dangerous. Leave it to the Dr. Strangelovian schemers at the Pentagon, however, to come up with an invention that is both irritating and truly dangerous, as well as being a galloping rip-off of us taxpayers.

It’s a blimp. But not at all like the friendly “Snoopy” dirigible that MetLife deploys at various sporting events. This thing is 20 times larger and is designed to be an eye in the sky, floating 12 miles above the earth, to provide unblinking surveillance of whatever and whomever the authorities want watched, including you and me.

Unlike spy planes, the Pentagon’s unmanned super-snooper can “park” anywhere in the sky and stay focused on groups or individuals for days, months or years, capturing every second of their comings, goings and doings. With its giant antenna and sophisticated, high-definition radar system, it can monitor tiny details over a vast area, linking this unrestricted flow of information to government computers that form digital dossiers on those being watched.

“It is absolutely revolutionary,” gushed Werner J.A. Dahm, the Air Force scientist overseeing the project. “It is constant surveillance, uninterrupted.”

How joyous.

Forgive me for not sharing the military’s enthusiasm, but if you’re among the potential watchees, rather than being one of the watchers, you too might find this latest piece of 007 technology a tad ominous.

Enthusiasts assure us that the blimp will only be used for good, for our protection against the bad guys of the world. It’s being sold to Congress as a tool that would be invaluable in the Obama administration’s escalating war in Afghanistan. Imagine, they exclaim, if we had 24-7 surveillance of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders throughout the huge swath of mountains on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Having the technology to do that, however, is not the same as having the right. For example, does Pakistan — whose friendship our leaders covet — really cotton to its people being under our military’s unrelenting eye? No doubt our diplomats would assure Pakistani officials that we’ll only watch the evil ones — but, they’d have to have sucker wrappers around their heads to believe that.

Think about it this way: If China were the one planning to put an unblinking blimp in the sky, how enthusiastic would we be? And if we do it, my guess is that China and every other country with technological prowess and enough helium will soon be up there with us. It could get crowded.

Then there’s the little matter of other agencies of our government wanting to take a squint through the sky eye — at us! Homeland Security will likely find it “necessary” to focus the lens on certain groups in our country; the FBI will jump at the chance to enhance its coverage of protestors; and some Nixon-wannabe will pervert the technology to track political enemies.

Remember TIA, the Total Information Awareness program concocted early in 2002 to vacuum up vast megabytes of personal data on every American? When this Big Brother intrusion into our privacy was exposed, the public exploded in outrage, forcing Congress to kill it. TIA was created by a secretive Pentagon research unit named Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the very group of madcap technologists, futurists and militarists that has now spawned the Blimp That Doesn’t Blink.

Freewheeling thinkers and schemers have their place, but it is dangerously stupid to let them get loose and start implementing ideas that are untethered to ethics, constitutional rights, the national interest and common sense. Yet, there they go. The Pentagon is now putting $400 million into building a prototype of DARPA’s dirigible, intending to launch a fleet of these spy ships during the next several years.

Such military industrialists as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are already involved, so the lobbying network for this boondoggle is being put in place before We the People (and most members of Congress) are even aware of what’s coming our way.

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