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Ground Zero as Profit Center

Today, New York City ended the attempt to identify all the human remains of the September 11 attack. In stories of the sad conclusion to this great tragedy, there is no mention of those who have turned the horror of terror into a way to make a quick buck. Now, follow the money….
September 11, 2001, was Derek Smith’s lucky day. There were all those pieces of people to collect tubes marked ‘DM’ (for ‘Disaster Manhattan’) — from which his company would extract DNA for victim identification, work for which the firm would receive $12 million from New York City’s government.
I have no doubt that Smith, like the rest of us, grieved, horrified and heartsick, at the murder of innocent friends and countrymen. As for the 12-million-dollar corpse identification fee, that’s chump change to the $4 billion corporation Smith had founded only four years earlier, ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
For ChoicePoint, with its 15-billion-plus records on every living and dying being in the United States, Ground Zero would become a profit center lined with gold. Contracts would gush forth from War on Terror fever not hurt by the fact that ChoicePoint did something for George W. Bush that the voters would not: select him as our president.
Heres how they did it. Before the 2000 election, Choice-Point unit Database Technologies, under a $4 million no-bid contract under the control of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was paid to identify felons who had illegally registered to vote. The ChoicePoint outfit altogether fingered 94,000 Florida residents. As it turned out, less than 3,000 had a verifiable criminal record; almost everyone on the list had the right to vote. The tens of thousands of ‘purged’ citizens had something in common besides their innocence: The list was, in the majority, made up of African Americans and Hispanics, overwhelmingly Democratic voters. And that determined the race in which Harris named Bush the winner by 537 votes.
270 million suspects
But before ChoicePoint’s miles of files on Americans could become a wartime weapon, the United States had to change radically. That change was announced by President Bush: On September 11, we Americans were the victims of the terrible attack.
By September 12, we became the suspects.
Not one single U.S. citizen hijacked a plane, yet President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, through powers seized then codified in the USA PATRIOT Act, fingered 270 million of us for surveillance, for searches, for tracking, for watching.
To say that ChoicePoint is in the ‘data’ business is to miss their market concept utterly: These guys are in the Fear Industry. Secret danger lurks everywhere. Al Qaeda’s just the tip of the iceberg. What about the pizza delivery boy? ChoicePoint hunted through a sampling of them and announced that 25 percent had only recently come out of prison. “What pizza do you like?” asks CEO Smith. “At what price? Are you willing to take the risk?”
War fever opened up a who new market for the Fear Industry.
In Hollywood, Jack Nicholson picked up the zeitgeist: If I were an Arab American I would insist on being profiled. This is not the time for civil rights. I imagined hardened pillboxes on Malibu beach.
Maybe Jack’s right: screw rights, we want safety.
Well, Jack, we’re both old farts who can remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the Russians were going to drop The Big One on us. But we didn’t have to worry, Mrs. Gordon told us, if we just got under the desk, covered our necks. And she’d warned, it will all be OK as long as we, “Don’t look at the flash!”
ChoicePoint’s DNA info for the FBI’s ‘CODIS’ files, data mining, Terrorist Information Awareness Ķit’s the new ‘Duck and Cover.’ Does this really make America safer?
ChoicePoint’s Smith admonishes that, if we’d only had his databases humming at the airports on September 11, the hijackers, who used their own names, would have been barred from boarding. However, experts inform me that Osama no longer checks in as ‘Mr. bin Laden,’ even at the cost of losing his frequent flyer miles.
Nevertheless, our president suggests that, if we can get semen samples from every American and Venezuelan, take off our shoes at the airport, don’t ask the names of the seized and imprisoned or the price of contracts, we’ll be safe from the Saudi hijackers and baby snatchers and from ‘them’ whoever ‘them’ are.
Just remember, Don’t look at the flash!
This article is excerpted from the election edition of Greg Palast’s New York Times bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy [Penguin 2004]. For more info please visit

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