Former Gov. Mike Leavitt needs to level with Utahns about MATRIX, the controversial supercomputer database intended to be a crime-fighting tool.
Leavitt, while governor, offered Utah's help with the database without telling legislators or the public in advance. State documents obtained by Steve Erickson of the Citizen Education Project reveal that Leavitt and some state technology and public safety officials had volunteered their expertise for nearly a year before the state's "official" participation in the MATRIX project.
Leavitt has yet to comment on the database or Utah's involvement in its development. On previous occasions he has said that Gov. Olene Walker "does not need me interfering in her administration." That would be appropriate except that Leavitt left Walker with a lot of unanswered questions about MATRIX, and he also had kept key Utah leaders in the dark about its existence.
Since learning more about MATRIX, Walker has prudently slammed the brakes on the state's involvement pending a review of privacy concerns by an oversight committee. Answers to other key questions such as "Why Leavitt believed that Utah should have been involved in this project?" and "Why all the secrecy?" rest with Leavitt.
After stepping down as Utah's governor, Leavitt rightly should stay out of the affairs of state government. But only he can answer questions about the MATRIX mess he left behind. Perhaps Leavitt had legitimate reasons to want the state to be involved in the project, which combines state databases with hundreds of public and commercial databases. The information was to be sifted by supercomputers to track criminals and thwart terrorism.
Even though a good deal of the information is contained in public records, civil libertarians have raised legitimate concerns that the database could be used to violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens. It's telling that among the 13 states that originally agreed to be part of the MATRIX pilot, seven have dropped out for that very reason.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, state and national leaders have explored myriad means to improve national security.
Perhaps this was Leavitt's intent. But only he knows. Unless he takes the time to explain, Utahns will be left to speculate whether the secrecy surrounding Utah's participation in the MATRIX pilot was an issue of homeland security or whether individuals' privacy rights were placed at risk to accommodate national leaders who wanted to kick-start this database without informing the public of its existence.