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Poindexter's Laboratory

The know-it-all plan to fight terrorism

By Jacob Sullum


"We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting privacy," John Poindexter recently told The Washington Post. Maybe, if the next person happens to be J. Edgar Hoover.

Poindexter, a former national security adviser, now heads the Information Awareness Office (IAO), a new division of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This obscure little office with a blandly creepy name has a grand mission: Total Information Awareness—in a word, omniscience.

"The goal of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program," the IAO's Web site explains, "is to revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists—and decipher their plans—and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts." Accordingly, the IAO is developing hardware and software to look for suspicious patterns in vast collections of information, including travel itineraries, credit card purchases, bank accounts, e-mail messages, Web site visits, and medical records.

That's where you come in. You're probably not a terrorist, but the government can't be sure until it puts your information in a huge, centralized database, where Poindexter's computers can sniff it over. You haven't visited any terrorist havens, purchased books about weapons, read subversive online propaganda, or undergone plastic surgery lately, have you?

No need to answer—the government will know soon enough if Poindexter's vision is realized. As he put it in a speech he gave this year, "We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options."

Given the amount of data Poindexter wants to collect, the government would be not just mining but strip mining, scooping up huge piles of information in the hope of finding a useful nugget. "By definition, they're going to send highly sensitive, personal data," noted a computer scientist interviewed by the Post. "How many innocent people are going to get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are going to slip through?"

Former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S. Commission on National Security, said Poindexter's project, which has a $200 million annual budget, could be "a huge waste of money." He said it represented "total overkill of intelligence," based on "an Orwellian concept." Repeat after me: Total Awareness Is Total Security.

There are some obstacles to Poindexter's know-it-all plan. Several statutes, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the Right to Financial Privacy Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, limit the government's authority to collect and share information.

Legislation establishing a Department of Homeland Security, which Congress is expected to pass soon, could loosen some of those restrictions. The language dealing with information collection in the original bill alarmed privacy advocates in the House, who added several reassuring provisions that may or may not be in the final bill.

Legal barriers aside, Americans can be awfully touchy about their privacy. They don't like the idea that so many details of their lives—the places they go, the things they buy, the magazines they read, the e-mail they send, the medicine they take—could be available for the government to peruse at will.

"We can develop the best technology in the world," Poindexter told the Post, "and unless there is public acceptance and understanding of the necessity, it will never be implemented." This is the perennial complaint of the technocrat, impatient with a public that fails to appreciate the brilliance of his plan. Why can't people learn to stop worrying and trust the experts?

Granted, Poindexter's last big scheme, which involved raising money for Nicaraguan rebels by selling weapons to Iran, did not work out so well. In 1990 the former Navy admiral was sentenced to six months in jail for trying to cover up the deal by lying to Congress, destroying documents, and otherwise interfering with a congressional investigation. An appeals court overturned the conviction after concluding that it was based on congressional testimony for which Poindexter had been granted immunity.

Maybe Poindexter has learned that sneakiness has its price. So far his office has been admirably up-front about its intentions. The IAO's ominous emblem features an eyeball scanning the globe from atop a pyramid. Below it is the motto "Scientia Est Potentia": "Knowledge Is Power." Hoover couldn't have put it better.

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