The New York Times
Thursday, November 14, 2002
You Are a Suspect
By William Safire
WASHINGTON - If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before
passage, here is what will happen to you:
Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine
subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every
academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every
event you attend all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense
Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database."
To this computerized dossier on your private life from
commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you passport application, driver's
license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the
F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance and
you have the supersnoop's dream: a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.
This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will
happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.
Remember Poindexter? Brilliant man, first in his class at
the Naval Academy, later earned a doctorate in physics, rose to national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan. He
had this brilliant idea of secretly selling missiles to Iran to pay ransom for hostages, and with
the illicit proceeds to illegally support contras in Nicaragua.
A jury convicted Poindexter in 1990 on five felony counts of
misleading Congress and making false statements, but an appeals court overturned the verdict because Congress had
given him immunity for his testimony. He famously asserted, "The buck stops here," arguing
that the White House staff, and not the president, was responsible for fateful decisions that
might prove embarrassing.
This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a
plan even more scandalous than Iran-contra. He heads the "Information Awareness Office" in the otherwise excellent
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which spawned the Internet and stealth aircraft
technology. Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the "data-mining" power to
snoop on every public and private act of every American.
Even the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act, which widened
the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws, raised requirements for the
government to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts. But Poindexter's
assault on individual privacy rides roughshod over such oversight.
He is determined to break down the wall between commercial
snooping and secret government intrusion. The disgraced admiral dismisses such necessary differentiation as
bureaucratic "stovepiping." And he has been given a $200 million budget to
create computer dossiers on 300 million Americans.
When George W. Bush was running for president, he stood
foursquare in defense of each person's medical, financial and communications privacy. But Poindexter, whose contempt for
the restraints of oversight drew the Reagan administration into its most serious blunder, is still
operating on the presumption that on such a sweeping theft of privacy rights, the buck ends
with him and not with the president.
This time, however, he has been seizing power in the open.
In the past week John Markoff of The Times, followed by Robert O'Harrow of The Washington Post, have revealed the
extent of Poindexter's operation, but editorialists have not grasped its
undermining of the Freedom of Information Act.
Political awareness can overcome "Total Information
Awareness," the combined force of commercial and government snooping. In a similar overreach, Attorney General Ashcroft
tried his Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), but public outrage at the use
of gossips and postal workers as snoops caused the House to shoot it down. The Senate
should now do the same to this other exploitation of fear.
The Latin motto over Poindexter"s new Pentagon office reads
"Scientia Est Potentia" "knowledge is power." Exactly: the government's infinite knowledge about you is its power
over you. "We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting privacy," this brilliant
mind blandly assured The Post. A jury found he spoke falsely before.
To read a 1998 column on privacy and increasing
by William Safire, "Nobody's Business,"
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The New York Times
Saturday, November 9, 2002
Pentagon plans a computer system that would
peek at personal data of Americans
By John Markoff
The Pentagon is constructing a computer system that could
create a vast electronic dragnet, searching for personal information as part of the hunt for terrorists around the globe
-- including the United States.
As the director of the effort, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter,
has described the system in Pentagon documents and in speeches, it will provide intelligence analysts and law
enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail
and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.
Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not
been permitted to spy on Americans without extraordinary legal authorization. But Admiral Poindexter, the former national
security adviser in the Reagan administration, has argued that the government needs broad
new powers to process, store and mine billions of minute details of electronic life in the
Admiral Poindexter, who has described the plan in public
documents and speeches but declined to be interviewed, has said that the government needs to "break down the
stovepipes" that separate commercial and government databases, allowing teams of
intelligence agency analysts to hunt for hidden patterns of activity with powerful computers.
"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," he said in a speech in
California earlier this year.
Admiral Poindexter quietly returned to the government in
January to take charge of the Office of Information Awareness at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,
known as Darpa. The office is responsible for developing new surveillance technologies in
the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In order to deploy such a system, known as Total Information
Awareness, new legislation would be needed, some of which has been proposed by the Bush administration in the
Homeland Security Act that is now before Congress. That legislation would amend the
Privacy Act of 1974, which was intended to limit what government agencies could do with
The possibility that the system might be deployed domestically to let intelligence officials look
into commercial transactions worries civil liberties proponents.
"This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in
America," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic
Privacy Information Center in Washington "The vehicle is the Homeland
Security Act, the technology is Darpa and the agency is the F.B.I. The outcome is a system
of national surveillance of the American public."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has been briefed on
the project by Admiral Poindexter and the two had a lunch to discuss it, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
"As part of our development process, we hope to coordinate
with a variety of organizations, to include the law enforcement community," a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
An F.B.I. official, who spoke on the condition that he not
be identified, said the bureau had had preliminary discussions with the Pentagon about the project but that no final decision
had been made about what information the F.B.I. might add to the system.
A spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security,
Gordon Johndroe, said officials in the office were not familiar with the computer project and he declined to discuss
concerns raised by the project's critics without knowing more about it.
He referred all questions to the Defense Department, where
officials said they could not address civil liberties concerns because they too were not familiar enough with the project.
Some members of a panel of computer scientists and policy
experts who were asked by the Pentagon to review the privacy implications this summer said terrorists might find ways to
avoid detection and that the system might be easily abused.
"A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and
worry about the potential uses that this technology might be put, if not by this administration then by a future one," said
Barbara Simon, a computer scientist who is past president of the Association of Computing
Machinery. "Once you've got it in place you can't control it."
Other technology policy experts dispute that assessment and
support Admiral Poindexter's position that linking of databases is necessary to track potential enemies operating inside the
"They're conceptualizing the problem in the way we've
suggested it needs to be understood," said Philip Zelikow, a historian who is executive director of the Markle Foundation
task force on National Security in the Information Age. "They have a pretty good vision of the
need to make the tradeoffs in favor of more sharing and openness."
On Wednesday morning, the panel reported its findings to Dr.
Tony Tether, the director of the defense research agency, urging development of technologies to protect privacy as well
as surveillance, according to several people who attended the meeting.
If deployed, civil libertarians argue, the computer system
would rapidly bring a surveillance state. They assert that potential terrorists would soon learn how to avoid detection in
The new system will rely on a set of computer-based pattern
recognition techniques known as "data mining," a set of statistical techniques used by scientists as well as by
marketers searching for potential customers.
The system would permit a team of intelligence analysts to
gather and view information from databases, pursue links between individuals and groups, respond to automatic alerts,
and share information efficiently, all from their individual computers.
The project calls for the development of a prototype based
on test data that would be deployed at the Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va. Officials
would not say when the system would be put into operation.
The system is one of a number of projects now under way
inside the government to lash together both commercial and government data to hunt for patterns of terrorist activities.
"What we are doing is developing technologies and a
prototype system 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 pre-empt and defeat
terrorist acts," said Jan Walker, the spokeswoman for the defense research agency.
Before taking the position at the Pentagon, Admiral
Poindexter, who was convicted in 1990 for his role in the Iran-contra affair, had worked as a contractor on one of the
projects he now controls. Admiral Poindexter's conviction was reversed in 1991 by a federal appeals
court because he had been granted immunity for his testimony before Congress about the
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The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
U.S. hopes to check computers globally
system would be used to hunt terrorists
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
A new Pentagon research office has started designing a
global computer-surveillance system to give U.S. counterterrorism officials access to personal information in
government and commercial databases around the world. The Information Awareness Office, run by former
national security adviser John M. Poindexter, aims to develop new technologies to
sift through "ultra-large" data warehouses and networked computers in search of threatening
patterns among everyday transactions, such as credit card purchases and travel
reservations, according to interviews and documents.
Authorities already have access to a wealth of information
about individual terrorists, but they typically have to obtain court approval in the United States or make laborious
diplomatic and intelligence efforts overseas. The system proposed by Poindexter and funded by the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) at about $200 million a year,
would be able to sweep up and analyze data in a much more systematic way. It would provide a more
detailed look at data than the super-secret National Security Agency now has, the
former Navy admiral said.
"How are we going to find terrorists and preempt them,
except by following their trail," said Poindexter, who brought the idea to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks and now is beginning to award contracts to high-technology vendors.
"The problem is much more complex, I believe, than we've
faced before," he said. "It's how do we harness with technology the street smarts of people on the ground, on a global scale."
Although formidable foreign policy and privacy hurdles
remain before any prototype becomes operational, the initiative shows how far the government has come in its willingness
to use information technology and expanded surveillance authorities in
the war on terrorism.
Poindexter said it will take years to realize his vision,
but the office has already begun providing some technology to government agencies. For example, Poindexter recently
agreed to help the FBI build its data-warehousing system. He's also spoken to the
Transportation Security Administration about aiding its development of a massive
In his first interview since he started the "information
awareness" program, Poindexter, who figured prominently in the Iran-contra scandal more than a decade ago, said the systems
under development would, among other things, help analysts search randomly for indications
of travel to risky areas, suspicious e-mails, odd fund transfers and improbable medical
activity, such as the treatments of anthrax sores. Much of the data would be collected
through computer "appliances" -- some mixture of hardware and software -- that would, with
permission of governments and businesses, enable intelligence agencies to
routinely extract information.
Some specialists question whether the technology Poindexter
envisions is even feasible, given the immense amount of data it would handle. Others question whether it is diplomatically
possible, given the sensitivities about privacy around the world. But many agree, if
implemented as planned, it probably would be the largest data-surveillance system ever built.
Paul Werbos, a computing and artificial-intelligence
specialist at the National Science Foundation, doubted whether such "appliances" can be calibrated to adequately filter out
details about innocent people that should not be in the hands of the government. "By
definition, they're going to send highly sensitive, private personal data," he said. "How many
innocent people are going to get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are
going to slip through?"
Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S.
Commission on National Security/21st Century, said there's no question about the need to use data more effectively.
But he criticized the scope of Poindexter's program, saying it is "total overkill of intelligence"
and a potentially "huge waste of money."
"There's an Orwellian concept if I've ever heard one," Hart
said when told about the program.
Poindexter said any operational system would include
safeguards to govern the collection of information. He said rules built into the software would identify users, create an
audit trail and govern the information that is available. But he added that his mission is to develop the
technology, not the policy. It would be up to Congress and policymakers to debate
the issue and establish the limits that would make the system politically acceptable.
"We can develop the best technology in the world and unless
there is public acceptance and understanding of the necessity, it will never be implemented," he said. "We're just as
concerned as the next person with protecting privacy."
Getting the Defense Department job is something of a
comeback for Poindexter. The Reagan administration national security adviser was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of
lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries into the
Iran-contra affair, which involved the secret sale of arms to Iran in the
mid-1980s and diversion of profits to help the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, was the highest-ranking Regan administration official
found guilty in the scandal. He was sentenced to six months in jail by a
federal judge who called him "the decision-making head" of a scheme to deceive Congress. The U.S. Court of
Appeals overturned that conviction in 1991, saying Poindexter's rights
had been violated through the use of testimony he had given to Congress after being granted immunity.
In recent years, he has worked as a DARPA contractor at
Syntek Technologies Inc., an Arlington consulting firm that helped develop technology to search through large amounts of
data. Poindexter now has a corner office at a DARPA facility in Arlington. He still wears cuff
links with the White House seal and a large ring from the Naval Academy, where he
graduated at the top of his class in 1958.
As Poindexter views the plan, counterterrorism officials
will use "transformational" technology to sift through almost unimaginably large amounts of data, something Poindexter calls
"noise," to find a discernable "signal" indicating terrorist activity or planning. In addition to gathering
data, the tools he is trying to develop would give analysts a way to visually
represent what that information means. The system also would include the technology to identify people at a
distance, based on known details about their faces and gaits.
He cited the recent sniper case as an example of something
that would have benefited from such technology. The suspects' car, a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, was repeatedly seen by
police near the shooting scenes. Had investigators been able to know that, Poindexter said,
they might have detained the suspects sooner.
The office already has several substantial contracts in the
works with technology vendors. They include Hicks & Associates Inc., a national security consultant in McLean; Booz Allen
Hamilton Inc., a management and technology consultant in McLean; and Ratheon Corp., a
technology company that will provide search and data-mining tools. "Poindexter made the
argument to the right players, so they asked him back into the government," said Mike
McConnell, a vice president at Booz Allen and former director of the NSA.
The office already has an emblem that features a variation
of the great seal of the United States: An eye looms over a pyramid and appears to scan the world. The motto reads:
Scientia Est Potentia, or "knowledge is power."
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