Broader U.S. spy initiative debated

Baltimore Sun 01/06/03

Original Link:,0,4325331.story?coll=bal-home-headlines

WASHINGTON -- Even its name, some say, is ominous and Orwellian, conjuring up visions of Big Brother tracking your video rentals, prescriptions or e-mail: "Total Information Awareness."

To privacy advocates and civil libertarians, this government supercomputer project is nothing less than domestic spying, the chilling first step toward a surveillance society. The man leading it, former Iran-contra figure John M. Poindexter, only adds to what critics call the "spook factor."

But to security specialists, the drive to develop a network of public and private databases could be crucial to identifying terrorists before they strike and to preventing another Sept. 11.

Total Information Awareness, which officials say is in the experimental phase and years from being used, is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's research arm. Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, DARPA has developed technologies for the military. It led the way in the creation of the Internet.

The goal of the Total Information Awareness program is a global computer surveillance system that could sift through mountains of personal information in databases -- credit card purchases, telephone calls and e-mails, medical prescriptions, passports, driver's licenses, school records, magazine subscriptions, gun purchases -- to look for suspicious patterns and ultimately identify potential terrorists.

Poindexter, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan whose felony convictions in the Iran-contra scandal were overturned on appeal, says such a system could help track terrorists who can now move freely without detection.

"Total Information Awareness -- a prototype system -- is our answer," said Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, during a speech last summer.

"One of the significant new data sources that needs to be mined to discover and track terrorists is the 'transaction space,'" he said. "If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions, and they will leave signatures in this information space."

Privacy advocates say that giving the government access to such data could subject innocent citizens to scrutiny and that, in the wrong hands, the information could be used to intimidate political foes -- much as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI exploited the gathering of intelligence to harass critics of the Nixon administration.

The program "is the mother of all privacy invasions," complains Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It would amount to a picture of your life so complete it's equivalent to somebody following you around all day with a video camera."

But many security specialists say such technology is worth considering and point out that it would have to stand up to legal challenges.

"In this environment, we have to engage in very aggressive, exhaustive research and development efforts," says Phil Anderson, an international security senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If they're inappropriate, then they never make it through the legal system. Reason -- and our great Constitution -- prevails."

Poindexter's role

Poindexter, who has worked as a DARPA contractor for several years, approached the Pentagon with the idea after the Sept. 11 attacks and discussed it over lunch with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Early last year, Poindexter was made head of DARPA's Information Awareness Office, which is also working on technologies to identify people at great distances through facial features and gait. The TIA program's budget was set at $137 million for this fiscal year.

After recent criticism, Poindexter and the office have kept a low profile. A DARPA spokeswoman said that neither Poindexter nor any other agency official was available to discuss the project.

Even the Web site for the Information Awareness Office has been toned down. Until recently, the site featured as its emblem an all-knowing eye atop a pyramid -- with its sights set on the entire globe -- and a Latin motto meaning "knowledge is power." A redesigned Web site now has no such logo or slogan.

Differing policies

Specialists in technology policy tend to support Poindexter's basic theory that linking and comparing databases could yield valuable information.

For example, a report by the Markle Foundation, a private philanthropic group that focuses on information technology, showed how the Sept. 11 hijackers could have been identified before the attacks if the names of all airline passengers had been run through the government's "watch list" of suspected terrorists and then checked against phone numbers, addresses, frequent-flier numbers, lists of expired visas, and attendance rolls from flight schools.

But the report cautioned: "Though there are areas where more data may need to be collected, the immediate challenge is to make more effective use of the information already in government hands or publicly available."

Privacy advocates have generally been fighting uphill battles since Sept. 11. Many of them objected, for example, to portions of the USA Patriot Act, a bill that enhanced law enforcement's surveillance powers and passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly.

But in the TIA program, such activists appear to have found a cause that has not just emboldened their troops but also rallied former adversaries to their side. Conservatives such as departing House Republican leader Dick Armey and former Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, have signed on as consultants with the liberal-leaning ACLU.

Congressional concerns

On Capitol Hill, too, criticism -- or at least skepticism -- is coming from both sides of the aisle, as are calls for studying the project soon after Congress convenes this week.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, asked Rumsfeld to review the program, suggesting that it would "not only raise serious privacy concerns [but] might also be illegal and possibly unconstitutional."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who will lead the Senate Finance Committee, said he was "at a loss to understand why Defense Department resources are being spent on research for domestic law enforcement." He expressed concern that the Justice Department was not consulted about the program and questioned Poindexter's involvement.

Members of the Appropriations Committee have said they will seek to cut off new money for the project until Congress gets a chance to consider it.

Such critics -- including Fortune magazine, which dubbed the program the "Worst Technology of 2002," and The New York Times editorial board, which said the program should be closed pending an investigation -- oppose the dragnet approach to hunting terrorists.

"This type of profiling has been the goal of direct marketing for years," according to Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"If you get a 2 to 3 percent response from direct mail, that's considered a victory. That's how inaccurate the system is. With junk mail, you can just throw it away; we're talking about people's civil liberties being invaded here."

Defending the program

At a Pentagon news conference late last year, Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge Jr., undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, defended the program. He said it would safeguard the anonymity of innocent citizens and focus solely on transactions considered possible indicators of terrorism.

With the program still in an experimental stage, Aldridge said, only test data fabricated to look like real events and transactions were being used. If the technology proves successful, he said, it would then be turned over to law enforcement officials, intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department. At that point, the technology would be subject to the same legal safeguards -- such as search warrants -- that protect citizens' privacy today.

He said it would be up to the Homeland Security Department to determine whether the new technology would require legislation, such as amendments to the Privacy Act of 1974. That law bars federal agencies from sharing personal information or creating dossiers on Americans without their permission.

Poindexter as catalyst

And Aldridge pointed out that Poindexter, whose role in the Iran-contra affair leaves some civil libertarians and lawmakers uneasy, would be involved only in developing the program, not in "exercising" it.

"Once the tool is developed, John will not be involved," Aldridge said. "But it's his enthusiasm and his volunteering of this idea which is why we developed and started to fund it."

Some of the program's advocates concede that Poindexter has been the catalyst for the barrage of condemnation that has landed at DARPA's door.

"I don't think it would ever be an issue were John Poindexter not involved with it," says Anderson of CSIS.

Indeed, Poindexter has made an easy target for critics, such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, who has asked Rumsfeld to fire him.

Poindexter was the highest- ranking official found guilty in the Iran-contra scandal, a covert scheme in the mid-1980s in which money from arms sales to Iran was illegally diverted to the Nicaraguan rebels.

He was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries. Poindexter's convictions were later overturned by a federal appeals court. That court ruled that testimony he had given to Congress under a grant of immunity had been improperly used against him at trial.

Asked about Poindexter's return to government, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said only, "The president thinks that Admiral Poindexter has served our nation very well."

The Pentagon stresses Poindexter's distance from any future application of the program. But Poindexter, who has a doctorate in physics, has spoken with the Transportation Security Administration about helping to develop its new passenger profiling system. A new generation of the industry's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, CAPPS II, would check the name of every passenger against computer databases for clues to suspicious intentions.

"TIA is this big, scary, Orwellian thing," says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil liberties in the digital age. "CAPPS II is almost like a pilot program."

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