The U.S. Spymaster
Two weeks ago, a few
days before Congress passed the law creating the Department of Homeland
Security, an unsettling story broke in the New York Times. The headline
seemed designed to raise the hair on the necks of freedom-lovers
everywhere: "Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal
Data of Americans."
It might as well have
said "Big Brother is Watching You."
article described something called the
Information Awareness Office (IAO), which
was established last February to "create a vast dragnet, searching for
personal information as part of the hunt for terrorists." The IAO was
proposing to troll US citizens' private documents – everything from
medical records to email messages – in search of evidence of criminality.
For readers with a
political memory, the story grew even more alarming: The director of the
program was reported to be Vice Admiral John Poindexter, architect of the
Iran-Contra affair. Concerns about possible civil liberties violations
associated with the IAO appeared in many news articles in the days
following the president's signing of the Homeland Security bill – despite
the fact that all of this had been in the works for nine months and that
IAO isn't even in the newly created department (it is in a Department of
Defense office known as DARPA, whose forebear, ARPA, gave us the
But those details are
little known. Meanwhile, Poindexter's position as head of the IAO has been
cause, in some circles, for anger as well as fear. It is also almost
Fifteen years ago, in
November 1986, then-National Security Advisor Poindexter, along with his
chief aide, Colonel Oliver North, set out to destroy more than 5,000 of
their own email messages. Apparently neither man knew much about email
technology. All of the messages they deleted from their computers were
stored on a backup tape. The tape was found quickly, and its contents
detailed the facts of the Iran-Contra scandal.
The tapes showed that
Poindexter and North had devised a scheme to sell arms to Iran and to
funnel the profits to the so-called Contras, who were waging war against a
democratically elected socialist government in Nicaragua.
The whole deal –
sending guns to the Ayatollah and funding the Contras – was a direct
violation of several Acts of Congress. Poindexter and North were indicted,
tried and convicted.
At his trial,
Poindexter admitted that he was running American foreign policy behind the
backs of Congress and the president: "I made a very deliberate decision
not to tell the president so that I could insulate him from the decision
and provide some future deniability for the president if it ever leaked
Although both men
were guilty of something close to treason, neither suffered much. North
parlayed his notoriety into a career as a wacko right-wing talk-radio
host. Poindexter's conviction was overturned on appeal on a technicality –
the lies he told Congress were found to be "immunized" by his position as
National Security Advisor. Instead of going to jail, he went to work for
an obscure company known as Syntek Technologies, which had contracts with
the Department of Defense.
This is the piece of
irony that would be amusing (given Poindexter's experience with email) if
it weren't frightening: his new job was to develop a system for
"intelligence mining and information harvesting" of computer databases.
For more than a
decade, this man, who was undone by his own cyber-clumsiness, has been
working as a high-tech spook. And as a result of his work at Syntek, John
Poindexter now commands one of the most powerful fronts of the Bush
administration's domestic War on Terrorism.
Clear and Present
Until last week, most
of the Information Awareness Office was, in bureaucratese, a "new-start
program," which is to say a pipe dream. Although the office was hatching
ideas, none of its programs had been created or even funded. The latest
"news" flash released by the agency is dated March 21.
When Congress passed
the Homeland Security bill two weeks back, it also included funding for
IAO. The pipe dream is about to become real.
The IAO website
describes plans that read like a fantasy woven out of old Hardy Boys
novels, episodes of McGuyver, and high-tech spy flicks like "Clear and
Some of the IAO's
programs sound comfortingly cool, if far-fetched. The Bio-Surveillance
program, for instance, promises to be capable "of detecting the covert
release of a biological pathogen automatically...in time to respond
effectively and so avoid potentially thousands of casualties." Among the
tools it will employ will be "animal sentinels."
The Biblically themed
Babylon program will produce an earpiece device that can translate any
language into English.
The most ambitious
program, one that John Poindexter himself brought along from Syntek, goes
by the sci-fi moniker Genoa II. Its online mission statement is impossible
to paraphrase: Genoa II will develop and deploy: 1) cognitive aids that
allow humans and machines to "think together" in real-time about
complicated problems; 2) means to overcome the biases and limitations of
the human cognitive system; 3) "cognitive amplifiers" that help teams of
people rapidly and fully comprehend complicated and uncertain situations.
As bizarre as Genoa
II is, it isn't nearly as chilling as two other IAO programs.
Extraction and Link Discovery program (EELD) is the basic IAO domestic
espionage machine. EELD promises to "extract relevant data and
relationships about people, organizations, and activities from message
traffic and open source data."
Yes: the EELD machine
will scan the nation's telephone calls and email, automatically
"extracting relationships from text."
Contrary to some
hysterical reports, the EELD computer isn't even close to being reality
yet. But EELD lists ambitious goals for this year and next: "to extend
capabilities to the extraction of data from multiple sources (e.g., text
messages and Web pages)" and to "develop the ability to detect instances
of patterns comprising multiple link types (e.g., financial transactions,
communications, travel, etc.)."
complicated, and it is, but John Sutherland, a columnist for The Guardian
of London, explains how it will work: "You want to test it out?
Text-message any American friend, 'Bmb OK. Allah gr8.'"
spy-machine system, the EELD will feed the Genisys machines –
"ultra-large, all-source information repositories." Simply, this is the
one big national database, containing personal information from every
American citizen's every transaction, that John Birchers and militia
members have predicted for years.
We've Got Your
It appears, from
reading the Information Awareness Office's own documents, that the
government will, we presume, be scanning and maybe even reading all of our
private email; that our pharmacist's computer, presently inviolate, might
become as an open book; that our travel agent's (or websites) lines may be
bugged. But we will never know whether any of this really happens.
The Homeland Security
Act, which provides funding for the plan, also inoculates its masters
against scrutiny. Any information that the IAO collects will be
classified. In fact, everything Poindexter's agency does will be
off-limits to the public. The Freedom of Information Act will stop at its
To ensure that
American citizens' privacy will not be violated, an ombudsman will be
appointed to work in the IAO. That person will be mandated to oversee the
agency's actions and report to Congress if the IAO becomes too vigorous in
its domestic spying. There is one good reason to believe that no such
reports will ever come forward: That person will be working for John
Eric Johnson is
editor of the Monterey County Coast Weekly.
Information Awareness Office Web Site is at:
that as of January 9th, the "Eye in the Triangle" Logo and much of the
original information has been removed from the site.