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 passenger-profiling system.
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."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company