News & Politics

The U.S. Spymaster

John Poindexter's Information Awareness Office wants to read your email.
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."

darpa logoThe 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 Internet).

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 funny.

Cyberblunderer to Hi-Tech Spook

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 out."

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 Danger

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 Present Danger."

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 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.

The Evidence 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.)."

It sounds 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.'"

Completing the 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 Mail

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 door.

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 Poindexter.

Eric Johnson is editor of the Monterey County Coast Weekly.