Somebody's Watching You - Total Information Awareness
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, Dec 5, 2002

John Poindexter's project was later scrapped - GW

Are you or have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization? Don't laugh-the electronic inquisition is gearing up, and no one will be above suspicion unless it is stopped.

Title II of the Homeland Security Act (HSA) creates a Directorate for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection charged with establishing and maintaining a huge database of public and private information on individuals in the United States. Intelligence information would be added to this vast repository, and data mining, or knowledge discovery software, would attempt to identify and track suspect individuals by combing the database for patterns and associations matching terrorist profiles. Leads would then be forwarded to the FBI.

But if retired Adm. John Poindexter, the former Reagan-era National Security Adviser and convicted Iran-Contra felon, has his way with Uncle Sam, he will build a system that apparently will go far beyond what the HSA calls for, with the result that you and virtually every other American will wind up under surveillance by the federal government. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is ready to award contracts for a new antiterrorism computer system, called Total Information Awareness (TIA), which will collect data about you from multiple sources. The as-yet- undeveloped system would be able to conduct searches without a warrant of your entire paper and e-trails: your e-mail and other ISP records, Internet cookie-generated logs of where you go on the Web, your magazine subscriptions, your credit card purchases, and your medical, financial, communications, employment, travel and prescription records, to name a few items. Biometric technology such as face and/or gait recognition coupled with footage from surveillance cameras would be included. Because the goal of the project is currently beyond the reach of computer science, the Pentagon has a budget of $240 million for the fiscal years 2002-2003 to hire companies that would participate in an initial five-year research project to work up the system. Critics, including lawmakers of both parties, civil libertarians, editorial pages of major newspapers, and even prominent conservatives, question the proposed system's constitutionality and call it Big Brother in the making.

Poindexter, who conceived and has headed the TIA effort since January, was Col. Oliver North's boss during the Iran-Contra scandal in which North dreamed up the clever but blatantly illegal scheme of covertly selling missiles to Iran as ransom for the American Embassy hostages and using the money to fund the anti-Sandanista guerrillas in Nicaragua. A federal court convicted Poindexter on five felony counts for his role in the affair (he famously declared it was his duty to withhold information from Congress at the time), but because he had testified on the matter under a grant of Congressional immunity, the convictions were later overturned.

Poindexter even then was interested in large-scale computer systems. According to the Web page of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, he attempted to consolidate control within the National Security Agency, first over all government computer systems containing "sensitive but unclassified" information, and later over all computer and communications security for both the U.S. government and the private sector. His drive was stopped in 1987 when Congress passed the Computer Security Act, reestablishing authority for computer security at the National Institute for Standards Technology. But he's back, and few outside of the Bush administration seem happy about it. Since John Markoff of The New York Times broke the TIA story on Nov. 9, concern and questions over the system have mounted, even among the lawmakers who introduced the Homeland Security Act. In fact, some in Congress are saying the bill does not authorize the TIA system at all. Sen. Joseph Leiberman (D-Conn.), one of the principal authors of the bill, placed an explanatory paragraph into the Congressional Record when the bill passed forbidding the new Department of Homeland Security from using or replicating TIA. The clause says, "Nothing in this legislation should be construed as requiring or encouraging HSARPA (Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency) to adopt or replicate any specific programs within DARPA, such as the Total Information Awareness Program, or as conferring HSARPA with any additional authority to overcome privacy laws when developing technologies for information-collection."

According to Communications Daily, outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), a staunch conservative, maintains that the Homeland Security Act ". . . does not authorize, fund or move into the department anything like [Total Information Awareness]." Armey went on to say that the use of data mining technology in the bill is ". . . intended solely to authorize the use of advanced techniques to sift through existing intelligence data, not to open a new method of intruding lawful, everyday transactions of American citizens." It would therefore appear that Poindexter is back to his old modus operandi of attempting to concentrate undue power in the executive branch, Congress be damned. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) is planning to sponsor a bill preventing the TIA project from violating the privacy rights of Americans. "This is a panoply, which isn't carefully conscribed and controlled, for a George Orwell America,'' Feinstein told the San Jose Mercury News. "And I don't think the American people are ready for that by a long shot."

TIA also raises significant Fourth Amendment issues of illegal searches, as the government has never before claimed such powers that the system would arm it with. Under the Freedom of Information Act, E.P.I.C. filed a lawsuit on Nov. 20 seeking to know "what modifications TIA might make to any existing legal, statutory and regulatory frameworks concerning governmental access to and use of transactional and other records about individuals." The watchdog group is also after records regarding "the potential privacy and civil-liberties implications of the activities proposed for the TIA project."

There are other potential problems as well. Poindexter's database would almost certainly become a hacker's Holy Grail. Pentagon computer systems have been breached before, and the mayhem that could ensue from so much information falling into the wrong hands is unthinkable. Also, TIA might wrongfully finger people with no terrorist affiliations whatsoever and damage their reputations and careers.

Opposition to TIA has even united at least one right-wing group with liberal organizations like E.P.I.C. and the American Civil Liberties Union ( In a Nov. 24 article in the e-newsletter of the Cato Institute (an influential conservative think tank), Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. writes, "The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which safeguards us against unreasonable searches, forbids a total surveillance society if that's where this project's directors intend to go." Crews goes on to ironically note that "The TIA's logo features an edited version of the Great Seal of the United States: The 13-block pyramid (think 13 original colonies) topped by the Eye of God. . . . The TIA's version perverts the proud seal that originally symbolized our freedom. The 'eye' is no longer God's, but the federal government's, surveying the entire globe in a single glance."

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.


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