The Christian Science Monitor
By Daniel Schorr/November 29, 2002
Deep in the recesses of the Pentagon is the Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is where Vice Adm. John Poindexter (USN ret.) hangs out these days, working on TIA. TIA stands for Total Information Awareness. The project, which is budgeted at $10 million this year and expected to get more next year, has been getting bad press. That is in part because its Orwellian-sounding purpose is to create a centralized database of personal information about Americans.
Cutting-edge technology would be used to gather everything that the computer age has to offer, from travel plans to pharmacy prescriptions. Pentagon officials say it's meant to be a tool in the war against terrorism, not an invasion of privacy of innocent citizens. Well, maybe. But that would sound more reassuring if it were not for the identity of the project manager.
Admiral Poindexter is probably better known for destroying information than for gathering it. Before a congressional investigating committee in 1986, he admitted that, as President Reagan's national security adviser, he destroyed evidence in connection with the Iran-contra affair. Specifically, he tore up the only signed copy of a document called a "presidential finding" that retroactively authorized shipment of arms to Iran in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon.
He testified that he did this to avoid embarrassment to Mr. Reagan. Poindexter, like Oliver North, who reported to him, was convicted in federal district court of lying to Congress and of obstruction.The conviction was overturned on technical grounds by an appeals court majority of two Reagan-appointed judges, Douglas Ginsburg and David Sentelle, over the vigorous dissent of Carter-appointed judge Abner Mikva.
On ABC television, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said he was urging Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to fire Poindexter. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended him as one who "understands the danger of government having too much power."
The Bush administration has shown no inclination to alter Poindexter's sensitive assignment. Mr. Rumsfeld says: "I would recommend people take a deep breath. Nothing terrible is going to happen."
Outside Poindexter's Pentagon office is a logo showing an all-seeing eye on top of a pyramid and the slogan, "Scientia est potentia" ("Knowledge is power"). The question is: How much power over knowledge about us should be entrusted to an admitted destroyer of federal documents?
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.
Poindexter's Still a Technocrat, Still a Lightning Rod
By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: January 20, 2003 in The New York Times
The pursuit of a technological solution to the nation's military challenges is nothing new for Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter nor is the attending controversy.
Admiral Poindexter, 66, is the force behind the Total Information Awareness project, an experimental system being developed by the Pentagon that seeks to scan information on billions of electronic transactions performed by millions of people here and abroad each day, analyze them and flag suspicious activity for possible investigation.
He is being vilified by civil liberties groups, Democrats in Congress and even some Republicans as the personification of a new type of Big Brother. But the roots of his new enterprise actually lie well in the past, in a vision he pioneered for building a Star Trek-style command and control system while working as the national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan two decades ago.
"From the beginning Poindexter has been a technocrat involved with the manipulation of information," said Dr. John Prados, a military historian at the National Security Archive, a research organization in Washington.
It is a vision he continued to pursue as a consultant after he left the government in 1986 because of his role in the Iran-contra affair, in which sales of arms to Iran were used to finance rebels fighting in Nicaragua at a time when Congress had barred such assistance.
For over two decades the admiral has been preoccupied with giving battlefield commanders including the commander in chief better information during times of crisis. For the last year, he has once again been pursuing that goal, from within the Pentagon.
"Whenever I would talk with him he would tell me, `The president doesn't have enough information during a crisis to make decisions,' " said a former official of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa.
According to several scientists who have worked with Admiral Poindexter at the Pentagon, that vision, to surround military decision makers with high-tech computer systems that make sense of the battlefield and are able to display vast quantities of information, led directly to the idea of Total Information Awareness, known as T.I.A.
"He wanted real-time intelligence feeds in the White House, feeds that were under direct White House control rather than being filtered through the C.I.A. or other intelligence agencies," said a scientist who works closely with Darpa. "This really has strong links to his current views on T.I.A."
Between 1981 and 1983, Admiral Poindexter was involved in the modernization of the White House Crisis Management Center also known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center in the Executive Office Building. It was equipped with video equipment, computers and electronic message systems a more novel concept then to connect to the Pentagon and State Department and intelligence agencies.
In the 1990's, as a military consultant, he promoted a variety of efforts, including the Command Post of the Future project, to provide more information to military planners via computer networks. Another project, known as Genoa, which was also intended to give intelligence planners and decision makers better information, preceded the more ambitious Total Information Awareness project, which Mr. Poindexter now directs.
"He may be the only guy in government who deeply understands computers and what they are good for," said John C. Dvorak, a personal-computer industry columnist who met and became friends with Admiral Poindexter after the Iran-contra scandal.
But his technical skill has not been complemented by political deftness. As the national security adviser, he clashed with civil libertarians over a variety of initiatives, including a 1984 national security directive that gave agencies broad authority to control "sensitive but unclassified information" in addition to the classified variety. And he is battling civil liberties groups again over the Total Information Awareness concept.
"John Poindexter is a brilliant nuclear engineer who is also politically tone-deaf," said a former high-ranking naval officer who served with the admiral during the 1970's and 1980's.
Admiral Poindexter would not comment for this article and has been forbidden to respond to his critics by his superiors at the Defense Department. But he has told a number of people that he believes the attacks on him by civil libertarians are based on a distortion of the way the Total Information Awareness technology would operate.
He has argued that because the system would look only for certain patterns in commercial databases not create any centralized record-keeping system of American citizens' activities it would not violate civil liberties.
But that has not overcome discomfort over the admiral's premise that the battlefield command center must now watch the private activities of American civilians to detect potential terrorists. Civil liberties groups worry that preventing the system's misuse will be difficult because it breaks down the traditional separation among law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies.
While this particular surveillance system has become a lightning rod for criticism, Admiral Poindexter's ambitious push for a technological solution to the terrorism threat is more broadly emblematic of the Pentagon's struggle to find the right information tools to fight a new kind of warfare that may take place on American soil.
"John Poindexter was a pioneer in thinking about threats to national security that didn't look just like us," said John Arquilla, an expert on unconventional warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The Pentagon is full of people who accept his view quite fully today."
What makes the admiral's critics wary, however, is that his skill at technology and his misuse of it partly led to his undoing during the 1980's.
While spending time at President Reagan's ranch in California as the national security adviser, according to several former military officers who worked with him, the admiral would sit for hours with his Grid laptop computer, then very high-tech. Connected to a mainframe computer by a satellite phone, he would patiently program and polish the software that controlled the White House's newly installed e-mail system.
It was Admiral Poindexter's technological expertise that permitted him to create a back door, named "private blank check," in the e-mail system to circumvent normal White House channels, according to David A. Wallace, a specialist in electronic records at the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The system made it possible for the admiral to oversee the illegal activities of Col. Oliver North.
Admiral Poindexter's legal troubles later stemmed in part from the 6,000 messages he destroyed with Colonel North. He was convicted on five felony counts, including lying to Congress, destroying documents and obstructing Congress in its investigation, but his conviction was overturned on appeal.
"Clearly Poindexter consciously manipulated the system to act in a way to hide information," Mr. Wallace said. "When faced with a system of checks and balances, he decided to act illegally. What does this say about the person who we are putting in charge of designing the most comprehensive surveillance system on U.S. citizens ever?"
It was a spectacular fall for the admiral, who was first in his class at the Naval Academy in 1958 and later received a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at the California Institute of Technology. Early in his military career, he became a protιgι of the civilian Pentagon planners and military officers who were putting a high-technology face on the Pentagon in the late 1960's.
He was briefly one of the "whiz kids" nurtured by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who believed that winning the war in Vietnam was a matter of engineering and quantitative methods.
Admiral Poindexter came of age when the Navy was leading the military in deploying broadband communications and advanced command and control systems. Later, when he arrived at the White House, he became one of the original participants in the planning behind President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, called Star Wars by its critics. He was present at the initial meetings when the plan was first conceived in 1983.
While in the White House, he was offered the coveted command of the Sixth Fleet but turned down the offer, a move that still baffles military officers who knew him.
"Working in the White House can be very intoxicating," said a military officer who worked with Admiral Poindexter during his years on the National Security Council. "A lot of military people turn down great career jobs to stay there."
Now, with his return to government, the admiral's actions are under close scrutiny, which has even focused on his choice of an emblem for the Information Awareness Office at Darpa.
The emblem featured a human eye, embedded in the peak of a pyramid, scanning the globe. It carried the motto "scientia est potentia," or "knowledge is power."
Admiral Poindexter told several people that he had not thought about the Big Brother implications of such an image. In his mind, the eye had represented the letter I, the pyramid the letter A and the globe the letter O a way of describing his new organization. The emblem has since been removed.
Written Interview By Spencer Reiss for the May 2004 Magazine 'Wired'
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