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[] NYT 09.11.02: Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans,

November 9, 2002
Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans

The Pentagon is constructing a computer system that could create a vast 
electronic dragnet, searching for personal information as part of the hunt 
for terrorists around the globe ? including the United States.

As the director of the effort, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, has described 
the system in Pentagon documents and in speeches, it will provide 
intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to 
information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and 
banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.

Historically, military and intelligence agencies have not been permitted to 
spy on Americans without extraordinary legal authorization. But Admiral 
Poindexter, the former national security adviser in the Reagan 
administration, has argued that the government needs broad new powers to 
process, store and mine billions of minute details of electronic life in 
the United States.

Admiral Poindexter, who has described the plan in public documents and 
speeches but declined to be interviewed, has said that the government needs 
to "break down the stovepipes" that separate commercial and government 
databases, allowing teams of intelligence agency analysts to hunt for 
hidden patterns of activity with powerful computers.

"We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new 
sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate 
information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and 
create actionable options," he said in a speech in California earlier this 

Admiral Poindexter quietly returned to the government in January to take 
charge of the Office of Information Awareness at the Defense Advanced 
Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa. The office is responsible for 
developing new surveillance technologies in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In order to deploy such a system, known as Total Information Awareness, new 
legislation would be needed, some of which has been proposed by the Bush 
administration in the Homeland Security Act that is now before Congress. 
That legislation would amend the Privacy Act of 1974, which was intended to 
limit what government agencies could do with private information.

The possibility that the system might be deployed domestically to let 
intelligence officials look into commercial transactions worries civil 
liberties proponents.

"This could be the perfect storm for civil liberties in America," said Marc 
Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in 
Washington "The vehicle is the Homeland Security Act, the technology is 
Darpa and the agency is the F.B.I. The outcome is a system of national 
surveillance of the American public."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has been briefed on the project by 
Admiral Poindexter and the two had a lunch to discuss it, according to a 
Pentagon spokesman.

"As part of our development process, we hope to coordinate with a variety 
of organizations, to include the law enforcement community," a Pentagon 
spokeswoman said.

An F.B.I. official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, 
said the bureau had had preliminary discussions with the Pentagon about the 
project but that no final decision had been made about what information the 
F.B.I. might add to the system.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, Gordon 
Johndroe, said officials in the office were not familiar with the computer 
project and he declined to discuss concerns raised by the project's critics 
without knowing more about it.

He referred all questions to the Defense Department, where officials said 
they could not address civil liberties concerns because they too were not 
familiar enough with the project.

Some members of a panel of computer scientists and policy experts who were 
asked by the Pentagon to review the privacy implications this summer said 
terrorists might find ways to avoid detection and that the system might be 
easily abused.

"A lot of my colleagues are uncomfortable about this and worry about the 
potential uses that this technology might be put, if not by this 
administration then by a future one," said Barbara Simon, a computer 
scientist who is past president of the Association of Computing Machinery. 
"Once you've got it in place you can't control it."

Other technology policy experts dispute that assessment and support Admiral 
Poindexter's position that linking of databases is necessary to track 
potential enemies operating inside the United States.

"They're conceptualizing the problem in the way we've suggested it needs to 
be understood," said Philip Zelikow, a historian who is executive director 
of the Markle Foundation task force on National Security in the Information 
Age. "They have a pretty good vision of the need to make the tradeoffs in 
favor of more sharing and openness."

On Wednesday morning, the panel reported its findings to Dr. Tony Tether, 
the director of the defense research agency, urging development of 
technologies to protect privacy as well as surveillance, according to 
several people who attended the meeting.

If deployed, civil libertarians argue, the computer system would rapidly 
bring a surveillance state. They assert that potential terrorists would 
soon learn how to avoid detection in any case.

The new system will rely on a set of computer-based pattern recognition 
techniques known as "data mining," a set of statistical techniques used by 
scientists as well as by marketers searching for potential customers.

The system would permit a team of intelligence analysts to gather and view 
information from databases, pursue links between individuals and groups, 
respond to automatic alerts, and share information efficiently, all from 
their individual computers.

The project calls for the development of a prototype based on test data 
that would be deployed at the Army Intelligence and Security Command at 
Fort Belvoir, Va. Officials would not say when the system would be put into 

The system is one of a number of projects now under way inside the 
government to lash together both commercial and government data to hunt for 
patterns of terrorist activities.

"What we are doing is developing technologies and a prototype system to 
revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and 
identify foreign terrorists, and decipher their plans, and thereby enable 
the U.S. to take timely action to successfully pre-empt and defeat 
terrorist acts," said Jan Walker, the spokeswoman for the defense research 

Before taking the position at the Pentagon, Admiral Poindexter, who was 
convicted in 1990 for his role in the Iran-contra affair, had worked as a 
contractor on one of the projects he now controls. Admiral Poindexter's 
conviction was reversed in 1991 by a federal appeals court because he had 
been granted immunity for his testimony before Congress about the case.

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