Who Is John Poindexter?

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After September 11, 2001: NSA Begins Huge Data Mining Project Similar to ‘Total Information Awareness’
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Security Agency awards $64 million in research contracts for a program called Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD). [New York Times, 5/21/2003; National Journal, 1/20/2006] NIMD is one of several cutting-edge data mining technologies that not only has the capability of finding keywords among millions of electronically monitored communications, but can find hidden relationships among data points, and even critique the thinking and biases of a particular analyst and suggest alternative hypotheses differing from the human analysts’ conclusion. Like other data-mining technologies, the NSA will steadfastly refuse to discuss whether NIMD is used to analyze data from domestic surveillance operations. NIMD is designed as an preliminary sort program, to keep human analysts from becoming overwhelmed by raw data. In essence, NIMD is an early-warning system. “NIMD funds research to…help analysts deal with information-overload, detect early indicators of strategic surprise, and avoid analytic errors,” according to the “Call for 2005 Challenge Workshop Proposals” released by the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA). ARDA was founded in 1998 to create, design, and field new technologies for US intelligence agencies, particularly the NSA. A selected few Congressional lawmakers (see January 18, 2006) were informed that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by George W. Bush (see Early 2002) was designed to be an early-warning system for possible terrorist attacks or plans. NIMD and other such ARDA programs closely resemble another data-mining program, the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program (see March 2002). TIA, which will be suspended in 2003 after outcries from citizens and legal experts concerned over that program’s refusal to comply with fundamental Constitutional guarantees of privacy, was also designed as an early-warning system that not only compiled intelligence data, but mined through private financial databases for credit-card and other financial transactions. Six of the corporations and research institutions who win NIMD contracts also held contracts for the earlier TIA project. Much of their work with TIA duplicated the same aspects and protocols to be used by NIMD, including challenging analytic assumptions and building prototype data-mining devices. Both TIA and NIMD attempt to second-guess human analysts’ conclusions over a particular data schema by creating a database of what TIA creator John Poindexter once called “plausible futures,” or likely terrorism scenarios. Another ARDA project, the Advanced Capabilities for Intelligence Analysis (ACIA) also envisions a similar database (see 2005). Though TIA focused more on counterterrorism than the more sweeping NIMD, the two projects coordinated closely with one another, according to former program manager Tom Armour, who worked in Poindexter’s office. Congress will eliminate funding for TIA and other Poindexter projects, but many of those projects, and related projects such as NIMD, do not disappear. Many are instead transferred to intelligence agencies such as the NSA. Although information about these projects is strictly classified, a former Army intelligence analyst familiar with the programs will confirm in 2006 that large elements of TIA were transferred to other agencies, where they will continue to be researched and implemented. It is highly likely that NIMD is an offshoot and outgrowth of TIA. Armour will say the two programs are specifically designed to analyze large amounts of phone and e-mail traffic: “That’s, in fact, what the interest is.” [National Journal, 1/20/2006] But some experts feel that NIMD is less of a separate program than a quiet resurgence of TIA (see February 2003). Many experts outside of the Bush administration feel that NIMD and other programs do not have to operate outside of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) because of limitations in the law, but because of the fact that the programs cannot meet the law’s minimum requirements for surveillance. FISA requires that any such surveillance must have a probable cause that the target is a terrorist. NIMD has no such threshold. Steven Aftergood, an expert on intelligence and government secrecy with the Federation of American Scientists, will say in 2006, “Logistically speaking, the early-warning approach may involve a significant increase in the number of surveillance actions. It may be that neither the Justice Department nor the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves wiretapping warrants] is prepared to prepare and process several thousand additional FISA applications per year, beyond the 1,700 or so approved in 2004.” [National Journal, 1/20/2006] The entire scheme may be irrelevant, since once terrorists learn of the program, they will take steps to ensure that they stay out of NIMD’s reach, according to one computer scientist: “You won’t find terrorists buying C4 explosives with a Mastercard.” [New York Times, 5/21/2003] About NIMD’s connections to TIA, Aftergood will say in retrospect, “Pursued with a minimal public profile and lacking a polarizing figure like Admiral Poindexter to galvanize opposition, NIMD has proceeded quietly even as TIA imploded.” [Defense Tech, 9/26/2003]

Mid-January 2002: Poindexter Begins Information Awareness Office
Vice Admiral John Poindexter begins running a shadowy new government agency called the Information Awareness Office. [New York Times, 2/13/2002; Federal Computer Week, 10/17/2002] Poindexter, formerly President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, is known for his five felony convictions of lying to Congress, destroying documents, and obstructing Congress in its investigation of his role in the mid-1980s Iran-Contra affair. Later his convictions were overturned on a technicality. [Los Angeles Times, 11/17/2002] Far from apologizing, Poindexter said it was his duty to lie to Congress. [Newsday, 12/1/2002] The New York Times notes that his new agency “is developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information-analysis systems.” The new office is part of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Poindexter was also known for his controversial role in shifting control of computer security to the military in the 1980s. Says Marc Rotenberg, former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, “It took three administrations and both political parties over a decade to correct those mistakes.” [New York Times, 2/13/2002] Surprisingly, Poindexter’s appointment is little noticed until later in 2002 when the Total Information Awareness program is revealed (see March 2002; November 9, 2002). Incidentally, several others involved in the Iran-Contra affair also find jobs in the Bush Administration, including Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, and Otto Reich. [Observer, 12/8/2002]

November 9, 2002: New York Times Reveals Total Information Awareness Program
The original logo for the Total Information Awareness program. An eye from a Masonic pyramid appears to cast a beam over the world, with Muslim regions highlighted. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20/02, Guardian, 11/23/02] The motto, Scientia Est Potentia, means “knowledge is power.” The logo is later removed from the department’s website. [Baltimore Sun, 1/5/03] The original logo for the Total Information Awareness program. An eye from a Masonic pyramid appears to cast a beam over the world, with Muslim regions highlighted. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20/02, Guardian, 11/23/02] The motto, Scientia Est Potentia, means “knowledge is power.” The logo is later removed from the department’s website. [Baltimore Sun, 1/5/03] [Source: DARPA]The New York Times exposes the existence of John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness data collection program, begun in early 2002 (see Mid-January 2002; March 2002). [New York Times, 11/9/2002] Conservative columnist William Safire writes, “If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you: Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as ‘a virtual, centralized grand database.’ To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you—passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance—and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a ‘Total Information Awareness’ about every US citizen.” [New York Times, 11/14/2002] Poindexter says it will take years to realize his vision, but his office has already begun providing some technology to government agencies. [Washington Post, 11/12/2002] The existence of this program, and the fact that Poindexter is running it, causes concern for many on both the left and right. [USA Today, 1/16/2003] It is regularly called Orwellian, conjuring visions of 1984’s Big Brother, and even supporters admit it sounds Orwellian. [Newsweek, 11/15/2002; Los Angeles Times, 11/17/2002; Guardian, 11/23/2002; Newsday, 12/1/2002; New Yorker, 12/9/2002; BBC, 12/12/2002; Dallas Morning News, 12/16/2002; Baltimore Sun, 1/5/2003] The New York Times suggests, “Congress should shut down the program pending a thorough investigation.” [New York Times, 11/18/2002] Experts question not only its civil liberties implications, but also if it is even feasible. If it does work, would its database be swapped with errors that could not be removed? (see March 2002) [Mercury News (San Jose), 12/26/2002] However, many newspapers fail to report on the program at all, and ABC is the only network to report the story on prime time television. [ABC News, 11/16/2002; ABC News, 11/25/2002] Despite so many objections, the program is included in the Homeland Security bill (see November 25, 2002), and only later somewhat curbed by Congress (see January 23, 2003).

February 2003: Scientist Says Congress Terminated TIA but Kept Massive US Data Mining Alive
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists says that he is not sure that Congress’s public termination of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project (see January 23, 2003) was as real and outrage-driven as it seemed at the time. “The whole congressional action looks like a shell game,” Aftergood says. “There may be enough of a difference for them to claim TIA was terminated while for all practical purposes the identical work is continuing.” While Congress terminated TIA with visible indignation, it also quietly funded the “National Foreign Intelligence Program,” and never identified which intelligence agency would do the work—which was also kept from the public eye. Congress did say that none of the research would be used against US citizens. No one in Congress will discuss how many of Poindexter’s programs survived, but knowledgeable sources will confirm that some 18 data-mining programs known as Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery in Poindexter’s research were preserved after TIA’s termination. These programs may well include the sprawling data mining program known as Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD) (see After September 11, 2001), though this cannot be confirmed. Former TIA chief John Poindexter’s vision of the technology behind NIMD envisioned software that can quickly analyze “multiple petabytes” of data. A single petabyte would fill the Library of Congress space for 18 million books more than 50 times, or could hold 40 pages of text for each of the more than 6.2 billion humans on Earth. Poindexter and his colleagues envisioned the program as handling a petabyte or more of data a month. [Associated Press, 2/23/2004] Concerns about the privacy rights of US citizens being damaged by the program are rife. “If they were to stick to strictly military-related research and development, there is less of an issue, but these technologies have much broader social implications,” says Barbara Simons, a computer scientist who is past president of the Association of Computing Machinery, an organization that has expressed concerns about TIA. [New York Times, 5/21/2003] At least one Senator is uncomfortable with the apparent resurgence of TIA. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) will write Vice President Dick Cheney in June 2003 after receiving a briefing on the various secret surveillance programs (see July 17, 2003). Rockefeller will write, “As I reflected on the meeting today, John Poindexter’s TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance.” [National Journal, 1/20/2006]

July 17, 2003: Senator Rockefeller Questions NSA Wiretapping Program
Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), just hours after first learning of the secret NSA warrantless wiretapping program against US citizens (see Early 2002 and December 15, 2005), writes a letter to Vice President Cheney expressing his concerns about the potential illegality of the program, concerns he apparently expressed in the briefing as well. Rockefeller will not release the letter publicly until December 19, 2005, four days after the New York Times publishes an article revealing the program’s existence. Rockefeller writes in part, “Clearly the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues.…Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities. As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Poindexter’s TIA [Total Information Awareness (see March 2002)] project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance. Without more information and the ability to draw on any independent legal or technical expertise, I simply cannot satisfy lingering concerns raised by the briefing we received.” [Democratic Party, 12/19/2005] It is unclear whether Rockefeller ever receives a reply.