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DoD Research Project Necessary Adjunct to War on Terror

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2002 -- Stopping terrorists before they can strike depends on government officials being able to search for clues in "a mass of data." Defense researchers are working on a project that will enable just such a capability.

The Total Information Awareness System is an experimental prototype-in-the-works that will "determine the feasibility of searching vast quantities of data to determine links and patterns indicative of terrorist activities."

Pete Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition technology and logistics, took reporters' questions on the project this afternoon in a Pentagon briefing.

He explained the project has three parts: researching technologies that would allow rapid language translation; discovery of connections between current activities and future events, and "collaborative reasoning and decision-making tools to allow interagency communications and analysis."

It is being developed by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency.

A Nov. 16 Washington Post editorial described the program as one to terrify the readers of George Orwell, author of the book "1984" and its all-seeing, all-knowing entity "Big Brother." Aldridge said the DARPA project is no such thing, but merely an experiment.

"In order to preserve the sanctity of individual privacy, we're designing this system to ensure complete anonymity of uninvolved citizens, thus focusing the efforts of law enforcement officials on terrorist investigations," he said.

At issue among reporters was the potential of the federal government to access the everyday transactions of ordinary citizens -- passport, visa and drivers license applications, airline ticket or rental car reservations, medical data, and even credit and debit card purchases, for instance.

Again, Aldridge defended the project. He said data put into the system would be subject to the same Privacy Act restrictions that govern law enforcement and government actions today. Officials would not be scrutinizing everyday transactions by ordinary citizens. The system would only look closely at transactions or combinations of transactions that officials know are possible indicators of terrorist actions.

For instance, if the system sees evidence of an individual buying large amounts of chemicals that can be used to make explosives then renting a van near a major metropolitan area, the system might throw up a red flag. To further investigate the individual, law enforcement agents would have to go through the same legal proceedings that are necessary today to protect individual rights, Aldridge explained.

He stressed this system is a tool for law enforcement agencies that is merely being studied by the Defense Department, not a way for the government to spy on the American public.

"It is absurd to think that DARPA is somehow trying to become another police agency," he said.

The Defense Department has also taken some heat in the civilian press for the person it chose to lead the program, retired Rear Adm. John Poindexter. The admiral was convicted of lying to Congress and of destroying documents during the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. The conviction was overturned on appeal.

Some onlookers have questioned, often derisively, Poindexter's being in charge of a project with so much potential for abuse. Aldridge today steadfastly defended the retired admiral's role in the project.

"What John Poindexter is doing is developing a tool. He's not exercising that tool; he will not exercise that tool," Aldridge said in response to media questions. "That tool will be exercised by the intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement agencies."

He said Poindexter's doctorate in physics and his personal passion for the project make him uniquely qualified to lead it.

"You want an enthusiastic leader," Aldridge said.

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