Big Brother Is Back
The Pentagon’s plan to eyeball America’s databases is drawing fire—as is its controversial salesman

NEWSWEEK | December 2, 2002
By John Barry

The official logo of the Information Awareness Office, the Pentagon’s secretive new terrorist-detection experiment, isn’t subtle.

A picture of the globe, under the watchful gaze of that spooky pyramid on the dollar bill, the one with the all-seeing eye of God at the top. Underlining that, the project’s motto: scienti est potentia (Knowledge Is Power).

All in all, not a bad description of the office’s lofty—and controversial—ambitions. Quietly created after the September 11 attacks, the office’s Total Information Awareness project aims to enable federal investigators to engage in a kind of super “data mining”—inventing software to trawl through commercial and government computer databases in search of suspicious patterns that might indicate terror plans.

The 9-11 hijackers, for instance, enrolled in flight schools, rented apartments, used credit cards and bought airline tickets together. The details of all these transactions were routinely stored in various companies’ computers. The Feds argue that if they had had the ability to scan the computers that logged the terrorists’ movements and purchases, they might have been able to connect the dots between the men.

Yet from the day the research program was launched at the start of the year, it has been the target of intense suspicion, from both right and left. In order to identify possibly conspiratorial behavior by a few individuals, the computers would have to sift through the personal information of millions of innocent people—without their knowledge or consent. Potentially, the government could keep track of what you buy, whom you call, where you travel—just by tapping into the files that various businesses already keep on you. Advocates insist safeguards will be built into any search system, but critics are not reassured. “Put the pieces together, and you could build a capability to track the city-to-city movements of any citizen,” says the ACLU’s Katie Corrigan.

The project’s PR hasn’t been helped by the fact that its leader is retired Navy Adm. John Poindexter, best known for his part in the Iran-contra affair. Poindexter was convicted of lying to Congress about the Reagan administration’s plan to divert profits from Iranian arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan rebels. His conviction was later overturned, but that doesn’t mollify those worried about his return to power at the helm of such a sweeping program.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brusquely waved off the criticism. “I would recommend people take a nice deep breath,” he said. “Nothing terrible is going to happen.” But on Capitol Hill, Democrats and some Republicans—including retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey—are concerned that the project is part of a wider White House strategy to erode civil liberties in pursuit of security. (A court recently granted the government expanded surveillance powers.) They are especially irritated that they knew nothing about the $10 million experiment, since the Pentagon quietly buried it under “technology development” in the Defense bill. Now they’re demanding greater scrutiny. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she wants to freeze the program’s funding until Congress can hold hearings. Poindexter may not be able to ignore the rumblings. “He forgot the question you always ask,” says one Pentagon official. “How would this look on the front page tomorrow?”