One Defense Program Down, One to Go for Dorgan and Wyden

Posted July 29, 2003 at 3:53pm

Now that the Pentagon has agreed to pull the plug on a program Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) call “bizarre,” the duo wants to completely shut down Adm. John Poindexter’s Terrorism Information Awareness Program.

The creators of the Policy Analysis Market — sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — “ought not to be on the public payroll anymore,” Dorgan said Tuesday after the Pentagon announced it had terminated the initiative, which would have created a futures market for terrorist events.

“TIA is an umbrella for 10 programs that [together] represent the biggest surveillance program in this country’s history,” Wyden said of the Defense Department offshoot that was renamed after its initial moniker, Total Information Awareness Program, evoked too many comparisons to Big Brother.

“Much more needs to be done” to hold it accountable, Wyden said.

TIA falls under the Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office, of which Poindexter — who was President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser — is the director.

The program ran afoul of Wyden and Congress earlier this year when DARPA announced it would mine databases full of Americans’ personal medical and financial records to root out terrorists.

Under a provision included in the 2003 omnibus appropriations package, DARPA must now get Congressional approval before deploying or sharing new technology with other governmental departments.

Wyden wonders if the Pentagon broke that law with FutureMAP, the virtual terrorism market, that was set to sign up the first 1,000 participants Friday and commence trading Oct. 1.

It certainly did not honor the spirit of the law, Wyden said.

The Defense Department quickly back-peddled after Wyden and Dorgan went public with their discovery of FutureMAP’s imminent launch Monday.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) agreed the program was a lemon Tuesday and happily announced the market’s permanent closing.

Dorgan said he fully believes the Pentagon would have moved forward if it had not been for the “disinfectant of sunlight” he and Wyden shed.

“The FutureMAP research project was meant to explore the power of futures markets to predict and thereby prevent terrorist attacks,” DARPA said in a release Tuesday. “Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions. The program was part of DARPA’s overall thrust to find new ways to thwart terrorism.”

Wyden and Dorgan said it was a “grotesque” plan that would have allowed individuals, and possibly even terrorists taking advantage of the program’s anonymity feature, to gamble on whether Middle East leaders would be assassinated or biological weapons launched or coups commenced.

Furthermore, they said its $8 million price tag was wasteful.

“FutureMAP was a small program that faced a number of daunting technical and market challenges such as: Can the market survive and will people continue to participate when U.S. authorities use it to prevent terrorist attacks?” DARPA Director Anthony Tether asked. “Can futures markets be manipulated by adversaries?

“Reconsidering those challenges in light of the recent concerns surrounding the program, it became clear that it simply did not make sense to continue our participation in this effort,” he said of FutureMAP, a joint venture between DARPA and two private companies: Net Exchange and the Economist Intelligence Unit, which, like Roll Call, is owned by the Economist Group.

“Our job at DARPA is to explore new ideas and innovative research to enhance national security. The resources that would have been applied to this project will be applied to other more fruitful pursuits,” Tether added.

He then concluded with a line that is sure to win the agency more Congressional scrutiny:

“DARPA believes it is important to continue funding research that examines how to better use advanced information technologies and processes as predictive tools for terrorist acts.”

Wyden and Dorgan said they now want a full accounting of all other TIA programs.

“The secretary of Defense should immediately and publicly renounce the Pentagon’s plan to trade in terror, and issue a public apology and an explanation,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Tuesday. “All Americans have a right to know the purpose of this program, how much was spent on it, and, most importantly, who thought this was a good idea in the first place.”

The involvement of Poindexter, who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, in such initiatives gives Members great pause, Wyden said.

Poindexter’s role “raises the bar” he said, and should force the Pentagon to be “more sensitive to privacy rights.”

In its fiscal 2004 Defense appropriations bill, the Senate included an extension of the original Wyden amendment and completely zeroed out TIA funding.

The House did not.

As a conferee Dorgan said he would work to ensure the Senate provisions remain — an objective Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) backs, Wyden said.