When Vice Admiral John Poindexter, the mastermind behind the United States government's secretive and controversial Total Information Awareness network, spoke at Duke University last week as part of a lecture series on privacy, he noted that terrorists are "here among us today, but not tonight, we hope."
Yet, Duke Provost Peter Lange's introduction of Poindexter contained less-than-total information about the admiral's speckled past, including his wheelings and dealings with a terrorist state. Distributed in press releases from the Provost's office and the Duke Office of News and Communications, Poindexter's biography was sanitized of an important fact: The former National Security Adviser under President Ronald Reagan was convicted in 1990 of five felonies—conspiring to mislead Congress, two counts of obstructing congressional inquiries and two counts of making false statements to lawmakers—for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1985, Poindexter orchestrated the sale of weapons to Iran, which Reagan had denounced as a terrorist state, in its fight against Iraq. Poindexter then used proceeds from the sale to fund the contras, a right-wing group in Nicaragua, which had ties to the CIA and engaged in torture, kidnapping and murder. (Current events alert: Poindexter pal and former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates, now President George W. Bush's Defense Secretary nominee, also knew of the deal.)
A federal appeals court later overturned the convictions on a technicality, but nonetheless, Poindexter circumvented U.S. law prohibiting funding the contras and violated the U.S. embargo placed on Iran. Disgraced, he resigned from the Reagan administration in November 1986.
Had Poindexter's convictions been upheld, he could have served 25 years in prison and paid more than $1 million in fines.
So how does one explain the eternal sunshine of Duke's spotless mind?
David Jarmul, head of the news and communications office, explained that the university generates press releases and bios for Duke speakers, "working with material they provide."
"It's important to remember that the background material focused on the experience in his field," Jarmul explained, adding the bio "directly pertains to what the lecture is about."
However, Poindexter's bio did address his tenure as Reagan's National Security Adviser from 1983-86—it just omitted the part about illegal arms sales and contra funding. Moreover, part of the lecture related directly to Poindexter's Iran-Contra experience. When Poindexter spoke of suspected criminals leaving "signatures in massive information space," it was reminiscent of his cyber-mishap 20 years ago. In November 1986, according to CNN, Poindexter and his aide Oliver North deleted more than 5,000 e-mails pertaining to Iran-Contra from the memory banks of the White House computer system. However, Poindexter and North were unaware that those missives were retrievable from backup tapes. Federal investigators used the documents to build the criminal case.
Poindexter's presentation on TIA, which launched in 2002 during President George W. Bush's first term, and reportedly ended 20 months later when Congress defunded it, was largely an exercise in blame. For its undoing, he blamed the media, alarmed about TIA's privacy implications and skeptical of assertions it was merely a research program, and TIA spin doctors, who apparently didn't use the right buzzwords. "It was about more than data mining; I prefer to call it data analysis," said Poindexter, who since 2000 has served on the board of directors of Saffron Inc., a computer software company in Research Triangle Park and recipient of several Defense Department contracts. "We weren't able to get this across to the American people who were mixed up between technical feasibility and actual implementation."
Poindexter tried to assuage privacy concerns, stating that the TIA was working on technology to protect innocent citizens' civil liberties when Congress pulled the plug. Yet, he conceded that privacy protection hadn't received the same emphasis within the TIA as the data analysis. "It was one of the problems of defending the TIA to the media," he said. "We were slow in getting programs going in privacy."
Poindexter started the program, which researched and developed sophisticated methods of gathering and analyzing huge amounts of data from such sources as bank records, airline reservations and phone calls, against the backdrop of the PATRIOT Act. The Bush administration lauded the act as an essential tool in the war on terror, and Congress, either dazed by the 9/11 attacks or unwilling to read the 700-plus page document, passed it. The PATRIOT Act allowed the government to embark on surreptitious data-mining missions: to conduct warrantless searches, seize or examine patrons' library records (while forbidding librarians from notifying anyone under penalty of federal law) and wiretap phone calls without probable cause.
Given the lack of checks and balances during the Bush administration, it is doubtful whether Congress or the president would have reined in the TIA operations, or disclosed the true extent of its probing.
Yet, Americans shouldn't fear the TIA, Poindexter noted, because once the technology is developed, "it is the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches of government to decide what will actually be implemented."