Give Awareness a Chance
Capabilities we need.


The $368-billion defense bill that the Senate approved 95-0 late last Thursday includes funding for rebuilding Iraq, developing the high-tech Joint Strike Fighter, and, most likely, buying some $400 hammers. But, thanks largely to the efforts to Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, the bill cuts all funding for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency’s (DARPA) Terrorism Information Awareness program (TIA).

Although some of the Information Awareness Office’s programs will continue in other divisions of DARPA, the Senate’s decision greatly increases the chances that the United States will fall victim to another major terrorist attack. Indeed, when the next catastrophic attack comes, Senator Wyden and Republican Senator Ted Stevens can stand together with extreme privacy advocates on both sides of the aisle and, along with the terrorists, take credit for making it possible.

TIA, a group of inter-related projects, combined many Pentagon efforts to predict where and how terrorists might strike. It would have combined hundreds of databases (many of them already in government hands), greatly improved electronic language-translation capabilities, and performed complex, intelligent searches of the thousands of structured and unstructured data sources for anything that would shed light on how and where terrorists would act.

Contrary to hysterical reports emanating from the right and left, the project did not aim to create a dossier on every American. Indeed, while it would have provided America’s intelligence services with better tools to investigate suspicious individuals, nothing in the program modified any existing privacy law. The tools TIA promised to develop, furthermore, exist mostly in the ethereal realm of vaporware: Almost none have actually gone into operation. TIA, moreover, would serve more as a toolbox than as a unified system; even DARPA itself admitted that the program aimed to help human analysts because it was “doubtful that an automated system can identify terrorists.” (Click here for a complete account of what TIA would have done.)

As a cutting-edge predictive intelligence tool, TIA stood as the most important offensive weapon in the homeland-security arsenal. Most homeland-security efforts–everything from improved airport-baggage inspection to better tracking of ocean-going merchant vessels–involve purely defensive efforts. Done correctly, these efforts can make it safer to board a commercial flight or even live near a port, but they will do almost nothing to defeat the terrorist organizations.

Victory over terrorists obviously requires attacking terrorists where they ply their trades: Dismantling the cruel terrorist regimes that governed Iraq and Afghanistan makes it much harder for al Qaeda and its ilk to launch large-scale attacks. But such conventional victories aren’t sufficient to win the war on terror. Indeed, the tools TIA provides would have proved vital in the war on terror because, as practitioners of fourth-generation warfare, terrorists do not stand up and fight fairly. They attack from hidden places and make no differentiation between military and civilian targets. Terrorists also operate in detached semi-autonomous cells: Particularly when it comes to smaller operations such as ambushes against American soldiers and moderate clerics in Iraq, cells can typically operate without any central guidance. Even capturing the whole of al Qaeda’s hierarchy would not destroy the organization. Intelligence agents probably can infiltrate terrorist organizations–although, thus far, America has few, if any, human assets in terrorist cells–but America’s intelligence agencies will never infiltrate every cell. Thus, a data-mining toolbox like the one TIA offered would allow planners and analysts to gain insight into the workings of organizations they could not infiltrate.

To Wyden and his ilk, the usefulness of the technology mattered little. Indeed, he admitted in a Senate floor speech that TIA would let the government

be in a position to look at education, travel, and medical records, and develop risk profiles for millions of Americans in the quest to examine questionable conduct and certainly suspicious activity that would generate concern for the safety of the American people.
But, despite TIA’s clear benefits, Wyden opposed it because he believed that the government would create a program almost sure to grow “exponentially and [tip] the balance with respect to privacy rights and the need to protect the national security.”

One wonders, indeed, whether Wyden even has a vague idea of what intelligence agencies are for. If it’s not searching through records and looking for “questionable conduct” and “suspicious activity,” then what exactly should intelligence agencies do? Use tarot cards, ESP, and magic crystals to figure out what might happen next? (Actually, DARPA did fund ESP and “remote-viewing” research in the 1970s.)

However left and right-wing privacy advocates misunderstood and misrepresented TIA, DARPA, under the command of John Poindexter, bears much of the responsibility for its failure. The agency never came close to coherently explaining what the program would do. Even worse, it “marketed” TIA with a spooky-looking logo that one leftist website accurately describes as a “death ray eye.”

Winning the war on terror will require the technology toolbox DARPA aimed to develop with TIA. Without a unified office or much funding, building these tools will prove much harder. But America’s ultimate victory will demand the capabilities Sen. Wyden and his allies have destroyed.

William Webb and Eli Lehrer are homeland-security consultants.