Politics & Policy

Total Preparedness

The case for the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness project.

Several months ago DARPA, the Department of Defense’s Research and Development arm, announced the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, a radical new tool for FBI and CIA intelligence gathering. Since then, TIA has been assailed as a danger to constitutionally protected individual rights and privacy. As a result, Congress has balked at funding TIA, and instead attempted to increase the effectiveness of existing programs by creating a centralized terrorism intelligence office. In the long run, improved intelligence distribution and TIA can each contribute to a sound antiterrorism apparatus.

While the new office rightly addresses the need to streamline information distribution, it neglects the corollary failure to identify individual terrorists before they strike. DARPA, inventors of the Global Positioning System, the Internet, and Stealth technology, among others, has presented TIA as a means for locating terrorists beyond the reach of conventional terrorism investigators. Central to TIA is a plan to compile electronic profiles of terrorists with a massive data-processing system. Based loosely on the FBI’s behavioral-analysis investigations into serial killings and other habitual crimes, TIA would trace the activity of known terrorists and find others who follow the same pattern.

TIA’s potential is impressive, but the invasiveness of the plan and its reliance on unfettered access to vast amounts of information has raised concerns about government encroachment on privacy, and the possibility of abuse. Editorial boards of several papers, including the New York Times, have described TIA in terms of Big Brother and McCarthy. Such comparisons raise legitimate concerns; considering the almost 300 million people in the U.S. and the limitations of artificial intelligence, TIA would undoubtedly flag innocent individuals.

President Bush’s appointment of John Poindexter to head the Information Awareness Office (IAO), TIA’s managing department, has spurred fears that TIA will be abused or misappropriated by overzealous investigators. Critics remember Poindexter as head of the secretive National Security Council (NSC) during the Iran-Contra scandal. However, Poindexter has not been appointed to run TIA, only oversee its development. Having presided over the bulk of U.S. electronic surveillance at NSC and developed similar applications for Syntek Technologies, he is uniquely qualified for the position.

In addition, DoD has released plans to create two separate panels to monitor TIA. An internal oversight board will create procedures and limitations for TIA’s use by the DoD. An independent, outside panel featuring renowned civil-rights lawyers, professors, and jurists will advise DoD on the legality and civil-rights issues TIA raises.

Despite the several legitimate concerns, TIA is a dynamic proposal that may prove invaluable as terrorist attacks against the United States persist. Considering DARPA’s unparalleled track record in producing paradigm-shifting technology, the TIA proposal should not be dismissed lightly.

Jonathan Levin is a terrorism analyst with the Investigative Project.


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