TOTAL INFORMATION AWARENESS
Total Information Awareness and the Ethics of Governmental Data Mining
Paul E. King
Texas Christian University
Paul E. King is Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Christian
University, Fort Worth, TX, 76129, USA, (01) 817-257-6076, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Presented at “Digital Dynamics: Control, Participation, and Exclusion,”
conference, co-sponsored by the International Communication Association and the
International Association for Media and Communication Research, Loughborough
University, U. K., November 6-9, 2003.
As a reaction to terrorist threats, the U. S. Department of Defense initiated a
program designed to search for electronic fingerprints of terrorist activity. During its
short life span, the program sought to apply modern data mining techniques to vast
quantities of personal information on U. S. citizens: bank records, credit card use,
Internet use, travel, medical histories, cell-phone calls, etc. Labeled Total Information
Awareness (TIA), the program raised significant privacy concerns, particularly since it
was headed by Admiral John Poindexter, a man convicted of lying to Congress and
obstruction of justice during his term as National Security Advisor under President
Ronald Reagan. This manuscript reviews both TIA and the background of Dr.
Poindexter, it’s director. Three approaches to the analysis of governmental data mining
ethics are proposed and discussed and the potential for future challenges to privacy
through governmental data mining are analyzed.
Total Information Awareness and the Ethics of Governmental Data Mining
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September
11, 2001, the United States Government began a broad series of initiatives to prevent
future terrorist incidents by increasing domestic security. While the majority of these
initiatives were provided in legislation passed by the United States Congress (2001) in
the form of the Patriot Act, the Department of Defense was busy as well. John
Poindexter, an Admiral who had resigned in disgrace as a principal figure in the Iran-
Contra scandal during the Reagan Administration, was brought back into the Defense
Department for the purpose of developing an extensive data mining system. This system,
which was named Total Information Awareness (TIA), was designed to establish a
massive federal database, containing information on U. S. citizens credit card purchases,
bank records, medical files, federal records, purchase of tickets, etc. and to connect those
records with “…events such as arrests or suspicious activities” (DARPA, 2003).
Although TIA met with significant public and Congressional resistance and
underwent substantial revision, significant opportunities for abuse of individual privacy
through government sponsored data mining still exist. This essay will briefly review the
controversial history of TIA. Attention will be given to the hiring of John Poindexter as
program director and the effect of Poindexter’s hiring on the eventual fate of the
program. Finally, the ethics of government data mining will be critically analyzed.
Data Mining and the Evolution of TIA
Systems of searching for important relationships in large volumes of data has
become generally known as data mining. Data mining is a loosely defined process which
can involve gaining access to information, using advanced statistical techniques such as
factor analysis, discriminant analysis and cluster analysis to uncover non-obvious
relationships in the data, and cross-referencing multiple data bases to gain statistical
power (for a basic review, see Kumar & Baker, 2002). On a more sinister note, data
mining may also involve the development of relevant data through intrusive
computerized tools such as cookies, worms, and other forms of spyware. For example,
Brilliant Digital Entertainment revealed to the U.S. Government in 2002 that its software
had been installed on millions of computers running KaZaA (a file sharing program
which has been a widely used replacement for Napster, the music file sharing program).
Two schemes were involved (Snell, 2003). First, the company planned to use the
individual computers as a vast network—selling the unused processing capacity to other
companies. Second, the spyware was used to gather information from the individual
machines, and individual users, and sell that information to interested individuals and
corporations. The concern with spyware is not limited to private companies. The U.S.
Government (e.g., the FBI’s Carnivore system) has already established a precedent for
the use of tools to capture information as it is transmitted in the form of e-mail (Harrison,
2000; Schwartz, 2002).
One of the best known examples of the utility of data mining involves University
of Chicago Professor Don Swanson (Guernsey, 2003). Swanson, an information
specialist rather than a medical doctor, was interested in identifying the causative factors
in migraine headaches. By using an analysis of unexpected terms appearing in some 2500
medical articles related to migraines, Swanson identified magnesium deficiency as a
potential cause of the headaches. Later experimentation confirmed the link. While
research is normally deductive, proceeding from a hypothesis or theory to predict an
association between variables, data-mining permits investigators to conduct massive
Data-mining techniques can also be used to test hypotheses and assumptions by
applying them to historical cases. The Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company noted that in
one fraudulent case a claim investigator had noted in writing that a particular accident
involved a car braking hard in front of another car and, later in the notes, that traffic
conditions were light. The company developed a computerized analytic tool which used
that information to successfully predict fraudulent insurance cases, leading to the reported
saving of 1.4 million dollars (Guernsey, 2003).
One of the most recent developments in data mining involves the application of
neural network techniques. Neural networks are very sophisticated modeling techniques
which can be applied to extremely complex functions (Kumar & Bates, 2002). They
abandon the linear assumptions of earlier analytic approaches in an effort to find non-
linear relationships in data. In addition, these approaches are capable of automatically
learning the structure of the data. Output may be represented graphically and does not
require as much training for the end user as more traditional statistical methods.
Interestingly, some references to neural networks could be found in web sites related to
TIA in late 2002 (DARPA, 2002).
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created the Information Awareness Office, “to
research, develop, and demonstrate innovative information technologies to detect terrorist
groups planning attacks against American citizens, anywhere in the world” (DARPA,
2002). DARPA, with a budget estimated at two billion dollars per year, has a long history
of funding projects which may have application to improvements in national defense. The
agency generally credited with the development of the modern Internet, DARPA funds
most of its projects in the form of contracts awarded to companies, individuals and
institutions of higher learning (Malakoff, 1999). The Office of Information Awareness
and it’s TIA program were, however, internal agents of the Department of Defense.
TIA’s publicly announced objectives were to develop and test technologies related to:
• Collaboration and sharing over TCP/IP networks across agency
• Large, distributed repositories with dynamic schemas that can be changed
interactively by users
• Foreign language machine translation and speech recognition
• Biometric signatures of humans
• Real time learning, pattern matching and anomalous pattern detection
• Entity extraction from natural language text
• Human network analysis and behavior model building engines
• Event prediction and capability development model building engines
• Structured argumentation and evidential reasoning
• Story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance
• Business rules sub-systems for access control and process management
• Biologically inspired algorithms for agent control
• Other aids for human cognition and human reasoning
TIA was conceived and promoted by John Poindexter. After graduating first in his
class at the U.S. Naval Academy, Poindexter went on to earn a doctorate in physics and
rose to the rank of Admiral (Safire, 2002). He ascended to a high level of public notoriety
during the Reagan Administration. While serving in the National Security Agency (NSA)
under National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, Poindexter was regarded as a highly
intelligent individual who proposed and supported bold action and was intensely critical
of constraints that inhibited the Reagan Administration from dealing effectively with its
enemies. In fact, President Reagan’s chief legal counsel recently wrote that Poindexter,
despite all of his brilliance, was lacking in judgment (Wallison, 2003).
It was while working for the National Security Agency that Poindexter became
involved in a series of events which came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair (for a
review of Iran-Contra, see Fisher, 1997; Walsh, 1993). The affair began, in cooperation
with the government of Israel (Segev, 1988), as an effort to buy influence with the
government of Iran. Accomplished by selling weapons to the Iranians, including large
numbers of TOW anti-tank missiles and Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, the policy was in
direct conflict with President Reagan’s public position of refusing to sell arms to
countries with links to terrorism. In fact the U.S. was in the position of placing significant
pressure on European allies to prevent arms sales to Iran at the same time that it was
conducting such sales in secret. While it was initially claimed that these sales were
designed to strengthen moderate elements in the Iranian government, later disclosures in
Congressional hearings laid bare the fact that the arms were a form of ransom paid in an
effort to free hostages being held in Lebanon (Safire, 2002).
In the midst of these clandestine operations, Regan’s National Security Advisor
resigned and, on December 4, 1985, Poindexter was named to assume the post. This was
a monumental responsibility. Only the White House Chief of Staff, Don Regan, Vice-
President George Bush, and Poindexter were allowed free, unscheduled access to the
President (Kowert, 2002).
After the story of the arms sales began to break in Middle Eastern news sources, it
came to the Attention of the U.S. Attorney General that possible violations of Federal law
were occurring in the National Security Agency. Alerted in advance that the Justice
Department would be seizing records, Poindexter and his chief operations officer, Oliver
North, destroyed massive numbers of records and logs related to their activities. North
was fired and Poindexter resigned. Later investigation revealed the extent of the
chicanery. With authorization from Poindexter, North and retired General Richard Secord
had used the profits from the sale of the arms to Iran to (among other things) fund
military support for the anti-government forces in Nicaragua. Nicaragua had long been a
thorn in the side of the Administration. Led by Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista Government
was a communist regime that appeared to be solicitous of help from the Soviet Union.
Reagan had repeatedly tried to intervene through covert operations in an effort to support
the anti-government forces (the Contras). Lacking Congressional support, the CIA had
mined a Nicaraguan harbor, an action which caused a great deal of international
embarrassment. In response, Congress had passed the “Boland Amendment” which
denied the use of any Federal funds for support of the Contras or other intervention in
In the course of Congressional testimony, it appeared that Poindexter had
knowingly and intentionally carried out an operation to sell arms to a nation which was
believed to be supporting terrorism, to have somehow arranged to take several cargo
plane loads of U.S. arms “off the books” of the Defense Department, to have authorized
the use of the proceeds of that sale to have been placed in Swiss bank accounts, to have
authorized Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and another individual no longer associated
with the U.S. Government to gain complete control of the funds (some were later
determined to have been put to personal use), and to have directed the purchase of
weapons on the international arms market for the support of the Nicaraguan Contras. In
sum, Poindexter set up an unaccountable shadow agency for the purpose of
accomplishing an objective specifically forbidden by U.S. law. This last point sets
Poindexter up in direct juxtaposition to the U. S. Constitution. Fisher (1997, p. 224)
writes, “For reasons both constitutional and practical, U.S. foreign policy must be
conducted only with funds appropriated by Congress. Allowing the President to carry out
foreign policy with private or foreign contributions would create what the framers feared
most: the union of the purse and the sword.”
In order to carry out this scheme, Poindexter was required to lie. He lied, under
oath, to Congressional oversight committees. During later hearings on the scandal, Oliver
North famously turned lying to Congress into a patriotic act by testifying that he had no
alternative buy to lie—that he was forced to choose between lies and lives. While this
excuse played very well for conservative Republicans, the extent to which Poindexter and
North lied to their own allies and superiors did not come out in the testimony. For
example, U. S. Secretary of State George Schultz indicated that Poindexter lied to him
about arms sales to Iran. As President Reagan’s legal counsel, Peter Wallison was asked
whether Reagan could violate his own executive order that arms not be exported to
countries dealing with terrorists. In seeking to respond to the legal issues, Wallison was
advised by the White House Chief of Staff to speak with Poindexter. The story provided
to him by Poindexter was a lie (Wallison, 2003). In their book concerning the Iran-Contra
Hearings, Senators William Cohen and George Mitchell relate that Poindexter lied to the
Administration’s own chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Ed Meese (Cohen
& Mitchell, 1988).
Poindexter was even rebuked by his former boss, National Security Advisor,
Robert MacFarlane (1994, p. 103), who wrote:
Once you put a person like this in a new environment, he continues
to apply the same old skills as best he can. In John’s case, these were
discipline, loyalty to his boss, disdain for Congress and the press. I was
disappointed that his response to the scandal was to refuse accountability,
since it seemed out of keeping with his character. Yet I understood the
policy judgments he had made, and I felt a measure of responsibility for
having put him in a position for which he was unsuited.
Ultimately, Poindexter was charged with five felony counts: conspiracy, two
counts of obstruction of Congress, and two counts of false statements. He was convicted
on all charges on April 7, 1990 and sentenced to spend 6 months in prison. On Nov. 15,
1991, an appeals panel reversed Poindexter’s convictions because of immunity issues
related to his testimony before Congress in 1987.1 During Congressional testimony,
Poindexter claimed that he had acted independently and without knowledge of the
President. During his trial, he reversed himself and claimed to have acted on specific
instructions from the President. In fact, the Poindexter trial became something of a show
when Poindexter subpoenaed the former President to testify. During seven hours of
videotaped responses, President Reagan’s testimony was fraught with contradictions,
inexplicable lapses of memory, and inconsistencies with previous remarks made to the
Tower Commission (Walsh, 1993).2 Remarkably, President Reagan repeatedly claimed
that he had never been presented with evidence that any diversion of funds to the Contras
had ever occurred. He maintained this position even when shown copies of the findings
of the Tower Commission. In summarizing these events, President Reagan’s first
National Security Advisor, Robert MacFarlane, wrote “The President of the United States
is ultimately accountable for whatever happens in his administration, and his subordinates
should not be held criminally to account for a political disagreement. They never have
been before. And they should not have been in 1986. But Ronald Reagan lacked the
moral conviction and the intellectual courage to stand up in our defense and in defense of
his policy (1994, p. 360).” The final defendants in the case, including Secretary of
Defense Casper Weinberger, were pardoned by President Bush on December 24, 1992.
An Assessment of Ethics
It seems truly bizarre that the current Bush administration would choose John
Poindexter to head a project with potential implications for violation of constitutional
rights. The news story concerning TIA broke late in 2002 and each description of the
program carried some statement about it’s head, Dr. Poindexter. Conservative columnist
William Safire (2002, p. B4) wrote, “This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again
with a plan even more scandalous than Iran-Contra…This time, however, he has been
seizing power in the open.” The editorial staff of the Asheville Citizen-Times (2002, p.
A8) concluded, “The fact that a person with such proven disregard for both the law and
the truth is in charge of this project—with $10 million in funding this budget year—
should be the most prominent warning light of all.” The respected Helen Thomas, long-
time White House reporter and now syndicated Columnist wrote (2002, p. B6), “TIA’s
grandiose mission is just what its name implies: to find out everything about us…Scary,
isn’t it? Even scarier is the fact that the director of this Orwellian vision is, of all people,
John Poindexter.” Clearly, the association of Poindexter with TIA created a storm of
editorial protest, with some claiming that TIA would not be a public concern at all save
for Poindexter’s involvement (Baer, 2003, p. 1A).
Ethics of an activity, or proposed activity, may be assessed in a number of ways.
A common default argument is to examine the legality of an activity. This approach may
provide a bright line, but often is not supported by underlying theory or reasoning tied to
more lasting ethical principles. A second approach may be to examine the utility of the
activity. Utilitarianism is often used by Governments, as in Churchill’s claim that in time
of war truth is so precious that it must be guarded by a pack of lies. A final approach is to
examine the activity in question and measure it using relevant systemic criteria. In other
words, the actions of a democratic government may be assessed based upon whether
those actions involve democratic practices and promote democratic goals.
TIA and U. S. Law
The United States, while protecting individual privacy, has less protection than
the European Union, which adopted, in 1995, a directive on “The Protection of
Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of
Such Data” (Schacter, 2001, p. 329). Passage of this directive has had a positive affect on
U. S. privacy protection since American firms are often compelled to abide by the more
stringent EU standards for purposes of commerce.
DARPA staff was sufficiently concerned that TIA was a violation of the U. S.
Privacy Act of 1974 that they had begun discussions regarding the need to modify or
amend the laws (Baer, 2003). The 1974 Federal Privacy Act actually required
government record-keepers to abide by the federal Code of Fair Information Practices,
thus imparting legal authority to that document. A review of the provisions of the
document is informative (Simon, 2000, pp. 132-133):
• There shall be no personal data record-keeping systems whose very existence
is a secret.
• Means must be provided for a person to find out what information about
himself or herself is in a record and how it is used.
• Means must be provided for a person to prevent information about himself or
herself that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available
for other purposes without his or her consent.
• There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable
information about himself or herself.
• Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of
identifiable personal data must ensure the reliability of the data for its
intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data.
Obviously, TIA would be incapable of permitting individuals to obtain and
correct specific information since individuals would only be identified when patterns and
profiles emerged. The TIA data base would not be generated for its own purpose but
would be secretly gleaned from data ostensibly used for other, very private, purposes.
The 1974 law was informative in the development of international rules
concerning privacy, including the guidelines developed by the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development (Simon, 2000). These international guidelines
specify that data can only be used with the knowledge and consent of individuals, that
data provided for one purpose cannot be hijacked for another, and that individuals must
be able to access and check all databases. So, even were U. S. law changed in such a
fashion as to permit the operation of a system like TIA, the U. S. would likely find itself
in violation of international agreements.
There is often a strong desire to argue that the ends justify the means in cases of
extreme crises. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Americans felt
particularly and personally vulnerable. In this context, many felt that it would be
justifiable to shoot down an Airliner if such a vehicle were to be used as a massive
weapon, or to obliterate a portion of a city where biological agents were being prepared.
This argument, the greatest good for the greatest number, is a classical utilitarian
approach that often, and unfortunately, goes unchallenged. Bovée (1991) suggests a
number of questions that should be addressed when an appeal is made based upon means/
ends reasoning: Is the end universally good or simply good for us? Is the end actually
immoral or simply unpopular or distasteful? Are more ethical means available if we are
simply more patient, deliberative or skillful? Will the consequences of the bad means be
more noxious than the good effects of the ends?
Most important is the question of whether the unethical means will, in fact,
produce the good ends. In this case TIA may be judged entirely unethical because it
cannot be shown to be efficacious. According to Pyle (2003), data mining suffers from
three primary problems: bias of the data set, garbage (spurious relationships), and over
searching (e.g., “If you look long enough and hard enough for any particular pattern in a
data set, the more you look, the more likely you are to find it—whether it’s meaningful or
not.” p. 363). In the present context, consider the trade-off between type I and type II
error in a data set. In the social sciences, type I error protections (avoiding a false positive
result) are established at a minimum level of .05. That means that we are unwilling to
publish research findings unless we are 95% certain that the findings are not the result of
chance (statistical random fluctuations). However, type I and type II error are reciprocal.
Any increase in one leads to a decrease in the other. So, in order to avoid the potential for
a false positive, we must open the door for possible false negative (type II) errors. In the
social sciences, we generally accept type II protection above .80. Type II error is also a
function of effect size—the extent to which a particular phenomenon can be observed in a
larger population. In summary, if statistical analysis is established to prevent false
positives (suspecting innocent citizens of terrorist activity), and given the fact that the
effect size (number of discovered terrorists compared to size of the population) is
incredibly low, the system will be extremely prone to type II error (missing the terrorists).
Of course, the programmers may introduce high levels of type I error in an effort to
increase statistical power. That is exactly what civil libertarians are concerned about.
Another concern related to data set bias is that terrorists will quickly learn not to
use credit cards or bank accounts to purchase suspicious materials immediately before
booking one-way airfare at the last minute. Gilham Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture
fund established by the CIA, discussed the issues and related them to friends of his who,
“…have Arabic names…they are naturalized citizens and because they are investment
bankers they buy one-way tickets” (Lohr, 2003, p. 6). Louie argues against a data mining,
or profiling, system since it would be much more likely to produce faulty results,
particularly given the adaptive nature of the terrorist threat. Rather, he argues that data
analysis should only be brought to bear when suspicions arising from normal
investigative leads occur. This would have proven effective in the case of the 9/11 attacks
since two FBI offices had communicated suspicious activity by the terrorists. TIA would
not have been required. However, the manner in which innocent individuals are swept up
into terrorist investigations was recently illustrated with the FBI’s Carnivore e-mail
reading system when agents destroyed data concerning Osama bin Laden’s network
because the investigation swept in large quantities of private correspondence (Schwartz,
Critics have vociferously attacked the utility of TIA. Fortune magazine named it
the Worst Technology of 2002 and Chris Hoofnagle, counsel for the Electronic Privacy
Information Center claimed, “This type of profiling has been the goal of direct market for
years…If you get a 2 to 3 percent response from direct mail, that’s considered a victory.
That’s how inaccurate the system is. With junk mail, you can just throw it away; we’re
talking about people’s civil liberties being invaded here” (Baer, 2003, p. 1A). At the very
least, the efficacy of TIA has been seriously questioned.
Development of Academic Criteria for Evaluating Ethics
While a good deal of attention has been devoted to the development of criteria
related to public discourse, very little has been accorded issues of personal privacy
(Johannesen, 2002). Transfer of concepts may be possible in some cases. For example,
ethics models are often based upon the standards of the political system in which
government officials function. In other words, in a democratic political system, political
discourse must employ and promote democratic ideals to be judged ethical (Cody &
Among the standards often recommended in this area are equality and self-
determination. Both of these elements are fundamental to democracy and free enterprise
and both may be applied to the current case of data mining. Data mining systems such as
TIA are essentially profiling systems which cast suspicion on individuals due to country
of origin and personal characteristics (Lohr, 2003). To the extent that individuals are
placed under suspicion and increased scrutiny through no fault or actions of their own,
but due to personal characteristics beyond their control, such as surname, the proposed
system may be judged unethical. Self-determination is characteristic of systems in which
political power is vested in the individual rather than in the political system. In the U.S.
Bill of Rights, great care is taken to protect the rights of the minority and the rights of
individuals under suspicion. In fact, 5th amendment protections against unreasonable
search and seizure are the basis for U. S. privacy law and have been interpreted by the
Supreme Court as a basic human right—the right to be left alone. This feature of self-
determination could pose a significant constitutional challenge for TIA.
Beyond that, Sissela Bok has written extensively concerning truthfulness and
secrecy in private and public life. In Secrets, she argues that it is vital that individuals
retain control over secrecy concerning private matters, “With no control over secrecy and
openness, human beings could not remain either sane or free” (Bok, 1984, p. 69). Bok
warns specifically and urgently about the joining of power and secrecy and concludes
that such an arrangement invites abuse. Her analysis may be summarized as pointing
toward an ethical arrangement in democratic society where individuals retain significant
control over their own personal information but government is an open book, inviting
voters to fully understand policy and practices in order to prevent abuse. Unfortunately,
current government efforts, including TIA, have been characterized as a “one-way
information highway…[in which] government wants to learn more and divulge less”
(Kuhnhenn & Brown, 2002, p. 1)
Aftermath and Conclusions
The death knell for TIA began when the program was seriously questioned by
Republican lawmakers and conservative media commentators (Eggen & O’Harrow,
2003). In particular the program’s association with John Poindexter provided critics with
substantial ammunition to question the Defense Department’s wisdom. Reacting to
outrage over TIA, Senators led by Ron Wyden (Democrat of Oregon) tacked an
amendment onto an important spending bill. Passed without opposition, the Wyden
amendment effectively ended the Pentagon program (Chaffin, 2003). The Senate action
eclipsed last-minute efforts by the Pentagon to save the program by providing for an
oversight committee and renaming the project Terrorism Information Awareness.
John Poindexter’s reappearance in government as the Director of the Office of
Information Awareness undoubtedly functioned to bring adverse attention to TIA. In fact,
the whole incident seemed stranger than fiction. Apparently with no regard for the
privacy issues involved, Poindexter chose to represent TIA with the symbol of a great
eyeball inside a pyramid attentively watching an image of the globe. In other words, we
(the Federal Government, symbolized historically by the pyramid) are watching
everyone. Over his office door, Poindexter fixed the Latin motto, “Scientia Est Potentia,”
“knowledge is power” (Safire, 2003). Understanding that TIA was a plan to accumulate
all available knowledge about all U. S. citizens in one massive data base, Poindexter must
surely have recognized the extent of his apparent megalomania.
Besides Poindexter, several figures from the Iran-Contra schedule have been
allowed back into government during the current Bush Administration. Explaining this
phenomenon is difficult and involves outright speculation. It is however, a fact that Vice-
President George H. W. Bush, despite his later claims during his Presidential campaign to
have been completely out of the loop on the Iran-Contra decision making, was actively
present at key meetings where decisions were made on sale of arms to Iran. This fact was
established when Defense Secretary Weinberger’s notes were published. The special
prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, concluded in the executive summary of his final report
“Independent Counsel's investigation did not develop evidence that
proved that Vice President Bush violated any criminal statute. Contrary to his
public pronouncements, however, he was fully aware of the Iran arms sales.
Bush was regularly briefed, along with the President, on the Iran arms sales,
and he participated in discussions to obtain third-country support for the
contras. The OIC obtained no evidence that Bush was aware of the diversion.
The OIC learned in December 1992 that Bush had failed to produce a diary
containing contemporaneous notes relevant to Iran/contra, despite requests
made in 1987 and again in early 1992 for the production of such material.
Bush refused to be interviewed for a final time in light of evidence developed
in the latter stages of OIC's investigation, leaving unresolved a clear picture of
his Iran/contra involvement. Bush's pardon of Weinberger on December 24,
1992 pre-empted a trial in which defense counsel indicated that they intended
to call Bush as a witness.
If Bush had been involved in committee decisions to authorize Poindexter, North,
and others to engage in questionable activities, then it would not be unreasonable to
assume that the current President might wish to find means to aid those who met with
criminal prosecution over the affair—particularly since his father had avoided being
deposed by the special prosecutor. It must be remembered, however, that Poindexter
approached the DOD with the idea for TIA. There is no evidence that the current Bush
administration was actively seeking his service.
One unfortunate consequence of the involvement of Poindexter is that U. S.
officials may view the loss of the TIA program as a tactical rather than a strategic loss. In
other words, they may believe that the message is sound if a more palatable messenger
can be found. In fact, there is evidence that some aspects of TIA are still being actively
researched by another new federal office called the Advanced Research and Development
Activity (Markoff, 2003). Another apparent strategy is to get private companies and
contractors to do the work that the Government is barred from doing. This approach,
straight out of the Iran-Contra textbook, may have been involved in a recent incident in
which JetBlue admitted that it had, “provided travel records on more than a million
passengers to a Pentagon contractor, violating its own privacy rules…The contractor,
Torch Concepts,…matched the JetBlue records against another database to determine the
passengers’ Social Security numbers, occupations and family size in an effort to identify
potential terrorists” (Shenon & Schwartz, 2003, C1).
Clearly, it would be disastrous to conclude that the uproar over governmental data
mining was caused solely by active involvement of Poindexter. Serious public
discussions concerning the ethics of such government activity and it’s implications for
citizens privacy rights must occur. Perhaps many Americans feel that freedoms must be
sacrificed to save the nation from terrorism. Others feel that such a path would rob the
nation of her soul. These sentiments were expressed on a different occasion by President
Abraham Lincoln, who in an April, 1864 address at Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Maryland,
stated: “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the
same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with
himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word many mean for
some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here
are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name - liberty.
And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different
and incompatible names - liberty and tyranny" (Basler, 1953, pp. 301-302). Poindexter
was rebuked at trial for placing his judgment above that of the citizens of the United
States. More recently, he desired to mobilize vast stores of personal information in an
effort to preserve our liberty. Is that liberty or is it tyranny?
Following the demise of TIA, John Poindexter remained at DARPA for the
purpose of pursuing new ideas for fighting terrorism. He quickly became involved in
advocating the development of an online futures market for betting on Middle Eastern
developments (Graham, 2003). “FutureMap” was a scheme to allow individuals to place
secure bets on the probability of future events, including terrorist attacks, assassinations,
changes in governments, etc. The scheme raised the specter of individuals profiting from
terrorist activity (e.g., “I’ve got $500 down on a bombing in Israel this week,” or “If
Sharon is assassinated, I stand to make over $1000”). The scheme was based on the
notion that the accumulated judgment of vast numbers of individuals would be more
accurate than expert opinion—as is the case with financial futures. However, the idea was
deeply offensive to many individuals on both sides of the political isle and Poindexter
was finally forced to resign from office, again, on August 12, 2003.
Poindexter appealed to his Constitutional rights (the 5th amendment) against self-
incrimination when called to testify at the Iran-Contra hearings. Congress then granted
him immunity from prosecution in order to compel his testimony, despite warnings from
the independent prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, that such immunity might jeopardize
Poindexter’s prosecution. While Poindexter and North were both found guilty, their
convictions were overturned on appeal.
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