The secret disservice

Alexander Chancellor
Saturday December 14, 2002
The Guardian

The US government has a new objective in its war on terrorism, an objective it calls "total information awareness". This is a very creepy expression, but it suits the creepy nature of the government's intention, which is to find out absolutely everything about absolutely everybody and store all the information on a "virtual centralised grand database" in the Pentagon. The idea is that, if you know everything about everyone and are able to analyse this knowledge correctly, you should then be able to identify potential terrorists and prevent them doing whatever it is they are about to do.

The Orwellian nature of this scheme has not escaped notice in the US. The columnist William Safire, once a speechwriter for President Nixon and hardly a leftie, has called it "the supersnoop's dream", in which "every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every email you send or receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book" will go into the database. The New Yorker has warned that this could help to destroy "the last vestiges of individual and family privacy".

There are doubtless many people who think that practically any sacrifice, even of fundamental civil liberties, is worth it if it helps to put an end to terrorist atrocities. But even they cannot feel reassured by the impenetrable "newspeak" that is used to describe every aspect of the new "Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense". The logo displayed on its website is already spooky enough - a mystic eye at the top of a pyramid, illuminating the globe. Beneath is a portentous slogan in Latin, "Scientia est Potentia" ("Knowledge is Power"). You can tell already that the IAO thinks of itself as something more than just a section of a section within a sprawling bureaucracy. Then comes its mission statement: "The Information Awareness Office will imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition [sic] information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for pre-emption; national security warning; and national security decision making." It would have been clearer had it simply described its mission as electronic snooping on an unprecedented scale. It makes no bones about this. "The key to fighting terrorism is information," it explains.

One practical way of garnering information will be to enable Americans to understand what foreigners are saying. The IAO is promoting an electronic translation device it calls "Babylon" for use by the military in the field. It is initially to focus on "high-terrorist-risk languages", which it identifies as Pashto, Dari, Arabic and Mandarin. But the illustration on the website shows a woman in a headscarf conversing with an American soldier in Farsi.

Babylon sounds innocent to the point of naivety, which is maybe why the IAO is so eager to tell us about it. It may be trying to dispel the impression that it is engaged only in sinister, covert activities. But it shows it knows what we are thinking when it includes among its gobbledegook the claim that "the privacy of individuals not affiliated with terrorism" will be protected by "technologies for controlling automated search and exploitation algorithms and for purging data structures appropriately".

Are we reassured? Well, conceivably, some of us might be, were it not for the fact that the man designated to run the IAO is none other than admiral John Poindexter, a man described by William Safire as a "master of deceit". Remember Poindexter? As a national security adviser to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he masterminded the secret and illegal operation by which the US sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. He was convicted on five charges of misleading Congress and making false statements, but was later acquitted on appeal on the grounds that the testimony he gave to Congress, false though some of it may have been, had been given under a grant of immunity.

It seems incredible that this disgraced admiral should have been granted a $200m budget to create a computer file on every US citizen. It shows how confident President Bush must be feeling that he is willing to take such a risk.