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It's not surprising that airport security took on extreme urgency after September 11th. No-fly lists were just a clunky, stop-gap measure. The government also began work on a far more vast and sophisticated system, one that would piggyback on the private-sector data industry. Federal officials teamed with Acxiom, Lexis-Nexis and other companies to develop a new "computer-assisted, passenger pre-screening program" - CAPPS II for short.
CAPPS II was designed to start with basic information of the kind you give when you buy a ticket: your name, your address. It would then search rapidly through massive commercial databases, drawing on public and commercial records: home addresses, past and present; auto registration; the existence of a credit file. The goal: to confirm that you're really you, and that you have a history. That is, you're not a terrorist using an alias.
"I think it's important that the airlines, the airport operator, the federal government, go through some kind of threat analysis," says Bill Jennings, the executive director of the Orlando Aviation Authority.
Privacy advocates and some members of Congress objected that CAPPS II pried too far into Americans' lives. Jennings says he doesn't believe the system is intrusive. But last August, with the presidential campaign entering the home stretch, the Bush administration announced it was putting off further testing of CAPPS II until after the election. The program now has a new name: "Secure Flight," and a slogan: "Preserving our Freedoms."
A more sweeping counterterrorism program went way beyond airport security: the Pentagon program once named "Total Information Awareness." The goal of TIA was stunningly ambitious: to monitor and scan databases worldwide - travel records, sales of chemicals that could be used to make bombs, phone calls and e-mail.
The creators of Total Information Awareness at Darpa, the Pentagon's research and development arm, showed poor instincts for public relations. Besides the program's Orwellian-sounding name, they created a logo that featured an all-seeing eye scanning the globe. To run TIA they hired John Poindexter, the former national security adviser in the Reagan administration and a leading figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
"When you do [a research-and-development] project, it is important to be expansive," says Poindexter. He says he viewed the mission as a 21st century Manhattan Project. "We are up against an opponent where their stated objective is to destroy the United States."
But he stresses he was giving close attention to privacy concerns, looking for ways to prevent the abuse of TIA.
"I have this concept of what I call a privacy appliance," says Poindexter. "A device that sits on top of a database of information."
The device, as envisioned by Poindexter, would place some limits on the intelligence analyst who's looking for information.
"The appliance would first check and authenticate who the user is. It would also check the authorization that the user had to ask for this specific kind of information that could be contained in the response to the query."
Poindexter says the appliance could allow agents to search for patterns of behavior in the data while blocking the identities of those being monitored, at least in preliminary searches. In any case, Poindexter says Total Information Awareness was only a research and development program. The decision to implement it would have been made by others in Congress or the White House.
But after reports surfaced about the program and Poindexter's involvement, civil liberties activists and some lawmakers howled. They evoked Big Brother, and said Poindexter couldn't be trusted, given his involvement in Iran-Contra.
Continue to Part 3