Conspiracy theory

This one goes out to all the conspiracy geeks out there

If you ever want to see ordinarily tolerant people roll their eyes, turn on their heels and hit the door, you only have to say two words: conspiracy theory.

I’m generally one of those heel-turners, subscribing—as I do—to the belief that most people are far too incompetent to keep a secret, let alone accomplish nefarious deeds under a vast cloak of anonymity. On the other hand, I’m not totally close-minded. I know there are real conspiracies out there—the movement of illegal drugs, prostitution rings and corporate and political cover-ups.

So, when I hear the president commenting on a “shadow government” designed to take over in the event of a terrorist attack on Washington, D.C.—without the benefit of a legislative or judicial branch—or about American citizens, like Yaser Esam Hamdi, being held incommunicado on nebulous terrorist charges, I have to overcome my natural inclination toward disbelief.

“This case appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to an indefinite detention in the continental United States without charges, without any finding by a military tribunal, and without access to a lawyer,” U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story about the refusal of the government to give up information on the Hamdi case.

If nothing else, those kinds of statements prove to me that things are changing in this country. And then I see things like DARPA’s Web site,, and my stomach gets all fliggy.

DARPA is the Department of Defense’s research and development agency. The acronym stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency is not a particularly secret organization, unlike the National Security Agency. In fact, it is widely known for pioneering the development of the Internet (ARPANET) back in 1962.DARPA was established in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. Its mission was to keep the United States’ military technology ahead of its enemies'. The agency has around 240 personnel (about 140 technical) managing a $2.7 billion budget for the 2003 fiscal year.

The item that has me wondering can be found on the DARPA’s Information Awareness Office site, (incidentally, the agency collects information on who visits the site, so if you have a fixed IP address for any reason, you’re identified). It’s called the “Total Information Awareness System,” and it’s a doozy. John Poindexter, former national security adviser (1985-1986), is director of the Information Awareness Office. For those who don’t recall, Poindexter was convicted on five counts of deceiving Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal. The conviction was later set aside. I also read somewhere that he’s the model for Tom Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan.

The goal of the TIA program is to “revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists—and decipher their plans—and thereby enable the United States to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts.”

The method is simple: Compile every available piece of information about every individual on the planet, run it through a complex algorithm and look for individuals that fit certain criteria for further surveillance. The information comes from a variety of sources: financial, educational, travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry, transportation, housing, critical resources, government and communications. This is a database beyond any database that current technology can build.

The problem, as I understand it, is that while this program is directed at “foreign terrorists,” in order to parse out the terrorists, it has to look at everybody. It’s the fact that few non-Westernized countries keep the sorts of records the TIA wants to analyze to find terrorists that makes me worry about my privacy.

Some of the components to the TIA system are quite intriguing. The Effective, Affordable, Reusable Speech-to-Text (EARS) program will allow automatic transcription of broadcasts and telephone conversations in multiple languages. The Babylon program will develop rapid, two-way, natural language speech translation interfaces for the soldier to use in field environments. The Human Identification at a Distance program will develop automated biometric identification technologies to detect and identify humans from great distances.

Presumably, these systems would work in conjunction with programs like the FBI e-mail sniffing program, DCS1000 (formerly Carnivore), and the NSA’s communications monitoring program, Echelon. It only gets weirder. For example, the Washington Times reported last week that space agency NASA told Northwest Airlines security specialists that it has a plan to read travelers’ minds to identify terrorists and is developing the technology with an unidentified commercial firm.

Add into this the mission of the DARPA’s Information Exploitation Office, which basically locates targets using TIA-styled information to “enable U.S. forces to put at risk, engage and kill any ground target, anywhere, at any time.”

Finally, sprinkle into the mix U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Citizens Corps spy program, add a dollop of customer databases from bookstores and preferred-customer cards at grocery stores, and you’ve got an Orwellian recipe for a novel. How would you like to get a second look by a government agency for buying bleach, iodine, fertilizer or hummus?

Conspiracies must, by definition, be secret. They must also, by definition, be illegal. But with things like the Patriot Act and the Justice Department’s softening of policies against monitoring domestic political activities, I’m fairly certain none of this stuff is prima facie illegal, even if it is repugnant.

War is hell, I know. But it remains to be seen if privacy becomes a casualty of the war on terrorism. In the meantime, though, don’t try to bring any of this stuff up with your neighbors; they’ll probably just turn on their heels and beat feet.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.