The dot-connector

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(Washington, D.C.): Nearly two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, official Washington was seized with The Question: Had there been prior warning of these devastating acts of terror? And, if so, could it have been acted upon so as to prevent the premeditated murder of thousands of Americans?

The recently released report of a joint congressional intelligence committee’s investigation into this topic confirms what many experts had assumed: Of course, there were warnings of these attacks — both of a general and even of a somewhat specific nature. The problem was, as is usually the case, differentiating before the fact such salient information from what the intelligence professionals call the “noise” — the background clutter that is irrelevant or at least uninformative.

The investigation also confirmed that matters were made worse by various bureaucratic, regulatory and procedural arrangements that impeded such action as might have been taken to disrupt the hijackers’ plot before it was perpetrated. In short, there were “dots” that might have been connected but built-in impediments made even more problematic the always difficult task of connecting such dots without the filtering benefit of hindsight.

How to Do Better Next Time

Ever since September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration has recognized that, as important as the events and lessons of that day may be, there is an even-more-pressing task: Figuring out how to discern — and draw appropriate connections between — the pieces of information that suggest the nature and timing of possible future terrorist attacks. The absence to date of more deadly incidents in this country is, in part at least, a reflection of this focus (together with the President’s offensive strategy aimed at disrupting enemy networks and making it harder for them to operate with impunity in our homeland).

As the Bush team sought to enhance the government’s ability to connect the dots for counter-terrorism purposes, it was fortunate to secure a return to public service of one of the Nation’s most formidable national security practitioners: Retired Navy admiral John Poindexter.

A top graduate of the Naval Academy, Adm. Poindexter had an exemplary career in his service and would likely have retired as one of its few four-stars but for his answering the call to help run the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan. In the course of that assignment, he became embroiled in decisions aiding pro-U.S. Nicaraguan freedom fighters that the then-Democratic-controlled Congress was determined to abandon. For those who have had the privilege of knowing and working with him, the vitriolic, demeaning and career-terminating treatment to which this outstanding military officer was subsequently subjected was the real scandal, not what happened on his watch at the NSC.

A Job for DARPA

It was, therefore, highly gratifying that at a moment of national crisis, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was able to enlist Adm. Poindexter once more in the service of his country. Drawing on his vast experience with defense, intelligence and information technologies, the Admiral was given a post at one of the most creative and productive organizations in the federal government, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). His assignment: Develop ways to improve our ability to connect the dots.

In this capacity, Adm. Poindexter has been a driving force behind two promising DARPA initiatives: the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project and the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). The former envisioned using commercially available data-mining techniques to discern and assimilate terrorism-relevant information from government and private sector sources. The latter proposed to utilize well-established market techniques to draw out and evaluate information about possible terrorist scenarios.

Critics have cast these two initiatives in a very different light. The TIA project has been portrayed as Big Brother incarnate, a wholly unaccountable means for government to collect and utilize private information without regard for Americans’ civil rights. For its part, PAM precipitated a firestorm of criticism on Capitol Hill and in the press after it was caricatured as a government-sponsored “terrorism futures market.” John Poindexter’s association with these ideas was invariably used by their opponents to further their demands that the programs be terminated. One such critic, Senator Barbara Boxer, went so far as to say of PAM, Congress should “end the careers of whoever it was who thought that up.”

Unfortunately, Sen. Boxer has gotten her wish. Adm. Poindexter announced last week that he will once again be leaving government service. This decision had to be all the more painful for it being accompanied by a truncation of his Information Awareness program, a smoking crater where the PAM project was to be and his reputation once again sullied by people who are unworthy to hold John Poindexter’s coat.

The Bottom Line

Such people will doubtless be among the first to find fault the next time there is a terrorist attack and the dots that might have prevented the ensuing death and destruction were not connected. Should such an attack occur, however, the blame will likely lie at least in part with them for impeding effective use of tools that can and should be properly used to anticipate and address terrorist threats — and not with a patriot named John Poindexter who advanced them when, to his credit, he once again selflessly and creatively answered his Nation’s call to service.

Frank Gaffney, Jr.
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