SPY speaks with author Shane Harris about his assertion the American government still can’t discern future threats in the vast data cloud, but can now spy on its citizens with an ease that was impossible and illegal just a few years ago.
Mr. Harris will be at SPY next Thursday to answer questions and discuss his book The Watchers- The Rise of America’s Surveillance State.
Q: Who are the Watchers?
A: The Watchers are five men who’ve played extraordinary roles in building, and in some cases tearing down, computer systems that can ingest and analyze huge amounts of electronic information about terrorist threats. Their quest is to “connect the dots” about future threats to the United States. Most of these men have worked behind the secretive veil of the intelligence community at some point in their career, but they all share a common thread: Their most important work became the subject of intense public scrutiny, which is rare in the spy world. Chief among the Watchers is retired Admiral John Poindexter, the narrative protagonist of the book. The story begins with him as deputy national security adviser to Ronald Regan in 1983. After a terrorist attack on Marines in Beirut, Poindexter set out to build a system that could detect the signals of impending crises in the databases of government intelligence. He continued that quest after the 9/11 attacks with a controversial program called Total Information Awareness. The other Watchers are Michael Hayden, the one-time director of the National Security Agency; Mike McConnell, ex-director of national intelligence; a software designer named Jeff Jonas, who worked briefly with Poindexter and then became one of his most prominent skeptics; and a former Army major named Erik Kleinsmith, who was the lead analyst on a secret data-mining program code named Able Danger, which may have detected the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in the United States months before September 11, 2001.
Q: Whose watching the Watchers?
A: We have a new generation of Watchers today, and I’m sad to say that they’re mostly watching themselves. The system of oversight we’ve set up in the United States, which is supposed to provide some check on executive surveillance authority, gives tremendous deference to the intelligence agencies to collect information on just about anyone they choose. While there are significant checks to guard against unwarranted monitoring of American citizens’ phone calls or email exchanges, they’re not sufficient for our current data-driven world, in which there are few meaningful impediments–technological or legal–to acquiring information about people. One way or another, the government can get this data. And often, it’s the seemingly innocuous information that is the most revealing. For example, you can learn more about a person’s day-to-day activities and his personal connections by examining his phone logs than by actually listening in on his phone conversations. The former class of data is, legally and technically, easier to get than the latter. The government knows this.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned about the government’s massive collection capabilities. We live in an era of accessible information, after all. And for the most part, people like that, because it helps us communicate, move about, and shop more easily. Our laws are mostly focused on collecting data, rather than what government agencies actually do with it behind closed doors. And that’s where we need to pay more attention. We should set up new rules for how the Watchers use information about us. And we should employ technology to keep tabs on them. We should, in fact, start watching the Watchers with the very same tools they use to watch us.
Q: Is Admiral John Poindexter the new Dr. Strangelove- or: Should we learn to stop worrying and love Big Brother?
A: It’s tempting to think of him that way. And when I first met him, I was expecting an evil genius character straight out of Cold War fiction. But I quickly realized that he is far more rational, thoughtful, and decent than his most ardent critics have portrayed him. I don’t propose that we stop worrying about Big Brother–but neither does John Poindexter. In fact, when he conceived of his Total Information Awareness system after 9/11, privacy-protecting technologies were at its core. He imagined a system in which all identifying features of the data–names, locations, etc.–would be encrypted, so that an analyst using a TIA program would not know the identities of the people underlying all the information on his screen. If the analyst could form some basis of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a person in the data was engaged in terrorist plot, then the government would have to get a judge’s approval to “unlock” the encryption and see who was really behind that anonymous information. It was a radical proposal, and it would have built a tangible measure of privacy protection into government surveillance. Sadly, when the Congress pulled the public funding on Poindexter’s programs, and shifted them into the classified intelligence budget, they did not continue the research on privacy. That was a mistake.
Q: Who came up with the idea for the all seeing eye pyramid in Information Awareness Office (IAO) logo? Clever design or Masonic plot?
A: Not a clever design, definitely not a plot. Robert Popp, Poindexter’s deputy, came up with it. He’d been going back and forth with an artist, whose designs had left Popp uninspired. As Popp told me, his secretary came into his office to deliver a sandwich from a nearby deli. She put the sandwich and Popp’s change down on his desk. Popp looked over and saw a $1 bill, with the Great Seal on the back–a pyramid topped by a large eye. He had a kind of eureka moment. The eye would stand for the letter I in Information Awareness Office. The pyramid was in the shape of an A. So, he had the first two letters of the acronym. For the O, Popp thought, what better symbol than a globe? Global vision, global security, global awareness. So, “IAO” became an eye atop a pyramid casting its gaze over the world. Popp ran the idea by Poindexter–he liked it. To this day, Poindexter doesn’t see why people reacted so strongly to the image, why they found it so menacing and ominous. I’ve explained the reasons to him several times. He doesn’t agree.
Q: What should be learn from the case of the Umar Abdulmutallab, the Chirstmas Day Bomber, about the progress of the Watchers?
A: I’m afraid this case tells us the Watchers are losing ground on their fundamental goal. The government has become very good at collecting the dots about terrorism, but not at connecting them. The Watchers always believed they had to do both. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it became easier to amass huge databases of information than to build sophisticated tools for making sense of that data. This latter challenge has always been harder, and our intelligence agencies are still struggling with it.