Lightning Rod

John Poindexter wants to help government predict the future. But how does he escape his past?

John Poindexter stood before a room of mostly strangers, looking like a college professor. On a screen behind him flashed impenetrable-looking diagrams filled with different-colored shapes marked "privacy appliance," "pattern-based query," "distributed databases." Poindexter explained each one in detail, willing the crowd to understand. This was part of his masterwork, the solution to a problem he'd pursued all his life: How to know everything.

Poindexter calls it "Tia," for Total Information Awareness. He uses the acronym like a woman's name. TIA is a hypothetical system of information technologies and analytic processes that Poindexter believes would allow U.S. officials to predict and prevent terrorist attacks. He hardly could have had a more receptive audience than the security experts, academics and technologists gathered before him at a counterterrorism symposium at Syracuse University in March.

Poindexter introduced TIA to the Defense Department in October 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks appeared to show that the world's smartest intelligence services were incapable of connecting dots in a line of intelligence pointing to the assaults. Poindexter believes TIA might have put those dots together.

The Pentagon agreed and, in January 2002, installed the retired vice admiral as director of the new Information Awareness Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the brain trust that developed stealth aircraft and the precursor to the Internet. TIA researchers explored technologies to analyze and share information the government possessed, mostly in the databases of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. That was hardly controversial. It was the second track that scared the hell out of people.

The TIA team wanted to follow the data outside government-for example, into airline reservation systems, banking records or telephone logs. They wanted to find out whether total information awareness about terrorists in the United States would require watching the daily transactions of innocent people. If so, they wondered, could they do so without fundamentally redefining privacy? A reasonable line of inquiry, Poindexter thought. Perfect for DARPA's big thinkers.

But they never found out. Before TIA's first birthday, Poindexter's work had spawned a national controversy. Amidst a new global war on terror backed by enhanced government powers to monitor Americans granted by the 2001 USA Patriot Act, Poindexter's quest for total information awareness assumed an Orwellian cast.

Fueling the fears of TIA critics was Poindexter's past. He is best known for his stint as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser during a covert war in Central America. In the mid-1980s, Poindexter, with members of the National Security Council staff and others, directed U.S. efforts to oust a left-wing government in Nicaragua by funding a paramilitary insurgency, the contras. They partially financed the operation with money obtained from arms sales to the fundamentalist Iranian government, which had suspected ties to terrorists. When the details of the operation broke, it threatened to bring down the White House, and it derailed Poindexter's career.

The combination of TIA, a system that smacked of spying on Americans, and Poindexter, a man accused of lying to Congress and the American public about the Iran-Contra affair, was unacceptable to legislators. Poindexter resigned from government for the second time in August 2003, after 20 months. Congress eliminated TIA funding a month later.

A great irony of the TIA fallout is that by killing the project, Congress halted some of the most forward-thinking research on protecting privacy in a data-driven society. That research was a core component of TIA's design. By blocking DARPA from studying total information awareness, Congress helped keep much of the effort in the private sector, where oversight is harder.

Undeniably, it was Poindexter's involvement that turned fear of TIA's potential misuse into certainty that its intentions were evil. Just as Poindexter became a focal point for those outraged over Iran-Contra, so he became the lightning rod for TIA. "John took the heat for everyone," says Doug Dyer, a former Air Force colonel who led the privacy research on TIA. "He was the target."

'The Buck Stops Here With Me'

At the Syracuse symposium, Poindexter finished talking, sat down and invited questions. A few rows away, Sam Alcoff, a 24-year-old Syracuse undergraduate and prominent campus activist, raised his hand.

Alcoff scoffed at Poindexter's assertion that TIA would protect the privacy of the innocent by including devices to mask people's identities unless a court ordered a name revealed. Since TIA research had been halted months earlier, Alcoff reasoned, "We'll have to take your word for it that no one could abuse the system. But how can we take your word for it, Adm. Poindexter, when you lied to Congress and the American people?"

Poindexter sighed.

"You're a liar!" Alcoff shouted. People looked away, out the windows. They worried pens and water glasses. Poindexter shook his head. "You have a very limited understanding of what a research project is," he retorted. "You're a liar!" Alcoff yelled louder. "You authorized death squads in Nicaragua who raped and murdered people!" A few listeners shot Alcoff disapproving looks. A professor nearby rumbled, "Why don't you shut up!"

"Do you have a question?" a university official interjected, steering back to TIA. "Yes," Alcoff said. "Adm. Poindexter, if your system is so good at catching terrorists, how long will it take to catch you?"

Poindexter's eyes narrowed. The room waited. Poindexter opened his mouth, stopped and shook his head. "Young man, you were probably in grade school when all that happened." Then he waved his hands and signaled for another question.

Poindexter bristles when people call him a lightning rod. He prefers "controversial," a word he ascribes to himself, his ideas and his deeds. But like a lightning rod, Poindexter takes a hit to protect those around him. In July 1987, he swore to the congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra that President Reagan never knew about the money he sent to the contras. Had Reagan known, lawmakers might have impeached him-and Poindexter says he recognized that. "The buck stops here with me," Poindexter famously told committee members during the nationally televised hearings. Years later, when his presence imperiled his pet project, TIA, Poindexter took the fall and resigned, though by doing so he didn't save all of the system.

To some, Poindexter remains a pariah, but some technology executives and former federal officials call him a visionary. Poindexter didn't dream up the idea of culling data for unseen clues, they say, but he did propose an architecture for many systems that was far bolder than anything ever seen. Lately, some are going public to say Poindexter was onto something. In May, the bipartisan Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, which the Defense Department asked to review TIA, concluded that the research was aimed at "worthwhile ends." Committee member William Coleman, a former Transportation secretary, applauded DARPA's efforts to research new privacy protection technology.

In March, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who served on the independent commission investigating 9/11, lauded his old friend Poindexter for his efforts, even if they were called overzealous by some. Lehman noted that at the time of his resignation, Poindexter was the only high-ranking official to be pushed out of government in the wake of the attacks, "because of an excessive zeal to catch these bastards," Lehman said in a speech to the U.S. Naval Institute, referring to terrorists.

Reflecting on denunciations from the likes of Alcoff, Poindexter says, "That's the exception to the rule. To a lot of people, I'm a hero."

Faith in the System

On a windy April afternoon outside Washington, Poindexter would rather be sailing. But he must work. He has worked incessantly; through his childhood in Indiana, so he could grow up and get on with his studies; through a stellar trajectory at the Naval Academy, graduating in 1958 atop a class of 899 midshipmen, and crowning the achievement with a Ph.D. in physics from Caltech six years later. He managed a nearly spotless 29 years in the Navy, commanding a cruiser and a destroyer squadron, serving three Navy secretaries and one chief of naval operations-the highest-ranking officer in the service-and topping out as national security adviser in 1986. Today, at 67, Poindexter runs a private consulting practice, working-at least in part-to support his sailing habit.

TIA is his most important project. Poindexter has been on a speaking tour this year promoting his ideas to gatherings of intellectuals and policy wonks. He spars with privacy advocates who say the government can't fight terrorism and protect civil liberties-he thinks it can. He thinks the problem is scientific and therefore understandable.

Poindexter wonders more about how things work than about what people think of him. Most of TIA's detractors never tried to understand his ideas, he says, calling them Luddites, "bury their heads in the sand types," who got their facts wrong. Many did, particularly reporters and columnists, but the doubts and fears they stirred up prevailed. Misunderstanding, imprecision, lack of reason, bother Poindexter deeply.

That April afternoon, Poindexter and his wife, Linda, were expecting their 14th grandchild. Pictures of the other 13 and the Poindexters' five sons and their wives fill the living room. But along with anticipation there was sadness. Kizmie, Poindexter's 9-year-old golden retriever, was dying of cancer, and the thought of losing one of his two constant companions and sailing partners-Linda being the other-twists Poindexter's face, and his voice quivers. He stops talking about it. "I compartmentalize things fairly easily," he says later. "I can switch from one subject to the other."

The Poindexter house is like a Navy ship: order through cleanliness and design. Poindexter sits in his living room chair, smoking a pipe. His ashtray is spotless. Periodically, he bends down to straighten the tassels of a large rug or to pick dust specks off the floor. Poindexter built some of the living room furniture, and the house shows few signs of age. "I married Mr. Clean," Linda says.

Poindexter maximizes space in his tiny study. Against one wall sits his information awareness center-an array of gear including two personal computers, a cellular phone, a printer. Poindexter uses these machines to stay in constant contact with family and associates. Two decades ago, he became one of Washington's first telecommuters, rigging an electronic-message network between his home, the White House and the homes of national security aides. Deleting some messages pertaining to Iran-Contra got him indicted for destruction of government documents. His 42-foot sloop, The Bluebird, which he sails on Chesapeake Bay, also is outfitted for electronic communication.

The remaining study walls hold pictures of Poindexter and men he has served with or under, notably, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James Holloway, who gave Poindexter his first glimpse into the disorder that often characterizes response to an international crisis, a vision that set Poindexter on a course to develop methods-systems-to better manage those crises.

"The system is very resistant to change," Poindexter frequently observes, puffing his pipe. It must be embraced, but sometimes it must be bucked. Poindexter never has shirked either duty, nor does he seem to care that the system usually is stronger than the man.

Changing the System

Ask Poindexter where he was on Sept. 11, 2001, and he'll mention the day after. He spent it in an office with his close friend, Brian Sharkey, lamenting that they hadn't prevented the attacks. Sharkey and Poindexter had teamed in 1996 on a DARPA project called Genoa, named after the headsail a ship requires to travel against the wind. Sharkey was the DARPA program manager and Poindexter was a private consultant for a small Washington area technical engineering firm called Syntek Technologies. Genoa was the grandmother of TIA and Poindexter's first big step toward total information awareness.

As Holloway's executive assistant, Poindexter had received his first lessons about why national leaders failed to prevent crises and often responded so slowly to them. In the mid-1970s, Holloway sat in at the White House Situation Room for Air Force Gen. George Scratchley Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whenever he was out of town. Holloway told Poindexter about the chaos that often gripped the Situation Room during an emergency.

The president and the Cabinet couldn't respond on a moment's notice to a hijacking, a naval engagement or an international emergency if they were taken by surprise. But in most cases, information was scant, so planning was impaired. Decision-makers had no advanced tools to help analyze intelligence and other data so they could prevent incidents. Holloway, who sat outside the national security chain of command, was powerless to change any of this. This so displeased Poindexter that he abandoned his career-long ambition to become chief of naval operations, aiming instead for an insider's position where he could effect change. He left Holloway's office in 1978.

Poindexter spent the next two years commanding a destroyer squadron, thus paving the way for his selection as rear admiral in 1980. He then spent less than a year as second-in-charge of the Navy's Education and Training Command in Pensacola, Fla., a relatively unexciting post that he traded in June 1981 for the chance of a lifetime, military assistant to then-National Security Adviser Richard Allen. "When I arrived at the White House, I was pretty convinced there was a better way to do business," Poindexter says. Besides introducing e-mail, he oversaw construction of a new Situation Room, installing video teleconferencing systems.

Poindexter also introduced order to the National Security Council. He rose to become deputy national security adviser in 1983. He headed the Crisis Pre-Planning Group, one of the first NSC units to grapple with the spread of Islamist terrorism. With an NSC staffed by current and former military officers, the White House had good ties to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies. Things were beginning to click.

They fell into place in 1985, with the pursuit of the Palestinian hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. After killing an American passenger and dumping his wheelchair-bound body overboard, the men planned to flee by plane out of Egypt, with that government's blessing.

At the White House, Poindexter, the deputy national security adviser, learned through intelligence sources of the hijackers' planned escape. Reagan and Poindexter's boss, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, were out of town, so Poindexter took charge, helping arrange for Navy fighter jets to intercept the getaway plane and force it to land in an allied country. Special forces would arrest them and bring them to the United States.

"We were finally getting it right," Poindexter says. "We were reacting in real time. . . . We had good information awareness." As the fighters intercepted the hijackers over the Mediterranean Sea, he relaxed in his office and dined on a grilled ham sandwich and glass of white wine. The next day, a thrilled President Reagan greeted Poindexter in the Oval Office, stood, clicked his heels, put hand to brow and proclaimed, "Admiral, I salute you."

"The system worked," Poindexter says. But soon, when he tried to control it, the system would break him.


Poindexter adores sea stories, particularly Patrick O'Brien's tales of British naval Capt. Jack Aubrey and his alter ego, the surgeon Stephen Maturin, popularized in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Aubrey is a mission-minded mariner, Maturin a scientist who prizes inquiry over the naval service. Poindexter is an amalgam of the two. The Navy bred allegiance to service and to systems. But it also suited Poindexter's innate independence. In the days before satellites kept naval commanders in constant contact with superior officers, ships' captains operated under a code called UNODIR: Unless otherwise directed. "When you wanted to do something," Poindexter explains, "you'd send a message back up your chain of command and say, 'Unless otherwise directed, this is what I'm going to do.' And if you didn't get any answer back, you did it."

In the mid-1980s, Democrats and Republicans fought over funding for the contras battling the Nicaraguan government, which rose to power in a revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. But inside the White House system that Poindexter had fine-tuned, the president had made his direction clear: Keep the contras alive, "body and soul."

Poindexter remembers a day in early 1986. Now national security adviser, he got a visit from a young assistant, Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was engaged in the Iran arms trade and separate efforts to arm the contras. North had an idea.

The CIA middleman selling the arms to Iran had made a profit, charging the Iranians more than the CIA had paid the Defense Department for the weapons. Reagan had authorized the sale as part of an effort to appeal to moderate elements in the Iranian government in hopes of fostering dialogue and keeping the country stable and at peace with its neighbors. But the move also was intended to elicit the release of U.S. hostages held by state-connected terrorists. Meanwhile, the contras were short on funds. Congress had prohibited intelligence agencies from sending money. But the president's board of intelligence advisers believed that prohibition didn't apply to National Security Council staff. Why not send the Iranian arms profits to the contras? "I think it was a neat idea," Poindexter says, and laughs.

"Naval officers by their very nature tend to be more independent," Poindexter says. "I've always been pretty independent."

Poindexter saw contra support as a legitimate block to Soviet expansion in Latin America, stopping "another Cuba," he says. But where Poindexter and Reagan saw Cuba, others saw a new war, a Vietnam, or a nascent revolution that needed to flourish unimpeded. "There were people that were opposed to what we were doing," he says. "There were also people who supported what we were doing. So it became a political issue."

Politics, to Poindexter's mind, is a base art, and ranks along with imprecision and incuriousness as threats to a system based on logic and, above all, principle. "[Congressional Democrats] were searching for an issue on which they could attack the president, and the one they settled on, in my opinion, was the Central America policy," Poindexter says.

"They couldn't get to the president, and so they turned it into a criminal issue for those assistants to the president," he says. Matters Poindexter saw as routine and permissible-deleting e-mails to save storage, not telling Congress the full facts of Iran-Contra, because he wasn't technically required to-became criminal charges that he spent years beating. They were ultimately overturned on procedural grounds-the testimony Poindexter gave to Congress about Iran-Contra was immunized, and therefore couldn't be used against him at his trial, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991.

Few things bother Poindexter. But one is the accusation, part of his indictment, that he lied to Congress. "The Congress lies to the American people every day of the year!" he says. "It's absolutely outrageous. I don't think I ever did. I just didn't tell them all that I knew." Poindexter also told North not to write down the details of his operations.

"I think that things should be done on principle," Poindexter says. "If there's a better way of doing something, you ought to work to make that happen, even though you may have to break a few eggs to get there. You can't please all the people all the time, and I don't think that's important."

For nearly 20 years, Poindexter has maintained that President Reagan never knew the details of the contra funding, despite the belief of many-including the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Arthur Liman-that he's been lying all along. "I never bought Poindexter's story," Liman, now deceased, wrote in his 1998 memoir, Lawyer: A Life of Counsel and Controversy (Public Affairs, 1998). "It would have been totally out of character for him to have authorized either the diversion [of funds] or the cover-up on his own."

"People think I told the president," he says later, puffing at his pipe. "But I didn't." He exhales, and is silent.

'Knowledge Is Power'

Poindexter keeps a light heart about controversy. After his retriever, Kizmie, succumbed to stomach cancer, Poindexter bought another golden retriever and named her Genoa. He introduces the newest Poindexter to guests, then pauses for the punch line to register. Linda says, "We were going to name her Tia!" She and her husband laugh.

Much of Poindexter's TIA work was mischaracterized by the media. Privacy protection always was a focus. There never was a plan for Poindexter to head an agency that actually used a TIA-like system. But Poindexter couldn't make the case. "John has an immediate ability to communicate concepts and ideas at a very abstract level," says Brian Sharkey, Poindexter's Genoa partner. But the public doesn't speak in abstracts, and Poindexter can't render his ideas into sound bites. Thus, his plans have been judged misguided and frightening.

On the wall in Poindexter's den hangs the seal of the Information Awareness Office, TIA's parent group at DARPA. It shows a pyramid topped by God's eye casting a light-filled gaze over the Earth. It bears the motto, "Knowledge Is Power." The seal always struck Poindexter as a clever, succinct image.

Did he ever think others might not see it that way? That they could be troubled instead of tickled? Poindexter shakes his head and smiles. "No. No."

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