Defending the Pentagon's Information Awareness Program

Should Congress close down the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office (search )? Some critics, including The New York Times, say that it should, and certain members of Congress, such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., seem inclined to agree.

That office, which had been run by John Poindexter (search), oversees the Terrorism Information Awareness (search ) (TIA) program, which has raised the ire of civil libertarians. But it would be a dangerous mistake to kill off the program prematurely.

To be sure, TIA has generated substantial controversy, but much of that is based on a misunderstanding of the research. Any real development of TIA technology is more than five years away, so concerns that the technology will be abused are speculative, at best. Still, critics are unwilling to permit even basic research into feasibility, because they assume there will be abuse even before the first lines of computer code are written.

We cannot afford to fear technology. As six former top-ranking professionals in America’s security services recently observed in The Economist, America’s response to terrorist threats faces two problems -- a need for better analysis and, more critically, a need for “improved espionage, to provide the essential missing intelligence.”

In their view, while there was “certainly a lack of dot-connecting before September 11” the more troubling failure was that “there were too few useful dots.” TIA technology can help answer both of these needs, by collecting information that’s unavailable anywhere else and putting it in front of intelligence analysts (search).

The Times’ opposition rests on the false premise that TIA would create an “electronic dossier” on every American citizen. But this rather breathless and terrifying claim has no basis in fact. Indeed, the Times would be hard pressed to find a single person with any detailed knowledge of the program or the underlying technology who would confirm this view.

TIA is a broad research program with several dozen different components -- programs ranging from efforts to develop machine language capabilities (search) to translate Arabic directly into English, to ones intended to develop a secure Virtual Private Network (search) where classified information can be exchanged without threat of compromise. No public observer has critiqued these as unacceptable -- yet the Times would cancel them because they fall within the broad TIA umbrella.

Yet even opposition to the most controversial aspects of TIA is ill-founded. TIA’s knowledge discovery technology (for that is its proper name), if it proves effective (for this is, after all, a research program) can be developed in a manner that renders it effective while posing minimal risks to American liberties.

We do that by carefully building in safeguards to check the possibilities of error or abuse. Those safeguards should include strict congressional oversight, protection of anonymity by insuring that individual identities are not disclosed without the approval of a federal judge, and a robust legal mechanism for correcting false positive identifications.

Similar intelligence collection agencies have long operated effectively under stringent legal restrictions. For example, the National Security Agency may not target the communications of an American citizen, and the FBI can’t conduct electronic surveillance without a judge’s approval. TIA could be effective under similarly constructed restrictions.

At its core, the Times editorial rests on an unstated premise -- that potential threats to personal liberty must be avoided at all costs. But as Thomas Powers, author of the book “Intelligence Wars,” recently wrote: “In a liberal republic, liberty presupposes security; the point of security is liberty.” Thus, the obligation of the government is a dual one: to protect civil safety and security against violence and to preserve civil liberty.

To be sure, it is a difficult balance. It is far easier to eschew the effort. But failure to recognize that security need not be traded off for liberty in equal measure and that the “balance” between them is not a zero-sum game is a far greater and more fundamental mistake. Policy-makers must respect and defend the individual civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution when they act, but they also cannot fail to act when we face a serious threat from a foreign enemy.

Indeed, resistance to new technology poses practical dangers. The Congressional Joint Inquiry into the events of Sept. 11 pointed out that systemic breakdowns played a role in the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks: “While technology remains one of this nation’s greatest advantages, it has not been fully and most effectively applied in support of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Persistent problems in this area include … a reluctance to develop and implement new technical capabilities aggressively.”

It’s important that we not repeat the same mistake.

Paul Rosenzweig is a senior legal research fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation and adjunct professor of law at George Mason University.