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.
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.
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. is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and author of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World .
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