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FOIA, the Press and the Spooks

Total Information Awareness … For Whom?

by ALICE CHERBONNIER

The recent USA Today revelation that three major phone companies have (allegedly) been providing phone call records to the NSA shouldn’t come as a shock. Our government has been seeking to harness maximum data for many years-for all kinds of purposes, legitimate and illegitimate. As technology has advanced, so too have the means of harvesting and mining digital information. Just about everything about anybody or anything can be datamined by those with the motive, means, and opportunity. Just who are these people, and who’s giving them a license to delve into our record

Remember back in 2002 when the U.S. public became aware of the existence of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its "Total Information Awareness" network? The latter was a project of Admiral John Poindexter, hired by President George W. Bush to be director of the Information Assurance Office (IAO) of the DoD’s DARPA. The revelation of the existence of this network caused a stir, but it too should have been no surprise.

Go back to 1996, when John Poindexter was vice-president of Syntek, a contractor for DARPA, and he was working on a project called Genoa-a database-mining software package.

Poindexter has first-rate professional credentials that signal a first-rate mind: he was at the top of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and later earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at Cal Tech. Over the past 15 years, it appears that his criminal convictions (in 1990, for criminal conspiracy, obstruction of Congress, and false statements related to the Iran-Contra scandal) have not been a bar to his work in the most sensitive areas of intelligence-gathering and synthesis.

Meanwhile, suppose you’re a U.S. newspaper that files a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with a federal agency? Too bad! You might not get it–at least not in time for it to be useful for a breaking story, or even for a background piece. The situation is so ridiculous that some investigative reporters aren’t even bothering to file FOIA requests any more.

I have in front of me a letter from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), dated May 9, 2006, which we received on May 16. In it, a Public Affairs Specialist of the Office of Administrative Services, writes:

"This letter is in regard to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request numbered FOI-XXX/XX, dated July 24, 2002.

"In an effort to update our records, we are contacting you regarding your continued interest in the information you requested. We have encountered some delays due to our severe backlog and the inundation of requests from many sources. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

"We are seeking notification of your continued interest in these documents. If you are no longer interested in these documents, no further action on your part is necessary and this request will be closed. If you are still interested, you are requested to complete the short form below and return a signed copy of this letter in the enclosed self-addressed envelope. It must be received within 10 working days from the date of this letter, [stamped in date] May 23, 2006 [end stamped-in date] otherwise, your case will be considered closed with no further action on our part."

We had asked for information for a story we were researching during the summer of 2002. Nearly four years later, we’re being asked if we still want it.

Those who work with DARPA, IAO, or other alphabet-soup entities can get information about whoever or whatever they want, with or without a warrant. The U.S. press, however, may have to wait four years or more to get information to which they have a legal right–if it can be obtained at all.

So we have to ask: Total Information Awareness for whom? Not the press, evidently. Not the American people, who should be able to rely on the press to tell them what they need to know. But some people- even a convicted felon like John Poindexter-why sure! Give them all the access they want. They’re "protecting" us. They’re fighting "terrorism."

Well, hello out there, DARPA, IAO, CIA, NSA, and all the rest of you: newspapers are here to protect the public too. And, with stories like this one, we are also fighting terrorism.

NOTE: Privacy International, which describes itself as "a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations," recently granted a "Lifetime Achievement Award" to ChoicePoint-a private datamining company-citing it as "an abuser and broker of personal information for many years now," and charging it with "collecting information on Americans and foreigners without having to adhere to strict privacy laws. Recently it has admitted that there have been a number of fraudulent uses and loss of this personal information. This resulted in mass apologies, apologies to Congress, and a CEO bonus of 1.8 million dollars." ChoicePoint’s data has famously been used by some states to "purge" their voter rolls. Other winners of this organization’s (dubious) Lifetime Achievement Awards have been Osama bin Laden, the National Security Agency-and Admiral John Poindexter.

ALICE CHERBONNIER is editor of the Baltimore Chronicle. She can be reached at: editor@baltimorechronicle.com