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If Ralph Nader had won the presidential election in 2000, Daniel Brandt today would occupy a suite of offices on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters in Langley. Perhaps that scenario exaggerates Nader’s abilities to scout the best talent. Brandt certainly is a wonderfully qualified candidate for director of central intelligence. Yet, would Nader have selected a presidential transition team possessing enough unconventional widsom to track down someone with Brandt’s type of experience in intelligence gathering?
Some of the more astute members of the intelligence transition team would have shied away from recommending Brandt over fears he would have streamlined the agency’s operations and kept many of them out of jobs. With Brandt as director, the CIA could have slashed its budget by 90 percent and still not have missed a beat. The U.S. establishment also may have worried about a Brandt-led CIA turning its attention inward, unveiling years of establishment crimes against the American public.
For almost 30 years, Brandt has operated a one-man intelligence operation, creating the one-of-its-kind NameBase database, which includes about 125,000 names and 280,000 citations. The names are drawn from hundreds of books and serials, plus documents recovered using the Freedom of Information Act.
Brandt first came to my attention in the pages of Philip Agee’s On The Run, a thrilling account of how the U.S. government went to extremes to prevent Agee from detailing the covert operations of the CIA. Agee described how Brandt had contacted him in the 1980s to offer Agee help in computerizing published data on the CIA. Brandt even traveled to Agee’s home in Germany to teach him the ABCs of computers and software.
Today, Brandt continues his research unabated, providing serious journalists and researchers with an indispensable tool for digging up information on the intelligence community and political and business elite.
He sometimes serves as one-man check on the CIA, helping to ensure that the agency doesn’t violate laws against electronic surveillance of Americans. As someone who has spent almost his entire adult life culling information, Brandt now is campaigning to make searching the web as fair as possible. Lately, Brandt has been leading an opposition against what he calls the “hegemony” of the Google search engine. On his Google Watch website, Brandt says his struggle against the search engine’s ranking system “feels like the right thing to do. It’s the cyber equivalent of my draft resistance days.”
Here’s my interview with Daniel Brandt.
MARK HAND: How has the development and marketing of your NameBase product evolved with the rise of the Internet over the past five to 10 years?
Daniel Brandt: We went online with NameBase in January 1995. Only recently has it begun to attract some traffic. This is mostly due to the fact that I spent two years studying Google and optimizing the site for search engine crawlers.
Most of the traffic comes from people putting a name into Google. If there isn’t much competition for that name, our link for the name may end up on the first or second page of search results. That’s how they discover our site. We have tens of thousands of these pages indexed in Google. If you don’t spend time understanding how the search engines work, you can forget about attracting any serious traffic to your site. The dominance of the search engines–and here I mean Google, which has some 75 percent of all the external traffic referrals for most websites these days–is something that became pronounced only in the last two years.
It’s always a moving target, and the game isn’t always fair. But it’s the only game on the Internet these days. Many webmasters who follow the situation are hopeful that Yahoo’s recent acquisition of Inktomi will mean that Google may see some competition in 2003. Presently Inktomi provides results for the MSN network, and that may change as well.
To give you an idea of the scale involved with respect to search engines, from 1995 to 2000 we averaged about 300 page accesses, or name searches, per day. Recently we’ve been doing over 15,000 per day.
Hand: Has interest in your 30-plus years of research picked up since 9/11?
Brandt: Not yet, but that could change if Bush invades Iraq. There’s more interest in issues of globalization, which began with the Seattle demonstration, and in big business since the stock market crash. Much of my earlier research, from the 1960s through Iran-contra during the 1980s, was oriented toward cold-war issues. Many young people today can’t find Vietnam on a map, and don’t know what the cold war was. Access to information is much better than it ever was, thanks in part to the Internet. But at the same time, our culture and mass media are getting better at dumbing down the U.S. population. I’ve felt for years that nothing would improve for websites like NameBase until the dot-com gold rush was over. Now that it’s over, things are finally looking up in that respect.
The 1990s were years of distraction, day-traders, and irrelevant political punditry. Now everyone has lost their retirement funds, and the chickens are coming home to roost. When I started a “CIA on Campus” site in February 2001, I did so because the top page returned for the two keywords “cia” and “campus” in all the search engines was a page about campus life at the Culinary Institute of America. I was appalled that almost nothing about the issue had even made it onto the Internet. No culture that is completely oblivious to its own roots will survive for long.
Hand: What websites would you rank as the best for getting comprehensive and balanced news?
Brandt: I spend about 90 minutes downloading news and technical items every day. Technical issues change quickly, and it seems that there’s always so much that one doesn’t know. I scan headlines like everyone else for the non-technical news. For search engine news I scan several forums that specialize in Google. The difficult part with Google is that they consider their algorithms to be trade secrets, so it takes a lot of effort and experience to figure out how you can get Google to work for you rather than against you.
I’ve read all the books in NameBase, which is how they got indexed. After reading and indexing 700 investigative books, there aren’t too many surprises about what the ruling class is up to. I know when something is new and interesting, or is more of the same old useless spin, so it doesn’t take much time to keep up with non-technical news.
Hand: Have you noticed any positive results from your campaign to get Google to reform its PageRank and other practices? Is Google’s PageRank something that independent web publishers/bloggers should be concerned about?
Brandt: No, Google is not responsive to public criticism. Rumor has it that they may file an IPO [initial public offering] in 2003, which could introduce some new variables into the equation. I have never heard directly from Google about anything. They use robots to answer email, so I’ll just keep on nagging them, like a robot. I have noticed that other webmasters agree with me more often these days. Only six months ago I was a lone voice in the wilderness. I got kicked off of one of the webmaster (www.webmasterworld.com) forums for being too anti-Google. But recently I’ve felt that a fair number of webmasters have come around to my position on Google.
Still, this has had no effect whatsoever on Google. If you have a 75 percent monopoly, and it’s growing, and perhaps there’s an IPO around the corner, you keep your mouth shut and hope for the best. That’s what Google is doing. The other problem is that geeks have a poor record on social ethics, and Google is very geeky. They don’t know what the word “public interest” means; it’s completely outside their frame of reference. Most of those PhDs at Google wouldn’t recognize a philosophical principle if they ran over one in their SUVs. It’s all binary to them–either they’re gaining market share or they’re losing it. If they’re gaining, then all is well with the world. Ethics is too fuzzy a concept for Silicon Valley geeks.
PageRank is very important. The smaller you are, the lower your PageRank, and the more desperate you become to get Google to steer traffic to you. At the moment it’s do or die with PageRank. I’m hopeful that things will loosen up in 2003 somehow, perhaps with some new competition from Yahoo.
Hand: To what extent do you think the U.S. government’s War on Terrorism will erode public access to government information?
Brandt: The FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] is already virtually useless. On national security matters, we really don’t have much access to information. Congress is a joke. Intelligence oversight is a joke.
American journalism is a joke too. A typical first-rate investigative reporter might spend three years on an important book, only to fail to find a publisher. If it does get published, it’s remaindered in about four months. Unless it gets indexed in NameBase, it never sees any digital life on the Internet–even assuming that some searchers are looking for the information instead of looking for Britney Spears. It’s not the government that worries me, as much as it’s the entire dumbed-down culture that keeps me awake at nights.
Hand: How would you rate the mainstream media’s coverage of the Bush administration and its War on Terrorism?
Brandt: What coverage? I’m still waiting for some coverage. The media is waiting for the camera in the nose-cone of those smart bombs. That way you get some video. There’s no coverage without video, of course. To provide coverage without video requires facts and historical perspective. Big business can’t make money off of the mass media if they have to actually go out and get a story. It’s too expensive to provide coverage when you can thrive without it.
Hand: How much would U.S. government actions be different today if Al Gore had been handed the presidency in 2000?
Brandt: It could be worse, because all those backroom spinmeisters who went after Clinton would be feasting on Gore for being weak on terrorism. Right now, the pressure on Bush is something he’s done to himself. In 1932, Huey Long said, “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” Nothing has changed in seventy years.