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Chief Takes Over New Agency to Thwart Attacks on U.S.

by John Markoff, New York Times, 13 Feb 2002


John M. Poindexter, the retired Navy admiral who was President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, has returned to the Pentagon to direct a new agency that is developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information analysis systems.

The Information Awareness Office, which Mr. Poindexter took over last month, is one of two new agencies that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, created in recent months as part of the Bush administration's effort to grapple with new kinds of military threats after the attacks of Sept. 11.

The other new agency is the Information Exploitation Office and is intended to develop advanced computerized battlefield sensor networks to shorten the time between when an enemy target is located and when it is attacked.

The Information Awareness Office will focus on what the agency refers to as "asymmetric threats," or nonconventional military targets like potential terrorist organizations.

The administration has called for a sharp increase in Darpa's budget in the fiscal year 2003, and the agency is being reshaped to focus on a variety of new technologies, including biological warfare threats as well as new computer "data mining" technologies.

Over the years, Darpa has financed research that led to the creation of the Internet and stealth aircraft.

Mr. Poindexter, who is 65, was a controversial figure both for his role in the Iran-contra scandals and for his efforts to assert military influence over commercial computer security technologies.

With Oliver L. North, a former National Security Council aide, Mr. Poindexter was convicted in 1986 as part of the guns-for-hostages deal that provoked a Congressional investigation. The conviction was overturned in 1991 on grounds that the men had been granted immunity from prosecution as a result of their testimony before Congress.

Since leaving government in the 1980's, Mr. Poindexter has worked as a military technology consultant, most recently for Syntek Technologies, a military and intelligence agency consulting firm in Arlington, Va. Since 1995, he has consulted with Darpa on new technologies intended to give military and civil crisis managers access to battlefield and related information.

Mr. Poindexter, who declined a request for an interview on his new position, became closely involved as a contractor in 1995 on a Darpa development project code-named Genoa intended to give national security managers advanced personal computer networks with access to large databases of relevant information.

In recent weeks, Mr. Poindexter has contacted a number of Silicon Valley researchers looking for information on specific technologies.

Several scientists who are close to the agency said he had returned to government service because he had a passionate concern about assuring that the nation's crisis managers had better computerized systems for communication and data analysis.

"After 9/11, there is clearly a sense you have to present information to decision makers in a coherent fashion," said Shankar Sastry, a former Darpa manager who is now chairman of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department at the University of California.

Mr. Poindexter also consulted on another Darpa project called Command Post of the Future, Dr. Sastry said. The project designed a series of high-technology rooms that surrounded military planners with electronic communication, decision-making and mapping aids.

One component of the new computer information systems that is being emphasized by Mr. Poindexter's new office are "data mining" techniques intended to scan through vast collections of computer data, which may include text, images, sound and other computer data, and find significant patterns.

"We now have so many sensors that we need new ways of making sense of the information we collect," said Steven Wallach, who is vice president of Chiaro Networks and a member of the president's Information Technology Advisory Committee. "How do you associate a name with a picture taken in Malaysia, a cellphone call in Frankfurt, Germany, and a bank transfer from Pakistan to Chicago? There aren't any perfect answers yet."

The development of such advanced surveillance and data-mining techniques has raised new concerns among civil liberties groups in the United States, and Mr. Poindexter was involved in disputes about the government's role in computer security during the 1980's.

"Mr. Poindexter was responsible for several computer policy mistakes in the computer security realm in the 1980's," said Marc Rotenberg, a former counsel with Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to Mr. Poindexter's policies that shifted control of computer security to the military. "It took three administrations and both political parties over a decade to correct those mistakes."

As national security adviser, Mr. Poindexter was involved with a Reagan administration initiative in 1984 known as National Security Decision Directive, N.S.D.D. 145, which gave intelligence agencies broad authority to examine computer databases for "sensitive but unclassified information."

In a later memorandum, Mr. Poindexter expanded this authority to give the military responsibility for all computer and communications security for the federal government and private industry.

Mr. Poindexter, who received a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology, has a deep interest and an advanced understanding of computers and other information technologies, said Victoria Stavridou, a Darpa contractor and director of the Systems Laboratory at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

"John is very well respected technically," she said. "He understands these issues, and that makes him extremely valuable."

© 2002 New York Times
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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