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It happened late on a Friday night, at my third airport of the day. As American Airlines Flight 3028 from St. Louis finished taxiing to a gate at Washington Dulles airport, the plane’s Pavlovian bell sounded and we all stood up and began preparing to disembark. Directly in the row ahead of me, a man arose and I couldn’t help but notice what he was wearing. Across the shoulders of his blue shirt were the following words: “Total Information Awareness.”

Just the day before, I had read a startling column by William Safire (”You Are a Suspect,” Nov. 14, 2002) in The New York Times about former Reagan White House National Security Advisor John Poindexter, director of the controversial new Pentagon research program called “Total Information Awareness.” Poindexter had last been seen in public purgatory, convicted by a jury for making false statements to Congress about his illicit Iran-Contra scheme, a judgment later overturned by an appellate court on grounds unrelated to actual innocence. While no one would question the government’s need to better track and investigate terrorists in the wake of September 11th, Poindexter, as Safire and others have correctly noted, is one of the last people anyone would entrust with unprecedented “data-mining power to snoop on every public and private act of every American.”

Now, suddenly, in a truly surreal, Rod Serling moment, I had a “Total Information Awareness” person in plain view. Was this guy a Poindexter aide? Was I looking at the face of Big Brother? Or at least one of the faces?

I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions with a planeload of passengers listening in, but while the gentleman was talking to a woman across the aisle, waiting to deplane, I discreetly jotted down his luggage tag information. I discovered he works for a private company based in Poolesville, Maryland, called Visual Analytics, Inc. My mind raced. Of course this kind of high-tech computer software work is being pioneered by the private sector, especially in the context of the Bush administration Pentagon that also reportedly intends to privatize hundreds of thousands of current government positions there. What a gold rush time for data mining companies, with the Defense, new Homeland Security, Justice and other Cabinet departments suddenly all spending astonishing amounts of taxpayer money to fight the war on terrorism.

Back at the Center, we surfed the Web and various commercial databases for days, gleaning every possible morsel of contract, patent, biographical, financial and other information about Visual Analytics, other companies and the Pentagon’s new Total Information Office. We clearly weren’t alone, because days later, Poindexter’s bio and other information were pulled off of the government Web site. On November 18, when asked at a press briefing about the Poindexter-led Total Information Awareness program, part of the Defense Advanced Research and Development Agency (DARPA), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried unreassuringly to reassure us, “… I haven’t been briefed on it; I’m not knowledgeable about it. Anyone who is concerned ought not be. Anyone with any concern ought to be able to sleep well tonight. Nothing terrible is going to happen.”

Hopefully not, but how can we forget that Rumsfeld is the same man who authorized another public relations gem, the creation of the ill-fated Office of Strategic Influence, with official duties that reportedly could have included disseminating disinformation through the media. It was shut down not because they’ve been doing that quite well already for decades over at the Pentagon, but because of substantial criticism and public outrage that U.S. officials would deliberately, consciously lie as a formal policy.

Besides the various criticisms of the Total Information Awareness program, including those of Republican Senator Charles Grassley and Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, several significant public policy issues have not been addressed, at all. What are the public’s privacy protections? What are the restrictions on private company contractors regarding potential re-use of any information they receive, when defense contractors simultaneously have commercial clients with marketing and customer-identification interests? What conflict of interest provisions are in place? What about the hundreds of millions of dollars in “black budget” or classified contracts with companies for this work? What has happened to the Freedom of Information Act, to the sensibility for public disclosure, to contractor and sub-contractor transparency to the citizenry? How come, on a public issue this sensitive, not to mention a program costing us millions of dollars, Congress has been silent. Not a single congressional hearing has been held. What has happened to legislative oversight?

Just from electronic searching, we discovered that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars quietly have been spent since the mid-1990s, long before September 11th, 2001, via private contracts to companies and universities issued by DARPA to research and develop highly-sophisticated computer systems to attempt to identify and access various government and commercial databases about citizens. Poindexter, as a senior executive for a company called Syntek, has been involved in this sensitive, highly controversial DARPA-funded work actually since 1995 — and no one in this country even noticed. Even though his Total Information Awareness program did not officially begin until January 2002, the various pre-existing DARPA-funded information-gathering “modules” can all be searched and comprehensively utilized by this new office.

Visual Analytics, Inc. calls itself a “leading provider of award-winning analytical software … focused on Total Information Awareness,” and the five-year-old company has seen its revenues and profits go through the roof, particularly “because of the strong growth and continued high demand for VisuaLinks™,” their red-hot visual data mining software. Because of several new contracts with government agencies and private accounting and other companies, 2002 revenue for Visual Analytics through the first six months grew over 250 percent and profit shot up over 1,170 percent compared to 2001.

I called David O’Connor, the co-founder and president of Visual Analytics. He confirmed that his company has done work over the years for DARPA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other parts of the government, and has also been a subcontractor to the two primary contractors to win major unclassified contracts from Poindexter’s Total Information Office, Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen. But O’Connor made clear that Visual Analytics does not have a direct contractual relationship with Poindexter’s shop.

“We started this company with our own money, our own skin, our own equity,” he said. And Visual Analytics has become “forerunners in the field” of data collection “across spaces, across domains.” O’Connor said, “We demoed to Poindexter” and that “they’re probably evaluating” the company’s software.

And what about Total Information Awareness? Careful and diplomatic, O’Connor pointed out that the Visual Analytics interpretation of those words and Poindexter’s approach differ, and he noted that his company has been “in the process of trademark-ing it [that name]” for more than a year and a half, pre-dating the official creation of Poindexter’s office by that name. Separately, we found that a formal trademark application was filed by Visual Analytics in July 2002.

And when I finally reached the poor fellow on the airplane that night, who’d had the misfortune of sitting in front of me, a Visual Analytics software trainer, he said that their Total Information Awareness company shirts actually come in several colors, not just blue. When I asked him if, upon seeing those words on his shirt, people ever stop him and perhaps make a reference to George Orwell, he seemed taken aback and said, “No, you’re actually the first person who ever said that to me.”

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Charles Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and served as its executive director until...