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TIA office under fire

By Hugh McKellar, KMWorld editor in chief

Software developers vying for funding from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the wake of Sept. 11 are facing a serious challenge. As we mentioned in the Oct. 2002 issue (p.18), DARPA, which is an arm of the Department of Defense (DoD), set up the Total Information Awareness (TIA) office in February 2002 with a mission to: "imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototypes, and closed-loop information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for pre-emption, national security warning and national security decision making."

The ambitious project was headed by John Poindexter, who was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts including making false statements and destroying and removing records related to the Iran Contra affair. His convictions were later overturned. TIA was under fire from the start, not only because of its chief but because of the widespread opinion the office was attempting to violate individual privacy by collecting dossiers on American citizens and combing through such things as video rental records. In fact, because of that impression, the office changed its name to the Terrorism Information Agency.

DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker says TIA focuses on developing technologies that will allow the U.S. intelligence community to collaborate and to more efficiently use information. "It is concentrated on allowing the intelligence community to make better use of the information that it already has," she says, "not going into other new data sources that infringe on the privacy of Americans. There are lots of protections in place for the way the intelligence community collects information, and they are focused on the foreign intelligence threat."

Nonetheless, problems keep dogging the program. The most recent flap involved the highly publicized "futures market" for acts of terrorism. The controversy surrounding that issue likely led to Poindexter's recently announced resignation. The agency is now in the hands of acting director Robert Kopp. But funding for the office is at risk. The 2004 DoD budget is under review as we go to press, and the final figures will be set at the end of September (DoD's fiscal year runs from October to September). The Senate appropriations bill includes a provision that would cease all funding for TIA research and development. Walker explains that the administration believes this provision would deny an important potential tool on the war on terrorism.

A systems integrator with broad experience with sensitive government contracts—and who understandably requests anonymity—says the project may not be dead, even if it doesn't receive formal funding. He refers to the long, rich history—through many administrations of so-called "black funding," where money is shifted from one program to another "in the dark."

I'd wager that in one form or another, TIA will still exist

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