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Hanging DARPA out to dry

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says recent criticism of the venerable research agency has moved from the realm of the politically correct to that of the politically irresponsible.

For the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2003 is turning out to be a bad year that's only gotten worse. The agency's rich history is associated in the popular mind with the leading role DARPA played in the development of the Internet. But flaps over the Total Information Awareness and FutureMAP (Futures Markets Applied to Prediction) programs now have critics painting this venerable institution as a Strangelovian collection of tech weirdos out to rob law-abiding Americans of their privacy.

No doubt DARPA's role as the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense presents an easy target for folks who assume the worst about the Bush administration or who are deeply suspect of Uncle Sam's real intentions. DARPA has not helped its own case by committing a series of forgettable PR gaffes that fed a veritable feeding frenzy.

But before the uproar gets entirely out of hand, the do-gooders and other high-minded guardians of the commonweal might want to take a cyberminute and try to separate fact from fiction.

What's made DARPA unique is its willingness to challenge convention. Conceived during the Cold War, the agency is tasked by the government to think big about technology. When brainpower gets turned loose, it doesn't always follow a straight line: Sometimes the research winds up getting abandoned, other times it results in spectacular inventions.

The trouble started earlier in the year when the TIA (since recast as the Terrorism Information Awareness system) began to spark debate--in part because it chose John Poindexter--a central character in the Iran-Contra scandal--to run the office.

With the 108th Congress taking its seat in January, there was no shortage of grandstanding on both sides of the aisle. In brief, the argument was that TIA would let domestic policy and spy organizations take data stored on a centralized database to build dossiers on U.S. citizens.

The do-gooders and other high-minded guardians of the commonweal might want to take a cyberminute and try to separate fact from fiction.
How un-American--not to mention how twisted beyond proportion.

The fact is that TIA data was supposed to focus on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information gathered--not whether you rented "Debbie Does Dallas" on your last trip to Blockbuster. It's not hard to build in safeguards that protect against potential abuses of the system. The Defense Department set up internal and external oversight boards to make sure that constitutional rights and privacy protection are not compromised.

Painting a worst-case scenario of mission-creep, TIA critics say this is an open invitation to an Orwellian future. Really? I haven't seen any proof of that, though I did see the smoking hole that used to be the World Trade Tower complex in my hometown of New York City.

A similar outcry greeted disclosure of FutureMAP, a DARPA program that would have allowed up to 10,000 participants to buy and sell future contracts as they wagered on events in the Middle East. Headline writers had a field day, caricaturing the program as silly as well as immoral.

Painting a worst-case scenario of mission-creep, TIA critics say this is an open invitation to an Orwellian future.
But the barrage of knee-jerk criticism obscured the fact that futures markets are pretty good at predicting events. As with TIA, the bigger idea was to explore how to use technology to prevent terror attacks.

Hanging DARPA out to dry may satisfy some people, but the agency's job is to explore new ideas and research with an eye on how to enhance national security. If the United States is going to defeat a shadowy network of terrorists that has already attacked once, the key is going to be information. But if you junk the system, you're trusting your fate to the winds.

PS: The Senate last month voted to cut off funding for TIA.