Outsourcing Big Brother
Office of Total Information Awareness relies on private sector to track Americans
8:33 pm, December 17, 2002 Updated: 12:19 pm, May 19, 2014
The Total Information Awareness System, the controversial Pentagon research program that aims to gather and analyze a vast array of information on Americans, has hired at least eight private companies to work on the effort. Since 1997, those companies have won contracts from the Defense Department agency that oversees the program worth $88 million, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which oversees the Total Information Awareness System (TIA), awarded 13 contracts to Booz Allen & Hamilton amounting to more than $23 million. Lockheed Martin Corporation had 23 contracts worth $27 million; the Schafer Corporation had 9 contracts totaling $15 million. Other prominent contractors involved in the TIA program include SRS Technologies, Adroit Systems, CACI Dynamic Systems, Syntek Technologies, and ASI Systems International.
TIA itself was first proposed by an employee of a private contractor. John Poindexter, who worked on DARPA projects for Syntek, an Arlington, Va.-based technical and engineering services firm, suggested the program in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Poindexter, who headed the National Security Council during the Reagan administration, was convicted in 1990 on five felony counts for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The convictions were overturned in 1991 because he had been given immunity for his testimony during the congressional investigation of the affair. On January 14, 2002, he returned to the government as the director of the Information Awareness Office.
TIA draws heavily on the private sector. Five of the eight contractors identified by the Center are involved in evaluating future contracts for the program. Grey E. Burkhart, an associate of Booz Allen Hamilton, identifies himself on his resume as “assistant project manager” of TIA system implementation. Even the phrase “Total Information Awareness” has a private pedigree—Visual Analytics, Inc., a Poolesville, Md.-based software developer and DARPA contractor, has applied for a trademark for the phrase.
In addition, the Center found that at least 24 universities received almost $10 million during the last five years to do research on TIA-related projects. Some of the largest grants went to Cornell University, Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley and dealt with the TIA’s language translation program, Translingual Information Detection, Extraction, and Summarization.
“DARPA doesn’t do any of its own research,” Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the agency, told the Center. She also said that DARPA doesn’t require private contractors to share their research solely with DARPA. “The government benefits when there are commercial applications [from DARPA research] because it keeps the cost down,” she said. Any limitations on commercial use are negotiated “on a case by case basis,” she said, adding that, “Many of the things DARPA does have commercial applications.”
DARPA employs 240 people and oversees a budget of roughly $2 billion, according to its website. It relies heavily on outside contractors. Some act as “systems engineering technical assistance,” or SETA contractors, who assist DARPA in “managing the efforts and representing the program with Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the military services and/or involved unified commander.” Typical projects involve five to ten contractors, two universities, and budgets between $10 and $40 million. DARPA’s Website also notes that the best program managers—the agency’s employees who oversee the contractors—have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals.
A lack of oversight
Congress, which exercises oversight of the executive branch and the military, has not held a single public hearing on TIA and sources on the Hill suggested that members know little about it. In a November 22, 2002, letter, Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the inspector general of the Defense Department to “conduct a complete and thorough review of the TIA program.” Noting that available information regarding TIA was not sufficient, Grassley wrote that “[the Defense Department’s] comments (about DARPA) only provide few answers and invite many more questions.”
Grassley questioned the parameters and scope of TIA, how Poindexter was selected to head it, and what protections are in place to ensure civil liberties are not violated.
The Defense Department has not begun an inquiry. “They have it under consideration,” Susan Hansen, a spokesperson at the Defense Department, told the Center. “I have not heard of any final decision about the status.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that she plans to introduce legislation to address any threats to the privacy rights of Americans that TIA poses.
Despite Congress’ lack of knowledge about the program, the overall budget for TIA programs is increasing, and will nearly triple from $43 million in fiscal year 2001 to $110 million in fiscal year 2003. According to declassified budgets released recently from DARPA, some projects that have existed since 1996 will receive similar spending boosts now that the TIA office has been officially created. For instance, a TIA project called Wargaming the Asymmetric Environment grew from $6.8 million in fiscal year 2001 to $18.5 million in fiscal year 2003.
An ongoing effort
The stated goal of TIA, which began in the 2002 fiscal year, is “to revolutionize the ability of the United States to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists—and decipher their plans—and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts.” To accomplish this, the program seeks to combine several kinds of information—financial, education, travel, medical, veterinary, transportation and housing transactional records; face, finger print, and other identifying data—into databases.
TIA draws heavily on other DARPA research projects that were ongoing long before September 11, 2001. For example, Project Genoa, a computer program designed to rapidly analyze data, share it and develop plans based upon it, began prior to 1997 and was completed in the 2002 fiscal year. The Defense Intelligence Agency has agreed to use Genoa. A Genoa II project is underway at DARPA.
Syntek was a contractor for the Genoa Project providing “specialized technical and programmatic” advice for more than five years. According to his resume—which had been posted on the home page of the Information Awareness Office (which oversees TIA) until it was removed in November along with the resumes of other IAO personnel—Poindexter joined Syntek in 1996. The first documented reference to Syntek’s involvement in Genoa indicates that the company began working for DARPA by mid-1996. Since 1997 Syntek received nine contracts from DARPA totaling $1.18 million. Poindexter worked for Project Genoa via Syntek through 2001 before returning to the Defense Department as the director of the Information Awareness Office (IAO).
According to financial disclosure documents filed by Poindexter, before joining DARPA he earned $147,182 a year while working for Syntek. Poindexter worked closely with DARPA helping to develop Project Genoa, which is now a component of TIA. Under Poindexter’s guidance, IAO will continue to use Syntek as a TIA contractor. He also reports receiving income for acting as a consultant to the U.S. Government for Syntek. These days, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Poindexter is receiving a salary of $138,200—the most of any DARPA employee and equal to the salary of DARPA Director Tony Tether.
One month after he joined the board of directors of Saffron Technology in September 2000, the company announced it had received funding from DARPA for Genoa, which is now part of the TIA program.
Poindexter characterized the mission of IAO as “the integration and assured transition of components developed in the programs Genoa, Genoa II, GENISYS, EELD, WAE, TIDES, HumanID, and Bio-surveillance,” in an August 2002 speech at the DARPATECH conference in Anaheim, Calif. Those programs, all of which predate TIA and are under the aegis of the IAO, analyze and extract data, allow the identification of individuals by their characteristic body movements, or automatically translate Arab, Persian and other languages into English. Poindexter explained that TIA is “the overarching program that binds IAO’s efforts together.”
Many of the components of TIA, such as Genoa, have been ongoing projects since the Clinton administration. And in the May 13, 1999, issue of Commerce Business Daily, a now-superceded bulletin board for government contracts, there is a notice from DARPA that it intended to award a company named Integral Visuals, Inc. a purchase order for technical and engineering support for “Project Genoa and Total Information Awareness,” suggesting that TIA, like its components, predates the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a November 20, 2002, news briefing, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Pete Aldridge disclosed that Poindexter was the mastermind of the TIA project. Noting that Poindexter had “a passion for this project,” Aldridge explained, “He came to us with the project after September the 11th and volunteered it to DARPA. Tony Tether, the director of DARPA, came over with John and briefed it to me, and I thought it was a project worthy of pursuit.”
The private connection
Last April, IAO published a document with the bureaucratic title BAA 02-08 Information Awareness Proposer Information Pamphlet, which asks private companies to provide “innovative research proposals in the area of information technologies that will aid in the detection, classification, identification, and tracking of potential foreign terroristsand to develop options to prevent their terrorist acts.”
The same document spells out the central role that contractors play in IAO, which will “...use personnel from SRS Technologies, Syntek Technologies, CACI, Schafer Corporation and Adroit Systems as special resources to assist with the logistics of administering proposal evaluation and to provide advice on specific technical areas.”
DARPA has hired diversified defense industry giants Lockheed-Martin and Booz Allen & Hamilton for TIA and related projects. Booz Allen has won what may become the largest TIA contract, potentially worth $62 million over the next five years if DARPA exercises all the contract’s options.
Booz Allen employee Grey E. Burkhart’s resume notes that he is the “assistant program manager for the implementation of an advanced collaborative analysis system for the counterterrorism and intelligence communities,” which he identifies as “Total Information Awareness (TIA) System Implementation.” DARPA spokeswoman Walker told the Center that Burkhart is not an employee of the government.
Burkhart has had more than 25 years of experience in strategic security, intelligence, and telecommunications. Working in both the private and public sectors he was a career intelligence officer, CEO of Allied Communications Engineering, and has become a “recognized expert on in the global proliferation of information technology.”
Burkhart’s resume also notes that he was a member of Booz Allen’s Homeland Security Coordination Center and Tiger Team, for which he “conducted analysis of new legislation and executive orders and assessed their impact on current and future business.”
Big brother on campus
Private companies have not been the only players in TIA research. Dozens of universities within and without the United States have also worked on the program’s components for years.
Since late 2000, researchers at Georgia Tech have been working on a new computer-based identification system called Human ID that theoretically can take video images from a camera and distinguish people by the way that they walk and their different mannerisms. The applications of this software could have unlimited potential when used with satellite imaging, government video, and even security cameras. The theory is that each person has distinctive body movements and by recording and analyzing these movements, the government could identify suspects even if they are wearing disguises or have altered their appearances.
According to unclassified budget documents recently released by the Defense Department, DARPA spent $11.8 million during the 2001 fiscal year to develop a “pilot force protection system” for Human ID as well as create prototype models and develop advanced sensors (p. 88.). DARPA’s new budget increases the program’s spending to $30.1 million during the next two fiscal years to identify the limitations of the range and accuracy of the program while fusing multi-modal technologies to derive biometric signatures.
Overall, Georgia Tech has received four federal grants totaling $1.2 million for the “HumanID from movement” project, beginning in the last quarter of 2000. The funds are part of a $50 million DARPA program to identify people from a distance that encompasses 26 research projects including two from Georgia Tech to analyze movement.
In addition to recognizing people by body movement, Human ID is working on facial recognition and iris recognition software. These uses have been tested on subjects at a distance of 25-150 feet, but future DARPA plans anticipate distances as far as 500 feet.
“I do computer vision research,” said Aaron Bobick, an associate professor at Georgia Tech researching HumanID for DARPA. “Part of it is to see how to get computers to see things. One of things that I am working on is understanding motion and recognizing people from a distance.”
Bobick told the Center that the research is still preliminary. “We’ve found it to be successful in a limited number of cases but gait recognition is really in its infancy. We don’t know how successful it will be. We are still at the point where we don’t know what will be possible.”
DARPA projects on identification go well beyond “naked eye” visual appearance. The defense agency is currently trying to identify potential suspects by their unseen traits using plumes of odorant molecules. While doing experiments on subjects as small as moths, bacteria and mammals, scientists are finding new ways of differentiating small particles to understand identity.
DARPA has spent more than $427,000 on four grants to the University of Arizona dating back to 1998 to study this identification method called “biologically-inspired search algorithms for locating unseen odor sources.”
Like gait recognition, the smell test is still in development.