Convicted Iran-Contra Figure to Head New Office

As John Sutherland, writing for The Guardian (UK) noted, on February 13, 2002 "The American population was instructed to panic." Undefined acts of terrorism were predicted, but none materialized, although six men on an FBI wanted list were arrested in Yemen later in the week. What did happen is that retired Admiral John Poindexter, convicted in 1990 of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and destruction of evidence in connection with the Iran-Contra affair, was appointed to head the Information Awareness Office, a new offshoot of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The IAO's job is essentially to conduct domestic electronic espionage, and "supply federal officials with 'instant' analysis on what is being written on e-mail and said on phones all over the US." During the Reagan administration, in addition to his Iran-Contra exploits, Poindexter was involved in the creation of the infamous National Security Decision Directive 145. NSDD-145 gave the Defense Department the responsibility for security of the electronic communication of classified and other sensitive information. Two years later, Poindexter tried to create a new classification for "sensitive but unclassified" information, which was widely viewed as applying to private sector Federal contractors, and perhaps even more broadly. "It took three administrations and both political parties over a decade to correct those mistakes," former Senate Judiciary Committee counsel Marc Rotenberg told the New York Times.

The Information Awareness Office is one of two new agencies created under the auspices of DARPA in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The other agency, the Information Exploitation Office, will focus on applying technology to the problem of reducing the time between when an enemy target is identified and when it can be attacked. DARPA research in the past led to the creation of stealth aircraft, and the Internet. The Bush administration has proposed a sharp increase in the DARPA budget for 2003. DARPA is expected to address threats of biological warfare, and to explore new data mining technologies. Steven Wallach, vice president of Chiaro Networks and a member of the president's Information Technology Advisory Committee, told the New York Times "We now have so many sensors that we need new ways of making sense of the information we collect.... 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." Shankar Sastry chairman of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department at the University of California, and a former DARPA manager added "After 9/11, there is clearly a sense you have to present information to decision makers in a coherent fashion."

Poindexter was invited to review White House security in 1981 following the assassination attempt on then President Reagan. He became deputy National Security Adviser in 1983, and Adviser in 1985. He played a key role in the development of the Crisis Management Center, whose purpose was "pre-crisis collection and analysis of information about likely crisis areas in an effort to anticipate events and to provide extensive background information to decision makers as a crisis preventive" and to become the "institutional memory for the policy makers." He also introduced secure video teleconferencing and e-mail to the White House. (The White House was the beta-test site for IBM's PROFS system.) Most recently Poindexter has worked for military- and intelligence- agency consulting firm Syntek, of Arlington, VA. Since 1995 he has consulted with DARPA on the development of battlefield and crisis management tools. One project, code-named GENOA is intended to facilitate the review of large databases by national security personnel.

NSDD-145 was issued in September 1984, and was "aimed at safeguarding automated information systems with a special focus on protecting those Federal systems accessed via (and dependent on) network communications". It was soon used, however, to justify assertions of government control over information and technology that to critics did not seem directly related to its original purpose. For instance, the Pentagon reportedly issued an order requiring commercial satellites launched after 1990 to include "protective" systems approved by the NSA. The policy would effectively provide NSA with the information necessary to take control of any commercial satellite that had the systems installed. Poindexter issued National Telecommunications Information Systems and Security (NTISS) policy Directive No. 2. in October 1986. This would have classified information that had previously been designated "sensitive but unclassified." In May 1987 Assistant Defense Secretary (and former NSA deputy) Donald Latham told Omni magazine that the new category would include all medical records in government databases, individual and corporate tax information, and even agricultural statistics.

In 1985, under authority granted it by NSDD-145, the NSA investigated a computer program that was widely used in voting machines during the election of 1984. Not surprisingly objections to NSDD-145 and NTISS Directive 2 were raised from many quarters. Interviewed in 1987, Representative Jack Brooks of Texas said, "In my view this is an unprecedented and ill-advised expansion of the military's influence in our society." Representative Dan Glickman of Kansas, who later introduced the Computer Security Act of 1987, added "The computer systems used by counties to collect and process votes have nothing to do with national security, and I'm really concerned about the NSA's involvement." Other members of congress decried the orders as Presidential policy-making that excluded the legislative branch of government. Industrial and civil liberties organizations from the ACLU to Mead Data objected to the Defense Department having control over unclassified information in the private sector. In 1987 Congress responded by passing the Computer Security act, assigning

... to the National Bureau of Standards responsibility for developing standards and guidelines to assure cost-effective security and privacy of sensitive information in Federal computer systems, drawing on the technical advice and assistance (including work products) of the National Security Agency, where appropriate.

The key premise was that civilian computing standards would be developed by a civilian agency. Subsequently a Memo of Understanding between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (successor to the National Bureau of Standards) was issued, which appears to violate the intent of Congress to restrict NSA's "ability to dictate the selection of security standards for unclassified information standards."

Given his history, Poindexter's association with advanced surveillance and data-mining techniques in the NY Times words, "has raised new concerns among civil liberties groups in the United States."

Poindexter was a key figure in a series of arms transactions that have become known as the Iran-Contra affair. In 1985, then President Reagan authorized the sale of antitank missiles through Israel to Iran, in an attempt to win the release of seven American hostages. The sale violated an existing arms embargo. Congress thought the sale was to Israel, and the Reagan administration did not inform them that the missiles would be resold to Iran. After the fact, the CIA realized it had no authorization for the transaction, and obtained Reagan's signature on a backdated "finding." CIA officials also lied to Congress, saying that they thought the shipment contained oil equipment.

Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, an aide, pieced together a system involving private arms dealers, tax-exempt foundations, retired CIA officers, and Liberian freighters to facilitate direct arms sales to Iran authorized by Reagan. Weapons were obtained at cost, and marked up 300%; profits were channeled to a right-wing faction in Nicaragua known as the Contras, in violation of legislation known as the Boland amendments, which said in part:

During fiscal year 1985, no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.

The scandal was uncovered in the fall of 1986 when a Lebanese journal reported the sales to Iran, and a plane carrying weapons for the Contras, and allegedly piloted by a CIA operative or contractor, was shot down in Nicaragua. Reagan risked impeachment for failing to notify Congress about the arms sale, and by allowing or encouraging members of the administration to violate the Boland amendment. Negotiations to free the hostages may have been delayed in order to increase profits for the Contras. Attorney General Edwin Meese was placed in charge of an internal investigation, but allowed Oliver North to destroy so many documents that his shredder broke.

Lawrence Walsh was appointed independent counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra matters in December 1984. After an eight-year investigation, Walsh obtained 11 of the 14 convictions he sought. Poindexter and North's convictions were overturned in part because they had been granted immunity for their testimony before Congress. The appeals court ruled that the prosecution's case depended on information that had been revealed under the immunity grant. The greatest blow to Walsh's work came on Christmas of 1992, however, when "Poppy" Bush, then president, pardoned ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Poindexter's predecessor as NSA Robert McFarlane, and three CIA officials.

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt find fodder in Microsoft's recent hiring of trial lawyer Dan K. Webb to represent them during the remedy phase of the government's antitrust case. Webb represented Poindexter during the Iran-Contra affair.

A recurring criticism of the National Security Council, including the period in which Poindexter was its head, is that despite having been created as an advisory body, its staff assumes operational functions. On that subject, Poindexter has said:

I think it’s a mistake to rule it out just as I think it’s a mistake for there to be an executive order that says that we won’t assassinate bad actors. I’m not suggesting that we should, but I think it’s always a mistake to say that you’re not going to do something. You need to leave the question mark out there. It provides you much more leverage. I think the same thing is true of a more operational role for the NSC staff than is sometimes traditional. Sometimes there are circumstances when you’re dealing with very complex problems where there are seldom right answers and the issues are all shades of gray – not black or white. And so you want to preserve for the president the maximum amount of flexibility so that he’s got lots of options to address all kinds of problems. And I think if that means, as we thought it did during our time, that somebody on the NSC staff has to take a more operational role then I don’t see any problem with that.

In the Iran arms deal, the State Department did not want to do what the president wanted, and in the funneling of support to the Contras in Nicaragua, Congress had prohibited some agencies (though not explicitly the NSA) from doing what the administration thought was right. So the NSC took on an operational role to execute the presidential directives. Poindexter maintains that this is not technically true in the case of the sale of arms to Iran, because the CIA was given that responsibility, and contracted with a third party who "happened" also to be the same person the NSC was using to provide arms to the Contras.

He also denies that the Iran-Contra operation violated the law:

Constantly the authors that write about it say that we violated the law. That has never been charged. It has never been proven; it’s never been tried. In fact, we wanted to make that an
issue in all of the activity that followed, but the government was never willing to make it one. And to this day, I do not believe that we violated the law. We were very careful not to. It’s that the law had some loopholes in it and I think those loopholes were deliberate.

Poindexter bases his claim on the fact that the Intelligence Oversight Board, a three member panel that advises the President on intelligence issues, ruled that the National Security Agency was not an intelligence agency.

Theodore Draper notes in his book A Very Thin Line: The Iran-contra Affair:

The national security adviser, unlike the director of the CIA, did not have to be confirmed by Congress and did not have to testify before congressional intelligence committees. The execution of both affairs was concentrated in one man, Oliver L. North, responsible only to one man, ... John M. Poindexter. By using outside accomplices ... who did not have to report to any official agency, North's operations were largely impervious to the normal reach of government. North's methods resembled those of a private rather than a public way of doing business, since Secord and Hakim were beholden only to him. As Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger observed: "I think any of these things that attempt to run private operations of this nature become private governments, is totally wrong and I would be totally opposed."

Draper calls Poindexter "obsessive about secrecy," and suggests Reagan encouraged him. He quotes then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger as saying, "It was a very small narrow circle of people who needed to know [about the transfer of arms to Iran] and it was deliberately kept small because of the considerations the President continually emphasized that it was necessary to make sure that very few people knew about it." Putting information and instructions in writing was prohibited, and communication records not kept. The CIA station chief of the Lisbon office testified that the communication channel Poindexter and North used was "outside and is designed to be outside the records-keeping system." Poindexter told interviewers from the Brookings Institution that former CIA Director William Casey admonished him "John, if more than one person knows something, it’s not a secret."

The motive for all the secrecy and destruction of records, though, was not to protect the President from foreign enemies, but from domestic political controversy. Poindexter testified that the reason he had not told Reagan about diversion of funds from arms sales to Iran to support the Contras in Nicaragua was that:

... I thought it was a neat idea, too, and I'm sure the President would have enjoyed knowing about it. But, on the other hand, because it would be controversial -- and I must say that I don't believe that I estimated how controversial it would be accurately -- but I knew very well that it would be controversial, and I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected, and at the same time we would be able to carry out his policy and provide the opposition to the Sandinista government.

Draper observes, "Unauthorized and uncontrolled covert operations put the covert operators in a position to jeopardize the entire government, or even to take its place. Such covert operations become indistinguishable from government by junta or cabal."


Sutherland, John "No more Mr Scrupulous Guy" Guardian (UK) 18 Feb. 2002

Gedda, George "Five Terror Suspects Nabbed in Yemen" Associated Press. 14 Feb. 2002

Report accompanying the Computer Security Act of 1987. Prepared for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. 11 Jun. 1987.

Draper, Theodore A Very Thin Line: The Iran-contra Affair New York: Hill and Wang, 1991. Excerpted in LA Times 16 Jun. 1991.

Daalder, Ivo and I.M. Destler, Moderators. Oral History Roundtables: The Role of the National Security Adviser Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2000

Dwyer, Paula. "Pointing A Finger At Reagan." Rev. of FIREWALL The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up by Lawrence E. Walsh. Business Week. 23 Jun. 1997.

Mulcahy, Ryan, ed. "IT News in Time of Crisis" 27 Sep. 2001.

Codes, Keys and Conflicts: Issues in U.S. Crypto Policy Association for Computing Machinery. Jun. 1994.

For the official record of the Iran-Contra affair, see the Final Report Of The Independent Counsel For Iran/contra Matters.
See also the report accompanying the Computer Security Act of 1987.