Poindexter redux

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Deep in the recesses of the Pentagon is the Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is where Vice Adm. John Poindexter (USN ret.) hangs out these days, working on TIA. TIA stands for Total Information Awareness. The project, which is budgeted at $10 million this year and expected to get more next year, has been getting bad press. That is in part because its Orwellian-sounding purpose is to create a centralized database of personal information about Americans.

Cutting-edge technology would be used to gather everything that the computer age has to offer, from travel plans to pharmacy prescriptions. Pentagon officials say it's meant to be a tool in the war against terrorism, not an invasion of privacy of innocent citizens. Well, maybe. But that would sound more reassuring if it were not for the identity of the project manager.

Admiral Poindexter is probably better known for destroying information than for gathering it. Before a congressional investigating committee in 1986, he admitted that, as President Reagan's national security adviser, he destroyed evidence in connection with the Iran-contra affair. Specifically, he tore up the only signed copy of a document called a "presidential finding" that retroactively authorized shipment of arms to Iran in return for the release of American hostages in Lebanon.

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He testified that he did this to avoid embarrassment to Mr. Reagan. Poindexter, like Oliver North, who reported to him, was convicted in federal district court of lying to Congress and of obstruction.The conviction was overturned on technical grounds by an appeals court majority of two Reagan-appointed judges, Douglas Ginsburg and David Sentelle, over the vigorous dissent of Carter-appointed judge Abner Mikva.

On ABC television, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said he was urging Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to fire Poindexter. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended him as one who "understands the danger of government having too much power."

The Bush administration has shown no inclination to alter Poindexter's sensitive assignment. Mr. Rumsfeld says: "I would recommend people take a deep breath. Nothing terrible is going to happen."

Outside Poindexter's Pentagon office is a logo showing an all-seeing eye on top of a pyramid and the slogan, "Scientia est potentia" ("Knowledge is power"). The question is: How much power over knowledge about us should be entrusted to an admitted destroyer of federal documents?

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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