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‘Freewheeling Zealots’


Conceived to maintain the technological supremacy of the U.S. military against all challengers, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has seen its rep change in 2003 to that of a playground for mad military boffins brewing toxic schemes.

A relentless stream of bad notices and public anger followed John Poindexter, the passing flavors of Terrorism Information Awareness and the betting-on-terror market project. DARPA director Tony Tether went before Congress last May 6 to assure politicians that its data-mining projects in search of “terrorists” would not lead to “false positives,” invasions of privacy or misuse of personal data.

It didn’t matter. With the unfurling of the betting-on-terror market and immediate nightmare of bad publicity, DARPA had created a new reputation as a funder of weirdos, employer of government criminals, and supporter of projects with little apparent potential for productive return but big potential for antagonizing the polity. Then, Poindexter was gone, betting-on-terror was dismantled, and Congress put in place mechanisms to review the agency’s portfolio of research projects.

“There’s a thin line between innovation and flakiness, and DARPA is going to pay a price in skepticism,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

Founded as ARPA in 1958, the agency was “the first U.S. response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik,” reads its official history on the Web. The agency would guarantee that the U.S. military would always maintain “a lead in applying state-of-the-art technology for military capabilities” and “prevent technological surprise from adversaries.”

DARPA was designed specifically to keep the military and political bureaucracy out and to have a free hand with any project. Utter failure was, and is, allowed as long as a theoretically high payoff can be envisioned.

The agency’s managers “have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals,” proclaims the agency grandly. But DARPA contradicts itself in the next paragraph of its description by adding, “Management is focused on good stewardship of taxpayer funds.”

The complete encouragement of “freewheeling zealots” throwing everything at the wall in the name of mind-roasting military technological supremacy may have made good sense during the Cold War when the Soviet Union indulged in the same crap. However, today DARPA has no peer. No technological rival has emerged; every other nation that is a potential foe has either taken what few balls it has left in the arena and gone home or been run off the playing field by the expansion of the U.S. military.

“One would expect that to be reflected more than it has been at the agency,” says Aftergood.

Indeed, DARPA often seems to act as if the Cold War never ended, propositioning or transitioning grandiose projects that have no foes capable of fighting them. To this end we have been rewarded with the WAM, or Wide Area Munition, a computer-networked bomb that led to the senseless atrocity of the Jumping Mine Field. Or there is WolfPack, a project to litter battlefields with computer-networked radio-frequency jammers made to interfere with whatever communications are left after the U.S. Air Force has worked over the battle zone. It’s worth noting that Saddam Hussein and his flunkies used messengers and scraps of paper to order their military about while it was being crushed.

The most indicative of the stuck-in-the-Cold War-rut mindset is FALCON: the “Force Application and Launch From the Continental United States” project. This calls for a theoretical hypersonic bomber and munitions for an “ultimate prompt global reach capability” that could flatten anything on the planet within two hours’ notice. The need for speed is rationalized by the causes célèbres of preemptive attacks on weapons of mass destruction or quick strikes on leadership targets like . . . Saddam Hussein or Chemical Ali.

At this point, it would be remiss not to mention DARPA’s more spectacular, if expensive, successes—the stealth bomber, the Predator drone, the stealth fighter. The agency also takes an almost Al Gore-like stand on its contributions to world computing—if you’re a devout believer, DARPA has invented about half of all of it, with the possible exception of Microsoft.

More recently, there has been a growing amount of classified activity that requires special access within the agency. What this means, says Aftergood, is that “even the congressional staff who have clearances in the armed services committees and appropriations committees that oversee DARPA have a harder time accessing what the agency is up to.”

Aftergood adds that this has led to privately expressed frustration in Congress. “The circle of people informed under special access drops precipitously,” he says.

In Senate Report 108-46 for the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004, lawmakers asked that the National Academy of Sciences assess DARPA’s research to see whether it adheres to Department of Defense regulations. However, the document hedges by stating that DARPA programs will not be rated for “worthiness.”

But how does one review DARPA’s research functions if increasing portions of it are sealed in special access compartments that Defense authorization staffers cannot even observe?

“That’s an interesting question,” says Aftergood. “Either National Academy of Sciences personnel will be granted some level of access—or they won’t.”

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