The Watchers

I'll Never Forget What John Poindexter Told Me on His Sailboat
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 22 2010 2:34 PM

The Watchers

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The Watchers by Shane Harris.

Dear Patrick:

I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the book. If it kept you absorbed and turning the pages, then I've done my job. A few years ago, when I began to contemplate a narrative on this vast subject, I decided that the best way to illuminate the opaque spy-systems of the intelligence community was to tell the story of the men and women who built them, ran them, and, in some cases, tore them down. But first I had to get to know those characters. So in answer to your big question, here's how I got to know the biggest of all, John Poindexter, and why he told me his story.

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I first met Poindexter in March 2004, months after he'd left government amid the fallout from the Total Information Awareness program, which you correctly describe as "one of the most far-reaching and reviled surveillance initiatives of the post-9/11 era." I was working as a technology reporter for Government Executive, a business magazine for federal officials, and I'd been writing stories mostly about the mechanics of TIA. I tried to get an interview with Poindexter, but his office denied all my requests. Still, I was fascinated by the audacity of a system that would simultaneously sweep up huge amounts of data about ordinary people and then use new encryption techniques to make sure that no government official ever saw the names in that information ocean without a court order. Poindexter also wanted to use TIA's data-tracking programs to monitor the people using the system. These protections are what made TIA unique. (Although, as I write in the book, the government abandoned the crucial privacy research after TIA was disbanded in name and then quietly moved into the classified intelligence budget.)

Our first meeting was at a symposium at Syracuse University, where we were both panelists. This was his first public appearance since leaving government in the fallout over TIA. He introduced himself to me first—how he knew what I looked like, I still don't know, but he obviously has his methods—and then he apologized for not being able to grant my numerous interview requests. The Pentagon, he explained, had gagged him. And then this rather forlorn look overtook his face, which was disorienting because, as Noah pointed out in his Wired story, I had expected to meet the consummate evil genius, a man unmoved by his detractors. "A lot of what was written about us was unfair and inaccurate," he said. And then he quickly added, as if he'd offended me, "I don't mean what you wrote. I didn't agree with all of it, but I always thought you were fair, and that you were trying to figure out what we wanted to do."

I asked him whether he'd sit down for an interview, perhaps in service of a profile for the magazine. He thought about it for a week or so, and then called me to say he'd do it with one condition. I had to conduct multiple interviews at his house, and we had to record them. As a journalist, you know that this is hardly an onerous request. Come to your house, follow you around as you go about your routine, ask you anything I want about your life, about political scandal, about the Bush administration … and tape it? [Sigh.] Oh, OK.

Thus began Tuesdays with the admiral. After about four interviews, I wrote the profile for Government Executive. It portrayed him as a controversial, but also deeply misunderstood figure, someone trying to change the world but unable to escape his past. Poindexter read it and shared his assessment one afternoon aboard his sailboat, Bluebird, which he keeps moored on the Chesapeake Bay not far from Annapolis, Md. As he was preparing lunch, he stopped, turned to me, and said something I'll never forget: "You know how to write what's in my head, but that I don't know how to say myself." I suppose I'd passed his test. I'd earned his trust, and he never questioned it.

It's an extraordinary thing for someone to let you into their life when they know you have but one plan: to expose it. Including the parts they'd rather forget. I knew I'd developed a more nuanced view of Poindexter than his critics, but my writing wasn't going to be an apologia. And he understood that. I felt a deep sense of professional responsibility, and I don't mind telling you, personal responsibility, as well. At this point in my career, no one had ever let me in like this. A few years passed. I settled on a narrative for the book—Poindexter would be at the center of it. The more I investigated big-data surveillance, all roads kept pointing back to him. Not only did he know all the key players, but he had influenced them, and continues to do so, in ways that even some of them fail to comprehend. I asked if he was willing to go through the interview process again, this time more intensively. He didn't hesitate.

So why did he do it? Besides the basic sense of trust, I think you've got it about right when you say he was motivated by "some abiding sense that the great service he has done the American people remains misunderstood." I want to be clear—he's not bitter. But he is shrewd, and there was calculation on his part. Poindexter knew that if he was going to get a full and fair hearing on TIA and on the way his life story played into that, his best shot was to sit down with a journalist who'd already shown he could write fairly about him and who actually liked him personally.

You asked why Poindexter's name isn't in the subtitle, and here I'll push back slightly on one thing you wrote. I don't think this is a book about Poindexter. I think it's the story of a techno-warrior dynasty, of which he is the patriarch. I can't imagine telling this story without him. But I don't think of The Watchers as a biography. To me, it's an ensemble. Poindexter is the biggest player, in terms of page count and force of personality. Let's face it: The world of techno-spies is not inhabited by many larger-than-life individuals. Poindexter was too good a character not to make the star.

Add to this the fact that he's still a behind-the-scenes player in the intelligence world. He firmly believes that technology can gather and process huge volumes of data in meaningful ways, and as I describe in the book, there are adherents to the vision throughout the government. I agree with you that if his faith in technology is misplaced, that if supercomputers can't catch bad guys but really can ensnare innocent people, then the tragedy of Poindexter could take on a national flavor. I think this is, in fact, going to happen. The system will continue to miss terrorists and will inevitably gather up records on innocents. And if there's another major attack, this whole debate about security and liberty will turn academic in an instant. So, I'll challenge you to consider an alternative future: What if he's right? What if there are no practical limits—legal, technical, or otherwise—to the amount of information a government agency can consume? In that case, isn't our best defense against the Surveillance State the very system Poindexter once described? A system that can use powerful technology not just to watch us, but to watch the watchers?

Best,
Shane

Shane Harris is a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior writer at Foreign Policy. He is writing a book on cyber warfare.

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