The Watchers

Is John Poindexter a Tragic Hero?
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 22 2010 9:30 AM

The Watchers

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The Watchers by Shane Harris.

Dear Shane:

I wolfed down your fantastic new book, The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, in three sittings. It's a narrative, and a propulsive one, so I kept turning the pages, completely absorbed by this tale of a few visionary mad scientists who came up with the possibly hare-brained notion that pervasive electronic surveillance is the way to keep America safe. Now that I've finished the book, I'm wondering how, precisely, you pulled it off. So I'm thrilled that you've agreed to spend the next few days submitting to my enhanced interrogation techniques.

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We've known each other for years, and we've both spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about this most spooky province of American spookdom—the secret, multibillion-dollar systems that U.S. intelligence agencies use to monitor the communications, transactions, and associations of people in this country and around the world. But whereas my own book on the subject focused on these systems as systems, you've written a story about the brilliant, patriotic, and, in some instances, colossally arrogant individuals who brought these systems to life. There's a rich cast of oddball tech wizards to discuss here, but the person I'm most curious about is your central Strangelovian protagonist: Adm. John Poindexter.

Though his name doesn't appear in the title or subtitle—a choice I hope you'll explain—The Watchers is really a book about Poindexter, the visionary Ph.D., former national security adviser, disgraced Iran-Contra conspirator, and father of one of the most far-reaching and reviled surveillance initiatives of the post-9/11 era, Total Information Awareness. The Bush administration gagged Poindexter when TIA ignited a firestorm in Congress in 2003, and after being removed from his position at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the Pentagon's R & D shop, known as DARPA), the admiral appeared to recede from the national stage. But he gave you unprecedented access—14 long interviews about his philosophy and career—and in your book, he emerges not as the caricature civil libertarians have come to know and loathe but as a nuanced, surprisingly sympathetic character. As our mutual friend Noah Shachtman put it over at Wired, you've created "a loving portrait of a rather unlovable man."

The first thing I'd like to know is how you went about cultivating that relationship and persuading a guy with several decades worth of press-inflicted scars to open up to you in such an intimate manner. There's an extraordinary passage in which you recount Poindexter's experience as a young naval ensign in 1958, standing watch on a World War II destroyer as it prowled the icy North Atlantic, searching for Russian subs. He closes his eyes and imagines the sounds of the wind and the waves falling away:

And now, in the expanding silence, a new sound. A pulsing. A rush of water, followed by an unmistakably man-made, mechanical whirl. Propeller and steel hull, coming out of the black. ... He could open his eyes now and see it there in front of him, just where he knew it would be.

It's a wonderful Rosebud moment for your central character, an effective metaphor for his lifelong quest to isolate the single deadly signal in a sea of ambient noise. "The only things that bothered Poindexter were those that he could not understand," you write, and you make clear that well before 9/11, dating back to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Poindexter had a voracious appetite for information and an unwavering faith in the power of new technologies to demystify the world around us. You describe him tinkering in the electronics shop of his basement home office. To me, this could only bring to mind Harry Caul's workshop in The Conversation, which isn't so far-fetched, when you consider that Poindexter hired a Hollywood set designer to give the headquarters for one of his early surveillance programs an appropriately sci-fi look. He may have owned one of the first laptop computers and introduced e-mail to the White House, but Poindexter has always been a technocrat, not just a tech. He knows how to employ the occasional P.T. Barnum flourish when it comes to impressing the brass. There's another great moment in the book when, just days after 9/11, he's making the rounds in Washington, trying to secure support for Total Information Awareness, and he describes the endeavor as a "Manhattan Project" for counterterrorism—without so much as a passing acknowledgment that like the development of the Atomic bomb, this program might have a few unintended consequences.

Yet for all of your considerable empathy for Poindexter, to me, The Watchers is all about the unintended consequences of his vision. Even today, Poindexter remains righteous and defiant, convinced that he is a guardian of public safety, even if the public itself is too dense to understand that. (I laughed out loud when he dismissed his 1990 conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice not because it was later reversed on a technicality but because not one of the jurors "was my peer.") I suspect it was some abiding sense that the great service he has done the American people remains misunderstood that led him to speak with you, and to trust you to tell his story. Indeed, there are moments in The Watchers where Poindexter seems like a tragic hero—a prophet who was simply ahead of his time.

But you also reveal that Total Information Awareness persists, at other agencies, under a series of other names; that Poindexter has made a comeback and remains in demand as a Beltway sage; and that his signature conviction—that technology can gather and process huge volumes of data, not merely to make sense of the mysterious workings of our enemies but actually to predict the next attack—has become an article of faith within our intelligence establishment.

So here's what I really want to know: If it's true that this kind of surveillance is the way of the future but Poindexter is wrong and his faith in technology is actually misplaced, then isn't this story a tragedy not just for the good admiral but for the rest of us as well?

Patrick