Here’s an interesting — but overlooked — detail of the Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) saga: one of the crooked contractors who bribed the Duke Stir was apparently involved in a Total Information Awareness-like data-mining operation that looked at U.S. citizens’ data.
Mitchell Wade, former CEO of MZM Inc., pleaded guilty to several conspiracy and bribery charges a few weeks ago in connection with the Cunningham scandal. But a little-noticed piece of his history goes into one of the most sensitive domestic spying operations we have heard of to date: the Pentagon’s Virginia-based Counterintelligence Field Activity office (CIFA).
Wade got over $16 million in contracts with CIFA by bribing Duke Cunningham, who forced earmarks in to Defense appropriations bills on his behalf. Furthermore, Wade’s second-in-command was a consultant to the Pentagon on standing up the operation.
In its brief life — it was created in 2002 — CIFA has had trouble keeping its nose clean. Despite the ink that’s been spilled on the center, little is actually known about what it does, and how MZM serviced it.Here’s what we know: After the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon used its massive budget and urgent sense of mission to push into areas of intelligence it had once left to others. Domestic intelligence was one of those areas. DoD created CIFA in 2002 to become a joint center for “force protection” intelligence work at DoD, mainly anti-terrorism.
What’s “force protection?” Pentagonese for “carte blanche.” In encompasses protection for bases, troops and equipment. And the water supply. The electrical grid. Highways. Contractors, their suppliers — the list goes on. Which leaves CIFA with a mandate to gather information on, well, just about anything and anybody it wants.
If you don’t believe me, believe the unnamed former Pentagon intelligence official who told the Post,
They started with force protection. . . but when you go down that road, you soon are into everything. . . . [the Pentagon] is too big, too rich an organization and should not be left unfettered. They rush in where there is a vacuum.
CIFA’s not small — it employs 1,000 people, roughly quadruple the size of the State Department’s intelligence division.
One branch, the Counterintelligence and Law Enforcement Center, “identifies and assesses threats” from “insider threats, foreign intelligence services, terrorists, and other clandestine or covert entities,” according to a December 2005 Washington Post article. Another has 20 psychologists working on “offensive and defensive counterintelligence efforts.”
The area that’s gotten them into hot water recently is TALON, a system of receiving “threat reports” from around the country and storing them in a database, known as Cornerstone. Last December, NBC news got their hands on a printout of a portion of the database which revealed they were keeping tabs on nonviolent protesters, mostly anti-war, around the United States.
A subsequent Pentagon investigation found one of every 100 records in the database shouldn’t be there. (The Defense Department has repeatedly pushed Congress to excuse it from the Privacy Act, which is there to keep it from doing just this.)
Where does Wade and MZM come in? We’re learning more every day, but here’s what we know now: CIFA culls “commercial data,” including financial records, criminal records, credit histories and more. MZM won a contract — through Cunningham — to provide a data storage system to CIFA, presumeably to hold a lot of that information. Unfortunately it was a piece of crap, and was never installed.
In addition, the Washington Post has reported MZM assisted CIFA in “exploiting” the data — presumeably by searching it, organizing it, and looking for patterns.
Keeping databases on citizens engaging in protected political activities? Datamining credit histories looking for terrorists? It looks like the place bad ideas go to stay alive, behind the curtain of secrecy. As Wade has proven, you can get away with a lot behind that curtain (for a while, anyway). I wonder what more is back there we haven’t heard about.