- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

The story appeared on front pages around the country, but those jokers in the media can’t fool me. It’s obviously a sci-fi fantasy. You can almost hear Rod Serling’s voiceover in the background:

“As one of its many strange projects, a federal agency known as DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has set up an online futures trading market in terror.”

That’ s right: a kind of commodities market in which the commodities are acts of terrorism. Speculators can put their money on their favorite disaster: a North Korean missile attack on Japan, a chemical-biological assault on Israel, the assassination of Jordan’s king… .

If your choice comes to pass, you win big even as the bodies are being buried — or you can buy and sell and trade your futures as you would if they were in wheat or cotton. (“I’m selling an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge short. The cables are too strong. But I figure Disneyland is vulnerable… .”)

Day traders all over the world could invest, including terrorists who might like to make a killing in more than one way.

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. A bunch of Advanced Thinkers at the Pentagon did — for real.

Why am I not surprised to learn these masterminds report to Adm. Strangelove himself, a k a John M. Poindexter?

The admiral’s proclivity for amateurish spy work and general prevarication got a previous Republican administration in deep trouble. Remember the tangled web called Iran-Contra? The admiral was one of those who wove it.

That scandal had everything from arms-for-hostages to Latin American rebels. All mixed together — like a combination of John le Carre and the Marx Brothers.

Adm. Poindexter was close to the confused center of that mess, so close he was convicted of (take a deep breath) conspiracy, making false statements to the authorities, destruction and removal of official records and obstruction of Congress. Five felony counts in all. I don’t think I’ve left any out.

I hasten to add that the admiral’s convictions were overturned on appeal because he had been granted immunity for his testimony before Congress. But as even his commander in chief at the time, Ronald Reagan, famously admitted, “Mistakes were made.”

You would think the admiral would have learned something from all this. Heck, you’d think a Republican administration would have learned something from all this, namely: Never again entrust John M. Poindexter with a position of responsibility.

Instead, the admiral shows up — like a ton of bad pennies — at the Information Awareness Office, which has been churning out embarrassing (and very expensive) projects one after the other. They all bear titles that would do justice to some bureaucratic enterprise in “A Clockwork Orange.”

For example, “entity extraction from natural language text,” “biologically inspired algorithms for agent control” and, my own favorite, “gait recognition,” a k a the Silly Walks department. (Contrary to widespread reports, Britain’s Tony Blair has not volunteered the Monty Python troupe to help with the research.)

And now we get the market in terror futures. Its purpose was to use “market-based techniques for avoiding surprise and predicting future events… .” I knew that, among our more numbers-entranced elite, the free market had long ago supplanted the dated concept of God as a source of omniscience, but this is ridiculous.

One can understand, even excuse and encourage, the best-and-brightest types who came up with this idea on a whim. That’s what brainstorming sessions are for. What I can’t understand is why there was no adult present to ask: Are you crazy?

It’s not the lower-downs that produce these wild ideas who need to be disciplined, but the supposed adults who fail to ride herd on them. To be a real cowboy at the old R&D;, the Research and Development ranch, you need to know when to rein ‘em in, and when to let ‘em roam. And be able to distinguish the crazy-brilliant from the just plain crazy.

Once this wacky idea of speculating on terror attacks as if they were pork bellies got out, the resultant furor obliged the Pentagon to think again, or maybe think for the first time, and pull the plug.

Somebody needs to pull the plug on Adm. Poindexter. This guy is the Pentagon’s own Maxwell Smart. He really ought to have his own talk show by now, like Ollie North and G. Gordon Liddy, instead of being on the public payroll. That way, he would embarrass only himself, not the U.S. government.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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