Monday, September 29, 2003

Plans for a multimillion-dollar video game that would teach CIA operatives to think like terrorists show a serious lack of leadership at the intelligence agency, critics said yesterday.

“Perhaps this is the reason we were surprised by September 11,” said civil libertarian Bob Barr, a Republican and former congressman from Georgia. “If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical.”

The Washington Times first reported yesterday on the project between the agency’s Counterterrorist Center and the Institute for Creative Technologies, which works with Hollywood movie and video-game specialists.

“It raises questions about leadership at the agency,” Mr. Barr said. “What we ought to be doing is focusing our money and attention in identifying terrorists and their associates so we can be on the watch for these characters, not playing video games.”

The games will offer different scenarios for analysts to play terrorists, terrorist financiers or federal agents tracking terrorist cells. An agency spokesman said the “innovative approach” will lead to “out-of-the-box thinking” to fight terrorism.

“We think computer games are a really good way of imparting information,” said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield. “We don’t call them games; we call them computer-based training aids.”

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the intelligence community’s budget is nearly $40 billion a year, and though specific spending is secret, Congress does have the power and responsibility to consider cuts.

“They can send a message in the next closed hearing that Director [George J.] Tenet might want to reconsider this type of purchase,” Mr. Schatz said.

The CIA’s job is to know what the enemy is capable of planning, but the agency seems to be dragging its feet on that mission, Mr. Schatz said.

“Two years later and they are still groping for ideas on how terrorists might be thinking,” Mr. Schatz said. “There is nothing wrong with war games or training, but it should be a little more realistic.

“The fact they are putting unlimited resources into terrorist activity shows they might be spending some money in not such a fiscally prudent manner,” Mr. Schatz said.

The video game is the latest in a string of government projects designed to catch terrorists that has been criticized by lawmakers and civil libertarians who say it crosses the line of common sense.

Congress last week shut down a Pentagon office that designed an online betting scheme to predict terrorist attacks. The revelation led to the resignation of retired Navy Vice Adm. John Poindexter as head of the Terrorism Information Awareness office.

“It seems like every month, like clockwork, one of these goofy stories appears,” Mr. Barr said. “Hopefully, the mere fact this nonsense has been made public will give some members of Congress the tools they need to stop funding for this sort of thing.”

The video-game project is part of a $10 million “academic outreach” program.

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