So what’s wrong with the futures market? Hillary did pretty well with it, so why shouldn’t the Defense Department try to use it for a legitimate purpose? The stentorian senatorial chorus — from those national security stalwarts Byron Dorgan (D-Corn) and Ron Wyden (D-Whining) — was enough to draw the normally level-headed Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, into the fray, lining up with those two jokers. But the idea — as goofy as it may sound — was a good one. And it came straight from the RSGs.
You have to understand what DARPA is. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a charter that looks like the orders for the Starship Enterprise. Its only job is to push past the boundaries of science to increase the effectiveness of our combat forces. And DARPA is the bunch that the term “RSG” — real smart guy — was invented for. Remember Dr. Tzap from the comic strip “Tank McNamara”? He’s the wild-eyed scientist who’s always trying to invent something like a rocket-propelled, radar-guided baseball guaranteed to nick the outside corner of the strike zone, and usually winds up with something that performs to order, but has the unfortunate side effect of making a hole in the catcher. The DARPA RSGs are not only a bunch smarter than Dr. Tzap, but they have the world’s most powerful computers. And a few lasers, and all sorts of world-vaporizing toys.
They are capable of some amazing things. When I was in the Pentagon during Gulf War 1, in the first day or two of the campaign, dust storms prevented our fliers from positively identifying vehicles on the ground. As a result, some of our troops were killed when our aircraft struck what they believed to be bad guys.
About two mornings later, the director of DARPA — who shared a boss with me — dropped in on the way to see the big guys. In his hand was an object the size and shape of a coffee can. Gen. Schwartzkopf had sent a handwritten note to Mr. Cheney asking for a fix to the vehicle identification problem, and it was passed to DARPA. The fix — which was designed and the prototype manufactured in about 24 hours — was a powerful IR signal emitter, fitted with a sort of velcro fastener. Pull the tape backing off the velcro, stick it on your Bradley fighting vehicle, turn it on, and suddenly every fighter and strike jock above sees a very bright spot on his infrared detectors that says, “good guy.” If the air war hadn’t ended in just a few more days, thousands of these things would have been produced and shipped to Kuwait. This is one side of DARPA. The other is the spooky scientists who you lock in a lab, and open the door once every few years to see what they’re doing. And they’re always doing something.
Who would you bet on to apply awesome brain power to devise new ways to predict terrorism: the U.S. Senate or DARPA? If you have to stop to think about the answer, please stop reading now. We need to get past the strange and funny side of the DARPA proposal, and to the serious side.
Our intelligence community lacks the ability to forecast pretty much anything, including terrorist attacks. We keep hearing about intelligence failures before 9-11, but the failure to detect and prevent terrorism is nothing new. From the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut to the first World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, and every other attack including and since Pearl Harbor, our intelligence community has failed to protect us. Judging by Rainbow Tom Ridge’s color-coded alerts, the information we seem to be getting lately is no more specific — and no more accurate — than a weather forecast. So why not apply the tremendous amount of cranial capacity at DARPA to the issue? Answer: we damned well ought to.
DARPA has been working at improving the intel game for years. And one of the places they have been looking is the computer simulations of markets and other aspects of the real world that many top colleges such as the University of Chicago develop. So when the idea of a futures market in terrorism came up, DARPA took a hard look. What they came up with made some sense. Stock markets are pretty good prognosticators of political and economic events. If terrorist acts are anything, they are intended to be harmful economically and achieve political ends by violence. When DARPA’s little program was set up, it was intended to capture the wisdom of the marketplace in helping forecast terrorist events. As DARPA’s initial announcements put it, the advice of the market is often better than advice from experts.
Called “FutureMAP,” the DARPA program would have allowed one thousand people — later up to ten thousand — to buy and sell “futures” contracts, betting on whether certain events would happen in the Middle East, or on specific terrorist acts. Because the real futures markets can be manipulated by real terrorists, FutureMAP could have helped DARPA learn how that could be done, spot those manipulations and turn them into two kinds of useful information. First, the information could have been used directly to help predict terrorist acts. Second, the DARPA program could have been the basis for devising new intelligence methods to discover terrorist plans. Both objectives were worthwhile, and should have been continued. And then Byron Dorgan and his pals started shouting that it was “unbelievably stupid.”
Many senators know very well that we can trust DARPA with a whole stack of things that — handled badly — will result in an Earth-shattering “KABOOM.” Yet they made the instant judgment for the television cameras that we couldn’t trust DARPA with FutureMAP. Maybe they thought it wasn’t expensive enough. At $8 million over two years, the DARPA program cost less than Congress spills on its shirt any given day. (And a great deal less than any number of Federal nuisances. NEA cost us $115 million last year, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting stings us for $300 million every year.)
For now, at least, FutureMAP is an idea as dead as French honor. It was a decent idea, which could have been tried without a huge dent in the public coffers. It’s interesting to see how quickly Congress shot it down, and how slowly it will be to come up with a better idea to help predict terrorist events. Don’t hold your breath.
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