Back in the Safe Zone
By David Ignatius
Friday, August 1, 2003; Page A19
Members of Congress were queuing up this week to express their indignation at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's proposal to create a futures market where investors could bet on the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
"There is something very sick about it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She demanded that Congress "end the careers of whoever it was who thought that up." Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who made headlines when he and another senator disclosed the program Monday, called it "a runaway horse that needs to be reined in." Even one of the Pentagon's pals, Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, was running for cover, agreeing that the plan was "a very significant mistake."
By Tuesday Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had officially disowned the idea. "I share your shock at this kind of program," he told Congress. "We'll find out about it, but it is being terminated."
And then yesterday the official who oversaw the program, former Reagan-era national security adviser John Poindexter -- a man who seems to have one of those indelible "official bad person'" signs attached to him because of his role in the Iran-contra affair -- indicated he would resign.
And with that, Washington's gods of conformity will be appeased. Purged of this unconventional, off-the-wall idea, the capital can return to its normal play-it-safe rules.
These events, alas, embody a fundamental problem with Washington, though not the one Congress was so indignant about. The nation's capital operates as a zero-defect culture, one where failure is impermissible. In that respect, it is the opposite of what's creative and dynamic about America. The second-guessers and headline-hunters who populate Congress lack the essential American willingness to take risks, to propose outlandish ideas and, on occasion, to fail.
I'm not necessarily arguing for the futures market in terrorism. It would have the same problem as any unregulated market: A trader with inside information could skew outcomes -- place a bet on assassination, say, and then help others do it. And it does sound callous to let people bet directly on the possibility that a regime could be overthrown or a leader killed -- even though markets are implicitly doing that all the time.
The point is that for all its defects, the political futures market was an interesting, unconventional idea for capturing information that's "on the street" -- the subtle tips and clues that ordinary people know but that are often lost to our intelligence agencies. My response to critics would be: Okay, if this approach is wrong, what's a better idea? But I doubt any brave soul will be funding a similar project soon.
As it happens, on the day the futures-market flap broke, I was attending a conference sponsored by DARPA, the very agency that launched this insidious assault on conventional thinking. The topic of the conference was "Life Sciences, Complexity and National Security," or in more blunt terms, the intersection of biology and warfare.
The point of the meeting was to think, provoke and discuss -- in the hope of making the nation safer. To get some outside ferment, DARPA invited a dozen or so scientists, some business consultants, two journalists and a novelist. We all came away astonished by the boldness and creativity of some of the research DARPA is funding with America's tax dollars.
Here are some of the projects DARPA is sponsoring: teaching a rat how to get water just by thinking about it; creating an electronic substitute for the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, so that we might eventually be able to download memories or complex instructions, or to communicate brain to brain; building artificial organs and prostheses that could greatly increase human performance; making pills that could alter soldiers' metabolisms so they could go days without food, sleep or water.
And there's more in DARPA's magic box: bio-inspired robots, modeled partly on cockroaches, that have supple, flexible legs and can scramble over rocky terrain and up stairs; honeybees that can detect explosives; and systems for remotely monitoring mental states through MRIs and other screening technology, so that authorities might someday detect the intent to hijack an airliner the way a metal detector can now find a gun.
Are some of those ideas off the wall? You bet. Will they all work out? Of course not. Do some of them pose ethical or legal dilemmas? Probably. But is the country better off because DARPA is willing to take risks and fund unconventional research? Absolutely.
It's impossible in the early stages of research to know which are the good ideas and which are the clinkers. But the notion that people who propose unconventional ideas should be punished is . . . well, it's downright un-American.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company