Joe Conason's Journal

The White House prepares to bet on terrorism -- assassinations, bombings and other unnatural disasters -- until someone wisely calls the whole crazy scheme off.

By Salon Staff

Published July 29, 2003 9:59PM (EDT)

Back to the drawing board with Poindexter
Today's news about the Bush administration finally surpassed both the screwy satire of the Onion and the equally brilliant "fake news" of Jon Stewart's "Daily Show." Until this afternoon, when their scheme was abruptly canceled, the same Pentagon bureaucrats who almost brought us Total Information Awareness were busily building a new Web site where we could all invest in the future of terrorism. Their "Policy Analysis Market" would have encouraged daring punters to bet on the likelihood of assassinations, mass murders and other unnatural disasters. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had budgeted $8 million for the development of this project, a joint venture with the Economist Intelligence Unit, a division of the British magazine, and Net Exchange, a technology firm founded by Caltech professors.

The paragraph above obviously requires elaboration, as well as the suspension of disbelief. It sounds ludicrous. It is ludicrous. But it is an idea with great appeal to a certain kind of mind. According to this worldview, the "terrorism market" would aggregate the knowledge and intuitions of bettors to permit informed predictions of terrible events -- just as futures markets in commodities like oil and soybeans can (sometimes) foretell prices.

Aside from being rather distasteful in concept, this notion ignores the potential deadly gaming of a "market" in mayhem by crafty individuals or groups. For instance, the leaders of an Islamist outfit might bet big on a bombing in Manila -- just before they strap the plastique onto an unfortunate stooge and send him to his reward.

The Bush administration earned this humiliation by placing the multibillion-dollar Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the hands of Dr. John Poindexter, the disgraced Iran-contra conspirator -- and by keeping Poindexter at DARPA even after his Total Information Awareness project blew up last year. Yet such libertarian lunacy should perhaps have been expected from an administration that seems to believe quite literally in the "magic of the marketplace." As the president's father might have said, this White House seems to be buried, ideologically, in deep voodoo.
[3:06 p.m. PST, July 28, 2003]

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