Computers in the News
Author: Jack Turner
Date: March , 1987
Text: There are a number of benefits computers offer us these days. They are used in more and more areas of our personal, occupational and national lives. Occasionally knowing a bit about the technology helps us to read between the lines in events of significance. I remember back in the summer of '73 when I was hanging out in Berkeley doing some reading and writing. Though now I do most of my real work in the morning, I was still a night owl in those days and did mindless things like watch TV in the AM. Usually there wasn't much to watch at that time of day. But you may remember that those were the times of Watergate, and the hearings were televised. I particularly recall that day when the senators were questioning Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide, who quite nonchalantly mentioned that Nixon had a tape system in his office which secretly recorded everything he (and his associates and visitors) said. What a bombshell! Though there was some controversy (including ''accidental'' erasures), those tapes greatly helped turn public opinion against Nixon and hence change history. After that, I can guarantee that any president would think twice about installing a tape system in the White House. But this past month some interesting news broke. The National Security Council is a bureaucratic agency originally set up to advise the president in matters of national security. Though it is answerable only to the president (not to Congress) it has come to take more and more of a part in establishing and influencing foreign policy. It is seriously under fire, at the moment, as we all know, because some of its staff are accused of complicity in the Iran/Contra Affair. Typical of Washington bureaucrats, they either ''can't recall'' important matters when summoned before a congressional investigative committee, or they take the Fifth Amendment, citing their right not to incriminate themselves. I suspect, moreover, that each small office in that agency has its own paper shredder and that they have been working overtime lately. Like all other government bureaucracies, however, the NSC has accepted the inroads of technology in other ways. They have a large computer which undertakes a number of tasks, some of them quite horrible to comtemplate (is this where they come up with figures of how many people will die in a hypothetical atomic attack?); it has a program, developed by IBM for other, more mundane, businesses, called PROFS (an acronym for Professional Office System). This is an electronic mail network which helps the members of the staff keep in touch with each other. Each microcomputer in the agency (and even those at people's homes and portable computers they may take with them on trips) are linked together (either by cable or by phone modem) through the agency's mainframe. PROFS helps them communicate with each other-a worker can leave a message or reply for another worker, a superior can leave a report to be downloaded by all of his underlings, and so forth. Everyone had the illusion that this system was top secret. When you erased your message (which was, of course, protected by such things as password access only) it went into electronic oblivion-or so everybody thought. Newsweek reported ''The technology must have been very seductive. After centuries of using paper, bureaucrats have become wary of leaving paper trails: indeed, a paper shredder dominates one corner of the offices formerly used by Lt. Col. Oliver North. But the fleeting nature of the electronic messages on the computer screen encouraged a different attitude: 'There was something disinhibiting about the system,' says a former NSC staffer. 'You'd really open up and lay out what you wanted to say.''' So all kinds of matters wound up being discussed on PROFS. What most people who used it didn't know, however, was that PROFS automatically kept a copy of everything for historical purposes. Former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane knew about it, however, and told the Tower Commission. As I'm writing this, the commission, appointed by President Reagan to get to the bottom of the mare's nest known as the Iran/Contra Affair, is pouring over the computer tapes. One suspects that they will find a mine of information. Time will tell what place this simple and seemingly innocent computer program will play in determining the future of our nation's foreign policy.
Copyright © march , 1987 by Jack Turner