Last Sunday, Leslie Stahl used the coveted first segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes to do a puff-piece on the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Her story, which included a minor scoop about the agency’s work on cyber security, was covered all week in the tech press and gave DARPA another opportunity to strut its stuff on the national stage.
But it was a shameful piece of self-promotion, and adds another dud to the illustrious program’s list of failures that includes a widely discredited 2013 report on Benghazi. That’s unfortunate, because 60 Minutes has historically been at the forefront of investigative reporting, as the shocking and untimely death of Bob Simon Wednesday night reminded us.
DARPA is widely known to the public as the inventor of the Internet and the developer of a long list of military products used widely in the civilian world, from drones to robots to the Siri voice on your iPhone. It’s also been a favorite topic for the national security and tech press for years because of the many dog-and-pony shows it puts on for the media. Opportunities like that can really get reporters’ blood pumping (maybe that’s why the web version of the DARPA story is sponsored by Viagra).
Stahl was just the latest to fall in DARPA’s honey trap. In her twenty-minute segment, which included interviews inside the agency’s glassed-in headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, she carefully avoided any mention of the agency’s near-total dependence on private contractors and universities. Worse, she allowed agency officials to falsely obscure their past and their close working relationship with the National Security Agency and other elements of the surveillance state.
Her story focused on Dan Kaufman, director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, also known as I2O. “DARPA Dan,” as she called him, is “the man the Department of Defense has put in charge of inventing technology to fight [our] new Internet war.” Kaufman told Stahl how his agency is using artificial intelligence—particularly a search program called Memex—to help US intelligence and law enforcement agencies identify and combat human traffickers, hackers and other criminal elements that use the “dark web” to spread and exploit misery.