‘Cloak and dagger’ military-intelligence outfit at center of US digital vaccine passport push

26 October 2021 — The Grayzone

Described as “the most important organization you’ve never heard of,” MITRE rakes in massive security state contracts to pioneer invasive spy tech. Now it’s at the heart of a campaign to implement digital vaccine passports.

While vaccine passports have been marketed as a boon to public health, promising safety, privacy, and convenience for those who have been vaccinated against Covid-19, the pivotal role a shadowy military-intelligence organization is playing in the push to implement the system in digital form has raised serious civil liberties concerns.

Known as MITRE, the organization is a non-profit corporation led almost entirely by military-intelligence professionals and sustained by sizable contracts with the Department of Defense, FBI, and national security sector.

The effort “to expand QR code vaccine passports beyond states like California and New York” now revolves around a public-private partnership known as the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI). And the VCI has reserved an instrumental role in its coalition for MITRE.

Described by Forbes as a “cloak and dagger [research and development] shop” that is “the most important organization you’ve never heard of,” MITRE has developed some of the most invasive surveillance technology in use by US spy agencies today. Among its most novel products is a system built for the FBI which captures individuals’ fingerprints from images posted on social media sites.

MITRE’s own COVID-19 umbrella coalition includes In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Palantir, a scandal-stained private spying firm.

Elizabeth Renieris, the founding director of Notre Dame and IBM’s technology ethics lab, has warned that “as dominant technology and surveillance companies” like MITRE “pursue new revenue streams in healthcare and financial services…privately owned and operated ID systems with profit-maximizing business models threaten the privacy, security, and other fundamental rights of individuals and communities.”

Indeed, the involvement of the military-intelligence apparatus in the development of a digital vaccine passport system is yet another indication that behind the guise of public health concerns, the US surveillance state could be due to enhance its control over an increasingly restive population.

A portrait of MITRE leadership: Robert Kheler (top right); William E. Gortney (top center); Robert Brendan (top left); Jan Elizabeth Tighe (bottom left); Edmund Peter Glambastiani III (bottom center); John Francis Campbell (bottom right)

The Vaccine Credential Initiative, a neoliberal vehicle advised by military-intelligence professionals

As detailed in the first installment of this series, tech oligarchs like Bill Gates and global capitalist policy hubs such as the World Economic Forum have advanced digital ID and electronic currency systems across the Global South in order to harvest data and profits from populations that were previously out of reach.

The advent of vaccine passports  providing access to employment and public life has become the key vector for accelerating their agenda in the West. As the financial consulting firm, Aite-Novarica, declared this September, digital COVID-19 vaccine passports “expand the case for digital IDs beyond COVID-19 vaccination only, and potentially serve as a digital ID as a more comprehensive, universal source of identity information…”

As vaccine passports exclude millions across the West, sparking furious protests and wildcat strikes, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is working with its partners to implement them in digital form.

Led by German economist Klaus Schwab, who says he is leading a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that is changing the way people “live, work, and relate to one another,” the WEF is an international network of some of the wealthiest and most politically powerful people on the planet. Based in Davos, Switzerland, the WEF positions itself as the thought leader of global capitalism.

In January 2021, several WEF partners, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, and other mega-corporations announced a coalition to launch the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI), which aims to institute QR code-based vaccine passports across the US.

The stated goal of the VCI is to implement a single “SMART Health Card” that could be recognized “across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries.”

In the US, some states are already deploying digital SMART Health Cards developed by the VCI. These SMART Health Cards have laid the basis for a de-facto national standard for vaccine credentials.

A non-profit established by the Rockefeller Foundation and called The Commons Project is leading the lobbying push for digital SMART cards through the VCI it co-founded. And Commons Project CEO Paul Meyer happens to have been cultivated by the WEF as a “young leader.”

As one of the public faces of the VCI, Meyer markets the campaign’s agenda in the language of progressive inclusion, hammering consistently on themes like “empowerment” in public communications.

“The goal of the Vaccination Credential Initiative is to empower individuals with digital access to
their vaccination records so they can use tools like CommonPass to safely return to travel, work, school, and life, while protecting their data privacy,” claimed Meyer.

In a press release announcing the formation of the VCI, MITRE echoed Meyer’s woke language, declaring that it had joined the partnership “to ensure that underserved populations have access to this [digital vaccine] verification.”

But what is MITRE, and why might an organization known for mass surveillance and military technology be at the center of an initiative that offers the possibility of unprecedented monitoring of the global population? The organization did not respond to emailed questions from The Grayzone about its participation in the VCI, however, its documented history makes for unsettling reading.

A MITRE recruitment ad from an early 1960’s issue of MIT’s The Technology Review

Assisting wars on Vietnam and marijuana, developing “extraordinarily chilling” spy tech

Based in Northern Virginia, MITRE is a military-intelligence think tank funded to the tune of $2 billion a year by US agencies including the US Department of Defense. It is led almost entirely by former Pentagon officials and ex-intelligence operatives.

MITRE was founded in 1958 as a joint project of the US Air Force and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop ‘command and control’ systems for nuclear and conventional warfare, as the journal Science and Revolution noted.

In 1963, MITRE tapped a brilliant young linguist from MIT named Noam Chomsky, to assist the “development of a program to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control.” After a few years of work on projects like these, Chomsky said, “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror any more,” and thrust himself into antiwar activism.

MITRE credits Noam Chomsky with helping develop a language-based command and control program in the years before the linguist turned against the military-industrial complex (from Science and Revolution)

By the late 1960s, MITRE said it was “devoting almost one-quarter of its total resources to the command, control, and communications systems necessary to the conduct of [the Vietnam] conflict.”

The military-funded corporation became a target for antiwar activists when it developed an “electronic fence” composed mainly of acoustics and sensors designed to pinpoint the movement of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops so the US military could target them for destruction.

Also in the late 1960’s, the US State Department contracted MITRE to guide a campaign of aerial cannabis eradication in Mexico. MITRE advised US agents to spray wide swaths of the Mexican countryside with a toxic herbicide called paraquat, which it described as safe based on a questionable reading of animal testing. When the State Department pursued MITRE’s strategy, food crops became contaminated and the health of local peasant communities was placed in danger.

Meanwhile, marijuana began arriving on US streets doused in paraquat, triggering a lawsuit against the State Department by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws which claimed the herbicide had caused respiratory disease among smokers. When the State Department lost the case, it granted MITRE a $255,211 contract to produce an impact study on paraquat spraying which ultimately advised smokers to mitigate the herbicide’s effects by consuming marijuana with water pipes or in brownies.

In recent years, MITRE has designed surveillance technology for the FBI which collects human fingerprints from social media websites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It has also helped the FBI establish the Next Generation Identification system, reportedly the world’s largest database of biometric information, as well as the bureau’s Modernized Intelligence Database (MIDB) project.

According to the FBI’s former Assistant Director William Bayse, the MIDB enabled police programmers to link activists to their political causes, associates, employers, criminal records, mugshots and fingerprints, spending habits, and even tax information.

Through hundreds of FOIA requests and interviews with current and former MITRE officials, Forbes learned that MITRE has designed “a prototype tool that can hack into smartwatches, fitness trackers and home thermometers for the purposes of homeland security… and a study to determine whether someone’s body odor can show they’re lying.”

MITRE is also home to the ATT&CK Program, an cybersecurity module which the corporation describes as “a globally-accessible knowledge base of adversary tactics and [intelligence] techniques based on real-world observations.” Adam Pennington, the lead architect for MITRE’s ATT&CK, “has spent over a decade with MITRE studying and preaching the use of deception for intelligence gathering.”

ACLU staff attorney Nate Wessler has called MITRE’s surveillance projects “extraordinarily chilling,” and warned that they “raise serious privacy concerns.”

For its part, the military contractor’s promotional material seems to boast about its legacy of surveillance innovation: “You may not know it, but Mitre touches your life almost every day.”

Months after a novel coronavirus pandemic was declared in March 2020, MITRE leveraged its expertise in monitoring populations to produce the Sara Alert contact tracing system. A video advertisement by MITRE explains how the system enables public health authorities to track users:

“People who are sick with the disease will be placed in isolation at home… For people who are exposed to the disease but do not show symptoms, Sara Alert follows them while they are in quarantine for 14 days.”

MITRE’s Sara Alert went into use in a handful of states, with limited enrollment. Had it been implemented on a national level, it might have forced a substantial slice of the US population to self-quarantine on a continuous basis, even if individuals presented no symptoms.

As the Brookings Institute noted in a paper questioning the utility of apps like Sara Alert, “A person may put up with this once or twice, but after a few false alarms and the ensuing inconvenience of protracted self-isolation, we expect many will start to disregard the warnings.”

MITRE has also worked to suppress narratives that could undermine the
agenda of government agencies that fund it. The contractor’s SQUINT browser plugin app, for example, “enables rapid social media situational awareness of COVID-19-related misinformation for public health officials through crowd-sourced reporting,” according to promotional material.

Now, MITRE is working to implement digital vaccine passports in the US, and beyond.

Private spies and CIA firm among MITRE’s COVID-19 coalition

As a member of VCI’s governing steering group, MITRE runs its own “COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition” while describing itself as “a longstanding, trusted partner to the defense and intelligence communities.”

Among the members of MITRE’s own COVID-19 coalition is Palantir, a private intelligence firm founded in 2003 by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel. Palantir has established itself as a leader in predictive policing programs and raked in lucrative contracts with the CIA. The firm once participated in a proposed smear campaign against anti-corporate activists and journalistic critics including Glenn Greenwald.

Avril Haines, the current Director of National Intelligence and CIA’s former Deputy Director was paid $180,000 to consult for Palantir – a gig she scrubbed from her bio.

Haines was also a lead participant in the Gates, WEF, and John Hopkins Center for Health and Security-sponsored Event 201 pandemic simulation in October 2019. During this exercise, public health professionals, intelligence officials, and business leaders gamed out a hypothetical coronavirus epidemic that killed 65 million people worldwide.

Haines emphasized to fellow panelists the need to counter criticism of the official pandemic response by “flood[ing] the zone with trusted sources” of media and cultural influencers “in order to try to amplify the message that’s coming through.”

Palantir has also provided Covid data-tracking technology to the UK’s National Health Service alongside Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. Conservative British political strategist Dominic Cummings, who enjoys links to Palantir and provided the firm with special access to the Prime Minister’s office, has been advising Boris Johnson and the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on Covid policy.

Back in the US, Palantir has supplied the US Department of Homeland Security and Center for Disease Control with various Covid-related technologies.

The CIA’s venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, is also listed among MITRE’s Covid-19 Healthcare Coalition.

This September, the Vice President of In-Q-Tel’s technical staff, Dan Hanfling, was quoted in the Washington Post arguing that unvaccinated people should be denied healthcare in the name of triage: “that group of individuals who have willingly chosen not to vaccinate, for illegitimate reasons, it would be fair to place them at the back of the line,” Hanfling proclaimed..

The Washington Post did not note Hanfling’s affiliation with the CIA; instead, it described him simply as an “emergency physician.”

In-Q-Tel is hardly the only intelligence-linked player among the Vaccine Credential Initiative. There is also Oracle, a founding member of the VCI, which began as a CIA project.

A look at MITRE’s leadership shows how closely intertwined the organization is with the broader military-intelligence sector.

Military hardliners, spies and spooks lead MITRE

The Chairman of MITRE’s Board of Trustees, Donald Kerr, is the former principal deputy director of national intelligence. Prior to that role, Kerr served as the deputy director for science and technology at the CIA, where he received the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medal.

MITRE’s Vice Chairman of the Board, Mike Rogers, is the former Republican chairman of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Before serving in Congress, Mr. Rogers was an officer in the U.S. Army and an FBI special agent.

Having distinguished himself as one of the most outspoken opponents of digital privacy in Congress, blaming encrypted communications for major terror attacks, Rogers was the host and executive producer of a six-part series “Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies for CNN.” The program was a virtual commercial for the US intelligence apparatus, “detail[ing] important cases, missions and operations of the American intelligence operatives,” according to CNN.

Rogers is also a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington DC-based neoconservative think tank funded by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, pharmaceutical lobbying groups and CIA-supported tech companies like Oracle.

Former congressman and MITRE board chairman Mike Rogers discussing North Korea on CNN in 2017

Others in MITRE leadership positions include former high ranking intelligence and Pentagon officials like Robert Work, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense under three different secretaries before passing through the revolving door to the board of arms industry giant Raytheon.

MITRE board member Paul Kaminski is the CEO of Technovation, Inc., a consulting firm that “fosters innovation, business development, and investment strategies related to defense technology.” Kaminski was Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and technology from 1994 to 1997, and was twice chairman of the Defense Science Board committee which advises the U.S. Department of Defense.

MITRE’s Kaminski has been awarded the Director of Central Intelligence Director’s Award which is given to those who “[further] the goal of exceptional human intelligence collection and reporting of information that is of significant value to the U.S. intelligence community.

The CEO of MITRE is Dr. Jason Providakes. According to his official MITRE biography, Providakes’ career “is rooted in scientific research in support of national security.”  Before becoming CEO, Providakes served as executive director for MITRE’s Army Systems & Technology Division, where he was central to the Army’s “digitize the battlefield” transformation.

The intimate ties between MITRE and the US military-intelligence apparatus extend into the corporation’s work on COVID-19.

MITRE “technical fellow” Jay Crossler is an executive data lead for the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, a “collaborative private-industry response” to Covid. According to MITRE, Crossler also “designed, built, deployed, and operated the portal that Gen. Stanley McChrystal used to manage the invasion of Afghanistan.”

MITRE Chief Medical Officer Jay Schnitzer, meanwhile, was previously the director of Defense Sciences at the Department of Defense’s notoriously secretive DARPA research unit.

From discredited and destructive COVID-19 lethality modeling to digital passport push

On March 17, 2020, practically hours after a global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction division contracted MITRE to “engage, inform and guide” mayors, governors and
emergency response officials on the COVID-19 response. According to Forbes, the Center for Disease Control also inked a $16.3 million contract to establish “an enduring national capability to contain Covid-19.”

One day after signing its contract with the DHS’s WMD division, MITRE pumped out a white paper outlining the projected impact on COVID-19 on the US population, and issuing recommendations for local and federal officials on an emergency response.

MITRE’s paper confidently asserted that COVID-19 represented “an epidemic that is approximately as dangerous as the Spanish Flu that infected 500 million people and killed 50 million worldwide.” During the 1918 epidemic, when the US population was well over 1/3 of what it is today, some 675,000 Americans died. MITRE thus over-estimated the 2020 death toll by a factor of six.

With its now-discredited modeling as justification, MITRE demanded that authorities reduce social contact between members of the US population by 90 percent, impose harsh
lockdowns, shut down virtually all businesses, seal borders, and “quarantine returning citizens in hotels or other facilities, one to a room, with skeleton staff.”

Many US states followed some version of this extreme model, triggering a social and economic catastrophe from which the population may never fully recover.

Now that the lockdowns appear to be over, MITRE is at the center of the push for digital vaccine passports through the Vaccine Credential Initiative. Yet the influential military-intelligence organization remains behind “cloak and dagger,” mostly unknown to a US public whose lives could be radically altered by one of its most consequential projects.

Read Jeremy Lofreddo and Max Blumenthal’s first installment in this series on digital vaccine passports.

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