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The Pentagon's Failed "Terrorism Futures Market" Is Now a Ukranian Bookstore

The rise, fall, and re-incarnation of FutureMAP, the Bush administration's ill-fated effort to harness markets to predict terrorist attacks.

by Brian Merchant
Nov 22 2013, 5:35pm

In 2003, scandal erupted when two US senators went public with word that the Pentagon was planning to launch a public marketplace that would encourage investors to bet, anonymously, on the likelihood of acts of terror occurring in the Middle East. A brainchild of DARPA, the effort was called Future Markets Applied to Prediction, or FutureMAP. It was quickly dubbed the "terrorism futures market." 

The betting was to be done on a sophisticated website: PolicyAnalysisMarket.org. Users would peruse the detailed geopolitical information there—loads of data, graphs, and maps of the region—and enter bets on, say, if and when the King of Jordan would be assassinated and the monarchy overthrown. The Pentagon's rationale, it insisted, was to create a kind of Intrade for the intelligence community; something that would harness market forces to predict—and, ostensibly, to prevent—terrorist acts and other calamities.

Today, PolicyAnalysisMarket.org is a Russian language website for downloading children's books. In our own moment of failing government websites and new assassination marketplaces, the story of FutureMAP's rapid decline and subsequent transformation is especially striking.

The New York Times broke the news that DARPA was ready to start taking bets on assassinations and bombings in July 2003. The paper reported that the "Pentagon office that proposed spying electronically on Americans to monitor potential terrorists has a new experiment."

DARPA was already embattled at the time, due to its advocacy for pre-NSA-revelation electronic spying operations. This "new experiment," a collaboration between the then-web company Net Exchange, DARPA, and The Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit, seemed designed to stir controversy. "It is an online futures trading market, disclosed today by critics, in which anonymous speculators would bet on forecasting terrorist attacks, assassinations and coups," wrote the Times. It was slated to go live October 1st, 2003.

''Research indicates that markets are extremely efficient, effective and timely aggregators of dispersed and even hidden information. Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions," the Defense Department wrote in a statement at the time, in an attempt to explain the project.

The website itself laid out the FutureMAP concept in detail: 

"Analysts often use prices from various markets as indicators of potential events. The use of petroleum futures contract prices by analysts of the Middle East is a classic example. The Policy Analysis Market (PAM) refines this approach by trading futures contracts that deal with underlying fundamentals of relevance to the Middle East. Initially, PAM will focus on the economic, civil, and military futures of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey and the impact of U.S. involvement with each."

It also promised to prove lucrative to savvy investors. According to the site's copy, "Whatever a prospective trader’s interest in PAM, involvement in this group prediction process should prove engaging and may prove profitable." 

So it wasn't quite a "terrorism futures market" per se, though it included terror-related predictions, but that's how it caught on in the press. No one was as interested in the fact that investors could bet on, say, whether the US would recognize Palestine in 2005 (which would have been a terrible bet, but no doubt with some enticing odds). Regardless, the senators who blew the whistle on the initiative, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, focused their outrage on the conflict betting. They called the notion of making wagers on the misfortune of others "grotesque."

''Can you imagine if another country set up a betting parlor so that people could go in—and is sponsored by the government itself—people could go in and bet on the assassination of an American political figure?'' Dorgan said. Reprehensible, yes—but not as headline-worthy as the fear they expressed that terrorists might actually be able to game the system, and bet on terror events they themselves could initiate.

In this way, FutureMAP also drew some comparisons to another provocative idea that had arisen in the mid-90s: The online assassination market. An MIT-trained engineer and crypto-anarchist named Jim Bell wrote a manifesto in 1995 called Assassination Politics that described a system where people could anonymously donate money through a website to place a bounty on public figures' heads.

Anyone who correctly "predicted" the precise date that the figure would be killed, via an encrypted message sent to the website beforehand, would collect the donations after the murder came to pass. The site, Bell believed, would usher in an era of anonymous and difficult-to-prosecute killings, and would make it an exceptionally unattractive prospect to become a politician at all. 

The senators cautioned that a similar principle would take hold in FutureMAP, and wrote as much in a letter to PAM's chief architect, Admiral John M. Poindexter, saying that the market "appears to encourage terrorists to participate." 

Cue the media firestorm. This CNN dispatch is pretty reflective of the tenor of the ensuing coverage, and it describes what happened next: "two U.S. Senators announced that a Pentagon betting market on terror attacks was about to open, which terrorists could abuse. Amid widespread condemnation, this project was canceled the next day, and two days later its widely reviled supervisor John Poindexter resigned."

The flare-up effectively ended the political career of Poindexter, who had also had a hand in the Iran-Contra affair and was convicted of five counts of lying to Congress in 1990, though the ruling was later overturned.

The website, which was actually live and accessible to the public at the time the news broke, was quickly taken offline by the Bush administration. But not, of course, before screenshots were captured and filed into the Internet Archive and Cryptome.org. The images included here are from FutureMAP's original version of PolicyAnalysisMarket.org.

After the site was shuttered, its domain name was shunned. The Bush administration no doubt saw FutureMAP and PolicyAnaylsisMarket as toxic assets, and appears to have simply let the domain name lapse almost immediately. Given the amount of links and discussion the site had generated, it was surely a hot prospect in the eyes of SEO-hungry web marketers. In under a year, the site had been bought and parked by a group called Network Solutions, and one of those ubiquitous, place-holding link dumps took the place of a sophisticated government-sponsored futures marketplace. 

However, according to the Web Archives, no new site ever really came to fruition. The domain appears to have changed hands a few times, the bland placeholder template changing slowly over time. 

Finally, according to the archives at Whois.net, the domain was registered in Kharkov, Ukraine under a private account in 2009. The name and email address of the registrant are blocked, but the site that now stands in the place of DARPA's "terrorism futures market" is plain for all to see:

Using Google Translate, I found that the links take users to text-based children's stories, which are free for readers to peruse or download. I sent an email to the site's administrator, but I have yet to hear back, and can only speculate as to why someone is using PolicyAnalysisMarket.org as a hub for sharing kids' stories. For a site that you'd think would exist to exploit the domain's SEO power, there are precious few invasive ads—making the new, fully transformed PAM.org something of a mystery. 

As for the idea of a blighted government foreign policy-centric futures market, well, it lives on. Years after the FutureMAP debacle, the CIA published an exhaustive report extolling the virtues of futures trading markets. 

"Americans need not have been angry about FutureMAP. It was neither a terrorism betting parlor nor a fantasy league," Puong Fei Yeh wrote for the CIA in 2006. "Rather, it was an experiment to see whether market-generated predictions could improve upon conventional approaches to forecasting. Since 1988, traders in the Iowa Electronic Markets have been betting with remarkable accuracy on the likely winner of the US presidential elections." 

At least one online entrepreneur, who lists his name only as Daniel X, agrees. Claiming the idea got a bad rap, he set up PolicyAnalysisMarket.net and has an outstanding call to investors to help him recreate the government's ill-fated idea. It appears that he's gotten little interest however, and emails to the listed address went unanswered.

Nonetheless, the CIA is game to give the markets another shot, this time explicitly for the intelligence community. It claims they can likely "result in forecasts that are more accurate than those of experts. If so, prediction markets can substantially contribute to US Intelligence Community strategic and tactical intelligence work," Puong writes. "The decision to cancel FutureMAP was at the very least premature, if not wrong-headed."

But for now, the public disagrees. And that's why, instead of a futures trading market where online risk-takers can bet on the overthrow of Middle Eastern governments, we have a Ukrainian website for children's stories. 

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