Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark helped an Arkansas information company win a contract to assist development of an airline passenger screening system, one of the largest surveillance programs ever devised by the government.

Starting just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Clark sought out dozens of government and industry officials on behalf of Acxiom Corp., a data powerhouse that maintains names, addresses and a wide array of personal details about nearly every adult in the United States and their households, according to interviews and documents.

Clark, a Democrat who declared himself a presidential candidate 10 days ago, joined Acxiom’s board of directors in December 2001. He earned $300,000 from Acxiom last year and was set to receive $150,000, plus potential commissions, this year, according to financial disclosure records. He owns several thousand shares of Acxiom stock worth more than $67,000.

Clark’s consulting role at Acxiom puts him near the center of a national debate over expanded government authority to use personal data and surveillance technology to fight the war on terrorism and protect homeland security.

In a measure of the intensity of that debate, Congress this week cut funding to the Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office, a research project run by retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, after the office proposed a global data surveillance system to identify terrorists before they attack.

Recent news about the sharing of passenger information by JetBlue Airways Corp. with an Army contractor also raised privacy concerns. Acxiom helped provide data to that project, but Clark had no role in making the arrangements, the company said.

“The privacy impact of anti-terrorism initiatives is certain to be a major issue in the presidential campaign,” said David L. Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in the District.

“The public is extremely skeptical,” he said. “He owes the public an explanation as to how, if elected, he would limit the government’s expanding collection of personal information about citizens.”

Others believe that Clark faces skepticism about the money he took to represent Acxiom, even though many former military leaders have done the same thing.

“There’s something unseemly and, yes, mercenary, about a distinguished general lobbying for a company trying to get government contracts,” said Charles Lewis, executive director for the Center for Public Integrity.

Clark declined repeated requests in recent weeks to discuss the lobbying and his thoughts on information policy. After announcing his presidential ambitions, Clark quit working as a consultant for Acxiom but maintained his seat on the company’s board.

As a consultant, he helped the company win a government contract worth an undisclosed amount to provide data and consulting services to the CAPPS II program. CAPPS II is the second-generation computer-assisted passenger screening system, a network that Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta once described as “the foundation” on which all other, far more public aviation security measures depend.

A senior executive at Acxiom said Clark began knocking on doors for the company, without pay, out of patriotic impulses shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Jerry Jones, Acxiom’s general counsel and business development leader, said the company also wanted to do its part in the war on terrorism.

Acxiom is a data integrator that manages billions of records for some of the nation’s top banks, retailers and marketers. The company said it has “the largest collection of U.S. consumer and telephone data available in one source” — data that is used in part to enhance others’ records and authenticate identities.

“We reached out to him as someone who might get the attention in Washington of our capabilities,” Jones said. “He was looking for ways to help make the country safer and more secure.”

After joining the company’s board in December 2001, Clark quickly arranged for executives to talk with officials at FinCEN, a Treasury Department agency responsible for financial intelligence and initiatives to combat money-laundering.

Clark also has met on the company’s behalf with officials at the Department of Justice, the CIA, the Department of Transportation, the Transportation Security Administration and Lockheed Martin Corp., the defense contractor that is heading up CAPPS II.

Government and industry officials who have attended meetings with Clark described him as thoughtful and persuasive. Jones, the Acxiom official, said Clark repeatedly stressed the need to “properly balance legitimate privacy interests and the need for security.” Jones said that was a core theme of Acxiom’s effort to win government contracts.

In a meeting at the Department of Transportation in January 2002, according to participants, Clark described a system that would combine personal data from Acxiom with information about the reservations and seating records of every U.S. airline passenger.

With officials from an Acxiom partner sitting nearby, he explained that computers would examine the data — massive amounts of information about housing, telephone numbers, car ownership and the like — for subtle signs of terrorist intentions. The system would authenticate the identity of every passenger, he told the government officials at the meeting.

Implementation of CAPPS II has been delayed several times because of a mix of technological hurdles and concerns about its potential intrusiveness.

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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

This is a CIR-assisted report. O’Harrow is presently receiving support from CIR for his investigation of post-September 11 government surveillance, which will result in a book to be published by Free Press in 2004.