Magazine | August 30, 2010, Issue

On Thin Ice

Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, by Stewart A. Baker (Hoover, 375 pp., $19.95)

A hundred years ago, Europeans could not have imagined the horrors that lay ahead for them. Our current century was ushered in with an awful demonstration of what may lie ahead for us; can we make the adjustments necessary to avoid the worst? “I’d like to think we can do that before there’s been a disaster,” writes Stewart Baker, “but, really, I’m not sure we can.”

That prognosis is more than a little unsettling, given Baker’s résumé. As general counsel to the National Security Agency (the Pentagon’s foreign-electronic-surveillance arm) during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, he was a staunch privacy advocate. As policy chief at the Department of Homeland Security during that of George W. Bush, he spent years locked in a tug-of-war with privacy advocates over every initiative to adjust our security strategies.

The title of his new book refers to accelerating technological change and the new dangers it’s creating. Our society is advancing, technologically, at a very rapid clip; but so, unfortunately, are the terrorists. “It’s like skating on stilts that get a little longer each year,” he writes. “Every year we get faster and more powerful. Every year we’re a little more at risk. We are skating for a fall, and the fall grows worse every year.”

If Baker is not precisely a pessimist, he is certainly gloomy; but even the most optimistic national-security official would find himself chronically dispirited by the effectiveness of the constituencies arrayed against all efforts to devise new ways of protecting ourselves from terrorists. Baker’s book is a treasury of examples. Readers may be outraged to learn that European Union officials routinely threaten not to disclose vital information about threats to the U.S. — information on which the safety of Americans depends — unless we conform our specific privacy standards to theirs, despite the fact that no country in Europe offers the abundance of civil liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Neither will most readers be happy to be reminded about the vital intelligence-gathering programs that the New York Times has single-handedly shut down by revealing their existence, motivated by concerns over legality that proved to be unfounded, and taking upon itself vital public responsibilities that it had no competence or mandate to assume (such as determining which of the nation’s highly classified secrets can be revealed at an acceptable risk to public safety).

Over time, most damaging of all are the privacy advocates who have allowed themselves to be sucked into the blood sport of automatic and absolute opposition to any new security measure. Baker’s book is, at root, a narrative of the enormous effort to wrest modest protections from these constituencies. The privacy advocates include strange bedfellows of the Left and the far libertarian Right, and in their propagandistic hyperbole have an effect far beyond their numbers.

Because public opinion is the decisive battleground for many of these often excruciatingly esoteric contests of policy, propaganda becomes an especially effective tool. And though you would think this tool is equally available to both sides, in fact it proves much easier to demagogue the dangers to privacy in the marginally expanding powers of government than to demagogue the danger to public safety in the dramatically expanding power of terrorists. This results in a pattern in which safeguards against even the most hypothetical privacy concerns win out over safeguards against the gravest threats to public safety. Rather than let privacy protections be driven reactively, by actual cases of privacy violations (of which very few have been documented since 9/11), officials too often relegate national-security measures to after-the-fact reactions — and ineffectual ones, such as the ridiculous banning of liquid containers larger than 3.4 ounces from our luggage after the British luckily discovered a plot to destroy airliners over the Atlantic using common household chemicals.

#page#No one can point to any privacy abuses arising from cooperation between the intelligence and the law-enforcement agencies of the United States, while nearly 3,000 graves are a testament to what can happen when they don’t cooperate. But as Baker writes, “all the Washington-wise knew that the way to bureaucratic glory and good press lay in defending privacy. Actually, more to the point, they knew that bad press and bureaucratic disgrace were the likely result if your actions could be characterized as hurting privacy.” Meanwhile, nobody suffers disgrace from failing to prevent mass civilian casualties, nor from advocating privacy policies that made those casualties inevitable. Privacy advocates are no doubt motivated by a healthy skepticism about government; but their message encourages people to lose faith in government officials and institutions that both deserve the public’s trust and cannot be effective without it.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the battle between DHS and the European Union (and between DHS and other agencies of our government) for access to the most basic information in the airline-reservation systems about who is coming to the U.S. Baker explains that simple pattern analysis on that raw data, along with the information we had about two of the 9/11 hijackers, would have allowed us to catch all of them before the attacks materialized. In August 2001, the FBI was desperate for access to that information, which was available to other parts of the U.S. government, but lawyers said they couldn’t have it. Regardless, the Europeans in the post-9/11 era wanted to deny us this kind of information unless the U.S. put back in place the very walls between intelligence and criminal investigations that the 9/11 Commission had faulted for our failure to “connect the dots.” 

Fortunately, DHS eventually won that battle. “Persistence and full-throated defense of our program,” writes Baker, “had won the day.” The book recounts some important successes, and in his unremitting gloominess Baker is almost certainly guilty of not giving himself, or the Bush administration, quite enough credit.

One reason the successes do not come through more clearly is that there is often, in this book, insufficient detail to provide a solid understanding of what happened. During my years in Washington, I often heard that government is 90 percent process and 10 percent policy, and it is admittedly daunting to render bureaucratic process in a way that is interesting to popular audiences. But the detail, literary merit, and popular success of books such as those by Henry Kissinger and Dean Acheson show that it can be done.

In his almost flawless 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.” As we reach the tenth year after 9/11, and the hindsight of history begins to shed some clarity on how little we’ve managed to change course, that saturnine observation is one Stewart Baker might share.

“In my experience, government rarely offers clear victories,” he writes. But “rarely” is not the same as “never,” and therein lies the hope in this frightening little book.

– Mr. Loyola works at the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in Austin.

Mario Loyola, a former White House environment-policy adviser and speechwriter, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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