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.

August 30, 2010    |     Volume LXII, NO. 16

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Ronald Radosh reviews Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, by Nicholas von Hoffman.
  • Jason Lee Steorts revisits Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.
  • Iain Murray reviews Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, by Tom Bower.
  • Mario Loyola reviews Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, by Stewart A. Baker.
  • Richard Brookhiser probes our relationship with cancer.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .