another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
Slowly, as I wander back and forth in the rows, the puzzle starts to fall into place. The oldest passenger was seventy-one; the youngest was three. The names in the pools are other family members who died on the same flight. Husbands died with wives. Parents with children. Most of the passengers, though, died alone. Which would be worse, I wonder, facing death without a hand to hold or knowing that your spouse will die with you?
Close to the entrance is a knot of benches for children – two girls traveling with their parents and three eleven-year-olds without family. What was the hijacking like for these youngsters, I wonder, imagining the chaos as the passengers were forced into the back of the plane. For the first time, and the last, they’d seen adult authority breaking down – the bad guys winning.
The birthyear arrangement means that a long barren stretch of gravel separates the eleven-year-olds from the twenty-two-year-olds who worked in the building. Bereft of flowers and personal touches, all of the benches seem a little lonely; off by themselves, the children’s benches seem all the lonelier.
In the wake of the attacks, I recanted my support for the wall. I testified to the 9/11 commission about the risks of overprotecting civil liberties. Then I served the Robb-Silberman commission that investigated our intelligence failures in Iraq; I helped make recommendations about how to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands.
And finally in 2005 I joined the brainy, hard-charging Michael Chertoff at the Department of Homeland Security. Wiser career decisions have been made; DHS was being widely mocked as disorganized and obsessed with duct tape and color schemes for terror warnings. But I’ve never turned down a chance to work in government with someone I respected, and bringing order to DHS policy was a chance to undo some of the harm that the wall had caused.
I had to decide where DHS policy could make the most difference. One place where the Department of Homeland Security had unquestioned responsibility was the border. In fact, the one unquestionably good idea at the core of DHS was uniting border responsibilities that had been split among three cabinet secretaries. Neglected by all three secretaries, border security had collapsed under the weight of ever-increasing jet travel. Border officials were waving more and more visitors through our immigration and customs checkpoints with only a cursory look.
Al Qaeda sent twenty hijackers to carry out the 9/11 attacks. All but one got past our border defenses. Even stopping that one hijacker took an act of courage on the part of the border agent; in those days, keeping a Saudi traveler out of Orlando could easily trigger complaints about discrimination and lost tourism.
We had to rebuild those defenses – but without stopping international travel. That would require clarity and determination. Already, the toughest measures were being stalled.
Civil liberties groups, far from feeling abashed at the role their doctrine had played in 9/11, were loudly fighting DHS’s new security measures. They had an eager audience abroad; in fact, our allies in Europe had already forced DHS to rebuild the wall between law enforcement and intelligence, at least as far as border data was concerned. The Europeans had threatened to withhold data on transatlantic travelers unless DHS promised to keep that data from intelligence agencies – and even from other parts of the department.