excerpt from my book on technology, terrorism, and
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, but I have started putting chapters up in
pdf form from time to time.) 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.
Remarkably, that wasn’t all. The episode turned out to be far worse for security and far better for the privacy campaigners than even they could have hoped. Because as long as Secure Flight was stalled, we were all stuck with the old system of sending lists to airlines and living with whatever their creaking computer systems dished up. Most of the airlines couldn’t tell Sen. Stevens’s wife, Catherine, from the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, a reported apologist for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
As the lists grew, and Secure Flight languished, you might have thought that the privacy groups and the airlines would start to take some heat. After all, their opposition was the reason that so many people were being hassled for no good reason. But they didn’t feel any heat at all. Quite the reverse. In an unexpected bonus, the blame fell entirely on the agency that had tried to fix the problem years earlier.
It must have been deeply satisfying. The privacy machine had created a vicious cycle. As long as Secure Flight was stalled, administering even a small no-fly and selectee list was painfully difficult -- and a massive inconvenience for travelers whose names resembled those on the no-fly and selectee lists. Even better, TSA took all the blame, thus discrediting both the idea of screening for possible terrorists and an agency that no traveler was much disposed to love in any event. Every time TSA’s reputation took a hit for mismatched names, it became easier for Congress and the privacy groups to argue that the agency couldn’t be entrusted to administer a new program.
Better still, from the privacy groups’ perspective, the millions of privacy victims created by the mismatched names became an excuse for rolling back other security measures, including the terrorist watchlist. In 2008, when TSA began to get close to meeting the Congressional requirements for Secure Flight, Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU held a news conference to announce that the watchlist had reached one million names (he was wrong, but the coverage was good anyway). “The list is out of control,” he said. “There cannot possibly be one million terrorists threatening and poised to attack us. If there were, our cities would be in ruins.”
And with a chutzpah rarely equalled in American policy circles, Steinhardt mourned “the tens of millions of Americans [who would now be] caught up in a Kafkaesque web of suspicion."
He should know.
He had spun the web those Americans had been trapped in.