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.
The rain is growing heavier. The low clouds are darker. The lights in the pools have begun to glow. I’m ready to leave.
Passing a bench, I see something. A tiny dot of color in the vast, sterile park.
It’s a bit of glass, like a clear blue marble left in the kiln too long and melted into an oblong. It’s easy to miss. I’ve already walked past it once. But it wasn’t dropped at random.
It sits centered at the end of one bench. In this scrubbed, cerebral monument, it looks almost defiant, an act of personal rebellion against the clean lines and uniformity.
The name on the bench is Ronald Hemenway, electronics technician first class. He died at work in the Pentagon. He was 37 – the right age to have a wife and young children still feeling the pain of his loss eight years later.
I imagine mother and child sitting together on the bench. They glance carefully around and slip the blue stone from a pocket. A child’s hand centers it at the end of the bench, just so.
A gift of memory. For a father. For a family.
For all of us.
It is memory that will save the changes DHS has made at the border. We remember what weak defenses cost us.
But the memory of 9/11 may not save us from the new threats. When catastrophic terrorism returns, the terrorists will use weapons that have already been deployed -- by governments, by business, by all of us. Like jet travel, the weapons will be technologies we love. If we do nothing, these technologies and the new powers they confer will eventually be used against us in shocking new ways.
I tried my best to manage those new risks as aggressively as we were moving on border security. But that was a lot harder; privacy groups, business, and the international community resisted change with fervor. And too often they won, blocking our efforts to bend the trajectory of change away from the greatest risks.
Those are the failures I most regret. The lesson I learned from the wall and 9/11 was simple: The civil liberties advocates of the time did not know where to stop. They only stopped campaigning for the wall after it had killed three thousand Americans (and some didn’t stop even then). They couldn’t see the line between reasonable protections and measures that crippled our effort to fight terrorism. And they still can’t. They and their allies in business and international organizations are natural conservatives, opposed to any change that might help government fight terrorism in new ways.
I’d chosen not to fight these entrenched interests in the 1990s. When I left the National Security Agency, I’d written a long article that endorsed a wall between spies and cops. I’ve spent years undoing that mistake.
Now I am leaving government again, and writing again – and hoping to keep others from making the same mistake.
Call it a gift of memory.