is excerpt 3 from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and my
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the category on the
right labeled "excerpts from the book.") 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.
Four years after the attacks, I joined the Department of Homeland Security. Chertoff asked me to create and run a policy office that would let DHS could lift its head above the scrum of daily crises and think about its biggest challenges.
DHS was still a startup, barely two years old, and it had spent those two years getting organized, finding desks and office space – and at the same time frantically trying to build defenses against an unseen enemy. No one had had much time to think about the future. That was one of the reasons we needed a policy office, or so I thought.
I wanted to think about 9/11 in a new way. It seemed to me that it was an event driven as much by technological change as by evil men and government errors. Sure, there were evil men, and there were errors. But we had to get beyond the immediate mistakes and focus on the long term trends that had made the attacks possible in the first place.
It’s when we started tracing the roots of the 9/11 attacks that we realized how jet travel and a growing flood of travelers had wrecked our traditional border defenses. That’s when we began to ask what other technologies might have in store for us.
Technologies like jet travel are seductive. That’s why we flock to them. They give us more choices and more reach. Commercial jets allowed us to work and play on any continent in a matter of hours. More recently, computers and the Internet gave us instant access to knowledge that once was available only to a handful of librarians. Biotechnology, just emerging as an exponential technology, will give us the power to create and design life itself.
Giving individuals these choices, reach and power is a great thing -- most of the time. In the end, though, technologies that empower ordinary individuals will also empower Osama bin Laden and John Wayne Gacy. It may take a long time. Commercial jet technology had been around for nearly half a century before nineteen men were able to use it to kill three thousand. But something like 9/11 was inherent in the technology from the start.
The 9/11 Commission criticized officials for a failure of imagination in the runup to the attacks. We didn’t see it coming. I resolved when I joined DHS to keep that failure in mind. Where else was our imagination failing us, I asked.
Once I began to think about it that way, I realized that jet travel is not the only technology that will put Americans at risk. Technologies like computers and bioengineering are more recent. Their power to change our lives is still growing, and their future is harder to predict. But if we wanted to get ahead of tomorrow’s terrorism, DHS had to begin thinking about their risks as well.
Based on my own experiences, I knew of two that were bearing down on us fast.