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:
[email protected]. 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
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.