I recently reviewed Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, by Stewart Baker former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Policy. The review appears in Engage, Volume 11, Issue 3, December 2010. I’ve pasted the text of the review below.
Policy Paralysis and Homeland Security: A Review of Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism
The Department of Homeland Security is paralyzed by civil-libertarian privacy advocates, business interests, and bureaucratic turf battles. The result of this paralysis is a bias toward the status quo that is preventing the United States from protecting the homeland. According to Stewart Baker, in his must read book Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism (Hoover, 2010), this policy dynamic, combined with exponential advances in technology are key threats to U.S. national security.
As this review was going to print, the news was filled with the story of a video that went viral; in the video a passenger was subjected to an intrusive TSA pat down after he refused to pass through a full-body scanner. Privacy groups seized on the controversy, as the ACLU declared “Homeland Security wants to see you naked” and that “the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these machines or whether they justify the invasion of privacy involved.”1 One cannot fault the ACLU for questioning whether these systems are effective—in fact the GAO raised similar questions, inquiring as to whether the full-body scanners would have prevented the Christmas Day bombing attempt.2 What one can fault them for, though, is what Baker describes as advocating for “suffocating controls” on the information the U.S. gathers about suspected terrorists and how it is used (p.27). Consider this telling example recounted by Baker:
I started to believe that some of the privacy groups just objected in principle to any use of technology that might help catch criminals or terrorists. The example I remember best was when the police at Logan Airport got handheld computers. The computers were connected to public databases so they could check addresses and other information when they stopped someone. It was pretty much what any businessman could do already with a Blackberry or iPhone. Th e American Civil Liberties Union went nuts. The executive director of the Massachusetts chapter called the handhelds “mass scrutiny of the lives and activities of innocent people,” and “a violation of the core democratic principles that the government should not be permitted to violate a person’s privacy, unless it has a reason to believe that he or she is involved in wrongdoing.” (p.27)
These were computers tied to public databases that any citizen could search, and still privacy groups fought tooth and nail to prevent their use. Stories and anecdotes like this one appear throughout Skating on Stilts as Baker recounts his tenure in the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary for Policy. Such stories reveal just how entrenched interest group politics are, and illustrate how resistance to change in the name of privacy has unintended consequences like the pat downs we are now witnessing at the airport. Stewart’s personal quips and observations also liven up the policy discussion, which is accessible even for the non-national security law and policy specialist. For example, when recounting the handheld computer flap above, Stewart writes, “If the ACLU considered that a civil liberties disaster . . . we’d better not tell them that we also have access to the White Pages” (p.28).
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