SKATING ON STILTS: WHY WE AREN’T STOPPING TOMORROW’S TERRORISM
By Stewart Baker
Hoover Institution Press, $19.95, 375 pages
In “Skating on Stilts,” Stewart Baker warns that the exponential growth in airplane travel, information technology and bio-technologies has been empowering new, increasingly lethal forms of terrorism against America. This was first demonstrated by al Qaeda’s success on Sept. 11 when it exploited gaps in our air travel system to hijack four aircraft simultaneously and launch its catastrophic attacks.
In an important book that deserves wide recognition, Mr. Baker sounds the alarm that in the future, we will fail to defeat such lethal threats, which are escalating, unless we succeed in overcoming resistance to government policy changes in regulating them. Such resistance is being mounted by business, foreign governments and privacy groups that favor something of a lassez-faire approach to national defense matters.
Drawing on Mr. Baker’s expertise as the Department of Homeland Security’s first assistant secretary for policy (2005-09), as the National Security Agency’s top lawyer in the 1990s and in his current practice at one of Washington’s top law firms, this book, an insider’s memoir, describes his efforts while in government service to tackle these threats.
The gaps in our national security, Mr. Baker writes, began before Sept. 11, with the building of an unbreachable “wall” that had been erected to separate the intelligence community and law enforcement. In his view, this “crippled our last, best chance to catch the hijackers before September 11, 2001.”
Adherence to this wall between agencies was so pervasive by government lawyers at the time that the FBI was impeded from launching “a full scale criminal search for the hijackers - even though all of our security agencies were expecting an imminent al Qaeda attack and even though both the FBI and the CIA knew that two dangerous al Qaeda operatives had entered the United States.”
One of the reasons the wall was so difficult to breach, Mr. Baker points out, was the reluctance by the court administering the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to expeditiously approve wiretaps on domestic suspects, with some “twenty al Qaeda wiretap orders … reportedly dropped in the year leading up to August 2001 - just as preparations for the 9/11 attacks were reaching a crescendo.”
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the passage of the USA Patriot Act in early 2002 succeeded in finally overriding the wall’s previous restrictions on the rules governing terrorism surveillance investigations and their use in criminal proceedings, but, Mr. Baker points out, even though at the time he thought the new political atmosphere would reset the debate on future civil liberties legislation, “Boy, was I wrong. Within a year or two of passage, civil liberties groups began treating the USA PATRIOT Act as a symbol of overreaction.”
Two new programs: the Terrorism Information and Prevention Program (TIPS), designed to encourage citizens to report suspicious conduct, and retired Adm. John Poindexter’s Defense Department-based Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which would have developed new data-mining capabilities to identify potential new terrorists, were dropped. Later in the book, Mr. Baker discusses how new data-mining technologies are being used to track potential terrorists from “unstructured data” while still safeguarding citizens’ civil liberties, but he remains concerned that civil liberties groups will try to undermine these as well.
A current program he believes requires tighter regulation is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), allowing travelers from allied countries to travel to the United States without a visa, although one is issued by an immigration station in the United States upon their arrival. The VWP, Mr. Baker argues, should be ramped up so that travelers who may pose a security risk would be deterred from contemplating travel to America once U.S. embassy personnel were given more time to screen them fully for potential security problems before their arrival at the foreign airport’s check-in counter.
However, the airline industry depends on ever-increasing passenger traffic for its revenue, and foreign governments might retaliate against U.S. travelers, so the industry’s opposition to increased barriers to unrestricted travel to America has prevailed.
While other improved protective systems have been instituted to screen air passengers, such as the Terrorist Screening Data Base, which contains several hundred thousand names, and the smaller and more selective no-fly list, Mr. Baker complains that by limiting the Transportation Security Administration’s access to the larger list because of the efforts of the “privacy campaigners,” most “of the identified terrorist suspects can get on a plane bound for the United States without receiving any more scrutiny than a grandmother from Dubuque.”
Mr. Baker is also concerned about the information-technology revolution, which he argues “could lead to disaster” in the event of a concerted attack by a hostile foreign government or terrorist group on America’s computer networks. Because the private sector controls about 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure, an effective cybersecurity program must involve government-private-sector cooperation.
Here, Mr. Baker complains of what he terms the “privacy-industry complex” in undermining vigorous security regulations that would force companies to comply with all the standards that are required because of companies’ concerns over the high cost of implementing security measures and privacy groups’ resistance to any increase in government information “about anything.”
The “relentlessly exponential” improvement in synthetic biology, combining biology, chemistry and engineering, is a technological threat that also concerns Mr. Baker. While technological advances in biology are enabling us to “live longer and more comfortable lives,” they also are empowering potential terrorist “bio-hackers” to develop “biological malware” that could inflict a catastrophic death toll on our population.
An effective countermeasure, Mr. Baker writes, requires getting an accurate picture of all those involved in such research, including tracking their equipment and supplies, and gaining their cooperation in implementing “reasonable safety and security measures.” Here, again, Mr. Stewart sounds the alarm that business, privacy and international interests are likely to resist such regulations, which is “why it probably won’t happen, at least not until the ever-steepening curve of biotechnology produces a disaster.”
Such warnings about the nature of the evolving technological threats that our terrorist adversaries could exploit and the hurdles that need to be overcome to address them effectively make “Skating on Stilts” an indispensable book for those concerned about the government policy measures that are required to safeguard America.
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region), in Alexandria, Va.