TCS Daily

Securing the Homeland

By Nick Schulz - February 8, 2002 12:00 AM

A little over two weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlined the U.S. response in The New York Times. In a piece titled "A New Kind of War," Rumsfeld made the case that the war against international terrorist networks would be different from the wars Americans were used to fighting - broader, more nuanced, more complicated, and on several different fronts.

To illustrate the difference, Rumsfeld argued that the uniforms in this war would be "bankers' pinstripes and programmers' grunge just as assuredly as desert camouflage."

This comment prompted groans from some influential commentators. David Brooks of the Weekly Standard sneered that Rumsfeld's remarks sounded as if they "had been conceived by dot-com executives, circa 1997." He went on: "This is the sort of high-tech infatuation we often see emanating from [the Pentagon]. It's not so much that it's silly... it's just that it's a tempting retreat from the difficult but necessary business of eliminating the human beings who organize terror."

Brooks is a brilliant essayist and cultural critic. But like many on the political right (and on the far left), he is suspicious of technology enthusiasts. He is critical of those who work in the technology sector for what he considers vocational and moral shallowness. And his suspicion and criticism have developed despite the fact that when Brooks discusses matters of technology he is often - as he is in this instance - spectacularly ill informed and wrong.

Skeptics of the role technology can - and must - play in keeping Americans safe and "eliminating the human beings who organize terror" would have done well to be in a small conference room this week in downtown Washington, D.C. There, representatives from Siebel Systems, a silicon valley technology company, demonstrated their homeland defense system -- precisely the kind that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and his team will be examining this week and over the next few weeks.

The Siebel team has cobbled together a stunningly impressive presentation. Based on Seibel's current architecture of database management tools, the idea behind its homeland defense system is pretty simple. The system would centralize all information that may be pertinent to anti-terror efforts. This would include information from the State Department, FBI, CIA, INS, Treasury, FAA, state and local police agencies, even American private businesses such as hotels, rental car agencies, and airlines. From there, intelligence officials could utilize info-tech tools to sort through the elements to organize cases. They could make connections and correlations they might not have been able to otherwise.

In the demonstration, the Siebel reps back-filled their system with publicly available information to recreate the steps leading up to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And it is clear that, had a comprehensive system such as this been in place at the time, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington orchestrated by Al Qaeda and Mohammed Atta and his henchmen might well have been avoided.

Obstacles to Safety

There are a couple of steep obstacles to getting a system of this kind in place. But they are not technological, thanks to the men and women in "programmers' grunge" banging out code and creating the tools needed to find and capture or kill terrorists.

One obstacle is cultural. The various intelligence agencies that would coordinate such information are notoriously territorial. They simply don't like sharing information. When I asked Siebel's Matt Malden about this problem, he admitted, "software doesn't solve institutional problems like this. There is a need for a new investigative ethic." Turf guarding in this arena is an outrage. Enough relevant intelligence leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks was known by the Diaspora of American intelligence agencies to prevent the attacks. And yet it wasn't utilized properly. President Bush and Tom Ridge must force a change across all the agencies to ensure information is shared and used effectively. Technological tools make that possible.

But a bigger problem lies elsewhere. Walker White is the Chief Technologist for the Oracle Corporation, Government, Education, and Health sectors, and one of the sharpest minds working on the problems of technology and security systems. He agrees, technology isn't the issue. "The technology is there," he says. "It's a public policy problem."

Specifically, White says, for such a system to actually work effectively, it needs "to generate a single identifier" for every person in the system. That's so all of the bits of data that come in - immigration records, Treasury wire transfer records, bank withdrawals, FBI field records of suspect meetings, etc. - can be organized effectively and correlated properly. The scope of the international terror network -- with the multitude of leads, intelligence, and other information streaming in -- makes having a single identifier for every person all the more critical. To have that capability means having a single identifier not only for terrorist suspects, but also for average Americans, such as you and me. (White says this identifier technology is not factored into the Siebel program, making it less than ideal, and that Siebel does not have the capability for this kind of system.)

But the prospect of an identifier is where things get tricky, as civil libertarians and others oppose the notion of any sort of federal ID number that would allow the government to keep tabs on them, invade their privacy, or engage in other potential mischief.

When pressed about the privacy concerns, White admitted that the fears over potential abuse were real. After all, the United States has a history of bureaucratic misuse of intelligence information going back to the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

But in many ways, privacy concerns about having a single identifier are an illusion. Today, there exist reams of information about individuals easily accessible to anyone who wants (and has a little bit of money) to find it. Besides, in the United States there is already an approximate citizen identifier. It's your Social Security number. As White notes, it could easily be massaged to serve as an intelligence number. Similar identifiers could be generated for foreign nationals, terrorist suspects and others.

White believes that if Americans are educated about how such a system could protect them and how government abuse of it combated so Big Brother wouldn't intrude in truly private activities, he says they would likely support such an identifier. He believes sufficient safeguards can be put in place to limit the use of an identifier as well as limit those who would have access to information.

But there remains a last obstacle. It is in the form of those who fail to understand the way in which technology can be marshaled to save lives and protect Americans. Brooks argued that enthusiasm for technology "led us to base our intelligence strategy on high-tech satellites." This is false. The absence of political will, mission drift, and the legacy of political stupidity and overreach - everything from the Church committee findings in the 1970s limiting covert operations to the Leahy Law restrictions on U.S. military and intelligence gathering - has made intelligence collection needlessly difficult. The role technology has played is to help gather needed intelligence despite these ill-conceived limits on human intelligence gathering.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the political will may now exist to change this, thus enabling the Bush administration to use technology to its fullest to capture and kill our enemies and save American lives.

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