The title of [Baker's] new book refers to accelerating technological change and the new dangers it's creating. Our society is advancing, technologically, at a very rapid clip; but so, unfortunately, are the terrorists. 'It's like skating on stilts that get a little longer each year.' he writes. 'Every year we get faster and more powerful. Every year we're a little more at risk. We are skating for a fall, and the fall grows worse every year.'
That prognosis is more than a little unsettling, given Baker's resume©. As general counsel to the National Security Agency (the Pentagon's foreign electronic-surveillance arm) during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, he was a staunch privacy advocate. As policy chief at the Department of Homeland Security during that of George W. Bush, he spent years locked in a tug-of-war with privacy advocates over every initiative to adjust our security strategies.
If Baker is not precisely a pessimist, he is certainly gloomy; but even the most optimistic national-security official would find himself chronically dispirited by the effectiveness of the constituencies arrayed against all efforts to devise new ways of protecting ourselves from terrorists. Baker's book is a treasury of examples.
The book recounts some important successes, and in his unremitting gloominess Baker is almost certainly guilty of not giving himself, or the Bush administration, quite enough credit.
Are we doomed to suffer another major terrorist strike? For some, it seems like a remote possibility, with the greater danger lying in policies of hyper-surveillance. For others, the real danger is complacency—the assumption that the threat has passed—and a misplaced eagerness to scale back the policies that have kept us safe for nine years.
One man who has pondered this question from a pivot point in the federal government is Stewart Baker, a general counsel of the National Security Agency in the Clinton years and a policy chief in the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. With Skating on Stilts, he offers a memoir of day-to-day life within a major Washington bureaucracy and an insider's analysis of the challenges to domestic security in the post 9/11 era.
--Wall Street Journal
Skating on Stilts is full of such anecdotes, and Baker, who was a key Homeland Security player from 2005 to 2009, makes a persuasive case against the privacy absolutists. He reprises his successful effort to pry airline passenger data out of the Europeans, who are even more uncompromising about privacy than American activists. He tells the story of how the wall erected between intelligence-gathering by the FBI and law enforcement, though designed to protect civil liberties, ended up blinding authorities to the unfolding 9/11 plot. And he recounts how other agencies blocked, on privacy grounds, DHS' bid to maintain and update a database to continually screen the backgrounds of scientists who work with deadly biological pathogens.
Baker deftly skewers the original legal theorist behind the right to privacy, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was scandalized in 1890 by the fact that newspapers published flattering details about a party at his house. Brandeis also found it outrageous that a newspaper could take and publish a photo of a person without his permission. Obviously, the idea of what constitutes an invasion of privacy has evolved dramatically. Baker portrays privacy advocates as fussy Luddites.
When the government collects information about people, Baker acknowledges, some bureaucrats may improperly access it, as when State Department employees rifled Barack Obama's passport file during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the employees were easily caught and disciplined, Baker notes. The answer is to hold bureaucrats accountable for abuses, he says, not deny them important security tools.
--Los Angeles Times