DHS Dresses Up A Turf Fight as a Privacy Issue While Ignoring the Lessons of 9/11

The Wall Street Journal thinks it’s found another scandal in government.  It has, but the scandal isn’t about privacy.  It’s about how the government is slowly unlearning the lessons of 9/11.

DHS has passenger lists for flights in and out of the US.  It uses those lists to watch for terrorists.  The National Counter Terrorism Center also watches for terrorists.  So it asked for DHS’s lists. The first rule of bureaucracy is never to share information with a rival. So it’s no surprise that DHS didn’t want to hand over its data to Matt Olsen’s NCTC.

It’s not even a surprise that DHS claimed it was fighting for Americans’ privacy.  But, really, how silly is that?  Do you know anyone who resonates to this slogan:  “I”m glad Janet Napolitano has my travel records, but I will fight to the death to keep them out of Matt Olsen’s hands”?

What’s troubling is that DHS, born out of 9/11, is leading the effort to roll back the lessons we learned then. Its argument in the WSJ article sounds exactly like the arguments that prevented information sharing in the run-up to 9/11. Then, it was the intelligence community that didn’t want to share its data or its turf with law enforcement.  The intelligence community persuaded the FISA court that keeping intelligence from law enforcement was a privacy issue, and the court bought in. 

In fact, the court enforced “the wall” between intelligence and law enforcement so harshly that the FBI was afraid to let its enormous and highly competent Cole bombing task force go looking for the 9/11 hijackers in the two weeks before the attack, even though the bureau knew al Qaeda leaders were in the country and up to no good.  As a result we lost our last, best chance to stop the attack before it happened. (I told this story in the third chapter of Skating on Stilts.)

Now it looks as though we’re headed down the same road, but with DHS taking the role of the intelligence community. Funny, you’d think three thousand deaths would resonate longer in our government’s memory.