Monday, June 30, 2003

No Such Agency, Redux

Many years ago, when I first started tangling with the wonderful world of the Spooks, the story was that Government information operators would not give out the phone number of the National Security Agency (NSA). "NSA", they would (supposedly) say, "is a special code for No Such Agency. It's a code used when somebody tries to reach an agency that doesn't exist." Also, people who worked at NSA were told to tell people who asked that they worked for the Army at Fort Meade. Fort Meade was, officially, a tank base. Lotta really high tech tanks, there. Even now, if somebody says "I work for the Government", they're probably NSA. People in other areas of government will tell you "I work for the Department of Agriculture" or "I work for the Navy". Even CIA people will say "I work for the State Department."

Now, the NSA is the US's prime codebreaking and electronic intelligence gathering organization. It's one of the largest employers in the state of Maryland. It's hard to hide. By and large, the've given up trying. It doesn't work and just makes them look silly.

The CIA also tried the secrecy business. When they opened their headquarters in Langley, Virginia, they didn't have a sign on the main road. The sign on the main road said "Virginia Department of Transportation Maintenance Yard." To get to the CIA, you had to drive around back of all the parked bulldozers and road graders.

Of course, this fooled nobody except legitimate visitors. Supposedly, a reporter for a local newspaper wanted to know what the impact of the new CIA building was going to be on local traffic. He called the CIA. "Sorry", they said. "Classified information". So he called the Soviet Embassy. They told him.

So what brings up this bit of ancient history? NSA and CIA have listings in the local phone books and signs on the main roads. Security that depends on keeping the presence of a major office building secret is no security at all.

Well, our newest security agency doesn't seem to have learned the lesson. Basically, the Hartford Advocate reporter, after getting FAXs from Homeland Security without a return FAX number (as required by law), tried to get in touch with HS's Press Secretary, whoever that might be. He failed. (Link via Scratchings)

What's going on here? It could be that we simply have yet another bunch of wannabe spooks pretending that they don't exist. I don't think so. Homeland Security is a completely new agency, and a rather large one at that. It takes a while (years) for something like this to settle in. They haven't got the bugs worked out of their systems.

Now, this is not comforting at all. After the biggest terrorist attack of all time, it was obvious that Something Had Gone Wrong, and that Something Must Be Done. Unfortunately, this Urge to Reorganize left us with the folks responsible for our security not knowing who their boss was, or even where the nearest coffee machine is.

How are we better off, now, with our shiny new agency? I'm not optimistic. Some of the obvious things that needed to be done were:

  • Better coordination between the CIA (legally forbidden to do anything within the US) and the FBI. Status: Done. This is one of the good features of the mostly odious PATRIOT act. Note, however, that neither FBI nor CIA has been subsumed into Homeland Security.
  • "First responders", ie, cops, firemen, and related people like harbor patrol. They need lots more resources and coordination. Status: Not done. Interestingly enough, the only one who still seems to be talking about this is Hillary Clinton.
  • Airline security. Status: Not done. They've just made things a lot less convienent, and we seem to be having weekly scandals about the screeners. Strengthening cockpit doors? I'll give them that. Armed pilots? Well ....
  • INS. We've known for a long time that our visa and immigration system was very badly broken. It needs reform on all levels, from Congressional action to an internal housecleaning. Status: Not done. They've changed the name and department. Now they can't find the coffee machine, either.
  • Medical preparedness. Status: Not done. If the recent outbreak of monkeypox had been a biological attack, we'd all be dead by now.

The only thing that's really visible from Homeland Security is all the cute color-coded warnings, which seem to have no relationship to anything at all. I really do hope there's more ....

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