The Washington Post has a really depressing story on the status of the program to issue unforgeable ID cards to workers at ports and other key transportation facilities. President Bush signed the worker-ID program into law in November 2002 as part of broader maritime security legislation. The program would streamline checks of criminal-background files, terrorist watch lists and immigration status for designated workers, and cards would be issued using biometric data to prevent anyone other than the cardholder from using the ID. Homeland Security officials initially told port operators that they expected to begin initial issuance of the cards by the end of 2003.
The program has bogged down, however, due to several factors. One of the most disturbing is political intervention based on parochial concerns. According to the article:
Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department, insisted that the TSA adopt technology currently used for U.S. “green cards,” which are produced in his district. The TSA paused to complete a study concluding that its alternative to the green-card technology was superior. Prototype card production was delayed again in 2005 so it could be moved to the Kentucky plant.
When the rules for the program first came out in May of this year, there were loud objections from transportation industry players–in trucking, ports, and barges–including both management and labor. The concerns ranged from the length of time needed to get new employees approved, to the danger of denying work to employees based on mistaken identity, to the possibility that ID card-reader systems would fail in saltwater environments.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for industries to object to new regulations–and often, some of their objections are valid. It’s important to consult with the industries in question early in the process, in order to ensure that the regulations fit the practicalities of the situation–like device operation in salty air, and the hiring processes of small tugboat operators. This doesn’t seem to have been done, or done very well, in this case.
“It’s discouraging to see how really difficult it is to implement this sort of thing,” said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the INS who is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
Indeed. Increasingly, it seems that implementing major programs in our society is like swimming in glue.
Once, we had the collective ability to get things done rapidly. Consider Hoover Dam. The contract for this massive project was signed on March 11, 1931, and the first concrete was poured on June 6, 1933. The finished dam was dedicated by President Roosevelt on September 30, 1935, and by October 1936, it was transmitting electricity from the Colorado River to Los Angeles.
Some might argue that Hoover Dam was not a “high-technology” project comparable to the smart-id-card effort. I think this view would be incorrect, given the many innovations that were required to complete the dam–but let’s consider another project, one that was unquestionably “high tech.”
In 1953, during a dark period of the Cold War, the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee was formed to evaluate the threat of Soviet ballistic missiles and the feasibility of US ballistic missile development. The committee’s report led to the decision, in the spring of 1954, to reorganize and to greatly accelerate the Atlas missile program. This program had been underway as an R&D effort for some time, but without clear focus or high priority.
Air Force General Bernard Schriever, then 43 years old, was put in charge of the project. Among the other key players were Trevor Gardner, Air Force special assistant for research and development, and Simon Ramo, cofounder and head of the company that was assigned overall systems engineering responsibility for Atlas.
Flight testing of Atlas began in 1956, and in November 1958 an Atlas nose cone flew 6000 miles and landed acurately. Operational deployment of the weapon began in 1959 and 1960.
The Atlas program required the solution of many extremely difficult technological problems–to mention only two, the problem of developing an effective guidance system (in an era before integrated circuits) and the problem of keeping the nose cone from burning up during reentry. Yet only 4 years after the “go” decision was made, Atlas was making 6000 mile flights, and 2 years later it was operationally deployed. And we are having problems getting a smart-id program done in a similar time period!
Like the officials who are trying to implement the smart-id-card program, the Atlas team had its political problems. In his book Rescuing Prometheus, Thomas P Hughes tells of one such incident:
One one occasion, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbot importuned Gardner, Schriever, and Ramo to reconsider their decision to offer a rocket-engine contract to a West Coast company. Citing a Pentagon industry-disperal policy and the concentration of defense contractors in the Los Angeles area, Talbott wanted to contract to go to a midwestern contractor who had lost out in the original competition, a contractor Ramo considered of marginal competence. Ramo believed that the contractor considered of marginal competence. Ramo believed that the contractor had used political influence to obtain Talbott’s support and that dispersal policy was not the secretary’s major motivation.
Each member of the senior leadership team had a compelling reason not to challenge Talbott’s decision: Gardner was a member of the secretary’s staff, who could be easily removed. Ramo’s company depended on contracts from the Air Force of which Talbott was the secretary, and Schriever “was an outstanding young general whose career might be ruined if he chose not to cooperate with the Secretary of the Air Force”…Schriever had “the most to lose.”
Despite his vulnerability, General Schriever responded to Talbott’s directive by stating that his prior and overriding orders directed him to run his program so as to obtain an operational ICBM in the shortest possible time. At this point, Talbott made his threat explicit: “Before this meeting is over, General, there’s going to be one more colonel in the Air Force.”
Schriever was not intimidated, and replied quietly that he would obey Talbott’s order only under one condition: Talbott must put it in writing and specifically put the need for industry dispersal over the need for speed in developing the ICBM. This was something that Talbott did not dare do, and he dropped the demand to change contractors. (A short time later, Talbott was himself replaced by Secretary of Defense Wilson.)
Hughes makes this point: “Schriever could not have faced down Talbott so coolly and successfully if the ICBM program had not been generally acknowledged to be a requisite for national survival in the Cold War missile race. With the end of the Cold War, managers of large-scale projects have become more attentive when congresmen expressed concern for jobs in their home districts.” (emphasis added)
Apparently, we now have some Congressmen, and some government officials too, who still think we are in the post-Cold-War era, in which absence of threat allows pork-barrelling to proceed as usual, without much concern for matters of overriding national interest. A smart-ID card isn’t nearly as impressive as an Atlas missile: however, in the situation we now face, it may be as important as the missile was in its time.
Hughes: Earlier, when urged by Gardner to take command of the (Atlas program), Schriever accepted on condition that he could run the show “without any goddamn nitpicking from those sons-of-bitches at the Pentagon.” He described his organization as “vertical” or project-oriented, while the Pentagon functioned horizontally. Gardner empathized with a project director, focused on solving engineering problems, having to deal with administrators with economics, political science, and legal backgrounds, who, in turn, were focused on the requirements of law, normative regulations, and budgetary constraints. Schriever later spoke despairingly of the influence of “the combination of lawyers and bureaucrats” and of a “system” constraining individual initiative. He was lamenting the classic conflict epitomized by the confrontation of the engineer driven by technical and economic efficiency with the lawyer sensitive to interest-laden politics.
Obviously, budgetary constraints are real, and normative regulations must exist and must be followed. And “interest” is a factor in a democracy, or indeed in any political system. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that things are out of balance, and that in our society–and most especially in the areas of society dominated by government–the relative power of the Harold Talbotts has increased at the expense of the relative power of the Bernard Schrievers.
Any substantial program will experience its setbacks and failures, and Schriever and his team were severely criticized by media and some congressmen over test launch failures in the late 50s and early 60s. Schriever took it in stride: “When at the leading edge of technology and ploughing new ground…if you do not have failures every now and then, you are not taking enough risks.” Interviewed by Hughes in 1992, General Schriever recalled that after a string of five or six uninterrupted successful launchings, he received a telegram from the eminent aeronautical engineer Theodor von Karman: BENNY. YOU MUST NOT BE TAKING ENOUGH RISKS. “Today,” Schriever observed, “if you have a failure you are fired. People will not take risks.”
Technology will not win the War on Terror for us, but failure to exploit technology properly may lose it.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the id-card debacle, from the Washington Post article: “That kind of backsliding runs directly contrary to the lessons of 9/11,” Chertoff said, noting that nearly all the Sept. 11 hijackers had obtained IDs, in some cases through fraud. He contended that a secure ID system would have prevented the attacks. “If we’d had it five years ago, there would not have been a 9/11,” Chertoff said.
The recent track record of large programs for defense against terrorism is spotty at best (see another example here, also here.) We urgently need more Schrievers, Ramos, and Gardners in positions of national defense leadership, and most of all we need the sense of urgency to enable them to do their jobs before it is too late.