After winning a tough legal battle for access to the library records of suspected terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security has been unable to recruit a sufficient number of agents qualified to analyze them. “The people who apply for jobs here are not generally familiar with the names of radical political theorists let alone the significance of their various works,” said outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. On a recent test, for example, 100% of applicants picked Alan Greenspan as the author of Das Kapital. “We used to count that kind of ignorance as a plus,” Ridge said, “but many new forms of dual use literature developed by our enemies, such as subversive comic books and web-based political satire, have greatly complicated the task of prying into people’s reading habits.
“Most of our applicants wouldn’t know the difference between what a Shi’ite and a Sunni would read, let alone a Troskyist and a Stalinist,” Ridge said. “They’re likely to flag people as possible fundamentalists for reading Salman Rushdie.” According to Ridge, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find candidates among new recruits who are familiar with the Dewey decimal system, let alone the tell-tale signs of a terrorist’s summer reading list.
“Sure,” said Ridge, “if a terrorist takes out a book on bomb making or beheading techniques, any agent, or at least the software, would pick that right up. But would an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist go to the local town library for something like that? You’d have to think a guy like that is more likely to blow his hands off than anything.” Ridge said. He pointed out that by the time they’re at the bombing stage, most terrorists have figured out the risks of library cards. Not to mention being well funded, supplied with weapons, and to have connections at Immigration and the Department of Motor Vehicles. “Taking out a library book when you could go to Barnes and Noble would be like driving around the Bible belt pricing crop dusters,” Ridge said. “No dangerous terrorist would be that stupid.”
The problem, according to Ridge, is identifying potential terrorists who have never committed crimes before, but are likely to massacre massive numbers of American citizens one day soon. “You have to get a sense of what they’re reading before they know they’re going to commit a crime when their guard is down.” And doing that right, Ridge says, takes a lot of experience with a wide range of literature. He said the problem is a lot like the one they’re having with translators at the CIA. “Until September 11,” he said, “they only had to worry about Russian and Chinese, with some Spanish thrown in. They had no idea they might have to deal with Arabic speaking countries, which is why they missed two important messages just days before the attack.”
He described a case in which an internet journalist was held incommunicado for two months for suspicion of terrorist intentions merely because a Washington DC guide book and several copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine he had checked out from a Springfield, Ohio library were overdue. “those agents who made that case should have realized that journalists often use libraries for research for their stories,” Ridge said. One man was even put on a temporary no-fly list for repeatedly checking out Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx. “The computer did that one,” Ridge told us.
When we asked him how the problem would be addressed, he said he was tired with the whole mess and was going to spend more quality time fishing with his family at Disneyland, but he wished us all luck with the terrorists and reminded us that it’s always a good idea to keep some duct tape around the house.