Survival Guide: Bruce Schneier, cofounder of Counterpane Internet Security Inc


Bruce Schneier, an international security expert and author

The Sept. 11 Commission’s recommendation that Congress create a national intelligence director to oversee the country’s 15 information-gathering agencies has been gaining support in recent weeks. But Bruce Schneier, an international security expert and author of numerous books on security technology, said the government should focus more on changing the culture of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The cofounder and chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., provider of managed security-monitoring services, Schneier takes a skeptical view of centralized security efforts such as the Homeland Security Department and its U.S. Visit program to track foreign visitors.

Schneier talked to Staff Writer Roseanne Gerin about what the government should do to make the country safer.

WT: When we spoke with you 18 months ago, you said creating a Homeland Security Department to centralize our nation’s security was a bad idea. Why?
Schneier: First, it was, and continues to be, an enormous waste of money. Our security problems weren’t ones that centralization could solve. The creation of DHS has cost us billions of dollars already, and it’s still a single organization only on paper.

Second, I don’t believe that our security is best served by a single monolithic organization. That’s the kind of organization that fosters groupthink and limits the spread of ideas. I think we would be more secure with many different organizations, all coordinating, than one organization controlling everything.

WT: Does this same reasoning apply to creating a national intelligence czar?
Schneier: A czar is different, because a czar’s role is coordination. I think that breaking the director of the Central Intelligence Agency into two roles—a primarily operational role staffed by a career intelligence officer, and a primarily political role staffed by someone close to the president—is an excellent idea.

The czar needs to have some budgetary authority; otherwise no one will listen to him. But executed properly, the idea has merit.

WT: Do the nation’s intelligence agencies need restructuring?
Schneier: Making changes at the top is going to have much less effect than changing the culture throughout the intelligence community. My fear is that simply putting a czar on top of a broken infrastructure won’t fix what’s broken. The problems with intelligence have to do with the way information flows upward through the chain and across to different organizations, and that’s a major cultural change.

WT: How to you change the culture?
Schneier: Shock therapy is the only way to change an entrenched culture. I want to see more intelligence sharing and review across different groups within the intelligence community. I want to see more minority views espoused and debated. Probably the best way to do this would be to open up the intelligence community more to public scrutiny. The highly secret nature of intelligence virtually guarantees the kind of myopic vision that has caused the problems we have today. Make no mistake, this is a difficult task, and one that may take years, but we have to start somewhere.

WT: What is the proper balance between civilian and military intelligence?
Schneier: There’s a place for both of them, and we get the best intelligence when they work together. There’s something called open-source intelligence, which is looking at intelligence from unclassified open sources available on the Internet, at libraries and from experts at our universities. And there’s an enormous amount of valuable intelligence information that is unclassified and open—you can say civilian. We need to use that much more.

WT: How effective will the U.S. Visit program be in keeping out terrorists?
Schneier: It will have zero effect because there are so many ways into our country. Five-hundred million people enter the country each year illegally through Mexico. More enter through Canada. Fingerprinting legal immigrants just hurts the good guys and not the bad guys. It’s a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

WT: Why?
Schneier: You’re not getting enough security for your dollar. Fundamentally, security is a trade off. It’s how much security you get versus what you give up to get it. … The obvious example is a bullet-proof vest. You don’t wear one not because it doesn’t work, but because for you it’s not worth it. The cost, the inconvenience and the loss of fashion style aren’t worth the added security.

National security measures have to be viewed the same way. The U.S. Visit program costs $14 billion. The question to ask is: Are we getting the most security for our $14 billion, or could we better spend that $14 billion on, for example, FBI agents? If we would get more security by buying $14 billion worth of FBI agents, then the U.S. Visit program is a poor way to spend our money.

Categories: Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.