There is no mistaking the excitement in Washington when world news originates here. Through the second Clinton Administration it was easy to think that a drive down Highway 101 in the San Francisco Bay area brought one closer to the real centers of power— Oracle, Intel, Cisco—than a drive along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. In Silicon Valley and Seattle the technology industry's leaders talked about the "withering away of the state," and in Washington the arrival of technology-driven prosperity was the central fact of political life.
However distant that seems now, the corrective reaction is, perhaps inevitably, going too far. I may be biased from having spent several years in Seattle and San Francisco before returning last summer to Washington. But now that the state is back, I am struck by the assumption here that if there is truly significant technology at the moment, it is the kind the military has used in Afghanistan. During the weeks when Taliban forces were collapsing, I did see three applications of technology with important economic, political, and even terrorism-related implications. Each was plain old civilian technology.
In one case the technology is e-mail, which has made possible the "open-source intelligence" movement. For decades diplomats and soldiers have bitterly joked that most important international secrets are likely to show up in the newspaper before they make their way through classified channels. Obviously, governments can still keep secrets. An illustration: three months after the terrorist attacks the Federal Aviation Administration was still enforcing strict "no-fly zones"—ones forbidden to private noncommercial aircraft—over three cities. Two were the terrorists' targets: Washington, the political capital, and New York, the financial capital. The third was ... Boston. Not San Francisco, capital of the technology industry; not Los Angeles, capital of America's image-making industry; not Chicago, capital of exposed skyscrapers. I asked Steven Brown, the FAA official in charge of airspace, why Boston? Because the planes that hit New York took off there? He said, essentially, If you knew what we know, you'd understand. What he actually said was "The vulnerabilities in Boston, those known to the public and others, are unique." Until we do know what he knows, there's no choice but to take it on faith. Maybe this is where Dick Cheney has been.