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Bush picks tech lawyer for security post

Stewart Baker, an influential and polarizing Washington figure, is chosen to oversee Homeland Security's new policy-planning efforts.

President Bush has chosen Stewart Baker, one of Washington's most influential technology lawyers, to be assistant secretary for policy in the Homeland Security Department.

Baker's new job, which requires Senate confirmation, would place him in the prominent position of shaping policy on topics from data mining to the department's planning for "what if" scenarios far off in the future. It also could include evaluating existing department functions for efficiency and creating a national strategy to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

The nomination, announced Wednesday, is part of a sweeping reorganization of the department that Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Wednesday. "Creation of a DHS policy shop has been suggested by members of Congress, (former Secretary Tom Ridge), and numerous outside experts," Chertoff said. "Now is the time to make this a reality."

Stewart Baker
Stewart Baker
nominee, Homeland
Security post

Baker is currently a partner at the Steptoe and Johnson law firm--which counts many technology companies as clients--and has been an important but polarizing fixture in many privacy debates during the last 15 years.

Baker served as the general counsel of the National Security Agency--the bane of many civil libertarians--during the early 1990s. At the time, the NSA was busy defending the Clipper Chip, intrusive export controls on encryption products, and "key escrow" rules that would encourage encryption backdoors for police convenience.

In a famous article published in the June 1994 issue of Wired Magazine, Baker warned against the ready availability of strong, secure encryption products without backdoors. "One of the earliest users of (Pretty Good Privacy) was a high-tech pedophile in Santa Clara, California," Baker wrote. "He used PGP to encrypt files that, police suspect, include a diary of his contacts with susceptible young boys using computer bulletin boards all over the country."

After the Senate approved what would become the Patriot Act in September 2001, Baker said privacy advocates were overreacting: "We may be missing some opportunities to improve privacy law, but it's hard to say that the privacy sky is falling."

Those kind of statements have not endeared Baker to privacy advocates, who reacted with dismay when hearing news of the announcement Wednesday.

"For the civil liberties community, this could be a troubling appointment," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Stu Baker often stood on the other side of important national debates on protecting privacy and preserving open government."

The simultaneous announcements Wednesday by Bush and Chertoff appear to be inspired by a December 2004 report from the conservative Heritage Foundation that urged a shakeup at the Department of Homeland Security. It recommended the creation of a "unified policy planning staff headed by an undersecretary for policy."

But because the creation of a policy undersecretary post would require Congress to rewrite the law--which could take months at best--Baker was picked for the newly created post of assistant secretary for policy. That post requires Senate confirmation but not a change to the law.

Baker recently served as general counsel for the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, and represents Internet service providers as general counsel of a trade association. He received his law degree from UCLA and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.