Information in the 21st Century; Women Leaders; and Tracking Terrorists-An Interview with Madeleine Korbel Albright

Information Outlook, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Information in the 21st Century; Women Leaders; and Tracking Terrorists-An Interview with Madeleine Korbel Albright


Madeleine Korbel Albright served as the 64th Secretary of State of the United States from 1997 to 2001. She was the first woman Secretary of State and is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. As Secretary, Dr. Albright reinforced America's alliances; advocated democracy and human rights; and promoted American trade and business, labor, and environmental standards abroad. Donna Scheeder, Deputy Assistant Director for the U.S. Library of Congress, had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Albright. Secretary Albright will speak to the SLA's convention in New York City on Wednesday, June 11, 2003, at 9:30am.

Donna Scheeder: Good morning, Secretary Albright.

Madeleine Albright: Hi. How are you?

DS: I'm fine, thank you. We're very grateful that you're taking your valuable time to talk with us this morning. I took the liberty of doing a little research, and I've familiarized myself with a couple of your speeches, particularly the one from March 8, 2002, to the 21st Century Literacy Summit.

MA: Yes.

DS: You said in that speech that it was just as interesting to be the first American secretary of state of the 21st century as it was to be the first woman secretary, particularly because of how both the classroom and the workplace have gone global. Could you talk about that?

MA: Well, I think that clearly one of the great marks of the 21st century is the availability of information about ourselves and about each other. It's the major link in the way the international system can and should function. If you go back and look at our history... I've been reading John Adams, which is fabulous, but it shows how everything was different in terms of lack of communication between ambassadors and Washington, and how people operated completely on their own and without information. And some of my own studies when I was an academic concerned the role of information, or the lack of it, within closed communist systems.

So, the idea that all of a sudden we're living in a completely information-filled world is fascinating to me. In terms of studying other systems, for example, I was known as a kremlinologist--which meant that you sat there and analyzed five words and tried to figure out if they were in a different order. Then, all of a sudden, everything opened up and there was just this flood of information, which meant that you had to look at things completely differently. You had to sort out from among a lot of information rather than trying to suck out from a little bit.

DS: You mentioned access to information. How worrisome is the potential for increased terrorist action now that so much government information is disseminated electronically?

MA: Well, I think that's one of the risks in terms of how much is available, but the question is how you limit it without limiting people's ability to operate in an information world. For example, we were very interested in dealing with the drug problem in Colombia. When I went down there, I was shown how all the information we had would make it easier to track a lot of those little boats that the drug dealers have. But the drug dealers could also figure out how they were tracked!

So, we need information as a government to track terrorists and to understand where their financial networks lead and who their contacts are and how they communicate with each other; but, at the same time, they have the ability to tap into our system. It's a double-edged sword, but we could not have the advantages of information sharing in the 21st century if we closed it all down.

DS: That leads me to a question about the aftermath of 9-11. It was clear that there were several breakdowns across government agencies with respect to information sharing. Do you believe that the creation of the Homeland Security Department solves this problem?

MA: Well, I think it goes a long way to helping it. …

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