Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 31, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2014

On this day in prior years there have been horrifically deadly cyclones, propane tanks have exploded in the midst of a crowded fairground, and of course we have killed each other for various reasons and in a variety of ways.

It is also Halloween which is a curious — and an increasingly commercial — custom organized around otherness and fear and death.  In my tradition it is also known as All Hallows Eve when the community honors its dead.

Three years ago Chris Bellavita suggested I read Mary Ruefle’s essay on fear.  I did not entirely agree with her, but being in conversation with Ruefle may well have changed my life.  I have only realized the full impact rather recently.  You can also read her essay courtesy of the Poetry magazine website.

Ruefle ends her piece with a paragraph that strikes me as especially appropriate for those of us involved in homeland security:

What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth—of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked. I am more or less the same age Emily Dickinson was when she died. Here is what she thought: “Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be Lunatics!” The calm lunatic—now that is something to aspire to.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

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October 30, 2014

Follow the money

Filed under: Border Security,Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2014

DHS BUDGET VISUAL

The graphic shows the rough 2014 budget proportions for the Department of Homeland Security.  The $45 billion figure for the DHS budget is based on an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Late last week I was showing this pie chart to some graduate students who are exploring homeland security. They are on the edge of completing their law degrees, PhDs, or graduate studies in other fields. But they are interested enough in homeland security to have competed for and been selected for a Graduate Fellowship program at Rutgers University.

I asked, “What do you see?”

“It’s mostly about the border,” said one.

“Excluding the other,” said another

“Fear of the other.”

“Fear of each other.”

A young lawyer suggested this was a narrative theme — an analytical predisposition — that frames how we experience and make sense of reality. He and most of his peers agreed there was some evidence to support the  narrative. But we allow it to shape our orientation well beyond the evidence.

This is not where I was planning to take the discussion.  I was better prepared for a wonky consideration of incremental budgeting, legacy missions, Congressional oversight, etc., etc…

But I did not try to redirect.  We went with “otherness” as a homeland security problem.  Look again, you will see what they saw. Even if you can see other things and offer other explanations, I suggest their fresh eyes are not inaccurate.

It’s an interesting angle on reality, especially coincident with enhanced security being announced — despite the lack of specific threat intelligence.

Toward the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit”, a character proclaims, “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE! (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”)

Most of us have experienced this unhappy truth. But many of us have also experienced, “without a you and an I, there is no love, and with mine and yours there is no love but “mine” and “yours”… This is indeed the case everywhere, but not in love, which is a revolution from the ground up. The more profound the revolution, the more complete the distinction…” (Søren Kierkegaard). Without the other we are profoundly diminished.

Two antithetical intuitions equally true, depending on our attitude and the situation. A wicked problem? If so, extending well beyond homeland security.

How can we reason together through this paradox? Without the skill, discipline, and ethic of social reasoning we must defer to the mercy of randomness. I have often found randomness quite generous. But I aspire to — and have experienced — much more.  I know something about social reasoning in small groups.  Elinor Ostrom and others have told me interesting things about social reasoning in larger groups.  Is facilitation of social reasoning an appropriate tool of homeland security?

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No Ebola sitrep yet

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2014

As of early Wednesday morning the WHO had not released updated data on the Ebola transmission rate in West Africa.  Given the rest of my life, I have to pound out a post before 0900 on October 29 if I am to get you anything on October 30. There are related reports that I might share, but it is probably more helpful to minimize my contribution to the noise level until some meaningful signal is available.

UPDATE

Late on Wednesday afternoon WHO released an update.  Here it is.  Received too late for my further analysis.

By the way, trying to seriously follow major trends and events in order to have something to write to you each Thursday is a very helpful intellectual and temporal discipline.  I would not know half what I know about Ebola if I was not trying to fulfill my relationship with you.  Thank you.

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Big bad but not even a CAT 1

Filed under: Disaster,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2014

Sandy Track

Sandy taught important lessons.  Maybe not every student who encountered her teaching has learned as much as she offered, but few went home without a bit more wisdom.

There are several of Sandy’s students — especially after a couple of beers — who will explain the difference between a local emergency and a regional disaster.  Some will admit that after Sandy they see how a disaster, especially in a dense urban context, can detonate the whole web of modern interdependencies.  Just a few more two years ago and very bad might have become catastrophic.

A tough teacher in the school of hard knocks.  But some — enough? — are better prepared for the worse still to come.

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October 28, 2014

Shooting ebola

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 28, 2014

“The worship of reason is… an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute….”

Jonathan Haidt wrote those words in his book, The Righteous Mind.

…we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way, you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons…. But if you put individuals together in the right way…, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.

I don’t believe that emergence is happening yet.

Assuming ebola does not turn out to be the 21st century version of the Black Death, people are going to be studying the transmission of ebola fear, misinformation and ignorance for decades. (On that point, check out Irwin Sherman’s engagingly flat recitation of “Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World.”).

Some preliminary data points, from a pool too wide to sample, even superficially.

– What is the DHS Secretary’s “real motive in refusing to restrict travel from West Africa?”  A writer on a website that boasts it has been thinking for ten years discovers “a link” between DHS Secretary Jey Johnson and black power politics. The argument is painful to unpack (you can read it here ), but the conclusion is “…the long-dead communist [Stokely] Carmichael’s dream of sticking it to ‘whitey’ via the White House and its apparatchiks is coming true.”   Michelle Obama is also partially to blame; but I could not quite figure out how or why.

– From Harpers – Giant Microbes, a web retailer, reported that its $9.95 Ebola plush toy, whose product tag describes the virus as “the T. Rex of microbes,” had sold out worldwide. I checked.  It’s true.  Giant Microbes can’t start shipping  ebola plush toys until mid-November.

– And hold those holiday travel plans. North Korea – wanting to upstage the United States again -  plans to ban foreign tourists because they might spread ebola.

– The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt looks to save readers from researching who’s to blame for… well, ebola in America. Here’s what he’s gathered:

• President Obama, for caring about Africans more than he cares about us.
• Republicans, for starving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of funds so it could not prepare for Ebola.
• Michelle Obama, for tricking the CDC into promoting exercise and healthy eating instead of preparing for Ebola.
• Liberians.
• Republicans, for starving the National Institutes of Health of funds so that it could not discover a cure for Ebola.
• The NIH, for squandering the ample funds generously appropriated by Republicans on lazy bureaucrats and self-indulgent research.
• Democrats and Republicans, for forcing the NIH to spend money on illnesses with well-organized constituencies (e.g., cancer) and not in areas with the most potential return on investment.
• Sierra Leoneans.
• Republicans, for denigrating Washington so regularly that good people don’t want to serve in government.
• Democrats, for coddling government unions that drive good people out of government with mindless anti-meritocracy.
• President Obama, for not standing taller against denigration of government service or coddling of government unions.
• The World Health Organization, for missing the ball as the epidemic bloomed.
• Obama, for not listening to the World Health Organization’s warnings on Ebola.
• Anti-smoking activists, for pressuring the World Health Organization to detour from its core mission.
• Guineans.
• The National Rifle Association, for opposing a nominee for surgeon general because he wanted to reduce gun violence.
• Congress, for taking orders from the NRA.
• CDC Director Thomas Frieden, for not keeping that nurse off the airplane.
• NIH official Anthony Fauci, for not telling Frieden to keep the nurse off the plane.
• Obama, for not at least banning dogs with Ebola from airplanes ….
• Ron Klain. He was appointed Ebola czar …. Why hasn’t he solved the problem yet?
• Africans.

– Tara Haelle adds to the collection:

In one corner of the Internet, we learn that President Obama created the Ebola virus—or Obama-Ebola—to “infect the DNA of Christians and to destroy Jesus so that a New Age of Liberal Darkness can rise in America.” Obamacare, we are told, is the cover organization to find the cure, and the virus will infect all Americans in the next month.

In another corner, we learn that Ebola doesn’t actually exist at all. The disease currently raging through West Africa was brought there by the Red Cross, who injected people with an illness so that American troops could be sent to steal Nigeria’s oil and Sierra Leone’s diamonds. Another explanation is simple: All the negativity and selfishness in the universe caused Ebola. Yet another tells us that two women who died from Ebola have risen from the dead and that the zombie apocalypse is beginning….

Haelle claims the last rumor is not true.

– Andy Borowitz may have the most accurate reports.  Some of the headlines over his recent stories:

Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation Through Casual Contact With Cable News

Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Quarantining Wolf Blitzer 

Study: Fear of Ebola Highest Among People Who Did Not Pay Attention During Math and Science Classes

Christie Sworn in as Doctor  (Saying that he was “sick and tired of having my medical credentials questioned,” Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.) had himself sworn in as a medical doctor on Sunday night.)

– Here’s something not as amusing. It’s from Mark Thiessen in the Washington Post:

Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come here with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids….  Or, the virus could also be released more subtly. Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.

There’s lots more of this “fearbola”.  But that’s enough for now.

—————————————-

We will all die.  Something’s going to get us at some point.  But what are the odds?

Justin Schumacher summarizes data from the National Safety Council on the odds of people in this country dying from a variety of causes.  His full list is here.    Some excerpts:

  • 1 in 5 [deaths]—Heart disease
  • 1 in 7 —Cancer
  • 1 in 23 — Stroke
  • 1 in 67 — Influenza, i.e. the flu
  • 1 in 112 — Car accident
  • 1 in 2,000,000 — Ebola (worldwide odds, so far)
  • 1 in 3,700,000 — Bitten by a shark
  • 1 in 10,000,000 — Hit by falling airplane parts
  • 1 in 20,000,000 — Killed by a terrorist

Not that data means that much to anyone whose mind is made up.

———————————

Three more children died in a school shooting on Friday.

It’s the 50th shooting this year and the 87th since the December 12, 2012 killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Also on Friday, two California sheriff’s deputies were murdered.

In 2011, 32,351 people died from firearms, that’s roughly 88 people a day.

… Gun violence — in schools, in workplaces and across our communities — has become virtually normal in America,” writes Eric Liu

It should not be. It cannot be. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to have over 30,000 gun deaths a year. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to expect educators and parents and first responders to have plans at the ready for a shooting at their school. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to assert that the best solution to gun violence is for more people to have more access to more guns.

———————————

I know a guy whose 13 year old son, in passing, mentioned something about another boy in his class.

“Stacy said ‘It would be really easy to kill someone.  All you’d have to do is take a gun, pull the trigger, and there’s a bullet in their head’.”

Not a big deal.  My friend’s son didn’t feel threatened.

“He’s always saying stuff like that.  He likes to shock people. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”

———————————

So, what is a delusion?  Haidt again:

…a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.

 

 

 

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October 26, 2014

Embracing diversity

Filed under: Biosecurity,Border Security,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 26, 2014

obama pham(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

None of us much like what we perceive as mixed messages.  But many of us seek out diverse sources of information.

I am — as regular readers know too well — a big fan of diversity.  It is an intellectual and aesthetic preference, almost certainly a personality predisposition.

Diversity is also a key characteristic of resilience.  The more diverse a system the less prone it is to catastrophic collapse, the more creative combinations that exist the more likely the system (or sub-system) is to resist and, if necessary, rebound from challenges.

I am personally skeptical of most efforts to reduce variance, increase consistency, and especially any tendency to reserve decisions for some centralized authority.  I am aware such approaches can generate benefits.  But there are also trade-offs and I perceive we too often accept the trade-offs without recognizing what we are giving away.

Since Thursday I’ve been in Newark and New York.  The confirmation of Ebola in a physician who returned to New York after treating patients in West Africa has caused concern.  On Friday Governors Christie and Cuomo, acting more on their political instincts for advancing the common good than expert medical advice, announced a strict quarantine requirement for health care workers returning to JFK and Newark International airports.  This exceeds federal requirements. (Illinois soon followed for those arriving from West Africa into O’Hare.)

I was busy, but as I watched the local news a bit and read the reports I was pleased to see this diversity emerge.  I like it when state and local leaders exercise their best judgment and authority.  I respect political judgment, especially when it relates more to how human social systems actually operate and less about the next election.  I found the non-partisan, reasoned rhetoric of the Governors and Mayor de Blasio mostly helpful.  Medical therapies and social therapies can diverge.

At just about the same time, or at least during the same news cycle, President Obama was purposefully — and a bit awkwardly to my eyes — hugging nurse Nina Pham (above) who has recovered from the Ebola she contracted at her hospital in Dallas.  The intended message was, I hope, clear enough.  For the more literal minded, the President followed up explicitly in his weekly media message.

Meanwhile… Kaci Hickox a nurse arriving at Newark from Sierra Leone, asymptomatic, and according to a preliminary test virus-free, is nonetheless being kept in a 21-day quarantine against her will.  She writes in the Saturday Dallas Morning News:

I am a nurse who has just returned to the U.S. after working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone – an Ebola-affected country. I have been quarantined in New Jersey. This is not a situation I would wish on anyone, and I am scared for those who will follow me.

I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine… (The nurse continues with a rather horrific story of her welcome to the United States.  You should read it.)

The epidemic continues to ravage West Africa. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that as many as 15,000 people have died from Ebola. We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa.  The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity.

The ACLU has announced it will take action challenging the New Jersey quarantine order.

Then as if to put into even sharper contrast the different angles on reality alive in Trenton, Albany, and Washington DC, on Sunday morning I read our UN Ambassador Samantha Power is in West Africa.  She has already visited the Ebola wards.  Should she be quarantined in isolation on her return?  Or in deference to separation of powers, will a sanitary cordon of the Ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf be sufficient?

Thursday and Friday I was mostly impressed with how New York local-media was handling the story. Saturday I was too otherwise engaged to notice. Now early on Sunday morning there is a nearly palpable urgency to take sides… or, if one does not feel confident/competent to choose sides, to bitterly complain regarding the incompetence of the “authorities” who should have had this sort of risk fully thought-through.  ”It’s not tight”, the President himself has complained.

In my experience reality is seldom tight. At a certain point working to make it tight strips the threads and even breaks the head.  Can we learn to engage diversity affirmatively, creatively, even systematically, as a potentially positive — in any case, persistent — aspect of reality?  In dealing with complex risks, I have found this to be an especially productive option.

MONDAY UPDATE:

According to several news sources, New York will “loosen” its screening protocols.  Here’s a bit of the AP report:

Gov. Cuomo back peddled Sunday on his insistence that medical workers returning to New York from Ebola-stricken countries would have to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine at a government-regulated facility

The governor, in a joint news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, said health care workers and citizens who have had exposure to Ebola patients in West Africa will be asked to stay in their homes for the 21-day quarantine.

During the 21 days, the quarantined person will be checked on twice a day by health care professionals to take their temperature and evaluate their condition, Cuomo said.

Here’s the official statement from the Governor’s office.

Constant change in response to feedback, adapting to new information (new expressions of reality) is another feature of diverse and resilient systems.  And just to be clear: in the most resilient systems while change is constant a core-coherence persists.  Which highlights the big difference between consistent and coherent, between control and collaboration…

SECOND UPDATE:

According to NJ.com and other news outlets, Nurse Kaci Hickox will now be allowed to quarantine at home in the state of Maine. The New Jersey Governor’s office released a transcript and video to provide context for this shift.

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October 24, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2014

On this day in 2008 several leading stock exchanges experienced sharp declines that continued for a period of several months.  Was this a Black Swan?  Was this a Lévy flight?  Was this an expression of Self Organized Criticality?  Are catastrophic cascades the inevitable outcome of dense interdependencies in any system?  Electrical grids… supply chains… watersheds… fisheries… human populations?

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

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The Homegrown Jihadist Threat Grows

Filed under: Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2014

In today’s — October 24 — Wall Street Journal, former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former senior Senate staffer, Christian Beckner (this blog’s founder) share the byline in the top-of-the-page op-ed.  They focus particular attention — as each has for many years — on the role of online radicalization.

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October 23, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 2

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on October 23, 2014

This is the second in an irregular update on efforts to slow and eventually stop the rate of Ebola virus transmission in west Africa.  The risk of transmission in the United States is a function of the rate of transmission at the source.

It is important to acknowledge issues with data quality.  Over the weekend a piece in Science magazine noted, “… it’s widely known that the real situation is much worse than the numbers show because many cases don’t make it into the official statistics. Underreporting occurs in every disease outbreak anywhere, but keeping track of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone has been particularly difficult. And (as) the epidemic unfolds, underreporting appears to be getting worse.”

Still the data that is collected can help us understand some broad dynamics of transmission.

Yesterday afternoon — October 22 — the World Health Organization released a progress report on their response roadmap.  It provides details through the end of last week for all known cases of Ebola, but focuses primarily on the situation in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.  Following is a timetable for transmission of the virus in Liberia and metropolitan Monrovia. Similar charts are available for Guinea and Sierra Leone in the online report.  The report also provides updates on treatment centers and other interventions underway.

WHO_liberiaClicking on the image will generate a larger version

CITYA.M., the City of London business publication, has produced a helpful visual analysis of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, so far the hardest hit of the the three nations at the epicenter of the outbreak.  These maps communicate the crucial role that population density plays in transmission. They also suggest how the virus moved along human networks from the index case in southeastern Guinea into Lofa County and quickly to the economic/social/political center of metropolitan Monrovia.

Liberia density and number

Liberia per 100,000

MORE from CITYA.M.

While US media focus on early indications that transmission has been contained in the Dallas case, at least as important is the news that the Nigerian public health system has successfully contained an initial set of transmissions in densely urban Lagos.  Fundamental to this Nigerian success was a well-organized existing public health infrastructure and network of human expertise. An effective anti-polio process was essentially repurposed to rapidly contain a new infectious threat. Strategically it is important to recognize this was the adaptation of an existing capacity, not an ad-hoc insertion of a special or reserve capability.

According to the Associated Press, in Nigeria “Health workers tracked down nearly 100 percent of those who had contact with the infected, paying 18,500 visits to 894 people.”

The absence of such an existing capacity has been a principal cause of the outbreak in Liberia and its neighbors.  Sunday U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commanding general of the 101st Airbone Division and his thirty member command team arrived in Monrovia to assume leadership of DOD contributions to Operation United Assistance. The Army is sending approximately 700 Soldiers from the 101st, including members of the division headquarters staff, sustainment brigade, combat support hospital and a military police battalion. Another 700 troops will be deployed from multiple engineering units to build 17 100-bed medical treatment units and a 25-bed hospital. MORE.

New cases of transmission in Nigeria — the United States and elsewhere — are likely.  Until we can bend the exponential growth of transmission in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, a networked and increasingly densely populated planet will be vulnerable.  (A few hours after the original version of this post appeared, a new case of Ebola was confirmed in New York City.)

The Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union met on Tuesday.  Despite some additional progress, the readiness and urgency of the European response will depend on the results of a summit of EU leaders that opens today in Brussels.

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October 22, 2014

Terror comes to Ottawa

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on October 22, 2014

The terrible tragedy that unfolded today in Canada’s capital has yet to be fully resolved.  The identified gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was killed at the scene, reportedly by the Sergeant-at-arms of the Canadian parliament Kevin Vickers. Preliminary reports suggested there were additional shooters, though by the close of the day the idea that it was only the one was gaining traction.

Most tragically, that one terrorist killed a Canadian Forces member on duty as an honor guard at the National War Memorial close to the parliament complex.  That member, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a reservist from Hamilton, Ontario was only 24 years old. He leaves behind a son.

This story is still developing.  It will take time to learn the motive and motivation for this attack, the existence of connections foreign or Canadian, and the impact on Canadian (and American) security policies. For the best coverage, I would suggest following Canadian news sources:

A few initial, and random, thoughts not directly related to the Canadian security situation:

  •  As I watched the initial news coverage, I was dismayed to listen to several anchors across different networks speculate that this attack was terrorism.  Of course it was – an armed attack on the symbols of a nation’s government.  My displeasure came from the overtly implied definition of terrorism – that it must involve a nexus with Islamic fundamentalism.  In this case assumed to be ISIS.  Indeed, by the end of the day that connection became a little more concrete.  However, at the start of events it was described as the act of a gunman or gunmen either crazy or motivated by unknown drivers OR it had a connection to ISIS/Al Qaeda/Islamic fundamentalism and such considered terrorism.  I genuinely fear that in the popular conception, terrorism is no longer an act used to achieve political ends (intimidate or terrorize a population or coerce government policy) but intrinsically tied to Islam. So all violent, criminal acts carried out by Muslims is terrorism (e.g. the recent beheading in Oklahoma) while any violent act that is directed toward government agencies by non-Muslims is just a criminal act (e.g. flying a small plane into an IRS station or ambushing state patrol officers).

 

  • During the first press conference of the various security agencies I found it interesting that the official advice to the population of Ottawa was something along the lines of (paraphrasing here): “if you are not already downtown, stay away; for those in downtown, listen to your building managers as to what to do.” There was no direct order to shelter-in-place.  Instead, a seeming trust in the actions and advice of civilian liaisons was assumed.  I’ve heard of a similar relationship in the City of London, where the police have a close relationship with the businesses that make up London’s financial district in which they are considered partners in security preparedness.  But I was a little surprised, and impressed, by the example shown in Ottawa this afternoon.

 

  • The founder of this blog (is it appropriate to refer to him as the Blog Father?), Christian Beckner, presciently posted last night at the Homeland Security Policy Institute Blog on “Fear Canada? Examining the Border-Counterterroism nexus.” While it did not directly address the events of today, it certainly reminded readers that terrorist threats have arisen before in Canada and can pose a threat to the United States.

 

  • Finally, the video posted below of the reaction of security forces inside Canada’s parliament to the first sounds of gunfire has been played countless times on cable news.  It still never ceases to amaze me how brave first responders all around the world run toward danger instead of away from it.

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The Response

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2014

National War Memorial

The National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada is also known as The Response. It was originally designed and constructed in memory of Canadians who served in the First World War.  It has since been adapted to honor those serving in subsequent conflicts.  The surmounting sculptures symbolize spirits of peace and liberty. Earlier today, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, standing guard at the memorial was shot and killed.  The attacker was killed when he continued by shooting his way into the nearby Parliament building.

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Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2014

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear… Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

Marilynne Robinson

Quoted in the New York Times Magazine, October 1, 2014

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October 21, 2014

Ebola, Fantasy Documents and Our Collective Inability to Tolerate Ambiguity

Filed under: Public Health & Medical Care — by Christopher Bellavita on October 21, 2014

Todays post is written by Jeff Kaliner. Kaliner is a public health emergency preparedness professional with twelve years in the field. For the last few years he has spent an unreasonable amount of time considering the intersection between complexity science, lessons that never get learned and homeland security. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University.

Over the last few days the media has suggested that hospital emergency plans and procedures are basically unsuccessful with respect to the ongoing Ebola event.  The narrative lays out that hospitals (and in effect the larger public health system) have failed to plan properly and in turn are now reaping the consequences of poor preparation. The evidence is apparent: one dead Liberian national and two infected Texas nurses.

Connecting these dots in a linear fashion gives us the proof we need to believe what this narrative suggests: The last twelve years of federally fueled funds to enhance emergency health and medical programs at the state and local levels have not worked.  The implication is easy to understand; better planning and procedures (and more money?) would have prevented this very serious situation.

Although the story seems to have a tidy and easily understood cause and effect relationship, it is wrong.

The problem with this tale is the dirty little secret that a well-crafted plan or procedure cannot and will not be enough to manage a complex event. When implied that they can, these documents take on a symbolic quality that suggest they are somehow able to control reality.  As Lee Clarke (in his book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster) points out, plans in this realm “…are rhetorical devices designed to convince others of something.”  The “others” in this case might be federal or state grantors, the public, the media, response agencies, etc.  Clarke goes on to state:

It seems that fantasy documents are more likely to be produced to defend very large systems, or systems that are newly scaled up. When they are proffered as accurate representations of organizational capabilities then the stage is not only set for organizational failure but for massive failure of the publics those organizations are supposed to serve.

Sound familiar?

In other words, the plans the media have been referring to are fantasy documents.  They were partly crafted to give an illusion of safety and security.

To be clear, I am not arguing that plans should not be written and that capabilities should not be exercised.  What I am saying is that the best we can ever do in the face of an increasingly complex catastrophe is write a bad plan and admit that a capability that was pulled off flawlessly during an exercise will probably not produce the same results during the actual bad day. This is not an indictment of all the dedicated and committed emergency planners across the world.   This is an invitation to acknowledge what the best of them already know: response documents become more useless as the event becomes more complex.

Maybe one possible solution to the plan as fantasy document is to conceptualize an emergency situation as an unfolding set of unpredictable events in a unique eco-system. Every eco-system has a pre-determined elasticity or resiliency that allows it to bend a certain distance before it breaks. In this narrative, instead of asking whether or not our plans have worked (and in turn placing blame on a variety of systems) we might wonder if the resiliency of our current health and medical system has actually been compromised and to what extent by an emergent event.

This idea has become clearer to me as I have been reading The Age of the Unthinkable  by Joshua Cooper Ramo.  Ramo suggests that one way to think about the resiliency question is to visualize the eco-system of a lake.  He writes

“The stability of a lake ecosystem can’t possibly be reduced to a few variables. What matters isn’t something you can score quickly but rather the strange mesh of interactions that make a lake resilient or not….  What you can easily measure in these systems matters much less than what you cannot: How strong are the relationships between different parts of the lake ecosystem? How fast can it adjust to shocks? How far can you bend the food chain on the lake before it breaks? In short, how resilient is it?”

What if we tried to apply aspects of this idea to how we define, manage and evaluate emergency response? What if instead of trying to bend reality to our whims by absurdly trying to measure the potential success or failure of our plans, procedures and capabilities (before the event), we looked a little deeper at the complex set of variables that make up a health and medical eco-system during an event and drew conclusions about how well we were doing based upon a more nuanced and admittedly ambiguous set of factors?  Factors including our ability to adapt, learn and change in real time.

As Ramo states: “Resilience allows us, even at our most extreme moments of terror (in fact, precisely because we are at such a moment), to keep learning, to change. It is kind of a battlefield of courage, the ability to innovate under fire because we’ve prepared in the right way and because we’ve developed the strength to keep moving even when we’ve been slapped by the unexpected.”

Preparing in the right way certainly means developing plans and procedures.  But that’s just where it starts. Ultimately there is no one playbook or plan that will quickly solve the multitude of problems that occur during complex events. In an unordered world, we all will have to become more comfortable with the messy reality that there is not just one factor that means we have won or lost the battle (think: Mission Accomplished).

In the book Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Miller and Page write, “Complexity arises when the dependencies among the elements become important.”  Certainly there are many elemental dependencies involved in the current Ebola outbreak.  Understanding and learning how these dependencies interact with one another to create new and unexpected aspects of this ongoing situation is critical to an effective response.

We can no longer reduce the negative events (the death of a Liberian national and the infection of two Texas nurses) that take place within quickly evolving eco-systems to simple platitudes. In this respect, false narratives (such as the ineffectiveness of a magical plan) need to be quickly identified and confronted as the simple and all too easy explanation for a very complex set of events that will probably never be truly understood.

If we do not identify these narratives for what they are, we diminish the two critical capabilities that we will need to consistently practice if we are to truly be prepared for 21st century challenges:

1) an emergency response system that has the political will and ability to quickly learn and adapt during the course of an emergent event; and

2) a media and public that will provide a type of unconditional support and understanding to let it happen.

Regardless, until we are all prepared to think about and understand the world in ways that reflect a more interdependent and non-linear sensibility, our reliance on simple narratives will remain. That reliance certainly works well for the media, but it’s just bad news for the rest of us.

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October 20, 2014

John Pistole made it ok to work for TSA

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Merle Dixon Niles on October 20, 2014

Last week, John S. Pistol announced he will retire as the Transportation Security Administrator at the end of the year.   Here are my reflections on what Pistole accomplished as Administrator.

“Hard work,” “Professionalism,” “Integrity” these words point like true north to what a public servant ought to be, can be, and will be.  This is evidenced by the more than thirty year Federal career of outgoing TSA Administrator John Pistole.  In his first address to his last address, and anytime in between, John Pistole used these words whenever speaking with the employees of TSA.

The critics and cynics will say they are just words, a gimmick, for show. Not to John Pistole. He lives these words and brought them to the TSA, changing a culture.

Prior to his arrival, if an employee were asked where they worked, they would state DHS.  Four years later, when asked where they work, they proudly state, TSA.  John Pistole made it okay to work for TSA, okay to be a public servant.

Thirty years of living these words and putting them into practice drove significant achievements involving seemingly incompatible concepts.

Every administrator before him had determined that providing security and allowing employees to unionize was incompatible.  Yet after listening to all stakeholders and studying the issue, John Pistole formulated a novel new structure that granted employees bargaining rights and led to improved security.

Likewise, it is often stated that in order to increase security, we must sacrifice our civil liberties.  Despite this, John Pistole has given meaning to the words Risk-Based Security.  By leveraging intelligence, technology, and the law, TSA has executed Risk-Based initiatives benefiting passengers every day.  The programs implemented have both increased security and protected our civil liberties.

A career of hard work, professionalism, and integrity also provided a bulwark against the fierce partisanship and maneuvering for political capitol.  When appropriate, Mr. Pistole pushed back against misinformation and inaccuracies directed at his Agency and employees.  He went to the mat for those in the arena.

Hard work, Professionalism, Integrity, the proof is in the pudding.  Reduced budgets, fewer employees, more passengers, smaller wait times, and improved security.

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October 19, 2014

Who is my neighbor?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 19, 2014

EBOLA_James harris

I perceive it is prudent — as well as accurate — to make the case that the best way to mitigate Ebola risk in the United States is to significantly degrade the risk in West Africa.

Recently Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, felt it was politically necessary to say, “I am not protecting West Africa. My number one responsibility is to protect Americans from threats.”

Over the last few weeks at HLSWatch we had cause to consider the potentially warping effects of self-interest too narrowly conceived or fatally denied.

Last week The Telegraph (London) offered a gallery of online photographs entitled, “Survivors: Portraits of Liberians who recovered from Ebola“.  Above is James Harris, age 29, who recovered after two weeks at death’s door.  He is now a nurse’s assistant in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Paynesville, Liberia.

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October 18, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 1

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on October 18, 2014

This is the first in an irregular update on efforts to engage Ebola’s center-of-gravity.  As noted previously, I am concerned US media is not giving sufficient attention to fighting this disease where it matters most for all of us.

If the rate of transmission can be suppressed at the source, then the risk to the United States will be substantially mitigated.  If the rate of transmission in West Africa cannot be significantly reversed in the next 60-to-90 days some epidemiologists are concerned Ebola will establish itself well outside it’s historically native range.

Data collection in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia — the current outbreak’s epicenter — is far from state-of-the-art.  But following is the best information now available from local health agencies as aggregated by the World Health Organization:

Ebola Chart

These numbers will get worse — probably much worse — before they get better.  Current projections suggest 10,000 new cases per week by December.

But there is also some encouraging news.  The Ebola transmission cycle in Senegal and Nigeria has evidently been successfully interrupted and contained.

Ebola survivors who have developed an immunity to the disease are now involved in caring for other patients and may be the source of life-saving blood transfusions.

Population behaviors, such as burial practices, are adapting to the risk.

Several new treatment centers are under construction.  Early identification, isolation, and effective treatment of those with Ebola will cut transmission rates and improve survival rates.  This week US military operations to expand local capacity got seriously underway. (Further details)

There will, almost certainly, be more cases of Ebola presenting in the United States.  The best way to reduce vulnerability is to eliminate the threat at its source.

 –+–

Editorial Note:  It has long been my personal opinion that “homeland security” is most meaningful when it offers its legacy professions, policy-makers, and the public a strategically integrated angle on risk.  The risk environment is usually complicated, often complex and even chaotic.  There are important roles for an array of specializations, threat-specific strategies, operational expertise, and tactical competence.  Homeland security will be more successful to the extent it is well-informed of these related domains.  But homeland security delivers added-value when it can stitch together these diverse elements into a coherent — ideally mutually amplifying — whole.  Strategy, at least in my use of the term, is especially concerned with how risks can be intentionally engaged in a manner that deploys the threat against itself and reduces self-generated vulnerabilities.

What is the most effective strategy for the risk of Ebola?

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