Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 31, 2006

Homeland security excerpts of the SOTU

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

From advance embargoed text:

Our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home. The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us. Fortunately, this Nation has superb professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military, andhomeland security. These men and women are dedicating their lives to protecting us all, and they deserve our support and our thanks. They also deserve the same tools they already use to fight drug trafficking and organized crime – so I ask you to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack – based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute – I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have – and Federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate Members of Congress have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about it – because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.


Keeping America competitive requires an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values, and serves the interests of our economy. Our Nation needs orderly and secure borders. To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty … allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally … and reduces smuggling and crime at the border.


A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency – and stays at it until they are back on their feet. So far the Federal government has committed 85 billion dollars to the people of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. We are removing debris, repairing highways, and building stronger levees. We are providing business loans and housing assistance. Yet as we meet these immediate needs, we must also address deeper challenges that existed before the storm arrived. In New Orleans and in other places, many of our fellow citizens have felt excluded from the promise of our country. The answer is not only temporary relief, but schools that teach every child … and job skills that bring upward mobility … and more opportunities to own a home and start a business. As we recover from a disaster, let us also work for the day when all Americans are protected by justice, equal in hope, and rich in opportunity.

No mention of the pandemic flu…otherwise my earlier predictions were correct.

Update (1/31): The homeland security-related excerpt from the Democratic response by Virginia governor Tim Kaine:

The failure of the federal government to implement and enforce a rational immigration policy has resulted in a confusing patchwork of state and local efforts. We should welcome those who seek to lawfully join and contribute to our American family. At the same time, we must ensure that our homeland defense efforts begin with consistent federal action to protect our borders.

Homeland security and national greatness

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

This past Saturday I went to go see the excellent new IMAX film on the Mars Rover expeditions at the National Air and Space Museum.

These Mars Rover missions represent the very best of America: teamwork, ingenuity, the quest for knowledge, and the willingness to dream. The film does a good job of showing how the success of the mission was dependent upon the contributions of thousands of people working together – not the result of isolated individual brilliance. The way that the film showed this was very inspirational: many little kids will be inspired to become scientists and engineers by this movie.

The movie made me reflect on something that is perhaps missing from our vision of homeland security today: an aspiration toward national greatness, one that can serve as a source of inspiration for America’s next generation.

In his speech in 1899 on “The Strenuous Life”, Theodore Roosevelt described national greatness as something that could be won “through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor.” And he noted in a 1910 speech that the “main source of national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation.” The idea of national greatness has since come to be identified with many of Roosevelt’s bolder initiatives – the building of the Panama Canal, or the world tour of the Great White Fleet – and has been invoked by Presidents throughout the 20th century when justifying bold new initiatives, such as space exploration.

The firefighters and police officers of New York City displayed the finest type of national greatness on September 11th, 2001 in their selfless response to the WTC attacks. But over the past few years, as homeland security has emerged, it’s started to become a routinized, bureaucratic function – and something that is largely disconnected from the individual lives of American citizens.

Are there ways to connect homeland security to a vision of national greatness? Or should we see it as a practical necessity, and focus instead on strengthening other initiatives and activities that enhance this vision?

I think we can do both. We can enhance the sense of national purpose in the homeland security mission by doing two things:

  1. Connecting homeland security more closely to peoples’ daily lives, going beyond simplistic ad campaigns and encouraging leaders in communities around the country – mayors, ministers, business leaders, teachers – to help instill an ethos of preparedness into peoples’ lives.
  2. Setting difficult “stretch” goals for enhanced security and preparedness, such as nationally interoperable communications, or a new generation of detection technologies, or a well-oiled emergency response system, and constantly talk about them in terms of national purpose.

And we can ensure that we do not diminish our other sources of national greatness by fighting to see that budget decisions are not driven solely by short-term necessity, but continue to recognize the value of science and discovery. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that NASA’s funding could be cut drastically in next week’s budget submission. If we cut things like space exploration, Pell Grants, and scientific research in favor of the practical expediencies of today, then we undermine our future in favor of short-term uncertainty. We need to do everything in our power to protect ourselves from the threat of terrorism – but figure do so in a way that does not unduly harm activities that promote a positive and exciting vision for our future as a nation.

Theodore Roosevelt said this best, in a speech at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1903. In the speech, he compares the experiences of ancient Athens and Rome. The Athenians built a society that promoted national greatness, but found themselves vulnerable to neighboring empires:

In consequence, the Greek world, for all its wonderful brilliancy and the extraordinary artistic, literary, and philosophical development which has made all mankind its debtors for the ages, was yet wholly unable to withstand a formidable foreign foe, save spasmodically. As soon as powerful, permanent empires arose on its outskirts, the Greek states in the neighborhood of such empires fell under their sway. National power and greatness were completely sacrificed to local liberty.

By contrast, Rome placed more emphasis on security, and expanded its realm over the course of centuries. But Rome’s focus on empire ultimately led it down a path that diminished its inherent greatness:

All other cities and countries were subject to Rome. In consequence this great and masterful race of warriors, rulers, road-builders, and administrators stamped their indelible impress upon all the after life of our race, and yet let an over-centralization eat out the vitals of their empire until it became an empty shell; so that when the barbarians came they destroyed only what had already become worthless to the world.

The United States needs to navigate a path, however difficult that might be, between the Athenian and Roman experiences – protecting itself against external threats while still investing in the hopes and dreams that make it worth protecting. This will not be easy in world where we face dire threats to our survival, but it is a vision toward which we need to constantly strive.

More US-Canada border fence angst

Filed under: Border Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

The Toronto Star reports today on Congressman Tom Tancredo’s desire to build a wall along the US-Canadian border:

Tom Tancredo’s fence along the Mexican border will cost about $1 million (U.S.) per mile to build, he figures, but the wall he wants along the Canadian border would cost a bit more because of rougher terrain.

In the 61-year-old Colorado Republican congressman’s ideal world, the U.S. is sealed off by walls to the north and south, illegal Mexican immigrants are sent home, would-be bombers stay in Canada, and his country can finally deem itself safe from terrorists and drug-runners.

It may seem absurd on the surface, but it’s not totally fanciful. The U.S. House has already passed a bill okaying the Mexican fence, a proposal an indignant Mexican President Vicente Fox has branded America’s Berlin Wall.

The Tancredo initiative is also a sobering lesson in how Canada can get sideswiped by the increasingly poisonous relations between Washington and its Latin American neighbours in this hemisphere.

I referred to the idea of a US-Canadian border fence or wall in December as “loonie-cy”, and I stand by this statement. Instead of considering a wall, we’d be much better off working with Canada to improve intelligence-sharing and trying to convince them to strengthen their entry procedures and asylum laws. The new Harper government in Canada is likely to be more receptive to these ideas than the outgoing Martin government, and loose talk of a wall can only serve to alienate the new team.

Tancredo’s estimate of $1m/mile for the US-Mexico border fence, incidentally, is lowball; most other estimates for the US-Mexico wall are at $2m/mile and up.

A REAL ID Act update

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

Secure ID News has a story today that provides a good overview of the current state of play of the Real ID Act implementation. It discusses the question of whether RFID technology will be mandated in future state ID’s, an idea that has privacy groups in a tizzy even though there’s no direct evidence that the federal government is considering this. It discusses the potential costs of REAL ID implementation:

Just as critical are costs, says the coalition. “While the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost of complying with the REAL ID Act would be $100 million for all 50 states, the state of Washington independently concluded that it would have to spend at least $92 million in the first two years alone. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated the cost of implementation of the REAL ID Act would be $9-$13 billion. Citizens Against Government Waste has estimated that a federal chip mandate for state drivers licenses would cost $17.4 billion,” the coalition wrote. That, according to CAGW, breaks down to about $93 per license.

The extreme low-end and high-end numbers above are both nonsense. $93 per ID if there’s a mandate to include a twenty-five cent chip on an ID? That’s ludicrous. If these critics want to be taken seriously (and I think they have a very important role in this debate), they need to be more rigorous in their analysis.

The article also notes that the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), which represents state DMV’s, will be issuing its recommendations on REAL ID in late February – an important document to watch out for. And it notes that DHS has not yet established its desired regulatory outcome for REAL ID:

Meanwhile, DHS has no timeline on when the rules might be written, said Jarrod Agen, DHS spokesperson.

“We’re not at the point of announcing what may be in the rules,” he said. DHS is currently “working with individual states to talk about the key issues, like information sharing and technology connectivity and some of the hurdles that need to be looked at in those areas,” he added.

DHS needs to establish a timeline very soon if it’s going to meet the deadlines set forth by Congress. Or even better, it should engage in a dialogue with Rep. Sensenbrenner and other key congressional stakeholders on alternatives to Real ID that would address the main security requirements of identification in a more cost-effective manner. As I wrote several weeks ago:

If Real ID is a “de facto” national ID system, then it’s one of the worst possible forms of one: it’s not likely to deliver the potential security benefits of an integrated system; it doesn’t save money via national-level economies of scale; it has no clear funding stream; and oversight on privacy issues will be difficult in a 50-state stakeholder environment.

Clearly there are lots of moving pieces right now on REAL ID. Stay tuned.

NY state report on homeland security readiness

Filed under: State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

The New York State Senate has an interesting new report released yesterday entitled “New York’s State of Readiness.” You can download the PDF here. Of particular interest is the section on emerging issues, which provides a good snapshot of the state’s current efforts to deal with issues such as the avian flu, REAL ID Act implementation, intelligence sharing, and transit security. The report serves as a good template for state-level legislative oversight of homeland security issues.

White House Katrina investigation findings previewed

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

Newsweek published a story yesterday on the White House’s role in Katrina, adding new details from earlier reports about the timeline by which the White House learned about the evolving situation on the ground.

The last part of the story is the most interesting, providing new details on the expected findings of White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend’s investigation of Katrina, based on notes taken by Congressman Gene Taylor and Charlie Melancon at a meeting last month:

  • “A unified national homeland security planning structure does not exist.”
  • “The National Response Plan did not function as planned.”
  • “The bureaucratic process delayed the Federal response.”
  • “NORTHCOM [the U.S. military command covering the continental USA] was not fully aware of its deployed assets for the first 48 hours after landfall.”
  • “Federal agencies hampered the restoration of goods and services by taking uncoordinated actions without understanding their national impact.”
  • “There was no Federal coordinating entity with a complete understanding of the interdependency of critical infrastructure needs.
  • “Training was designed to respond to WMD [weapons of mass destruction] incidents.”

These findings all seem appropriate, given what we’ve learned to date about the federal response. The real question will be what steps the government is willing to take in order to remedy the deficiencies that these findings expose. Many of them can’t be fixed quickly by bandaid solutions, but only by a large and long-term shift in the organizing principles of preparedness and response.

Homeland security and the SOTU

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

Below are my predictions for the homeland security-related topics that President Bush will address in the State of the Union address 19 hours from now. I can see all of these making the cut, given the current attention to and political relevance of each:

  1. An appropriate reflection on Katrina, and a general commitment to rebuild the Gulf and help people recover.
  2. A repeat of the administration’s line of argument on the NSA revelations in the last two weeks, describing this intelligence activity as a vital tool to protect the nation.
  3. An exhortation to the Congress to renew the Patriot Act immediately.
  4. A mention of the pandemic flu and an acknowledgement of the plan that Bush put forward last fall to address it.
  5. A mention of border security and the need for a temporary worker program.

I’m really not expecting any specific new initiatives or proposals within the homeland security content of the speech. Most of the potential new things that he could announce – FEMA restructuring, supporting chemical security legislation, restating some of the Rice-Chertoff Initiative proposals, etc. – are a bit too wonkish for the SOTU.

I’ll post after the speech with an update on my predictions and an analysis of the speech’s homeland security content.

Detecting border tunnels: the technology challenge

Filed under: Border Security,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 31, 2006

The AP had a story on Monday about efforts to detect smuggling tunnels at the US-Mexico border, a technological challenge for which there is no simple solution today. There are a range of technologies that are used today- radar, sonar, electromagnetic waves, seismic technology – but subsurface detection is inherently difficult, and none of these is both accurate and precise enough to effectively uncover potential tunnels on a systematic basis. (Chapter IV of this National Academy of Sciences study from 2000 discusses the inherent limitations of these technologies).

The article notes:

A U.S. government effort to find tunnels used to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States with ground-penetrating radar and other high-tech gear has had little success.

Human intelligence has proven to be the most effective method to find secret passageways. Case in point: Last week’s discovery of the longest tunnel ever found along any U.S. border resulted from a tip….

“The problem is the technology picks up some kind of anomaly or variation of soil,” said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “We go in with big backhoes and bulldozers, we spend all day doing it, and all we hit is rock or water tables.”

That’s what happened earlier this month when high-tech gear alerted authorities to a possible tunnel near Boulevard, a hamlet about 60 miles east of San Diego along the Mexican border. A full day of digging turned up nothing.

“It’s not there yet,” Mack said. “What we’ve seen so far just hasn’t proven itself to be effective.”

The article goes on to detail other efforts to find border tunnels on the southern border, and it makes clear that this recent incident is far from an anomaly. This 2003 piece from the San Diego Union-Tribune reinforces that idea, quoting from an unnamed government official who estimated the existence of at least 100 border tunnels.

The government definitely could benefit from new approaches to detecting border tunnels, a fact acknowledged in the Secure Border Initiative industry day last week when an official noted that the scope of the project included subsurface security. The key government agency researching this topic today seems to be the Army Corps of Engineers; this fact sheet details some of their initiatives. And the AP story provides additional context on research that might make a contribution to this effort:

Steve Danbom, a board member of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists who teaches at Rice University, said the tunnel offers a testing ground for promising technologies, including microgravity science and a technique known as multielectrode resistivity, which uses multiple electrodes to search for underground gaps in the soil.

Finally, maybe this kid is on to something that might address this issue….

January 30, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on pitbulls and profiling

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on January 30, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, has an excellent article in the new issue of The New Yorker entitled “Troublemakers: What pitbulls can teach us about profiling.” The article takes a broad look at the subject of profiling, looking at both the means by which people determine the risk of someone or something, and considering what type of measures are actually effective in spotting a dangerous dog or a potential terrorist.

The article begins with pitbulls and the question of what makes a dangerous dog, but quickly turns this narrative to the analogous question about how to detect potential terrorists:

In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists—as opposed to being guided by generalizations—seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like—even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”

NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly defends his decisions to conduct random searches and avoid racial profiling for this task:

Kelly was pointing out what might be called profiling’s “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”

A later section of the article discusses what it terms the “instability issue,” and the relative weakness of risk models that focus on specific behaviors, such as buying a one-way airplane ticket, given the fact that terrorists can easily modify their activities in response to awareness of these types of risk triggers. The article suggests an alternative based upon Ray Kelly’s former tenure in the US Customs Service:

Before Kelly became the New York police commissioner, he served as the head of the U.S. Customs Service, and while he was there he overhauled the criteria that border-control officers use to identify and search suspected smugglers. There had been a list of forty-three suspicious traits. He replaced it with a list of six broad criteria. Is there something suspicious about their physical appearance? Are they nervous? Is there specific intelligence targeting this person? Does the drug-sniffing dog raise an alarm? Is there something amiss in their paperwork or explanations? Has contraband been found that implicates this person?

You’ll find nothing here about race or gender or ethnicity, and nothing here about expensive jewelry or deplaning at the middle or the end, or walking briskly or walking aimlessly. Kelly removed all the unstable generalizations, forcing customs officers to make generalizations about things that don’t change from one day or one month to the next. Some percentage of smugglers will always be nervous, will always get their story wrong, and will always be caught by the dogs. That’s why those kinds of inferences are more reliable than the ones based on whether smugglers are white or black, or carry one bag or two. After Kelly’s reforms, the number of searches conducted by the Customs Service dropped by about seventy-five per cent, but the number of successful seizures improved by twenty-five per cent. The officers went from making fairly lousy decisions about smugglers to making pretty good ones. “We made them more efficient and more effective at what they were doing,” Kelly said.

There’s a lot of good insight in this piece that’s very relevant to the challenges in the aviation security and border security missions today. But it’s important to bear in mind that each domain requires a different risk assessment paradigm, given the variable consequences of “failure to detect” in different situations, and the relative openness and controllability of the system that you’re trying to protect. So while it might not be feasible or wise to profile in a subway system, the risk assessment decision looks different in an aviation context, where the consequences of a failure to detect are potentially greater and the environment is much easier to enforce, given that screening checkpoints and other security measures already exist.

Overall, a very thought provoking piece by Gladwell, and one worth reading in full.

Secret Service director Ralph Basham nominated as CBP Commissioner

Filed under: DHS News — by Christian Beckner on January 30, 2006

From the White House website this afternoon:

The President intends to nominate W. Ralph Basham, of Virginia, to be Commissioner of Customs at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Basham currently serves as Director of the United States Secret Service at the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to this, he served as Chief of Staff for the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation. Earlier in his career, he served as Director for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at the Department of Treasury. Mr. Basham received his bachelor’s degree from Southeastern University.

And the White House also nominated a successor to Basham:

The President intends to appoint Mark Sullivan, of Massachusetts, to be Director of the United States Secret Service at the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Sullivan currently serves as Assistant Director for the Office of Protective Operations for the United States Secret Service at the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to this, he served as Deputy Assistant Director for Human Resources and Training for the United States Secret Service. He has served the United States Secret Service for over twenty years. Mr. Sullivan received his bachelor’s degree from Saint Anselms College.

Sec. Chertoff’s statement on the nominations is here.

New al-Zawahiri videotape

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on January 30, 2006

From Stratfor’s initial analysis:

A fresh videotaped communiqué from deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was broadcast on Al Jazeera on Jan. 30. Given that al-Zawahiri mentions the Jan. 13 airstrike carried out by a CIA Predator drone aircraft in northwestern Pakistan that targeted al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda is signaling that its No. 2 man survived the assault. That this tape comes soon after other videos and audios from al Qaeda shows that al Qaeda is demonstrating its continuing operational capability.

Update 1 (1/30): Quotes from the tape, taken from the AP wire story:

“Butcher of Washington, you are not only defeated and a liar, but also a failure. You are a curse on your own nation,” he said, referring to Bush. “Bush, do you know where I am? I am among the Muslim masses.”…

“My second message is to the American people, who are drowning in illusions. I tell you that Bush and his gang are shedding your blood and wasting your money in frustrated adventures,” he said, speaking in a forceful and angry voice.

“The lion of Islam, Sheik Osama bin Laden, may God protect him, offered you a decent exit from your dilemma. But your leaders, who are keen to accumulate wealth, insist on throwing you in battles and killing your souls in Iraq and Afghanistan and God willing on your own land.”

These are fighting words. Combined with bin Laden’s tape two weeks ago, this tells me that we should still be very concerned about the threat from the core, even as al-Qaeda continues to metastasize from a hierarchical organization into a movement.

Update 2 (1/30)
: See Walid Phares’ analysis of the tape at Counterterrorism Blog.

Update 3 (1/30): CNN has the transcript.

Risk methodology overview and FAQ for UASI grants

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on January 30, 2006

The ODP website now contains two documents that are very helpful in trying to understand the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant process: a “Discussion of the FY 2006 Risk Methodology” and a “Frequently Asked Questions” document. These two documents answer some of my questions about what went into the process to determine grant eligibility, a topic that I wrote about extensively at the beginning of January.

For example, the two documents provide extensive detail on the individual factors used to make these judgments (although not the relative weighting of each factor), breaking the assessment down into two key categories:

  • Asset-based risk is a function of the risk of terrorism to potential targets within a geographic area. It accounts for the combined risks associated with the various types of assets within the “footprint” of each individual grant candidate.
  • Geographically-based risk is derived from certain prevailing attributes or characteristics intrinsic to a geographical area that may contribute to its risk of terrorism.

The risk paper contains decision trees for each of these two types of risks, one of which is available at this link.

These frameworks and definitions are a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge on threat and risk assessment, and should be looked at closely by others engaged on these difficult topics.

One question that these documents don’t answer is how Las Vegas was considered to be not high risk and put it on the “cut-off list” for grant funding. In fact, in several places the documents reinforce the contention that Las Vegas’ priority on the list should have increased. For example, the methodology paper is clear that hotel casinos are one of the 38 asset types examined. And the FAQ notes the following change to the methodology from the previous year:

Including data on transient populations (e.g., tourists, business visitors, and commuters).

There are 125,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, i.e. at least 200,000 people visiting from out of town at any given point in time.

I believe strongly that these grant processes should be neutral and depoliticized, but this is clearly a case where the model didn’t work, and an adjustment should be made.

January 29, 2006

A close look at homeland security grant spending

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 29, 2006

I’ve read far too many news stories in the last month, from newspapers around the country, with the same theme: why aren’t we getting more homeland security money from the feds? (Here’s the latest example of the genre.)

Given this, it’s great to see The Modesto Bee publishing a well-researched story this weekend that goes beyond this familiar whine and examines homeland security grant funding in six California counties since 9/11, looking both at how much they have received and what they’ve done with their money. The story paints a complex picture of the homeland security grant process, and highlights a range of viewpoints, including (paraphrased):

  • “We’ve bought things we don’t need, but can’t afford to put more cops on the beat.”
  • “We’re now communicating a lot better between agencies because of the grant process.”
  • “We’re worried about the effects of a cut in our funding.”
  • “Our biggest threat is floods, not natural disasters.”

My key takeaway from this cacophony of opinion is that any homeland security grant program is going to be naturally imperfect, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The alternative to the reality described in the article is either a top-down system where the federal government buys everything for the state and local governments, or a system where they’re left to fend for themselves. A middle course between these two extremes is going to be inefficient sometimes, leading to some wasteful purchases and local uncertainty, but it’s better than these other paths.

The article also makes a good point about the provisions for administrative costs in the grant programs:

Another gripe of local planners is homeland security’s 3 percent allowance for administrative costs. Gary Hinshaw, who heads emergency services for Stanislaus County, said administering the grants — from purchasing and ordering to distribution and keeping inventories — easily chews up more than 10 percent of the total funds awarded.

Yet, because the grants change from year to year, and because there is no guarantee how long homeland security funds will last, it’s difficult to justify hiring people to help administer the grants. Instead, Hinshaw said, what happens is the job falls into the hands of county purchasers and administrators already stretched thin by tight budgets. The situation is even harder on smaller counties like Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa.

DHS should work to try to give state and local governments multi-year guidance on grant funding, to overcome this administrative challenge. And at some point, it might make sense to move the funding for these grant programs out of the appropriations process and make them a fee-funded activity (similar to transportation funding.)

Katrina documents highlight National Response Plan role

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on January 29, 2006

The AP reported Sunday on new Katrina-related documents released by the Senate HSGAC in the course of its investigation. The documents detail the offer of assistance to FEMA from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the response:

Responding to a questionnaire posed by investigators, Interior Department Assistant Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett said her agency offered to supply FEMA with 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft and 400 law enforcement officers to help search and rescue efforts.

“Although the department possesses significant resources that could have improved initial and ongoing response, many of these resources were not effectively incorporated into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina,” Scarlett wrote in the response, dated Nov. 7.

Scarlett added: “Although we attempted to provide these assets through the process established by the [National Response Plan], we were unable to efficiently integrate and deploy those resources.”

At one point, Scarlett’s letter said, FEMA asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to help with search and rescue in New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and St. Tammany Parish but that the rescuers “never received task assignments.” The agency, a branch of the Interior Department, apparently went ahead anyway, according to the letter, which said that Fish and Wildlife helped rescue 4,500 people in the first week after Katrina.

Other Interior Department resources that were offered, but unused, included flat-bottom boats for shallow-water rescues. “Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant in the post-Katrina environment,” Scarlett wrote.

This article highlights what seems to be emerging as one of the key lessons of Katrina: the limitations of the National Response Plan, and by extension any other planning process that is top-down in its execution. This same story seems to have repeated itself dozens of time during the Katrina response: other public or private entities trying to help, and stymied by FEMA as an overwhelmed and nonresponsive bottleneck.

The reality seems to be that top-down response systems can work in limited-scale disasters, but can be overwhelmed by catastrophic disasters. Given this reality, I think there needs to be a shift toward decentralized and networked planning processes. Pre-approved participants could make their own decisions about how to allocate and use their resources during a crisis, guided not by a top-down, formal process, but using networked tools that provide real-time information on resources and needs, and backed by training regimens that focus on how to make decisions in an environment of limited information. This isn’t a foreign concept to the US government; in fact, it’s very similar to the military doctrine of net-centric warfare. This doctrine can and should inform the development of future response capabilities.

There are some potential drawbacks to this approach; for example, if the “network” failed, you could see two groups providing resources in one region and another region ignored. But inaction in this example is always a worse outcome than duplicative effort. Perhaps this is not the best approach for minor and less time-sensitive response situations, but in extreme catastrophic situations that no single institution can hope to manage, a new model is needed.

Update (1/30): The New York Times’ take on the story.

Ferry security in the Pacific Northwest

Filed under: Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on January 29, 2006

The publication Canadian Sailings has an interesting story that compares security in the British Columbia and Washington state ferry systems, the two largest ferry services in North America:

North America’s largest ferry operator does something a near neighbour forbids. It allows baggage to be put aboard vessels that may carry up to 2,100 people without checking to see that someone is travelling with it.

Baggage can be left at terminal drop-offs and British Columbia Ferry Services loads it onto carts that ride on the main vehicle decks of major ferries, just above the engines, to be picked up at the vessel’s destination. It is all done on trust and BC Ferries won’t talk about the security risks.

Washington State Ferries, which has the second largest ferry fleet on the continent, does not accept unaccompanied baggage, as part of a post-9/11 tightening of security.

A potentially greater risk both ferry operators face is that someone of suicidal bent, perhaps eager for the 74 virgins promised Islamic fanatics who kill infidels, can drive aboard with a van packed with an explosive mix of nitrogen fertilizer and diesel oil (bulky, but easy to acquire). And then, Boom!

And here again, Washington State Ferries is more vigilant than its B.C. counterpart, routinely deploying bomb-sniffing dogs to inspect vehicles….

The article goes on to compare other security measures undertaken by the two ferry services, such as:

  • Training exercises to enhance preparedness.
  • Vehicle screening.
  • Improved surveillance, lighting, and fencing.

The story also raises the issue of whether Washington State Ferries is using TSA VIPER teams, a fact denied by a ferry service spokeswoman.

There have been solid gains in the security of the nation’s key ferry systems in the last few years, although there is room for improvement. Additional resources could help, and DHS should consider funding research to develop new technologies that could quickly screen vehicles for explosives. An attack on a ferry could have serious consequences; it’s worth remembering that the explosives in the trunk of Ahmed Ressam might have sunk the BC ferry on which he traveled before he was caught in Port Angeles, WA on his way to try to attack LAX as part of the Millennium Plot.

For more on this issue, see the Washington State Ferries’ webpage on their security measures.

January 28, 2006

White House meets with Katrina investigators

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on January 28, 2006

Following criticism earlier in the week from members of Congress that the White House has been dragging its feet in responding to requests for information by the congressional Katrina investigators, a meeting was held yesterday at the White House with Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Kenneth Rapuano. The New York Times reports on the meeting:

The White House was beset by the “fog of war” in the crucial days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, leaving it unable to respond properly to the unfolding catastrophe, House investigators said Friday after getting the most detailed briefing yet on how President Bush’s staff had handled the events.

The article goes on to detail the timeline by which the White House received information about levee breaks in New Orleans.

The article also notes:

With the House not yet in session, only one lawmaker from the investigative committee — its chairman, Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia — was present for the briefing. Mr. Rapuano told him and the staff investigators that the White House role had been to monitor the situation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, were operationally in charge, he said.

It’s disappointing that more members of Congress were unable or unwilling to cut their vacations short and return to DC for this important meeting.

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