Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 29, 2007

Tough Act to Follow

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS,Technology for HLS — by Jonah Czerwinski on January 29, 2007

When Christian Beckner unplugged from Homeland Security Watch, which he created and led, he called on some of us to maintain the blog. His are big shoes to fill. My name is Jonah Czerwinski and I will be one of the many required to pick up where Christian left off. More about my background will follow shortly. In the meantime, on with the Watch:

House Homeland Chairman Outlines Committee Priorities

During a luncheon discussion today Congressman Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, offered a glimpse of what will populate his Committee’s agenda for the 110th. Jointly hosted by the Homeland Security Policy Institute and The Aspen Institute , the luncheon was an opportunity for Chairman Thompson to introduce what he calls a “Real Deal for Homeland Security.” His prepared remarks can now be found on the Committee website, but there are some points he highlighted – and even added – during his delivery before a few dozen HLS wonks:

Mass transit. Chairman Thompson said to look for legislation next month aimed at strengthening mass transit security. In his remarks, he listed a few demands that legislation will likely include: vulnerability assessments, information sharing measures, and security training programs, among others.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita represent a failure that should never be repeated, he said, but they also revealed equities that need better Congressional support. He called out the National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard for special attention and suggested the two need better federal support. The USCG Deepwater Project must be fully funded. That was not in the prepared remarks.

FEMA reorganization is unfinished. Chairman Thompson characterized efforts to reorient FEMA as insufficient. The audience was given the impression that current plans fall short of a solution to prevent the kind of under-performance witnessed in the Gulf Coast.

Other aspects of the Department are due for “aggressive oversight.” The Chairman identified both the DHS Management and S&T Directorates as needing scrutiny in three areas: leadership, mission, and accounting. Both the House Homeland Security and House Science Committees are preparing for a hearing on S&T after the President’s budget is released next month.

The Chairman called out Biowatch by name. This is the program that deploys detectors to provide early warning of an intentionally introduced pathogen. According to today’s remarks, Biowatch can expect renewed scrutiny.

While it was not in his prepared remarks, Chairman Thomson pointed out during his comments the lack of screening for air cargo and suggested that his Committee would seek measures aimed providing some kind of visibility into the contents of cargo placed on passenger planes. He also noted that sea-borne cargo (“anything entering our ports”) must be subject to better screening. It was unclear if his call for transparency was intended to support 100% radiography screening of shipping container bound for the U.S. His prepared speech made no mention of ports or screening.

DHS contracting accountability made the list. The Chairman named both the Secure Border Initiative (SBI Net) and US-VISIT as likely targets of oversight. He directly questioned the use of a “border fence” to manage immigration and security needs.

“Secure Borders, Open Doors” Makes Progress, Sets Goals, Requests Input

That leads into another message today that Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, circulated through an email to outline measures intended to improve visa processing under the joint State Department-DHS “Secure Borders, Open Doors” policy. Her message as I received it today (bold emphasis added, immaterial language snipped):

January 29, 2007

SUBJECT: A Message from Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, regarding Improvements to U.S. Visa Processing

The United States is one of the most open and engaged societies on Earth, maintaining vibrant family, commercial and educational links with peoples and countries across the globe. As a leader in the travel industry, you fully appreciate the national economic impact of international visitors. Foreign travelers contribute almost $105 billion annually to the American economy; international students account for an additional $13 billion.


Our task is to vigilantly protect U.S. border security and at the same time to maintain America’s openness to legitimate travelers – a policy we call “Secure Borders, Open Doors.” Working closely with the international business and travel community, academic groups, and other stakeholders, we have introduced features designed to streamline visa processing. Recent improvements include:

* An electronic visa application form, which reduces errors, eliminates duplicative data-entry, and so increases the number of applicants each office can interview daily;

* All consular offices post their visa appointment wait times on-line, so travelers can plan accordingly;

* We give scheduling and processing priority to students and urgent business travelers;

* We have added 570 consular positions worldwide, and are transferring some positions to ensure that workloads are evenly distributed;

* We are making significant investment in technology to speed processing and improve data sharing with other government agencies.

I am pleased to say that these efforts have produced results. In Fiscal Year 2006, overall nonimmigrant visa issuance rose 8% over the previous year. Business/tourist visa issuance rose 12% worldwide, and student visa issuances were up 14%. Processing delays have been cut dramatically: 98% of qualified visa applicants are approved within two days of their visa interview. We have “turned the corner” and will continue our efforts in this positive direction.

Meanwhile, visa demand is surging, especially in key emerging travel markets such as China, India and Brazil. Adding more staff and more resources are part of the answer; we are also piloting creative new approaches, leveraging technology and proven best business practices, to meet this challenge. Over the next two years we plan to introduce a variety of enhancements, including:

* A start-to-finish all-electronic visa process;

* A centralized visa appointment management system that will ensure that over 90% of requests for visa appointments can be handled within 30 business days;

* Technological innovations including remote data collection and interview via digital videoconference.

As we implement our plans, we genuinely welcome suggestions and comments from private sector stakeholders. At the same time, we depend on you and others in the private sector to help spread the word that the U.S. welcomes international visitors and that the visa application process is not a daunting ordeal, as it is sometimes still depicted in the press. News media are quick to report negative stories – many of which recycle complaints about problems that have long since been addressed and solved, or describe increasingly rare instances of long waits for visa approval.

We believe our efforts are striking the right balance between security and openness. The Bureau of Consular Affairs is committed to working with the international business and travel community to maintain and enhance our welcome to legitimate travelers. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Maura Harty
Assistant Secretary
Bureau for Consular Affairs
Department of State
Washington, DC

More To Come

My posts on Homeland Security Watch will focus on organizational challenges, WMD issues, international aspects of homeland security, and developments that relate to the homeland security marketspace. Expect me to veer from this pretty regularly if I can. I’ll also make an effort to share useful materials pertaining to these and other issue areas as often as possible.

Final Note: I join Christian in thanking all the readers of Homeland Security Watch. Please keep up with this site as I’ll be joined by other contributors posting regularly. And, naturally, your comments are always greatly valued.

January 19, 2007

A goodbye to Homeland Security Watch

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 19, 2007

When I started this blog 14 months ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought there was a need for a site like this to bring together different parts of the professional homeland security community. And I had just learned that my employer, IBM, allowed employees to create and develop blogs, consistent with the company’s corporate guidelines. So I dove in, figured out how to create a site (first on blogspot, then directly at hlswatch.com), and started posting.

1,238 posts and 1.3 million hits later, I need to end my active involvement with this site, effective immediately. The reason: I’ve given a notice of separation to IBM and have accepted a job offer to join the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman. I feel honored to have an opportunity to join the staff of this committee, which sets a very high standard for solid work and bipartisan spirit in the U.S. Congress. I’m looking forward to getting into the trenches and working on the same range of critically important homeland security issues that I’ve written about here.

As for this site, I hope that I can pass it off to people who want to carry it forward – ideally multiple contributors – and am working on this already. If anyone reading is interested in this opportunity, drop me a line to hlswatch@gmail.com. I’m also willing to consider other types of proposals regarding the site. In the meantime, the links to other homeland security blogs and sites are still there on the right-hand column.

To my loyal readers, I appreciate your visits and participation at Homeland Security Watch over the past 14 months. If you have any final feedback or comments about the site, or just want to stay in touch, drop me a line. And to those who have supported my efforts by exposing the site to a wider audience (especially Noah) and/or providing me with tips, I owe you a serious debt of gratitude.

Overall, it’s been a rewarding experience to create and develop this blog. I’ve learned a lot in the course of working on it; daily blogging is a powerful form of self-discipline, one that has forced me to stay current and read reports more closely than I had previously. I think, in a small way, it’s played a positive role in homeland security policy, bridging the gap between the political domain and the policy/academic domain. And I’ve tried to adhere to the goals that I set for myself when I created the site – that it be non-partisan, and that its judgments be driven by rigorous, practical assessments of threats, risks, effects, costs, and values – and except for the occasional ill-considered post, I think that by and large I’ve succeeded in achieving these goals.

Thanks for stopping by,

Christian Beckner

Update (1/20): After some recruiting yesterday, I think I have a few solid folks lined up to become occasional contributors. They’ll be introducing themselves in the days and weeks ahead. I still would like to get a few more, however. Bottom line to readers: come back here soon…

January 9, 2007

CRS tallies up homeland security grants

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

In late December the Congressional Research Service released an excellent, detailed synopsis of homeland security grants over the past four years:

RL33770: Department of Homeland Security Grants to State and Local Governments: FY2003 to FY2006. December 22, 2006

The first one-third of the report describes each of the relevant grant programs (e.g. State Homeland Security Grant Program, Urban Area Security Initiative) and how their rules and conditions have evolved over the past four years. The last two-thirds of the report contain forty pages of statistics on the disbursement of homeland security grants over this time period, an invaluable set of statistics for researchers that I don’t think have been collated in one place until now. By using these statistics, it’s possible to make appropriate comparisons of grant allocations between states and/or from year-to-year, as inputs into statistically-sound policy analyses of the grant programs.

9/11 Commission bill passes the House

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

The House bill H.R. 1 on the implementation of 9/11 Commission recommendations passed the House today by a 299-128 vote, with all Democrats and 68 Republicans voting for the bill. The AP reports on the bill’s passage:

Anti-terror legislation sailed through the House on Tuesday, the first in a string of measures designed to fulfill campaign promises made by Democrats last fall.

Patterned on recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, the far-reaching measure includes commitments for inspection of all cargo carried aboard passenger aircraft and on ships bound for the United States.

Several Republicans criticized the legislation as little more than political posturing in the early hours of a new Democratic-controlled Congress. Democrats want to “look aggressive on homeland security. This bill will waste billions of dollars, and possibly harm homeland security by gumming up progress already under way,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.

In a written statement, the Bush administration listed several objections and said it could not support the measure as drafted, but stopped short of a veto threat.

For more info, see this Washington Post story and this Reuters piece.

Dueling think tank studies on the 9/11 recs

Filed under: Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

DC’s think tanks have stepped up to the challenge of analyzing the idea of implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations in the past few days. P.J. Crowley from the Center for American Progress released a report yesterday entitled “14 Steps in 2007 to Further Implement the 9/11 Commission Recommendations.” In the report, Crowley discusses potential work that Congress should do to implement the recommendations, making fourteen specific proposals, each of which is discussed in greater detail in the report:

  1. Change organizational cultures to improve interoperability.
  2. Increase funding for homeland security grants.
  3. Determine which infrastructure is actually critical.
  4. Reconsider and strengthen comprehensive chemical security regulation.
  5. Establish a long-term terrorism risk insurance program.
  6. Create market-based private sector preparedness incentives.
  7. Accelerate deployment of in-line passenger luggage and air cargo screening.
  8. Strengthen air cargo supply chain security.
  9. Field more border agents with better technology.
  10. Strengthen oversight of individual automated tracking system.
  11. Develop real-time verification of Social Security numbers.
  12. Add Deputy DNI for Domestic Intelligence.
  13. Create COPS II program to improve local intelligence capabilities.
  14. Deploy a real-time urban detection system.

Taking a different viewpoint, Jim Carafano from the Heritage Foundation released a WebMemo today entitled “100-Hours Homeland Security Bill Not Ready for Prime Time.” He writes:

The bill, a part of the new congressional majority’s “100-Hours” agenda, does far less than its title implies. For the most part, its new measures are not terribly useful, and what is useful in the proposed law is not terribly new: a restatement of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, a gloss on existing requirements and ongoing government initiatives and programs, and demands for more reporting. Rushing the bill to a vote without hearings or floor debate has resulted in a flawed proposal. To avoid damaging U.S. homeland security operations and wasting taxpayers’ money, Congress should strip the most troubling provisions from this legislation.

The remainder of memo criticizes sections of the bill related to homeland security grant programs, cargo screening, and the Proliferation Security Initiative.

The 2007 HLS agenda in Australia

Filed under: International HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

The Australian Homeland Security Research Centre released a short report within the last week entitled “2007 Trends for Homeland Security in Australia,” a document that is interesting both in terms of understanding current issues in that country, and also as a contrast to the current American homeland security agenda.

The Centre has also published a number of other interesting reports which are also worth browsing.

DHS announces infrastructure grants

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

DHS released a document today that provides an overview of the FY 2007 infrastructure grant programs at DHS, covering five distinct programs for port security, transit security, truck security, bus security, and buffer zone protection. As was the case with last week’s urban area grants, the port and transit grants allocations are broken up into distinct risk tiers, within which “Tier 1” high-risk areas will receive approx. 83% of the transit security funding and 60% of the port security funding. Looking at the document, it appears that nearly every Tier 1 transit system or port will receive a significant increase in funding, with the exception of the Louisiana ports. The San Francisco Bay Area ports are up for an especially large increase, from $1.2 million in FY06 to $11.2 million in FY07, a decision that reverses what was a drastic cut in 2006.

Within these programs, Tier 2, 3, or 4 transit systems and ports will have to compete for their allocations from smaller fixed pools of funds. This could lead to cities that were likely on the borderline between Tier 1 and Tier 2 having lower levels of grant funding in 2007, e.g. Seattle’s transit system and the Ports of Baltimore and Charleston.

DHS deserves strong kudos for releasing this document in January, relatively early in fiscal year 2007. By comparison, in FY 2006 this document was not released until the very last week of the fiscal year, a delay that was detrimental to the ability of these transportation systems to manage security activities. Hopefully this is a sign of an better-managed grants process at DHS.

I’ll add a link to the transcript of the press conference announcing these grants when it becomes available.

Update (1/10): The transcript of the press conference is available here. And detailed guidance documents on the port security and transit security grant programs are available here.

Senate 9/11 Commission hearing: testimony online

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

The testimony of the witnesses at today’s hearing in the Senate on the 9/11 Commission recommendations is now online here, including that of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, 9/11 Commissioners Slade Gorton, Lee Hamilton, and Tim Roemer, and 9/11 relatives Carol Ashley, Mary Fetchet, and Carie Lemack. Collectively, they provide a very solid synopsis of the priority areas for the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.

Some TSA screening humor

Filed under: Aviation Security,Humor — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

The New York Times ran a story last week making light fun of certain aviation screening rules (hat tip: Wonkette), one which described some of TSA’s more bizarre screening rules, including rules for snowglobes and most notably, helper monkeys:

Like dogs, some specially trained monkeys are classified as service animals to assist handicapped people. But you really have to wonder if these sample sentences — from the security administration’s rules for how transportation security officers at walk-through metal detectors should handle monkeys — were written with a straight face:

“When the handler and the monkey go through the W.T.M.D. and the W.T.M.D. alarms, both the handler and the monkey must undergo additional screening.” The rules add that security officers “have been trained not to touch the monkey during the screening process” and that “the inspection process may require that the handler take off the monkey’s diaper as part of the visual inspection.”

January 8, 2007

9/11 Commission bill: the mud starts flying

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 8, 2007

The House of Representatives is set to take up Democratic-sponsored legislation to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations tomorrow, and a war of words has broken out in the last few days regarding the legislation. The Republican staff of the House Homeland Security Committee issued a report today attacking the legislation, and House Democratic leaders defended against the charges in the report at a news conference today, as noted in this GovExec piece.

I’ve strongly and consistently supported the imperative for comprehensive efforts to adopt the 9/11 Commission recommendations over the last 2 1/2 years, consistent with the words of Commissioner John Lehman in August 2004:

“Our recommendations are not a Chinese menu,” Lehman said. “They are a whole system. If all of the important elements are not adopted, it makes it very difficult for the others to succeed.”

In particular, I’ve been disappointed so far with the lack of attention given to the reform of homeland security oversight (an issue that I’ve focused on for a long time) at the start of the 110th Congress.

But instead of focusing on these issues of principle, the Republican report engages in a series of misleading political attacks and cheap shots, taking a number of votes out of context and bringing up issues that the 9/11 Commission never discussed. For example, the Republican report says:

It is interesting to note that while the Democrats have proposed a multi-billion dollar grant program for interoperability, every single House Democrat failed to support an almost identical Republican initiative in the 109th Congress. The 2005 Budget Reconciliation included a $1 billion dollar grant program specifically for interoperability and emergency communications – yet 200 Democrats voted against both the House bill (H.R. 4241, Roll Call #601) and the Conference Report (S. 1932, Roll Call #670). Despite Democrat opposition, the measure passed and will provide $1 billion in interoperability grants to first responders this year.

H.R. 4241 and S. 1932 were a budget reconciliation bill which contained provisions to cut Medicaid and student loan programs, measures strongly opposed by Democrats. And the bills did not “provide $1 billion in interoperability grants to first responders this year” per se; instead, they authorized up to $1 billion over five years from the Digital TV Transition and Public Safety Fund.

And then there’s this:

Not only did every single House Democrat vote against making the Committee on Homeland Security at the beginning of the 109th Congress….

This is even more misleading. Democrats voted against a Republican-sponsored rules package that weakened ethics provisions to protect Tom Delay, a bill which happened to include a non-controversial section that made the Committee on Homeland Security permanent.

And one final misleading passage in the Republican report:

The 9/11 Commission stated, “The Real ID Act has established standards for state-issued IDs acceptable for federal purposes, though states’ compliance needs to be closely monitored.”

The 9/11 Commission never said a word about the Real ID Act, since it went out of existence five months prior to the debate over the Real ID Act. Perhaps the report meant to reference the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, but that’s a distinct entity from the 9/11 Commission.

I could go on, but that’s not the main point. The main thing is that homeland security is too important to be used for cheap shots and treated as a political football. We need a reasoned, serious policy discourse from both parties on these core issues of security, consistent with the deliberative, bipartisan spirit of the 9/11 Commission.

Border fencing: questions on cost

Filed under: Border Security — by Christian Beckner on January 8, 2007

A story in the San Francisco Chronicle today examines a recent Congressional Research Service report on border security, the first version of which was published on this site back in October. An updated version of the CRS report was released in December, and this is what the Chronicle reporter examines:

The cost of building and maintaining a double set of steel fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border could be five to 25 times greater than congressional leaders forecast last year, or as much as $49 billion over the expected 25-year life span of the fence, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

A little-noticed study the research service released in December notes that even the $49 billion does not include the expense of acquiring private land along hundreds of miles of border or the cost of labor if the job is done by private contractors — both of which could drive the price billions of dollars higher.

….The Dec. 12, 2006, nonpartisan congressional report said the corps predicted that the combined cost of building and maintaining the fence over a 25-year life cycle would range from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile, depending on how heavily and how often the fence is damaged by would-be border jumpers. At $70 million per mile, a 700-mile fence would cost $49 billion.

I’ve written repeatedly on this site about the dangers of cost inflation on border fence proposals, out of concern for a political “bait-and-switch” where the costs of fencing are initially lowballed as a means to gain public acceptance. At the same time, I think that fencing has an appropriate role in the border security system if it can be priced appropriately, and negative symbolism aside, is potentially a more cost-effective way to secure the border than other current proposals.

Ultimately, however, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the potential costs of a border fence, creating a gap in the political debate on this issue. This CRS report is a useful synthesis of existing information, but it relies heavily on a ten-year old report from the Army Corps of Engineers, many assumptions of which are highly uncertain (note the wide variation in the estimates in the excerpt above) and seem to be outdated, e.g. the cost assumptions in the report are based on proposals for short border fence segments, and don’t seem to account for the possibility of economies of scale in projects.

To remedy this gap, DHS should commission and publish a neutral study on the costs of border fencing – and/or publish any existing work on this topic that it has at hand. There’s too much uncertainty in the debate today on the costs of border fencing, making for a slippery political debate on the topic.

The value of false alarms

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on January 8, 2007

On Sunday, in an incident at the Port of Miami, three men of Middle Eastern origin were briefly arrested following an encounter at a checkpoint that included the failure of the driver to reveal that two additional men were in the truck. Charges were dropped against them today. Today, a smell resembling that of natural gas permeated Manhattan, prompting early concerns about a terror-related chemical attack, and overloading the city’s emergency communications system. Although the source of the odor has not yet been determined, officials are confident that the incident was not harmful and not related to terrorism. And then this afternoon, again at the Port of Miami, a pallet that was to be loaded on a cruise ship tested positive for plastic explosives; upon further examination, the pallet contained sprinkler system parts.

These three incidents were all headline stories on the cable news channels over the past 24 hours. Each incident clearly raised local anxieties during the span of time between awareness and resolution. And each incident served as a valuable exercise for the officials involved, forcing them to utilize the procedures and protocols that are applicable in the detection of and response to terrorist acts.

Overall, the responses seem to have been well-executed today, a tribute to the federal, state and local officials in Florida, New York, and New Jersey who were involved with these incidents. It’s true that the exact source of the New York “odor” has not yet been determined, but emergency management officials acted quickly to determine that it posed no imminent threat and encourage the general public to stay calm.

As long as we face threats to our security, these types of “false alarms” will occur with regularity. Such is the nature of our systems of prevention and detection that false alarms and false positives are inevitable in many circumstances. There’s always a risk that false alarms will lead to a “boy who cried wolf” complacency, but overall, such incidents are ultimately valuable as a tool to get people prepared for the real thing, in a way that even the most sophisticated TOPOFF exercise can’t match.

January 6, 2007

Chemical security: the case for action

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on January 6, 2007

GovExec has an excellent story in its latest issue that looks at the chemical plant security threat, and describes the conditions that create the imperatives for strong government action in the sector. This is an issue that I’ve written about extensively on this site over the past year, consistent with the arguments put forward in this piece. There’s not much new in the story, but it serves as a useful reminder of why vigorous enforcement by DHS, and strengthened legislation by Congress, is necessary to protect Americans against these real threats.

House 9/11 Commission bill now online

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 6, 2007

The legislation that the House Democratic leadership intends to bring to the floor this coming Tuesday, H.R. 1, regarding the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, is now available online at Thomas:

Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007

It’s also available in PDF format at this link.

For more on this issue, see my report and a CRS report, both from early December, on the implementation of these recommendations.

January 5, 2007

HLS in DC, Jan. 8-12, 2007

Filed under: Events — by Christian Beckner on January 5, 2007

Below is a list of homeland security policy events in the DC area next week (as well as the occasional listing outside of DC). Please note that many events require prior invitations and/or RSVPs.

1/8: AEI event on “Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States.” 1150 17th St NW, 1pm.
1/9-1/11: DHS Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization’s EAGLE Prime Contractor Vendor Outreach Session. Holiday Inn Capitol, 555 C St SW.
1/9: Center for American Progress event with Richard Clarke on “After Iraq: The Next Steps in the ‘War on Terror’.” 1333 H St NW, 10th Floor, 9am.
1/9: Senate HSGAC hearing on “Ensuring Full Implementation of the 9/11 Commission’s Recommendations.” Dirksen 342, 9:30am.
1/10-1/11: CES Government 2007. Las Vegas.
1/10: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Balancing Privacy and Security: The Privacy Implications of Government Data Mining Programs.” Dirksen 226, 9:30am.
1/11-1/12: Hospitals on the Frontline conference. Leavey Conference Center, Georgetown U.
1/11: Homeland Security Advisory Council meeting. Hyatt Regency Washington, 400 New Jersey Ave NW, 11:15am.

(Please e-mail me if you have suggestions about additions to this list for this week, or future weeks).

Puzzles vs. mysteries in intelligence

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christian Beckner on January 5, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell (the author of The Tipping Point and Blink) has an excellent article in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. The piece is primarily focused on the downfall of Enron, but it also includes some interesting passages that are thought-provoking in terms of intelligence, homeland security and counterterrorism:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11th a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You’d want to send the counterterrorism team from the C.I.A. on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

….That same transformation is happening in the intelligence world as well. During the Cold War, the broad context of our relationship with the Soviet bloc was stable and predictable. What we didn’t know was details. As Gregory Treverton, who was a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council, writes in his book “Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information:”

Then the pressing questions that preoccupied intelligence were puzzles, ones that could, in principle, have been answered definitively if only the information had been available: How big was the Soviet economy? How many missiles did the Soviet Union have? Had it launched a “bolt from the blue” attack? These puzzles were intelligence’s stock-in-trade during the Cold War.

With the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Treverton and others have argued that the situation facing the intelligence community has turned upside down. Now most of the world is open, not closed. Intelligence officers aren’t dependent on scraps from spies. They are inundated with information. Solving puzzles remains critical: we still want to know precisely where Osama bin Laden is hiding, where North Korea’s nuclear-weapons facilities are situated. But mysteries increasingly take center stage. The stable and predictable divisions of East and West have been shattered. Now the task of the intelligence analyst is to help policymakers navigate the disorder. Several years ago, Admiral Bobby R. Inman was asked by a congressional commission what changes he thought would strengthen America’s intelligence system. Inman used to head the National Security Agency, the nation’s premier puzzle-solving authority, and was once the deputy director of the C.I.A. He was the embodiment of the Cold War intelligence structure. His answer: revive the State Department, the one part of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that isn’t considered to be in the intelligence business at all. In a post-Cold War world of “openly available information,” Inman said, “what you need are observers with language ability, with understanding of the religions, cultures of the countries they’re observing.” Inman thought we needed fewer spies and more slightly batty geniuses.

These passages raise a critical question: is the US intelligence community still expending too much effort trying to solve “puzzles,” and not enough at uncovering “mysteries”? The massive emphasis within the intelligence community budget on the raw collection of SIGINT, ELINT, MASINT, etc. seems to support that contention. Does this distinction explain many of the notable intelligence failures (e.g. WMD’s in Iraq) in the past decade? And what should the intelligence community be doing to get better at solving “mysteries”? The aforementioned “batty geniuses” are part of the equation, but so are new collaborative tools, such as Intellipedia, to synthesize information and discover new insights.

For more on this topic, check out the book that Gladwell references in the article, Gregory Treverton’s “Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information”.

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