Here is a picture of the United States at night.
Imagine what you are seeing is a portrait of the nation’s homeland security strategy. Each node and link represents the result of local decisions based on locally important conditions. No one planned the entire system. It emerged.
This imaginary homeland security strategy would be connected — like the nation’s electric grid — in a way that is both effective and vulnerable. Some parts of the system are more significant than others. The entire system can be improved. But it does work.
The picture of the United States at night illustrates the pragmatist triumph of what is over the planner’s dream of what should be.
I am in favor of dreams. But while people continue to dream about possible homeland security futures, there are opportunities to help homeland security evolve now into a future that is unknowable today, but uniquely appropriate when we discover it.
How was your week?
Certainly no one intended that a document called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” would have the national impact it has had this week. Everyone can, however, chose how to interpret what happened, what it means to homeland security, and what to do next.
Looking through my rose colored glasses, this incident (and similar ones recently in Virginia and Missouri) can be seen as natural experiments. They are probes into the question of how much information — and in what form — public safety officials can trust the American people to have. The incidents provide an opportunity to improve information sharing in homeland security.
David Snowden has been writing about this kind of problem – how to make sense of the world so we can act effectively in it — for many years. Snowden makes a distinction between idealist and naturalistic ways of making sense out of possibilities.
“In the idealistic approach, … leaders … set out an ideal future state that they wish to achieve, identify the gap between the ideal and their perception of the present, and seek to close it.”
This approach is commonly characterized as gap analysis. For example, from a homeland security perspective, where do we want to be in the next 5 to 10 years? Where are we now? How do we close the gap?
Or to use this week’s example, how should analysts think and write about potential threats, and how should they share that information? How are they doing it now? If there’s a gap — or possibly a cavern — how do we close it?
In my experience, gap analysis tends to work best when the goal is clear, attainable and fairly stable. The jury is still out with respect to which homeland security goals meet this test.
In contrast to focusing on gaps, says Snowden, “[n]aturalistic approaches … seek to understand a sufficiency of the present in order to act to stimulate evolution of the system.” (I had to read that sentence several times before I understood it.)
“Once such stimulation is made, monitoring of emergent patterns becomes a critical activity so that desired patterns can be supported and undesired patterns disrupted. The [system] thus evolves to a future that was unknowable in advance, but is more contextually appropriate when discovered.” (I worked on that one for awhile also.)
The development of fusions centers illustrates the naturalistic approach. It used to be true – and maybe still is – that if you’ve see one fusion center you’ve seen one fusion center. There’s a reason for that.
States and cities developed fusion centers ad hoc to integrate information from many sources. There was no national plan to do this. Like the electric grid, fusion centers emerged. At some point in their evolution people who cared about fusion centers suggested standard approaches to the way centers worked. The national government got involved, not as the boss, but as a partner. There is now a continuing dynamic between applying national guidelines and allowing centers to further evolve in locally appropriate ways. There still is no master plan.
From “need to share” to “need to think twice.”
The jeremiad over the release of intelligence assessments (from DHS, Missouri, and Virginia) highlights the potential usefulness of the naturalistic approach. In the “so what” part of his formulation, Snowden suggests desired patterns can be supported and undesirable patterns can be disrupted.
So what are the undesirable patterns in the recent unintentional information sharing experiments that should be disrupted? What are the desirable patterns to be supported? And who’s going to do the supporting and the disrupting?
Some candidate patterns derived from this week’s eFury?:
- The 9/11 Report called for a shift from a “need to know” to a “need to share” culture. But a 140 character twitter culture has little ability to perceive nuance or context.
- Strategic intelligence assessments are being written and shared with public safety officials. But some recipients of analyses do not respect the FOUO/LES designation.
- Officials responsible for preventing terrorism are speculating about where threats might come from. But officials use language that might be upsetting to people on the right, on the left, or on some other dimension, or whose job depends on the support of people in those categories.
- Anyone opposed to big government is a potential terrorist threat. But the loyalties of people who are unhappy about the 2008 election has shifted to state governments and away from the federal government.
- The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. But we do not need to believe that Obama’s election is being used as a recruitment tool by hate groups.
- “To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical ‘disgruntled military veteran’ is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam.” But one man who happened to be an army veteran did murder 168 people 14 years ago (this Sunday). Does that mean another veteran will never do something equally horrendous? Is there even a way to talk about this possibility?
- DHS is still playing from the Bush fear handbook. But some people have woken up from an 8 year sleep and now believe that words and rights matter.
- Leftists who are really good at using computers are somehow not as upset as they should be about the threat DHS says they represent, in an earlier assessment. They are not upset because while Obama may not be a Muslim, he is a socialist so leftists don’t need to worry.
How is anyone to make sense out of the electronic cacophony?
Snowden’s response would likely be to not waste time developing a plan to address this question, but to “instead manage the evolutionary potential of the present” by creating – or in this case using – safe-fail (as opposed to fail safe) experiments.
Ideas about how one might do that — specifically how one might use this situation as an opportunity to evolve the information and intelligence sharing system for the benefit of the entire homeland security enterprise – are described here and here and in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article called A Leader’s Framework For Decision Making (The article is behind the HBR paywall, but the abstract is here.)
There is another obvious dimension to the intelligence assessment issue. My thoughts go to the analyst(s) author(s) of the various released documents. If “unemployment doth make cowards of us all,” what must they be thinking these days? What happens to their careers? What happens to their willingness to use their best judgments in the future to help protect the nation? What chances will they take next time they see something that might connect one dot to another dot whose political palatability may be suspect? Will they tell anyone about their hunches or keep them quiet?
An ideal or a natural strategy?
I suspect one day there will be a new national strategy for homeland security. It will be appropriately researched, staffed, briefed, and signed off by key stakeholders. There will be many PowerPoint slides. But when it comes back from the publisher and starts making its way around the internet and into agencies and states and cities and homes, what will the nation actually have? What difference will it make?
What if – and this is the dream part — we saved the time and resources creating such a strategy would require, and use them to do something else? What if, instead, we focused on working with “the sufficiency of the present” to stimulate the continued evolution of a homeland security system that works more times than not?
Policymakers would still have the responsibility to monitor and shape what’s going on. (People do need to watch over the electric grid.) But homeland security leaders could act more as jazz musicians than engineers, respecting the creative potential of what is as much as the persistence of what should be.
Snowden tells the following story that captures the interaction of the ideal and the natural:
Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill.
He had never seen a bird like this before.
“You poor thing,” he said. “How ever were you allowed to get into this state?”
He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.
“Now you look more like a bird,” said Nasrudin.
(It took me awhile to understand that one too.)