Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 29, 2009

100 days and looking ahead

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 29, 2009

Rather than asking how he did over the last 100 days, how did we do?

Despite Chris Bellavita’s thoughtful skepticism regarding the liturgy of threat-vulnerability-consequence-risk, I find it a helpful thinking tool.  If we apply this framework to the last 100 days of homeland security, what does it tell us?


There are plenty.  The President has already declared 19 major disasters.  There was an unprecedented Red River crest. As drought deepens the prospect of wildfire worsens. Hacker attacks have substantially increased.  This year’s hurricane forecast, thankfully, leans toward the historic mean. But some insist the long-term forecast is apocalyptic. Our self-declared adversaries continue at-large and are increasingly active. The potential for terrorist attack persists. The likelihood of such an attack almost certainly increases with each passing day. The surprising emergence of the H1N1 virus suggests how, in so many ways, our risks can swiftly shift


Again, more than we can list: Lots of old infrastructure; lemming-like relocation of population to areas especially susceptible to hurricane, earthquake, flood, drought, and wildfire; increasing concentration and interdependence of power, food, and water supplies; recently many have been feeling especially vulnerable regarding our economic system.

I will add another vulnerability not usually in the top ten: We have not found nor crafted an effective way to communicate about intentional threats.  See the dust-up regarding “man-made disasters,” followed by controversy regarding possible right-wing extremism. Prior and similar cases can be recalled. In each case there are serious issues that might have benefitted from hearing and discussion.  Instead we stood by while — or perhaps contributed to — a barrage of preconceived fears, accusations, clichés, and other forms of self-justification from all sides. The noise drowned out most chances of advancing anyone’s understanding.

Discouraged from meaningfully exploring our doubts, many are inclined to one of two extremes. The optimists among us tend toward hopeful denial. Our pessimists prepare grimly to respond.  Prevention, mitigation and proactive resilience — which most agree are worth the investment — require a shared sense of reality that, so far, escapes us.  

We would be less vulnerable if we could be less prickly and considerably more magnanimous in listening to others. This would — at least — allow the conversation to get started.


Map our threats to our vulnerabilities and the resultant interweaving of nodes and networks reminds me of Bartolomeo’s map of hell.  What I have observed from the last 100 days — and well before  — is  that too many are too quick to lose a sense of shared relationship, mutual respect, and simple patience to listen to one another.  This tendency is increasing the consequences we face from a variety of catastrophic possibilities.

Map of Hell by Bartolomeo di Fruosino, c.1420

Map of Hell by Bartolomeo di Fruosino, c.1420


There is a formula that some use to calculate risk.  It is rendered as follows:

Likelihood = Threat / Vulnerability (for example, I live on top of a mountain, my vulnerability to flood is so low as to practically negate the threat. My vulnerability to fire amplifies that threat).  Risk = Likelihood * Consequences.

We can often adjust our vulnerabilities much more easily than our threats.  If the vulnerability I have identified above is accurate, one of the most effective means of reducing our risk is to communicate carefully, clearly, and courageously while listening to the communications of others with an authentic effort to understand. By reasoning together we can reduce the likelihood of harm.

One hundred days ago, the new President said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.  On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.  We remain a young nation.  But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

We still have some maturing to do.


(The Department of Homeland Security has released its own report entitled, 100 days of Homeland Security. A less tranquil take on the same 100 days is offered by James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.)

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

Great post! Reading it now after posting comment to post in front of it.

Okay! Here goes the fuzzy headed liberal Obama supporter. Clearly he was faced with two separate approaches on Homeland Security in his first 100 days. Study the problems and issues and policies in a thoughtful manner and then make key decisions as to the future path. Or, based on the information base make decisions right off the bat and indicate how his efforts in this arena will play out. This assumes that such a choice was a conscious one and not adopted as a post hac attempt to fashion a rationale for why so little was accomplished.

Evidence he is studying the issues: First the cyber security review not yet complete. Second, the PSD-1 review not yet complete to my knowledge. Third, the question of merging HSC and NSC, again not complete as to study. That seems to be enough tell-tails to me that the first choice was adopted. Okay is that excuse for the abysmal failure to have appointees in place in the senior most positions of DHS within the first hundred days. It is somewhat in the eye of the beholder but as readers of my comments know it is not the appointees themselves that are inherently important, but the need for a publically acknowledged and understoon domestic civil crisis management system and process and chain of command. The Pandemic situation just highlights that despite what other think my recommendation that for certain departments and agencies the political system needs to adopt an entirely new stance for transitions. Specifically, don’t get rid of the old administration appointees until new ones are confirmed. Whatever, their deficiencies the downtime in the loss of experience and momemtus is staggering in its implications. It may be the Pandemic situation will highlight (I think it has already) that a failed transition in its timeliness cost American lives. I hope not but not sure given my comments on earlier posts. Time will tell. Okay so let’s now see if NO stovepipes that are disasterous on the Pandemic situation and hopefully we will not be having fist fights between the virologists-epidemiologists-scientists-medical profession as we have seen in the past before incident command between police and fire chiefs or other professions. In fact what bothers me most about the repeated Al Haig-like “I am in charge” (and he was NOT in charge under Constitution and statutes at large–by Janet N. without so much as a White House note with that designation published in the federal register and based on HSPD-5 not formally ratified and amended several times by later HSPDs–continues to make me worried over who briefs who and who listens to who. Hey the formalities can become important. The President and the Secretary DHS are both lawyers so they should understand the significance or potential significance of ensuring lawful action. Again scary to me how the medical profession was seemingly shut out of early public briefings (although not before Congressional hearings) and hope that improves. The dry professionalism of the CDC web utterances compared to the somewhat billowy (is that the word I am looking for?) press releases and DHS web utterances seems to reflect badly on DHS. Again Emergency Public Information is not Public Affairs and it seems CDC is doing the former and DHS the latter but I could be wrong.

Clearly the repeated Presidential and Secretary DHS statements that there is NO cause for alarm are continuing to alarm me since they seem to be stating one thing one implying a level of public anxiety that I don’t think exists. Keep arguing no cause for alarm while we move up the WHO scale and numbers of victimes and geographical spread increase and it might make the uninformed wonder. This is clearly a defective language choice and I wish they would stop its repetition. It does not make either look competent. What does make them look competent is deference to those with real substantive knowledge and facts. Okay just my quick take on things. Good luck as we move on to level 6!

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