Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 28, 2009

A quick rewind to risk communication

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

In today’s Washington Post, way back in the Style section, Howard Kurtz, who regularly does media criticism, offered an insightful take on how the media has responded to the swine flu situation.

But Kurtz  missed one crucial insight.  Here are the first four paragraphs of his review, “The story spread rapidly in the news vacuum of Sunday afternoon, when federal officials declared a health emergency, and by yesterday the coverage of a swine flu outbreak had reached fever pitch.”

“With front-page headlines, constant cable-news updates and top-story status on the evening newscasts, the outbreak — with at least 40 confirmed cases in the United States — was inescapable. But the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.”

“This is one of the hazards of 24-hour Internet-media-television,” said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. “It’s obviously a big story and you want to give it attention. I do think we have to be careful not to overstate it and not make people scared to death.”

“Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said from Mexico City that some reporting, “if taken the wrong way, can cause undue excitement. But it can also calm or allay people’s fears. You have to make sure what you’re saying is absolutely credible and not sensational. I’m trying to provide that context.”

Left out is what was happening before the Sunday afternoon news vacuum was breached. 

Beginning with the Saturday morning news cycle in Asia and Europe, the swine flu story was going viral faster than the disease itself. 

The famously net-savvy Obama team saw the same emergence.  Maybe it was even in the Saturday PDB.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a twenty-something net-head from over in the EOB — or maybe from his morning bike ride or evening bar-stool – who sent the first BlackBerry ping.

By Sunday morning it was becoming clear that panic was taking off, and with it any ability to meaningfully shape public understanding.

The White House had a few hours to act — and thereby influence — the Monday morning news cycle or wait and hope the worst did not happen.   They decided to act. 

The White House had several action options. They could have punted to a DHS press briefing or to CDC in Atlanta.  They might have been a bit more laid back.  They might have used their own YouTube  capability and other new media  resources. Instead, right after church on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, they called the mainstream media to the White House.

They started with an especially authoritative John Brennan setting out the strategic picture.  The briefers spent considerable time answering questions and setting a tone of engaged, proactive concern and action. 

They never said so, but the White House was depending on those ancient — now nearly lost — journalistic principles of “being careful not to overstate it” and “credibility not sensationalism” and “providing context.”

Fortunately for all of us — so far – they got what they wanted and we needed.  If the White House had not acted when they did and how they did, the fever pitch on Monday morning or this morning would almost certainly have been deadly hot.

Stockton for Homeland Defense

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

Paul Noble Stockton has been nominated by the President to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense (Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs).  Below I have copied the brief bio included in the White House announcement.

Readers of this blog will recall that Paul and I were announced as the co-contributors to succeed Jonah Czerwinski.  Shortly after that partnership was made public, Paul learned that he might be considered for a position in the administration.  For obvious reasons, Paul was never able to make a post, but has remained an avid reader of HLSwatch and, especially, the comments.

I have known Paul for many years.  He has had fabulous mentors.  His father was in the thick of Illinois politics, which as we have seen can be an effective  schoolhouse.  Paul’s political wisdom was well-nurtured by Senator Moynihan.  But I perceive Paul’s most important guide has been James Madison.  When you meet him, ask something about the Federalist Papers.  Dr. Stockton will bring to Homeland Defense a profound sense of the role of the States in the defense of the nation… and of liberty.

From the White House announcement:

Mr. Stockton is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He was formerly the associate provost at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and was the founding director of its Center for Homeland Defense and Security. His research focuses on how U.S. security institutions respond to changes in the threat (including the rise of terrorism), and the interaction of Congress and the Executive branch in restructuring national security budgets, policies and institutional arrangements. From 2000-2001, he founded and served as the acting dean of NPS’ School of International Graduate Studies. From 1995 until 2000, he served as director of NPS’ Center for Civil-Military Relations. From 1986-1989 Stockton served as legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Stockton received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1976 and a doctorate in government from Harvard University in 1986.

Meanwhile, beyond swine herding

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

Today the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held a hearing on cybersecurity (testimony is available).  I understand the President’s sixty day review is substantively completed, but still going through final vetting.  Computerworld’s current issue includes a great special report on Internet Warfare.  Another helpful report is in today’s New York Times: US plans attack and defense in web warfareUPDATE: Reporting on the Senate Hearing PC World’s headline reads: Experts disagree on cybersecurity role for DHS.  Computerworld leads with, Senator questions wisdom of White House control over cybersecurity.

The Pakistani government and military is hitting back with particular vengeance since the Taliban and its allies moved into (and then out of, sort of) Buner last week.   Some credit Western pressure.  I wonder if it is not more the case of  Taliban over-reaching resolving internal squabbles within the Pakistani elite.  UPDATE: Reinforcing a sense that the Buner imbroglio has had an internal effect, please access today’s lead editorial from DAWN (Pakistan).  Also see DAWN’s coverage of the battle for Buner.

A British trial of three suspected of helping plan the 7/7 attacks has resulted in acquittal.  The new trial of German terrorists is still in its very theatrical opening act (and it is difficult to find good coverage in English). UPDATE: The Associated Press reports, ” An Islamic terrorist suspect, on trial with three others on charges they plotted attacks on American targets in Germany, was thrown out of the courtroom Tuesday after an outburst. Judge Ottmar Breidling threw Adem Yilmaz, 30, out of the Duesseldorf state court for the day after the suspect yelled: “I want back in my cell!”

Yesterday’s earthquake in Mexico (almost like a Cecil B. DeMille film), reminds us that one natural threat does not preclude another.  In the last twenty-four hours tornadoes have been reported in Texas, Oklahoma, KansasIowa, and elsewhere.

Controversy over the right-wing extremism report has been dampened by the emergence of a non-ideological viral threat (and some Friday deck-clearing), but on Monday the Boston Globe offered a strongly worded editorial attacking the I&A product.

Moving back to the hog house for just a moment, there are two aspects of the story that I have not seen covered much: First, is the possibility of an industrial hog operation in Perote, Mexico as the point-of-origin for the new virus. UPDATE:  The Times Online (UK) has a story seeming to confirm Internet chatter on the Perote point-of-origin.

Second, there is a  mounting controversy regarding whether twitter will help or hurt our effective response.

Swine flu: legal and policy framework

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

There have been 40 confirmed diagnoses of H1N1 virus in the United States. The CDC is updating this number and providing additional information at: http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/index.htm (The CDC has indicated an official update will be forthcoming at 1:00 pm eastern.  Numbers will increase and various numbers will be reported.  For consistency I will stick with the CDC official count as shown on their webpage.)

The Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services has taken statutory action as follows:

As a consequence of confirmed cases of Swine Influenza A (swH1N1) in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York, on this date and after consultation with public health officials as necessary, I, Charles E. Johnson, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the authority vested in me under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. § 247d, do hereby determine that a public health emergency exists nationwide involving Swine Influenza A that affects or has significant potential to affect national security. (April 26,2009)

In Mexico the suspected death-toll from swine flu has increased to at least 149. The government has closed all schools — pre-school to post-graduate — nationwide.  (See San Francisco Chronicle for more.)  (Again, numbers will increase, reports will vary.)

The World Health Organization has increased its alert level to Phase 4 in a six step pandemic warning system.  Phase 4 is meant to communicate that, “verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause community-level outbreaks. The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic… Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.” (The alert level link above provides helpful detail.)

In accordance with the Homeland Security Act of 2002,  Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, and the National Response Framework, the Secretary of Homeland Security has been identified the Principal Federal Official (PFO) for Domestic Incident Management.  At the Sunday White House briefing John Brennan, the President’s Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism said, “Secretary Napolitano, who is the principal federal official for domestic incident management with responsibility for spearheading our efforts.”

According to the National Response Framework, the Principal Federal Official acts ”to facilitate Federal support to the established ICS Unified Command structure and to coordinate overall Federal incident management and assistance activities across the spectrum of prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.” (my emphasis)

Wednesday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will hear testimony from Secretary Napolitano regarding coordination of the federal response to swine flu. 

Is the foregoing accurate?  In terms of existing law, regulation, policy, and strategy what else is of equal importance?  Is the Public Health Service Act the law that is most applicable here?  Are there other laws especially germane to the task ahead?  How about HSPD-21?  Is it being used?  If so, how?  If not, why not?  The question does not assume a right-or-wrong answer.  How about the PKEMRA?

It seems to me that this blog’s best contribution is trying to capture what is happening in the policy-and-practice nexus.  Can we discern how prior investment in law, regulation, policy and strategy is paying-off now?  If it is paying-off, how and why?  If it is not paying off, how and why?  Good or bad (and let’s not miss the good news) what does this tell us about effective law-making, rule-making, policy-making and strategizing?

Thank you and rules-of-engagement

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

There is a lot of substance in the commentary on yesterday morning’s post (Our role…).  I appreciate the commentators generosity and expertise. 

There were lots of readers yesterday, our third highest recorded readership.  Some readers with expertise, others with questions, and still others with worries continue to write me privately.  Some suggestions and assurances:

1.  While there is an honorable tradition at Homeland Security Watch of posting using our names, we have always welcomed and respected anonymity. 

2. It is possible for me to find the email of an individual posting to the blog.  But until a reader asked about this, I did not know about this possibility.  I am not much interested in the identity of who is posting.  We are all interested in the quality of information and analysis. (If especially concerned, you could set up a temporary email account with yahoo, hotmail, google, etc. to further obscure your identity.)

3.  Asking questions is a fabulous contribution.  An authentic question is always helpful.   Answering questions in an informed and thoughtful way sometimes takes time.  If your question is not immediately answered, please do not assume it is being dismissed.

4.   Opinion can be spicy.  In small doses it humanizes what we write, signals individual biases to be filtered, and can be provocative to new thinking.  But opinion is easy to over-do.  Analysis differs from opinion by organizing evidence to support  judgment.

5.  Blogs are not books.   The posts that are read and seem to be shared the most are usually under 500 words.   The exception to this since I started contributing in February has been Chris Bellavita’s longer posts, but Chris is exceptional in many ways.

Some perceive that  Arnold, Chris T., Peter, Phil, and William – to choose five regular discussants – are old friends engaged in a long-running discussion.  You are hesitant to interrupt. Maybe the other four know each other, but I have never met any of them and have no connection with them other than this blog.   Please join us.

April 27, 2009

Transcript: Napolitano Monday news briefing

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 27, 2009

Shortly after 4:00 pm (eastern) Secretary Napolitano, along with the President’s Special Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and the Undersecretary of State for Management, conducted a news briefing focused on emerging developments related to swine flu. The Washington Post has made available a transcript.

Our role in the swine flu situation

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 27, 2009

Homeland Security Watch does not aspire to be a breaking news resource.  Despite this, over the last two weeks we have sometimes behaved as such.  In regard to both the controversial intelligence product on so-called right-wing extremism and the swine flu epidemic this blog has been on the cutting edge.  Some have said our inputs over the weekend even influenced the risk communications effort that was deployed (see Friday, Saturday and Sunday posts).

As we move into what promises to be a  busy week in regard to swine flu, this blog might play a helpfully differentiated role by focusing on the intersection of policy and practice that is exposed as we engage the emerging threat.  Some readers have already begun to wrestle with questions such as,

  • What does this situation tell us about the legal and doctrinal frameworks that were developed over recent years specifically for this kind of event?  Are they being given attention?  Are they working?  Why or why not?
  • What does this situation tell us about our threat surveillance capabilities?
  • What does this situation tell us about our communications and information-sharing capabilities?
  • What does this situation tell us about our collaboration and coordination protocols, especially between federal agencies, between the Feds and the States, and between the public and private sectors?
  • What does this situation tell us about our current state of preparedness for preventing, mitigating, and responding to a potentially catastrophic threat?

Others have better resources to gather and report fast-breaking information.  Based on my first few weeks of contributing to this blog, I perceive our readers have the knowledge, perspective, and judgment to articulate the policy and strategy implications of the unfolding situation. This could have value far beyond the cacophony of coverage that is almost certain to dominate the news for several days.

Chris Bellavita and I will be otherwise engaged this week in a way that will limit our contributions.  I will, however, intend to start each day with a policy/strategy question that, I hope, you will take under serious consideration.   Many of you have used private email to share valuable insights with me.  I suggest this is the right time to share your thoughtful inputs with others.

How about if we begin by identifying questions beyond the five listed above on which we might focus?

Homeland security this week

Filed under: Events — by Philip J. Palin on April 27, 2009

Following are a few Homeland Security events for the coming week.  For more information  access the embedded links.  Please use the comment function to identify other events you would like to bring to readers’ attention.  If you are attending or monitoring any of these events, please use the comment function to report out to the rest of us.

AN IMPORTANT CHANGE HAS BEEN MADE IN THE WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY SCHEDULES (1:00 pm eastern on Monday)

Monday, April 27

Food Safety Summit opens in Washington D.C. continues through Thursday.

Tuesday, April 28

10:00 am (eastern) Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs conducts a hearing on developing a national cybersecurity strategy.

Wednesday, April 29

10:00 am (eastern) The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will conduct a hearing on coordinating the federal response to swine flu. I understand Secretary Napolitano will testify.

Thursday, April 30

10:00 am (eastern) Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to consider nominations of the Timothy Manning (FEMA, National Preparedness) and Ivan Fong (DHS, General Counsel)

This is the 100th day since Mr. Obama’s inauguration as President

Friday, May 1

10:00 am (eastern) Heritage Foundation panel discussion on “Grading Obama’s immigration policies.”

10:00 am (eastern) House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Committee conducts hearing on preparedness for the hurricane season (field hearing in Miami)

April 26, 2009

Swine flu risk communications, continued

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on April 26, 2009

FOURTH UPDATE (6:00 pm eastern):  The tone of US based media seems to be shifting to reflect today’s White House briefing, if the following represent a trend:

A new CNN story is headlined, Take standard flu season precautions to avoid infection.

Most suspected flu patients in Mexico now healthy is a Reuters headline filed late Sunday afternoon.
 
Swine Flu Outbreak Sparks Rapid Response is what Congressional Quarterly is reporting.

The risk communications challenge may now be greatest in terms of new media and social networks and how the Swine Flu threat is communicated outside the US.  For example, see a story from one London tabloid, the headline is “Swine Flu ‘could kill up to 120 million.”  In combination with the Internet’s own viral capabilities, a few stories like this one can have a significant echo.  MONDAY MORNING MENTION: Further to the global risk communications challenge, this morning’s Wall Street Journal leads with, “European stocks fall on fears over swine flu.”

THIRD UPDATE: (3:47 eastern): In a great example of risk communications good practice, the DHS press office just released a complete transcript of the mid-day Sunday White House press briefing.  This reinforces the briefing’s messages and helps ensure that the details of the briefing will be used in the Sunday night/Monday morning news cycle.   The transcript is available at http://www.dhs.gov/ynews/releases/pr_1240773850207.shtm  This will also give all of us in the blogosphere the opportunity to nit-pick individual answers, but the likely pay-off is well worth that hassle factor. (Also read transcript of 3:00 pm CDC teleconference.)

SECOND UPDATE (3:00 pm eastern): The White House briefing’s predictable headline was “US declares public health emergency.”  What could not be predicted 90 minutes ago is how the media would frame the story.  It is still too soon to reach that judgment, but following is an Associated Press summary (in its entirety):

AP Top News at 2:37 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes. Officials reported 20 U.S. cases of swine flu in five states so far, with the latest in Ohio and New York. Unlike in Mexico where the same strain appears to be killing dozens of people, cases in the United State have been mild — and U.S. health authorities can’t yet explain why.

Fair enough and suggests the briefers — and on this headline, especially Secretary Napolitano — were effective in putting a “public health emergency” in its appropriate context.  Further, it demonstrates the AP reporter, at least, was listening for context.

UPDATE (12:25 pm eastern):  White House briefing on Swine Flu is scheduled for 12:30.  Can be seen streaming at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/live/ 

After-Briefing Comment(1:21 pm eastern):  The quartet of briefers came off as competent and credible.  They projected confidence.   They communicated, at least to me, that reasonable – even aggressive – measures are being taken to mitigate the currently modest threat from morphing into something more.  Yet they were also clear regarding the unpredictable nature of viral mutations.  Perhaps as important, they set-out a framework for regular updates and communication that should discourage undue speculation and rumor-mongering. The full impact of today’s intervention probably depends on:

1.  How well others follow-through with the  public communication process set-out, and

2.  The progress of the disease.

I thought it was an interesting decision to have this briefing at the White House and to have John Brennan as the first one up to brief.  There is not, however, enough information to make much meaning — yet — of these decisions.

It will be interesting to see what the public and media do with this briefing.  But, to me, it was a very effective example of a good risk communication intervention.   I certainly welcome your impressions and analysis via the comment function.

In terms of follow-through beyond the White House, at 3:00 pm (eastern) on Sunday there was a media teleconference with the CDC’s Dr. Anne Shuchat.  The transcript of the teleconference is available and packed with helpful information.

——————————————–

At 6:00 am (eastern) on Sunday the BBC has just posted a new headline story: Mexico flu sparks worldwide fear.

Global alarm at swine flu outbreak, graces the Boston Globe’s frontpage.

Swine flu spreads panic in Mexico City, is the headline on USAToday’s website.  (USAToday does not produce a print product on Sundays)

The Times Online, probably the most understated of the Murdoch media empire, offers, Fear of pandemic as killer flu strain spreads.”

On Saturday afternoon the CDC released a new Health Advisory. Combined with other communications pieces, the health advisory might have been a  helpful risk communication tool.  But it is clearly oriented to the health care community, not to the media or general public.  Just as the CDC is working to anticipate the needs of public health officials and clinicians, there is a need to anticipate the needs of the media and the public.  Contrast the CDC’s Health Advisory to the NYC Health Department’s Saturday announcement (see last post from Saturday below).  The NYC statement is sensitive to context and public implications in a way the CDC statement is not.

(Editorial note: On Saturday I was regularly checking the CDC website and clearing my cache.  While it could certainly be the result of user error, I was not seeing the 3:00 pm time-stamped statement as late as 5:45 pm.) 

 The White House blog, a  usually lively and user-friendly place, merely  points to the largely dormant CDC website for Swine Flu information.  In his media briefings White House spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, has emphasized that the Homeland Security Council, under the leadership of John Brennan, is monitoring the situation in the United States and Mexico. UPDATE: Appearing this morning on Meet the Press, Reuters quotes Mr. Gibb’s as saying, “It is important for the public to understand that we are taking proper precautions to address anything that happens, it’s not a time to panic.”

Sunday morning on CNN, Sanjay Gupta, a physician once considered a possible Surgeon-General, interviewed a CDC senior official.  (As of 8:30 am eastern I cannot yet find a weblink, but expect it will soon be added to the CNN House Call website.)

Late on Saturday (very late Geneva-time) the WHO released a statement that includes, “After reviewing available data on the current situation, Committee members identified a number of gaps in knowledge about the clinical features, epidemiology, and virology of reported cases and the appropriate responses. The Committee advised that answers to several specific questions were needed to facilitate its work. The Committee nevertheless agreed that the current situation constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.” 

Fear of the unknown is a predictable human response.  We can sympathize, even admire, the WHO committee’s acknowledgement of the null hypothesis.  I would suggest the world’s physician needs to better acknowledge the role of an effective bedside manner.

Media are telling us about new diagnoses in New Zealand.   Otherwise, there is not much new information, which is one of the reasons the media is shifting its attention from cause (biology) to effect (psychology).  This will, in any case,  be the tendency of journalist generalists (and even more the tendency of bloggers and such) unless the risk communications operation is consistently providing new — or even re-packaged — facts. 

An early morning report from Bloomberg, Swine Flu Emergency Caused by New Variant of Old Bug, is one of the more informative and least bombastic of the media reports.  But even here it is hard to read without a slight increase in one’s blood pressure.

April 25, 2009

Scanning swine flu story for risk communications lessons

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on April 25, 2009

SECOND UPDATE: Shortly after 5:00 pm (eastern) the New York Times headlined a Reuters story, “8 Students in Queens Likely Had Swine Flu, Officials Say.  Third paragraph reads, “In every single case, illness was mild. Many of the children are feeling better,” Frieden said.”  A Times companion story offers, “Health Agencies Warily Monitor Swine Flu Strain.” 

The New York City Department of Health has released the following statement, “The Health Department is investigating a cluster of respiratory illness in a non-public school in New York City and has determined that at least 8 students have probable human swine influenza. More than 100 of the school’s students were absent several days this week due to fever, sore throats and other flu-like symptoms.”  The full NYC Health Department  statement (choose the link above) is calm, complete, and inspires confidence.

The LA Times is  reporting two new cases have been confirmed in Kansas.
UPDATE: At 1:35 pm (eastern) on Saturday the Reuters headline for a three paragraph blurb of non-information is,  WHO flu experts meeting concludes, no decisions.

——————————————-

At 11:45 am (eastern) on Saturday the BBC headline reads: Mexico Flu has “Pandemic Potential”

Swine Flu could Cause Pandemic: WHO Says is the Washington Post’s lead.

The most complete and updated story at this hour is probably from Bloomberg: Swine Flu May Be Named Event of International Concern.

While WHO and CDC experts are talking, their public information sites have not — yet — changed from yesterday (still no change at 2:45 eastern on Saturday. ) At 4:00 pm updates are showing on the CDC website.  Some elements have time-stamps as early as noon Saturday.  The updates are, however, in my judgment, less than sufficient to in anyway shape this rapidly developing story.

http://www.who.int/csr/don/en/

http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/investigation.htm

There is a slightly breathless quality to the reporting today (perhaps a poor choice of words given the respiratory illness). Based on what I know, the media stories are accurate.  The urgent tone is — potentially — getting ahead of the facts.  But, if so, this is not the media’s fault.  A  potentially significant threat has suddenly — even mysteriously – emerged.  It deserves serious attention.  The media is doing what it is supposed to do.  The tone reflects the current paucity of authoritative information and comments by authorities who are available to the media.

Consider how the “Gray Lady” started its  Friday story on page A-13 and contrast this  to the start on Saturday’s front page:

STORY A: “An unusual strain of swine flu is circulating among people in the Southwest but is not known to have caused any deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said…” The agency, which has found only seven cases, expects to find more now that it has begun looking intensively for them.

STORY B: “Alarmed Mexican officials, scrambling to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed as many as 68 people and infected possibly 1,000 more in recent weeks, canceled more public events… in and around the capital and said they were considering keeping schools for millions of students here closed into next week

I don’t really need to tell you which — A or B — ran Friday and which ran Saturday.  Given the non-information emerging from the WHO session (UPDATE above), the shift in tone from under-control to crisis-mode is almost sure to increase.

In the early stages of a potential crisis, such as this, there is a substantive need for a proactive public affairs operation that will seek out new information for the media — and public —  be sure the information is accurate, framed as responsibly as possible, and distribute that information as quickly and effectively as possible. (A reader comments that this should be specialist public affairs unit.)

Given the non-information forthcoming from official sources, it is not surprising to see a proliferation of unofficial sources emerge — such as this blog.   The In Case of Emergency blog has brought together a helpful collection of official, non-traditional, and entirely unofficial sources that are tracking the swine flu story. 

In 2004 a former Director-General of WHO said, “We have had great success… controlling outbreaks, but we have only recently come to understand that communications are as critical to outbreak control as laboratory analyses or epidemiology.” Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the best resources on effective risk communications is the CDC’s PandemicFlu site.

EDITORIAL NOTE:  For readers of this blog (let’s admit we often share some rather arcane interests ) there is one small sliver of a silver lining in this story.  Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from the Friday New York Time’s story, “The unusual strain this year was noticed, Dr. Schuchat said, only because the agency was trying out a new diagnostic test at a Navy laboratory and doing more testing than usual through a new Border Infectious Disease Surveillance Project along the Mexican border.”

More information on  BIDS is available from the  program’s CDC website.  Is this what the Secretary was talking about in referring to borders as ”living, breathing organisms?”

ScienceInsider reports that the Navy Lab the did the good work was the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

More homeland security-related nominations announced

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 25, 2009

This week the President nominated for Senate consideration and confirmation the following:

Alejandro Mayorkas, Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security

Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counter-terrorism (and Ambassador), Department of State

Michael Nacht, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Global Security Affairs.

If  Benjamin sounds familiar, you may remember his books: Age of Sacred Terror  and The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right

Trying to tie up the week’s loose ends

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 25, 2009

This seemed an especially busy week in homeland security.  There were several developments at DHS, DOD, on the Hill and otherwise that deserve more attention, but given time available, personal preferences, and the unfolding of events, I have not brought the stories to this blog.  Readers are invited to use the comment function to highlight issues you want to be sure are not ignored in the rush of events.

HLSwatch has given considerable attention overtime to the  homeland security policy/strategy implications of developments in the Hindu Kush and in global epidemiology (floods, wild fires, and fusion centers are also toward the top of our priority list).  This week’s news, unfortunately, seemed to confirm some of  our worst worries regarding Afpak thugs and the morphing of tiny bugs.  Here are some Saturday morning headlines to tie up loose ends:

Human error is now being blamed for the huge South Carolina fire.  In Florida a major transportation route is likely to remain closed due to fires.

Most media are mostly focusing on a Taliban retreat from Buner, but  it seems to me this morning’s Reuters report is closer to correct: Flux in Pakistani Valley after Taliban Retreat.  General David Petreaus makes the case for why the US has a big stake in the outcome, in a late Friday Washington Post report.

Another case of Swine Flu has been diagnosed in San Diego County.  New York Public health authorities are testing for a possible outbreak in Queens.  The official World Health Organization statement on the situation in Mexico is worth a long quote:

The Government of Mexico has reported three separate events. In the Federal District of Mexico, surveillance began picking up cases of ILI starting 18 March. The number of cases has risen steadily through April and as of 23 April there are now more than 854 cases of pneumonia from the capital. Of those, 59 have died. In San Luis Potosi, in central Mexico, 24 cases of ILI, with three deaths, have been reported. And from Mexicali, near the border with the United States, four cases of ILI, with no deaths, have been reported.

Of the Mexican cases, 18 have been laboratory confirmed in Canada as Swine Influenza A/H1N1, while 12 of those are genetically identical to the Swine Influenza A/H1N1 viruses from California.

The majority of these cases have occurred in otherwise healthy young adults. Influenza normally affects the very young and the very old, but these age groups have not been heavily affected in Mexico.

Because there are human cases associated with an animal influenza virus, and because of the geographical spread of multiple community outbreaks, plus the somewhat unusual age groups affected, these events are of high concern.  (See Chris Bellavita’s explanation of pandemic code words)

The Swine Influenza A/H1N1 viruses characterized in this outbreak have not been previously detected in pigs or humans. The viruses so far characterized have been sensitive to oseltamivir, but resistant to both amantadine and rimantadine.

I am  self-conscious regarding insufficient reporting on cybersecurity in my posts.  As with viral mutation and the Hindu Kush, cybersecurity deserves sustained and serious attention now, while catastrophe can still be avoided.  Fortunately, others are ably filling this gap.  Marc Ambinder provides a helpful report via The Atlantic, including a transcript of Melissa Hathaway’s RSA speech, which is worth a careful read.

The Washington Post reports that plans are advancing to have the Federal government reimburse state expenses for deploying National Guard troops  in a variety of roles supportive of border security.  Whether the troops would serve under Title 10 or Title 32 is not clear.  Southern border Governors have issued a joint request for more National Guard funding to support increased border security.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board cited serious errors — and an attempted legal obfuscation – by Bayer CropScience of Institute, West Virginia.  The Board was investigating an August 2008 blast that killed two.  See a New York Times report.

(The final two reports seem to have disappeared and were restored on Monday, April 27)

DHS, St. Elizabeth’s, and Ezra Pound

Filed under: Humor,Organizational Issues — by Philip J. Palin on April 25, 2009

In a speech on Wednesday Secretary Napolitano mentioned — mostly in passing –  how the Department’s currently scattered state makes coordination a challenge.  She told the Anti-Defamation League, “In a few years we will be headquartered in what is currently St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which is going to be totally renovated and really converted into a lovely campus for the Department of Homeland Security with money that was contained in the stimulus bill that the Congress just passed.”

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is the site of a long-time government insane asylum.  The potential for mordant humor abounds and, no doubt, will be bountifully shared whenever the Department makes its move.  Like an earthquake,  mordant humor cannot be prevented but it might be mitigated.  Response is often non-productive and full recovery is very difficult.

St. Elizabeth’s was the long-time home of the poet Ezra Pound.  Born in Idaho and raised in Philadelphia, he relocated to Europe following the First World War, eventually settling in Rapallo, Italy.  During World War II Pound authored a series of pro-Mussolini, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist radio broadcasts and newpaper articles.  After the Allied victory he was charged with treason. Pound’s lawyers mounted a successful insanity defense and he was committed to St. Elizabeth’s, where he lived from 1946-1958.

While living at St. Elizabeth’s, Ezra Pound continued to write, including perhaps:

What thou lovest well remains,
                              the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                         or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
    
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

(From CANTO LXXXI)

During his twelve years at St. Elizabeth’s Pound hosted many of the best poets of the Twentieth Century, including Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote Visits to St. Elizabeth’s as a memoir. While Pound was in residence, Southeast Washington D.C. became a veritable poetic Lourdes.

Claiming this poetic legacy would be an effective humor mitigation device.  Each DHS meeting should begin with poetic verse. Congressional reports could be written as sonnets.  Oral testimony might become ad hoc poetry slams.  Could intelligence reports be so carefully crafted as to be nominated for literary recognition?  The  Poet Laureate would finally be recognized for his/her contribution to national resilience. How about awarding DHS employees an annual Ezra Pound Prize for Unconventional Thinking?  

Certainly such a strategy would  reduce gratuitious zings about the insane asylum.  I was glad to see that Philip Mudd fully qualifies for membership in the Professional Organization of English Majors (P.O.E.M.).  He is clearly the man to lead this mitigation mission.

April 24, 2009

Joe jots Janet (and others) a friendly note

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 24, 2009

At 5:34  on an absolutely gorgeous Friday afternoon, when everyone in Washington D.C. should have been having a drink al fresco, admiring the spring blossoms, and looking into the eyes of their beloved, Senator Joseph Lieberman, (very) Independent Democrat of Connecticut and Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a statement in support of Secretary Napolitano.  In its entirety:

“Secretary Napolitano was a superb choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, a complex, demanding, and high-pressured job, and I believe she has performed well since she was confirmed” Lieberman said.  “Has there been a rough patch? Yes. But nothing that comes close to a firing offense.”

“The Secretary has apologized for the poor wording of the Department’s intelligence analysis of right-wing extremism. The report was produced by career intelligence officials and begun in the previous Administration. I do not believe it was politically motivated; and I do believe it was well intentioned. Our time would be better spent joining together to ensure that the American people are well protected from security threats.”

Early this morning, in my first post of the day, I shared some related news. The headline refers to growling and biting.  Scroll down to review that context.  I perceive the Chairman — who a few Republicans might have hoped to find sympathetic — is sending a signal to move on.  Even more important, the Chairman is communicating that Homeland Security is too serious to sacrifice to poorly chosen words or political expediency. Senators Lieberman and Collins have modeled authentic bipartisanship, and each have the wounds to prove it.

Those who criticized the report have, we can hope, encouraged the application of even greater rigor and care in analysis and reporting.  The experience has also underlined the need for more sophisticated consumers of intelligence, very much including the  general citizenry.

Now, my beloved is fixing us drinks, the birds are about to begin their evening concert, and the stars should be glorious on the first night of a new moon. Carpe diem.

Have a good weekend Madam Secretary. You deserve a break.

UPDATE (Saturday, 4:00 am): Read some good reporting by Ed O’Keefe with the Federal Eye at the Washington Post.  He gives further context to the timing of Senator Lieberman’s statement.  O’Keefe writes, “Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized directly today to Commander Dave Rehbein, head of the American Legion, after a recently leaked DHS intelligence report suggested that right-wing extremist groups might recruit military veterans returning from overseas deployments. The 45-minute meeting occurred at DHS headquarters in Washington this (Friday) afternoon.”

Swine flu: sprinting to tackle a viral end run

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Philip J. Palin on April 24, 2009

SECOND UPDATE (1:01 pm eastern): “Mexican officials, scrambling to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed at least 16 people and possibly dozens more in recent weeks, shuttered schools from kindergarten to university for millions of young people in and around the capital on Friday and urged people with flu symptoms to stay home from work,” according to the New York Times.

UPDATE (9:30 am eastern): “The World Health Organisation (WHO) voiced concern on Friday at a confirmed outbreak of swine flu in the United States and what it called more than 800 human “influenza-like” cases in Mexico, including about 60 deaths,” according to Reuters.

The diagnosis of at least seven cases of swine flu in the United States (reported here yesterday) has public health authorities moving quickly to assess and contain the surprising emergence of the disease.

Concern increased overnight as the possibility emerged of an hither-to unexplained Mexican pattern of respiratory failure that has killed thirteen.   According to Bloomberg, “Disease trackers are trying to determine whether a previously unseen strain of influenza in the U.S. is related to more than 130 cases of severe respiratory illness in Mexico and may spark a pandemic. A new variant of H1N1 swine influenza has sickened at least seven patients in California and Texas, the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionin Atlanta said yesterday. Mexico’s Health Minister Jose Cordova canceled classes in the capital today and recommended citizens avoid public places after 20 fatalities from an illness possibly caused by an H1N1 flu virus.”

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota  asked Peter Sandman, PhD, a risk communication consultant based in Princeton, N.J., to listen in on Thursday’s CDC teleconference.   Lisa Schnirring writes, “While he credited the CDC with getting a clear, calm, and concise scientific message out about the swine flu cases, he said they missed a teachable moment to promote pandemic preparedness. ‘Everyone needs to learn how to say ‘This could be bad, and it’s a good reason the take precautions and prepare’ and ‘This could fizzle out,’” Sandman said. ‘They need to simultaneously say both statements.” He added that “good risk communicators need to know how to be both scary and tentative.’”

Reuters has developed a short overview of influenza virus and swine flu in particular.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a more detailed overview of swine flu.

The CDC has established a website where it will post updates to its findings: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/swine/investigation.htm

For several years pandemic defenses– or at least media reports on the defense — have focused mostly of the H5N1 virus of avian flu.  Two more human cases of avian flu were reported this week in EgyptToo early to tell if we are dealing with a quarterback fake or a whole different game.

EDITORIAL NOTE: For a prescient strategic take on this urgently unfolding issue, please read and listen — again — to the  Tuesday post and comment by Chris Bellavita, Craig Baldwin, William Cumming, and (indirectly) Nathan Wolfe: http://www.hlswatch.com/2009/04/21/a-way-to-prevent-a-pandemic-decades-before-it-starts/#comments

Tom Finan to DHS Legislative Affairs

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 24, 2009

Late this morning Tom Finan announced that he will soon join the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Legislative Affairs as Senior Advisor for Intelligence, Analysis and Operations. For the last four years, Mr. Finan has served on the staff of the House Homeland Security Committee with particular responsibility for the subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

During Mr. Finan’s tenure with the House committee he has come to be widely recognized as a careful, courageous, and even Solomonic advocate of essential liberty and effective security.  The issues are treacherous, but Mr. Finan has applied a keen intelligence, political pragmatism, and the ability to listen across boundaries and prejudices that too often impede policy-making.

Among state and local law enforcement Mr. Finan has earned real respect.  A few months ago I was with a group of California police and sheriffs who seemed on the edge of literally singing his praises.  In an email announcing the shift, Mr. Finan writes, “I look forward to helping make the Department an even better partner for its State, local, tribal, and private sector partners in the years ahead.”

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