Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 4, 2009

Mr. Brennan comes to dinner

Filed under: Humor,Organizational Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 4, 2009

dinner  Steve Flynn, Philip Palin, and John Brennan at Virtual Citronelle

As expected, Mr. Brennan was a bit late to arrive.  Steve Flynn joined me at the glittering, probably digitally enhanced, table.

“Your pitch has been vague Phil, what are you planning tonight?” Steve challenged.

“Whaddya  suggest?”

“Seems to me the context has seldom been better for American grit, volunteerism, and ingenuity in the face of adversity,” Flynn replied.

“And that’s not vague?” I asked smiling. “I’ve read your testimony and your books Steve, I expect Brennan has too, what’s new?  What’s the take-away?”

“Can I bring you a drink or an appetizer?” the waiter offered soothingly.  Flynn ordered a red wine.  I demurred wanting every synapse to fire as cleanly as possible.

Steve continued, “We have to gather and share as much threat, response, and recovery information as possible with private industry and state and local emergency responders. At the same time, it must place far greater emphasis on informing and engaging the American public. The key is to target the relevant audience with threat information that is matched with specific guidance on how to respond to the threat.”

“Psychological readiness is key,” I agreed nodding.  “The more we  think about a potential catastrophe, the less likely we will perceive the actual event as catastrophic.  The more we anticipate the worst, the more quickly and fully we bounce back.”

I’d lost him.  Steve was fixed on something over my left shoulder.  Virtual Citronelle is an immersive virtual space that mimics a real dining room. Sort of a flight simulator for policy wonks. 

“Hey Steve, good to see you,” Mr. Brennan reached out and they shook hands.  “So you’re Palin.  Ruchi says you’re not related to the Governor.”  Brennan’s digital handshake was more a quick grab than a welcome.

“Not in the last three generations,” I replied.  “I thought of Ruchi when I saw the proposal to spin-out long-term recovery.  Will that be her assignment?”

“Not my call.  I understand you think resilience is the solution to all my problems?”  His tone signaled impatience.

“Any chance of a dotted line between the Resilience Policy Directorate and OIRA (Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs)?” I asked. 

“No,” Brennan answered, looking slightly annoyed.

In my experience directly launching a policy pitch typically fails.  It sets up a kind of seller-buyer dynamic.  And most Washington policymakers use caveat emptor as their mantra, whether or not they practice yoga.  If there is some way to actually have a conversation substantive progress is much more likely.

“How much of the current thinking on resilience draws on the British model?” I asked.

“None, as far as I know.  If Randy and Michele looked across the pond they didn’t tell me.”

“It’s a good place to look,” Steve interjected. “Whitehall defines resilience as an integrated approach to anticipation, assessment, prevention, preparation, response and recovery. Those first three steps are too often left out of our approach. We talk about preparedness, but we’re usually just preparing to respond.  Resilience is also preventative.”

“Back in 04 parliament passed a Civil Contingencies Act that fundamentally reconceived and reorganized what we would call homeland security,” I added.  My voice goes a little high and fast when nervous. “Crucially, they reconceived and reorganized around resilience.  We’re not there yet.  But  the results of PSD-1 could push us that way.”

“The Brits are doing a good job on going public in a rigorous way with real risk assessment and the beginnings of serious risk-informed decision-making,” Steve said with the calm of a more experienced hand. “It’s not a panacea, John.  But it’s a practical model that is in place and from which we can learn alot.”

Brennan was sitting back, a little more relaxed.  My shoulders loosened.

“That’s why I asked about OIRA — or really about Cass Sunstein.  If Sunstein is too busy, we need to get one or two of his best acolytes assigned to the RPD,” my voice had returned to it’s typical baritone. “What Cass sets out in Worst Case Scenarios and in Nudge is the why and how of an American approach to resilience.”

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asked.  We were not.  But Brennan picked up the menu.  Looks like he will continue the conversation.  A small victory.  Maybe I will have a drink.

(This is most definitely a fiction. Apologies may be in order to Steve Flynn, John Brennan, and — perhaps most of all — to Chef Michel Richard.  Please see many substantive comments by readers by scrolling below, but especially here and here and here.)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 4, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

Looks like a “fun” bunch! Anyhow just so you know you look like life in the middle suits you very well. You look very British distinguished so glad Brits efforts on resilience entered the conversation. In some areas way way ahead of US but not sure how I really feel about all those cameras. Do they diminish British eccentricity? If so a high price tradeoff.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 5, 2009 @ 11:10 am

Very impressed with your style and your appeals to the British model, Cass Sunstein, and most of all Steve Flynn … I think you’re onto a winner here!

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