Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 9, 2009

Measuring preparedness one flower at a time, one more time

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 9, 2009


Later today I will offer a collection of analyses and assessments. GAO, CRS, this Commission, that Committee, and various senior officials will offer sober findings on various aspects of homeland security.

Several weeks ago in my work outside homeland security I was talking with a disciplined, thoughtful, competent, and motivated federal program manager.  He had inherited a failing project and had pointed it right.

He was self-critical, asking for my assessments, and offering his own evaluations of long-past, recent, and upcoming decisions.

When I asked him about a written assessment I had found helpful in getting ready to work with him, the man literally slumped.  He explained that the report was an accurate historical document.  But responding to the assessment team had been seriously distracting.  When the report came out the facts were nearly a year old, yet Congressional committees, OMB, and the media treated it as breaking news.

“We spent six months explaining how 90 percent of the problems had been fixed eighteen months earlier,” he explained. “Sort of like having the same nightmare every night for two years.”

This afternoon (if I can get an internet problem fixed) I will give you a collection of somebodies nightmares. But before that, below is Chris Bellavita’s post from two Saturday’s ago.  Our readership declines by  two-thirds on the weekend.  The insights here are worth much more than everything I will offer later today.

— +–

How do we know when we, as a nation, are getting better at this homeland security business?  How do we know when the effort all levels of government, the private sector, and the people who live in this country have been making is actually improving things –  that we are better prepared, more resilient, and more secure than we were on September 10, 2001?

I think the country – writ large — responded very well to Chapter 1 of the to-be-continued H1N1 saga.  I think that response is one indicator the nation is better prepared than it used to be.

But I use anecdotes – stories — filtered through my biases to support that belief.    My subjective perception seeks examples that help me sustain my hope that we are doing better.  I tend to dismiss counter examples as, “Well, nothing’s perfect.”

I don’t know what objective data I would accept that would lead me to believe we are less prepared, less resilient, less secure.  I have no performance measures.  I don’t think I want any.

In April, GAO reported on FEMA’s efforts to coordinate national catastrophic preparedness efforts.  In one of the more understated sentences in recent homeland security memory, GAO noted, “The size and complexity of the nation’s preparedness activities and the number of organizations involved make developing a national preparedness system a difficult task.”  That difficulty did not prevent GAO from measuring FEMA’s performance anyway.

For reasons David Snowden described elsewhere , I don’t think the traditional understanding of performance measures will help answer the big questions about national preparedness or resilience.  Performance measures may work very well for engineered systems.  My experience is they provide a distorted picture of performance in complex systems.  And whatever else homeland security may be, it clearly is — as Carafano and Weitz (along with GAO) argued last month – a multi-dimensional complex system.

Some things one has to see before one believes.  For other things, belief may have to come before sight.

You may have seen the Washington Post article last week  about a group of science fiction writers, called Sigma, who offer to use their imagination to help homeland security.

According to the article, the DHS deputy director of research thinks fiction writers can “help managers think more broadly about projects, especially about potential reactions and unintended consequences….”

The chief information officer for the DHS Office of Operations Coordination & Planning believes the writers might help break old thinking habits.  “We’re stuck in a paradigm of databases,” he said …. “How do we jump out of our infrastructure and start conceptualizing those threats? ….”

Bravo for taking such risks with imagination.

Long ago a friend told me, “If you want to get better at solving problems, read detective stories.  If you want to know how to create the future, read science fiction.”

What kind of homeland security future might be created by science fiction writers?

Cory Doctorow’s 2008 book “Little Brother” about good hackers battling the evil DHS immediately comes to mind. (The protagonist, w1n5t0n, pays visual homage to George Orwell’s Winston.)

One blogger, commenting on the Post story, suggests science fiction could lead to an enhanced government program that transported “undesirables” to another planet for … well, enhanced questioning.  Other blogolic apprehensiveness about science fiction/homeland security mashups can be found here, here, and here.

But science fiction can also imagine a better future.

Appreciative inquiry is about imagination.  It is about looking toward what might actually go right in the world.  It rejects a knee-jerk negativity and – in a non-Pollyannaish way – looks instead for the best of what could be.

What would Homeland Security meets Science Fiction meets Appreciative Inquiry look like?

In the wonderful way the Intertube Gods can sometimes work, I found an answer to my question on the Sigma website.  “Fresh Flowers and Small Robots,” written by Michael Swanwick, and reprinted below (permission requested), is a gem crystallized from security, fiction and inquiry.  Please enjoy.

Fresh Flowers and Small Robots

The Open-Security Airport of 2010

Like most Americans regularly subjected to the discomforts and indignities of airport security, I have concluded that it is almost all “security theater.” That is, a series of empty gestures meant to reassure travelers that it is safe to board an airplane. Conceivably it may also help deter would-be terrorists. Certainly it has captured none – or we would surely have been told.

Why not exchange this Theater of Misery, then, for a Theater of Optimism? Something equally reassuring, potentially more effective, and not at all oppressive. It could be done with minimal preparation, modest cost, and no new technology. I propose a voluntary pilot program of one small airport, where security is so easy to pass through that it is once again possible for families to meet a traveling relative as he or she gets off the jetliner.

Imagine this happy airport of the very near future: Gone are the TSA employees who currently check boarding passes to make certain that only passengers enter the waiting areas. They’ve been replaced by or retrained as concierges – politely and efficiently taking coats and carry-on and placing them on the conveyor belts for the X-ray machines. They also answer questions about schedules and airport facilities, which is not technically the job of security, but makes life more pleasant for everybody. There are no lines for the metal detectors, because their numbers have been doubled or tripled. Passengers now stroll through casually, with their dignities and tempers intact.

Most amazingly, nobody takes their shoes off. The possibility of shoe bombs is still very real. But so is the possibility of an obsidian knife or a ceramic gun strapped to a passenger’s body – and only a select few are checked for those. However, no one thinks for an instant that they are less safe than before. This is because small robots trundle up and down the lines, projecting a laser grid over their shoes, and occasionally stopping to inhale a sudden whoosh of air. These robots are not at all threatening – their housing has been designed by Industrial Light and Magic, the same people who created R2D2 for George Lukas’s Star Wars movies – but they are reassuringly high-tech. They are clearly sampling the air for trace chemicals associated with explosives.

While this is a worthy and admirable emphasis for protectors to take, it is also profoundly and narrowly overspecialized.  It reflects a counterfactual assumption that, given sufficient funding, these communities can not only anticipate all future shocks, but prepare adequately to deal with them on a strictly in-house basis, through the application of fiercely effective professional action.

It is not necessary that the robots actually function as bomb sniffers. (Though I’m sure the defense industry would be happy to design such devices.) All that is needed is that they reassure our friends and unnerve our foes. The DHS is widely believed to possess sinister technology and worse intentions. It is time to recognize this as being not a weakness but an advantage.

In this scenario the DHS has embraced its evil image and put it to work. Cheap silvered plastic bubbles, of the sort used to hide surveillance cameras in casinos, are bolted to the walls. Electric cables run to them, painted the same color as the wall, obviously to camouflage them. Sconces directly below the bubbles hold ceramic vases containing fresh-cut flowers. The flowers draw the eye right to the bubbles, while looking like an attempt to disguise their presence. Passengers feel safer. Evildoers assume the worst.

Similar examples of benign deceit come and go, as the DHS fine-tunes public awareness of its presence. Trip-beams cause green lights to flash reassuringly as a traveler passes. Stepping on a pressure plate triggers a musical “all-clear” note. Decorative kinetic sculpture moves gracefully in time with foot traffic.

Passengers chosen for random security checks no longer resent this necessity. They are taken to a pleasant and comfortable room where, after their interview, they are given complimentary chits for food and drink on their airliners. At random intervals, two or three times a day, a bell rings and a cheerful voice announces over the intercom that another lucky passenger being checked has just received a hundred-dollar credit for the duty-free shops. Light applause fills the airport.

In such an environment, a nervous or fearful individual stands out more clearly than is the case today.

All this is done with existing technology. (The wall-bubbles are sometimes used to field-test a variety of passive detectors, but that is just a side benefit.) The added cost is moderate, and the bulk of it – particularly the added space required to make the security process comfortably uncrowded – is absorbed by the airport itself. It is considered a small price to pay for a great deal of positive publicity.

Best of all, since the security process has been simplified and sped up, it is no longer necessary to keep non-passengers out of the waiting areas. Once again, the weary traveler can come up the ramp from the plane to find his or her family waiting with smiles and open arms.

In their hurry to get home, not one in ten passengers notes the plaque reading, “This Facility Meets DHS Open Security Standards.” Nor do they notice the program’s certification that the airport is Security Hardened and Family Safe. They only know that they feel safer and more at ease than any commercial air traveler has since the Twentieth Century.

The DHS has won one small, quiet victory in the War on Terror.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – A. Einstein

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 9, 2009 @ 7:28 am

The GAO report referenced in an attempt to be fair and give some credit to enhanced preparedness efforts was at least honest in its footnote #45 indicating it had credited mere completion of a plan or policy in its report despite the fact that the plan or policy was only published and not yet trained on or implemented to any degree.

But now have a more interesting question to be answered (at least interesting to me)?

Did the events of 9/11/01 or the economic collapase make the US more secure? Are we more secure since we now know of our great economic weaknesses? Does the fact that the unemployed grow and have to be more self-reliant help make the country more self-reliant? You get the drift! Does reduced economic acitivity make US stronger or weaker from a homeland security standpoint? Does reduced immigration? etc. etc?

Comment by pat longstaff

June 9, 2009 @ 9:15 am

Are we more “secure” after 9/11 and the economic melt-down? Is there a question in this area with a yes-or-no answer?
Yes, we are more secure because we are more watchful and understand some new risks.
No, we are not more secure because many individuals (and therefore their elected officials) do not feel secure in the short term, causing them to do things that may ultimately undercut the foundations of that security.
Many of them still believe that all risks can be predicted and “resisted” so a government that fails to do so is not working. As the discussion above on complex systems makes clear, we can not predict all risks – we don’t even know what they might be. So a broad ability to bounce back from unanticipated surprises seems like an important piece of the right strategy.
The first step is to get everyone to accept uncertainty as a fact of life – any engineer will tell you that complexity will give you surprises. That’s why they do Beta tests and there are still surprises after the system has been in use for years. Why do you think the folks at Mission Control applaud when the Space Shuttle goes up without a hitch? There are surprises in these systems (and complex human systems) not because somebody was lazy or stupid, it’s because complex things can’t always be predicted.

Comment by christopher tingus

June 9, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

From our perspective here on the street as Mr. & Mrs. Citizen Joe, we are more vulnerable than ever and for the most part have really no idea if what is truly talking place even though events are taking place under our nose.

There is no reason to be confused. The “experts” and the arrogance of those in leadership today in false promises using the persuasive jargon, “Change” and “Hope” oh, com’on, who’s kidding who?

We see a President that is quick to see himself and dare to compare himself with FDR. Give us a break.

Since Pelosi and Frank and now the kid wet behind the ears – which we must give respect for this gentleman is after all President of our beloved nation – Barack Obama who is leading the charge as well as his party of raising tax revenues from us on the street who are losing our jobs and fear that government policies of printing endless sheets of “fiat dollars” will only lead to inflation and certainly our Chinese “banker” turning its cheek to us as well only meaning higher prices, a dollar devalued and taxes, taxes and more taxes….

I, too travel to Washington. I see the paper and the books strewn on desks everywhere. What (we)don’t see is the Bible. Not one Bible. We must run over to the Libray of Congress to get a copy.

There is nothing complex about today for it is written and what those “entrusted” by us who supposedly pledge commitment to public service prefer to do is formulate policy very much pervaded with self-agenda and little compassion for the majority of Americans who are being impoverished by those who care not to compromise their salaries and pensions for the guy next door.

Printing dollars, spending and raising taxes to the extent that local, state and national implementation use fear and intimidation in their practice giving the taxpayer tne time necessary to defend oneself and more often than not, even driver’s licenses are being suspended because the States are so broke, they will violate the law themselves of affording one the time to properly respond to inquiry requesting an objective opinion. The States and counties are broke because of the salaries and pensions as well as healthcare offered to government workers….

Let all of us here on the street inform anyone in a government role, this government is by the people and for the people including Mr.President and even more so, Pelosi and Frank.

Furthermore,Pelosi, give up the plane ride to and from California costing us the taxpayer some $60,000 dollars for your travel each time. Take a commercial flight. Get the tickets on the web.

By the way, what were the total costs of your trip with your legion to Italy. We understand the Pope gave you fifteen minutes of an earful which by the way, you deserve with your reported $65million net worth. Do you or anyone down there in the beltway know what a gallon of milk costs?

You are so out of touch.

You, Mr. President and your party do not understand that you did not have 100% of the vote and support as many of us independents knew that your solutions were to raise taxes and that’s unquestionably what you are doing, however poeple cannot bear the increases and you are harming children for you cause disharmony in the home and from what we see, the police are called for increasing domestics, the for sale signs are all over America with few willing to buy other than speculation and so on and so forth.

Is America safer? I (we) don’t see it….Guns are being bought at levels never before seen, the President et al talks about making cuts to the number of nuclear weapons while every regime, every rogue nation are off and running making every effort to either manufacture WMD or share information like Korea and Iran. The Taliban is ever so stronger in Pakistan and 60-100 WMD and an Egyptian government is great jeopardy. The Koreans can now reach California with its missiles….

It is not the time to discuss cuts to our arsenal and it is time for us as a country that the Europeans led by the German and a soon to be 10 (ten) nation only EU which will challenge the thugs running Iran.

The only hope, Persian women and men who are the most well educated in the Middle East and who are proud of Persian contributions to civilization will not allow the dastardly ambitions of present Iranian leadership to become reality….

Are we safer? Our porous borders especially to our South have most likely afforded terrorist cells who have hooked up with the drug cartel to reside among us.

What about the Russians and Mr. KGB Putin. A crafty fellow. Two new pipelines into Europe to blackmail the Europeans as they desperately need gas and oil. Thus, German’s push with the Vatican’s Blessing to become the Middle East power broker supposedly interested in helping the Jew as its nation becomes surrounded once again by the Arab league, however Israel with its covenant, bot to worry….

Here on the street as Mr. & Mrs. Citizen Joe just trying to cope and stand tall in pride for the nation we once knew…We once knew…Safer? We don’t feel so.

While as independent voter I must say, kudos Mr. President for reaching out to the 1.4 billion Muslims, but having given not only most of our manufacturing and jobs to other countries as well the basic service jobs to call centers from Costa Rica to Mumbai, we are broke and the German-led EU which has intentionally scorned us for their own gain will deal with Muslims and vice-versa.

Indeed, the world is a dangerous place as so much is misunderstood about one another.

You are quite astute when you say that we here on the street are the most charitable folk anywhere, however do we feel safer…

I(we)don’t think so for many of us have been advised that despite the taxes we struggle to pay now, don’t count that one’s 911 call will receive prompt response. So many public safety personnel for basis emergency calls have been laid off or hours cut, the calamity that terrorists plan will never see a government prepared to come to the rescue for it is devisive and riddled with disunity and clarity in mission just as we see the lack of transparency at every level….

Let it be clear, we see the same incestuous behavior among you the “beltway boys” and at the local state house giving one another accolade after accolade, while the chess board looks more and more like depravity and immorality the theme of the day.

Are we safer?

We are surely much more distrustful of an expanding government.

As each day passes and we see the “change” meaning less quality in Life and a President speaking from two sides of his mouth as he wines and dines the first lady in New York on a date at a cost of minimally $60,000 an hour, how do you think we feel in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Phoenix when we read our “Economist” and clearly see Iran firmly entrenched in Iraqi governing, the same Iranians with so much of our young men’s blood on their hands and a President backing off and stating that Iran has a right to…well…not when it refuses inspection, not when it reiaterates the intentions of killing, murdering the Hebrew, not when its leadership makes intimidating remarks to Europeans stating that its missiles can reach most European capitals. We came from Europe and as Americans or anyone else, the harshness of Germans and 275 million Europeans “fluent” in German are quite an experienced and capable people who will lead us into WWIII.
We applaud the folks at NSA. We support DHS HQ and FEMA. Far too much politics though for the vigilance required is far to great for anything than committed diligence and through the efforts of the triple letter club and other government agencies, the workers with sleeves rolled up, these folks hear the devious muderers lurking about ready to pounce on a weakened America, a nation weakened from within simply because of ignorance of reality all about and the words which have been written forwarning us as to the prerequisite stamina in pride, ethics and motivation to challenge all that truly threatens our very existence.

Mr. President, while we do support you whenever possible, you are not FDR.

Are we safer?

Sir, let’s start with the basic and when asked by the press, tell your staffers not to scoff at the request.

Without your birth certificate presented to the court, we applaud your pledge to bridge mutual understanding to caring Muslims many of whom have not necessarily assimilated into American Life, but like other identities are proud to call themselves American with a clasp of hand to ancestors….yet, underlying all, each of your words and actions are suspect for many until you provide documentation of your respect for the laws made for all.

Are we safer?

It is said that Washington today does not like anyone questioning their actions and decisions and anyone who does like us – Mr. & Mrs. Citizen Joe – we are considered radicals. While this may be true or not given the mentality of some, let us remind every government since babylon, including this and every government, no matter form, has failed.

A nation’s inherent unity in respect, compassion and pledge of commitment foretells its destiny.”
*(Christopher Tingus 2009)

God Bless America! God Bless mankind!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

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