Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 31, 2009

I hear America singing

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 31, 2009


There is a treacherous connection between the health care debate and domestic counterterrorism.

The figurative — not yet literal — smoking gun, is the use of licensed firearms as symbols of protest.  (See Guardian news report and another from Fox News.)

In the August 23 New York Times, Frank Rich commented on the gun-toters and dismissed one apparent neo-Jeffersonian thusly, “The protester was a nut.  America has never had a shortage of them.”  He then proceeds to offer explanations for extremism not all that different from those offered here a couple of weeks ago.

But while Rich may be naming names, it is television that has defined what a “nut” looks like. The many angry, teary, tremulous,  little less than paranoid encounters looping over and again on cable news or YouTube are as informative as the cartoon above, which as cartoons go is an Hegelian  analysis. 

A cartoon must  be reductionist.  But reducing the concerns of these individuals to nothing but paranoia or another deficiency is dismissive and delusional.

A second amendment stalwart, John Longenecker, tries to explain, “The armed citizen is a symbol of Independence, reasonableness, respect for law and the reasonable expectation of it in others, and that includes the critical analysis of how much the government is needed or not needed for so many things. Armed citizens are not anti-government, they are simply for putting government in its proper perspective and function, and utilizing, invoking and abiding by governance we determine, not servants. We get the first and last say so, not the government, and that is what this is really all about.”

The gun-toting protesters are, it would seem, crudely communicating they perceive a government “take-over” of health care as just about the last straw.   Last week Michael Franc filed a piece with the National Review headlined, “The Slippery Slope of Health-Care Reform.”  For many conservatives it is a slippery slope to government control of entirely too much.

Carried on for awhile the discussion of guns as tools of protest leads to the question: What is the distinction between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter?  This is one place the health care debate intersects with homeland security.

This is not an easy discussion.  There are echoes from Francis Marion to Zulfiqar Mehsud.  The distinction often depends on the perspective of whose freedom and whose terror is involved.

Guns joining statistics and personal anecdotes as tools of argument lends the discussion a certain frisson.  If confronted by a fellow citizen deploying his or her licensed firearm as a semiotic tactic (that’s semiotic, not semi-automatic), I might explain the symbol is distracting to me. I would be a much better listener, I offer politely, without benefit of the, admittedly, powerful symbol. And I certainly want to listen.

I really do want to listen.  I don’t want to join in deriding and dismissing  those who have something desperately important to tell me.  And I understand the more important the issue — the more emotional one’s  involvement with the issue — the more difficult it can be to find the words (or symbols) to communicate full meaning.

As I approach this careful listening I am informed by the words Thomas Paine wrote early in Common Sense,

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer! Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

In most regards I agree with this common sense, and I notice the words are not so very different from those above of John Longenecker.  I wonder why I prefer Tom’s tone?

I am a conservative who is a loyal subscriber of the New York Review of Books (which is why I can use frisson and semiotic in the same paragraph).  I am a life-long Republican who served on candidate Barack Obama’s homeland security advisory panel. I am a confessing Christian who brightens with enthusiasm discussing how the Qu’ran and koans enrich my faith.  I can seem schizophrenic; yes, I am a libertarian (small L).

I am a libertarian because I think most of us, most of the time, are doing the very best we can and despite this we choose poorly.  But for better or worse it ought to be our choice and our consequence. 

I do not want to complicate your choice or your consequence.  But I do want to talk together, learn together, and — when necessary, as with health care or homeland security — make choices together.  In such choosing it is seldom the case to be wholly right or wrong.  In any case, such judgment regarding the future is beyond certainty. 

There are many times when the best we can do is listen, especially when what we first hear is strange or frightening.  We can listen enough — and care enough — to ask questions, before we offer judgment.

Listening is key to surveillance.  Listening and really hearing can contribute substantively to prevention.  I wonder if being truly heard — other than with a wiretap —  has ever deterred a terrorist attack?  Response goes considerably beyond listening.  But listening can enhance effectiveness in both response and recovery.   It is an essential skill.


I Hear America Singing is one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems.  In the “death bed” edition of Leaves of Grass, it is followed by What Place is Besieged, which is followed by the very short Still Though the One I Sing, which seems appropriate to today’s topic:

Still though the one I sing
(One, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to Nationality,
I leave in him revolt, (O latent right of insurrection! O
     quenchless, indispensable fire!)

August 30, 2009

“The fire burned at will; it went where it wanted to when it wanted to.”

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 30, 2009


Flames along Ocean Drive in LA County, Saturday night (Getty)

Monday Morning Update: Two firefighters have died.  Gov. Schwarzenegger warns fire is “totally out of control.” (6:30 am eastern)   Bloomberg has a good overview of the Monday morning situation.  The LA Times and CalFire links (below) continue to be best for details.

The Los Angeles Times is constantly updating a wildfires website

CalFire provides official information at http://cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_current

At 12 noon Eastern CalFire is reporting the Station Fire, above LA, is five percent contained.

The Watch has given considerable attention to wildfire risk.  There is nothing especially unexpected or unique regarding the situation in SoCal or with other fires now burning in California. 

Three prior posts with policy/strategy background:

Dry now, fires now, more of each soon

South Carolina fire is four miles wide

Black Saturday: Royal commission’s interim report released

Another post on June 9 highlighted a piece from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study  found,

Because of increasing concern about the effects of catastrophic wildland fires throughout the western United States, federal land managers have been engaged in efforts to restore historical fire behavior and mitigate wildfire risk. During the last 5 years (2004–2008), 44,000 fuels treatments were implemented across the western United States under the National Fire Plan (NFP). We assessed the extent to which these treatments were conducted in and near the wildland–urban interface (WUI), where they would have the greatest potential to reduce fire risk in neighboring homes and communities. Although federal policies stipulate that significant resources should be invested in the WUI, we found that only 3% of the area treated was within the WUI, and another 8% was in an additional 2.5-km buffer around the WUI, totaling 11%.

Earlier today Gov. Schwarzenegger explained that the Station Fire has been especially strong because there is a significant build-up of fuel since there has not been a fire in the area for sixty years.

There are many kinds of disaster.  Tragedy requires a sense of heroic potential misplaced.  What is unfolding in the hills above Los Angeles fits the definition.

Pashtun pride pressures US plans

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 30, 2009

There are roughly 14 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, out of a total  population of  28 million. Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan where there are nearly 30 million speakers of Pashto in a total population of 180 million.

While linked by language, geographic proximity, and observance of the Pashtunwali code of conduct, Pashtuns are divided into at least sixty contentious clans and even more tribes.

Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, is Pashtun.  So is Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hakimullah Mehsud and his Mehsud tribe are Pashtun as are the Waziri, long-time rivals of the Mehsud.  Both the Mehsud and Waziri have their homelands in Pakistan’s FATA.  Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of Pakistan’s Awami National Party, is also Pashtun.

Before his death Baitullah Mehsud had successfully crafted alliances with the Waziri and other cousins to support the largely Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan.  It is not yet clear if the alliances will survive him.  Rumors suggest an intense internal struggle before Hakimullah finally secured his succession to leadership of the Taliban-in-Pakistan (TTP).  There is evidence of al-Qaeda — and its funding — working to preserve Pashtun alliances along the Afpak border.

There is also evidence of the Pakistan military reverting to form and finding cause to avoid ground operations in FATA.  I was surprised when early this summer it seemed the comparative success of operations in Swat had enboldened military plans for FATA.  I am not surprised to see the long delay extended indefinitely.

Bobby Ghosh reports, “A senior Pakistani military official tells TIME a ground operation in the mountainous wilds of South Waziristanwould be too difficult and would risk triggering a ‘tribal uprising’ in a region over which Islamabad has little control.That assessment is shared by some Pakistan experts in Washington, who say the country’s military, despite some success against militants in the Swat Valley, simply doesn’t have the ability to confront the TTP head-on. ”

Instead of exploiting divisions in the aftermath of Baitullah’s death, it appears Pakistan will give AQ and Hakimullah time to consolidate.  This is likely to be achieved by increased TTP operations against both Pakistan and coalition forces in Afghanistan.  Hakimullah has also renewed his predecessor’s promise of a direct attack against the United States.

Score one for Pashtun parochialism.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, despite a low turn-out in most Pashtun populated — and Taliban intimidated — areas, it appears that President Karzai could be re-elected.  But the more votes he wins, the more suspicion grows of ballot-stuffing in the Pashtun heartland of Southern Afghanistan.

Being stuck with an unpopular and, perhaps, illegitimate chief-of-state does not advance US plans for Afghanistan. 

 According to Jeremy Page writing in the Times (London), President Karzai, “flew into a rage when the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan raised concerns over alleged election fraud at a meeting in Kabul.”

But the widely reported “explosive encounter” may be a fiction choreographed to position the President with his fellow Pashtuns.

According to Helene Cooper in the New York Times, “Administration officials accused Mr. Karzai’s agents of leaking to the news media select portions of the exchange… in order to make it look as if Obama administration were trying to force the rightful winner of the Afghan presidential elections — Mr. Karzai — into holding a runoff to satisfy American demands. Mr. Karzai, a senior administration official said, ‘has a longstanding pattern of creating a straw man of America’s positions, and rallying people around that. But contrary to those reports, no one shouted, no one walked out’  of the meeting, he said.”

Score another for Pashtun parochialism.  

Patronizing the prejudice of one’s political base is a time-honored skill.  But it is a double-edged sword where parochialism — unmitigated tribalism — is more powerful than the claim of any unifying measure of culture, nation, or faith.  While Karzai increasingly drapes the mantle of parochialism over his shoulders, Mullah Omar does not lead with his Pashtun identity, but flies the flag of Islamic unity, social stability, and political integrity. 

Late Saturday the Daily Telegraph reported, “General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in the country, wants to double the size of the Afghan security forces, decrease war fighting operations against insurgents and root out corruption among local government officials in a renewed effort to win over the “heart and minds” of the population.”

“The top level recommendations are contained within a wide-ranging review of the Afghan war strategy which has now been completed and is due to be dispatched to General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command (Centcom), before arriving in Washington in the next two weeks.”

Also according to the Telegraph, “Gen McChrystal, a former specialforces chief, has also recruited Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British SAS commander, who will head a team in Afghanistan with the sole purpose of trying to negotiate with the Taliban.  Lt Gen Lamb worked closely with Gen McChrystal in Iraq and was one of the architects of a strategy which convinced Sunni insurgents to abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda.”

While Karzai, Hakimullah, and AQ appeal to Pashtun parochialism, Mullah Omar and Stanley McChrystal are each trying to stoke a passion — at least a hope —  for something beyond narrow Pashtun pride.

More Background

ISAF Counterinsurgency Guidance: One of McChrystal’s first acts was development and release of this document.  A quick quote: ‘Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy. ISAF will succeed when the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan earns the support of the people.”

Seven days that shook Afghanistan (New York Times)

A tribal strategy for Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations)

The Idiots Guide to Pakistan (Foreign Policy)

KabulPress: An interesting blog where Pashtuns (and other Afghans) write for themselves and the wider world, sometimes in English.

Pashtun ethnic grievances at heart of Afghan war: Associated Press story published widely on August 15.

Monday Morning Update

Lots of media piling on the story that the Telegraph (above) reported on Saturday.  BBC reports from Brussels provide some authentically new information.

US needs fresh Afghan strategy (BBC)

Afghan strategy needs change (Washington Post via Reuters)

New strategy needed to defeat Taliban (Associated Press)

August 29, 2009

Tragedy + Renewal = Resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 29, 2009

In today’s weekly message the President focuses on Gulf Coast recovery.  He concludes his remarks with attention to what readers of  The Watch may recognize as all-risk readiness and resilience.

On this anniversary, we are focused on the threat from hurricanes. But we must also be prepared for a broad range of dangers – from wildfires and earthquakes, to terrorist attacks and pandemic disease. In particular, my Administration is working aggressively with state and local governments – and with partners around the world – to prepare for the risk posed by the H1N1 virus.  To learn more about the simple steps that you can take to keep you and your family safe from all of these dangers, please visit www.ready.gov.

So on this day, we commemorate a tragedy that befell our people. But we also remember that with every tragedy comes the chance of renewal. It is a quintessentially American notion – that adversity can give birth to hope, and that the lessons of the past hold the key to a better future. From the streets of New Orleans to the Mississippi Coast, folks are beginning the next chapter in their American stories. And together, we can ensure that the legacy of a terrible storm is a country that is safer and more prepared for the challenges that may come. Thank you

Earlier this week when I began researching the progress of recovery, I anticipated taking a rather negative angle.  I was surprised by the strong  evidence of renewal and, yes, resilience.

It is certainly possible — easy — to find contrary evidence.  But while I began with a negative bias, the predominance of what I found challenged that bias. (See collection of links in Friday’s post.)

In a comment on what was posted yesterday, William R. Cumming reasonably notes that New Orleans will be flooded again. No less than Craig Fugate has said Katrina could have been much worse.   A future hurricane — and a future levee breach — will certainly be worse than four years ago.

It should be possible to raise questions of return-on-investment without prompting accusations of philistinism or worse.  It is the question I intended to raise when I started the week.

But as wildfire threatens the suburbs of Los Angeles, and another hurricane swirls through the Atlantic, and H1N1 scurries across the planet it is also reasonable to recognize how we all abide on the edge of disaster. 

And it is worth celebrating the resilience of  human spirit wherever we find it.

August 28, 2009

Is this what resilience looks like?

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


An Illustration from AD: New Orleans After the Deluge

On August 29, four years ago, Katrina made landfall at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.   The next several days — and months — demonstrated how natural disaster can interact with human decision to cause catastrophe.

While what happened in New Orleans is only part of the story, it is an especially compelling chapter.  It was not the raging storm that wreaked the worst  havoc.  Katrina did, however, sweep away a forest of fig leaves.  It was no longer possible to obscure the long-term consequences of  corruption, short-sightedness, and naked self-interest.

After a troubled and agonizingly slow start, New Orleans is in recovery.  A report released earlier this week by an urban planning firm finds, “By all measures, New Orleans continues to grow. The city has recovered 77% of its population and more than$10 billion in new investments is underway. New businesses are emerging within the film and media industries, and the Health Care and Tourism industries are expanding.”

The New Orleans Index, a project of the Brookings Institution, provides a fabulous data-set and acute analysis of what has happened in the four years since.  Some highlights:

  • New Orleans has 65,888 unoccupied residential addresses.
  • The number of households receiving mail in New Orleans is now 76.4 percent of the pre-Katrina number, up from 49.5 percent three years ago.
  • Ongoing investment in recovery has softened the blow of the recession.  Among the 100 most populous urban areas, the New Orleans had the sixth lowest unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2009.
  • Housing prices for the New Orleans metro region fell 0.3 percent from first quarter 2008 to Q1 2009. This compares to a  6.9 percent average decrease for the 100 largest metros across the same time frame.
  • FEMA has obligated $900 million for infrastructure repairs in Louisiana since last July, bringing the total to nearly $7.8 billion, of which 58 percent has been paid to localities.

At the end of July the project directors for the New Orleans Index offered, “Residents and leaders are eager to get beyond ‘disaster recovery’  to implement bold plans for creating a sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous city and region. Locally, key moves are creating the foundation for transformation to meet residents’ long-term aspirations.”

Last Sunday, the Times-Picayune ran a largely laudatory story of the Obama administration’s support — and strategic shift — related to recovery.  The reporters, Jonathon Tilove and Bruce Alpert, note that in the, “first six months of (Obama’s) term, half his Cabinet has visited the Gulf Coast, with 19 senior administration officials making a total of 30 trips to the coast, 20 to Louisiana.”

The reporters interviewed a number of local leaders. “In the view of Paul Rainwater, who as the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority is the state’s chief hurricane recovery adviser, the Obama administration has exhibited an understanding of something fundamental about Hurricane Katrina that the Bush administration never did: that this was not another disaster, but a catastrophe beyond ‘anything anybody’s ever seen before.'”

“They appreciate that recovery is recovery and that it doesn’t always fit into a nice, neat package of rules, it’s a messy business, and it’s tough, and if you really want people to come back you have to look at it in a different way, ” he said.

Jed Horne, a writer living in New Orleans claims, “At its most interesting, New Orleans has become a laboratory for its own reinvention and perhaps for the reinvention of other cities as well.  We have made real strides toward reshaping government, the school system included. We have the opportunity, if we don’t blow it, to get health care and public housing right. Our very travail has made New Orleans a magnet for people from all over the country with a sense of adventure and a will to make a difference.”  (Oxford American, September 2008)

This shift from victim, innocent or complicit, to hero for others to follow is — while fraught — an amazing transformation.

Rebecca Solnit has written a new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that examines “extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.”  She looks hard at the aftermaths of Katrina, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 explosion of the SS. Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbor, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and 9/11. What Solnit finds is remarkable and recurring resilience.

In an interview with Rumpus Solnit explains, “What is kind of beautiful about Katrina is that even though the media and officials (were) working hard at telling us everyone in New Orleans was a monster, in the immediate aftermath more than 200,000 people invite displaced strangers into their homes through hurricanehousing.org and an uncounted horde go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to give, to love, to be in solidarity, and to rebuild–a moment like Freedom Summer magnified a thousandfold. It matters, and it’s deeply moving.”

Clearly there is still much to do.  The GCR & Associates report also found, “There are pressing challenges the city must face to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. These include the large number of blighted and aban­doned properties; the lack of affordable housing for many low income renters; the loss of more than 80,000 jobs in the metro area; and lingering concerns about the robustness of the region’s hurricane protection system. As the region shifts into a more active rebuilding period, it will be increasingly important to monitor critical investments while continuing to address the issues of poverty, poor education and lack of job opportunities that will inhibit long-term growth.”

Katrina, and certainly its aftermath, was a catastrophe for New Orleans.  There was a sharp break with what had gone before. Full recovery is not possible.  But there is the potential for something different than recovery, even something more… perhaps redemption.

Looking for what this might tell us of resilience, an excerpt from a poem by New Orleans poet Kalamu ya Salaam:

We are achievers, strivers, climbers, those who visit the summits

               regardless of the roughness of the mountain

               we have prepared ourselves to climb

               despite hurricanes and hard times

               we have disciplined ourselves to keep on keeping on


Additional background:

FEMA: Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office

Louisiana Recovery Authority

City of New Orleans Recovery Plan

Hope, reality collide in post-Katrina New Orleans (Associated Press)

Wetlands restoration needs to move faster (Times-Picayune)

Good Times for New Orleans tourism are rolling (USA Today)

Post-Katrina poll finds mixed results (Council for a Better Louisiana)

Entrepreneurs take to Big Easy (Wall Street Journal)

Help citizens help themselves (Times-Picayune)

Blight dims post-Katrina optimism (Fox News)

Residents struggle to rebuild homes in post-Katrina New Orleans (Southern Studies Institute)

Praise for Obama on Katrina (Associated Press)

The State of New Orleans: An Update (New York Times, Op-ed)

Four years after Katrina, a mix of progress and inertia (USA Today editorial)

Katrina remains cursed by rumour, cliche, lies, and racism (Rebecca Solnit writing in The Guardian)

AD: New Orleans After the Deluge (including online graphic documentary)

AD:  New Orleans After the Deluge  (NYT Book Review)

August 27, 2009

How To Improve Homeland Security: A Universal Risk Assessment for America’s Railroads

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on August 27, 2009

America’s trains carry more than 12 million passengers every weekday.  There have been no successful attacks on US rail systems in recent history.  Globally, however, railway systems remain an attractive target for terrorists.

Between 1998 and 2003, there were more than 180 attacks on trains and related rail targets around the world.  Terrorists have attacked railway systems most dramatically in Mumbai, Moscow, Madrid, and London, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.

What are America’s railroads doing to prevent a similar attack?

In January 2009, DHS reported “that more than 75% of the nation’s major rail and bus systems aren’t meeting [voluntary] Homeland Security guidelines” established in 2007.   The same report, according to a story written by Frank Thomas, found that “96% of airlines are complying with security requirements.” [my emphasis]

I don’t know enough about rail security to know what to make of the comparative findings. But I do know that guidelines are not the same as requirements. As a TSA leader phrased it, there is no penalty for failing to comply with guidelines.

Two years ago, The RAND Corporation released “Securing America’s Passenger-Rail System,”  offering a framework for railroad security planning.  As far as I know, it remains the most comprehensive treatment of the vulnerabilities and threats faced by American railroads.

To understand railroad system vulnerability, RAND “identified 11 potential target locations (e.g., system-operation and power infrastructure) within a notional rail system and eight potential attack modes (e.g., small explosives).  These targets and attack modes were combined to produce 88 different attack scenarios of concern.”

Today’s guest blogger is a security executive with a major rail system.  Her idea about improving homeland security begins with a different kind of scenario.  She outlines a vulnerability created by the networked nature of America’s railroads, and suggests what can be done about it.

Here’s the scenario:

Assume that Rail Carrier A institutes specific security procedures based upon its own risk assessment. Rail Carrier B shares track with Carrier A but does not prioritize the trains entering A’s environment based upon A’s risk assessment.

Security measures on B’s trains are limited.  Because A and B trains operate simultaneously in the same environment it is possible that the security efforts of A are less effective because of B’s inadequate measures. Both Carriers are operating under individual risk assessments, but the inter-connectivity between the two carriers has not been adequately addressed.

Now, what to do about this vulnerability:

1. What one sentence best describes your idea about how to improve homeland security?

The Department of Homeland Security should conduct a universal rail transportation vulnerability assessment to effectively address national risk.

2. Describe the idea in more depth.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires rail transportation entities, both passenger and freight, to conduct vulnerability/risk assessments.  The TSA does not identify one methodology for conducting these assessments.   In order to better assess the vulnerability of the nation’s rail and mass transit systems, the TSA, as directed by the DHS, should conduct a universal rail risk/vulnerability study with one defined methodology to accurately assess the entire inter-connected national rail system.

In many areas track is shared by freight, regional and other passenger rail systems.  Although each of these entities conducts risk and vulnerability studies, they are not shared among the carriers or effectively evaluated from an overall homeland security perspective.

A universal approach would better reveal high risk locations and could assist individual carriers in determining how to effectively deploy limited resources. The risk and vulnerabilities can then be prioritized on a broad scale and evaluated to maximize the effective use of federally and otherwise funded security projects.

3. What problem does your idea address?

It is undeniable that rail, both freight and passenger systems, are key components of the United States’ critical infrastructure. It is also well known that the rail transportation sector is a preferred target for terrorists.  Independent risk assessments, which may not accurately reflect inter-connectivity, will not be effective in determining the actual vulnerability of our national rail system and, subsequently, assist in accurately deploying security resources.

4. If your idea were to become a reality who would benefit most and how?

The traveling public would be the primary beneficiary of a universal assessment.  A broad based evaluation of risk may increase security by placing the limited resources where they are most needed.

Individual rail companies have separate owners, budgets and priorities.  They add security measures and harden targets that are important to them as individual carriers.  This go-it-alone strategy may only result in pushing the terrorist to a less vulnerable target, instead of using a nationally defined risk to improve the security of the entire system.  Adding security improvements on a broader scale may deter a terrorist from attacking the transportation sector as a whole.

5. What are the initial steps needed to get the idea off the ground?

The DHS must take a more active role in the overall security of the rail system than it has to date and promulgate a federal regulation or directive.  Resources would be needed to define the risk methodology and to conduct this assessment in coordination with the rail carriers.

It is possible that there may be limited support for this new assessment from rail carriers because assessments have already been completed.  Consequently the value of what I am proposing may not be understood or accepted.  Funding to conduct the assessment is also a significant issue.

Individual next steps will include promoting the idea through the appropriate chain of command in the various Carrier groups, and obtaining permission to discuss the concept with an appropriate member of the TSA.

6. Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented? How would you measure that outcome?

In the best case, all rail transportation would be universally assessed based upon the same methodology.  Security resources and funding awards would be deployed based upon these assessments.  Completing this universal assessment and resulting recommendations for a safer rail system could be a measure of success.

But the key to a safer rail will not be a report, but changes in rail security implemented because of the new assessment. The desired outcome will be to harden the entire rail system and make it a less attractive target for terrorists.

As in many cases, measuring the effectiveness of any security enhancement may not be possible.  But with a security approach derived from a universal rail sector risk assessment, we can achieve a new level of confidence in the security of America’s railroads.

August 26, 2009

Resilience Policy Directorate: 90 day review

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2009

On May 26 the President announced, “The full integration of White House staff supporting national security and homeland security.  The new ‘National Security Staff’ will support all White House policymaking activities related to international, transnational, and homeland security matters.”

I did not support this decision and, in fact, testified against it.  But I was encouraged by the recommendation to establish a new Resilience Policy Directorate within the expanded National Security Staff.  On June 2 this blog led with Resilience Policy Directorate: important, urgent, and open to definition

It has now been three months, what more do we know about the emerging definition of the RPD?  Not much, but following is what I have been able to piece together.

Richard A. Reed has been named Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience.  Under his direction are two policy portfolios: 1) Preparedness and 2) Response.  The Preparedness portfolio is directed by Brian E. Kamoie.  The Response portfolio is directed by Elizabeth A. Farr.  (A principal recommendation of the report calling for the RPD was to relocate responsibility for long-term recovery issues to the Domestic Policy Council.)

The rumor mill suggests the Preparedness portfolio (and really the entire RPD staff) is deeply engaged in brokering the interagency process focused on resurgence of H1N1.   A four or five person team organized around “All-Hazards Medical Preparedness” is the current center of gravity. 

In contrast, one staffer is currently responsible for Community Preparedness and Population Resilience, National Preparedness, and National Planning. While this is a broad front for one guy to handle, it is worth noting that Community Preparedness and Population Resilience was not among the specific policy priorities called-out in the PSD-1 report.  This strikes me as an addition with great potential.

The current intense focus on inter-agency coordination for a specific threat will be a defining experience for the RPD.  It probably could not be — perhaps, shouldn’t be — any other way (see H1N1 post immediately below).  But it highlights the powerful claim of what is urgent.  It is tough to think through, craft, and cultivate support for long-term policy/strategy innovation when an unpredictable pandemic is breathing down your neck.  It’s tough enough to defuse turf fights between departments when the threat is known. 

There are still three or four staff vacancies to be filled.  Altogether the RPD will consist of about sixteen folks.   Right now the staff consists mostly of non-military federalistas.  I have not been able to gin up background on every staffer and am not even sure I have identified everyone currently in place.  But I have not yet found much state, local, or private sector experience.

The rumor mill (again) suggests that the RPD is charged mostly with riding herd on the federal interagency process.  The background of the staff in place so far tends to reflect that mission focus. 

The PSD-1 report — or at least the out-brief given at the Homeland Security Policy Institute — included as one of fifteen core recommendations, “Better integrate state/local/tribal, public and  private sector into the policy process.”  It is not yet clear how (even if)  the RPD is organized or aimed to advance this goal.

Three months is not much time to stand up anything new, especially in the pressure cooker of the White House.  To stand up this particular directorate in the midst of a pandemic adds to the complications.  But pandemic preparedness may also be a great way to establish “street cred” with the other toughs on the federal block.

In another 90 days we will be able to assess how effectively the RPD performed its first urgent mission.  It will also be time to determine how the new directorate is contributing to other less urgent, but equally important, mission areas.   Resilience is much more than the very best preparedness and response.

Back in May listening to the roll-out of the new function, I heard the RPD conceived as a policy shop through which local priorities, impediments, needs, and strengths can have direct and early influence on shaping and executing global security.

Maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear.  But I still think it is a good idea.

H1N1 mitigation by process of elimination

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2009

“This report is being read very carefully.”  That’s what John Brennan said about the PCAST’s H1N1 study released yesterday morning.  I assume you have already heard or seen the headlines full of worst-case numbers.

You, too, can give the 64-page document a close read. Here it is: Report to the President on US Preparations for 2009-H1N1 Influenza (a bit more than 2 megs).

After reading  I hope you can correct a couple of my key take-aways.  It was late (or actually, early) and I was grumpy while reading, so I probably missed something important. 

First, it is unlikely that a vaccine will be available early enough to be of much help.  And other means of medical mitigation are more case-based than population-based. Here’s a quote from the report,

The fall resurgence may well occur as early as September, with the beginning of the school term, and the peak infection may occur in mid-October. But significant availability of the 2009-H1N1 vaccine is currently projected to begin only in mid-October, with several additional weeks required until vaccinated individuals develop protective immunity. This potential mismatch in timing could significantly diminish the usefulness of vaccination for mitigating the epidemic and could place many at risk of serious disease.

Second, the report’s authors seem conflicted regarding the principal means of non-medical mitigation. Another quick quote:

A key element in mitigating the spread of an epidemic is compliance with social distancing measures—for example, staying home from work or school or avoiding public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events when ill. However, compliance is unlikely when economic or other disincentives punish individuals for these behaviors. It is critical that appropriate Federal officials take the lead in identifying these disincentives and removing or minimizing them. Since immunizing large segments of the popula­tion likely cannot be completed before late November or early December, the use of social mitigation measures may represent the most effective means for reducing transmission of virus in the fall when it is spreading most efficiently.

Actually, that paragraph — by itself — seems stronger because it is taken out of context.  The tone of the whole report left me with a sense that support for aggressive social distancing is squishy. 

The reluctance I read between-the-lines may emerge from the PCAST’s entirely reasonable preference to impose a social distancing strategy only when and where there is clear empirical evidence for doing so. But as the report also notes, a key shortcoming in national preparedness for pandemic,

… is the lack of a rapid system for assembling detailed clinical data on severe cases that can provide a statistically adequate and continuously updated picture of risk groups and clinical course. Current systems rely on non-standardized reports from local health departments and on peer-reviewed case series, which are slow to become public.

Even if the existing disincentives to social distancing can be minimized in the next few weeks — which strikes me as less than likely — we don’t have a surveillance and reporting system sufficient to make fine-tuned strategic interventions.

So… where does that leave us? Interested in your take-aways.

 More background:

Press Secretary’s positioning of the PCAST report

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Surveillance and studies during a pandemic (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control)

Epidemiology of fatal cases associated with H1N1 (Eurosurveillance)

City has closed mind on closing schools (Juan Gonzalez, Daily News)

While written before the PCAST report was publicly available, this Washington Post indepth piece is relevant: Flu strategists see schools on the front line.

August 25, 2009

Good enough for me — Baitullah is (finally) declared dead

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 25, 2009

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, is dead, two of his senior commanders have told the BBC.

Confusion over the condition of  the Taliban-in-Pakistan leader has persisted since the first reports of his death emerged on August 6.

Baitullah has evidently been replaced by Hakimullah Mehsud — a twenty-something — with a reputation for boldness (or recklessness, depending on your taste).

In last night’s London Evening Standard, the widely-respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote, “The fierce internecine struggle for the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban – still unresolved nearly a month after his death – has involved shoot-outs, ambushes and assassinations among the various Pashtun tribal contenders… There is a huge dent now in the Pakistani Taliban and only further Pakistani military action in FATA co-ordinated with Nato forces in Afghanistan can finally turn the tide against extremist successes.”

Pakistan’s military began moving into the FATA in July.  But has, thus far, restricted offensive measures primarily to artillery and air operations.

Some sense of the recent uncertainty over Baitullah’s fate can be found here and here.

The High Value Shuffle

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Legal Issues,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on August 25, 2009

The Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut broke the story yesterday of the expected creation of a new inter-agency elite group of interrogators know as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (aka the “HIG”) who will “question key terrorism suspects” as “part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation.” The White House confirmed that the President had indeed signed off on the HIG, which will be overseen by the White House and National Security Council and housed at the FBI.  The new group will be expected to follow the Army Field Manual, unless its “scientific research program for interrogation,” which it will also oversee, supports otherwise.

Where does the HIG leave the CIA? And how about the ODNI, whose “goal is to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad.” By all accounts, yesterday wasn’t a good day for intelligence agencies.  It remains unclear what role either organization will have in the HIG, though the White House has said they will have seats at the table.  One wonders whether that means that they will be at the kiddie table down the hall, far away from the adult table where serious discussions are happening. The CIA was having an especially bad day, as the New York Times reported that Attorney General Eric Holder named John H. Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor out of Connecticut, to examine how the CIA treated prisoners and whether a full criminal investigation of CIA employees and contractors for abuse was merited.

While it is clear that President Obama is trying to distinguish his Administration’s interrogation and detention policies from that of his predecessor, what is not so clear is how the creation of the HIG will accomplish that.  If the CIA’s policies and procedures of most concern were generated and supported by some in the White House in the Bush Administration, how will creating a unit that reports directly back to the White House eliminate potentially potential influence, regardless of who is in the White House?  Does the creation of the group at the FBI mean that we are merging even further the legal and procedural regimes that govern criminal and intelligence cases?

Perhaps these questions will be answered when more details about the HIG emerge.  Until then, it feels a lot like a High Value (And potentially High Cost) Shuffling of Chairs in areas in need of serious oversight and analysis.

August 24, 2009

And clean behind your ears too!

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 24, 2009

The last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to assess what really happened at Ft. Lewis, Washington. 

Maybe you’ve already heard about John Towery (aka John Jacob), an Army employee, who has been accused of spending two or three years undercover to gather intelligence on Seattle-Tacoma area anti-war organizations.  Mr. Towery is a civilian member of the Ft. Lewis “Force Protection Division” or base security team.  Whether he was free-lancing or operating under orders is an important — and as yet unanswered — question.  (See news stories listed at end of this post.)

Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly writes that  Mr. Towery’s, “reports on antiwar groups were going to the Washington Joint Analytical Center, a partnership of local and state police, the FBI and the federal Department of Homeland Security.”

Anjali Kamat with Democracy Now! (see below) broke the story on July 28.  According to the original report, “The activists claim Towery has admitted to them he shared information with an intelligence network that stretches from local and state police to several federal agencies, to the US military.”


Evidence-based policing is really common sense policing.  You pay attention to what is happening — you give particular attention to known precursors — and you intervene early to prevent or mitigate outbreaks.

This is essentially the application of  epidemiology to law enforcement.  Malcolm Gladwell makes this connection especially clear in The Tipping Point.

Intelligence-led policing is — or can be — the application of active surveillance and early intervention to prevent catastrophic events.  With clear protocols, effective training, and principled supervision such proactive practices can protect and serve communities… and the Constitution.

But we can forget — or more often, neglect — the self-restraint, discipline, external checks and structural balances needed to avoid  the risk of caretakers becoming carriers of the disease they seek to prevent… or something even worse.

Before 1867 most surgeons did not wash their hands.  As they moved from one patient to another the germs they spread probably killed more than their surgery saved.  Their intentions were noble and pure.  Their hands were bloody, both literally and figuratively.

We don’t know — yet — what happened at Ft. Lewis.  But if anyone associated with the military was involved in any aspect of domestic intelligence-gathering, there should have been the strictest of antiseptic — actually prophylactic — protocols. 

Instead it sounds like someone wasn’t even using soap and singing happy birthday.

News Coverage:

Declassified docs reveal military operative spied on WA peace groups (Democracy Now!)

Olympia anti-war group says Fort Lewis employee a spy (The News-Tribune)

Army looking into monitoring of protest groups (New York Times)

Turning the US army against Americans (The Guardian)

The Watch: Six month self-assessment

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


Six months ago, on February 24 , I made my first post to Homeland Security Watch.  I expected to make one or two posts a week.  But in the weeks ahead, others who were expected to join The Watch received offers to join the new administration.   (You know what that says about me.)

In March Chris Bellavita began contributing.  You can now catch Chris’ cogent comments most Thursdays.  In May Jessica Herrera-Flanigan joined The Watch.  She is in charge most Tuesdays.  Any of us can blog anytime, but we all have “real” jobs too. Unless something big breaks — or our fancy is tickled — we tend toward our assigned days.

On March 16 Chris Bellavita posted what remains one of the most read pieces we have had: 85% of what you know about homeland security is probably wrong.   Slightly more readers accessed an August 13 post entitled Govs to DOD: Thanks but no thanks.  Unfortunately, not nearly as many read the helpful DoD response.

In April we hit our peak number of readers.  Without really trying, on April 12 The Watch was involved in “breaking” a story on a poorly crafted DHS intelligence product.  This  brought several days of heavy readership.  In late April we were one of the first non-medical blogs to give sustained attention to the emergence of H1N1.  Even more readers.

The back-to-back big stories caused our number of  new readers to surge. But looking back to mid-April, I judge it was the diversity of stories that kept readers coming back.  Along with many more “uniques,” our pageviews per reader also grew.  By the end of April our number of readers was about 40 percent higher than when I started in February. 

Since April we have lost about half that gain, but August (weirdly) looks to be our best month since April.  Readership is already more than 20 percent above last August — with seven days remaining. 

We continue to have our largest concentration of readers in the DC area, with 40 to 60 percent depending on the day.  But our spread is wider than six months ago.

I have been surprised that quantity of readers does not correlate with quantity of comments, and even less with quality of comments.   The topics attracting the most conversation have been (at least to me) unpredictable.  I spent a number of years in higher education and accreditation.  I would have never expected a guest post on accreditation of HS education to attract such sustained discussion.

Another guest post, this time on issues of leadership and command in dynamic situations generated even more comments (in response to the latter and a follow-on post).   Further, your comments were considered, detailed, and expert.

The Watch has given considerable attention to resilience and our readers have contributed a great deal to moving this from concept, to strategy, to implementation.  (See in particular here and here.)  Blogs that matter spark discussion, here’s  hoping that in the months ahead, I write less and you write more.

Some self-critique and thoughts for the next six months:

I have been too responsive.  It is much easier to respond to unfolding events than to dig deep and think fresh. 

Partly because I have been so responsive, I have not given enough sustained and focused attention to the development (emergence?) of  homeland security strategy.   Maybe strategy is being developed through the Secretary’s Five Priorities, or the QHSR, or beneath the high ceilings of the OEOB (or even in cramped cubicles across DC).  Strategy might even be bubbling up from State and local innovations (or stubborn resistance).  But in any case, my attention to strategy has been episodic and inconsistent. 

I have not given enough attention to prevention and mitigation of catastrophic risk.  I am pretty sure  this must be at the core of an effective homeland security strategy. It will be expressed through a positive program to cultivate psychological, social, physical, economic, and constitutional resilience.  But until more sustained consideration is given, that is barely a defendable hypothesis, not yet a theory, much less a practice.

Especially given your demonstrated interest in accreditation (who’d a thunk it!), I should give much more attention to  education and professional development for homeland security.   A strategy of resilience — or whatever we might talk through — will depend greatly on interagency, intergovernmental, and public-private research teaching, learning, and exercising together.

In the Night Watch, above, Rembrandt shows us a self-organizing Dutch homeland security force preparing itself for an evening’s work.  It is a wonderfully compelling chaos.  May the creative chaos of our Watch be as inspiring three years hence as Rembrandt’s is three centuries later.

Please use the comment function to tell us what would make Homeland Security Watch more meaningful to you over the next six months.  Many thanks for your contributions.

(See a larger and clearer Night Watch at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, select extra large view)

August 22, 2009

Jim and Joe write Carl and John

Filed under: Homeland Defense — by Philip J. Palin on August 22, 2009

There is another letter circulating related to Assistant Secretary Stockton’s proposal to put in place a legal basis for federal activation of reserves for disaster response.  See related prior posts here and here.

Below the NGA gives further attention to activating the Council of Governors established by the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act.

See related coverage by Roxana Tiron in The Hill and Megan Scully at govexec.com.


August 20, 2009

The Honorable Carl Levin
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable John McCain
Ranking Member
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Levin and Ranking Member McCain:

The nation’s governors oppose efforts to provide the Secretary of Defense with expanded authorities to assist in the response to domestic disasters as part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Governors remain concerned regarding proposed changes to the military’s authority to engage independently in domestic emergency response situations. We strongly believe the consideration of any such proposals should be preceded by a discussion regarding the tactical control of forces serving inside a state during a disaster response.

It is our understanding that the Department of Defense (DoD) has asked Congress to grant the Secretary of Defense the authority to order Reserve forces to active duty to assist in disaster response as part of the NDAA conference agreement for Fiscal Year 2010. As you know, a similar provision was included in last year’s House version of the NDAA, but was removed in conference because of governors’ concerns. In the Joint Explanatory Statement that accompanied the bill, Congress made clear that DoD should engage governors to address their concerns before moving the proposal forward:

“The Department of Defense should engage with the community of governors to work out an understanding of unity of effort during domestic terrorist events and public emergencies. This key underlying issue must be addressed to allow this and other promising proposals to be enacted.”

Recent outreach by officials at DoD to correspond with governors regarding their proposal is not sufficient to engender governors’ support or justify moving ahead with the proposal at this time. As set forth in the attached letter we sent recently to Paul Stockton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs, governors welcome the opportunity to work with DoD to discuss unity of effort and tactical control during disasters and to identify legislative and operational opportunities to improve our response to such events. These discussions, however, should not be done hastily and should be designed to address concerns and forge understanding between governors and the department.

Fortunately Congress created the appropriate forum for discussing this issue when it called for the creation of the Council of Governors as part of the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2008. We’ve encouraged DoD and the Administration to establish the Council of Governors to facilitate consultation and coordination between the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and governors on issues critical to homeland defense and emergency response. Your support in ensuring the Council of Governors is quickly established would help facilitate the dialog that must take place before any legislation regarding these issues moves forward.


Governor James H. Douglas
Governor Joe Manchin III
Vice Chair

The Honorable Ike Skelton, Chairman, House Armed Services Committee
The Honorable Buck McKeon, Ranking Member, House Armed Services Committee

August 21, 2009

Do I see what you see? Probably not.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 21, 2009


Over the last four days Homeland Security Watch has considered:

  • The origins of domestic terrorism,
  • A proposal to activate military reserves to respond to disasters,
  • Technological challenges facing homeland security,
  • Leadership changes in Pakistan’s tribal areas,
  • Recommendations for wildfire readiness, communication, and response,
  • Vaccine production for H1N1, and
  • State and regional fusion centers.

In each posting observations were shared to inform your decisions and actions.

In some of these posts, a specific orientation was pushed.  For example, I suggested that social isolation should be considered an important factor in recruiting a wide range of potential terrorists.

The proposal to activate military reserves for disaster response elicited very strong reactions on a number of blogs, but not so much at HLSWatch.  The divergence of reaction may suggest that while readers are observing the same proposal, decision and action differ because of the orientation many of you bring to your reading. 

Yesterday Chris Bellavita offered at least four (maybe more) different orientations on the current reality of  fusion centers.  Each of the orientations are — in part — a reflection of how other orientations are observed.  Not surprisingly, the (obvious?) decisions and actions unfolding from these different orientations are… well, different.

One of those with whom Chris was talking mentioned OODA loops.  This is the Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action framework set out by the late John Boyd.  A former Air Force fighter pilot and wide-reader in phenomenology, Colonel Boyd offered, “Orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.”  (Organic Design for Command and Control, slide 15)

Reality-as-experienced is variable and dependent on one’s orientation to what is observed.  As Dr. Bellavita seems to have been reminded, there is not much value in arguing over what is observed until the orientations involved are identified and, as much as possible, mutually understood. 

My reality is not your reality.  But we can increase what we share, with effort.

This does not require adopting the other’s orientation.  In many cases, this is impossible in any authentic way.  But we can cultivate sympathy for how other realities persist within their own logical systems.  This is possible in regard to our political adversary’s  orientation, the terrorist’s  orientation, and even the bureaucrat’s orientation.

Instead of only talking to myself  (or similar selves),  I can communicate —  both receiving and sending — with the truly other.  In this communication there is a potential to break free of the limitations imposed by a singular orientation. 

Colonel Boyd is best-known for describing how the orientation function can be exploited to confound adversaries.  But he also addressed struggling with orientation as the foundation for forging greater unity in a team or society.  He wrote,

We must find some common qualities, attributes, or operations to link isolated facts, perceptions, ideas, impressions, interactions, observations, etc., together as possible concepts to represent the real world. Finally,we must repeat this unstructuring and restructuring until we develop a concept that begins to match-up with reality. By doing this—in accordance with Godel, Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics—we find that the uncertainty and disorder generated by an inward-oriented system talking to itself can be offset by going outside and creating a new system. Simply stated, uncertainty and related disorder can be diminished by the direct artifice of creating a higher and broader more general concept to represent reality. (Destruction and Creation, page 6)

We each tend toward being an “inward-oriented system talking to itself,” never moreso than in the blogosphere.  But that is a dead-end.  Closed systems collapse.


Yesterday I made another visit to the Renwick Gallery.  The piece above, called The Listening Point (1993), is part of an exhibition that opened earlier this month and continues through January 3, 2010.  The artist is Mary Van Cline.   I see a visual metaphor for opposite realities encountering one another across cultural chasms.  What do you see?

August 20, 2009

Inside the fusion center petri dish

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on August 20, 2009

This post is about fusion centers.

Fusion centers are my favorite example of how emergence works in the complex adaptive system that is homeland security.

The story has often been told.  Contemporary fusion centers started in a half dozen states and cities.  Independently public safety officials perceived a need to organize and analyze various streams of information and intelligence.  There was no grand national plan.  Centers just emerged in response to a need. That was Phase I.

The federal government stimulated Phase II by offering Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention funds to states and cities that wanted to set up their own centers.  The funds were accompanied by oral and written entreaties to standardize. Conceptually, this was an effort to bring regularity to a largely uncontrolled national experiment.

Money plus perceived need created an ideal growth medium for the fusion center ecosystem.  There are now more than 70 fusion centers.

I don’t know when we entered the current Phase III, but like the economy, fusion centers have stopped growing. In the words of one federal official I spoke with this week, “Fusion centers are in jeopardy.”

Homeland security may be a complex adaptive system subject upon occasion to evolution’s  “variation, selection and reproduction” ritual.  But the people who make up that system are not the blindly obedient servants of a disinterested nature.  They are agents of interests with — to varying degree — free will. Evolution of human systems can be affected by those humans.  Not controlled, but influenced.

Serendipitously, I had the opportunity to speak with three people this week who are in the midst of fusion centers’ Phase III evolutionary dynamics.  These are people who have a perspective about fusion centers and who are in a position to influence what happens to them.  To influence, not control.

One person manages state budgets.  Another is a federal executive trying to make fusion centers work across the country.  The third person runs a state fusion center.

What follows is a summary of the words they spoke this week, via email, telephone and in person.

The state budget manager: Sustainment funding should be a baseline capability

“I am in a meeting  listening to a presentation by a very nice gentleman from [a state] Fusion Center.  The speaker is speaking now about the lack of funding to sustain regional centers and the state center.  I have a brief discussion with him about this issue.

He thinks I’m nuts.

What I don’t understand is why neither he nor anyone else seems to understand the fundamental issue with these and other programs that are initiated with grant dollars.

Federal grant funds can allow state agencies to bypass their normal state funding and program approval processes.  States get appropriations for federal grant dollars through their legislatures often without specific capitol projects or programs being debated or discussed and often without studies to determine the sustainment costs and budgetary impacts on states or local governments.  So a state police agency stands up a “fusion center” using grant dollars.  But sustainment is not in their budgets.  After operating for a year or two, these facilities find that maintenance, system refreshments and personnel costs begin to affect their operating budgets.  They also find their host department’s budgets are being cut because of state or regional economics.  And they, including the speaker I’m listening to, suggest that perhaps the feds should fund state fusion centers.  I contend doing that would make them federal fusion centers.

I suggested that state or regional fusion centers should not be built or operated if they cannot be supported by regional revenue.  The response was that they are already built and should be  sustained.  Why?  If there is value they should be in the host agency’s budget.  Isn’t this why there is a deficit?  Someone should be looking into the governance issues associated with the homeland security grant funded programs in the various states.  I suggest that fusion centers should not be constructed without a mechanism for sustained funding by their host government.  There is a fusion center fad right now that seems irrational.

I think the speakers think I’m crazy, but isn’t there more than one way to do fusion, or must we build expensive facilities for this purpose?

Someone needs to point out that we are heading down the road of implementing programs for the sake of programs, and that the grant funding model that we have facilitates the ability of agencies to implement programs without the full support and checks and balances associated with existing funding mechanisms in governments.  Few city councils or legislatures are going to refuse grant dollars.  But they don’t realize that they are being used to stand up programs that they (councils or legislatures) will be expected to fund in the future.

The feds have published fusion center guidelines and baseline capabilities.  They work with states to make sure that their fusion centers meet this guidelines in order to get DHS support and involvement.  Sustainment funding should be a baseline capability or at least a guideline for an approved fusion center.”

The federal executive: Fusion centers contribute to national security

“Many fusion centers started because of grants that helped states build intelligence and information sharing capabilities.  Then came declining budgets and the economy.  Everybody’s hit hard.  Yeah, a lot of the centers are in jeopardy, very much so.  That is why its important for them to show their relevancy, why they are important, and the value they add.  Because if they add value and somebody wants to shut them down, well they’re not going to let them shut down and then have to deal with their constituency.  That’s why its important to build toward standardized baseline capabilities.

I’ve heard it said that ‘If  you’ve seen one fusion center you’ve seen one fusion center.’  That’s total nonsense and it’s counterproductive, because it’s not true. Nor should it be true.  This is why the federal government needs to work with states and locals to help them build toward baseline capabilities.  FEMA, DoJ and I&A have done some good things related to technical assistance [to fusion centers] with connectivity, training, privacy, civil rights and helping to build that value added.  But the federal government can only do so much.  It’s also up to the states and major urban area fusion centers to build the capabilities.  But we’ll help them.

I support an increase in financial support for fusion centers.  But it needs to be a blend.  While states and cities have to carry their weight, there is also a federal responsibility here.  There needs to be a fiscal balance because fusion centers add value at a state and local level.  But fusion centers are also contributing — significantly sometimes — to national security.  So the federal government should help pay the bill.”

The fusion center director: trying to get out of Dodge

“I’ve come to the view that the idea of us guessing when the next attack is going to occur from the fusion center perspective is just not going to happen.  I’m fooling myself by trying to guess what the next dot is I have to connect.   I know I have been a huge proponent of prevention, but it’s also ok to respond to something as long as you respond in a timely manner.

To me, that changes the paradigm of fusion centers as well as homeland security. We know that police and fire are tuned up to be responders, so why not leverage what we are good at?  I’m not saying intelligence goes away.  By no means am I saying that.  Intelligence can become more of a contextual basis for what may be happening or what may happen.  It can provide us with strategic situational awareness.

Intelligence fusion centers can contribute to the Orient stage of the homeland security OODA loop.  The function of intelligence should be to help an agency process through its OODA loop at a much more rapid rate.  Using intelligence this way adds to our resilience.

That’s my theory.  But there is also a practical reality: in this economy, I can’t hire analysts. I can’t get funds for any collaborative platforms for wikis or other tools.  And it’s not going to happen any time soon now, not with what’s going on fiscally.

I certainly want to win here. I want to prevent terrorism.  I want to put numbers on the board.  But I’m not stupid either.  I have got to chose my battles.

It’s like George Washington.  Once he kicked the ass of those Hessian soldiers he said, ‘You know what, I gotta get out of Dodge and scram. I got to get back across the river.’  He did that because the other Hessians were heading in to help.  And right now I’m just trying to get out of Dodge.

I’m nervous now.  I’m really serious about and committed to fusion centers. But we’re finding out there’s a lot of things we can’t control, for a variety of reasons.

You know a lot of folks have forgotten about the catastrophe and consequences of 9/11.  And it’s really not driving budgets right now.  I still believe in fusion centers but there’s more happening on the criminal side.  I see the really cool things we are doing with mashing information and data.  I just don’t see it happening to the degree, to the level it should be happening with [the terrorist] threats.  It is making me very nervous.”

August 19, 2009

“Every pediatrician, internist and public health official is cross-eyed”

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on August 19, 2009

An H1N1 vaccine is unlikely to be ready on time — or in sufficient quantity — to have much impact on its spread this fall. 

Tom Randall with Bloomberg reports, “Just 45 million of 195 million doses ordered for the U.S. will be delivered by mid-October, said health officials who lowered their estimates yesterday. The vaccine will probably require two shots given three weeks apart, and the body won’t produce antibodies for two additional weeks, according to an Aug. 7 report by the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“’This has been a virus that’s been smoldering, particularly among children at the many summer camp outbreaks,’ said William Schaffner, of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. ‘There’s no doubt it’s coming, and we could see it as early as September. Every pediatrician, internist and public health official is cross-eyed’ with worry, he said.”

Shortfall expected in US swine flu vaccines (AFP)

US tries to counter some delay in swine flu shots (AP)

US government to advise businesses on swine flu (Reuters)

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