Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 30, 2009

Ready or not, what’s our resilience plan?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2009

Tuesday’s afternoon speech was a bit of a command performance.  The vast majority of those in the hall were either FEMA officials or semi-official American Red Cross personnel.

The ARC personnel were arguably proxies for Secretary Napolitano’s  intended audience: the American people.  But whether Arcan or Feman, most probably nodded gravely at her main message.

So this is a very good time to take stock and talk about how we go about building a more ready and resilient nation. A ready nation is one where communities are prepared for the types of emergencies they are most likely to encounter.

It’s one where federal, state, local and tribal governments are working in harmony with local communities, the private sector, and individuals; taking steps, big and small, to be better prepared for natural disasters they may face. But they also prepare for the seemingly random but deliberate attacks that can occur.

Being resilient means having the plans, the resources and the capacity to bounce back quickly, adapt to changes, and emerge stronger than before when disasters strike. We need to have both readiness and resilience. We think of them like twin strands that make a stronger cable once they are woven together.

The strategic framework I am reading-between-the-lines is that readiness is focused on likelihood, while resilience is especially needed for what cannot be anticipated.  And while both the private and public sectors can be ready and resilient, there is a particular need for the private sector to be resilient.  The Secretary continued,

…building a resilient nation doesn’t come from a top-down, government-only, command-and-control approach; it comes from a bottom-up approach; it comes from Americans connecting, collaborating; it comes from asking questions and finding new solutions. And it comes from all of us as a shared responsibility….We need ready and resilient communities. And to build these, the country needs you, it needs each individual. It needs you to get involved in your communities on a regular basis—not just in times of crisis—so that taking steps toward readiness and resilience becomes a routine.

The specific measures that the Secretary celebrated and advocated are those that allow victims of disaster to survive without outside help and extend help to others.  Depending on the scope and scale of a disaster, individuals and communities may not receive outside assistance for hours or days.  Planning to be on your own for three days is a typical rule-of-thumb.


The 8.3 earthquake  hit 120 miles south of American Samoa about an hour before the Secretary arrived at Red Cross Headquarters.  The first South Pacific tsunami warning was issued by NOAA at 1803 UTC or 1:o3 PM Eastern Standard Time.


Notice the past tense.  Ocean sensors being monitored at the NOAA office in Hawaii indicated the tsunami hit Pago Pago, American Samoa about one hour before the confirmation was issued, about eleven minutes after the initial quake.  The crest of the tsunami is reported to have ranged between 20 and 30 feet.

According to BBC reports, “American Samoa Governor Togiola Tulafono said the effects of the tsunami would touch everyone. ‘I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,’ he said. Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa in the US Congress, said the waves had ‘literally wiped out all the low-lying areas in the Samoan islands’.  He said the tsunami had struck too quickly for a full evacuation.”

Tuesday night President Obama declared a “major disaster” under the Stafford Act.

American Samoa has about 60,000 residents. The  total land area  of five islands is a tad larger than Washington D.C.  The islands are nearly 2500 miles south of Hawaii.  I hope they were ready. There have been, reports suggest, tsunami drills. Given Samoa’s isolation and the apparent impact of the tsunami, they will surely need to be resilient.


The Secretary herself identified this as one of five critically important policy speeches she will give.  It was written for a general audience.  It was heard –at least in the hall and here — mostly by specialists, geeks, and wonks.  I have not found a single mainstream media mention.

I understand the motivation to make resilience sound familiar.  As the Secretary points out in her speech, it has a long and honorable pedigree.  But as policy and strategy it is new.  Partly it is new because in some ways our culture, economy, and infrastructure have become less resilient than was once the case.

Part way through the speech, the Secretary said, “So I’m calling on you—and the President and the First Lady are calling on you—to go one step further, to get involved. And to start that, we’re asking you to raise your hand and ask whenever you are in one of those groups, “What’s our plan?”. You know, the next time your group meets or your staff gathers for lunch, I want you to raise your hand and ask, “What’s our plan?”

Well… here’s my call to action.  I invite the readers of this blog — and anyone else you can recruit — to develop the geekiest, wonkiest, most specialized resilience strategy you can.  Announce it here, link it here, consult on it here.  I will be on the look-out to headline the most interesting contributions.  Keep the first draft (executive summary?) at ten pages or less.  I will read each one.  I will choose what I think are the best three strategies submitted.  I will probably ask Chris and Jess for their advice, but I will make the final choice.

I will then buy lunch for all three authors at a Washington D.C. restaurant called Policy (haven’t been there, heard good things, seems appropriate).  While eating lunch we will try to craft a common approach to a resilience strategy, report it out here at The Watch, and push it into the Secretary and others anyway we can.

Look, look — over here — I’m raising my hand!  What’s our plan?

A ready and resilient nation

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2009

To access a transcript and a video of the Secretary’s speech, please visit the Blog @ Homeland Security:


Here’s today’s transcript, has anyone seen yesterday’s?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security has released the prepared testimony that Secretary Napolitano filed for this morning’s Senate hearing before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  The topic is “Eight years after 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”

I don’t see much new or different.  There is a brief riff on violent extremism that I haven’t  noticed in her prior statements, but it clearly derives from John Brennan’s more extensive remarks on the topic.  Anyway, for the record, you can see what she wanted the Committee to have by choosing the link above.

I still cannot find a transcript of the Secretary’s remarks on readiness and resilience given yesterday at the American Red Cross Headquarters.  Can you point me to a copy?  There are lots of places across the web promising to provide, but nothing is there yet.

What happened, did she waft off-script and speak so spontaneously that the transcriptors are still sweating over grammar corrections?

Afghanistan: How to resolve ambivalence

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

The choice in Afghanistan — we are told — is between a counter-terrorism strategy and a counter-insurgency strategy.

A counter-terrorism strategy would focus mostly on al-Qaeda and the Afpak border. By narrowly defining our problem, and not being distracted by the broader Afghan context, we could move to substantially reduce the NATO footprint. Counter-terrorism would depend mostly on “surgical” special operations, predators, and other air-borne strikes.

Vice President Biden is often said to be a principal advocate for an intently focused counter-terrorism strategy.  This morning’s Washington Post has a front page story that makes the case for how it would work.

In his leaked strategic review, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, makes the case for a broader counter-insurgency strategy.  Saturday McChrystal was in Brussels where he asked NATO, including the United States, for 100,000 additional troops to implement this strategy.  The NATO Secretary-General is now in Washington.

According to McChrystal, effective counter-terrorism requires a successful counter-insurgency strategy.  At the top of his August 30 assessment is, “Stability in Afghanistan is an imperative; if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or has insufficient capability to counter transnational terrorists — Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism…”

But McChrystal’s strategy also notes the crucial role of internal governance (along with economic development and security) in an Afghan counter-insurgency strategy.  Some argue McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan is  fated-to-fail due to the corruption and fractiousness of anti-Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. 

It is widely assumed by all sides that without NATO support the current Afghan government will fall.  Across the Pashtun South and Southeast this would result in de facto — even de jure — Taliban rule.  While there is good evidence most Afghans, and even most Pashtuns, do not support the Taliban, there is no credibly organized opposition to the reassertion of the Taliban. In many rural regions a Taliban shadow government is already fully in place.

We must accept this reality — the counter-terrorists insist — and deal with it as best we can.  Accommodate the Taliban, but take-out the terrorists.

Is this deduction as realistic as claimed? Even now — with much more self-interested and assertive Pakistani interventions (and increasingly our own) — the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue operations in Quetta, Peshawar, and all along the border regions.  Inside Pakistan, with a legitimate and competent (if troubled) government, it is barely possible to contain the Taliban and its allies.  Would it be different in a Taliban-triumphant Afghanistan?

The counter-terrorists argue that our only real concern is the bad guys who have targeted us. Take out AQ, they say, and we need not be concerned about what happens in Afghanistan.  Take out AQ, they say, and the Taliban will reset around Pashtun parochialism.

Two weeks ago, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban and self-styled Amir ul Momineen, distributed a mostly nationalist and comparatively restrained message marking the end of Ramadan.  But it is not hard to discern echos of his broader goal,

I urge the Islamic Ummah, particularly the Islamic and Jihadic organizations to remain aware of the conspiracies of the enemy; abandon their internal differences and begin a concerted and comprehensive struggle for the defense and freedom of the oppressed and occupied Ummah.

Further, the title which Omar has taken for himself, Amir ul Momineen or Commander of the Faithful, is that associated with the first four Caliphs of Islam, implying a vision and ambition to reunify the whole of the Islamic world under his austere rule.

There is significant ambiguity regarding prospects for our Afpak strategy and its implications for domestic homeland security.  But ambiguity is always an aspect of the future. The future is innately indistinct, indefinite, uncertain, and equivocal. 

There is an important difference between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambivalence is to be divided between two or more equally strong alternatives.  In Afpak we are faced with ambiguity and ambivalence.

Ambiguity is resolved — eventually — by making a choice and carrying-through as best we can.  Action over time resolves ambiguity. 

Ambivalence is mostly a matter of our own attitude and is usually more resistant to resolution.  When struggling with ambivalence, it is my personal experience that the best long-term solution almost always engages the more difficult and selfless choice.

Is it appropriate — even possible — for a nation to make a “selfless” choice?  Just the question is more evidence for the depth of  current ambivalence.

September 29, 2009

Our shared responsibility: Building a ready and resilient nation

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

Today at 2:15 (eastern) Secretary Napolitano gave a capstone speech for National Preparedness Month.  It was billed as a “focus on the important role that citizens must play in building a ready and resilient nation.”

For whatever reason, my connection never really held and I was unable to watch the webcast.  As of 3:30 eastern the transcript has not yet been made available.  But the Secretary has provided a preview of her main points via a post to the DHS Leadership Journal.  She writes,

Civilians are usually the first to arrive in a crisis, and history shows that they are critical in those important first minutes. And these citizen responders can be an even more potent force by:

  • Taking CPR training from the Red Cross
  • Training with a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)
  • Knowing when to take shelter or evacuate
  • Pre-planning evacuation routes and where to meet after a disaster strikes

If a disaster struck your hometown, that training, those skills, and those plans would free up first responders and emergency personnel to focus on those most in need.

So today, I’m calling on all Americans, across the country, to do two things.

First, take these basic steps:

  1. get an emergency kit;
  2. make a family reunification plan; and
  3. become informed about the types of emergencies your community is most likely to encounter.

Second, I’m asking all of us who are in book clubs, prayer groups, school boards, alumni associations, or other community organizations, simply to raise your hand and ask, “What’s our plan?”

Together, we can build a culture of readiness and resilience, and together we can build a more secure future.

According to a DHS news release, the Secretary’s remarks included, “We should measure our nation’s security not just by the borders we strengthen and the laws we enforce, but also by the strength and resilience of the communities we build.”

When the full transcript is available we’ll see if it is worth some exegesis and, maybe, even some exposition.

September 28, 2009

Johnson’s testimony on I&A reconceived

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Philip J. Palin on September 28, 2009

Last Thursday Bart R. Johnson, DHS Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

About the time Mr. Johnson began his testimony, I was taking attendance for an advanced seminar with a name very close to the subcommittee’s. As a result, I did not catch the hearing.   But Mr. Johnson’s testimony deserves more attention than it got from the mainstream media. 

Below are some key excerpts. You can read the complete testimony and access a webcast of the entire hearing from the Committee’s website.

The Acting Undersecretary identified four strategic goals for I&A:

  • Goal 1:  Be the premier provider of homeland security intelligence, which entails building, supporting, and integrating a robust information-sharing capability focused on getting intelligence and homeland security-relevant information to those who need it, when they need it.
  • Goal 2:  Strengthen existing partnerships and forging new ones.
  • Goal 3:  Operate as a single integrated team focused on mission and customers.
  • Goal 4:  Enable the mission by maximizing performance and accountability, including protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Mr. Johnson’s prepared testimony gives considerable attention to  the relationship between I&A and the seventy-two state, local, and tribal fusion centers.  In part, he explained,

One of the primary reasons for I&A’s existence is to strengthen the sharing and dissemination of useful intelligence and information between the federal government and our state, local, tribal and private sector partners.  I take this responsibility seriously, and it is infused into the I&A strategic goals. I&A will provide increasingly functional and useable intelligenceand other information to these partners. Fusion centers are and will continue to be the critical delivery vehicle for this intelligence.   

As Secretary Napolitano has said, while a great deal of information sharing is occurring today—among and between agencies and departments at all levels of government—the key for protecting the Homeland from attack is disseminating usable intelligence and information to our state, local, tribal and private sector partners, getting similar intelligence and information back from those partners for analytic work by I&A and the IC, and ensuring this two-way exchange happens on a real-time basis.  

It may be unintentional — and  I hope it is inaccurate — but the language suggests production of usable intelligence at the federal level that is consumed by the fusion centers and then distributed down a food chain.  What seems to be suggested is a one way supply rather than a meaningful partnership.

I am a big believer in intelligence targeting.  In my seminar, we don’t get to this until late afternoon on the first day.  Before lunch Mr. Johnson was telling the subcommittee that I&A would focus on four priority targets:

  • Analysis of Weapons of Mass Destruction.  I&A will maintain a focused, senior in-house expertise and ensure surge capacity, in coordination with the FBI.
  • Violent Radicalization.  I&A will realign to collaborate with the National Counterterrorism Center and other federal agencies for substantive reporting on violent radicalization.
  • Domestic Terrorism.  I&A will work with the FBI and other law enforcement partners to identify analytic and other reporting relevant to our state, local and tribal consumer base.
  • Health Security.  I&A will work closely with the DHS Office of Health Affairs, in addition to the Departments of Health and Human Services and Defense as well as other relevant agencies, to identify analytic and other relevant reporting.

That last target is rather interesting, n’est-ce pas?  Can’t you imagine Hercule Poirot’s approach to epidemiology?  Choosing the right targets is tough.  It would be interesting to know more about how these were selected.

Mr. Johnson also emphasizes producing consumer-friendly intelligence products, “We will also commence a comprehensive consumer outreach effort to make sure what we are producing is what our customers at the state, local, territorial, tribal and private sectors want, at the time they want it, and in the form they need it.”  I wonder if there is an alumnus of my seminar on his team?

Even more musical — at least to my ears — was Mr. Johnson’s commitment to training and education.  He said,

Intelligence training is a critical capability that will enable fulfillment of I&A’s strategic goals, and Operations will build on past I&A success in training.  I am determined to prevent the ever-increasing demand for vital training and professional development services from outstripping our ability to deliver, and am therefore increasing the size of I&A’s intelligence training staff.  I&A currently provides a core suite of intelligence training courses for a broad spectrum of intelligence personnel, including state and local analysts and component personnel in the DHS IE.  Our entry level Basic Intelligence and Threat Analysis Course (BITAC) is the hallmark of our training success.  We are proud of the level of participation received from within the Department, graduating 192 students in three years.  As a testament to this success, we were recently asked by U.S Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – both components of the DHS IE –  to train a large cadre of their new hires over the next year.   In addition, state, local and tribal law enforcement officers and other representatives are able to use applicable homeland security grant program funds to participate in BITAC. 

I focus on access and analysis of open sources, so I don’t expect to get a call.  But I will offer some unsolicited advice. 

  • Pay more attention than in the past to strategic intelligence so that tactical intelligence is recognized in-its-context. 
  • If you have an enticing bit of classified intelligence try to confirm it using open sources.  If there is neither historical evidence nor current chatter to suggest validity, be cautious. (That’s not just my opinion, see Ken Liberthal’s study below.)
  • Don’t treat state, local and tribal colleagues merely as consumers, or as junior partners, or as constituents.  Consider them your Jack Ryans. Or better yet a whole team of nouveau Alexis de Tocquevilles listening, watching, and writing with potentially significant insights.  With a little respect and some good questions, they will see more and be able to tell you more than any algorithm.


Very much related, please see a recent Brookings Institution report written by Kenneth G. Liberthalthat is chock full of important insights for the entire Intelligence community.

Homeland security this week

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

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

Monday, September 28

The Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.  will kick-off a week-long “Homeland Security University” program.  Monday’s morning-long course focuses on Homeland Security and the Federal Structure.  This is a significant effort to generate some intellectual and strategic gravitas to what can often be a weak brew of consensus opinion and partisan sniping. The Heritage Foundation certainly has a point-of-view.  But on Homeland Security that perspective has — to date — been constructive and non-partisan.  A recent Heritage web-memo on homeland security offers an overview of the priorities of the Heritage Foundation HS team.  Those scheduled to speak over the five days are largely veterans of the last eight years, which gives the week a certain partisan cast, but need not diminish the value of the input.  You can also watch and listen via a webcast.

Tuesday, September 29

2:00 pm (eastern) Washington D.C. Secretary Napolitano will give a speech on preparedness at the American Red Cross. (Please see a Sunday morning post, below, related to this event.)

The Heritage Foundation “Homeland Security University” will focus on counterterrorism and critical infrastructure.

Wednesday, September 30

10:00 (eastern) Washington D.C. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will conduct a hearing on threat of terrorism.

The Heritage Foundation “Homeland Security University” will focus on preparedness, resiliency, and response.

Thursday, October 1

10:00 (eastern) Washington D.C. the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response will conduct a hearing on community preparedness.

10:00 (eastern) Washington D.C. the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment will conduct a hearing on Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards.

The Heritage Foundation “Homeland Security University” will focus on trade and travel, followed by immigration and border security.

Friday, October 2

The Heritage Foundation “Homeland Security University” will close with a  focus on “leveraging all resources.”

The International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. will launch on a new exhibit on Weapons of Mass Disruption, including cyberterrorism.

September 27, 2009

Preparedness, Readiness, Resilience

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

Late Friday the DHS Press Office issued the following:

Janet Napolitano will deliver a speech emphasizing the nation’s shared responsibility for preparedness at the American Red Cross Hall of Service. Her remarks—marking the conclusion of National Preparedness Month—will focus on the important role that citizens must play in building a national culture of readiness and resilience.

In a statement released on September 11, the Secretary offered,

Together, we must build a culture of resiliency and guard against complacency, so we are better prepared for terrorist attacks or disasters of any kind.

We can discern in these and other remarks the Secretary’s effort to build on the  framework she set-out July 29 at the Council on Foreign Relations,

Now, a wise approach to keeping America secure should be rooted in the values that define our nation—values like resilience, shared responsibility, standing up for what is right

This Tuesday it will be interesting to read if and how the Secretary continues this public exploration of policy and strategy fundamentals.

The Secretary — and most of the policy community — tends to be threat-oriented.  Her early effort to avoid overusing the “T word” was attacked and ridiculed.  She learned a lesson.

Despite ritual bows of obeisance to all-hazards or all risks or “disasters of all kinds”, terrorism captures the predominance of attention.  Again, from her July speech in New York,

So how do we secure our homeland and stay true to our values? We do it with four levels of collective response. It starts with the American people. From there, it extends to local law enforcement, and from there up to the federal government, and then finally out beyond our shores, where America’s international allies can serve and do serve as partners in a collective fight against terrorism.

My understanding of human history — or just US history — suggests that the use of violence to achieve political purposes is a chronic condition. With ongoing care the risk can be significantly reduced, but it will not be eliminated.

I am even more certain we cannot eliminate flood, wildfire, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, pandemic… we could go on.  These risks will persist and will from time-to-time emerge in their most extreme form.

In the October Harvard Business Review, three experts discussing risk-in- general propose,

Low probability, high-impact events that are almost impossible to forecast — we call them Black Swan events — are increasingly dominating the environment… Instead of trying to anticipate low-probability, high-impact events, we should reduce our vulnerability to them. Risk management we believe, should be about lessening the impact of what we don’t understand — not a futile attempt to develop sophisticated techniques  and stories that perpetuate our illusions of being able to understand and predict…

This is what many of us mean when we write and talk about resilience.

I perceive Secretary Napolitano has an intuitive sense that we can usually do more about our vulnerabilities than our threats.  She knows this from very personal experience.

But whenever she has begun to explore the policy implications of this  insight, she has been accused of not being sufficiently attentive to some specific threat. 

We should certainly know our specific threats: al-Qaeda, H1N1, or  the chemical plant next door. When possible we should remove or reduce the threat.  But threats innately tend to surprise us.  So… we should expect to be surprised.  If we are serious about such an expectation, we will give increased attention to reducing our vulnerabilities — not only to a specific threat or threats, but  — to a range of risks.

If you have time to listen to the Secretary — especially if you are in the hall — on Tuesday, please share with the rest of us what you hear.  As soon as I can, I will provide access to the transcript.  Then let’s examine the balance of attention given to threat or vulnerability: preparedness for the worst we can imagine or resilience in face of what we never imagined.

I am not suggesting we need to choose between threat analysis or vulnerability analysis.  We need both.  But in my experience we are much more attentive to threats (that can be difficult to combat) and much less attentive to vulnerabilities, that are often entirely within our ability to reduce or mitigate across a range of risks.


The Secretary will be speaking at  2:oo pm (eastern) Tuesday, September 29, American Red Cross Hall of Service, 1730 E Street Washington, D.C.

September 25, 2009

Rethinking The Unthinkable: Three Million Casualties vs. Four Hundred Thousand

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on September 25, 2009

This post is about the assumptions used to prepare for a deliberate nuclear attack on an American city.  The post summarizes a recent article that argues policy makers are using the wrong assumptions. The author suggests alternatives.


Terrorists are determined to attack us again—with weapons of mass destruction if they can. Osama bin Laden has said that obtaining these weapons is a “religious duty” and is reported to have sought to perpetrate another “Hiroshima.” …. America’s margin of safety against a WMD attack is shrinking.“World At Risk; The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism;” December 2008

Herman Kahn wrote On Thermonuclear War in 1960.  He thought the unthinkable, and believed the nation could survive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, even though cities would be destroyed and millions would die.

His views contributed to the Cold War’s MAD doctrine (mutually assured destruction), characterized most vividly by the Doomsday Machine in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Back in the day (or at least the 80s part of the day), people speculated about the Fate of the Earth if we had a nuclear exchange with Russia. Humanity would be destroyed and life as we know it on the planet would come to an end.

It was all fairly hopeless.  Civil defense, bomb shelters, hiding under the desk — why bother?  We’re all dead anyway.

Then we won the Cold War.  No nuclear winter.  Time for fear to take a break.

But fear demands something to be afraid of.

Apparently nukes don’t do it for us anymore. The WMD Commission report generated maybe 15 minutes of  concern. The global economic crisis, H1N1, — that worked for a little while. Maybe 20 minutes in fear time.

We don’t get worked anymore up about humanity ending.  If it didn’t happen in the Cold War, it’s certainly not going to happen now.

So… what to fear?   This week, we — or at least the media — worry about an al Qaeda cell detonating a hydrogen peroxide bomb in, maybe, Pittsburgh.

Change the channel.

What time does “Dancing With The Stars” come on?  Isn’t Tom DeLay going to come out against health care while he’s dancing?

Behind the public’s Andy Warhol attention span, serious people think about threats to the nation in serious ways. Maybe these people are ignored, but when public fright time arrives, they are ones who have done the thinking policy makers will use during times of crisis.

Robert C. Harney, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, is one of the serious thinkers about the evolution of the domestic nuclear threat.

Al Qaeda wants to detonate a nuke in the United States.  If they are successful, millions will die. That’s the conventional narrative.

What follows is an excerpt from Harney’s recent article in Homeland Security Affairs: Inaccurate Prediction of Nuclear Weapons Effects and Possible Adverse Influences on Nuclear Terrorism Preparedness.

OK, the title may not sing.  But the content does.  [Disclosure: I am the executive editor of Homeland Security Affairs.]

Harney demonstrates estimates of millions dying and cities becoming wastelands are based on flawed assumptions.

Yes, ten of thousands could die in a nuclear attack. Maybe more.  Harney is the first to acknowledge it would be horrific.  But — and here’s the unthinkable part — not hopeless.  We would recover.

Why is Harney’s argument important?

If policy makers believe millions will die and cities will become uninhabitable, why even bother preparing?  Why not spend limited resources on what you can do something about?

But if the conventional wisdom’s estimates are wrong, then policy makers can justify preparing for the unthinkable.

Here’s Harney’s argument (summarized largely in his words from the paper; my emphasis is in bold).
The unthinkable is probably inevitable. At some time in the future a terrorist group will detonate a nuclear explosive in a major metropolitan area.

Once nuclear weapons are in the hands of unstable states or states that support terrorism, there is little doubt that one or more will ultimately wind up in the hands of non-state or state-supported terrorist organizations. Terrorist possession of a nuclear weapon will result in its use against a “highest-value” target – most likely a large city with major economic value, cultural and/or religious significance, and a dense population in which high casualties will result.

The likelihood of an attack has prompted considerable public debate about what are the best steps to prevent such an attack. In many of these discussions estimates of the number of casualties or the size of the area that would be damaged by an attack are used to reinforce the importance of action.

Ironically … these estimates may evoke inaction in some critical areas. Paraphrasing many examples, [the examples] typically state: a Hiroshima-sized weapon detonated in a major metropolitan area will kill a million people or will vaporize everything within a half-mile of ground zero or some other equally dramatic claim….

To this author, the estimates do not ring true – they sound excessive. The estimates are often quoted or repeated by individuals who clearly lack technical expertise in nuclear weapons effects and original sources for the estimates are seldom cited. Although it is possible that some are the product of hyperbole used in political oratory to reinforce a point, the frequency is too high for this to always be the case. It is more likely that valid estimates made for a military attack scenario have been improperly extrapolated to the terrorist scenario.

However, if the policymakers making such statements actually believe these estimates, then inaccurate information is being used to set policy, and something should be done to rectify the situation.

Harney discusses the standard methodology used to predict the effects of nuclear weapons.

The “standard” analysis is an outgrowth of military effects analysis. … virtually all examples used to guide novice or inexperienced effects predictors will be based on military analyses.  The optimum altitude airburst [i.e., dropping a nuclear device from an airplane at exactly the right height above a city] is far and away the most common analytical assumption in nuclear effects analysis. As we shall see, this may be the source of the putative overestimates.

He applies the standard analysis to a hypothetical 10 killoton airburst explosion in Manhattan and concludes,

… over six million people are directly affected, and total casualties are estimated to be in excess of 2,700,000. The areas and the casualty estimates determined in this fashion are consistent with those mentioned in the public debates.

This traditional casualty analysis coupled with observations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki presents a nearly “hopeless” picture. That is, one would expect that the southernmost one-quarter of Manhattan would be devastated. Roads through damaged areas would be impassable. Evacuation to mitigate fallout effects would probably be impractical in some areas. Power, water, communications, transportation, and sanitation disruptions would extend well beyond the damaged areas. The expected number of injuries would exceed the number of hospital beds in the entire nation ….  A significant fraction of the first responders would be among the casualties. Many of the “injuries” might become “fatalities” due to inadequate medical care, shortages of food, and lack of shelter. The expected economic damage is severe, almost beyond comprehension. Economic repercussions would continue for years.

Guided by a strategic analysis that uses these standard assumptions,

… a weak U.S. government might consider giving in to terrorist demands (if voiced ahead of time), rather than suffer the effects of such an attack. Since permitting such a catastrophic attack would be utterly unacceptable, actions likely to be taken to prevent anticipated attacks might further erode Constitutional rights. As the aftermath of such an attack is “hopeless,” planning for emergency response would probably be inadequately funded. Why prepare for something that is beyond accommodation, especially when there are always competing priorities for using available funds? Furthermore, since the Cold War has conditioned the public to view nuclear attack as the end of the world and the “hopeless” scenario does nothing to contradict this view, little or no personal preparation will be made for self-preservation and survival. Inadequate planning and preparation at all levels would greatly magnify the effects of an attack when it comes.

Harney’s conceptual innovation is “nontraditional effects analysis,” an alternative to the standard assumptions that paralyze policy makers.

There are fundamental differences between an airburst and a surface burst…..  For a variety of reasons, we anticipate that terrorist attacks are more likely to use a [less damaging] surface burst than an airburst.

… A terrorist bomb is unlikely to be mounted on a missile. It is unlikely to be man-portable. It is likely to be large and heavy. Delivery by aircraft will probably require a multi-engine aircraft,… [but] an airburst can be made extremely difficult, if not prevented. Transport to the top floors of the tallest skyscrapers is difficult and likely to be detected…. Even if the bomb could be detonated on a tall building, the effects would be closer to surface burst levels than to airburst levels. Transport by truck, however, is relatively easy and difficult to prevent. Thus, it is more likely for a terrorist weapon to be detonated at street level than at the optimum airburst height.

Harney then describes three models of surface level detonations, under a variety of conditions. He maintains:

Contrary to the predictions of traditional analysis and experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more “realistic” analysis presents a picture that is much less dire. Fatalities are 20% of those predicted by the standard analysis, while injuries are 10% of those predicted and the damaged area is 5%. Much of the infrastructure will survive. Most evacuation routes will remain viable (permitting relocation for fallout mitigation). Food, water, sanitation, power, communications, and transportation will remain available to most of the city. Transportation to or from the rest of the country, especially air travel, is likely to be minimally affected. Airports are seldom located in the high population density areas that are attractive for casualty production. The first response system will remain intact. At most one or two police precincts and fire stations will be within damage zones. Only a small fraction of first responders will be among the casualties.

The majority of the health care system will remain intact. Few hospitals, clinics, or potential shelter areas may be located within the small damage zones and thus will remain intact and operational. Few health care professionals will become casualties. Regional health care facilities … have the theoretical capacity to handle the most badly injured. However, most of the 60,000-70,000 beds are occupied during ordinary times and emergency rooms are almost always crowded. Diagnostics and elective procedures account for at least part of the occupation of beds and many emergency room visits occur in lieu of seeing primary care physicians. In a major emergency, many could be discharged by applying triage to those already at the facilities as well as to the victims of the explosion. Nevertheless, emergency treatment facilities will be stressed. This should be considered during planning for disaster preparedness, as well as in any discussions of generally improving national health care.

Harney estimates that instead of 2 or 3 million casualties (in the hypothetical Manhattan scenario), a more realistic estimate is less than 400,000 casualties.

Although horrific and highly stressing of existing resources, this scenario is nearly ideal for disaster response and relief by local, state, and national entities. Because structures and roads will be undamaged outside the immediate blast area, the effects of fallout from a single nuclear event can be minimized through immediate and effective response including fallout prediction and a combination of evacuation, sheltering in place and/or decontamination. Sheltering for as little as one day can reduce the fallout exposure to less than 20% of the maximum possible accumulated exposure at any location, even if the individual then elects to remain in the contaminated area. It can reduce the total exposure to less than 1% of the maximum possible if the individual elects to walk out of the fallout zone (estimated to take a few hours at most). There is a place for renewed interest in civil defense.

Such civil defense must have a personal emphasis, not just a governmental emphasis. An unprepared population will suffer needlessly in any disaster, manmade or natural. In general, those people most likely to survive are those who are prepared to survive and who will not wait passively for the government to save them. Government has been willing to educate people what to do to prepare for earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados, although it could be more aggressive in this education. It should do the same for terrorist attacks, especially in likely target areas.

Harney concludes:

The promulgation of unrealistic estimates does the government and the general population a great disservice. People should not be persuaded to believe that a terrorist-initiated nuclear attack is the end of the world. We will probably experience such an attack at some point in the future and the world will not end. Millions will not be killed by a single event, although tens of thousands may. We will be forced to deal with the consequences. People tend to rise to the challenge in adverse situations, but they give up in situations perceived as hopeless. Terrorist attacks, no matter how devastating, should not be made to appear hopeless.

The government must not be forced by public opinion to take short-sighted actions, such as appeasement, to avoid such attacks. Appeasement seldom works in the long term and even appeasement will not prevent every possible attack. This does not mean the government should not act vigorously to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, but it should be proactive not reactive, and certainly not over-reactive. The public and especially public servants and elected officials deserve better education concerning the facts about weapons effects. Disaster planning should consider realistic and stressing scenarios but not doomsday scenarios. Emergency response capabilities adequate to address the threat of limited nuclear attack should be developed, and the nature of those capabilities should be communicated to the public.

Reading Harney’s article will change the way you think about threat of terrorists using a nuclear device.  In the realm of the unthinkable, Harney offers hope and reasons to act.

You can read his article online here, or download it here.

September 24, 2009

Why the FBI cannot stop Wile E. Coyote. In spite of uniform, clear and simple intentions.

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on September 24, 2009

(The Wile E. Coyote story begins about half way down this post. But first, the Intro:)

We are approaching the 1st anniversary of the “Attorney General Consolidated Guidelines for FBI Domestic Operations.”

The Attorney General’s consolidated rules replaced six other sets of guidelines.

According to a joint FBI/DoJ press release

“Previously, several existing sets of guidelines applied to the FBI’s activities, with one set applying to ordinary criminal law enforcement activities; one set applying to national security efforts; another applying to foreign intelligence collection; and additional sets applying to other activities.”

OK.  Those days must have been confusing for agents.

The “… new, consolidated set of guidelines for domestic FBI operations…. provide more uniform, clearer, and simpler rules for the FBI’s operations. The guidelines are designed to allow the FBI to become, among other things, a more flexible and adept collector of intelligence….”

“Uniform, clear and simple.”  That must be a good thing for agents.

I read the guidelines a few days ago.  From an outsider’s perspective, I thought the well organized, clearly written document made a lot of sense.  It identified goals and problems, presented reasonable solutions, acknowledged nuance and was saturated with respect for the Constitution and the protection of individual privacy and rights.

Make up your own mind.  You can read about the guidelines and why they were needed here and here. You can read the actual 46 page Attorney General guidelines here.

But guidelines don’t change organizations.  It takes training and experience:

“Before the consolidated guidelines become effective on December 1, 2008,” said the Department of Justice, “the FBI and other affected Justice Department components will carry out comprehensive training to ensure that their personnel understand these new rules and will be ready to apply them in their operations. The FBI will also develop appropriate internal policies to implement and carry out the new guidelines.”

I am told that to implement the new guidelines and “appropriate internal policies,” each FBI agent had to undergo 40 hours of DIOG training. (DIOG stands for “domestic investigations and operations guidelines.”)  The training was based on a 175 page document describing how to implement the 46 page guidelines.  Training was also supplemented by more than 1,000 PIG pages.  (PIG means “policy implementation guidelines.”)  That’s a lot of PIG pages.

How is the change going?

I don’t have any objective evidence one way or another.

But I do have a story.

FBI agents who I respect — and who I do not know to be whiners — told me it is an anecdote that has made its way virally through a number of field offices.

So maybe what follows represents the whelping of a disgruntled old timer who doesn’t like where the post-9/11 Bureau is going.  But it could be a Web 2.0 version of the Soviet samizdat, a single voice trying to speak truth to a power whose ears may be otherwise occupied.

(One hopes it has absolutely nothing to do with the reports torturously unfolding one day at a time about the alleged New York-Denver hydrogen peroxide bomb plot.)

Here is the anecdote.   I translate the acronyms at the end of the post, even though real life doesn’t come with a glossary.

Summary of DIOG Training

Deputy Dawg (DD): Hey Agent G-Man.  I’ve got some info on Wile E. Coyote that you may be interested in.

Agent G-Man (AG):    Wait!  Don’t say anything else.

DD: Why?

AG:   Because I have to open a Level I Assessment to determine if Coyote is capable of carrying out criminal activity.

DD:  But hell.  I already know he is.  He’s the #2 guy at the mosque.

AG:   Nooooooo!  I can’t be aware of that information!

DD:   Why?

AG:    Because I don’t have a P.I. open?

DD:    A P.I.?

AG:    Yeah.  Oh crap! This is also a S.I.M.  My SSA is going to be pissed.

DD:   Look.  I’m not exactly following you, but I’ve got a source who tells me the organization is ready to blow up a building.

AG:   What!  You’ve got a C.H.S. in the organization?

DD:   Huh?

AG:    Son of a bitch!  Now we have to get the CDC and the SAC involved.  Who knows?  We probably have to get the DAD involved as well.  You have no idea how much reading I have to do.

DD:    Agent G-Man, you’re confusing the hell out of me.

AG:    What don’t you understand?  All of this is straight from the DIOG.

DD:    Di-what?

AG:    The DIOG.  The official FBI guidelines.

DD:    Say what?  Look.  All I want to do is pass this information on to you.  My source has convinced the group to delay the bombing, but he can’t hold them off forever.

AG:    The C.H.S. is influencing the organization?

DD:    Uhhhh yeah.  I mean….He’s making sure that a building doesn’t get blown up.

AG:    Your C.H.S. can’t do that!

DD:    You mean my source?

AG:    Of course I do.  With him taking part in the organization’s decisions, he’s participating in O.I.A.  Did you get proper authorization for O.I.A.?  Shit I hope it’s not tier II O.I.A.

DD:    What language are you speaking?

AG:    OK.  We can still deal with this.  Does anyone else in the target organization know about your C.H.S.?

DD:    Hell no!

AG:    Jesus Christ, Deputy Dawg!  Now we’ve got U.D.P.  My ass is in a wringer.  I don’t have a P.I. or an F.I. open.  I’ve got to get this information to the S.O.R.C. ASAP.

DD:   Get your panties out of your crack for a second G-Man.  We’re in control here.  My source introduced one of our other deputies and got him inside of the decision making circle.

AG:    Are you trying to get me fired?  You’ve got a C.H.S. committing O.I.A., an unapproved U.C.O., a U.C.E. who is committing U.D.P. and the EAD, the SAC, the OGC, the CDC, and my SSA know nothing about this.  I’m on the bricks for months, maybe a year because of this.  And that’s if I’m lucky.

DD:    Oooookkkkaaaaayyyyy G-Man.  So….When do you think you’ll be able to arrest these guys?

AG:    Arrest?  Are you kidding me?  The only person that is going to be arrested is me.  Do you comprehend how many of the bad guy’s civil rights we have just violated?

DD:    Yeah.  So what?  He’s a criminal.

AG:    Uuugggghhh!  You don’t understand.  Criminals have more civil rights than law-abiding citizens.  We have to honor those rights.

DD:    You’re serious?

AG:    It’s what the DIOG says!  We can’t violate the DIOG!  Shit.  I’m going to self-report these violations.  Maybe they’ll go easy on me.

DD:    What about the bad guys?

AG:    Well……I could probably get the proper approvals within the next three weeks if I push it hard.

DD:    We don’t have that kind of time.  My source can only delay this for so long.

AG:    Oh stop!  I’ve already violated DIOG so many times.  I’m not about to violate it further.

DD:    You know what, Agent G-Man.  Maybe I don’t need the FBI’s help.


ASAP = if you have to ask, please leave the internet
CDC = chief division counsel
CHS =  confidential human source
DAD = deputy assistant director
DIOG = domestic investigations and operations guidelines
EAD = executive assistant director
FI = full investigation
OGC = office of general counsel
OIA= otherwise illegal activity
PI = preliminary investigation
PIG = policy implementation guidelines
SAC = special agent in charge
SIM = sensitive investigative matter
SORC = sensitive operations review committee
SSA = supervisory special agent
UCE = undercover employee
UCO = undercover operation
UDP = undisclosed participant


September 23, 2009

Natural and/or Accidental and/or Intentional we can handle (if barely)

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2009

But what about Natural x Accidental x Intentional?


Flooding in Mabletown, Georgia. Photo by John Bazemore, Associated Press

Several days of extraordinary rainfall has cause death, injury, and destruction across a wide area of the Southeast United States.  (More from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times.)


Firefighting in Ventura County, photo by Mike R. of Gather News

Early and unconfirmed reports suggest the quickly expanding Guiberson Fire in Ventura County, California was ignited by spontaneously combusting manure.  According to CNN, the flames are threatening oil pumping and transmission lines which, unless effectively managed, could produce a catastrophic result.  Wouldn’t that be an accident causing a bigger accident? (See more from the Los Angeles Times.)


No. 30 bus, July 7, 2005 Tavistock Square, London.  Photograph by Peter Macdiarmind, GETTY

Tuesday federal authorities reminded public safety agencies and private sector organizations of the ongoing risk related to  bombing attacks on luxury hotels, sports stadiums, and transportation systems.

The Associated Press is reporting that a suspected terrorist cell operating in Denver and New York may have been planning an attack using a hydrogen peroxide explosive, similar to that used in the July 2005 London Bombings.  The AP is headlining their report, “Tiny, Cheap and Deadly.”

Hydrogen peroxide was also implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombings and in the 2007 arrest and recent conviction of intended terrorists in Germany.

Force multipliers are a classic feature of warfare.  The tactic is especially favored by the weaker side in an asymmetric struggle.  It is reasonable to expect that violent extremists of various types are looking for dams to blow up, wildfires to start, chemical plants to weaponize, and other such variables to plug into their multiplication tables.

At the very least, this is another reason to pursue a persistent,  multidisciplinary strategy that gives priority to prevention and mitigation of all-risks.

(This post was completed at 2200 hours (eastern) on Tuesday to be published on Wednesday.  I will be unable to update on Wednesday and — rather obviously — current conditions could be considerably altered by then.)

September 22, 2009

Cover Your Cough With the Internet (Or Phone)

Filed under: Events — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on September 22, 2009

Federal News Radio continued its reporting yesterday regarding the Department of Homeland Security mandate for a department-wide telework and COOP review this week. The article quotes Elaine Duke, the Undersecretary for Management, saying:

We have some specific concerns about the potential of H1N1 to make its next surge in the United States, potentially next month, and this fall. One of the things we want to be ready for is potential absenteeism among our federal workforce. And with the telework week, we are asking that each employee who is on a telework agreement, who is on a telework agreement as part of our continuity of operations planning, or COOP planning, to telework, to test it, to make sure they have the right connectivity, the right equipment, to make sure they can work from home.

Teleworking to counter a pandemic is not a new idea. Indeed, the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan discusses how teleworking can help slow the spread of pandemic influenza through social distancing (i.e. coughing over the Internet or phone instead of face to face).  As telework.gov notes, the key to successfully using teleworking to fight off H1N1 (or any pandemic) requires a systematic approach to teleworking with roles and responsibilities understood by all.   DHS’s announcement this week is especially welcome as it is testing its agencies systems in a moment of calm instead of a time of crisis.

That said, as DHS and other agencies look to teleworking this fall, they should not only be testing for access and connectivity, but for security.  While security training and configuration have been key parts of the government’s telework program, it is imperative that they are stressed to the potential newbies who will be signing up to avoid the H1N1 spread. There is a level of trust when teleworking becomes the norm. That trust, with regards to security, requires extensive training and understanding of the “dos and don’ts” of being online.  The more people who sign up to work from home, the more risks of security breaches, whether from unencrypted data being stolen remotely off a compromised system or a laptop disappearing from the backseat of a car.

NIST has recognized the need for telework security. This past June it revised its guidance in the area in Guide to Enterprise Telework and Remote Access Security, Revision 1.  NIST noted in the Executive Summary:

The nature of telework and remote access technologies—permitting access to protected resources from external networks and often external hosts as well—generally places them at higher risk than similar technologies only accessed from inside the organization, as well as increasing the risk to the internal resources made available to teleworkers through remote access.

In its findings, NIST made the following recommendations to agencies on steps to take to ensure that employees and contractors have improved security for teleworking and remote access:

  • Plan telework security policies and controls based on the assumption that external environments contain hostile threats
  • Develop a telework security policy that defines telework and remote access requirements.
  • Ensure that remote access servers are secured effectively and are configured to enforce telework security policies.
  • Secure telework client devices against common threats and maintain their security regularly.

Given today’s increased cyber threat, these steps, while seemingly common sense, are critical, especially if we see an influx of new teleworkers.

Another issue to consider is whether the bandwidth for increased teleworking, especially in the DC area, is available.  The tests run by DHS this week are good but will not go to demonstrate whether bandwidth needs can be met if a significant number of government employees are working from home in the event of a pandemic.  On September 4, the FCC put out a notice on this issue, asking what kind of bandwidth and speed will be needed to support teleworking.  The notice also asked what is needed to support government workers at home in a time of emergency.  The FCC will use the comments and its findings as part of its National Broadband Plan, due to Congress on February 17, 2010.  Obviously, that plan will not be out before this fall’s potential H1N1 outbreak, though the telecommunications carriers have been preparing for this issue nonetheless.

While this post has focused on government’s systems,  the same issues are relevant to the private sector.  Like the government, the private sector has seen an increased reliance on teleworking to counter pandemic incidents.  Jeff Goldman wrote an interesting piece on this phenomenon on Wi-Fi Planet back in May entitled Pandemic Preparedness: Teleworking Best Practices, which details the steps to take for implementing teleworking.  Interestingly, one of the potential issues he points out is the need for enabling broadband access in remote locations.  Broadband and net neutrality issues, especially in a time of crisis, could fill a separate post but are especially worth noting given at Brookings yesterday by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on the topic.

September 21, 2009

WAPO delivers McChrystal’s Assessment

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

You can access a slightly redacted copy of General McChrystal’s Initial Assessment from the Washington Post website.

Some excerpts that strike me as especially important:

Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces, our objective must be the population.  In the struggle to gain the support of the people, every action we take must enable this effort.  The population also represents a powerful actor that can and must be leveraged in this complex system…

Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physicially and psychologically — for the people we seek to protect.  In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing the tactical wins that cause civilian casualities or unnecessary collateral damage.  The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves…

To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

1.  Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with the ANSF.  We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.

2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance.  We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.

3.  Gain the initiative.  Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the  insurgency’s momentum

4.  Focus Resources.  We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

This is the lead story today — and perhaps of the week — but I will be offline for most of the next two days.  Will be interested in what you have said when I rejoin the network mid-week.

You can read Bob Woodward’s headline-making story in today’s Washington Post.

As discussed previously, for me our fight in Afghanistan is related to homeland security by the need to seriously reduce terrorist capabilities all along the Hindu Kush.

Homeland security this week

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

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

Monday, September 21

The ASIS annual conference, Security Never Sleeps, opens in Anaheim, California.  Continues through Thursday.

10:00 am (eastern) Washington D.C. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will conduct a hearing on H1N1 Flu: Protecting our Community.

Tuesday, September 22

CIDRAP Conference on Keeping the World Working During the H1N1 Pandemic opens in Minneapolis.  Continues on Wednesday.

The Biometric Consortium Conference opens in Tampa.  Continues through Thursday

10:00 am (eastern) Washington D.C. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will conduct a hearing on the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009.

Wednesday, September 23

4:00 pm (eastern) Washington D.C. George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management hosts a forum on Emergency and Risk Management.

Thursday, September 24

10:00 am (eastern) Washington D.C. House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessement with conduct a hearing on I&A Reconceived: Defining a Homeland Security Intelligence Role.

Friday, September 25

1:00 pm (central) Galveston, Texas Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, ad hoc Committee on Disaster Recovery will conduct a hearing on the Challenges that Remain from Hurricane Ike.

Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years

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

Of terrorist attacks…”Only a single conclusion can be reached with certainty, namely, that the oft-repeated post-2001 aspiration to eliminate terrorism (‘winning the war on terror’) is unachievable.”  The risk to Americans from terrorist attacks and military responses to them, including all US military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq and related noncombatant deaths is, Smil estimates, about ten times less than the risk of dying from homicide and a thousand times less than the risk of fatal car accidents averaged between 1991 and 2005. “During the first five years of the twenty-first century, the US highway death toll exceeded the 9/11 fatalities every month.”

That’s the paragraph that grabbed myattention.  It comes from Joel E. Cohen’s essay on Vaclav Smil’s book  in the September 24  New York Review of Books.

Cohen continues, “Globally, between 1970 and 2005, fatalities caused by terrorist attacks averaged below a thousand a year, not much greater than airline accidents and volcanic eruptions, but far fewer than deaths from floods and earthquakes, which were in turn far fewer than fatalities from car accidents and medical errors, which Smil estimates as causing several hundred thousand deaths each year. He does not mention that tobacco use kills five to six million people a year globally, more than twice as many as HIV/AIDS, three times as many as tuberculosis, which accounts for about two million deaths a year, and five or six times as many as malaria, which causes some one million deaths a year.  Doesn’t smoking tobacco pose a far greater threat than al-Qaeda?” 

Terrorism is not Smil’s only topic.  According to his publishers at MIT,

Smil first looks at rare but cataclysmic events, both natural and human-produced, then at trends of global importance: the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources; demographic and political shifts in Europe, Japan, Russia, China, the United States, and Islamic nations; the battle for global primacy; and growing economic and social inequality. He also considers environmental change—in some ways an amalgam of sudden discontinuities and gradual change—and assesses the often misunderstood complexities of global warming.  Global Catastrophes and Trends does not come down on the side of either doom-and-gloom scenarios or techno-euphoria. Instead, relying on long-term historical perspectives and a distaste for the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge, Smil argues that understanding change will help us reverse negative trends and minimize the risk of catastrophe.

Another review, originally written by Charles Perrow in Scientific American, notes,

I learned a lot from this sometimes cranky, often cryptic and very opinionated book… By enriching our understanding of the complexity of nature and society, he shows that we have much more to fear than accumulating carbon dioxide and drowning polar bears… This book helps prepare us to think seriously about the future.

You can see the table of contents online from MIT. I just ordered my copy over the weekend.

September 20, 2009

Shana Tova! ‘Id Sa’id!

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 20, 2009

Some random thoughts (or thoughts on randomness) regarding today’s joyful celebration of Rosh Hashana and Eid ur-Fitr.


Coincidence may be described as the chance encounter of two unrelated causal chains which—miraculously, it seems—merge into a significant event. It provides the neatest paradigm of the bisociation of previously separate contexts, engineered by fate. Coincidences are puns of destiny. In the pun, two strings of thought are tangled into one acoustic knot; in the coincidental happening, two strings of events are knitted together by invisible hands. (Arthur Koestler)



Do sad people have in


It seems

They have all built a shrine

To the past

And often go there

And do a strange wail and


What is the beginning of


It is to stop being

So religious

Like That.

 Hafiz translated by Daniel Ladinsky


Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.

Albert Einstein in The World as I See It

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