Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 16, 2009

This is the face of US national interest

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 16, 2009


A Thursday column by Simon Tisdale in The Guardian headlines, With friends like the US, Pakistan doesn’t need enemies.  

As the Obama administration dithers over what to do for the best in Afghanistan, neighbouring Pakistan is paying an increasingly heavy price. Like a spate of previous Taliban attacks in recent days, today’s mayhem in Lahore underscored fears that the principal consequence of Washington’s Afghan paralysis, albeit unintended, is the further destabilisation of the Pakistani state.

Over the last eleven days the Taliban-in-Pakistan and their allies have  launched a series of attacks across the country.  There was a 22 hour siege of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, civilian targets were hit in Peshawar and police targets in Lahore, there was a grenade attack in Quetta, bombings in Kohat and elsewhere

In an interview with the UK’s Sky News, Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban-in-Pakistan (outside Waziristan), has warned the attacks will continue as long as the Pakistani security services, “follow American orders.”  He also tosses off  a promise to attack India.  Hakimullah has previously promised direct attacks on the US.

This most recent offensive spike is seen as related to pending Pakistani ground operations against the Taliban-in-Pakistan’s operational core, al-Qaeda hideout, and Mehsud tribal home in South Waziristan. 

On October 14 the Washington Post editorialized, “For years the United States has been trying to persuade Pakistan to fully confront the threat of the Taliban, even as its government and army dithered and wavered. Now that the army at last appears prepared to strike at the heart of the movement in Waziristan, the Obama administration is wavering — and considering a strategy that would give up the U.S. attempt to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

The evidence of wavering is speculative.  Those inside the administration argue the President is attempting to — among other goals — set the political preconditions for success, whatever strategy is applied in AfPak.  Crucial to this is broad recognition of how the US has a keen stake in the outcome of struggles all along the Hindu Kush. 

Neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda present the most dangerous threats to a successful AfPak strategy. The biggest threat is the disinterest of the American people.

Thursday night, just before going to bed, I checked the headlines in London and Islamabad.   I then turned to CNN. 

It was as if entering a different dimension.  Falcoln Heene, seen above, and his Mylar balloon dominated the headlines.  I scanned the “Latest News,” here’s what was listed:

This was not Entertainment Tonight.  This was the homepage of “America’s most trusted news source.” Instead of “latest news”,  how about “Most Viewed”?

  1. Boy, 6, thought adrift in balloon found alive
  2. World captivated by ‘Balloon Boy’
  3. Original KISS drummer beats breast cancer
  4. Sweat lodge deaths investigated as homicides
  5. Balloon family was featured on ‘Wife Swap’
  6. Tom Joyner gets justice 94 years later 
  7. Many hospitals are banning VBACs
  8. Obama visits New Orleans, blasts critics 
  9. A Dem backlash against GOP Sen. Snowe?
  10. Scientists hope poison gas can be a lifesaver

The early Friday morning CNN headlines are not much different. 

We are at war. Those who attacked us on 9/11 are in the cross-hairs.  Yet they are showing fierce resistance.  South Asia hangs in the balance.  We are barely emerging from the worst economic recession in a generation, the dollar is under sustained pressure as the principal reserve currency, a major policy debate on health care is at a crucial inflection point…

What the President may see as our national interest is not interesting to most Americans.  In a democracy, how are you supposed to square that difference?

October 15, 2009

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 15, 2009

Today’s guest author is Deirdre Walker.  She retired recently as the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police.  She spent 24 years as a police officer.

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

This is a question I heard many times during my law enforcement career.  Often my answer was no.  But occasionally it would be “yes,” followed by an admonition to have a good day.

For the last half of my career, I would have documented each interaction, whether or not it involved an arrest.  I would have written down the nature and length of the interaction, the gender, race, and age of the person, and the outcome of the contact (arrest, citation, etc.).

I carry the baggage of this history with me as I’ve traveled over the last eight years, mindlessly placing my luggage on the conveyer belt and removing my shoes for TSA inspection.

Recently, something changed.

Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line.  On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

Over these last few months, I have grown increasingly frustrated with what I view as an unjustifiable intrusion on my privacy.   It was not so much the search (then) as it was the embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being told “You are different,” but getting no explanation as to why.

That frustration has been tempered by a combination of my desire to be a good citizen, and my empathy for the TSA screeners.  These folks, after all, are merely doing what we, the American traveling public, have permitted and now expect them to do.

I am left to wonder whether my own passive acceptance of these evolving search procedures has contributed to a potentially fatal dichotomy:  what we allow TSA screeners to do in order to maximize efficiency and enhance our perception of safety, or what we really need them to do in order to preserve our rights and dignity and enhance our actual safety.

We have asked TSA to find the tools terrorists use and prevent both from boarding a passenger plane.  We have unintentionally created an agency that now seeks efficiency and compliance more than any weapon or explosive.

While returning my computer and shoes to their proper places, I watched the screening line at BWI.  I thought about the haphazard events surrounding the security screening process.  As I watched the screening officers, I wondered what information drives their decisions.  Left only to my observations, I concluded that their decisions were entirely random, and likely based upon three criteria:  passenger load, staffing, and whim.

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply.  I decided then that my next invitation to enjoy additional screening would be met with more inquiry.

I did not have wait very long.  On my return through Albany to BWI — Surprise! —  I got “randomly selected” for additional screening.

This time, I was “invited” to step into one of the explosive detection machines, commonly referred to as a “puffer machine.”  The traveller is exposed to short, intense bursts of air, which are then, supposedly, analyzed for trace residue.

I read an article awhile ago that suggested these machines are entirely ineffective.   I have subsequently observed that they now sit idle at many airports where they were originally installed (Tampa International, for example).  In recently renovated airports (San Jose) they have not been installed.  At some other airports (like BWI), they have been replaced by the body-scanning technology.

When notified by the cheerful screener that I had been selected for additional screening (the screener’s tone reminded my of the announcer who tells the contestant that she has just won a TV on the Price is Right), I stepped reluctantly toward the machine and asked her quietly whether I had the right to refuse the search.  I did not want to become a spectacle, or have to rent a car and drive back to Maryland.

The screeners face dropped and she appeared stunned, as if my question had been received like a body-blow.   She asked me to repeat what I said, and I repeated my inquiry regarding whether or not I had the right to refuse this search, especially since it was my understanding that the equipment did not work.  She responded defensively, “It sounds an alarm!”

What followed is what I can only describe as a process that left me with more questions and a hunger for something we need and something that has apparently been missing from TSA procedures since September 12, 2001: Data.

It is, again, important to note my general respect for the front line TSA screeners — with the exception of those screeners who feel that it is necessary to yell at people.  In my experience as a cop, as a supervisor and as a manager, I know that yelling at people is the one method guaranteed to ensure sub-par performance and a collapse of any semblance of cooperation.

My motivation to write this piece is first, to vent, but then to take a stab at the windmill that has grown from flawed processes to become a barrier to achieving the real mission and ultimate goal:  Passenger safety.

I believe, fundamentally, that our collective compliance with the current screening procedures has served only to undermine TSA, and has denied our screeners the tools they need to correct their course.

After realizing I was serious about refusing to step into the puffer machine, I was told that I would be subjected to a “full-body pat-down” and that all of my “stuff would be fully searched.”

I shrugged and waited while the screeners figured out what to do next.  One of the screeners said “Who is the supervisor?  Notify a supervisor.”  I waited two to three minutes with two female screeners.  I was then approached by a uniformed screener and the following exchange took place.

“She refused the puffer.  We are supposed to notify a supervisor.  You’re a supervisor, right?”

Apparently reminded of his role, the subordinate screener then said “We’re notifying you.”  She said nothing further.   The supervisor then informed me that if I did not step into the “puffer” I would be subjected to a full body-pat-down, that I would be “wanded” and that all of my belongings would be fully searched by hand.

By this time, my belongings had already passed through the x-ray and sat oddly unattended on the belt.  They had aroused no suspicion, either as they passed through the x-ray or as they sat completely unattended.  I thought it odd that my initial refusal to be subjected to the ‘puffer’ now rendered the x-ray examination effectively flawed.  I was being cajoled and was then offered the opportunity to change my mind, which, again, I thought rather odd.  If I posed such a risk by refusing the secondary screening, why would that risk be now mitigated, if only I were to change my mind?

I did not change my mind.  So, I stepped between two glass walls and was subjected to what my police training would allow me to conclude was a procedural vacuum.

I had been told repeatedly I would be subjected to a “pat-down.”  I correctly suspected otherwise.  During the course of my police career, I have conducted many pat-downs on the street.  The Supreme Court has described pat downs as a cursory check of the outer clothing of a person by a police officer, upon articulable suspicion that the officer’s safety is at risk of being compromised.  My department’s procedure indicated that this pat-down was to be conducted with an open hand, gently patting the outer clothing of an individual, for purposes of officer safety only, with the goal of detecting weapons.  In other words, it is not a search.

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.”  It was a full search conducted in full public view.  It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else.  She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her.  With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet.  Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem:  an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband.   Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities.  We train cops to realize that their life depends upon the ability to compartmentalize any apprehension about the need to lift and separate.  Fatal consequences can and do result when officers fail to detect a secreted weapon which is later used against them.

At the Albany airport,  I was left to wonder what kind of training the screener received. I was forced to conclude the answer might be “none.”  At a minimum, she needs re-training, assuming there is any policy or training that governs searches.  Further, after being repeatedly informed that I would be “wanded” by the metal detector in addition to the ‘pat-down,’ I was not.

Had I actually intended to move contraband past the screening point, my best strategy would have been to refuse secondary screening.

I am also forced to conclude that the purpose of the “pat-down” was not to actually interdict contraband.    In my case, I believe I was subjected to a haphazard response in order to effectively punish me for refusing secondary screening and to encourage a different decision in the future.

All of this is admittedly subjective, based on my perceptions at the time.  What is also entirely subjective is identifying which travelers are selected for secondary screening.

This is where I find myself now obsessing over TSA policy, or its apparent lack.  Every one of us goes to work each day harboring prejudice.  This is simply human nature.  What I have witnessed in law enforcement over the course of the last two decades serves to remind me how active and passive prejudice can undermine public trust in important institutions, like police agencies.  And TSA.

Over the last fifteen years or so, many police agencies started capturing data on police interactions.  The primary purpose was to document what had historically been undocumented: informal street contacts.  By capturing specific data, we were able to ask ourselves tough questions about potentially biased-policing.  Many agencies are still struggling with the answers to those questions.

Regardless, the data permitted us to detect problematic patterns, commonly referred to as passive discrimination.  This is a type of discrimination that occurs when we are not aware of how our own biases affect our decisions.  This kind of bias must be called to our attention, and there must be accountability to correct it.

One of the most troubling observations I made, at both Albany and BWI, was that — aside from the likely notation in a log (that no one will ever look at) — there was no information captured and I was asked no questions, aside from whether or not I wanted to change my mind.

Given that TSA interacts with tens if not hundreds of millions of travelers each year, it is incredible to me that we, the stewards of homeland security,  have failed to insist that data capturing and analysis should occur in a manner similar to what local police agencies have been doing for many years.

Some might argue that the potential for intrusion is not the same between police and TSA.  I believe my experience this past weekend demonstrates otherwise.   Currently, there is no way to know whether a certain male screener routinely identifies predominantly women for additional screening.  There is no way to identify whether a Latino screener routinely isolates African-Americans, or vice versa.  To assert that the screeners are highly trained and do not engaged in this type of discrimination, whether passive or active, is unsupportable because there is no data.  You simply cannot solve problems that you do not want to identify.

Finally, I am most concerned about the “random” nature of my repeated selection for secondary screening.  If there is no discrimination at work, and my selection is entirely random, then we have yet another, and probably more significant problem.

For years in policing, we relied on random patrols to curb crime.  We relied upon this “strategy” until someone went out and captured some data, and did a study that demonstrated conclusively that random patrols do not work (Kansas City Study).

As police have employed other types of “random” interventions, as in DWI checkpoints, they have had to develop policies, procedures and training to ensure that the “random” nature of these intrusions is truly random.  Whether every car gets checked, or every tenth car, police must demonstrate that they have attempted to eliminate the effects of active and passive discrimination when using “random” strategies.  No such accountability currently exists at TSA.

As I left the screening check point in Albany,  I looked over a few feet and observed an elderly Asian couple talking to “my” supervisor.  I unashamedly eavesdropped.

I heard the man say that his wife had not been told that the machine would blow air and that she had been quite startled.  The woman said she should have been informed and the supervisor agreed. He said he would speak to the screener (but again, who knows whether he actually did).

Then the  man said “And she should have been told she can refuse.”  The bells in my head were deafening.

I believe what we have here is the beginning of the end of complacency.  It is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure.  If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support.  Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable.

October 14, 2009

Layered, messy, inefficient, randomly revealed (and resilient) reality

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 14, 2009


Tomorrow the President will visit New Orleans. He is scheduled to appear at a reopened school and participate in a town hall meeting-style event. (We ought not confuse these ersatz occasions with the substantive sessions of selectmen and citizens celebrated by Thoreau.)

In August, for Katrina’s anniversary, I started research for what I expected to be a sad post. What I found was complicated, but far from sad.  Out of the midst of true tragedy emerges a redemptive tale of human creativity.  (Read the prior post.)

There is plenty of bad news in the Big Easy. There is also continued cause to worry about a direct hit. Certain realities remain.  But the good news should not be denied nor obscured. 


The President’s visit is causing a fuss.  Some say he has waited too long to come and others complain he is not staying long enough.  He will leave mid-afternoon for California.

Every President is a sort of palimpsest.  No matter how valuable the original text, we are busy scraping away what is there and replacing it with what we want, even — perhaps especially — if we want an adversary. 

Presidents become  projections of our hopes and fears, rather than  human  vessels with particular gifts and frailties.  We may make him into hero or villain, but in either case we try to loot his humanity for our own purpose.


In his recently released epic of New Orleans, poet Dave Brinks, opens with,

stared into
everwhich at everwhat
this slender hour comes forward
barefoot to the sun
if only I had gray green
black brown yellow eyes
or a door I could see
through terribly clearly
slowly the answer
becomes an epitaph
a flip of the coin
juggling apples
tracing hexagrams

(The Caveat Onus)

Everything comes down to juggling or the flip of a coin. We never see clearly enough. No matter how careful and complete our thinking and plans, we may be blithely, randomly upended.

Besides, my thinking is seldom careful.  Are your plans ever complete?


Palimpsests are manuscripts on which more than one text shares the same face of parchment.  A more recent text is typically imposed on the “ghost” of a prior text or texts.  In the example at the head of this post you see 6th Century Armenian homilies underwritten 10th Century Syriac prayers.  Several classical treasures have been recovered from such underwriting.  (See the Archimedes Palimpsest.)

New Orleans is another sort of palimpsest.  The character of layer built upon layer, with prior reality never fully erased, is what makes the French Quarter and other neighborhoods popular tourist destinations. Venice, Rome, London,  New York in it’s own way, are similarly deep-rooted, multi-layered intricate realities.  So are Santa Fe,  Boston and Annapolis, Lexington, Kentucky and Mineral Point, Wisconsin.  So are most places where a stranger may immediately feel at home.

This layering helps explain why the city’s recovery has exceeded most expectations.  New Orleans — for all its many faults —  is a place of intimate relationships: between past and present, natural with modern, and among a wide array of diverse peoples and cultures.  This layered intimacy is a strength that can withstand a great deal, evidently both a Category 3 Hurricane and systemic human failure.


Resilience is not a concept du jour.  Resilience is what happens — what has always happened — when humans live together in a community characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions. (See Resilience and the Commons, from Monday.) 

These resilient layers are formed gradually, requiring time and incremental reinforcement.  They need ongoing and thoughtful investment.  The costs, especially in conversation and experimentation, can be substantial.  But the outcomes enhance current happiness, even while our ability to rebound from disaster is strengthened.


Times-Picayune coverage of President’s visit

Obama greeted by feisty crowd (Boston Globe)

Mistakes after Katrina won’t be repeated (Bloomberg)

President’s remarks at Martin Luther King, Jr. charter school (White House)

October 13, 2009

Warning of a Homeland Security Waning

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on October 13, 2009

Interesting piece this morning from Tim Starks of CQ regarding the “urgency” of passing  the Homeland Security Appropriations bill conference report, which will be in House rules tomorrow and is expected to be on the House floor by the end of the week.  Starks notes that the bill, which traditionally has been above politics and quick to the President’s desk, is moving slower this year.  Not the first bill out, it is in the middle of the spending bills pack this year.  On the authorizing side, the Department will not see this year the passage of a homeland security authorization measure in either the House or Senate.

Is this slower pace of passage a warning that homeland security is waning as a priority for the U.S.? Have we finally reached a point where the panic has passed and we are looking at homeland security more holistically and less urgently?

It is difficult to say with certainty.  The amount of federal spending dedicated to homeland security does not necessarily indicate a waning.  A healthy chunk of funding from the stimulus bill this year also went to the Department for distribution. The Department of Homeland Security’s proposed budget for FY2010 is $42.77 billion – a 6.6% ($2.64 billion) from FY2009.  This increase came despite the predictions of many that homeland security’s budget, especially in the grants area, would have have to be cut to accommodate domestic needs.

With regards to an authorization bill – there has never been, since the Department’s creation, an authorization bill sent to the President to sign.  In 2003, when the House Select Committee on Homeland Security first attempted to pass such a bill out of Committee, Chairman Christopher Cox (R-CA) walked out of the mark-up as he couldn’t get the majority of his Republican Members to show up.  He had a hard time because the majority of his Members were Chairmen of other Committees who did not want to cede power to the temporary Committee.   The Committee’s Democrats, on the other hand, showed up in force with more than 100 amendments and were accused of being obstructionists to the process. A rocky start to say the least.

That first attempt would be a sign of things to come though the House did finally pass an authorization bill in 2005 for FY2006.  An FY2007 authorization bill made it through the House Homeland Security Committee in 2006.  There have been no other attempts to tackle a catch-all authorization bill since that date in the House.  The Senate has never acted to pass an authorization bill.

If we are not seeing a waning, we certainly are seeing a shift of priorities on how Congress is tackling the homeland security problem.  Committees in both the Senate and House are focusing on more “nuts and bolts” issues that are critical to the management, procurement, and processes of the evolving Department.  For example, on Wednesday, the House Homeland Security is looking at diversity within the DHS career ranks.  There have been a number of hearings this year looking at such issues as acquisition processes, specific programmatic contracts, and the Department’s pending move to the St Elizabeth’s campus.

Unless some catastrophe strikes, we can expect this nuts and bolts approach to continue, especially once the findings of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR ) are made public. At that time, there is some expectation that DHS may see some more shifting of programs and policies to ensure a more functional and operational “one DHS, one one enterprise, a shared vision, with integrated results-based operations.”

These issues may not be sexy but they are important ones to assuring that the agency is capable, if the U.S. is attacked or a natural disaster strikes, of managing its response.

October 12, 2009

Resilience and the Commons

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 12, 2009

A new Nobel Prize laureate has some wisdom to share regarding resilience. She was another surprise choice for this year’s award.

The Swedish Central Bank has awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist and a bit of a polymath, long associated with Indiana University at Bloomington. 

In it’s news release, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explains, “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

Dr. Ostrom has empirically demonstrated that Common Property Resources, such as those identified by the Swedish Academy, are usually best managed when those appropriating the resources can work together in a context characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions.

Is community resilience a Common Property Resource?   They seem to share several characteristics.  While Dr. Ostrom never refers to “resilience,” in a 2003 interview, she seems to describe it. 

When you have a system that is vulnerable to disruption by external shocks — for example, a hurricane or a military invasion — the probability of error increases substantially.  Polycentric governance systems are frequently criticized for being too complex, redundant, and lacking a central direction when viewed from a static, simple-systems perspective.  They have considerable strengths when viewed from a dynamic, complex-systems perspective, particularly one that is concerned with the vulnerability of governance systems to external shocks.

The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock.  In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale unit of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units.  Instead of being a major detriment to system performance, redundancy builds in considerable capabilities.

If only one government exists for a large geographic area, failure of that unit to respond adequately to external threats may mean a major disaster for the entire system.  If there are multiple governance units, organized at different levels for the same geographic region, a failure of one or more of these units to respond to external threats may lead to small-scale disasters.  But these may be offset by the successful reaction of other units in the system.

Within the parlance of Common Property Resources, governance units include non-official arrangements between private firms and individuals.   Dr. Ostrom is describing a federal system with strong intermediate partners, such as states and localities, and a diverse civil sector with a wealth of overlapping interests and influences.

In homeland security we are concerned with various forms of resilience.  These include physical, social, psychological, and economic resilience.  I am particularly concerned with constitutional resilience, for which the extended quote is especially relevant.  But I would argue polycentrism is an essential characteristic of any category of resilience. 

The more nodes in a network and the more linkages between nodes, the stronger the network.  This is true of individuals, communities, economies, and every sort of system I can imagine.

(Editorial note: The last two paragraphs were added many hours after the original post.)


Important texts by Elinor Ostrom include:

Understanding Institutional Diversity

Governing the Commons

Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources

Further information on Common Property Resources and related work is available from the International Association for the Study of the Commons.


Ostrom challenges Obama (The Times, London)

Nobel Prize for work on governance (Financial Times)

Why Elinor Ostrom matters (Forbes)

Finding inspiration in her roots (Globe and Mail)

Homeland security this week

Filed under: Events — by Philip J. Palin on October 12, 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, October 12

The National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) annual conference opened in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday and continues through Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 13

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum hosts a special exhibit on Reporting Terrorism.  The exhibit examines “how acts of terrorism are covered and conveyed” by the news media.  The exhibit continues through the end of November.

Wednesday, October 14

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO) annual meeting opens in Vienna, Virginia and continues through Friday.

11:45  am (eastern) Washington DC, The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts a lecture on Global Health in the 21st Century: Identifying the Big Priorities.

8:00 pm (eastern) Davidson, North Carolina, Davidson College hosts a lecture on Can a Counterterrorism Policy be both Successful and Moral?

Thursday, October 15

The 2009 Cyber Security Expo opens at the University of Memphis with a focus on Global Cyber Security.

The University of Maryland will conduct an emergency vaccination drill.

Friday, October 16

150 years ago today, John Brown and nineteen followers captured the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, (then) Virginia.  Was old John Brown a terrorist or freedom fighter? Both?

john-brown1 …. Mural of John Brown from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

October 11, 2009

Context matters, never more than in AfPak

Filed under: International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 11, 2009

Three bits worth your attention as a decision approaches related to the  US  strategy for AfPak:

The Sunday New York Times includes a piece by Scott Shane on Mullah Omar’s remarkable resilience as leader of the Afghan Taliban.  This come back, how it was achieved, and what it really means is at the heart of current strategic considerations by the White House.

Sunday’s Washington Post reports on the competition between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan.  Understanding this aspect of regional geopolitics is essential to accurately perceiving Pakistan’s attitude vis-a-vis the Taliban. Please see Attack may Intensify India-Pakistan Proxy War  by Emily Wax.

Late Sunday, Pakistan time, it sounds increasingly likely that sustained  military operations will soon begin in South Waziristan.  Yesterday’s attack on Army General Headquarters and hostage taking, while supposedly aimed to deter, has instead spurred government authorization to claim the offensive.  See stories in DAWN, The Age, and The Telegraph.  

While I claim no special insight, some of those who do claim expertise, wonder if — once again — the Taliban-in-Pakistan have overplayed.  They say many in Rawalpindi were using the White House decision-making process to delay taking the offense in Waziristan.  The same circles have exploited controversial elements of the Kerry-Lugar aid package to foster further distraction. Soon winter snows will provide another excuse for delay.  But now the attack on Army GHQ is seen as requiring a response.

October 9, 2009

Policy drives strategy; strategy makes, shakes, or breaks policy

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 9, 2009


AfPak strategy discussions at the White House, Friday afternoon, October 9, White House Photo

Later today the President will meet with key members of his national security team in the latest session focused on crafting an effective US strategy for Afghanistan.

Walking by the White House yesterday the extra crowd control barriers were out on Pennsylvania Avenue.  They will be needed for a while. The anti-war protesters will be back.

On August 17 the President told the Veterans of Foreign Wars,

The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight and we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a — this is fundamental to the defense of our people.

This is consistent with Mr. Obama’s discussion of Afghanistan during the campaign and in his March policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But according to the polls the American people do not agree with the President.  An early October poll found 57 percent of Americans opposed to the war in Afghanistan.  Opposition is even stronger among Democrats.

Thursday Glenn Thrush and Manu Raju reported in Politico, “If President Barack Obama decides to send more troops to Afghanistan, he risks setting off an internal party struggle on a foreign policy issue that may well define his performance as commander in chief.”

It is very difficult for a democracy to go to war — or stay at war — without a significant political consensus in favor of the war.

Even so, after his Tuesday meeting with Congressional leadership, the President made it clear that whatever the outcome of the current strategy considerations, there would be no reduction in the current US troop commitment to Afghanistan. 

The war will continue.  The President’s policy remains the same. 

Here’s how he articulated the policy in March,

I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal:  to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.  That’s the goal that must be achieved. 

In March the President also said, “To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy.”  Policy is implemented through strategy.  Policy is the destination.  Strategy is the map.

Two days after his inauguration, the President appointed Richard Holbrooke as US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In mid-June President Obama appointed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as US (and NATO) military commander in Afghanistan.  He also appointed new ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  All of these individuals, and many others as well, have been asked to contribute advice on a strategy to implement the President’s policy. 

It is not a simple issue of accepting or rejecting Gen. McChystal’s advice.   The outcome is a strategy that combines the best of military, diplomatic, economic, and political possibilities.

Because this is a democracy, the President’s policy must be articulated and executed in a way that respects — especially if it does not neatly reflect — public sentiment.  Given majority opinion and the stance of his own political party, this will not be easy.  I hope someone at the White House saw Chris Bellavita’s Thursday post (immediately below).

It has been said that leadership is about doing the right thing, while management is about doing things right. In my judgment, the President has already demonstrated leadership.  He has chosen the right policy.  But strategy is also needed. Doing things wrong can undermine the best policy.

Overnight the President was named to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  According to the BBC, “Asked why the prize had been awarded to Mr Obama less than a year after he took office, Nobel committee head Thorbjoern Jagland said: ‘It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve’.”

The Nobel Committee is responding to the President’s policies (well beyond Afghanistan).  I expect the President is embarrassed, even a bit annoyed.  He knows that intention is easy compared to execution. 

We need an effective strategy that deals with realities in Afpak and contributes to a long-term sustainable solution.  He is not yet satisfied we have one.

Saturday October 10 Update:

Obama hears general’s troop request for Afghanistan (New York Times)

Axelrod defends deliberative approach (Lincoln Journal Star)

40,000 more troops proposed (Financial Times)

October 8, 2009

How to replace a simple message with a complex one: the H1N1 case

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 8, 2009

[First the simple part: This very lengthy post describes a complexity-based alternative to the conventional “message influence” strategic communications model.]

I had lunch with my friend Harold the other day. We were talking about H1N1. Harold mentioned someone named “Dr. Fauci.”

I had no idea who Dr. Fauci was.

Harold never gets a flu shot because, as he said, “I just never get flu shots.”

Harold had dinner with Dr. Fauci a few weeks ago. As one outcome of the dinner, Harold decided to get a flu shot.

“He’s an amazing man,” Harold told me. “He’s knowledgeable. He speaks in plain English. He’s convincing. I’m getting a flu shot.”

I now know Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  USA Today published an interview with Fauci, calling him “the government’s point man for tracking flu and finding answers to it.”

Now that some vaccine is available, government wants to remind people what H1N1 is, why it’s important, and what people can do about it.

“The H1N1 virus that’s circulating now, for 99% of the people, is a relatively mild to, at most, moderate influenza… The … sort of the gray cloud over everything is that the virus can mutate and become virulent. And if it maintains its high transmissibility and mutates to become virulent, then we have a really, really serious problem. Which we don’t have now.”

What about the new H1N1 vaccine that is about to be unleashed on the American public, with only minimal testing?

“This really is not a new vaccine.” Fauci says. “No matter how much we try, it’s a tough message [my emphasis] to get across. Every year when we put out the seasonal influenza vaccine we change it slightly from year to year to match the drift in the virus in society. In essence, it’s what we call a “strain change.” That’s exactly what we’re doing with this H1N1 vaccine. But because it’s been billed as a pandemic virus that’s new to society, people are perceiving this is an untested, brand new vaccine. One of the problematic issues in biology is that nothing is 100% safe. It is as safe really as any of the vaccines that we take each year with a strain change. But that sometimes is a difficult message to get across.”

I’m motivated to understand government’s message because I want to know what my family and I should do.

I’ve read a lot about H1N1. I’ve talked about it with public safety people. The more I look into it, the more uncertainty I discover.

For me, deciding what to do about H1N1 means understanding medical science and trusting experts. I do not know much about medical science. I trust experts to be wrong sometimes.

When I think about my general ignorance of medical science, I recall what Carl Sagan said in Demon Haunted World: “We have … arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Do I want to bet the H1N1 experts are right or wrong? How could this blow up in my face?

USA Today asks Fauci if he’s “…worried that in the media and in the general population, myths and misinformation are being spread?”

“We are putting in an extraordinary amount of time into messaging.” He answered. [There’s that word “messaging” again.] “ We try to spend as much time as we possibly can with the media, on TV, in meetings like this, putting things on websites to try and dispel myths. I’ve been doing these public health-type things for a very long time, going back to HIV/AIDS and SARS and the anthrax attacks, and the ability of misinformation to get propagated continually astounds me.”

Fauci talks a lot in the interview about messaging:

So this is a tough message here.

No matter how much we try, it’s a tough message to get across.

But that sometimes is a difficult message to get across.

We’re getting the message out to try to get it out to the five target groups first….

The messaging is difficult.

The almost purring emphasis on “messaging” reminded me of an innovative article (by S.R. Corman, A. Trethewey, & B Goodall) called “A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas: From Simplistic Influence to Pragmatic Complexity.” It’s worth a read if you’re interested in strategic communication. You can download a copy here. I found it to be sometimes technical, but always thought provoking.

The paper is about the way the United States does strategic communication. The authors claim the conventional “messaging model” is wrong for today’s complex communications environment. The conventional model has been with us since the 1950s. The authors suggest we need a different approach — something they call a “pragmatic complexity model.”

The article is nominally about communication in the war on terror. But I think the perspective is applicable to strategic communication about other homeland security issues — H1N1 for example.

Here is my edited summary of the author’s argument.

The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)

Current strategic communication practice in the United States and Western countries is based on an outdated message influence model from the 1950s that views communication as a process of transmission from a source to a receiver using simple, consistent, repeated messages.

This model fails because it doe not recognize communication as a meaning-making process.

In reality, messages are interpreted within a large, complex system with emergent properties and self-preserving dynamics. The old model should be replaced with a 21st century view of communication as interpretation and attribution of actions in an uncertain environment. Communicators are locked in simultaneous, mutual interdependence that reduces the value of grand strategy and makes [communication] failure the most likely outcome.

To succeed in this environment communicators should deemphasize control and embrace complexity, replace repetition of messages with experimental variation, consider moves that will disrupt the existing system, and make contingency plans for failure.

Some Details

The communication model underlying current Western strategic communication practices dates back at least to the 1950s…. It draws heavily on an analogy comparing human communication to transmission of messages over a telephone system. [Originators of the traditional “message influence model” define] … communication as a process in which one mind uses messages to affect another mind.…

A source … has “ideas, needs, intentions, information, and a purpose for communicating.” These things are formulated as a message which is translated into …symbols [i.e., language]…. The encoded message is sent via some channel (a particular medium of communication) to the receiver, who uses a decoder to “retranslate” the symbols into a usable form.

We call this a message influence model because it conceptualizes messages as a vehicle for carrying information from a source to a receiver. The purpose of the message is to influence the receiver to understand the information in the same way as the source, if not persuade him or her to change attitudes or act in a particular way….

One of the implications of this view is that failures are a matter of interference of one kind or another with the transmission of the message. …. One source of infidelity is noise occurring in the channel. It can usually be tolerated (for example we can successfully talk even on a noisy phone connection), or overcome through the repetition of the same message, or even avoided altogether by choosing a better channel. Outright distortion of messages occurs in the encoding or decoding stages. Distortion occurs because communicators lack sufficient skill to faithfully translate the information to or from symbols, or their culture or individual attitudes corrupt the translation process in some way.

A key underlying assumption of the message influence model is that communication will be successful unless the factors just described interfere with the sender/receiver connection. Accordingly “best practices” can be employed by influence-seeking sources to promote fidelity in their transmissions, [such as]:

  • Simple, concise messages are superior to complicated ones because they are easier to encode and decode faithfully.
  • Messages can be repeated to insure that unskilled receivers have multiple chances to get it right, making the transmission more reliable despite the presence of noise.
  • The sender can also try to understand the attitudes and cultural context of the receiver, and then use his or her skill to encode messages that are least likely to be distorted by them.


One might argue that government’s communication about H1N1 largely follows the message influence model.

The authors argue that model … is flawed because it fails to respond to the complexities of communication as a meaning-making process.

So what does that mean?


The message influence model assumes, incorrectly, that communication is the transfer of “meanings from person to person” and that the message sent is the one that counts. The problem is that a meaning cannot simply be transferred, like a letter mailed from point A to point B.

Instead, listeners create meanings from messages based on factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs. [This ends up creating what can be called a meaning system.]

We should assume that meanings listeners create in their minds will probably not be identical to those intended by the receiver. As several decades of communication research has shown, the message received is the one that really counts….


Members of [a particular meaning] system, routinely and often unconsciously, work to preserve the existing framework of meaning. To accomplish this they interpret messages in ways that “fit” the existing scheme, rather than in ways that senders may intend. There is no “magic bullet”—no single message, however well-crafted—that can be delivered within the existing system that is likely to change [the meaning system].

The shortcomings of the message influence model just described make it clear that we need an updated way of thinking about strategic communication. This is not to say that we can go without messages, or that it would be good to have unclear, inconsistent messages sent by unskilled communicators. Instead we call for an updated view of the process surrounding the communication of messages that avoids simplistic view of the old message influence model, provides more realistic expectations about their impact, offers a new set of communication strategies, and in the long run leads to more strategic success.

The new model we propose [is called] pragmatic complexity (PCOM)…. [For the originator of this approach], communication is not an act of one mind transmitting a message to another mind. It is a property of a complex system in which participants interpret one-another’s actions and make attributions about the thoughts, motivations, intentions, etc., behind them. The issuing of a message by one party and its receipt by another may initiate this process, but that is far from the end of the story….

In the simplest case of a communication system with two participants A and B, we can describe [the interaction] as follows:

• The success of A’s behavior depends not only on external conditions, but on what B does and thinks.

• What B does and thinks is influenced by A’s behavior as well as B’s expectations, interpretations, and attributions with respect to A.

So there is no independent B sitting “out there” waiting to be impacted by A’s message, as the old model would have it. Instead A and B are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence.


Another important aspect of complexity is that systems have emergent properties—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is impossible to reduce the success of a well-functioning work group, sports team or military unit to the skills or actions of any one member. Likewise, in our complex [communication] system the communication process is not completely under the control of either A or B. What they do matters, of course. But so does the action of the system as a whole, and it is in an important sense independent of the actions of the individual participants. The system is not necessarily under anyone’s control.

[An implication of this model]… is that the purpose of communication is not to cause acceptance and persuade the receiver to think in a particular way, as in the old model. In the PCOM framework the purpose of communication is to perturb [or disrupt] the communication [meaning] system and overcome its tendency to interpret and attribute in standard ways.


I think the above means communication has a chance of being effective if it can disrupt the existing communication meaning systems. But while Participant A (e.g., Facui) is trying to disrupt Participant B’s meaning system, Participant B (e.g., me or Harold) is countering with autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs.  (For other examples, look at the reader comments at the end of Facui’s USA Today article.)


This leads to our third implication, that [communication] failure is the norm. The message influence model assumes that unless …[something distorts] the message, it will successfully travel from the source and implant itself in the mind of the receiver. But given PCOM assumptions, we can understand just how unlikely this scenario is. Interpretation by a receiver is influenced by an array of factors that are outside the control of—and may even be unknown to—the sender. Not the least of these is a [meaning] system that is trying to preserve itself by resisting change.


So what to do about all this? The authors offer practical strategic ideas:

1. Deemphasize control and embrace complexity.

…. You can’t control the message; get over it. …. Communicators should accept this reality and try to work with it, just as Wall Street traders accept the chaos of the market and try to “go with the flow.” Once we let go of the idea of a well-ordered system that is under our control, we can start to think of what is possible in situations of uncertainty.

2. Replace repetition with variation.

Unwavering use of a few simple messages is no more likely to work in a complex communication system than is a plan to always buy (and only buy) the same stock on Wall Street. What is needed in both cases is strategic experimentation. …. Rather than a grand overall strategy, communicators should rely on variations on a message theme. These are backed by small (rather than large) commitments, and are followed up with careful observation of results. Communicators temporarily sustain things that “work” and perhaps add resources to them.

3. Consider disruptive moves.

While variation can contribute to system change in an evolutionary sense, large scale, transformative change typically only occurs only as a result of some major disruption in the normal operations of a system. [If the worse case H1N1 scenarios come to pass, almost everyone’s meaning system will be disrupted. Amidst the chaos there will be a significant strategic communication opportunity.  For one example of what to strategically communicate about, see“Leading during bioattacks and epidemics with the public’s trust and help,” available here.]

4. Expect and plan for failure.

The communication systems described by the PCOM model are complex. ….[It is] difficult to predict exactly what effects will result from particular messages. This means that, especially in terms of the “big picture,” it is difficult to be strategic in the sense of setting a desired future state of affairs and mapping a set of logical steps that are likely to bring it about. Given our point above that well intentioned efforts can have unanticipated perverse effects, it is perhaps just as likely that goals will be undermined as it is that they will be accomplished.

With this in mind, strategic communicators should think less in terms of grand strategy and more in terms of contingency planning. Rather than assuming a message will be understood as it is intended, they should think of the ways things could go wrong, what the consequences of those outcomes will be, and the steps that might be undertaken in response. Then, if the message has the intended effects it is all to the good, and if it does not, options are immediately available for further variation as described above.


Saying all of this another way, my friend Harold will now get a flu shot. I’m still trying to decide.

But the fact that Harold has changed his mind affects my communication meaning system in unpredictable ways.

It’s all fairly complex.

October 7, 2009

Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 7, 2009

Tuesday morning President Obama visited the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) outside Washington D.C.  His remarks focused on the counterterrorism mission he articulated during the campaign and in his March strategy statement on relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following is the core of the President’s message and some commentary:

Because of you, and all the organizations you represent, we’re making real progress in our core mission:  to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world.We must never lose sight of that goal.  That’s the principal threat to the American people.  That is the threat that led to the creation of this Center.  And that must be the focus of our efforts to defend the homeland and our allies, and defeat extremists abroad.

Disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQ et alia.  John Brennan, founder of the NCTC and now Deputy National Security Advisor, has given particular emphasis to violent extremists beyond AQ.  Please see Mr. Brennan’s prior comments.

We know that al Qaeda and its extremist allies threaten us from different corners of the globe — from Pakistan, but also from East Africa and Southeast Asia; from Europe and the Gulf.  And that’s why we’re applying focused and relentless pressure on al Qaeda — by sharing more intelligence, strengthening the capacity of our partners, disrupting terrorist financing, cutting off supply chains, and inflicting major losses on al Qaeda’s leadership.

Even with the broader attention to violent extremism, there is a particular concern with AQ.  Last week the current director of the NCTC told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental affairs, “Despite our counterterrorism (CT) progress, al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and allies remain resilient and adaptive enemies intent on attacking US and Western interests—with al-Qa‘ida’s core in Pakistan representing the most dangerous component of the larger al-Qa‘ida network. “

It should now be clear — the United States and our partners have sent an unmistakable message:  We will target al Qaeda wherever they take root; we will not yield in our pursuit; and we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies.

Is the President signaling imminent Pakistani operations against the safe haven in Waziristan?  Or highlighting the successful Drone attack on Baitullah Mehsud?  He might be making an oblique reference to the recent special forces operation in Somalia or others that are known to his audience, but not to us.

We also know that success against al Qaeda must go beyond destroying their network — it must be about the future that we want to build as well.  And that’s why we’re putting forward a positive vision of American leadership around the world — one where we lead by example, and engage nations and peoples on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.

Echoes of Cairo.  Is there a compelling “mutual interest” for a US role in shaping an Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) less susceptible to violent extremism? How do we best lead by example and engage there?  The McChrystal assessment suggests a full-scale counterinsurgency strategy.  The President is looking for other effective options, if he can find them.

As one counterterrorism expert recently observed, because of our efforts al Qaeda and its allies have not only lost operational capacity, they’ve lost legitimacy and credibility.  Of course, nobody does a better job of discrediting al Qaeda than al Qaeda itself, which has killed men and women and children of many faiths in many nations, and which has absolutely no positive future to offer the people of the world.

In September the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported widespread rejection of AQ and its methods in nine predominantly Islamic nations.  A survey of Pakistani public opinion completed in August found that those having an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda has increased from 34 percent to 61 percent over the last year.  Unfortunately 62 percent of Pakistanis also consider the US their enemy. Pakistanis say,  a pox on both your houses.

So even as we target al Qaeda and its bankrupt vision, we also know that we have to be vigilant in defending our people at home.  And that takes aggressive intelligence collection and skillful analysis.  And that demands the effective and efficient coordination between federal government and our state and local partners.

Monday Secretary Napolitano told the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Effective information sharing is essential to our partnerships with state and local law enforcement as we work together to secure our country. DHS will continue to strengthen fusion centers and other collaborative initiatives across the country to enhance our capabilities to combat terrorism and serious crime.”

Eight years ago today US and British forces began air operations over Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over the 9/11 conspirators.  The unpopular Taliban regime was quickly defeated.  But al-Qaeda disappeared into the Hindu Kush where — among other efforts — it nourished a renewed and expanded Taliban.  Eight years later that core al-Qaeda element remains “the most dangerous component” of a battered but persistent threat to the United States.

October 6, 2009

Samoa Tsunami: Scope and scale matter

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 6, 2009

A BBC report  by Phil Mercer on Tsunami-ravaged Samoa concludes, “Huge physical and psychological challenges lie ahead and many islanders wonder if life can ever be the same again. Houses, roads and businesses will be rebuilt but reviving the confidence of a coast-loving people is likely to be a lot harder. The ocean that has sustained them for so long is now considered in many quarters to be the enemy – one that is viewed with suspicion and fear.”

There have been thirty-two confirmed deaths in American Samoa, out of a total population of 65,000.  Roughly 2000 have been displaced.   The neighboring islands of Tonga and the Independent State of Samoa were also hit hard.  

On the island of Upolu in the Independent State of Samoa a 25 mile strip of coast was essentially wiped out.  Kathy Marks of the Christian Science Monitor quotes a UN official, “It’s very bad but it’s localized. The moment you move beyond that strip, everything is intact, and the roads have been cleared rapidly, so there’s access to deliver aid and services and evacuate the injured.”

The scale of death, injury, and destruction is high.  The scope is, however, modest.  In contrast to the widespread impact of the earthquake in Sumatra or cyclone and flood damage in the Philippines, the South Pacific disaster is much more manageable.

US military assets and FEMA experts were quickly deployed to American Samoa.  Five federal agencies and the Red Cross are involved in a coordinated response.

According to Kena Lesi reporting for the AP, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also helped restore water service to residents in the American territory and coordinated the installation of more than 20 generators at shelters and sewer and water treatment plants. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy have supplied survivors with more than 26,000 meals, 14,000 liters (3,700 gallons) of water, 1,800 blankets and more than 800 cots.”

Reporting for USA Today and the Honolulu Advertiser Derrick DePledge   quoted Kenneth Tingman, the federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “”When we drove around the first day, we saw people that were not waiting, they were not acting like victims, they were taking charge of their lives. They were sweeping up. They were cleaning up. And they were getting on with the duty of living their lives and putting their families back together.”

In crafting a resilience strategy, scope and scale are key considerations. The greater the geographic reach and/or population density of the event,  the more resilience will be seriously challenged.  The greater the scope, the slower outside assistance will be to arrive.  The wider the scope, the greater the sense of  victimization, isolation and vulnerability, and full  recovery will be much more complicated. 

But if scope is contained, a disaster of horrific scale may allow both place and people to largely recover.

More information:

Associated Press video of tsunami damage in American Samoa

CNN: Agencies working to aid Samoans hit by quake, tsunami

ABC News: Tsunami warning systems too slow

Wall Street Journal: Being ready for the big wave


October 5, 2009

Homeland security this week

Filed under: Events — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 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, October 5

2:00 pm (eastern) Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution hosts an assessment of US policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police opened on Saturday in Denver.  The conference will continue through Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 6

2:00 pm (eastern) Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution hosts a discussion on breaking the stalemate on immigration policy.

Wednesday, October 7

On this day in 2001 British and US forces began air operations against al-Qaeda camps and the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 8

3:30 pm (pacific) Palo Alto, California – The Freeman Spogli Institute hosts a lecture on Mapping Terrorist Organizations.

6:00 pm (eastern) Atlanta, Georgia – The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs hosts a lecture on Nanotechnology for Defense and Homeland Security

Friday, October 9

October 3, 2009

Moon over Manhattan

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 3, 2009


In Senate testimony on Wednesday, Secretary Napolitano, FBI Director Mueller, and Michael Leiter, Director of the National  Counter Terrorism Center, outlined the terrorist threat to the United States. According to Leiter:

Despite our counterterrorism (CT) progress, al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and allies remain resilient and adaptive enemies intent on attacking US and Western interests—with al-Qa‘ida’s core in Pakistan representing the most dangerous component of the larger al-Qa‘ida network. We assess that this core is actively engaged in operational plotting and continues recruiting, training, and transporting operatives, to include individuals from Western Europe and North America… We assess that al-Qa‘ida continues to pursue plans for Homeland attacks and is likely focusing on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population.

How to deal with this “most dangerous component” is the subject of intense controversy in a number of capitals, and certainly in Washington.

But it is probably in Islamabad — or, more realistically, in Pakistan’s military capital of Rawalpindi — where the decision that matters most will be made. 

Looking at the world from Rawalpindi is a bit like that classic New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg, where reality is dominated by Manhattan’s street grid and even New Jersey seems distant and barely relevant.

Until this Spring al-Qaeda seemed no more relevant than California.  The Afghan Taliban were certainly wild, but as well-contained as residents of the Central Park Zoo.  “Taliban-in-Pakistan” was just a new name for the fractious gangs that have long inhabited Pakistan’s equivalent of the South Bronx (before gentrification). 

India was — and is —  the real threat;  just as middle class values creeping  over from Long Island are a threat to Manhattan.

Then in April some deadly serious toughs from the South Bronx suddenly  claimed the Swat Valley (think the northend of Central Park) and were gathering at 110th Street for a sweep south along Fifth Avenue.  That got Rawalpindi’s attention and the gangs were mostly dispersed, at least back into the depths of Harlem.

The issue now is whether Rawalpindi should try taking out the gangs on their own home turf (think Ft. Apache, the Bronx).

Earlier this week David Ignatius, reporting from Ft. Apache in the Washington Post, predicted, “A new battle for control of Waziristan is coming, as the Pakistani military prepares a ground offensive in the Mehsud areas against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The army has code-named the operation ‘Rahe Nijat,’ which the commander here translates loosely as ‘The Way to Get Rid of Them.’ The assault could start within the next month.”

Writing in the October 8 New York Review of Books Ahmed Rashid disagrees. “However, Pakistan’s general made it abundantly clear that they will not invade South Waziristan for the moment. ‘It’s going to take months’ to launch a ground offensive, the senior commander in the area, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmad told reporters… The army would prefer to wait and see what happens in Waziristan and also in Afghanistan.”

And in Washington. While far away, Washington D.C. looms large in Rawalpindi, much as a full moon fills the sky over Manhattan.

What Washington decides to do (or not) in Afghanistan will determine what Rawalpindi does (or not) in Waziristan.  Washington currently holds the Bronx Zoo (Kabul) and can keep the Grand Concourse open to traffic.  Will NATO and Pakistani troops eventually meet for a friendly game in Yankee Stadium?  Or will the US and and its European allies gradually withdraw across the George Washington Bridge to far-away New Jersey?

Over the weekend an Army spokesman in Rawalpindi said that ground operations in Waziristan are “a matter of time.” Rawalpindi is ready in Waziristan. But it will not cross the East River — it will not fully engage –until it is sure that Washington and Brussels are committed east of the Hudson.  

The NATO Secretary-General, in Washington last week, certainly sounded committed. The Sunday Telegraph tells its readers — including the Sandhurst contingent in Pindi — that London is committed.

“We are up for what it takes,” says Sir David, “we will do what is asked of us,” meaning the Army will deliver whatever troops the Americans require. Although Sir David refuses to confirm the figures, the consensus is that the numbers serving in southern Afghanistan will rise from 9,000 to around 10,000. “We can, on an enduring basis, do more – there’ll be no problem with that. We all know if we get this wrong there are all sorts of implications, not just for this generation but our children’s generation.

So all eyes are on Washington.  What did Thursday’s Armed Services  Committee vote mean?  What did the President and McChrystal say to each other on the tarmac at Copenhagen?  How will Saturday’s battle near Kamdeysh influence the White House? 

These are beautiful nights for moon gazing in the Hindu Kush.  The winter storms are still, oh… maybe four weeks away.  It’s just a matter of time.


OCTOBER 6 UPDATE Later today CNN International will, almost certainly, displace both Bollywood and the BBC for late night viewing in Rawalpindi.  At 3:00 pm (eastern), and 1:00 am Pindi time,  Christiane Amanpour will interview Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding, among other topics,  the war in Afghanistan.  By the time the exclusive interview is over there should be an update on the results of today’s 2:30 pm White House meeting with bipartisan Congressional leadership focused on our Afghan strategy.  As if this might not be sufficient, at 3:00 pm Secretary Clinton will meet with the Pakistani Foreign Minister face-to-face. At the same time, Gen. Petreaus will give a major speech (what might the topic be?).   The National Security Council principals committee is scheduled to convene at 4:30. Coincidentally or not, this morning the President will visit the National Counter Terrorism Center.   Looks pretty well choreographed to these eyes.

October 2, 2009

Wonks doing lunch

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2009

In a Wednesday post I offered (proposed? challenged?) that readers develop your own resilience strategy.   I promised to host a D.C. lunch where the “top” three proposals will be talked through.  Then we will use our various channels to encourage official consideration of a unified strategy.

Several have written with questions and suggestions.  I appreciate the interest, and here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions:

Deadline:  One month from today, November 2.

Format:  Less than ten pages, single spaced, 11 point font.  A lot less than ten pages is okay.  It is a strategy, not an operational proposal.

Delivery:  Use the comment function for this post.  I will, at my discretion, cut and paste your contributions as separate posts or pieces of posts.  I will also reserve the right to edit for clarity.

What do you mean by resilience?  If you input “resilience” in the “search site” function at the upper right you will see every mention of the term at The Watch.  But a big part of any strategy will be to define the term and its benefits.

What do you mean by strategy?  This can become a theological argument.  But for me an effective strategy describes what will be done, why it will be done, the advantages derived from doing it.  In dealing with what and why, it is often necessary to engage how opposition or other impediments to the strategy will be overcome. A strategy is much less attentive to who, when and where it is done.  Who, when, and where are usually (but not always) matters for operational planning.  UPDATE: Okay, okay… in response to those who complain I am ducking the real issue: Strategy involves the organizing and targeting of critical resources in advance of engagements (see Clausewitz) in order to generate anticipated advantages during engagements.

Will you pay airfare to Washington D.C.?  No.  Just lunch.

Will you accept anonymous entries?  Yes.  But I don’t buy lunch unless you show up person.  Disguises will be honored, but I will not avert my eyes.

What is a wonk?  The origin of the term is disputed.  In his Political Dictionary the recently departed William Safire defined policy wonk as, ” A grimly serious scholar of the tedious side of public affairs; stiff staffer steeped in study.”  While Safire is dismissive, since it is the word “know” written backwards, I have understood wonk to describe someone who knows something (usually obscure) forwards and backwards.

Finally, a careful colleague noted that my proposed location for lunch is only open for dinner.  Where was my staff of fact-checkers?  I suggest we finalize the venue depending on who will be present and their preferences.

Does resilience have a fairy god-mother?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2009

Thursday morning, Tim Manning, FEMA Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response,

Throughout the history of emergency management planning, considerations for individual and community preparedness have been inadequate. Since September 11, 2001 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in bolstering government’s preparedness, while paying comparatively little attention to personal and community preparedness. Yet we know – and have seen – that personal, family and community preparedness can have a tremendous impact in mitigating the effects of an emergency. Simple steps taken by individuals to provide for the needs of their families and their neighbors in an emergency can dramatically improve the readiness and resiliency of the American people in the face of a disaster.

According to a recently completed survey, many Americans are not taking these simple steps.  The survey asked over sixty emergency preparedness questions.  A question that caught my attention is, “In thinking about preparing yourself for a major disaster, which best represents your preparedness?”


In my experience with surveys the “right answer” is usually a bit inflated and “wrong answers” are under-represented.  But let’s assume the response given is statistically, psychologically and in every other way accurate.

They were asked about a major disaster.  They were given an easy out of “not yet,” but claiming good intentions.  Despite these generous preconditions more than one-quarter of respondents said, “I am not planning to do anything about preparing.”

Yesterday Chris Bellavita wrote, “If something bad does happen, and if I’m not prepared, I’ll take my chances. Together with the other people affected, we’ll make something up.”  

At least 27 percent of Americans apparently agree.  While I value good intentions, I expect another 27 percent of Americans will end up with the same outcome as their purposefully and honestly non-preparing neighbors. 

The survey results leave me feeling very ant-like and outnumbered by crickets.

I acknowledge crickets probably have the odds on their side.  Disaster is unlikely.  Catastrophe is even less likely.  And when the unlikely happens, the ants — contrary to the fable — will help.

My most serious concern is  not with crickets singing while I work.  What worries me more is wicked step-mothers actively undermining our resilience. 

In California and elsewhere, public policy allows an increasing proportion of residential areas to be at high risk of wildfire.  In both hurricane country and inland river bottoms, the high rent district moves right up to the water’s edge.  With fire and flood, local policies are lax partly because federal financial subsidies are expected in a worst case.

Federal transportation and anti-trust policies push concentration of food processing.  Federal agricultural policies encourage production mono-cultures.  Each increase the risk of cascading failure to our food system.

Two weeks ago I was consulting on risk for a major urban area. In the sprawling suburbs we found over 300,000 residents being served by one spanking new water-treatment plant.  It is an amazing single point-of-failure in case of natural, accidental, or intentional threats (all of which abound).

The origin of this sterling example of inter-governmental cooperation?  Federal grant preferences and requirements. 

In another jurisdiction, residential growth has sprawled around pre-existing agro-chemical plants and warehouses.  Huge quantities of toxic and explosive material are still stored as when the nearest school was ten miles away, rather than next door.

But when county fire and health authorities proposed a local ordinance to just inventory and lock-up the bad stuff, federal regulations were used to resist the modest mitigation efforts.

Have you noticed wicked step-mothers are usually beautiful?  In each of these cases, public policy has a beautiful veneer.  The attraction usually relates to near-term pay-offs. So did sending Cinderella to work in the kitchen. 

Resilience is hard-wired into our individual and social selves.  In the face of immediate danger most of us respond cooperatively, courageously, and in the best tradition of fairy tale heroes.  I am not being ironic.

But in most cases the fairy tale hero is challenged by some disguised adversary.

The good and handsome father (the policy-maker)  never marries the wicked step-mother (risk increasing policies) with the purpose of displacing his own children (all of us).  But he is lonely and distracted by her superficial beauty. 

In most of the stories, the good and handsome father is unwilling to recognize the unintentional harm he has caused.  But in a few fables he is able to do just enough to allow the children to save themselves.  I hope we can craft that happy ending.

October 1, 2009

Panic and the Godzilla Myth in Homeland Security

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on October 1, 2009

You know the scene. It’s a preternaturally modern city. Self absorbed residents cascade into their importantly busy lives.

Then Godzilla shows up.

The city people start screaming.  For some reason they run in every possible direction. It’s as if they did not have a plan for how to react when an atomically mutated lizard rises from the sea to crush buildings and cars.

In spite of National Preparedness Month, the hapless urban residents ignored all messages about preparedness, 72 hour kits, and resilience. And now they are paying the price. They are in a state of pure panic.

It’s just how most American’s react in the face of disaster.

Or at least that’s the myth.


Jody A. Woodcock is a program manager for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management in the State of Washington. She recently completed her homeland security master’s degree thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School. The thesis is titled “Leveraging Social Media to Engage the Public In Homeland Security.”  It’s about how public safety officials can use Web 2.0 tools to work more effectively with the public.

As a (small) part of her research, Jody looked at the panic issue. Here is an edited summary of what she found. (Jody’s thesis, including the relevant citations that I will omit here, will be available online in a few weeks from the NPS Dudley Knox library – one of America’s treasures.)


“Panic happens in disaster movies, but typically not in real disasters,” says social epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Glass. [There] is an assumption that the general public tends to be irrational, uncoordinated and uncooperative in emergencies – not to mention prone to panic.

The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center studied more than 500 events and found panic was of very little practical or operational importance. What they did find was people became involved in protective activities, such as warning others, calling for help or assisting with rescue. Glass’s research backs up the University of Delaware studies. On the basis of observations and random interviews of 415 people in the World Trade Center stairwells, [Glass] found there was little panic and people were cooperative.

These studies do not show … that panic never exists. Panic can occur if … three conditions exist. First, the person must feel trapped. Second, he [or she] must have a sensation of great helplessness and finally, he [or she] must have a sense of profound isolation.

Panic can most commonly be found in large crowds, such as the yearly hajj where people have died in stampedes. The crowd can be calm and well mannered but if humans have less than one square yard of space, they lose the ability to control their movement. This loss of control can create the opportunity for the three conditions of panic to exist, but again these cases are rare.

“…[There is] panic, the emotion, and panic, the behavior. Panic behavior is defined as “irrational, groundless or hysterical flight that is carried out with complete disregard for others.” Many disaster victims report they panicked, but in truth they did not misbehave.  It was likely the fear response they were experiencing .

What is the fear response?

What does it feel like to face death? What happens in our brains when the ground rumbles and buckles beneath our feet? The most obvious answer is fear. This is a natural, primitive reaction to crisis. Fear is a survival mechanism that has served us well, with some exceptions, through history.

Amanda Ripley [author of the remarkable book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why”] believes many people misunderstand how fear guides our reactions.

“People’s behavior in a disaster is inexplicable until we understand the effect of fear on the body and mind,” Ripley writes.

She uses the example of a terrorist attack on the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Bogota, Columbia, and focuses on the reaction of U.S. Ambassador Diego Asencio. She describes how fear moved through his body.

At the first 90-decibel gunshot, signals traveled to Asencio’s brain by way of his auditory nerve. When the signal reached his brainstem, neurons passed the information to his amygdala, an almond-shaped mass located deep within the temporal lobes that are central to the brain’s fear circuit. In response, the amygdala set off a series of changes in the body over which Asencio has absolutely no control. His blood chemistry changed, his blood pressure and heart race increased and adrenaline was released. This potentially performance-enhancing shot of hormones produces the fight or flight reaction.

However, … for every gift fear provides, it takes one away. We may encounter increased strength and speed, but we may lose the ability to solve simple problems or even control of our bladder.  Time and space can also become disjointed….

Ripley quoted Asencio: as the embassy terrorist attack scenario continued “the action around me, which seemed to speed up at first, now turned into slow motion. The scene was like a confused, nightmarish hallucination, a grotesque charade. Everything I saw seem distorted; everyone, everything was out of character.”

Ripley’s research shows that many reported similar reactions as they evacuated from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Ripley reminds her readers that the human body is hard-wired for a fear response, but fear does not equal panic.

Even before a disaster occurs, the people in charge [i.e., the government] use panic as an excuse to discount the public. People will panic – the legends says – so we cannot trust them with the information or training.

Ripley quotes … disaster expert Dennis Mileti, “Do you know how many Americans have died because someone thought they would panic if they gave them a warning? A lot!”

The literature strongly suggests that people respond to crisis creatively and with collective resourcefulness. Ripley claims if regular people got as panic stricken in a crisis as most of us think they would, Flight 93 would have certainly destroyed the White House or U.S. Capitol.

It was assumed that air raids in Britain during World War II would panic the public. When the bombs did fall, Britain’s residents reacted unexpectedly. At the time, a writer from a local newspaper noted, “these were either the calmest or stupidest people in the world.” Similarly, it was assumed that residents near 3-Mile Island in Pennsylvania would panic, but they reacted calmly and evacuated in an orderly manner.


The panic myth is so ingrained in the minds of some disaster professionals that it blocks consideration of something that can be done to prevent panic: share information.


People experience fear in a crisis, but rarely panic. They, in fact, respond with great skill and innovation. So the question is how do we keep fear to a minimum and harness the skill of the general public to respond to disasters and protect the homeland? One answer is sharing information.

Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt said, “What I’ve always found is that people will respond to meet a need in crisis if they know what to do.”

Our bodies are hardwired to experience the emotion of fear but we can reduce its impact through information and training. “The actual threat is not nearly as important as the level of preparation,” says Ripley.” The more prepared you are, the more in control you feel and the less fear you will experience.”

Glass agreed … that information and practice can reduce fear – just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Research into plane crashes has similarly found that people who read the safety cards are more likely to survive.

Glass wrote, “Our tendency is to withhold information too long for fear that it will cause panic when, in fact, it is the absence of information that is most likely to cause panic.” Officials must recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times.

Typically the initial response to warnings of disaster is disbelief, not panic. If it appears a warning is credible, the next response is to try and confirm its validity by listening to the radio, watching television or going on-line to chat with friends and relatives. In a crisis, people believe information is empowering and not knowing is far worse that knowing.

[The] CDC notes that when people are swamping emergency hotlines or overloading email boxes and websites, they are not panicking, they simply are seeking the information they believe they need.

Detail is critical. For example, a broadcast warning that the river will crest 10 feet above flood stage may convey less meaning than providing maps to show the flooded areas or to identify landmarks that might be under water. By utilizing social media [the subject of Woodcock’s thesis], emergency officials can release consistent messages in real-time and address any rumors. Failing to do so could compromise any operational success.

By providing information, emergency officials can help manage fear and engage the public. It is also believed this practice can greatly reduce the number of psychological casualties in a disaster. In addition to communicating information about the incident, it is also important to provide information regarding the range of potential psychological responses they might experience and how to get assistance. Disaster researchers recommend that plans be based on what people naturally tend to do and to not force people into a command-and-control world. If people naturally want more information to calm their fears and get involved, then officials should provide a way to make that happen. Social media is an excellent option.”


Yesterday Phil Palin noted Secretary Napolitano challenge: “… we’re asking you to raise your hand and ask whenever you are in one of those groups, “What’s our plan.” Phil promised lunch to the three people who develop “the geekiest, wonkiest, most specialized resilience strategy….”

My speculation [probably not shared by either Jody or Phil] is that most American’s already have an effective resilience strategy. It is to continue to pursue happiness in whatever form they conceive it, within the opportunities and constraints afforded to them by the nation’s always evolving meaning of liberty. It is to continue to live inside the belief that a bad thing will not happen today.

Government seems to have a hard time accepting the choice its people have made. Like the changing patter of a telemarketers’ dinner time sales pitch, government first asked the nation to make terrorism prevention everyone’s priority. The pitch changed after Katrina to convince everyone to create a “culture of preparedness.” Now government wants its people to be resilient.

Maybe most people in most places in this country already are resilient. Not everyone, and certainly not everywhere. But most.

Will there be an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a terrorist attack today? Probably not. And if so, the odds are it won’t affect me.

What about tomorrow?

If something bad does happen, and if I’m not prepared, I’ll take my chances. Together with the other people affected, we’ll make something up.

Maybe I’ll insist government come to my aid, and maybe I’ll whine if I get the wrong kind of bottled water. Maybe I’ll blame whatever administration is in power for not coming up with some strategy that tricks me into taking a CERT class.

But I’m not going to panic.

Not unless there’s a Sea Serpent.


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