Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 10, 2009

“Where are all the white guys?” — Update on “Do I have the right to refuse this search.”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 10, 2009

Today’s (returning) guest author is Deirdre Walker.  A few weeks ago she wrote a post about her experiences at one of the country’s airports.  Last week she went to another airport.  This post is about that experience.

Before she retired, Walker was the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police.  She spent 24 years as a police officer.  Among her professional accomplishments, Chief Walker helped lead a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional team of law enforcement officials in 2002  investigating what has since become known as the Washington D.C. sniper killings.


I frequently commute between Tampa and Baltimore.  During my travels, I have many opportunities to observe and a lot of time to think.

Lately, I have been engaged in more active observation regarding what is happening in our nation’s airports.  I have come to the troubling conclusion that we have some significant challenges with regard to airport security.  These challenges are fundamental, large, and unwieldy.

I recently blogged about some of these challenges in an article entitled “Do I have the Right to Refuse this Search.” The article, posted October 15 on HLS Watch.com described first my growing awareness that I was becoming a frequent, if not routine, candidate for secondary searches, and then the follow-on from my line-in-the-sand decision to challenge that selection from then/now on.

In my article, I articulated my reasons for my concern (ultimate compromise of traveler faith and safety), endeavored to provide context for those concerns (the role of active and passive discrimination, the need for data collection, and haphazard and inconsistent responses by TSA personnel). I also attempted to establish myself as a credible, concerned participant in the dialogue (retired Assistant Chief of Police, 24 years experience, etc.).

That article was my first  attempt at blogging and I was surprised by the response.  Within less than a month, around one hundred thousand people had at least looked at the article.  I am hopeful that many of those folks may have even read it, in spite of its unTwitter-friendly length.  The article was reposted on at least ten other blogs, to include BoingBoing and TravelSpeak.  On Tuesday, November 3d, it was posted on the blog link for The Economist.

The interest my article has generated is at once gratifying and deeply troubling.  Clearly, based upon the number of readers, and the number and nature of comments posted in reply, there is broad concern (if not outright animosity)  in the blogosphere regarding TSA, and the procedures it employs in both the selection and the searches of American travelers.  I believe that concern is reflected among and generalizable to non-blogging American travelers.


Predictably, interest in my article is starting to wane.  Unfortunately, whatever it is about me that has made me such an appealing target for secondary screening has not waned.

On Tuesday, November 3, I traveled from BWI airport en route to Tampa.  I needed to get to my home in Florida so I could vote in a local election.  Our Gulf Coast community, like many others, is debating charter questions on growth management and I wanted my voice to be heard.  On November 3 as I passed through the security checkpoint, my voice was heard in a different way.

(Since I am uncertain exactly what information is relevant to secondary screening selections, I have provide information below which would, in the course of most discussions,  be considered irrelevant, perhaps even insulting.  This includes descriptions regarding gender, age, height and weight.   Since we have no data regarding patterns of secondary screening decisions, I have to assume that this type of information is, indeed, highly relevant.  In fact, it appears to be all the information we have.)

As I approached the conveyor belt, I carried the contents of my mobile office in a soft brief case and a back pack.   I am a Caucasian female in my late forties, about five eight, and carrying weight that is in excess of what is recommended for my height.  In anticipation of the warmer Florida weather,  I was dressed very casually in shorts, sneakers with ankle socks, and I was wearing a lightweight grey sweat shirt (not a zip or a hoodie) over a t-shirt.  As I stepped through the metal detector, I was told to “Please step over here.”

The uniformed, Caucasian-female screener, likely in her late thirties or early forties, similar to me in height and weight, directed me toward the Full-body Imaging machine.  I said simply, “No.”

She was momentarily stunned and asked me to repeat myself.  I said “No.  If I don’t have to do it, I am not going to do it.”

She told me to step aside to wait and radioed to someone that I had refused the scanner.

As I waited, I reflected that of my last five trips through security, I had been selected for secondary screening three times, twice at BWI. I recalled that within the past year, I have been selected for secondary screening on countless additional trips, but I didn’t start keeping count, regrettably, until the trip in October that generated that first HLS Watch.com blog article.

I considered what the word “random” really means.  I wondered why I could not randomly win the lottery as often as I had been selected for secondary screening.

Within a few moments, I was met by another uniformed agent, who directed me to a glass-enclosed cubicle located between the screening belts for the B gates at BWI.  On my way to the cubicle, I had observed a sign indicating that travelers have  the right to decline the imaging machine and “request” a pat-down instead.  It struck me as odd that in order to really see and absorb the information posted on the sign, you would have already passed by or through the imaging machine.

As I stepped into the cubicle, I was informed by my newly assigned screener that I would be patted down.  The screener, an African-American female most likely in her late twenties, shorter and slimmer than me, struck me as professional, almost pleasant.   It is important to reiterate that this screener had no role in my selection.   She asked whether I had “been through this process before.” I answered that I had.  As I placed my feet on the outlines on the rug and raised my arms from my sides, I wondered how many people she has searched also responded “Yes” to that question.  I lamented all the data lost by the failure to track those responses. She then asked me if I would be more comfortable in a “private” setting.  I chuckled as the inquiry, while thoughtful, felt oddly ironic.  I declined.

My screener then informed me about how she would conduct the search, and stated to me that when she got to a sensitive area, she would “use the back of my hand” to touch that area.  Again, as a retired police officer who has searched hundreds of people over the course of my career, I know that you just can’t feel much with the back of a gloved hand.  God forbid, I thought to myself, that the screener, who had displayed what I felt to be genuine concern for my privacy, should  be fully able to detect any weapons or contraband I might be secreting.

As she commenced the search by patting down my hair (brown, thinning and collar-length), I launched what in my old job would have been considered a classic field interview.

This type of interview, when done right, consists of a series of related questions asked in a rapid fire manner.  The speed is critical as it offers the subject little time (theoretically, anyway) to effectively fabricate information and it also leaves little time for the subject to become defensive.  I needed to tread a fine line between quickly obtaining meaningful information and becoming too aggressive.

Fortunately, my screener was very open and forthcoming.  I asked,  “How are people selected for secondary searches?.  She replied “It’s random.”

I asked “Is there a mark on my boarding pass?”  She replied, “We used to do that, but we don’t do it anymore.”  She did not know why that practice had been discontinued.

I stated “So you look at people as they are entering the metal detector, you make some type of assessment, and then you select people for secondary searches, right?”

She replied, “Well, sometimes if you are wearing bulky clothing, you get selected.”

I said, “Can’t you tell people to take the clothing off?’

She replied, laughing,  “No.  We can’t tell people to take their clothes off.”

My own experience indicates that to be less than accurate information.  I have been frequently directed to remove coats, sweaters and sweat shirts in the past.  Regardless, she seemed to be implying that I had been selected due to the fact that I was wearing a sweat-shirt.

At this point, I turned to look over my shoulder and observed a Caucasian woman in her late thirties or early forties standing inside the whole-body imager.  I called my screener’s attention to this and said. “Look over there.  There’s a woman in the scanner.    You all picked me for a search, and then the very next person you select is a woman.  Why didn’t you pick a white guy?  Where are all the white guys?”

She replied, helpfully, “We are understaffed today and we don’t have enough male screeners to do pat downs.  We are not allowed to do opposite sex pat-downs so we are only selecting women for secondary screening.”

By this point, I was seated and she was patting down the bottom of my feet.  The secondary search, more thorough than the last search I had been subjected to in Albany, but equally ineffective, was nearing completion.  I said “If you are only selecting women, how is that random?”

She said,  “You’re done.  You can collect your belongings, Have a nice day.”

If I had not already been sitting down, I would likely have fallen over.  So much for random searches.  I gathered my belongings and wandered off in search of a lottery ticket.

November 9, 2009

Introducing Mark Chubb

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

If you read comments on these posts — and you should — you are already familiar with Mark Chubb.   As I depart The Watch, I am pleased to announce that Mark will begin contributing his comments to the front page.  He will start this Wednesday and hopes to continue on each Wednesday. 

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan plans to post on Mondays and Fridays. Chris Bellavita will continue on Thursday.  A series of “greatest hits” and guest posts is planned for Tuesdays.

Mark Chubb is currently the operations manager for the Portland Office of Emergency Management and an adjunct assistant professor of public administration in the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.  Mark describes himself as a “pracademic”, policy wonk, and crisis strategist.

In 2008 Mark was appointed to the affiliated research faculty of the Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  He is also a regular contributor to symposia and proceedings of the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College, and is currently finishing a book chapter on the application of public administration theories and methods to critical incident analysis for the academy.

For most of his career, Mark has studied critical incidents and the tactical and strategic responses they provoke.  He has written extensively about the operational response to incidents and their effects as well as the policy implications for building regulations and engineering practices of so-called triggering events.  He has also studied the effects of risk communication on public engagement in policy decisions concerning mitigation, and maintains an active interest in applying the concepts of resilience and sustainability to crisis and risk management policy.

During the latter half of the 1990s, Mark was involved in efforts to develop the fire safety and fire protection provisions of the International Building Code and related regulatory documents.  He is presently engaged by the Caribbean Development Bank as part of a team developing application documents for a Caribbean Building Code based on that document.

Mark started his career as a firefighter, and served as a fire service officer and chief fire officer for significant periods during his career.  He earned a master of public policy degree from the School of Government at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand while working as the New Zealand Fire Service area commander responsible for Metropolitan Christchurch from 1999-2007.

Kennan’s denouement and my own

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

On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall was inadvertedly opened.  An extended tragedy finished with a glorious farce.  It might have been otherwise.  How further tragedy was avoided will long be debated.

It took more years than Kennan expected, but the Wall’s fall finally pulled the thread on the Soviet sweater.

Those extraordinary days twenty years ago remind us of the potential for surprise, the limits of our control, and how we are in full relationship with events half a world away.

In response to another surprise we have spun — are still spinning — a wide web which we intend to secure us.  But we ought not think it can secure us from surprise.

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and
prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing,
grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children
en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)
Walt Whitman; Long, Too Long America

In a review of several new histories of what transpired in 1989, Timothy Garton Ash writes, “But for the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland’s roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.” Remembering those days has given renewed context to the tag-line, quoting Thucydides, that Bill Cumming has attached to recent Emails, “Ignorance is bold and knowledge reserved.”

All true knowledge begins in self-knowledge, which is usually to invite embarrassment. But in our embarrassment and recognized ignorance is the start of both humility and the need to know.  A hybrid of these has a chance for modest wisdom.  Wisdom is most often restrained.

Too many blogs — as with too many homes, schools, and workplaces — have become places for unrestrained complaint, accusation, and self-justification.  That has not been the case — typically — at The Watch.  We have disagreed, sometimes earnestly.  But we have — mostly — listened and clarified and argued (in an old-fashioned meaning of argument). 

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and were
tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and
brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt,
or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman; Stronger Lessons

This ability to disagree yet listen and remain open to change — especially self transformation — is fundamental to our future. This is how we create new possibilities.  This is how we transcend the traps set by self-righteousness and pride.  This is how we embrace the tragic and let it lead us to recognize strengths we share, rather than fixate on weakness that divides us.

Re-reading Sophocles for the Long Blog, I stumbled upon a footnote explaining, “A hero, in the Greek sense, is a man who by his extraordinary career has pushed back the horizons of what is possible for humanity and is therefore deemed worthy of commemoration after his death.  He is not a flawless man, above the nature of ordinary humanity, but his flaws are inherent in and inseparable from the virtues which enable him to become a hero.” We need such heroes.  We ought cherish his or her flaws as much as we celebrate the virtues.

If we listen carefully to others, respond self-critically, and take action consonant with our tragic condition, we can each push back the horizons of what is possible.  We can draw strength from recognizing both threat and vulnerability.

Most societies have focused on a few heroic exemplars: mythological forebears, honored saints, victorious warriors.  It has been the American conceit — or genius — to make a hero of the common man (and woman).  Mr. Smith goes to Washington and Horatio Alger succeeds.  But beyond the myth, Paul Simon does, in fact, go to Washington.  Orville and Wilbur Wright take wing.  Abraham Lincoln fails and fails again, until he gives his life to save the republic and transfigure its original sin.

This democratic alchemy requires a discipline and realism that some aspects of contemporary culture tempt us to neglect. For most of our history obvious mutual dependence encouraged cultivation of a radical individualism.  The trials of frontier, and war, and depression, and war once again, allowed us to indulge in happy fantasies without losing sight of tragic reality. 

But at the pinnacle of power, we have increasingly confused reality and fantasy. This is not unprecedented.

Cynicism is hardly new. Self-righteousness is the original pandemic. Know-nothings have a recurring role in American history.  But typically these perpetual temptations have been objects of wide and effective disdain. Today they more often seem launching pads for celebrity and financial success.

There was never a democratic Eden, not even when Washington presided over a pre-partisan cabinet and took the Senate’s advice face-to-face.  The Era of Good Feelings produced the Missouri Compromise and, perhaps, set the stage for a terrible Civil War.  But even in that most destructive of wars, we recognized it was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor.  In the midst of mass murder, there was an understanding of shared tragedy and immutable relationship.

When tempted to think otherwise, Lincoln reminded us; and Whitman as well.

More people, by far, read Dee Walker’s essay on TSA searches than have read all my posts added together.  Her essay is a great example of close observation, meaningful analysis, and gracious writing.  Another cause of the extraordinary readership is our relationship with one another around the issue.  We recognize our own experience in Dee’s experience.

We need a sense of relationship that extends beyond shared offense with airport security lines.

There are practical, empirically demonstrated, ways to do this.  Many of our most modern discoveries of complex self-organization restate — and may yet reclaim — the most ancient principles for how humans are in  relationship with one another.  Some of these principles have been proven in how total strangers who come to this blog relate productively with one another.

Thank you for your attention and contributions.  The contributions are crucially important.  Participation, collaboration, and deliberation are the key means by which resilient community is crafted.  If you have been reading, but not participating, please begin to participate with Jess, Chris, and Mark.  Join the community, forsake mere observation, take the risk.

Your contributions to Homeland Security Watch are also one way you can participate, collaborate and deliberate in a broader community. The Watch is read, especially inside the beltway, by individuals in a position to take direct action — or wisely choose to refrain from action. 

These men and women also thirst for honest, constructive feedback.  They have plenty of erstwhile opponents and craven syncophats. They benefit from the informed perspective of those outside the particular frameworks of the Hill, Pentagon, West Wing… and, soon to come, St. Elizabeth’s.

With a self-critical sense of your own, please share your informed, thoughtful, curious, deliberative, reflective perspective.  After a few weeks hiatus, I plan to join you “behind the wall” in the comments.

A Nation announcing itself,
I myself make the only growth by which I can be appreciated,
I reject none, accept all, then reproduce all in my own forms.
A breed whose proof is in time and deeds,
What we are we are, nativity is answer enough to objections,
We wield ourselves as a weapon is wielded,
We are powerful and tremendous in ourselves,
We are executive in ourselves, we are sufficient in the variety of
We are the most beautiful to ourselves and in ourselves,
We stand self-pois’d in the middle, branching thence over the world,
From Missouri, Nebraska, or Kansas, laughing attacks to scorn.
Nothing is sinful to us outside of ourselves,
Whatever appears, whatever does not appear, we are beautiful or
sinful in ourselves only.
(O Mother-O Sisters dear!
If we are lost, no victor else has destroy’d us,
It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.)
Walt Whitman; By Blue Ontario’s Shore

November 6, 2009

The Long Blog: Practical Deductions From Standpoint of US Policy – or – The superior resilience of red wine glasses in contrast to champagne glasses

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 6, 2009

 Editorial Note:  This is the ninth — and final — in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy.  This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document.  Links to prior posts are provided below. If you have not, please access the comments to these posts.  The discussions taking place “behind the wall” have been fundamental to the value of the effort.


From the closing paragraphs of the Long Telegram:

(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit–Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies…

(5) Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After Al, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.


800.00B International Red Day/2 – 2546: Airgram

Fundamental to Kennan’s foreign policy is an effective — we might even say, resilient — domestic policy.  The stronger and more differentiated our internal condition, the less opportunity we give any external threat.

As his later writings confirm — and is inferred by the final paragraph above — Kennan is not much concerned with the strength of domestic security.  Rather, the social, political, and economic vitality of the nation is our best defense (and offense, too).  The more we solve domestic “deficiencies” the stronger our international position. 

Much of our thinking and talking about homeland security is homeostatic.  We focus on prevention (at least I do) and protection.  We talk about recovery.  We seem to seek to minimize change.  It sounds like we are aiming to preserve the status quo. 

But this language obscures — and may actually complicate — achievement of our real goal, which is much more about adaptability, optimization, and growth.  We want to solve our deficiencies.

A complex system self-organizes around a point of equilibrium.  This is good, we usually don’t want the system to lose its core characteristics.  But do we really want to always return to the same or very similar point? (the Greek homoios = similar is the origin of homeo in homeostasis). 

This has not been the goal — or historical experience — of the United States.  We want the sense of stability of being in the same place.  But we have also wanted our equilibrium point to move (up) — economically and in regards to justice and freedom.  It has been the American tendency to seek a kind of heterostasis, a stability that encompasses a depth and breadth of positive change.

In Brian Walker’s 7 minute whiteboard talk, he tells us about the “basin of attraction.”  This establishes the boundaries within which any system can self-organize.

The narrower and shallower the basin, the more likely turbulence will cause the system to spill over its boundaries and become an entirely different system. Consider a shallow champagne coupe.  Just a little turbulence and all is lost.


Better is a champagne flute.  The depth of the basin is more suited for containing turbulence.  The flute’s shape intensifies and directs the internal turbulence — bubbles and fragrance —  for our pleasure.

Even more condusive to resilience is the depth and breadth of a red wine goblet.  The basin generously accommodates the turbulence needed to aerate the wine.  The more complicated the vintage, the more vigorous the turbulence, the more satisfying the taste.  

Two years ago at the annual (semi-annual?) World Bank riot, I observed a police commander apply a strategy of resilience to a tactical situation.  It was toward the end of a long, hot day.  A unit of riot police was being held in reserve outside the principal perimeter.  The arrival of a television crew attracted an anarchist flash team intending to charge the police. 

Just as the anarchists finished the short war-dance that typically precedes a charge, the police commander barked into his radio, “disperse!”  The line of dark visors turned sharply toward their boss.  Again he shouted, “disperse!” And this time he waved his arms and wiggled his fingers as if to say, anywhere, I don’t care.  The thin blue line dissolved.

The anarchists, all pumped up from their noisy huddle, no longer had a target.  They looked around in confusion. Their shoulders slumped.  The television crew drove on.  The turbulence had been given the space it needed to return to equilibrium.

In developing and implementing a strategy of resilience we seek to deepen and widen the boundaries in which turbulence can occur while maintaining the essential function and form of our current system.

Has this been — is this now — the goal of the Department of Homeland Security?  Does this resonate with the goals and objectives of the component agencies of the Department of Homeland Security?  Is this a major outcome of our homeland security planning, training, exercising, grant-making and preparedness programs?

With a few possible exceptions, the answer has to be no.  If any consistent strategy can be discerned it has much more to do with suppressing the likelihood of turbulence and responding to the messy consequences of turbulence, rather than accommodating the possibility (probability) of turbulence.  We are much more focused on resisting change than adopting resilience.

Prevention, response, and recovery each have an important place in homeland security thinking and doing.  Each will be more successful in combination with a strategy of resilience.

For the next joint meeting of the DHS policy team with the White House Resilience Policy Directorate, I recommend a Stag’s Leap Cabernet (2004 vintage if you can find it) in a deep, wide goblet.

This is no time for champagne. 



www.hlswatch.com, post #1993/WordPress 2.7.1 with 0 widgets: Blog


Previous posts in this series:

The Long Blog:  A strategy of resilience (October 19)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic (October 28)

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection in practical policy on official level (October 30)

The Long Blog: Practical policy continued (November 2)

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection on unofficial level (November 4)

Other than responding to reader comments, this completes the series.  Monday I will offer some final thoughts before departing my role at The Watch.

November 5, 2009

The Homeland Security Chimera Or, 8 Mutable Laws Of Homeland Security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 5, 2009

I am glad George Kennan wrote a “long telegram,” instead of something as brief as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Otherwise Phil would have been long gone by now.

Since I am still coming to terms with what his leaving means for the future of Homeland Security Watch, I hope Phil delays his departure by finding more things to say about resilience, homeland security, authentic leadership, or risk.  Surely there is much more to milk in those topics.

If I can offer a suggestion, I do not believe he has yet fully mined the homeland security implications of  Thucydides’ History of The Peloponnesian War.  Certainly someone as well educated  in the classics (he would say “trained”) as Phil Palin can find something in Thucydides’ 600 small print pages to further extend what already has to be the longest goodbye in the history of blogs.

With some reluctance, I interrupt Phil’s farewell address (which I still hope is an elaborate April Fool’s joke) to present Thursday’s guest blogger: Lauren Wollman.

Dr. Wollman is an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.  This is her first post for Homeland Security Watch.  One hopes for more.


1. Homeland Security doesn’t exist. If it ever did, it doesn’t anymore. Or if it does then it hasn’t anything to do with citizens and preparedness. Let me explain.

2. The Theory of Paralytic Fragmentation. Spinning incessantly, without regard to direction or energy usage, some bodies self-destruct if they stop moving. It’s natural for this to happen in cases where you have fast-moving targets, highly perishable knowledge and intel, an unpredictable and indiscriminate but certain enemy, a blurry theoretical framework, and nascent self-awareness. In the government context this manifests itself as the irresistible urge – especially in the wake of a catastrophe – to do stuff, or at least appear to be doing stuff. See Homeland Security Theater; TSA.

Applying the theory of paralytic fragmentation, Homeland Security as we commonly know it – as an outgrowth of 9/11 – becomes an artificial and empty construct. Everyone who had something to do with the security of the homeland: first responders, public health, public safety and emergency management, among others, still do more or less what they did before. DOD still casts its gaze outward, and those concerned with national security in theory and in practice still theorize about and practice national security. So it’s the same, but different. And creations of the Homeland Security Era look a lot like so much indiscriminate spinning: to wit, the Homeland Security Advisory System, butt of so many late-night jokes. And the searingly effective tactic of confiscating my lipgloss at the airport.

A student of mine is writing a very good thesis on the folly of the Homeland Security Advisory System. It turns out that if you superimpose the principles of risk communication, which every public advisory system must predicate itself on – the thing is a non-starter. It can’t work. Because ultimately, we want Americans NOT to think about terrorism, or homeland security. We want them to live the American dream, and go to Vegas and watch football and take their kids to the park without any fear that those venues will be blown to hell. As much as we ask vigilance of them, and for them to take the threat seriously, we want them blissfully ignorant of what it means to live in a truly vigilant, “homeland-secure” place. (See Israel.)

3. The Problem of the Null Hypothesis. In addition to wanting/not wanting the public to pay attention to Homeland Security (and exactly HOW we should pay attention to it is addressed further in #6 below), we who think about Homeland Security all the time for a living are hard-pressed to explain or describe it. It’s hard to define, measure, get a degree in, fund, or daily think about something that exists only in its own shadow. We know when we have failed, because there’s a terrorist attack (or in the all-hazards paradigm, we screw up a natural disaster response). But how to measure success? There are no metrics for this. And nobody I know can answer the more philosophical questions that would suggest a metric. What’s the actual public tolerance for terrorism? What would the breach of that threshhold look like? What would the fulfillment of the terrorists’ ultimate goals really be, and what kind of attack or cluster of attacks would it take to achieve, either because it/they so felled our infrastructure, annihilated our population, or so disrupted our equilibrium that we turned on ourselves?

It’s not just that Homeland Security can be measured only by negative evidence, as it were; its success is contingent on failure. In order to exist long-term, it must remain on the public radar. In order to do that, by some sick twist of irony, it must fail at its own mission.

We circle back our reliance on such tangible but meaningless Homeland Security busywork as shoeless check-points, homeland security degrees (which usually prepare one for homeland-securing the mall), and Homeland Security sections on job applications. We must be doing something right if we’re doing SOMETHING.

4. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The risk in doing something at any cost is of course doing an unnecessary or counterproductive something. Many (most?) Homeland Security research proposals I review involve fusion centers, collaboration, info-sharing, or some other insistent version of Homeland Security as a group activity. The trouble the authors of such research almost always encounter in the implementation of their ideas is that a lot of the people who end up doing homeland security are not great at playing nicely or sharing. They are ride-to-the-rescue, shoot-first-ask-later heroic archetypes. Info sharing, mission sharing, and toy sharing are turning out to be counterproductive because they are culturally anathema. Asking the fire department to collect intelligence or the intelligence community to push intel downstream just seems a little like a round-peg-square-hole kind of exercise. What would happen if everyone just stayed in their lane and did their job, even if that job has morphed a little? Isn’t a little redundancy a good thing for resiliency? Isn’t specialization conducive to efficiency?

5. There is beauty in simplicity. The impulse to make homeland security about sharing is accompanied, oddly, by the reflex to make it an individual sport. It’s one thing to construct a more sophisticated intelligence apparatus and to distribute its yield more broadly or regularly, but in a huge country, maybe Homeland Security comes down to the individual: the individual cop on the beat, the teacher, the bus driver, the citizen. The Homeland Security framers seized on this very American trait early on as perhaps the most central organizing principle. We should play to our strengths, right? And Americans do individual responsibility and responsiveness really well.  Right?

6. The Paradox of the Public Trust. I can’t remember the exact numbers or the source (I guess rendering it a less reliable statistic), but at one point someone asked a lot of Americans whether they trusted the government. Most of them said not really, or not very much. On the other hand, we all still behave very much as though we expect the government to come save us, and handle things. The heartbreaking picture of such misplaced or over-placed expectation was standing on the roof, water rising, waiting……

But let’s say for the moment that on some level homeland security is just basic safety, security, preparedness, and situational awareness. Those in the citizen preparedness business are constantly frustrated and surprised by our collective refusal to prepare for pretty much anything, including death and taxes. I am an exception. I have “go kits” in my house and my car, first aid kits (up to the level of field surgery kits) placed every 15 feet or so, extra clothing and toys for the kids all over the place, lots of food and water stockpiled, even a second warehouse location within walking distance from my house with emergency supplies. I am on much less certain ground when it comes to my homeland security preparedness plan. What’s the correct survival cache for a terrorist attack? Batteries, duct tape, mask and baseball bat? Should I organize a neighborhood watch to watch for……terrorists?

7. The Law of 20-20 Hindsight. These are, of course, all good responses to things that have already happened and are unlikely to happen again. Cognitively, homeland security is a challenge because of retrospective sensemaking. Things makes sense to us only after they’ve happened, when we’re able to detect (or create) patterns, ascribe cause and effect, and construct a narrative.  This is exactly why I am an historian rather than a political scientist; the latter looks pretty much to me like fortune-telling, and is why it’s hard to build Homeland Security policy on the fly.

8. What Remains Must Be the Truth. So what we have here is something between an epistemological mystery and hermeneutical challenge. When I started at the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security, the first cohort of Master’s students was graduating from the program. This was June 2004. I went to the graduation ceremony, even though I didn’t know the students, to get a sense of my new environment. The military excels at pomp and circumstance; the Naval Postgraduate School graduation ceremonies are no exception. As participant or observer of such a ceremony, one exhibits social discipline and observes careful decorum: no clapping in between graduates. In June 2004, though, when the Center’s graduates from New York City’s Fire Department (FDNY) crossed the stage, the audience and the rest of the 200-plus graduating corps erupted into spontaneous, proud, grateful applause. This happened at every NPS graduation – 4 times a year – until the spring of 2008, when the audience went silent. The FDNY guys crossed the stage just like everyone else, unremarked by the audience, un-singled-out by their peers. This was a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. How could these fellow warriors and good Americans NOT recognize the special heroism, the freshly-let blood and tears, the sheer symbolic POWER of the FDNY students?!

I know Homeland Security is centrally, inextricably about 9/11 because just about every master’s thesis I have read in the NPS program starts with, “In the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11…” I know for sure that the people responsible for or happy about 9/11 are still busy: the threat is indeed very real. But the rest has receded into the historical landscape; it has been reabsorbed into the national bloodstream. The same public safety, emergency management, national security, community and participation in civic life. The same heroism and courage, compassion and shared grief as every battle, every disaster, every other terrible and brilliant day in American life. What we name it and how we define and populate that naming seems now to matter less.

November 4, 2009

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection on unofficial level

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 4, 2009

Editorial Note:  This is the eighth in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy.  This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document.  Links to prior posts are provided below. 

An especially fruitful discussion took place related to Monday’s post (Please scroll immediately below today’s).  There is a chance the discussion will continue today and is worth your reading… and participation.


In the fourth of his five part Long Telegram, George Kennan addresses how Soviet neuroses play out in unofficial behavior. In the four prior posts I have set out how the US could reduce its neurotic stance on homeland security through official policy and strategy. 

But the effectiveness of the proposed measures depend on a range of unofficial attitudes and actions. Or — if not precisely unofficial — effectiveness depends on serious engagement with messy, subjective, very human attributes that “official” policy and strategy often seek to exclude.

I hope some readers have questioned or critiqued Monday’s post for failing to establish sufficiently rigorous standards for awarding the proposed federal grants. It would be even more satisfying to be challenged on the competence of the 500 electors to assess the grant requests.  (The number is based on the jury that convicted Socrates to death, a rhetorical gift to skeptics.)

Each of these concerns would reflect our current official norms. These norms emerged from a salutory process, now more than a century-old, to reduce the corrupt influence of personal preference and increase the role of expertise in making official decisions.  I perceive these norms and their related processes have reached a stage of rococo decrepitude.

The official norms now discourage community-based participation, collaboration, and deliberation.  Our official norms now stand in the way of the kind of communication and other behaviors that create resiliency.

In my last two posts (October 30 and November 2) I referenced a number of key attributes of resilient communities.  I did not deal with the potentially most important — and admittedly mysterious — attribute: Trust.

In studying the commons, and in distinguishing between common resources that are over-harvested and those sustainably harvested, trust has been identified as an essential attribute of successful self-organization. In the literature trust is sometimes characterized as requiring two elements: a shared set of preferences and expectations of future interactions.

This notion of trust makes enormous sense to a small town boy.  I work best with those who broadly share similar goals and with whom I expect to continue working.  I work best with my friends. (Consider Aristotle’s three different kinds of friends, with particular attention to the role of utility.)

But our official norms — well beyond homeland security — have become so neurotic that friendship is actively discouraged.  No wonder so many feel dissociated from our political culture, the process of governance, and — at worst — from reality itself.

In a paper written last year (and I understand in a recent book that I have not yet read) Elinor Ostrom explores the foundations of trust.  In the monograph, Building Trust to Solve Common Dilemmas: Taking Small Steps to Test an Evolving Theory of Collective Action, the Nobel winning Political Economist sets out that the following variables seem to be highly correlated with trust and cooperation:

Information about past actions is made available;
Repeated interactions occur with the same set of participants;
Participants can signal one another by sending pre-structured information;
Prescriptions are adopted and enforced that when followed do lead to higher outcomes;
Participants are able to engage in full communication (via writing or “chat room” without knowing the identity of the others involved);
Participants are able to engage in full communication with known others (via face-to-face discussions or other mechanisms);
In addition to communication, participants can sanction (or reward) each other for the past actions they have taken; and
Participants can design their own rules related to levels of cooperation and sanctions that are to be assigned to those who do not follow agreed-upon rules.

Dr. Ostrom also reports that three variables seem to be highly correlated with lack of cooperation and the absence of trust:

One-shot interactions;

Full anonymity—current actions taken by an individual cannot be attributed to that individual by anyone else; and

No information is available to one participant about the others involved.

Which set of variables more accurately represents your typical interaction with the Department of Homeland Security or other expressions of government? Perhaps we have the first clues for diagnosing the  sources of our political discontent.

Have our current norms and processes succeeded in excluding official corruption and cronyism?  No, they have not. But in a tragedy-inviting effort to control the bad, we have undermined the good. We have discouraged broad-based participation, collaboration, and deliberation.  We have discouraged effective communication.  We have become suspicious of friendship.

Our neurosis erupts in surprising ways and places. But we can resolve the neurosis with self-awareness, embracing the tragic, and self-consciously adopting the attitudes and behaviors most condusive to resilience.


Previous posts in this series:

The Long Blog:  A strategy of resilience (October 19)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic (October 28)

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection in practical policy on official level (October 30)

The Long Blog: Practical policy continued (November 2)

Depending on responses, challenges, suggestions and such from readers, this may be the penultimate post in this swan-song series.  I may be able to finish on Friday, November 6.  If so, I will offer some final reflections regarding the last nine months on Monday, November 9 and exit stage right.

November 2, 2009

The Long Blog: Practical policy continued

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

Editorial Note:  This is the seventh in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy.  This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document.  Links to prior posts are provided below.


A bit more than a year after sending the Long Telegram, George Kennan reworked his analysis of Soviet neuroses and published “Sources of Soviet Conduct as an unsigned piece in Foreign Affairs magazine.  This revised and expanded text included a top contender for the most important single sentence of any strategy document of the Cold War.

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

I have been trying to argue that in our current circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the risks we face must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant extension of the boundaries within which we can achieve equilibrium.  If this sounds odd, listen again to Brian Walker’s 7 minute explanation of resilience.  

This strategy is fully cognizant of our limitations, which I have suggested can best be approached by embracing the tragic.  This is also a strategy that recognizes the potential of complex adaptive systems to preserve core identity in the midst of profound flux.

While depending on your mastery of last week’s literary analysis and the insights drawn from the study of the commons and complexity, I will take the risk of translating these arcane analogies into a direct — if very wonkish — statement of homeland security strategy. You should hear echoes  from the last six posts.


(With an Operational Example)

The United States faces a range of natural, accidental, and intentional threats that cannot always be accurately predicted, as a result these threats cannot always be prevented.

Accordingly, the homeland security strategy of the United States seeks to maximize individual, local, regional, and national capacity to:

1. Absorb or buffer disaster while preserving and, if possible, advancing physical, psychological, social, economic, and constitutional integrity.

2. Effectively observe and adapt to change while preserving or advancing physical, psychological, social, economic and constitutional integrity.

3. Learn and increase capacity to adapt to changes experienced at the local, regional, and national level and across social and economic sectors.

The Secretary of Homeland Security, in cooperation with the President and other departments and agencies, shall undertake to:

Support and facilitate community-based Risk and Resilience Assessments. These Risk and Resilience Assessments shall be undertaken on a voluntary basis.  The Department of Homeland Security shall provide conferences, training, and expert facilitators to assist in completion of the Risk and Resilience Assessments.  Completed Risk and Resilience Assessments shall qualify to compete for up to $1 billion in federal grants.

Every level of government, major agencies of government,  private sector organizations, and neighborhoods shall be encouraged to undertake Risk and Resilience Assessments .  The Department of Homeland Security shall contract with well-established voluntary, not-for-profit organizations to serve as legal liaison and grant administrators for informal organizations or other parties (e.g. a neighborhood) wishing to participate in the Risk and Resilience Assessment process but not having status to receive federal funding.

The Risk and Resilience Assessment process shall include local, regional, statewide, multi-state, and national workshops, conferences, and related digital resources to encourage participation, collaboration, deliberation, and interaction among those undertaking Risk and Resilience Assessments.

The Citizen Corps program of the Department of Homeland Security shall be funded and organized to provide facilitation and expertise in the Risk and Resilience Assessment process.

The Risk and Resilience Assessment process, as outlined above, shall be monitored by a team of expert observers/evaluators who will rapidly share lessons-learned.  A web-based, peer-to-peer network will also serve as a dynamic and growing knowledge base for the Risk and Resilience Assessment Process.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, and the National Academy of Sciences  shall cooperate in establishing the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for Risk and Resilience to develop, conduct and encourage others to develop and conduct professional development, educational, and other learning programs related to Risk and Resilience.

All parties completing Risk and Resilience Assessments shall be eligible to compete for a total pool of $1 billion per year in federal grants to address the findings of the Risk and Resilience Assessments.  Every three months $250 million shall be awarded in the following tranches:

  • Up to five grants of $5 million each,
  • Up to 25 grants of  $1 million each,
  • Up to 50 grants of $500,000 each,
  • Up to 100 grants of $250,000 each,
  • Up to 200 grants of $125,000 each,
  • Up to 1000 grants of $40,000 each,
  • Up to 2000 grants of $20,000 each, and
  • Up to 4500 grants of $10,000 each.

Recipients shall be chosen by majority vote of 500 electors drawn from nominations submitted by the Governors of the States and territories of the United States and apportioned by population.  After one year of service, 125 electors shall retire every three months and be replaced by a new class.  (So that, of the inaugural class, 125 shall serve one year and nine months.)  In this manner, beginning in the second year of operations, the electoral body will receive new members each quarter.


I never voted for Ted Kennedy.  For most of my youth he represented the ultimate personification of the “other side.”  But I cannot think of anyone who better personifies resilience.

The foregoing program is mostly offered to demonstrate how the strategic principles drawn out in prior posts might be reasonably implemented.  There are practical ways to encourage broadbased participation, collaboration and deliberation. It is possible, even for a large bureaucracy, to offer facilitative leadership and eschew authoritarian tendencies.  It is possible to encourage local creativity and accountability.  It might even be possible to encourage  communities and the system to embrace tragic potential. 

I hope you can see how these common attributes of  resilient systems can be applied to a wide range of programming across the Department of Homeland Security’s mission beyond this example.

I don’t expect the Department of Homeland Security, much less the entire homeland security establishment, to suddenly adopt a strategy of resilience.  But the foregoing strikes me as a doable, potentially powerful means of seeding resilience thinking and behavior.  It would probably cost $1.3 billion per year.  But please give more attention to how the attributes of resilience are being seeded.

The seeds of the first season should multiply in subsequent seasons. With care — and some fortuitous emergence — we might even be creating a new commons, a widely shared resource for enhanced understanding of risk and resilience.


Previous posts in this series:

The Long Blog:  A strategy of resilience (October 19)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic (October 28)

The Long Blog: Its (our risk analysis) projection in practical policy on official level (October 30)

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