Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 29, 2010

ca·tas·tro·phe [kuh-tas-truh-fee] noun

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 29, 2010

A great, often sudden calamity.

A complete failure; a fiasco: The food was cold, the guests quarreled—the whole dinner was a catastrophe.

The concluding action of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, following the climax and containing a resolution of the plot.

A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; a cataclysm.

Origin in English: 1540, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Gk. katastrephein “to overturn,” from kata “down” + strephein “turn” (see strophe). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.

(See more at dictionary.com)

Catastrophe is not a synonym for disaster. Nor is it just a really bad disaster. Catastrophe is measured less in lives lost or financial cost and much more in a consensus that the survivors’ future direction has been fundamentally altered.

By objective measure the death, injury, and destruction involved can be little out of the ordinary. But something in the time, place, or means of the event creates a shared sense of profound discontinuity. In a true catastrophe this discontinuity is confirmed by subsequent events.

In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe (often translated as reversal of fortune), “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.” (Aristotle, Poetics XI)

Edmund Spenser adapted the Greek into English. For the contemporary of Shakespeare, poet, and critic, catastrophe is a final ending, a closing, and an explanation of what went on before. The theater of Spenser’s period often featured a sudden plot twist (the Greek strophe means to twist, turn, or plait). Spenser’s catastrophe explains the sudden shift. Today we would more likely use denouement – a French loan-word – for this purpose.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson explained in his Dictionary that, “catastrophe is the change or revolution which produces the final event of a dramatick piece, a final event, generally unhappy.” Notice the evolution. Catastrophe is no longer the explanation of the change, but the change itself. A change worthy of catastrophe is significant, unexpected, even revolutionary.

More recently Judge Richard Posner has written a catastrophe is, “an event that is believed to have a very low probability of materializing but that if it does materialize will produce harm so great and sudden as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded it.” (Catastrophe: Risk and Response). While less than elegant, Posner’s definition is helpful in highlighting how catastrophe is different from disaster:

  • “low probability of materializing” and therefore unexpected, most of our disasters are not only expected, but seasonal.
  • “harm so great and sudden” retrieves the ancient aspect of not just unexpected, but being precipitous and dramatic, and as a result having particular shock value.
  • “as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded” is especially important in highlighting the key aspect of how the meaning of the event is perceived. Aristotle might ask, “Is the event understood as beginning, middle, or end?”

The National Response Framework defines catastrophe as, “any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions.

The NRF definition has preserved some of the dramatic elements of catastrophe in pointing to extraordinary and severe outcomes. The shock value may be embedded in concern for “national morale.” But the NRF’s authors have neglected the role of surprise and the key role of a sudden shift in story-line, the reversal of what has been expected.

My own definition: A catastrophe is an event that involves an unusual scale of death, injury and destruction; experienced – directly or indirectly – across a broad scope of territory and/or by a substantial population; involving wide-spread secondary effects that amplify the original scope and scale of the event; perceived by most as a complete surprise; and which transforms the society’s sense of self (generally unhappy, but I am personally interested in how such reversal-of-fortune might also be for the good).

To engage the risk of catastrophe it is necessary to deal effectively with each of these issues: scale, scope, secondary effects, surprise, and the social definition of the event’s meaning. In scanning many so-called catastrophes, it seems to me that surprise and society’s perception of the event have the greatest influence. The less surprise, the more confident the society’s response; the more confident the society’s response, the less catastrophic the perceived results. The less catastrophic the perception, the more complete – and even improved – the recovery.

For further consideration:

Earthly Powers: Disasters are about People and Planning (The Economist, April 24, 2010)

Worst-Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein

Catastrophe Theory by Vladimir I. Arnold

Reading List for a graduate course in catastrophe offered by The London Consortium.

April 28, 2010

But Wait, There’s More!

Filed under: Border Security,General Homeland Security,Immigration,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on April 28, 2010

Like many other policy wonks, I like few things better than a powerful metaphor that describes the state of thinking on an important issue or question. One of the comments provided in response to Jessica Herrera-Flanagan’s post last week presented just such an opportunity. Defining the mission of the Department of Homeland Security — and possibly by extension all of homeland security — in terms of gatekeeping and coordination gave me just such food for thought.

The power of a metaphor is sometimes not what it describes, but what it does not. That was the case for me in this instance.

Having spent most of my career working in or near local government, I have acquired a different, more instrumental view of the role of government as a provider and protector. As such, I usually see the range of options as representing a broad continuum of overlapping alternatives rather than a simple choice between competing conceptions of the good or right. These alternatives almost invariably involve subtle distinctions about the level or nature of the engagement between government and other stakeholders required to achieve a particular set of outcomes.

This framing helps me attend to both the means and the ends, because both matter to constituents and citizens. This is important, because it is often difficult to discern which will matter more in any given circumstance until a particular situation arises.

So what does this continuum look like for homeland security? I equate gatekeeping with command/control interventions where the output (keep undocumented an undesirable immigrants from entering the country) substitutes for the intended outcome (protect individual citizens, the society, its culture, and the economy from the adverse effects of illegal immigration). Coordination equates with little more than avoiding or minimizing conflicts rather than sharing the process of making meaning through the definition and resolution of those conflicts that inevitably arise in any complex, interdependent relationship.

Gatekeeping, as a command/control strategy, does a good job of avoiding the trap of focusing on inputs or input-output relationship while leaving unexplored the larger question of whether or not the output and outcome (secure borders and unfettered liberty) are related much less the same. Coordination all too often falls into the same trap, by assuming too much about the nature of the ends/means dichotomy and the relationships of these parts and the stakeholders to them. Perhaps this explains why our current approach to homeland security, especially as it relates to immigration control, is such a dismal failure?


What then are the alternatives? Before considering alternatives we need to distinguish between means and ends. When we focus on the means, especially when we assume the goals or outcomes are already well-understood and shared by all participants, we may find it both expedient and efficient to focus our energy through command strategies that require little inspiration (especially on the parts of others) and only one-way communication (from us to them).

When the ends are shared, but multiple paths lead to the same destination and there is some risk that participants left to choose their own way will select intersecting paths that create conflicts at key junctions, we may engage strategies that seek to avoid or minimize the potential for such conflicts. Again, these strategies require little inspiration on the part of others. On the other hand, decision-makers and leaders do need sufficient imagination to foresee potential conflicts, especially if you hope to communicate your understanding of the end-game in terms clear enough and compelling enough to gain the parties’ consent to take actions that get everyone to their destination without getting in the each other’s way.

When means are scarce or ends require you to mobilize the efforts of others (sound familiar), a cooperation strategy often makes sense. Such a strategy involves commitments, which require a more inspired view of what’s at stake or what’s to be gained by one or all participants. As the number of participants, the complexity of the processes involved, or the scope and scale of the products expected to result from the processes expand, so too does the need for communication among those involved.

Complex problems, especially those that defy straightforward solutions, usually require a more inspired approach, which often if not always, requires participants to share commitments to both the means and the ends. A true collaboration does not require anyone to sacrifice their identity, but it does require them to work together in ways that create shared objectives and meaning, both of which often take the form of sacrifices for the sake of success.

Each of these strategies builds on the other. Even in a large and complex collaboration, some elements of a shared program may depend upon simpler strategies that involve cooperation, coordination or even outright command approaches. What gives these tactics meaning is the shared commitment among participants to defining when, where, how and by whom these approaches are employed.

What does all of this have to do with homeland security? Well in the case of border control for just one issue, the nation remains deeply divided about the nature of the problem. With the possible exception of the people of First Nations, we share an immigrant past. Our economy today depends in no small way on the contributions of immigrants, many of whom arrived here legally and others who did not. Even those here without appropriate documentation or legal status often contribute not only their labor, but their wealth to support the state and its citizen even when they themselves can neither access nor enjoy many of these services such as health care, social security, workers’ compensation insurance, and unemployment benefits.

The threats posed by illegal immigrants often arise not from their status or their habits, but the criminalization of their status by the host society. When we make it impossible for immigrants to participate freely much less fully in our society, we leave them little choice but to fend for themselves or find another way. All too often, they find the only way open to them is to associate with elements who have no regard for either their welfare or ours.

Applying a different lens to a homeland security issue like immigration and border control allows us to see the folly of our current approach. Gatekeepers can never fully secure our borders. Even if they could, some legal immigrants would find compelling reasons to remain in the country beyond the limits imposed by their visas. Criminalizing their status makes it more difficult to resolve the issues their continued presence presents to both us and them.

When people are forced to choose between liberty and security, as we have seen time and again since 9/11, they will almost always choose security. What then would happen if we choose to coordinate, cooperate, or even collaborate to resolve the issues related to immigration and border control?

Working with immigrant communities, immigrants’ home countries, local employers, labor unions, and government officials at every level to provide legal paths to economic participation and citizenship serves everyone’s interests. Such an approach does not involve an open door policy, but neither does it mean closing the gate after the horse bolts.

A collaboration would require careful consideration of the needs that inspire immigration and provide a safe haven for undocumented immigrants once they arrive. Such an understanding requires two-way, if not multi-way, communication that creates a clear understanding of the labor markets and conditions among all participants so they can craft safe, secure pathways for participation that not only meet everyone’s needs. Doing so would help temper prospective immigrants’ expectations while affording those who play by the rules appropriate opportunities to climb the ladder toward acquiring citizenship or permanent residence.

Such a process would not eliminate the need to set immigration standards, control borders, or deport those who violate the laws. We would still need to apply command/control and coordination strategies, but their place in striking a balance between security and liberty would be better defined and tied to an understanding of the economic incentives that inspire immigration. Moving toward creating such as system would require us to abandon an approach that does little more than make de facto criminals of those who come here to make a contribution that arguably provides mutual benefits to both them and us.

If we want more security when it comes to immigration and border control, we need to acknowledge and accept the inspirational power of liberty, in both an economic and cultural sense.  If we take concrete steps to expand access to it among those willing to work with us to build the nation, we will not only expand prosperity but extend the legacy of diversity that immigration has granted us as well. Together these benefits will almost certainly promote more stable, just, and secure borders and border control arrangements in the process.

April 27, 2010

Homeland Security in states, cities and other locales: a 30,000 foot view

Filed under: State and Local HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on April 27, 2010

Since 2003, a group of my professional colleagues has been conducting half-day seminars on homeland security issues across the country.

To date, over 170 of these seminars have been held in state capitals, and in urban and rural areas.  The attendees generally include the jurisdictions’ chief executives and other leaders with homeland security responsibilities.

A typical seminar is three to four hours, and is built around one or more incidents. It is similar to a tabletop exercise in many respects. But calling it a seminar is intended to emphasize the educational — as opposed to the training — nature of the conversation.

The objectives of individual seminars differ.  But the basic purpose is to take a snapshot of where a particular jurisdiction is with respect to homeland security, and to discuss how to improve its preparedness.

Here is a summary of the most recent – early 2010 — aggregate observations from the seminars (provided to me by a colleague who participates in most of the sessions).

What contributes to success.

  • Since 2003, the level of homeland security sophistication at all levels of government has substantially increased. The result is an overall increase in the level of preparedness across the country.
  • Despite political and bureaucratic rivalries, state and local leaders generally accepted the preparedness challenge following September 11, 2001.
  • While initially cumbersome and sometimes controversial, homeland security grant funds have contributed to enhancing capabilities — equipment, training, and policy. It is unlikely those capabilities would have increased without the grant funds.
  • State and urban law enforcement executives have made a strong commitment to establish intelligence fusion centers and tactical response teams. This also has enhanced national preparedness.

Continuing challenges

  • Coordination between federal, state and local governments, and private sector partners to prevent, prepare for, and respond to acts of terrorism and other disasters has improved. But in many locales coordination is still problematic.
  • Balancing preparedness for natural disasters versus terrorism related emergencies remains a difficult task.
  • Protection and resiliency of cyber and other critical infrastructure against acts of terrorism and natural disasters remains insufficient.
  • There is a continuing need to address emerging threats through the development and deployment of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological detection capabilities.
  • Sharing information and intelligence between federal, state, local agencies, and the private sector remains a work in progress. While there has been significant success over the past seven years, information sharing requires additional attention.

Problem areas related to risk

  • Eight and a half years after the 2001 attacks, the country still does not have a national prevention strategy or a framework for prevention.
  • Many states lack the baseline knowledge needed to allow them to assess their vulnerabilities.
  • The nation continues to lack a culture of preventative risk management, where public, private, and nonprofit organizations collaborate in a shared effort to reduce risk.
  • With some exceptions, private and nonprofit organizations are not included in public planning for risk management.
  • There is a continuing need to identify cost-effective ways for organizations to calibrate their response to risk more appropriately and more efficiently than is currently the case.
  • Attention to food security and safety issues needs to become a higher priority.

Where critical problem areas remain

  • There has been limited success translating emerging threats into state and local actions, primarily because of the many real and perceived limits on states and cities.
  • State and local budget deficits are likely to affect implementing plans for increased readiness. This is particularly true since many jurisdictions do not perceive the current threat of major terrorist attacks to be high.
  • There remains a lack of substantial progress building adequate medical surge capacity across the nation.
  • There has been limited success collaboratively addressing the threat of cyber attacks.
  • The response capabilities for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and improvised nuclear devices (INDs) remains inadequate to meet the demands of the changing threat environment.
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult in cities and states to sustain a commitment to homeland security and to avoid complacency.

The future of state and local sustainment

  • State and local contributions to homeland security spending is at risk.
  • At least 48 states have to address shortfalls in their fiscal year 2010 budgets.  As of February 2010, shortfalls exceeded $150 billion.
  • At least 36 states already anticipate deficits in 2011. By some authoritative estimates, the next fiscal year’s deficits could exceed $180 billion.
  • There will be 37 races for governor in 2010.
  • Because of term limitations and voluntary decisions not to seek reelection, there will be at least 21 new governors after the November 2010 elections.


New governors and mayors face economic, education, and many other policy demands.

How will homeland security stack up against those competing priorities?

Any bets?

Now visualize the same bet if there is an attack or a nationally devastating catastrophe.


In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

He could have been talking about homeland security.

April 26, 2010

Immigration: Front and Center

Filed under: Immigration — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 26, 2010

Immigration reform promises to be the hot topic in the coming weeks as it has moved up the list of policy priorities, thanks in part to a new Arizona law.

On Saturday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law SB1070, which requires Arizona police to question anyone “reasonably suspected” of being undocumented.  Under existing law, they could only require information on someone’s status if the person is suspected of a crime. Legal immigrants are required to have their immigration paperwork handy. The law is the most restrictive state immigration law in the nation and has generated a great deal of attention, especially for its potential to encourage racial profiling.

On Friday, President Obama criticized the bill and has ordered the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to monitor developments to assure that civil rights are not being violated.

On the Hill, the leading players on immigration reform have been Senators Schumer and Graham, who have been working on a bipartisan piece of legislation that addresses the three prongs of immigration:  1) Enforcement, 2) Future Flow, and 3) Pathway to Citizenship.  In late March, the Senators announced a framework for their bill, which was endorsed by President Obama.  They have been working on gaining additional support, especially from Republicans, when the Arizona law came along.

As the Arizona legislation was considering SB1070, Senators McCain and Kyl released a Ten Point Border Security Action Plan that included the deployment of 3,000 National Guard troops along the border, along with 3,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and lots and lots of miles of fence.   Both are advocating a border security first approach to addressing immigration issues.  Ironically, both Senators were supportive of past efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform but are now asserting that the federal government is not doing enough to secure the border.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated last week to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that immigration might be next on the agenda for the Senate, ahead of climate change which many thought was next in the queue. His remarks follow similar comments he made in Arizona that he was committed to immigration reform.   Senator Schumer is expected to reach out to a number of Republican Senators, including those President Obama called last week – Senators Brown, Murkowski, LeMieux, Lugar, and Gregg – in order to get a deal that can move forward.

Complicating things is that Senator Graham is also the leading Republican on the bipartisan climate change legislation.  The unveiling of that bill, which was supposed to be released by Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham today, has temporarily been canceled.  While Senator Graham has not walked away from discussions with Senator Schumer, he did send out a letter to many involved in the climate bill process, stating that his participation in climate discussions was being adversely affected by Senator Reid’s decision to move immigration next.

In the House, Speaker Pelosi has indicated that the House will move immigration legislation — if the Senate passes something first.

A lot of activity with lots more expected.  There is little question that immigration reform is much needed — the question for policymakers is how to do it successfully so as not to replicate the failures of  the 2007 attempt to address the issue.

April 23, 2010

Homeland Security – What Is it?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 23, 2010

In last Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offers the “First Person Singular” view of her job at DHS and how she got to it.  She recounts her path to Secretary, revealing tidbits of memories from growing up in New Mexico and Arizona.  It is an interesting yet short read that gives a personalized view of the Secretary in her own words.  Near the end of the piece she writes “There’s almost nothing I’ve done that doesn’t touch upon DHS.  The department crosses so many things.”

Those two sentences summarizes the struggle that has and will likely to continue to face the fledgling agency.  It is a question that many of us working in the space have asked ourselves – what is Homeland Security? Is it anything and/or everything?

Fellow HLSWatch contributor Chris Bellavita  wrote an article in June 2008 in Homeland Security Affairs exploring this very question.  He asserted that there were seven defensible definitions of homeland security:  terrorism, all hazards, terrorism and catastrophes, jurisdictional hazards, meta hazards, national security, and security uber alles.

Looking for more of a concrete answer, I turned to the Internet and social media.

In the About the Department section of DHS’s website, we learn that “The Department of Homeland Security has a vital mission: to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 230,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear – keeping America safe.”

Wikipedia tells us that homeland security “is an umbrella term for security efforts to protect the United States against perceived internal and external threats.”

The White House’s homeland security page, has a wide-range of issues listed as areas in which the Administration has made progress, from strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to disaster relief, to border security, to cybersecurity, to surface  transportation security.  In the Guiding Principles section of the site, we learn that:

The President’s highest priority is to keep the American people safe. He is committed to ensuring the United States is true to our values and ideals while also protecting the American people. The President is committed to securing the homeland against 21st century threats by preventing terrorist attacks and other threats against our homeland, preparing and planning for emergencies, and investing in strong response and recovery capabilities. We will help ensure that the Federal Government works with states and local governments, and the private sector as close partners in a national approach to prevention, mitigation, and response.

Still searching for an answer or definition, I took to Facebook and posted the question “What is Homeland Security?” on my status update, soliciting opinions from friends across the geographic and political spectrum.   The responses I received were as diverse as the group who responded.

On one side, many folks raised concerns that homeland security was often perceived as being just one thing or another -aviation security, border security, or disaster relief,  to the detriment of other areas.  On the other side, I heard from folks – some who were in the trenches of operational issues – that components under DHS were “distracted” from their original missions.  One person wrote about appearance versus security, noting  “DHS needs to be less about the appearance of presence and more about the vigorous attention needed to ensure that our ports (both sea and air) and borders are adequately guarded.”

In the end, views from Facebook were as varied as those I had heard from experts and policy wonks inside the beltway, with each focusing on their little part of homeland security or asserting that homeland security had to be a little bit of anything and everything.

Of course, the challenge of being anything and everything is that the universe of what is covered is constantly expanding.  As we have experienced over the past several years, it is not difficult to add the word “security” to an issue and have a homeland security matter on one’s hands.  Add in the possibility that folks will substitute “security” for “safety,” and DHS’ universe could be infinite.

Maybe homeland security is just indicative of today’s busy lifestyles where people are constantly multi-tasking and trying to do anything and everything.  I did a search online and found an article entitled “You can do anything – but not everything,” published by Fast Company magazine in 2000.  The piece quotes a personal productivity expert who says that the real challenge in life is not managing one’s time, but managing one’s focus: If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively.”

The article’s conclusion, echoing its title, is that “You can do anything — but not everything.”

Unfortunately, that simply is not an answer for Secretary Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security.  Perhaps it really is about what Chris concluded in his 2008 article:

The absence of agreement can be seen as grist for the continued evolution of homeland security as a practice and as an idea.

Even if people did agree to define homeland security with a single voice, there would still be the matter of behavior. What people, organizations, and jurisdictions do is as instructive as what they say.

April 22, 2010

No rush to judgment here

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 22, 2010

Late last week Secretary Napolitano was in the Boston area.  She announced a new grant for Logan airport, visited with the Boston police commissioner and Cambridge firefighters, officiated at the swearing-in of new citizens,  gave a speech at Harvard, and had a round-table discussion with nine college presidents.  (Do you occasionally worry our cabinet secretaries have been remade into little more than mouthpieces, kept busy doing testimony, media interviews, speeches, and announcements?)

In a read-out of the closed door session with higher education leaders DHS tells us, “During the meeting, Secretary Napolitano highlighted the Department’s strong partnerships with universities including support for training, coursework in homeland security-related fields and industries, and for research and development in science and technology, such as the DHS Centers of Excellence, which bring together multidisciplinary homeland security research and education assets of more than 200 institutions across the country.”

The Boston Globe reports, “she was in Cambridge meeting with college and university presidents to discuss new courses and majors aimed at preparing graduates to enter the field of cybersecurity.”  In remarks at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government the Secretary noted, “Combating the cyber threat is going to require a partnership among government, academia, and the private sector as ambitious and sustained as any our nation has seen before. And I should say to the bright students here that DHS wants the best minds coming out of our universities to come join us in this effort.”

I have a second-hand report (good enough for a blog?) that the session with university presidents was mostly about science and technology research grants, not about homeland security education or professional development.  This is not a surprise and says much more about the role of modern universities and their presidents, than about homeland security or the Secretary. (And suggests homeland security officials are not the only ones with a serious grants habit, see Dan O’Connor’s Tuesday post.)

On the same day the Secretary of Homeland Security was meeting with higher education leaders in Boston, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was in Atlanta.  According to Georgia Public Broadcasting, “Duncan paid a visit telling students that America has to educate itself to a better economy by improving science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM subjects.”

The Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) released in February emphasizes, “Maturing and strengthening the homeland security enterprise includes enhancing shared awareness of risks and threats, building capable communities, fostering unity of effort, and fostering innovative approaches and solutions through leading-edge science and technology.”

Am I working too hard to connect some dots (smudges?) or might there be a pattern here?

Science and technology – like mom and apple pie – attract widespread  support.  Investments in research and development for these hard-subjects (“hard” as in practical and difficult) are measurable and meaningful… for me too.

But read the QHSR’s paragraph again. What is the role of science and technology in shared awareness of risk and threats?  We have lots of technology to gather, sort and display information on risks and threats.  What we don’t have is a shared understanding of what is meaningful to gather, what is helpful to sort, and how to interpret the results.  That’s a judgment call.

How about building capable communities?  Science and technology certainly have a role in infrastructure development.  But given the QHSR’s attention to psychological and community resilience, I perceive its definition of “capable” goes well beyond the boundaries of science and technology.  How do we build a capable community?  It depends on the context of the particular community, doesn’t it?  It depends on the purposes we seek to advance, doesn’t it?  Capable of what?  It’s a judgment call.

Scan the QHSR table of contents and there are plenty of opportunities for science and technology to support good judgment.  But mostly we are given complex, constantly changing contexts beyond the capacity of precise prediction.

Once upon a time, we presumed to teach good judgment.  This was always a dicey business.  Since the 1960s – after what many saw as a series of profoundly bad judgments – the notion of good judgment has been widely discredited as self-serving fiction.

In this we have neglected to understand how and why well-intentioned men (mostly) made tragically flawed judgments.  We are increasingly inclined to ex post facto assessments of every judgment.  If we like the results, the judgment is good.  If the result is not satisfactory, there can now be a compulsion to uncover deceit and deception.  And in any case, the culture insists that threat, vulnerability and consequence should be predictable.

In this confidence regarding predictability we are, I perceive, indulging the fatal flaw at the heart of the worst kind of  judgment.  In those ancient days when we earnestly endeavored to teach good judgment, we learned that hubris – trying to control what is beyond our control – is the tripwire for tragedy.  Toward the end of his life Robert McNamara wrote, “…it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend.  Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.”  This is the beginning of wisdom.   McGeorge Bundy, another of the Sixties best and brightest, tells us, “There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris.”  Two of the tragedy’s main characters seemed to learned its lesson.  But those of us in the audience?

How do we choose well when we cannot – when no one can – be sure of the outcome?  How do we choose well when the risks of failure are real?  How do we choose well when threats are unpredictable, vulnerabilities are inherent to our liberty, and the consequences could be catastrophic?  It’s a judgment call.

Is it too late to retrieve – or create anew – the teaching and learning of good judgment?

For further consideration:

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Aristotle’s Ethics by Richard Kraut (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Aims of Education by Alfred North Whitehead

Justice: A Journey in Moral Reasoning by Michael J. Sandel (video)

April 21, 2010

Volunteer Does Not Equal Free

Monday night, I fronted up to a meeting of my community’s Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteer leaders.  (NET is our local implementation of the Community Emergency Response Team concept promoted by FEMA through Citizen Corps). The session was a stark reminder just how far the local emergency management agenda has strayed from the community’s priorities because of federal grant requirements and the expectations of elected officials that we not only seek such grants but use them whenever possible rather than seeking additional support from general fund revenues.

As the senior civil servant in our emergency management agency, I oversee the NET program but sit a couple of levels above the actual program manager. As such, I have relatively little day-to-day contact with our volunteers, who now number more than 1,000 organized into roughly 30 teams spread across the city.

Each volunteer receives standard training consistent with the federal CERT curriculum delivered by a cadre of full-time emergency responders and seasoned volunteers. After that, each one is issued a fluorescent vest, hard hat, and ID card and send on her way.

Over the 15 or so years the program has been running, teams have largely been left to organize and administer themselves. Team leaders receive little additional training and no formal mentoring. Anyone who receives training is welcome to play or not play according to their individual willingness to do so. No one is excluded from training due to age, physical ability, prior criminal history, or other limitations or associations. As such, our volunteer corps, although quite diverse, is not necessarily representative of all segments of our community, nor organized to instill confidence in those who do not participate.

From the outset, program managers and volunteers alike have assumed that in the event of a serious emergency, such as a major earthquake, the teams would deploy themselves without need of instructions or assignments from a central command authority. Their training would dictate the priorities and rules of engagement as situations warranted: Assess damage, identify and isolate hazards, organize bystanders and others, render assistance when able, communicate conditions and resource requirements to the nearest fire station, and follow the instructions of emergency responders when they arrive.

Until recently, the system managed to get along in spite of itself. But recently, as the community responded to the H1N1 pandemic by establishing community vaccination clinics, it became evident that things were not working as well as some of us had assumed or perhaps simply hoped.

For starters, people were reluctant to step forward. This sort of mission was not what they had in mind when they signed up for training. Others expressed concern that they would be exposed to the disease and might become ill themselves or transmit the illness to someone in their household who was otherwise vulnerable. And still others found it difficult to accommodate the commitment in already busy schedules crowded with other obligations.

All of these explanations seemed reasonable enough and were little cause for concern. What we did not expect was a backlash from some quarters that suggested we were taking advantage of our volunteers to provide free labor for something that the government had not adequately prepared for and which they considered could hardly be called an emergency. Others complained that they were being asked to come to the aid of others besides their neighbors since most clinics were organized in poor communities with inadequate access to health care and a high number of uninsured residents. And still others questioned whether we knew what we were doing at all since no one had prepared them for such responsibilities much less organized them to respond to such situations beforehand.

The latter group of responses not only raised some eyebrows, but also, when contrasted with the first group of responses, suggested a very real gap had emerged between preparations and expectations. A lack of consistent communication between the agency and its volunteers as well as among the volunteers themselves had left people to make up their own explanations for what they saw heppening in the community.

Recently, evidence of this problem took on new urgency as rifts among volunteers and groups surfaced over even more mundane issues. Emails began flying back and forth among team leaders questioning one another’s motives and the city’s support for the program. In all of these communications, one thing became clear: People felt they had lost control of something valuable and wanted it back. Moreover, they were willing, if the need arose, to fight for it. Others suggested the fight had already begun, and were prepared to make that clear if anyone was in doubt.

Now, there are far worse positons to find oneself in than this. People who are passionate about something will sometimes express themselves about it in ways that others find unpleasant, antagonistic, or at least irritating. If you can get past that, though, something positive can happen.

When we got together last night about 50 team leaders assembled to tell us what was on their minds. Some had been building up a head of steam for awhile, others wondered what hit them, and still others simply ducked until the fur stopped flying. In the end, the sideshow issues about ID cards, t-shirts, advanced training opportunities, and other administrivia were pushed aside and people agreed that three things were important above all else:

  • The program is about preparedness not volunteerism.
  • Our volunteers play a vital role in communicating with our community about risk, readiness, and resilience.
  • And we need to show our volunteers that we value them by communicating consistently about issues of importance.

It will take a lot more than saying these things to make them happen though.

Our volunteers and staff both recognize that disaster survivors and neighbors are the real first-responders. They know that investments in preparedness pay big dividends when disaster strikes by minimizing demands on emergency services and expediting the transition to recovery. They understand implicitly that what we can do together makes a bigger difference than what we do alone, and they actively engage others in an ever expanding web of relationships that fosters resilience.

But they are also torn by what they must do. Our small agency has 15 full-time staff, but only one works directly with these volunteers. And even that position has responsibilities beyond training and supporting the NET volunteers. Ensuring the effectiveness of this program requires substantial investments in relationships with agencies and community partners who support the training our volunteers receive.

Volunteers too have competing demands on their time and attentions. Some would become full-time volunteers if we asked them. Others only want to get involved when the need is urgent. Most will do what they can when they can, often with a smile. But none of them will do any of this for long unless someone at least acknowledges what they are doing and encourages them to keep it up.

We know our NET program works. We can tell anytime our volunteers get together just by the passion they display and the skills they exhibit. But this program still receives less support than almost any other program we deliver. Aside from the funds allocated to developing the training materials themselves and running a few exercises, the cost of delivering the NET training and managing the teams receives no ongoing grant support. Investments made with grant funds in other projects may help leverage the support of our partners in the fire department and other agencies by freeing their resources to support our needs, but these scarce funds are drying up as the fiscal crisis persists. Besides, their support does translate into assistance with the day-to-day operation of the program.

So, what does this say about our priorities? I can only answer this question by looking at the gap between our assumptions and our expectations. Judging by that, we as a larger community of emergency management and homeland security professionals and policy-makers have assumed for far too long that volunteer means free. This can be taken one or both of two ways: 1) free as in without cost and 2) without responsibility or accountability. As it turns out, neither assumption is correct.

The opportunity cost of ignoring volunteers in exchange for making investments in hardware and software rears its ugly head sooner or later. Eventually, disgruntled if not disorganized volunteers will, as ours did Monday night, remind you that the liveware — the people and relationships that make up a community — are assets to be invested in not just protected or neglected.

April 20, 2010

Smarting from grant crack

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 20, 2010

Today’s post was written by Daniel W. O’Connor


What is the value of education?

With respect to my valued friends in academia, in my perhaps ill informed opinion, the standard education track(s) create a subject matter myopia that blinds one to ancillary domains and data. You get good at really deep introspection on one topic; but there is no lateral pollination.

There are some amazingly brilliant people working in and on homeland security issues.  But does all this expertise create gaps in our observed reality and therefore pushes us to focus on the wrong issues?

What kind of knowledge worker/leader do we want in Homeland Security?   Do we want experts or polymaths?    Do we want specialists or generalists?   Is it an education issue or simply a leadership one?  Where does ideology come into play?

Recently two high profile positions in homeland security arenas in a large state were in the news.    One gentlemen was leaving and one coming aboard.   Highly educated, both these gentlemen talked about their accomplishments and the challenges ahead.

Their concerns were practically identical and mirrored a focus on one particular homeland security function: grants.

One said his primary concerns when he took his job were dealing with a major reduction in the state’s largest homeland security grant and getting more funding.  The other gentleman said he was looking forward to managing federal homeland security grants.

Here’s Statement Analysis 101:  first thoughts are usually their most pressing concerns.

Is this what Homeland Security has become?    I mean is it all about the money?  Where’s the depth, the knowledge, and understanding of the complexity and intricacy of homeland security?

I don’t see it.

Does the leadership these people represent either oversimplify their mission or simply want someone else to pay for their experiments and readiness?

Our security seems not hinge on behavior change or resilience, but on money.   How much money will it take?

Grants are much like insurance. Those who have it and can get it take more risks than those who do not.  The expectation that grants are the panacea for risk mitigation is miserably false, dangerous, and leads to elevated expectations.

How much money does it take to effectively secure a nation?

Does using the funds for more M4 rifles or computer terminals make us safer?   What about the training required?   What about their application?    The requirement is never ending.   Is this simply the homeland security manifestation of the military industrial congressional complex?

In homeland security, why don’t we talk about our risk acceptance index?  What is our turbulence tolerance? Why don’t we talk about our economy as a risk?   Why don’t we talk about our current immigration policy as a risk?  What about our energy policy?  What about our personal debt, housing, and of course, our expectations?

How smart do you have to be to see the trance-like focus on grants is wrong?

I see grants sort of like overtime pay.   Some people become overly accustomed to overtime and create an elevated and false pay scale.  Since overtime is not typically a budgeted item, paying it creates organizational shortfalls.  Shortfalls create deficits.  Then costs have to be trimmed.  Since workers are the most expensive and easiest way to reduce budgets, they get axed — creating the need for more overtime.  This is cyclical mania.

Grants are the crack of homeland security.   If grants were reduced to near zero, what would the safety/security landscape look like?

How smart to you have to be to see grants aren’t too effective in meeting the expectations of the citizenry?

Perhaps a study is in order.

April 19, 2010

15 Years Later: Remembering Oklahoma City…

Filed under: Events — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 19, 2010

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.  At 9:01 am on April 19, 1995, a 20-foot Ryder truck filled with approximately 5,000 pounds of explosives blew up outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  One hundred and sixty eight people, including several children, died.   Almost 700 people were injured.  President Obama has signed a proclamation designating today as the National Day of Service and Remembrance for Victims and Survivors of Terrorism.

Sadly, in looking through this morning’s homeland security news and summaries, there was scant mention of the attack or today’s anniversary.  Online, there were a few analysis, but it took some searching to find, with the exception of CNN, which ran a front page analysis and commentary on the attack.  Over the weekend, some stories picked up tidbits from an interview from former President Bill Clinton, who noted that today’s political and cultural environment mirrors that that existed in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out their attack.

What does this all mean? Have we forgotten Oklahoma City or have we,  nine years after 9/11, after Ford Hood, the Austin IRS plane crash, and numerous-failed attempts and threats, become less sensitized to attacks?  At least some polls would say differently.  A CBS News poll found that “nearly 40 percent of Americans now believe domestic terrorism is a bigger threat than international terrorism.”

The definition of domestic terrorism, as this blog has explored in the past, remains one that is not easily defined.  The line between criminal act and terrorism, especially when dealing with lone wolf types, is not easily defined.

That said, there are many lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing that we cannot forget if we are to advance our nation’s homeland security efforts.

  • The threat of domestic terrorism remains as real as international terrorism. The threat from domestic extremists – whether left, right, or center is real.   The bombing fifteen years ago made that clear.  The arrest several weeks ago of members of the Michigan supremacist Militia group “Hutaree,” which had planned to kill police officers and then attack again at their funerals, tell us that the threat remains.

Whether one agrees with Clinton on the parallels between now and 1995, we know that there has been a dramatic growth of hate groups and anti-government groups, brought on in part by the nation’s economic turmoil and an outside-the-beltway frustration with Washington, D.C. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of paramilitary patriot groups increased from 42 to 127 between 2008 and 2009.  The number of hate groups grew to 932 in 2009.

  • First Preventers and Responders are Critical.  As much funding we put into our national and federal homeland security efforts, terrorism is local.  The first individuals on the scene will be the fire fighters and EMTs  who live in the community, who will be the hardest hit as the victims will likely be family or friends.  The investigators who will likely gather the first pieces of evidence are likely to be the local cops on the beat.  Preparing these individuals with the intelligence, communications tools, cooperation capabilities, and knowledge to combat terrorism – regardless of its origin – is critical.
  • Awareness is Still Key. While none of us should live in a state of panic or full of anxiety over potential attacks, we all must balance staying aware and being prepared with the daily things we do.   It is a balance that is not easily found but one that is necessary.

About an hour ago, the Annual Remembrance Ceremony at the Oklahoma City National Memorial began.  The name of the 168 people who perished that day will be read.  Secretary Napolitano will offer remarks about the state of the nation’s terrorism efforts.   Hopefully all of us will remember the lessons learned and honor the lives of those affected that day.

April 19, 1995

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 19, 2010


Purposeful abuse of the innocent by the proud calls us to humility and justice.

The image is that of Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields cradling Baylee Almon.  On April 19, 1995 an attack on the Murrah Federal Building killed 168, including Baylee. 

The original photograph by Charles Porter won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize.

April 15, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Homeland Security TV

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Humor — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 15, 2010

Every time a lawyer show comes on television, my husband likes to remind that there are no shows that focus on engineers, his chosen profession.  He concedes that there are a number of shows on channels like Discovery, History, and Science, but argues that those are not the same as being featured as a wheeler and dealer or hero on prime time. Phil Palin’s post yesterday, Farewell Jack. Welcome to Treme, got me thinking about what my husband has said about engineer-hero shows and whether, beyond 24 and Jack Bauer, any shows exist out there that show the best and worst of homeland security.

The result: a list of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Homeland Security-inspired television.  In compiling this list, I have left out made-for-TV movies or mini-series.  A few reality shows sneaked on the list, but not in a good way.  I did not limit the possible candidates to contemporary programs or programs focused on counterterrorism, choosing instead to include programs that date back more than 40 years and focus on homeland security as broadly defined.  I have also included series that have significantly dealt with homeland security issues but may not be solely focused on them.

The Good – 10 Shows That Matter

Fringe – A show that features “mad” scientist Walter Bishop, civilian DHS consultant Peter Bishop, FBI agent Olivia Dunham, and DHS Special-Agent-in Charge Phillip Broyles, and their investigations into fringe science occurrences and an alternate universe.   The show has featured the pseudo-terrorist organization ZFT, aka Zerstörung durch Fortschritte der Technologie (Destruction Through Technological Progress), which has cells throughout the globe that trade science and technology secrets.  In the first episode, Broyles makes the proclamation Although this is a joint task force, you are all reporting to the Department of Homeland Security.”

The  Law And Order Franchise- The three NY-based shows making up the franchise, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent,  and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, have all addressed terrorism and homeland security in significant ways.  Law & Order features Detective Cyrus Lupo, who previously worked in the intelligence division of the NYPD.  In addition, it routinely addresses terrorism, privacy, and issues relating to Muslim civil rights.  In one episode, it even attempted to put on trial a lawyer/scholar who had written memos while employed at the Justice Department that were used to justify torture in the Middle East. Special Victims had a series of episodes in Season 8 revolving around Detective Olivia Benson and ecoterrorists  and several of its episodes have featured Immigration & Customs Enforcement, though usually in a manner that is interfering with the NYPD’s investigations.  In its latest episodes, Criminal Intent focused on piracy, Somalia, and attempts to arm possible terrorist cells in Africa.

Lie to Me – Featuring the Lightman Group, the program focuses on a consulting firm that uses microexpressions and body language to determine whether people are telling the truth.  Granted, the series is more of a police drama, but it makes the list because it features  Ria Torres, who honed her skills at perceiving deception while working as a TSA agent.  Her natural ability to tell the good from the bad travelers led to her being recruited to join the mostly high-brow intellectual types at the firm.

Third Watch – Running from 1999 to 2005, the show featured first responders and preventers in New York City who worked the “third watch” shift (3pm-11pm).  Unlike many programs that featured only one type of first responder, the program had the triumvirate –  police, EMTs, and firefighters.  The show received wide acclaim for its programming portraying the 9/11 attacks and how it affected the  NY first responder/preventer community.

The Agency – Airing from 2001-2003, the program featured real footage of the CIA and focused on the agency’s mission in modern times.  Terrorism, Anthrax,  Assassinations, Leaked Classified Information, Congressional Inquiries – the show featured many of the same issues that Washington D.C. has tackled post-9/11.

Rescue Me – A series on the FX network, Rescue Me focuses on the Ladder 62/Engine 99 firehouse in New York City.  In its early days, the show dealt with the emotional effects of the 9/11 attacks on the firefighters at the firehouse.  The show is scheduled to end next year, around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Emergency! – Reaching back into the archives, I would be remiss to not include Emergency!, the first program (that I know of it) to feature paramedics and their work. Airing from 1972 to 1977, the show featured firefighters and hospital emergency room staff in Los Angeles.  The show featured its first responders doing their thing with a number of real-world disasters, including the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and the 1973 Palos Verdes fire.

Mission: Impossible –   Before there was Jack Bauer, there was Jim Phelps and the Impossible Mission Forces.  While very Cold War-influenced, the show features secret agents taking covert assignments against global bad guys, including corrupt dictators and evil organizations.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. –  Another early spy program, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. looked to the remnants of the Nazi empire for its bad guy.  U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) is a global international law-enforcement agency (Interpol, anyone?) fighting against THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) and its efforts to take over the world. The series makes the list as it is a favorite of the government.  Allegedly, the show has a spot at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the CIA’s museum.

Tiger Team – This short-lived (2 episode) series from TruTV (better known as Court TV) probably is better classified as a mini-series or special but there has been constant chatter about its possible re-birth so I decided to include it on my list.  The show followed a team that is hired to test the IT security of various organizations.  The ethical hackers demonstrated weaknesses in security using social engineering, hard core hacking, and breaking into buildings physically.  The show allowed geeks around the world to be proud of their own kind.

The Bad – 3 Shows That We Could Have Done Without

Homeland Security USA –  Only 13 episodes of this reality tv show featuring DHS employees doing their job to protect the nation aired.  The show featured real employees from CBP, ICE, TSA, and the Coast Guard and was shot in coordination with DHS.  Low ratings and claims that the show was no more than propaganda led to its demise.  A good premise – highlighting those on the front line – but bad execution.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – Some may be surprised that I’ve put one of American’s favorite children icons on the list of bad tv.   G.I. Joe is as American as apple pie and how could anyone be against an animated series that began each episode with:

G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Like almost every kid out there, I played with my share of G.I. Joe action figures, borrowing them from my brother’s collection. That said, a television show designed mostly if not solely to peddle children’s toys rightly deserves a spot on the bad list.

A Man Called Sloane–   Since the “good” list featured some classics, I had to dig back to find a show from earlier eras that could made the not-so-good list.  A Man Called Sloane, which aired in 1979-80 and was canceled after a few episodes seemed to fit in well with this category.  The show attempted to be a combination of every spy show that preceded it and featured Thomas R. Sloane III, a spy who kind of worked for UNIT, a secret American intelligence operation run by someone called the Director.  As with all spy shows, the UNIT had an evil counterpart – the KARTEL. The show just never took off, though a made-for-tv movie called Death Ray 2000, featuring the never-aired  pilot of the show did make it on the air a year or two later.

The Ugly – Who Could Have Possibly Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Gana la Verde or Win the Green – The winner of the ugly homeland security-inspired program award goes hands down to this program.  A reality show that aired on Spanish television stations in the Southwest in 2004-2005, Gana featured immigrants competing in “Fear Factor” inspired contests in the hopes of gaining immigration advice. At one point, the show suggested that the winner would receive a green card, a claim that led ICE to point out that the program is not sanctioned by or connected to the agency.  Among the challenges given to contestants – eating cockroaches and worms, being attacked by dogs, cleaning the windows of a high-rise building, and running in between semi-trucks.  The show was largely criticized by immigration groups, who argued that the program was humiliating and gave false hopes of citizenship to contestants.

Farewell Jack. Welcome to Treme.

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 15, 2010

Fox has canceled 24, its counter-terrorism drama. The show debuted in November 2001 featuring Jack Bauer as a fearless, selfless, and sometimes reckless undercover catcher and killer of bad guys. The final episode will run in May. A movie is under development.

On Sunday, April 11, HBO introduced Treme, a post-Katrina New Orleans neighborhood. The ensemble cast includes, “an eclectic group of locals — among them a trombone player, a chef, a civil rights lawyer, a disc jockey and a displaced Mardi Gras chief — as they struggle to repair their lives after the storm.” (New York Times)

Sic transit homeland security?

The Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning 24 features a covert Counter Terrorism Unit. But there is really only one hero. “When Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 superagent barks “Dammit, Chloe–we’re running out of time!” America’s ass is about to be saved in some new, heart-stopping way.” (Entertainment Weekly) Assassins, kidnappers, suicide bombers, bio-terrorists, nuclear weapons, sundry colleagues, adversaries, and victims co-star.

Treme is not saved, but neither does it succumb. The levee breaks are called a “federally induced catastrophe.” MTV’s Ben Collins tells us Treme is about “death, resilience, and broken hearts.”

“Treme uses sound and imagery to suggest that even the worst damage and disruption can’t extinguish the joie de vivre, and that is found in the pearly gleam of fresh oysters, the high notes of Antoine’s trombone, the crunch of barbecue, a glistening bottle of French wine, the feathers on a Mardi Gras costume and, most simply, laughter.” (New York Times)

Last Friday I told residents of a dense urban neighborhood they should not depend on much official guidance or help in the first 72 minutes of a local emergency or 72 hours of a wide-spread emergency. About one-third were astonished. Others were pretty sanguine.

Those who were astonished insisted someone must be “in charge.” Surely there’s a courageous and capable Jack Bauer nearby.

The majority did not expect a  hero to save them. But they quickly recognized their own lack of readiness. “Not knowing each other is our greatest vulnerability,” one participant offered. “No offence, but I don’t know if in an emergency I would trust information from anyone in this room,” another said.

In Treme the neighbors come together around a shared love affair with music. In too many American cities (and towns, villages, and more) neighbors do not come together at all. They share a place and that is about all they share.

The good news is that the neighbors-in-name-only whom I met last week seemed to enjoy being together and agreed there was good cause to meet again. The risk of disaster gave them a good excuse to do so. I had the sense they would have welcomed almost any excuse.

We need our Jack Bauers. He is a flawed, but well-intentioned guard-dog. Even more we need herds that are less like sheep, more like American Bison. Or even better: neighborhoods of full-fledged neighbors who know each other and – despite all our eccentric differences – care for each other. This is the foundation of resilience… and, probably, the Republic.

Further Reading:

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street by Peter Lovenheim

Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom

The Idea of Fraternity in America by Wilson Carey McWilliams

April 14, 2010

Preparedness: The Missing Link

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on April 14, 2010

Last week Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the appointment of 35 individuals to a newly formed task force on preparedness. The panel was appointed pursuant to provisions of the 2010 DHS Appropriations Act, which called for its creation to make, “recommendations for all levels of government regarding: disaster and emergency guidance and policy; federal grants; and federal requirements.” The announcement indicated that the task force would conduct its business with an “emphasis on identifying preparedness policies, guidelines and grant programs that should be updated and recommending paths forward to improve the nation’s collective capabilities for preparing for disasters.”

After reviewing the list of appointees and their affiliations, all I can say is hold onto your wallets folks.

If anything has distinguished the allocation of grant funds for homeland security and emergency preparedness more than the ad hoc nature of the enterprise as a whole, it has been the tendency of grant recipients to spend vast sums on seldom-used, specialized hardware and highly-paid consultants with very little evidence of progress building capacity or engaging communities in collaborative efforts to improve resilience.

Four separate Government Accountability Office reports issued since December 2008 highlight just a few of the issues to which the task force should devote some of its attention:

Fire Grants: FEMA Has Met Most Requirements for Awarding Fire Grants, but Additional Actions Would Improve Its Grant Process, GAO-10-64, Cotober 30, 2009.

Urban Area Security Initiative: FEMA Lacks Measures to Assess How Regional Collaboration Efforts Build Preparedness Capabilities, GAO-09-651, July 2, 2009.

Transit Security Grants: DHS Allocates Grants Based on Risk, but Its Risk Methodology, Management Controls, and Grant Oversight Can Be Strengthened, GAO-09-491, June 8, 2009.

Homeland Security Grant Program Risk-Based Distribution Methods: Presentation to Congressional Committees – November 14, 2008 and December 15, 2008, GAO-09-168R, December 23, 2008.

These are only the most recent but certainly not the only GAO reports that offer a critical perspective on DHS grant-making activities. Others focus on the evolving understanding of the role of risk assessment and risk management principles in prioritizing these programs.

The individuals appointed to the task force reflect a diverse cross-section of public officials from state, county, local, and tribal governments across the United States. I am familiar with many of those appointed, and can say with certainty that they seem well-qualified.

Nevertheless, a couple of things stand out upon scrutinizing the list further, which trouble me more than a little. First, officials with affiliations to the fire-rescue and law enforcement communities seem particularly well-represented, perhaps too much so. Second, rust-belt states and communities in the Midwest and Great Plains are under-represented. And, third, the private, community, and voluntary sectors, upon which any successful response and recovery operation ultimately depends, are essentially unrepresented.

If, as it seems, questions persist concerning what sort of bang we are managing to get for the many bucks spent since 2001 on preparedness, one might reasonably consider it worthwhile to appoint someone other than representatives of recipients to investigate what all this money has bought us. Instead, if the secretary really intents to implement the task force recommendations rather than simply going through the exercise for purely political purposes, she would do well to share the terms of reference they will operate under so we can be sure the kids have not just been put in charge of the candy store.

It has been my experience that no fire service or law enforcement chief executive will ever tell you his or her budget is adequate. Everyone wants more. And with few exceptions, everyone will happily accept someone else’s money if they can get it.

When I served as the executive director of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in the early 1990s, the association and its regional peers were actively advocating for federal grants that would eventually take the form of the Assistant to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and the SAFER grants. Their argument went something like this, “Our cities and their citizens are strapped for cash. We are finding it harder to deliver service while competing with other programs that must fulfill federal mandates. At the same time, we are falling under new and increasing pressures from regulators to provide personnel protective equipment and training. Besides, law enforcement receives about $11 billion a year in federal assistance, and we get none.” This argument when examined closely amounted to little more than, “They got theirs, we want ours.”

Law enforcement has since the 1970s (at least) received federal assistance to foster interstate cooperation. The logic seems sound enough, criminals do not respect state and local boundaries even though cops must. If we want to help cops cope with wandering criminals, we need to help them cooperate across these imaginary lines at least as well as the criminals tend to do. Most of these investments recognize the importance of collecting, analyzing and sharing information about criminals and crime-fighting strategies.

Fire, unlike crime, does not tend to wander across jurisdictional boundaries, and even when it does, it tends not to travel very far. (When fire does cross such lines and travel far and fast, it tends to be on federal lands or under federal jurisdiction for other reasons already.) Until 9/11 firefighters had no sound interstate nexus argument to bolster their claims for federal support. Indeed, even the argument that national standards were impacting their cost of doing business failed under close scrutiny. The standards to which they referred (especially those applicable to staffing and response times) were often applicable only when adopted by individual states or localities, and were often drafted by the firefighters’ unions and their bosses through so-called consensus standards bodies in an effort to circumvent the local democratic process. In other words, before we needed to equip firefighters to help protect us from terrorists, we really did not have much of an argument to spend federal dollars on their needs.

As we like to say in homeland security circles, 9/11 changed everything. With the threat of attack by foreign extremists on American soil a proven fact, no community could be expected to shoulder the burden alone. Protecting everyone meant protecting anyone. For local communities, who had largely shouldered the preparedness burden alone, this was a windfall. And nobody benefited more from it than those who were already best organized: cops and firefighters.

But disasters, like terrorists, rarely target firefighters and cops, at least not to the exclusion of everyone else. Rather, they tend to operate indiscriminately or with the intention of causing the greatest damage and disruption possible to the community as a whole or at least something very important to it.

This suggests that any effort to assess the state of our preparedness should probably ask not what we have managed to achieve already, but rather what readiness would look like if we actually achieved it. I use the term readiness, rather than preparedness, advisedly. The concept of readiness raises, at least for me, questions about the condition of my resources and what I can do with them, rather than focusing primarily on their availability, which has regretfully become the all-t00-common custom when assessing preparedness in this country.

Any assessment of readiness should begin by asking not simply what fiscal resources and policies are in place, how they are performing, and how we might improve their allocation to satisfy the common good, but should also question how our communities’ stocks of human, social, natural, and political capital informs those decisions. I find it hard to believe we can have that sort of conversation with the people the secretary has assembled around the table to advise her on this issue.

April 13, 2010

Homeland security futures worth creating

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 13, 2010

On Wednesday,  while world leaders meet for the last day of the Global Nuclear Security Summit, there will be another meeting.

For this meeting,“…participants from a wide cross-section of the emergency management community, select subject matter experts in relevant academic areas, select federal agencies, and other key stakeholders … will begin to identify, define, and refine key issues and drivers that may impact the future of emergency management [over the next 15-20 years].”

One meeting aims to “develop a plan of action to secure loose nuclear materials, prevent nuclear material smuggling, and deter, detect and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.”

The other gathering wants to explore “issues, trends, and other factors that could impact the future emergency management environment, and to support expanded strategic thinking and planning for the future.”

One meeting deals with today’s threats. The other meeting seeks to create a better understanding of  homeland security’s future context.


A central justification for speculating about homeland security futures is to “make strategic decisions today that will be sound for all plausible futures.” That’s the view of Peter Schwartz, one of the country’s best-known futurists.

There is a contrary perspective that argues the homeland security policy space is too undefined, too broad, too complex to allow any intentional journey into the future. From this perspective, thinking strategically about the future of homeland security is similar to what George Bernard Shaw said about chess: a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever.

Abraham Lincoln was clever. He is quoted as believing “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Neat bumper sticker, but what does that have to do with anything real?


What is a homeland security future worth creating (to paraphrase Thomas P. Barnett)?

During homeland security’s early days, the people doing the work used to describe the challenge of creating organizations, policies, and programs, as “building an airplane while we’re flying it.”

The multibillion-dollar aircraft is now airborne.

Maybe now is an appropriate time to think deliberately and systematically about the kind of world that plane is flying toward.

That’s what the people in FEMA’s long-range planning initiatives are starting to do.

Here is the context for Wednesday’s strategic foresight meeting:


The world around us is changing in ways that may have profound effects on the emergency management enterprise.  Collectively, we must begin to think more broadly and over a longer-timeframe if we are to understand these changes and their potential impacts.  To this end, FEMA has launched a Strategic Foresight initiative, the objective of which is straight-forward:  to seek to understand how the world around us is changing, and how those changes may affect the future of emergency management and our community.

Our approach is rooted in an explicit attempt to innovate and move beyond the constraints of existing planning efforts.  FEMA recognizes that it is only a single member of the national emergency management enterprise.  Alongside other federal partners, states, nongovernmental organizations, community based organizations, and especially neighborhoods, towns and cities that do most of the work, the scale and coverage of the emergency management community comprises a broad and complex network of interdependencies and overlapping vital interests.

Our goal is to engage this diverse community in a collective exploration of issues, trends, and other factors that could impact the future emergency management environment, and to support expanded strategic thinking and planning for the future.  We intend to further this goal by participating actively, sharing our own questions, directions, concerns, and decisions, and helping bring together people from various disciplines to engage in the discussion.

The Big Questions

Three guiding questions to consider are:

(1)   What are the drivers of change (e.g., demographics, climate change) that may “dial up” or “dial down” systemic risk in the future?

(2)   What has the potential to transform emergency management in the future?

(3)   What should we do now to better align our missions and capabilities to our future needs?


In the coming weeks FEMA will take steps to create space for collaboration and dialog on these issues across the emergency management community.  We will facilitate engagement through various media, including workshops, online collaboration tools, individual meetings and conferences.  More specifically, the first phase of key events will include three primary engagement opportunities:

·        APRIL 14, 2010: Scoping Workshop
This workshop will include participants from a wide cross-section of the emergency management community, select subject matter experts in relevant academic areas, select federal agencies, and other key stakeholders.  At this event participants will begin to identify, define, and refine key issues and drivers that may impact the future of emergency management.

·        MAY 2010-JULY 2010: Online Collaboration
Diverse participants from many disciplines and fields will join in moderated discussion through easy-to-access, easy-to-use online communities.  Dialog will focus on better understanding emerging trends and future directions in key issue areas, and the potential implications for emergency management.

·        AUGUST 2010: Future Strategic Needs Workshop
This workshop will synthesize the results of the online collaboration, leverage expert contributions in each area, and consider key issues and drivers in combination, examining their implications.  The result of this workshop will be an emergent picture of future strategic needs for the field of emergency management.

( You can find out more details by contacting  the  FEMA Office of Policy and Program Analysis.)


I am agnostic about the utility of spending too much time looking into the future, particularly in the surprise ridden warren of homeland security.

The planner in me hopes there are trends that can be identified and incorporated into strategic design and implementation.

The realist part of me considers underwear bombers, predictable hurricanes that were ignored, and fanatics awash with unreason and recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man plans; God laughs.

Peter Schwartz tells the following story in his book Inevitable Surprises:

Pierre Wack used to compare his [futures] work to the prediction of floods on the Ganges River in India. “From source to mouth,” he would say, “the Ganges is an extraordinary river, some 1500 miles long. If you notice extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains at the upper part of the basin, you can anticipate with certainty that within two days something extraordinary is going to happen at Rishikesh, at the foot of the Himalayas.”  Three days later, he would add, one could expect a flood at Allahabad, which is southeast of Delhi; five days after that, one could expect a flood in Benares, at the river’s Delta.  “Now, the people down here in Benares  don’t know that this flood is on its way,” he would conclude, “but I do. Because I’ve been at this spring where it comes from. I’ve seen it! This is not fortune telling. This is not crystal ball gazing. This is merely describing future implications of something that has already happened.”

The people putting Wednesday’s meeting together have looked at analyses that purport to see the spring “at the upper part of the basin.”    Those documents share a common view of “what has already happened: ” 10 trends and drivers shaping the future of emergency management and homeland security.

  1. U.S. Economic Strength
  2. Climate Change
  3. Rapid Technological Change
  4. Demographics
  5. Terrorism and Transnational Crime
  6. Proliferation of WMD
  7. Natural Resource Scarcity and Competition
  8. Pandemic
  9. Weak/Failed States and Ungoverned Spaces
  10. Rise of New Powers/Weakening of U.S.

I hope to write more about these in future posts.


More than three dozen world leaders are talking about the possibility of reducing nuclear weapons. That seems very idealistic.

But I believe even the realist Lincoln would approve.

I think he would also support FEMA’s idealistic effort to help shape — if not create —  the future of homeland security.


Clarification (4.13.10 @11:22 PST) — The person who provided me with the list of drivers suggests the following clarification: “The 10 trends and drivers you mention at the end of the post … are not emergency management/homeland security specific.  They were common themes … found when reviewing futures literature from a variety of sources that mostly had a global/international flavor to them.  The goal of the workshop tomorrow is to begin the process of identifying and defining what those drivers are for emergency management.”

April 12, 2010

Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 12, 2010

Downtown Washington D.C. braced this morning for traffic and business disruptions resulting from this week’s Nuclear Security Summit, where leaders of 47 nations are gathering to discuss how to keep nukes away from terrorists.

The meeting comes less than a week after the United States and Russia, which currently hold 95% of existing nukes, signed a treaty that would reduce the two nations’ stockpile of weapons significantly.  The treaty would reduce the number of nuclear weapons each country would have to a maximum of 3100 (1,550 each) by 2017. *

* This number doesn’t include exceptions- including the tactical/battlefield nukes, “reserve” weapons, and those waiting for dismantling, which account for approximately 12,000 more warheads.  That said, the number is significantly lower than the 60,000 nuclear weapons that were floating around during the height of the Cold War.

The treaty, which gained a significant amount of attention last week, left untouched a more frightening issue  that is the subject of this week’s summit- what to do about terrorists and rogue actors who might be intent on gaining access to and using nuclear weapons.  The summit will specifically focus on two areas of concern:

  • How to secure nuclear materials (i.e. the “loose nukes” problem)
  • How to prevent nuclear smuggling

Both of these threats potentially can allow terrorists to gain access to separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, both of which are critical to nuclear bombmaking.  Unfortunately, achieving success against these threats is easier said than done, especially since each country had different regimes for handling the materials and, in many cases,  the materials reside with private individuals instead of government agencies.

In some instances, the materials and the scientific skills to use them are for sale on various black markets, awaiting the highest bidder.  According to a recent Christian Science Monitor report, between 1993 and 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) clocked 336 confirmed reports of criminal activity involving nuclear material, including 421 incidents of stolen or lost nuclear material.*

* Lost materials have been a significant concern since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a situation that only worsened after economic turmoil hit the nation.  Much of the Soviet’s stockpile was stored in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, where large amounts of uranium and plutonium may still exist.  The U.S. made earlier strides to secure those materials through the Nunn-Lugar program, but much remains to be done.

The Summit this week could be important in addressing the non-state actor threat and for setting the stage  for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), scheduled for May 3-28, 2010 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.  That review will address a number of key issues including:

  • universality of the Treaty;
  • nuclear disarmament, including specific practical measures;
  • nuclear non-proliferation, including the promoting and strengthening of safeguards;
  • measures to advance the peaceful use of nuclear energy, safety and security;
  • regional disarmament and non-proliferation;
  • implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East;
  • measures to address withdrawal from the Treaty;
  • measures to further strengthen the review process; and
  • ways to promote engagement with civil society in strengthening NPT norms and in promoting disarmament education.

As for the summit this week, success can be found if the participating nations reaffirm their commitment to secure nuclear materials within their jurisdiction and agree to help other nations who cannot afford or do not have the capability to secure their materials.   It would also be useful to come away with an agreement to take strong legal stances against smugglers and rogue nuclear scientists willing to sell their bombmaking expertise to the highest bidders.  Also, a commitment to develop uniform security standards for non-weaponized nuclear materials, including medical and energy uses, to assure that those materials cannot be used for wrongdoing, would be a big success.

Of course, even if 47 nations agree this week to do all of the above there are nations not at the table whose efforts will be critical to any attempts to achieve global nuclear security.  Neither Iran and North Korea were invited to the conference, as they have violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.  In any event, Iran has already said that it will not be bound by any agreements made this week.  Among the meetings scheduled for this week, is a bilateral meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, where President Obama is expected to press his counterpart to support the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

Also worth noting is that Israel is not participating in the Summit. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew last week as he believed that a number of nations – including Turkey and Egypt – planned to raises questions about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its refusal to sign the NPT.

April 8, 2010

First reports about a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat are usually wrong

Filed under: Aviation Security,Border Security,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 8, 2010

I was going to write about the future of homeland security today.  But the present got in the way.


The story is still unfolding. But as I write this late on April 7th, here is the timeline of what the social network and other media were/are reporting.

Between 6 and 7 PM, Pacific Time

  • A passenger attempted to light an explosive device on board an aircraft from Washington to Denver, sources tell NBC News
  • Update: Air marshals subdued passenger on Denver-bound 757 jet. Plane is parked in remote area of airport – NBC News
  • Update: Passenger detained after ‘shoe bomb’ incident aboard Denver-bound plane is identified as Qatari diplomat – ABC News

Between 7 and 8 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Unclear if passenger tied to shoe incident aboard Denver-bound flight had explosives – NBC News

Between 8 and 9 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Qatar diplomat subdued on United flight may have been smoking in bathroom – NBC News

Between 9 and 10 PM, Pacific Time

From the Denver Post, reported by Felisa Cardona and Jeffrey Leib :

A United Airlines flight from Washington was escorted by fighter jets to Denver International Airport after a diplomat on board from Qatar may have tried to light his shoes on fire….

More than two hours after the incident, it still wasn’t clear whether the incident was an actual threat or a misunderstanding because al-Modadi attempted to smoke a cigarette on the plane, according to numerous law enforcement sources….

ABC News and other outlets reported that no explosives have been found on the plane, which was still being searched at 9:45 p.m…

Approximately 25 minutes outside of Denver the air marshal, who was not immediately identified, confronted al-Modadi after smelling smoke.

From NBC

…Federal officials told NBC News that a half hour before the jet landed, a flight attendant smelled smoke just as a passenger was coming out of a restroom and alerted an air marshal. The marshal confronted the man, and there were initial reports that the man said he was trying to light his shoe.

But NBC News reported that the man said he was putting out a cigarette, which he smoked in the restroom, on the sole of his shoe.

No explosives were found on the man, and a search of the plane with bomb-detecting dogs also turned up no explosives. And a federal official said the man was wearing sandals….

From the AP (by writers Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Lee, Matt Apuzzo, Joan Lowy, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Judith Kohler and David Zalubowski in Denver)

A Qatari diplomat trying to sneak a smoke in an airplane bathroom sparked a bomb scare Wednesday night on a flight from Washington to Denver, with fighter jets scrambled and law enforcement put on high alert, officials said.

No explosives were found on the man, and officials do not believe he was trying to harm anyone, according to a senior law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity…

An Arab diplomat briefed on the matter identified the diplomat as Mohammed Al-Madadi.

Two law enforcement officials said investigators were told the man was asked about the smell of smoke in the bathroom and he made a joke that he had been trying to light his shoes — an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called ”shoe bomber” Richard Reid…

A senior State Department official said the agency was aware of the tentative identification of the man as a Qatari diplomat and that there would be ”consequences, diplomatic and otherwise” if he had committed a crime.

The latest edition of department’s Diplomatic List, a registry of foreign diplomats working in the United States, identifies a man named Mohammed Yaaqob Y.M. Al-Madadi as the third secretary for the Qatari Embassy in Washington. Third secretary is a relatively low-ranking position at any diplomatic post and it was not immediately clear what his responsibilities would have been.

Foreign diplomats in the United States, like American diplomats posted abroad, have broad immunity from prosecution. The official said if the man’s identity as a Qatari diplomat was confirmed and if it was found that he may have committed a crime, U.S. authorities would have to decide whether to ask Qatar to waive his diplomatic immunity so he could be charged and tried. Qatar could decline, the official said, and the man would likely be expelled from the United States.

Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, is an oil- and gas-rich monarchy and close U.S. ally of about 1.4 million people on the Arabian peninsula, surrounded by three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia…..

From the  innocuously uninformative TSA site

TSA Statement on United Flight 663
News & Happenings

On Wednesday, April 7 TSA responded to an incident on board United Airlines flight 663 from DCA to DEN after Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft. The flight landed safely at Denver International Airport at approximately 8:50 p.m. EDT.

Law enforcement and TSA responded to the scene and the passenger is currently being interviewed by law enforcement. All steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public.


By the time I wake up tomorrow, I’m guessing there will be a clearer picture of this currently bizarre incident.

Based on the evolving first reports, I go to sleep tonight thinking a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat was smoking a cigarette in an airplane toilet-sink room.  He put out the smoke by grinding it into his shoe.  A flight attendant smelled smoke and notified a federal air marshal.  At that point, Mohammed Al-Madadi — if that is really his name — stopped enjoying what in the 1980s used to be called “the friendly skies.”

Airplane, shoes, smoke, Al-Madadi… the first reports write themselves.


What ripples — if any — will this event stir in homeland security?

Do passengers with diplomatic immunity create another vulnerability in the US aviation security system?

Will cigarettes now have to go into checked baggage?

Is health care reform to blame?

Is this yet one more example of how America is turning socialist?

What will the story line be that places blame for this event on Secretary Napolitano?


I wanted to write about the future of homeland security.  But the present is way too weird to be thinking about the future.

Maybe tomorrow.


Update: 20 seconds after I posted the above:


“Qatari diplomat who sparked bomb scare by trying to smoke aboard Denver-bound jet won’t face criminal charges, official tells AP”

Oh well, who knows whether that’s true or not.  First reports are almost always wrong.

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