Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 30, 2010

The Positive Approach

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on June 30, 2010

Witnessing a free and frank exchange of ideas between intelligent, engaged people often stimulates our own thinking about difficult issues and ideas. That was certainly the case for me with Monday’s post, which featured a dialogue between Phil Palin and Art Bottrell regarding the nature of our thinking about homeland security, resilience and public involvement.

I was as much taken by how they presented their respective arguments as what they said. Although the exchange was very positive, it still highlighted our human tendency to use deficit thinking. When confronted with difficult and challenging ideas, it is almost always easier to identify the points on which we disagree with others rather than those we share in common that might represent strengths upon which we might build a successful collective argument.

Homeland security professionlas are not, of course, alone in this respect. Psychologists have struggled for decades with the tendency of their profession to pathologize human behavior. For some, this has become such a serious weakness that they have begun to question whether anyone’s behavior can be considered truly normal much less healthy.

It is against just such a backdrop that serious thought has emerged about how to define constructive engagement. The field of positive psychology, pioneered by Seligman, Dweck, Csikszentmihalyi, Haidt, and others, has sought to explain what makes people healthy, happy, productive, and engaged. I think we can learn quite a lot from these experts about how to make people safer or at the very least less anxious about the threats we all face. Without going too far out on a limb here presenting positions from a field in which I have very limited training, I would like to present what I consider some of the more promising ideas from this field.

One of the first discoveries of positive psychology was the tendency of test subjects, first animals and only later human participants, to exhibit very different responses to the same stressors. In hopeless situations, many subjects exhibit what Seligman came to characterize as “learned helplessness.” This reaction was not that surprising. What really caught his attention was the fact that a significant number of test subjects never quit trying. Despite the administration of repeated punishments, they persisted in efforts to achieve rewards. As the experiments adapted to this tendency, they did too and were rewarded for performing the same tasks that had previous produced only the potential for punishment. Those who had thrown in the towel earlier never reengaged the “opportunity” despite the possibility of achieving a different, salutary outcome.

Dweck has demonstrated that humans clearly possess different orientations when it comes to problem solving. Those with a fixed mindset view their abilities as static and limited endowments. Those with a superior self-image, when first confronted with the reality that they may not be as unique as they once imagined themselves quikly adapt to this new realization by withdrawing from challenges and taking only the sure bets. Others, those with what Dweck calls the growth mindset, never seem to tire of accepting new challenges. They see very little downside to engaging difficult problems that might (and often do) end in failure, because such situations provide them with valuable information with which they can evaluate their positions and refine their approaches. In other words, they do not let their performance define them.

Csikszentmihalyi has helped us understand what it is about such situations that provides the encouragement to persist. He uses the term “flow” to describe the feeling of effortless action that accompanies mastery. Even in challenging and difficult situations, we rely on experience to reassure us that despite any momentary difficulties things are more likely to end well if we engage our abilities rather than focusing on our weaknesses. When we do this, our abilities grow stronger even if our weaknesses do not diminish. As a consequence, we learn to leverage these attributes and similar aptitudes in others, especially when they complement our own.

Perhaps the most helpful ideas about how we might employ these observations to encourage a more positive and productive mindset about the challenges of homeland security comes from Jonathan Haidt, who uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe the challenges we all face balancing our desires and emotions with our intellect and abilities. The rider (our rational, capable selves) has a limited ability to steer our elephant (our emotions and desires) in any direction he does not want to go. But an unguided elephant is a dangerous beast indeed!

Pathologizing homeland security does us as a nation little good. Focusing on our weaknesses has not made us much stronger.

But leveraging our strengths, approaching new conflicts without fear of failure and an eagerness to learn is, if we accept the observations of the field of positive psychology, as simple as choosing to do so. As these researchers make clear to us, we may not be able to make the world an ideal place, but we can choose how to live in the one that exists. Choosing principle and purpose has genuine merit and value even if the only minds we change are our own.

Further Reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Toronto: Random House.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Place your bets: bad, worse, and worst

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 30, 2010

Whether you are into prevention, mitigation, response, or recovery, we all deal with the deadly trifecta of natural, accidental, and intentional threats.  A few recent examples:

Natural threats: The Arizona wildfire continues to burn as Alex threatens the Texas-Mexico border just as a 6.2 earthquake hits near Oaxaca.  (See a very helpful overview of natural disasters from National Geographic.)

Accidental threats:  Arguably the worst industrial accident in American history continues to emerge from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Intentional threats:  The ambush killing of a leading Mexican political candidate is blamed on the drug cartels while five Northern Virginians are convicted of terrorism charges.

To win a trifecta the gambler (risk analyst?) has to accurately call which of the options will come in first, second, and third.  I’ve never been much of a gambler.  Maybe that’s why I keep pushing resilience.

June 29, 2010

Does the US Have Any Domestic Terrorist Groups?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on June 29, 2010

On June 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court “upheld a federal law that makes it a crime to provide “material support” to foreign terrorist organizations, even if the support takes the form of training for peacefully resolving conflicts.

This decision triggered a discussion about its impact on free speech and free association rights.

One person contributing to the discussion wrote:

“If an American (a Congressman, former President, diplomat, or any other citizen) sat down at a table and met with members, or suspected members, of a foreign terrorist group [my emphasis] for the purpose of ending violence, or taking steps to move towards resolution of conflict, or to provide humanitarian aid they could face fifteen years in prison under this law.

This law could effectively prevent giving aid to terrorists, but it could also hamper putting an end to terrorism.

What about domestic terrorism? [my emphasis]

Is there an easily accessible list of all such organizations and suspected members that ordinary citizens can consult to guide and protect themselves? Would it be acceptable for American citizens and local governments to refuse to offer any assistance to someone who might be a member of a terrorist group (racial profiling) on the grounds that they might [be] “aiding” terror, even when that assistance is otherwise legal or even mandated by law?

Not only does this law potentially destroy free speech, it is so broad that it places many Americans at risk.”


The 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security pointed out:

“The terrorist threat to the Homeland is not restricted to violent Islamic extremist groups. We also confront an ongoing threat posed by domestic terrorists based and operating strictly within the United States. [my emphasis] Often referred to as “single issue” groups, they include white supremacist groups, animal rights extremists, and eco-terrorist groups, among others.”

How does the U.S. government identify domestic terrorist organizations?

“It doesn’t,” I am told by a colleague who is in a position to know.

“The United States does not have a universally accepted process for defining and designating domestic terrorist individuals or groups which [is] shared throughout the law enforcement and homeland security communities.”

Here is a brief portion (edited for this post) of what David E. Heller, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Anchorage Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation wrote on this subject for a thesis he is  completing at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Full citations from Heller’s work have been removed for this post, but will be available in the thesis when it is published.  I should also note that the views are the product of Heller’s academic work and do not necessarily represent the position of any government agency.


Designating Foreign Terrorist Organizations

There are policies and procedures for defining and designating Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), but not domestic groups.

The legal criteria for designating FTOs and the process to do that are defined within section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), Title 8 U.S.C. 1189 and further amended by the USA Patriot Act of 2001.

The Secretary of State is responsible for designating FTOs on behalf of the United States Government. The State Department is not alone in this process. They have to consult with the intelligence community and the Attorney General before completing the designation process.

There are currently 45 Foreign Terrorist Organizations designated by the State Department.

In 2003, the Congressional Research Service issued a report examining the FTO list and the sanctioning of designated FTOs. The report also set out to examine other terrorist lists emphasizing that the FTO was not the only U.S. terrorist list.  The other lists included State-Sponsors of Terrorism, Specially Designated Terrorists, Specially Designated Global Terrorists, Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons and Terrorist Exclusion list.

None of these lists include the identities of domestic terrorist individuals or groups.

What About Domestic Terrorists?

In September of 2003, Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 6 was signed by President Bush.  HSPD 6 directed the Attorney General of the United States to establish a process to consolidate the Government’s approach to terrorism screening and provide for the appropriate and lawful use of Terrorist Information in a screening process.

The consolidated list is known as the Terrorist Screening Data Base, more often referred to as the “Watch List.” The so called Watch List is primarily used for alerting users to the possible encounters of suspected terrorists and for affecting domestic and international travel of suspected terrorists.

A second list, which is a subset of the Watch List, is the Violent Gang/Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF). It was previously used to identify and track members of criminal gangs, but is now also being used to track foreign and domestic terrorists under investigation by the FBI and other designating agencies.

Two additional lists of note are the publically available FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist and Domestic Terrorism lists. These lists are the only repositories for the FBI to externally publish or identify a domestic terror subject (after that person has been indicted) to law enforcement, selected communities of interest or the public. Both lists provide information concerning fugitives who have been criminally charged and are associated with terrorism or Domestic Terrorism, respectively. For example, FBI fugitive and animal rights extremist Daniel Andreas San Diego was recently added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.

However, these lists do not identify known or suspected domestic terror subjects or groups, regardless of their criminal history or current threat, unless or until they have been charged with a federal crime, unlike the criteria used to place groups on the FTO list.

A State’s Effort to Designate Terrorist Groups

The development of a list to openly recognize domestic terrorists has been attempted in the past.

In 2004, the Forty-Sixth Legislature for the State of Arizona introduced SB 1081: Animal and Ecological Terrorism. The legislation made it unlawful for groups or individuals to engage in Animal or Ecological Terrorism. The legislation also made it mandatory for an individual who was convicted of the crimes enumerated within the bill to be subject to a Terrorist Registration. The list would subsequently be available for public view via an internet web site.

Although the legislation was passed in the Arizona Senate, in May of 2004, the bill was vetoed by then Governor Napolitano.

Defining Terrorism

When it comes to civil liberties, defining the differences between domestic terrorists and individuals or groups exercising First Amendment protected activities is a fundamental challenge. The FBI has partially defined Domestic Terrorism as, “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction, committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

In 2008, United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey published “The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations.” The guidelines defined Domestic Terrorism for the purpose of Enterprise Investigations as, “domestic terrorism as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2331 (5) involving a violation of federal criminal law.” As Nathaniel Stewart pointed out in his review of the State of Ohio’s common law history of terrorism, referencing research by Nicholas J. Perry, there are at least nineteen definitions or descriptions of terrorism within federal law. During a 2008 audit of the U.S. Department of Justice watch listing process it was noted that, “ATF officials suggested that there was a lack of clarity, consistency, and understanding of the definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts among law enforcement agencies.” The context in which the term terrorism is refered to may be found in hundreds of other government and federal agency documentation as well.

Who Decides?

Another challenge in establishing a process to validate and designate domestic terrorists is to determine what agency should be responsible for the development of protocols and for defining a process.

The FBI currently has lead agency responsibility for investigating terrorism within the statutory jurisdiction of the United States (28 C.F.R. 0.85). The FBI’s role in investigating terrorism has been defined within Presidential Directives and federal legislation. The National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 46, Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 15 and the USA Patriot Act of 2001 are three of the most recent government documents defining the FBI’s responsibilities with respect to investigating terrorism. Individual states have also developed laws and legislation which provide for local law enforcement to take action against terrorism adherents within their area of responsibility.

Unlike the FTO list which addresses international terrorism, we know of only one validation and designation process, with established protocols, by any Federal Government agency for identifying individuals engaged in Domestic Terrorism for inclusion on a government list. That list is the Consolidated Terrorist Watch List housed within the Terrorism Screening Center (TSC), which is managed by the FBI.

The TSC has identified criteria for nominating individuals suspected of being domestic terrorists as part of the Watch Listing process. These criteria do not apply to the nomination of domestic terrorist groups.

Should the US Have a Way to Designate a Group as a Domestic Terrorist Organization?

We have been unable to find any validation, designation processes, or protocols to nominate domestic terrorist groups to any government list.

The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations issued by Attorney General Mukasey in September of 2008 outlined the criteria for initiating FBI investigations with reference to Terrorism Enterprise Investigations, i.e. investigating groups believed to be involved in Domestic Terrorism. These guidelines do not however provide direction about how to validate and designate or establish and publish domestic terrorist groups onto any law enforcement or homeland security terrorism list.

There is a long history of terrorist activity within the United States perpetrated by domestic groups and individuals seeking political and social change, most recently including such organizations as the Black Panther Party, Weather Underground, Covenant Sword and the Arm of the Lord, Ku Klux Klan, Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and the horrific attack by Oklahoma City truck bomber Timothy McVeigh.  Despite this history, none of these groups or individuals are identified on any government list as domestic terrorists.

By properly defining and implementing processes for designating Domestic Terrorism individuals or groups, law enforcement and homeland security agencies will be able to take pre-emptive action and share information thereby avoiding a “Hobson’s choice” between impinging upon First Amendment Rights and defending the nation against another Oklahoma City style attack.

June 28, 2010

A dialog: Diagnosing homeland security (schizophrenia, mania, histrionic personality disorder, or what?)

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 28, 2010

Editorial Note: Art Bottrell is an experienced emergency manager whose career has included stints with FEMA, the California Office of Emergency Services (now CalEMA),  in local government, and as a consultant.  The following dialog began on Friday, June 25 and continued over the weekend.   The dialog opens referencing Mr. Bottrell’s comment to Friday’s blog post by John Comiskey.  Art and I have never met outside the blogosphere. 


You do not comment often, but each comment has been especially sharp. Can I interest you in a public dialog for the Monday HLSwatch post?

I don’t want to pigeon-hole either of us, but I perceive you are more conservative in your epistemology than I am. If this is accurate, I envy your discipline. My less rigorous approach may be little more  than the immaturity you referenced. 

You wrote, “I’d suggest that one challenge we’ve faced in the early years of the Homeland Security era has been the tendency — especially when faced with a paucity of evidence to inform our choices — to substitute passion for understanding.” 

I perceive the homeland security “personality” has demonstrated schizophrenic tendencies, moving manically between passionate engagement and dispassionate understanding, between politics and engineering,  between intuition and science.  I am almost certainly more inclined toward passion, politics, and intuition.  How about you?



I don’t think of myself as conservative so much as just old and perhaps a bit weary.  I think most folks who’ve worked with me would fault me for an  excess of idealism and an excessively intuitive approach.  Perhaps my most  radical belief is that one can be idealistic without being foolish, that  humanity may not be perfectible but nonetheless can improve.

Of course, I come from the pre-9/11 school of “emergency management,” which was more about hazard mitigation and consequence management than  about attempts at prevention.  That’s one dimension of the schizophrenia you mention.  I feel an inherent tension between the goal of keeping bad things from happening and that of dealing with them when they happen anyway.  If prevention is the highest goal, planning for response or even  mitigating hazards smacks of planning for failure, which is a hard thing to ask of anyone.

 And thus “resilience” has become a bit of a code-word for a reaction against the perceived Fortress America mentality of “first generation”  Homeland Security.  (Just because I agree with it doesn’t mean I can’t  acknowledge the political overtones.)

Another fault-line may lie revealed in the use of the term “homeland,” singular.  Inevitably it emphasizes the national, if not federal, agenda and subordinates local, community-based or international activities.  One practical result has been the growing adoption at the state and local level of the federal practice of heavy reliance on contractors and the deprecation of career civil service.  Which, again, aligns with a particular political perspective.

As for swings between rationality and rhetoric, my personal experience has been that “waiving the bloody shirt” is very often an indication that the underlying rationale is weak.  Thus the more passionate the language, the more skeptical I become.  Good policy, in my opinion, comes when reason and passion align.



I understand the old and weary. Each day I understand more and more.  I may be immature, but I cannot blame it on lack of years. 

You point to a cognitive dissonance between prevention and mitigation/response.  Is this because failure is not an option?  I’ve always found that an odd claim.  My farmer/merchant forebears lived in a  world where failure was regularly experienced, always an option, and nothing to be embarrassed about; unless you compounded failure by not  learning from it. In your experience, where does failure fit in the  culture of homeland security?

About that “bloody shirt,” can you give examples?  One man’s bloody shirt, might be another’s muddy shirt.  Because I am interested in the mix of emotion and reason (perhaps a bit different than rationality and  rhetoric?), I would like to better understand your faults lines.



Philip –

As you point out, the dissonance isn’t just cognitive.  Saying “failure is not an option” is implicitly to claim that all things are within our power, which is obviously untrue.  (Shades of Lee Clarke again!)  What that fine-sounding phrase really means is that failure is not acceptable to the  speaker.  So its weight depends entirely on the listeners’ respect for (or fear of) the speaker.  Imagine a small child demanding the parents produce a baby sister on such terms!  It’s funny because child and parents alike so obviously lacks enforcement power. Thus in saying “failure is not an option”
the speaker makes a not-very-subtle claim of authority over the audience.

But even if the speaker is entirely selfless and just caught up in the spirit of the moment, the pridefulness of the language should be enough to sound warning bells.  Although not an especially religious man, I was raised
in a Christian tradition that held Pride to be a sin…and a dangerous one.  Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit  before a fall.”  The ancient Greeks called it hubris.  I’m not sure exactly
at what point pride started to be treated as inherently virtuous.  Anyway,  when we start talking like we’re all-powerful, I get uneasy.

Pre-9/11 there was a great deal of dialog between FEMA and the various law enforcement agencies over exactly where to draw the line between “incident management” and “consequence management” in various terrorist scenarios.  While there were issues at the edge, there was general agreement that the two activities were distinct and distinguishable.  With the formation of DHS  that question of jurisdiction became a question of priorities.  This was, I  think, the essence of the “FEMA in or out?” debate…could a single  organization really balance prevention and response, enforcement and  empowerment?  The administrative issue is settled, at least for now, but  that didn’t make the underlying tension go away, especially at budget time.  Which in DC is pretty much all the time.

Professional airline pilots practice a discipline called Cockpit Resource  Management (or more recently, Crew Resource Management.)  One of the core concepts of CRM is “managing the error flow.”  The idea is that there are always problems and mistakes, so a key to survival is to identify and deal  with them before they concentrate and compound into a disaster.  The  essential first step is to admit that bad stuff will happen despite our best  intentions and most fervent wishes.

As to soiled outerwear: To quote Wikipedia, ‘In the history of the United  States, “waving the bloody shirt” refers to the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes to inspire support or avoid criticism.’  Far be it from me to point a finger, but I think anyone can find examples, at the local, national and international levels, in almost any day’s newspaper.  (Hint: Look for occurrences of the word “victim.”) 

I appreciate the humor of your image of “waiving the muddy shirt” but, since the point is to elicit an emotional response, generally  speaking I wouldn’t expect mud to work nearly so well.  Except possibly with  the person responsible for doing the laundry.

Again, I have nothing against passion per-se.  But a lot of folks we look  back on as misguided or even evil were indisputably passionate.  Passion doesn’t guarantee wisdom, much less goodness, and it’s no defense against a
hurricane.  It’s precisely because passion can so easily lead humans astray  that we want to keep it yoked to reason.



So… what I hear you saying is: homeland security — and specifically the Department of Homeland Security — has been given an assignment that is innately complex and, as such, the various aspects of the assignment are persistently in tension.

This tension is reflected in political, financial, operational and other forms of friction.  Such friction is typical of human organizations.  But depending on the situation, the friction itself can become threatening.

If an exogenous event — natural, accidental, or intentional — happens to  provide flammable material, the internal friction can ignite an inferno that might otherwise have been avoided ( e.g. last week a friend was describing a
conflict that arose between the PFO and FCO staffs early in the Katrina response).

The fiction of being all-powerful amplifies this friction, like an accelerant  tossed on flame.  Weirdly this fiction — the desire (even vague possibility) to be all-powerful — is often advocated as a method for reducing the friction.  Just give someone — or some office — more power and they will deconflict the tensions.  Create another Czar. At best the fictive accelerant temporarily obscures the flame (as with autumn leaves).  But actually the fiction is just giving the flame more fuel.

Am I hearing you, or am I just translating you into what I already believe?  I invited this dialogue because I perceived you and I held some  fundamentally different perspectives.  But — right now — I perceive we are  much closer than I expected.


Phil –

I think we’re in substantial agreement.  However, I also think it’s important to distinguish between professional (individual) concerns and organizational ones.  We may or may not be able to do anything about the goodness-of-fit of organizational structure to social and political problems.  But within whatever structure we find ourselves, each of us faces choices about how we play our role.

That’s the level at which I worry about a tendency toward romanticism, especially among practitioners who’ve come to the field recently.  It’s easy and sometimes expedient to wrap oneself in the flag of an ideal such as “stakeholder involvement” or “interoperability” or “never again,” especially when one doesn’t have any other basis for making decisions.  But the clarity of reductionism always comes at a price.  Like the economic externalities of environmental pollution, the messy details we dismiss in the process of sloganeering don’t go away, they just accumulate.

A colleague in FEMA Public Affairs once shared with me the best job description I ever heard: “A TV producer,” he said, “has a keen sense of the inevitability of detail.”  The producer, he explained, is the one person on the set who can’t wave away any consideration, no matter how inconvenient or seemingly imponderable; the producer is ultimately responsible for the outcome, not just the process.

It’s true that large organizations tend not to reward that sort of personal responsibility.  While small organizations are held accountable for their results by their stakeholders/customers, as they grow they quickly become “too big to fail.”  At that point the preservation of the institution starts to take precedence over the achievement of its goals.  Indeed, at a certain point organizations acquires the power to redefine their goals to fit their capabilities.  And such redefinitions often are justified in glittering generalities like “security,” “stability” or even (alas!) “resilience.”

Which is why I think it’s crucial that professionals in big organizations strive to maintain a balance between sentiment and rationality.  Too little passion can beget sloth, but too much can take us off the cliff of extremism.

– Art


I give significant priority to the value of “attention” and “strategic focus”, but whether Art and I disagree on this will have to wait for another day.  In regard to Art’s final sentence (immediately above), I have also seen passion push the best intentions over a cliff.  But my experience suggests enthusiastic and collaborative creativity is often more productive than the most rigorous analysis.  The two observations are not, it seems to me, contradictory.  But they are in tension.  Can they become complementary?  Would this contribute to the balance of which Art writes? 

I hope you will join the discussion by posting a comment or question.

June 27, 2010

Someone is listening: The Secretary’s speech to the American Constitution Society

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 27, 2010

Last weekend I complained about not being able to  find a transcript of Secretary Napolitano’s speech to the ACS.  Further, the “speeches and statements” link at www.dhs.gov had not been updated since April.  I am glad to report the speech is now available.   I will give the Secretary’s remarks  an exegetical treatment in a future post.  Thank you.

June 25, 2010

Homeland Security, social capital, and resilience – a Pandora’s box?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Port and Maritime Security,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 25, 2010

Editorial note: Last evening John Comiskey posted the following as a comment to my Thursday post (immediately below this post).  Without receiving his permission, I am moving John’s comment to today’s front page.  If you have read John’s prior comments you know he serves with the NYPD and is also with the Coast Guard Reserve.  John is currently deployed with the USCG to the Gulf of Mexico.  Full disclosure, John and I both serve on the faculty of the new Pace University graduate program in management for public safety and homeland security professionals.  We have met each other precisely once, at a Spring faculty meeting.


Your Grandpa sounds like a wonderful man. I imagine that he too would be overwhelmed and even frustrated by the levels of bureaucracy and particularly the federal government’s grant strategy (get the locals to do what you want by footing some or the entire bill). “All politics are local and most times federal too” might be the old “all politics are local.”

That being said, it sounds like your grandfather would have found a way. Bennet’s axiom “People are discouraged, encourage them,” should be a homeland security and preparedness mantra.  The obvious — helping people — seems within our grasp, but eludes us all too often.

Homeland security and preparedness are a Pandora’s box of sorts (privacy intrusions, challenges to rights & privileges, economic costs, and others things that are not so nice). But, we need to remind ourselves that the original Pandora’s Box also offered hope.

Today, I heard a Coast Guard Commander refer to Deepwater Horizon as the Coast Guard’s Afghanistan.

The “long spill,” Deepwater Horizon, like the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq require fortitude, patience, understanding, and hope. Somebody said “hope is not a plan.” Just the same I will keep on hoping and praying for the best whilst I prepare for the worst.

The emotional toll to Gulf residents, government workers, and cleanup volunteers warrants consideration and is bound to be high. The days ahead present three overarching challenges: stopping the spill, extracting the maximum amount of oil feasible, and mitigating the damage. The current forecast of 23+ storms with a 50% chance of a significant storm make that challenge all the more challenging –or might clean most of the mess up -mother nature is most resilient.

I have come to know some of the people of NOLA and have found them to be concerned but going about their business best they can. They talk a lot of football. LSU and the Saints are dear to their hearts. Last year’s super bowl celebration has continued with the team’s preseason visit to Louisiana communities weary of oil: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127561660

If I remain in NOLA past September, I will likely attend a game. For the record I am a Jets fan. Football players and fans are resilient.

My new colleagues in NOLA poke fun at my New York accent. In turn, I enjoy their nawlins’ colloquialisms. They seem to appreciate my reviews of their restaurants and haunts. So far Acme Oyster House, Tujajues, and Café du Monde top the list. Nothing like football and food to bind people.

I have found that Katrina has left the people of NOLA with doubts in the efficacy of the federal government and particularly FEMA. NOLA’s celebrated relationship with the Coast Guard seems uneasy at best. I am told too little is being done too slowly. That phenomena might be a study in a relationship earned in one disaster (Katrina) only to be lost in another (DWH). Social capital is easier lost than earned.

The USCG is most resilient. It is and always has been a multi-mission organization. Today that mission is clear: ensure and facilitate the RP’s (responsible party) response – in this case BP. That mission will not make the Coast Guard popular.

From my view BP is doing all that it can and is most instances more than that. The American people need to know that without the media hype. BP too is resilient. I imagine someone or some people high in the organization deliberated as to their course of action –cut and run or invest in their enterprise. BP chose the latter. I can’t and won’t speak to BP’s alleged wrongdoing because I don’t know if they were negligent or had a catastrophic industrial accident. I know that matter is being investigated and await the final analysis.

Recovery requires everyone to look past their factions, fights, frustrations, and everything else.

I’m rooting for the people of the Gulf and the United States of America.

June 24, 2010

Homeland security’s role in (and need for) restoring a social capital surplus

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 24, 2010

Are we self-serving gluttons of short-term gratification, unable to work together to anticipate problems or seize opportunities?   Is this what 65 years of extraordinary affluence, pre-eminent power, and generous parents produce? 

Television probably contributed.  Rock music too.

Monday several of us — here at Homeland Security Watch and otherwise — considered whether broad-based participation, collaboration, and deliberation are realistic for developing greater risk readiness and resilience.  Tuesday’s post by Dan O’Connor can be seen as continuing the conversation. Yesterday Mark explicitly built out the theme. This was not planned.

I point to research regarding how certain community-based approaches to the management of common-pool resources produce resilience.  Arguing from analogy, I have advocated a similar approach for homeland security.

Others counter we are a society and culture that bowls alone.  As Robert Putnam explained, “Over the course of the last generation or two, a variety of technological, economic and social changes have rendered obsolete the stuff of American social capital.” 

Some colleagues suggest that along with the federal budget and personal credit cards, the USA has been spending down our social capital until we are deep in debt.   What little social capital remains is hoarded into gated communities of the like-minded,  balkanized by our choice of MSNBC or FOX or micro-media, and  tribalized by NASCAR or Soccer or Call-of-Duty (you can choose Version 2 or Black Ops or the real-deal as set out by Dan and John).

Despite this context, a few of us blithely suggest investing the attention, time, and resources necessary to get stakeholders together to participate, collaborate, and deliberate.  For example, as a lease requirement, every party awarded drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico would participate in and partially fund preparedness activities with other drillers, with state and local officials in the region, with the Coast Guard, with federal regulators, and with representatives of all those who share an interest in the common-pool resources of the Gulf of Mexico.  (To compile a list, start with those filing for compensation from Ken Feinberg.)

These folks must not only talk about bowling, they must regularly bowl together, and just as regularly deliberate about how they can each and all bowl with fewer gutter-balls and many more strikes and spares. And to top it off,  they must actually work together some more to implement their deliberations.

Not realistic, some say.  I’m not certain they’re wrong.  I’m afraid they may be right.

But Tuesday I encountered a paradoxical source of hope in a piece written by David Fahrenthold and Ylan Q. Mui, “Historians debate designation of  ‘worst environmental disaster’ in the US.” (Washington Post)

“In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, for instance, a drought was made worse by human mistakes. Farmers had plowed up grassland to take advantage of high grain prices, but when prices dropped, the fields were abandoned, with no roots to hold soil in place.”  The Dust Bowl went on for a decade, left over 500,000 homeless, and permanently altered the ecology of the American southwest.

On the wall of a  dark interior hallway in my mother’s childhood home was a tattered  map of the United States. Piercing the map were several dozen colored pins.  I don’t remember what all the colors meant.  But the blue pins were where my Grandpa McDonald had worked with local people to build a pond, a lake, or some other watershed management system.

Up and down the hallway on either side of the map and on the opposite wall were letters of thanks,  framed photos, and other mementos of hundreds of trips into the impoverished Great Plains of Depression-troubled America.  The blue pins were especially concentrated in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and the Dakotas.  But they reached from California to Puerto Rico.  In the mid-1930s, Grandpa worked for the old Soil Erosion Service of the Department of the Interior and, later, the Department of Agriculture.

As my Grandpa told me, his boss — Hugh Hammond Bennett — told him, “People are discouraged, encourage them.  Ask them what they need, then help them find what they need.”  No federal grants. There was not always enough budget for grandpa to stay in a hotel.  He once showed me a bedroll that he would lay out beside his government car.

Grandpa’s role model was St. Paul.  “Now old Paul, he had a tougher job,” grandpa said. “His job was to save souls.  What does a soul look like?  But anyone can see when the land is hurt and even how it is hurt.  Everyone wants to save the land.”  At least they did after encouragement from T-bone McDonald.

The difference between now and then is defined mostly by our possibilities.  If grandpa had an advantage, it was in the undeniable reality of his limitations.  If we are disadvantaged, it may be because we can do so much, so quickly.  Given our possibilities,  impatience is understandable.  We call it a sense of urgency.

But there are some tasks — like ultra-deep water drilling — that should not be undertaken too quickly.  And there are many tasks — such as, reclaiming a man-made desert or an oil-desecrated ecological system — that require both urgency and the passage of time. 

We all know the factions, fights, and frustrations that arise from a drought of social capital.  But haven’t we also seen how just a drop of trust and a small sense of shared relationship can transform drought into abundance?  One farm pond at a time, one wind-break at a time, one terrace at a time and — over time — the tragedy of the Dust Bowl was largely (not entirely) reclaimed.

According to the National Security Strategy, “The ideas, values, energy, creativity, and resilience of our citizens are America’s greatest resource. We will support the development of prepared, vigilant, and engaged communities and underscore that our citizens are the heart of a resilient country. And we must tap the ingenuity outside government through strategic partnerships with the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and community-based organizations. Such partnerships are critical to U.S. success at home and abroad, and we will support them through enhanced opportuni­ties for engagement, coordination, transparency, and information sharing.”

We — and I mean you and me — create these opportunities one household, one neighborhood, one community at a time.  Time to get out some colored pins.  What will each color mean?   What map will you choose?

For further consideration:

Soil Erosion: A National Menace (1928, large pdf)

Surviving the Dust Bowl  (PBS)

Sustainability and community resilience: The holy grail of hazards planning? by Graham A. Tobin

Leveraging public-private partnerships to improve community resilience in times of disaster (a detailed review of this restricted journal article is available from Jan Husdal)

New Paradigms for Private Sector Preparedness by John Harrald (March 2010 testimony)

June 23, 2010

What’s In It

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on June 23, 2010

Since assuming his post, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has made a point of reminding us that those who experience disasters are not victims.  If anything, the survivors are resources that we would be wise to tap into.

But tapping into a community only after the fact marginalizes the good we can accomplish and misses the larger point I think he is trying to make: Disasters belong to individuals and communities. Their expectations shape what happens before, during and after an event.

The homeland security discipline and emergency managers have been slow to see the community as a resource. Public safety officials, unlike planners and their peers responsible for parks, roads and rubbish, tend not to see citizens as customers but rather as a potential source of corruption. (That said, the relationship works very differently for police and firefighters at the local level, where respect is considered the coin of the realm, albeit in very different ways.)

As Phil Palin and I have noted in posts on many occasions, resilience as we see it depends in large measure on discourse and deliberation. When people share ideas, aspirations, expectations and goals, they develop a shared sense of meaning and purpose. These sensibilities help individuals, groups and whole societies make sense of adversity and overcome crises through learning and adaptation.

Over the past few months, I have been working with colleagues in local government to engage our community. This has not come easily. For starters, my colleagues saw their office as an internal service unit responsible to the mayor and in service of other administrative units of city government. They operated as the “Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain,” neither seen nor heard by the masses.

A recent internal audit illustrated the danger of such a disconnected approach. In the absence of any recurring responsibility to engage the public, the office had little appreciation of public expectations, no discernable external constituency willing to come to its defense, and a very limited ability to influence the agendas of other stakeholders.

The office not only lacked a stick with which to compel partner agencies to join them at the table when working on contingency plans and compiling a common operating picture, they also had no carrots because they had not learned how to effectively engage others in the absence of appreciable self-interest.

A little over a week ago, my office held the first of several planned town hall-style public meetings. When staff were first asked to start planning for this event, they took what for them had been a pretty conventional approach: They put together an agenda built around a presentation on major earthquake hazards, which set about scaring people into preparing themselves. Before letting this get out of hand, the management team intervened. For starters, we explained, this event was about a dialog. We had to prepare ourselves and others to listen, not just talk.

It should come as little surprise, that this was greeted at first with some skepticism then some trepidation. In the aftermath of a critical audit report, the staff feared opening the floor would bring out people looking for scalps. And asking questions, they feared, might make us look like we did not know the right answers. How, they wondered, could we have a conversation that did not disintegrate into something unpleasant or unsettling?

The answer is simpler than it might seem. Most of the people who want to spend an early summer evening discussing disasters and emergency preparedness with their neighbors and city officials usually fall into one of two camps: zealous converts or self-anointed saviors. You might get a few Anxious Andys and Annies, but they usually find the demeanor of the others intimidating and need your encouragement to engage anyway.

After much internal discussion, the staff agreed to an approach that assumed those in attendance closely approximated this profile. Armed with this assumption, we set out to ask the crowd to tell us something only they knew: What does it take to get someone interested enough in emergency preparedness to actually do something about it like you have? As such, we asked participants a few simple questions about preparedness designed to elicit their personal experience and expectations of city officials.

On the night, a couple of things became clear very quickly, even before discussions got underway really. First, those in attendance were considerably older than the average city resident. Indeed, only two of the almost 60 people who attended appeared under 40 years of age. Men and women were pretty close to equally represented; if anything, women were slightly more numerous. Second, most of those present were already engaged in emergency preparedness programs through voluntary organizations or otherwise active in community affairs. These two observations suggest that it may be difficult to extrapolate from this feedback a more generalized sense of the community’s sentiments.

But that was not, as it turned out, the real issue. Although the group was not particularly representative of the community at-large, its feedback said some important things about the community and how preparedness is perceived.

When we asked small groups to characterize preparedness, to tell us what it means, what it feels like, how to achieve a sense of it, they made very detailed lists of the stuff they thought every household or business should have in reserve before disaster strikes. In other words, they told us how to build a disaster kit. But when we asked them whether having these supplies made them feel safer, they all qualified their answers and exhibited clear signs of unease.

Why, we asked them, would people still not feel safer and more capable if they had such resources in reserve for a disaster? It took awhile, but people gradually revealed the real source of their concerns: They recognized that their experience and commitment to such preparedness was the exception rather than the rule.

How then could we get others to take preparedness more seriously? Their initial response, like that of our own staff, was to suggest we scare people. When we asked whether this had in fact been what motivated them, however, it became clear that while personal experience of loss was a key element, almost all of them had responded initially not out of a sense of fear but as a way of adapting to their circumstances. Preparing was a way of saying, “I will not take this lying down. I will not let this happen to me again.”

If fear does not work, then what does? Once they had a chance to reflect on the sources of their own enlightenment, people had little difficulty seeing what might make preparedness more salient to others: Make it personal.

Personalizing the message involves something more than self-interest though. People recognized that what kept them interested in emergency preparedness was the sense of purpose and self-worth they got from associating with others and being part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, they got something out of it, but what they gave was often on balance much greater than what they would ever get back from others.

These insights may seem simple or small, but they are far from insignificant. Before engaging the public, many in our office had difficulty seeing how the public could be expected to inform theiur understanding of a subject about which they were the acknowledged experts. Now that we have started the process, people are starting to see that progress can be measured by getting the public to look at preparedness as something besides stuff and getting staff staff see the public as resources we can count on not only to expand our understanding of the community and its needs, but also as a means of creating a sense of shared purpose capable of seeing us through any disaster we might face.

June 22, 2010

“We are not at war.”

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on June 22, 2010

Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty yesterday, the first day of 2010’s summer, to using weapons of mass destruction in last May Day’s Times Square bomb attempt.

According to Ron Scherer’s report in the Christian Science Monitor, Shahzad said he

was “a Muslim soldier” avenging the deaths of Muslims killed by Americans overseas, and that he didn’t care that his bomb could have killed children.

“It’s a war. I am part of the answer to the US terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people….”

Today’s post was written by Daniel W. O’Connor. He wrote this before Shahzad’s plea.


Recently Chris and I had a brief discussion about the Nation and whether it was at war.   My contention was and is that we as a Nation are currently not at war.   I’m not cynical about it, but based on the evidence I say we are not at war.  The Department of Defense is fighting,  but even whether they are at war is debatable.

I believe that as a Nation we have not been at war since August, 1945.

Firstly, War has not been declared.  Article one, Section eight of the Constitution says “Congress shall have power to … declare War….” There is no guidance in the Constitution about what form a declaration has to take.  But the Constitution could not be clearer: it is Congress that declares war.  And that has not happened.

Further, we have not mobilized, shared sacrifice, lived an austere life, or contributed as a whole.  While our National preeminence has grown in the last 65 years, so to0 has our culture of consumption, consumerism, expectation, and entitlement.   Also, the costs of our growing social programs and our international aid programs only increases.

The maintenance of a highly expensive, very technical, and mostly capable, yet potentially hollow armed forces continues to grow as well.

Combined with the exponentially growing debt — a debt not owned by Americans  but primarily China and Japan — we are clearly spending trillions of dollars for something not considered a war.

What are we suppose to do during a war? Can we even define it?  We do not conserve anything to help the ‘boys’ and now girls, “over there.”  There is no rationing of fuel, natural resources, robust recycling, or transition to a pure wartime economy.   There are no war bond drives to raise capital to fund our Nation’s war machine.   There has been no repositioning or purposing funds for a war.  We have not changed any of our behaviors, and we become contrite when the prospect is broached.

World War II challenged and confronted the citizens of this Nation. The government deemed it necessary to ration food, gas, and even clothing during that time. They went so far as to collect grease drippings from neighborhoods to render glycerine from glycerol so it could be made into nitro-glycerine for bombs and explosives.

Obviously, today is not the America of the post depression, 1940s. In those days of war, Americans were mandated to conserve everything. With not a single person unaffected by the war, rationing meant sacrifices for all.

Most Americans cannot fathom this.  They cannot fathom the costs of a real war.

Today, the price in blood is no longer spread over the majority of the populace.  The price has been paid by a select few who volunteer and by a new group: contractors.

The price in dollars has been financed entirely by borrowing. Taxes have not been raised to pay for it.   So if we are borrowing money for bullets, band-aids, bombs, and benefits what good is that?

Deficit spending gives the illusion that the laws of economics can be repealed, that we can have guns and butter and welfare and medicaid and everything all the time. But of course the laws are not repealed. The costs of the war are real and even if deferred, are coming due.  And we cannot pay!

It is even debatable whether the Department of Defense is at war. How can you compare Army and Marine Units living in the frontier villages of Afghanistan with the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilots living in Nevada?   This disparity breeds resentment and demonstrates a removal from the human devastation of warfare.    What about the multiple deployments of these “volunteers”?

Do we even have an enemy?  Do we have an end state?   Do we have a purpose?   What happens if Osama bin Laden is captured or simply surrenders?  Does anything end?

If we are not mobilized, not sacrificing, not rationing, and not drafting, we are not at war.

Clausewitz said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

So I guess we are borrowing money for political means?

Is this our future: ugly, ill conceived, scrapes in third world places? Is this an outcrop of globilization and the price of lone superpowerhood?    As complexity and friction increase, will we be able to continually fight this kind of skirmish?

If we are not at war, the approximately 118,000 service members who have lost their lives since WWII had no reason to sacrifice.

If we are not at war it must be concluded that terrorism is not the threat it has been purported to be, but simply a nuisance to endure.

Clearly, if terrorism were the existential threat we’ve been told it is, our Nation would be united and driven to make sacrifices for the greater good.

But that is not the case.

We are not at war.


Asked whether he was certain he wanted to plead guilty, Shahzad said he wanted to plead guilty 100 times more, and warned that if the US did not leave Iraq and Afghanistan, “we will be attacking US.”

June 21, 2010

Fantasies of control; realities of readiness

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 21, 2010

Back in May a reader’s comment to Homeland Security Watch recommended a text written in 1999.  I finally read it over the weekend.  Here’s an excerpt:

Contingency plans for large oil spills on the open sea are fantasy documents… The utility of contingency plans for major oil spills is more symbolic than instrumental. Their production gives the impression that organizations, especially corporations and regulatory agencies, can effectively manage the negative externalities of massive oil production. These plans,furthermore, organize political discussions about oil disaster, tanker safety, conservation, and offshore oil leasing.  To the extent they do so they shape the categories available with which to talk about corporate power, government neglect, and the consequences of huge oil spills… Oil spill fantasy documents contribute to the notion that “the problem” of major oil spills comes from insufficient money, lack of determination, and poor coordination.  One consequence of framing the issue this way is that some questions — about conservation, about corporate power, and political risk — rarely get asked outside what is defined as the environmentalist fringe.

This is from page 23, Mission Improbable: Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster by Lee Clarke.

The text is a credible critique of our — delusionary — tendency to confuse profound uncertainty with predictiable risk.  The critique is especially persuasive when read in combination with today’s headlines, such as:

Failure of rig’s last line of defense tied to myriad factors (New York Times)

BP was told of safety fault “weeks before blast” (BBC)

Markey will demand oil companies re-write spill-response plans(Bloomberg Business Week)

What Mission Improbable does not do is point us to what — if anything — we might do to avoid such self-defeating fantasies (other than avoid temptation to hubris).  Sometimes we must accurately critique before we can effectively create.

For more creative purposes, please check out the significant resources made available online by the Prince William Sound Citzens’ Advisory Council

Established in the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez disaster, this public-private “collaboratory” looks and behaves like a whole host of resilient communities documented by Elinor Ostrom and others over the years.

There are lessons here — whether you are concerned with natural, accidental, or intentional threats — for how we create capacity to engage what we cannot control.

June 20, 2010

Another small voice in a chorus of complaints

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Privacy and Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 20, 2010

Secretary Napolitano gave a speech on Friday.   According to Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press,

As terrorists increasingly recruit U.S. citizens, the government needs to constantly balance Americans’ civil rights and privacy with the need to keep people safe, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

But finding that balance has become more complex as homegrown terrorists have used the Internet to reach out to extremists abroad for inspiration and training. Those contacts have spurred a recent rash of U.S.-based terror plots and incidents.

“The First Amendment protects radical opinions, but we need the legal tools to do things like monitor the recruitment of terrorists via the Internet,” Napolitano told a gathering of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

The organization hosting the speech provides access to an audio and video recording of the Secretary’s remarks.  Thank you.

I have been unable to find a transcript of the speech.  April 19 is the last time a speech by the Secretary was uploaded to the DHS “speeches and statements” screen.    The most recent post to the Blog@DHS is ten days old.  There has not been a general press release since June 15.   

As some of you have complained, I hate to complain.  I suppose many staff have been redeployed to support public communications in the Gulf.  But unlike that wonderful Washington figure Chance “I like to watch” Gardner, I much prefer to read. It takes less time and allows for more detailed consideration of what is offered.

Friday, on another topic, I argued for the importance of listening.  When the Secretary of Homeland Security speaks on the topic of balancing security and liberty both she and we should exercise particular care.  I could be more careful in listening if I could read what she said.

June 18, 2010

Listening and doing: We reap what we sow

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 18, 2010

Late Wednesday night I posted a (too) long analysis of the White House meeting with BP (immediately below).   It was not well-received.  One friend wrote, “Phil, a President’s comments are not a Platonic dialogue.  Give up the close reading and inter-linear analysis.” 

Readership was considerably down.  No other blogs linked in.   Mainstream media coverage of the Wednesday White House session also seemed modest and matter-of-fact.  What struck me as important was dismissed as secondary, or procedural, or simply boring.

Certainly attention given the “gentlemen’s agreement” on Wednesday was light compared to the extraordinary coverage given the political hurricane attending the BP CEO’s Thursday appearance before the  House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

One of the weirder aspects of the hearing — and there were many — was Congressman Joe Barton’s accusation that the establishment of a $20 billion Independent Claims Facility is a “shakedown”. The Congressman also apologized to CEO Hayward for the President pressing BP so hard.   Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page has joined in criticizing the shakedown.  Meanwhile, The Financial Times — British equivalent of the WSJ — explains that the agreement is in BP’s self-interest.  A front page piece  in the Friday New York Times provides a good overview of the issue.

At the same time the President is evidently being pilloried by many in his political base for “doing a deal” with the evil oil company.

Elinor Ostrom has argued that resilience is the outcome of participation, collaboration, and deliberation.  Throughout my life I have seen this principle and process confirmed.   As we participate with one another we begin to understand each other. Through collaboration we recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each other. With this wealth of practical information we can begin to meaningfullly deliberate regarding tough problems and emerging opportunities.

Participation and collaboration make it very difficult to demonize and dismiss the “other.”  We still may not like them, but because of our deeper understanding we are able to work with them and even make compromises to achieve common goals.  (They usually feel the same way about us.)  This is true of almost every level of social interaction.

A key pre-condition to participation and collaboration is listening.   The big story this week — I will continue to argue — is that the White House listened, BP listened, and they began to put in place structures and systems for a more effective response and enhanced resilience going forward. 

There are those who seem to say that authentic, self-critical listening is somehow weak or unprincipled.  Many more seem to find the process of listening, deliberation and constructive problem-solving just too boring to give it much attention.

I am certain that resilience depends on rich systematic feedback and adaptation to the feedback.  In everyday life this is called listening.

June 17, 2010

US and BP “fully aligned”?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 17, 2010

Photograph by Reuters

(Editorial Note:  Additions and minor alterations were made on Friday morning, June 18)

Early Wednesday morning the BBC headlined, “President Obama and BP Chiefs to discuss spill”.  Meanwhile CNN was leading with, “Obama, BP set for Gulf oil showdown”.   About an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, the BBC was running the same story but shifted its title to “BP executives prepared for grilling”. 

Which did it turn out to be:  discussion, grilling, or showdown?  More importantly, what does the meeting mean for future public-private partnerships to prevent, mitigate, respond to, and recover from disaster?

By now you know the basics:  The White House meeting began shortly after 10:00 AM.  Following twenty minutes with the President, Vice President  Biden, Secretary Napolitano, the Attorney-General and other senior officials,  the BP and US government teams spent another three-plus hours in negotiations.

Despite pre-existing agreements-in-principle, the details took longer to finalize than anticipated.  There were some “sticking points” according to a variety of insiders.  After agreement was reached, the President and the BP chairman had a 25 minute private conversation. The President had been expected to deliver some after-action comments at 12:15.  He appeared shortly before 2:30.

The major take-away from the talks, according to the New York Times, is “a $20 billion fund to pay claims for the worst oil spill in American history. The fund will be independently run by Kenneth Feinberg, the mediator who oversaw the 9/11 victims compensation fund…”  BP will also suspend dividend payments for the remainder of 2010.

In the National Security Strategy — released two weeks before the President began referring to the oil spill as “an assault on our shores” — considerable priority is given to public-private partnerships.  Here’s the NSS discussion:

Improve Resilience Through Increased Public-Private Partnerships: When incidents occur, we must show resilience by maintaining critical operations and functions, returning to our normal life, and learning from disasters so that their lessons can be translated into pragmatic changes when necessary. The private sector, which owns and operates most of the nation’s critical infrastructure, plays a vital role in preparing for and recovering from disasters. We must, therefore, strengthen public-private partnerships by developing incentives for government and the private sector to design structures and systems that can withstand disruptions and mitigate associated consequences, ensure redundant systems where necessary to maintain the ability to operate, decentralize critical operations to reduce our vulnerability to single points of disruption, develop and test continuity plans to ensure the ability to restore critical capabilities, and invest in improvements and maintenance of existing infrastructure.

How well has this strategy survived its encounter with the fog and friction of an actual crisis?   Here’s most of how the President reported out on his meeting with the BP executive team.  (The White House provides a full text.)

I just concluded a constructive meeting with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, and I raised two issues at the meeting. First was the containment of the oil that is still spewing into the Gulf.  As I mentioned last night, my administration has directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90% of the oil leaking out of the well…

The second topic revolved around the issue of claims. As I’ve traveled across the Gulf Coast, I’ve heard growing frustration over the pace at which claims have been paid. I’ve also heard concerns about whether BP will make resources available to cover legitimate claims resulting from this disaster. So, this discussion today was essential.

Currently, under federal law, there is a $75 million cap on how much oil companies could under certain circumstances be required to pay for economic damages resulting from spills such as this.

It must be tempting to bash BP.  Significant personal frustration is understandable.  There would probably be some political benefits to amplify the blame-game.  Instead the President focused mostly on issues of “structures and systems” (see NSS).  Someone on the BP Board must have raised the possibility of taking cover behind the existing law’s liability cap.  The decision — announced weeks ago — to not do so facilitates public-private collaboration.

That amount would clearly be insufficient. That is why I am pleased to announce that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay claims for damages resulting from this spill. This $20 billion amount will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored. And it is not a cap. The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them.

BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims it owes to people in the Gulf. And so, the agreement we reached will set up the financial and legal framework in which to do it.

Another important element is that this $20 billion will not be controlled by either BP or by the government. It will be put in an escrow account, administered by an impartial, independent third party.

In his Tuesday night speech the President said, “Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”  The tone on Wednesday was less unilateral, less confrontational, and more collaborative.  BP representatives were apologetic, both in public and in private meetings.  There seemed to be an authentic concern on both sides to be constructive.

If you or your business has suffered an economic loss as a result of this spill, you will be eligible to file a claim for part of this $20 billion. This fund will not supersede individuals’ or states’ rights to present claims in court.  BP will also continue to be liable for the environmental disaster it caused, and we will continue to work to make sure they address it. Additionally, BP voluntarily agreed to establish a $100 million fund to compensate unemployed oil rig workers affected by the closure of other deep water rigs.

We have mutually agreed that Ken Feinberg will run the independent claims process we are putting in place, and there will be a three-person panel to adjudicate claims that are turned down. Every effort will be made to expedite claims. Ken has long experience in such matters, including running the fund that compensated victims of 9/11. And I am confident he will ensure that claims are administered as quickly, fairly, and transparently as possible.

It is not entirely clear if the federal government has the legal authority to require BP to compensate unemployed oil rig workers and cover other indirect costs of the spill.   Establishment of the independent claims process could also have been resisted (maybe it was), but instead BP agreed to cooperate.  For BP to agree to this and not insist on liability protection, or immunity, or another specific in exchange for paying claims via the independent process is significant.  Whether this private sector role was proffered or extracted does not change its result. (Thursday morning the NYT is projecting BP will be assessed civil fines of $280 million per day.)

BP’s liabilities for this spill are significant. They acknowledge that fact. And we will continue to hold BP and all other responsible parties accountable. I’m absolutely confident BP will be able to meet its obligations to the Gulf Coast and to the American people. BP is a strong and viable company and it is in all our interests that it remains so. This is about accountability. At the end of the day, that’s what every American wants and expects.

The structure we are establishing today is an important step toward making the people of the Gulf Coast whole again, but it will not turn things around overnight. And I want all Americans to know that I will continue to fight each and every day until the oil is contained, until businesses recover, and until the Gulf Coast bounces back from this tragedy – as I know it will.

Following the President’s remarks, the BP executive team made a statement outside the White House.  On Bloomberg television as the Chairman of the Board spoke, the screen showed the real-time movement of  BP’s stock price.  It was going up.  Wednesday morning the stock opened at $29.90 per share.  It hit its high of $33.00 just after the President’s and Chairman’s comments.  It closed at $31.85.  (Thursday morning BP is up 7 percent on the London market.) But Thursday’s day-long Congressional attack on BP’s CEO no doubt contributed to further declines in the stock price.

In his remarks outside the White House, BP Chairman Svanberg asserted that BP and the White House are “fully aligned in our interests in closing this well, cleaning the beaches, and caring for those effected.”

Whatever alignment exists will be tough to preserve, but the public-private strategy has survived. The incentive (see NSS) motivating this particular collaboration consists mosly of  shared  desperation. It would be more helpful if the example of this disaster — and this troubled public-private partnership — would spur private enterprises and local, state, and federal agencies to proactively engage with the goal set out in the National Security Strategy… well before there is cause for desperation.

For further consideration

Wednesday night interview with BP Chairman (Financial Times)

Oil spill makes unlikely partners of BP and the federal government (Washington Post)

Bring on the Barack and Tony show(Steven Pearlstein, WAPO columnist)

The President’s Animosities (Daniel Henninger, WSJ columnist… with a take completely opposite of mine above)

Obama’s shift from populist to geek (Edward Luce in the Financial Times)

The BP Precedent (Friday WSJ editorial attacking the $20 billion ICF)

Obama’s twist of BP’s arm stirs debate (New York Times)

June 21 UPDATE: BP softens political fallout (Wall Street Journal)

Public Assets, Private Profits: Reclaiming the American Commons in an Age of Market Enclosure by David Bollier

Department of Homeland Security Private Sector Resources Catalog

DHS Voluntary Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program

Prospectivity of the Ultra-Deepwater Gulf of Mexico by Roger N. Anderson and Albert Boulanger

Special coverage of Gulf disaster: Oil and Water (BBC)

June 16, 2010

Let Me Be Clear, Make No Mistake

Filed under: Events,Humor — by Mark Chubb on June 16, 2010

As I listened to President Obama’s Oval Office address last evening, I was struck by his recurrent use of a familiar idiomatic expression. He often prefaces important points with the statement, “make no mistake.” His speeches have become so peppered with this interjection that it has almost acquired, at least for me, the air of a phonic tic.

Why does this bother me? For starters, as someone who admires and supports the President, it draws attention to the tendency of other people who neither trust the government nor support the President’s policies to question his confidence and competence to handle their problems. “Make no mistake,” is another way of saying “trust me, I know what I am talking about.” But too many people don’t trust him, and need a better reason to do so than his assurances and repeated statements that he is in control of the situation.

The President rarely has difficulty convincing people that he understands the situation. They often concede he has a clear vision of the future. But they often express profound reservations about his plan for getting from where we are to where he wants to take us. And too many people are not yet prepared to go along for the ride.

President Obama is not the first president to exhibit vague vocal stylings. When he was president, Bill Clinton was prone to saying, “Let me be clear,” when he wanted to make an important point. He had no reason to ask our permission to make a point, much less make it clearly, but his habit of doing so was far less annoying or cloying because it suggested he had our interests at heart. As we all came to find out, Bill Clinton was an expert at making connections with people, and had a very practical and direct approach to doing so.

Is it a mistake for President Obama to try to reassure us? By no means, no. But he should give us better reasons for backing his positions. That will require him to ask more of us as citizens, particularly when it comes to seeing our interests aligned with the national interest and his vision of the future. He can do this by making the small but specific tasks we can perform on behalf of our country a bigger part of his policy pitch.

If this is a war, as the President suggests, it will require sacrifices of us all. As such, I hoped he would have found a more appropriate metaphor. But then again he may be right that the only way we can win the war against al Qaeda is to see the Deepwater Horizon crisis as another frontier in a long and bitter campaign that has its origin in our own misadventures as well as the government’s when acting on our behalf.

We could begin making sacrifices by expecting a lot less of our leaders and more of ourselves. Let me be clear, as a nation we would make no mistake if we interpreted the situation in the Gulf of Mexico not as a question of Presidential action and corporate accountability, but rather as a call to individual action, a message to our nation to start taking specific and measurable steps to matching our energy appetites with our abilities and our resources.

Is the Battle Already Lost?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Events,General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Mark Chubb on June 16, 2010

Presidents typically address the country from the Oval Office only in times of crisis. On such occasions, the office serves as a metaphor and communicates a sense of gravitas, decisiveness and authority unique to the presidential office. President Obama’s use of the office tonight for his address on the response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis was consistent with this metaphor in every respect. Sadly, I believe it was the wrong approach, and will do little if anything to restore confidence here or abroad that recovery is coming much less possible.

Crises differ from disasters and catastrophes not so much in terms of their scope or scale as they do in the extent to which they cause us to question either our confidence in our leaders or their competence resolving the situation. This particular tragedy involves both elements. Public confidence in government has rarely been lower, and even his allies have begun to openly question the capacity of this President and his administration’s competence when it comes to the core functions of governing.

Like past presidential addresses from the Oval Office, this one framed the challenges confronting the country as a battle to be won. The use of militaristic rhetoric implies an enemy exists that we can defeat if only we exhibit sufficient resolve. While many people no doubt see BP as the enemy in this instance, it should have been made clear that this catastrophe is not only about the hubris and bumbling of BP as it as about how we as a nation have managed our destructive addiction to oil. Either way, a resolution to this crisis is not simply a question of technical prowess.

In the one instance during his address in which he used the word resilience (and even then only in the penultimate paragraph), President Obama employed it in a manner given the context of his earlier remarks that implied it was synonymous with ingenuity. This stands in stark contrast to the National Security Strategy he released at the end of last month, which used the term in a manner more consistent with robustness.

For sure, conventional notions of resilience emphasize both qualities: robustness and resourcefulness. Some add a third, redundancy and redesign, but these are often understood as extensions of rather than alternatives to the other two concepts. As Phil Palin noted in his post regarding the implications of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe on our understanding of resilience, the concept of resilience should and could mean so much more to us.

By committing himself and his administration so completely to a particular view of success — stopping the oil and remediating the damage — the President has so far failed to address the important part we all play in this recovery operation. Having shouldered the burden for success or failure, despite warning us that success would not come easy or fast, he has suggested in no small way that Gulf Coast residents (and to some extent the rest of us too) will be relieved of the burden of adapting to the new realities this catastrophe will almost certainly create.

Some time ago, I suggested that recovery affects us at a material and rational level on the one hand and on an emotional and moral level at another. We often experience and interpret these dimensions of crisis through the twin prisms of time and value. The longer it takes for us to appreciate the full extent and long-term implications of a crisis, the less likely it is we will have confidence that the same leaders who got us in the mess will help us get out. The same cannot always be said for our commitment to the assumptions and ideals that create the blind spots we share with them.

Ideally, a crisis of the scope and scale presented by the Deepwater Horizon disaster will force us to question our understanding not just of the situation, but also of the nature of understanding itself. That said, understanding is not only a question of rationality, but also of morality.

This brings us back to the question of responsibility. In an op-ed for CNN, Julian Zelizer made the observation in respect of the way off-shore drilling was regulated and supervised before the disaster, “Engineers have dominated decision-making over the scientists.” The professionals who self-identify with these two tribes debate the question who belongs to each of them all the time, but it is unusual for someone else to make such a distinction especially in response to a question of policy which cannot rightly be considered the primary province of either profession.

I suppose that Zelizer intended to imply that one focuses on knowledge and the other on its application. That is another way of saying one is interested in knowing and the other is focused on doing. One engages in an epistemic quest, a search for knowledge; the other is occupied with its ontological implications, with what is and what we can do with it. No matter how salient these distinctions may seem, both occupations remain firmly committed to a common world-view that holds that the path to what is true and right rests upon and is informed by the human faculty of reason.

In this instance, the nation is left wondering, though, what’s reasonable about this situation? How can we rationally reconcile ourselves with the knowledge that our appetites and our actions — even if they were executed by others on our behalf — led to this disaster without also accepting that it is also our responsibility to do something about it? The answer to this question does not rely on rationality. We often accept responsibility not because it is pleasing or rewarding to do so, but because the rightness and justness of such actions have the capacity to inform our intellect and our emotions, and in doing so imbues our circumstances in crises with meaning and purpose.

By reassuring us that he had the situation in hand and was sparing no effort to bring the situation to a successful conclusion on all fronts, President Obama required too little of us beyond our patience. But our understanding does not depend on patience, it depends on purpose. We will not win this so-called war if all we do is defeat ourselves. We cannot think our way of of the mess we have made. Neither can we afford to leave the thinking to others, even if they are cleverer than us.

If President Obama really wants to use this crisis as an opportunity to restore our sense of national purpose and pride, he needs to challenge us — all of us — along with his administration. We can all make a contribution, but only if we are willing to make sacrifices. We can begin by sacrificing the contradictory assumptions and expectations that suggest government is responsible for all that ails us and all that heals us.

June 15, 2010

Who is the world’s most dangerous man, and what happens if you watch his Youtube videos?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on June 15, 2010

Anwar al-Awlaki is the world’s most dangerous man, according to a May 10, 2010 editorial in the Investor’s Business Daily.

“The U.S.-born Muslim cleric, who’s believed to be al-Qaida’s top recruiter in the West, also radicalized the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas crotch-bomber.  Awlaki privately ministered to some of the 9/11 hijackers as well…. [The] confessed New York car bomber Faisal Shahzad is a fan and follower of Awlaki. He joins a growing list of homegrown terrorists who fell under the al-Qaida operative’s spell…. Awlaki is now linked to [multiple] terrorist plots designed to kill Americans at home…:  Times Square. Fort Hood. Fort Dix. Northern Virginia. Minneapolis. Detroit.”

Awlaki was born in New Mexico on April 22, 1971.  That makes him a US citizen.  According to press reports, the Obama Administration authorized the CIA —  “with no judicial process and based on secret intelligence”— to execute Awlaki.

One can write a lot about Awlaki, his influence, and the decision to kill him.

But this post is about Awlaki’s voice.


Last week I was introduced — along with a few dozen other people — to one of Awlaki’s freely available Youtube videos, shown at the end of this post. (The video is in two parts, both about 6 minutes each.)

More than a few people in the room were somewhat stunned by how rational Awlaki sounded. This is not a ranting mystic spewing blind hatred to ignorant masses.

This is an educated, articulate American talking calmly — most of the time — about the inevitable destruction of the United States.

It is not that his logic made sense to the people in the room.  But while listening to his voice, many of us understood viscerally how Awlaki’s words could seduce a searching, isolated, alienated man or woman with a predisposition toward a particular bent of mind.

Times Square. Fort Hood. Fort Dix. Northern Virginia. Minneapolis. Detroit, New York City, Arlington, Shanksville,

Yes.  Anwar al-Awlaki is dangerous.

After the video and the discussion about it was finished, a few public safety officials asked how they could get access to that video and to others that Awlaki and people like him produced.

“Well,” someone said, “a lot of them are on Youtube.  Watch them online.”

Another person noted a potential problem: If you work for the government and have a security clearance (or even if you don’t) and those who might monitor internet access notice you are looking at these kinds of videos — or sites that host videos like this — what happens?

At a minimum, I was told,  you’d get a visit from someone who had a few questions to ask you.


Sun Tzu is quoted as saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

In the 21st Century, knowing one’s enemy ought to include being able to watch his Youtube videos.

But what if you were looking over Nidal Malik Hasan’s shoulders as he watched one of Awlaki’s videos?  Would you have told someone about it?  Or would you simply have been looking at an American citizen exercising his rights to listen to whatever he wanted?

This remains a queer and different kind of war.


Part 1

Part 2

Next Page »