Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 14, 2010

NYT: Efforts to Repel Gulf Oil Spill Are Described as Chaotic

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 14, 2010

For readers of Homeland Security Watch there is an important report in the New York Times.  Don’t miss: “Efforts to Repel Gulf Oil Spill Are Described as Chaotic”.    It is a helpful overview of the readiness and response issues HLSwatch has been addressing since April.  Implications for NIMS abound.

Here’s an excerpt, just to give you a sense of the issues being addressed:

The contingency plan for southeast Louisiana, which was drawn up by a committee led by the Coast Guard and a state representative, specifically mentions the possibility of a blowout and includes a worst case of a million-barrel spill, which is significantly short of even conservative estimates of the current spill.

But like other federal plans, it does not anticipate the possibility that the leak could continue for weeks. It concludes, for example, that such a spill would require the use of 38,400 gallons of dispersant, or roughly 3 percent of what has been applied in the last two months.

The BP plans do consider an uncontrolled blowout, one that releases 240,000 barrels a day into the gulf for at least 100 days — far worse than the current spill.

In the event of such an enormous spill, according to these plans, “no significant adverse impacts are expected” to beaches, wetlands or coast-dwelling birds.

In the New York Times piece the key “operational” issues are set out.   From a preparedness-and-response perspective you might even call these strategic issues.  But from the perspective of national policy-making I would argue the continuum is something like this:

Tactical – How is the immediate threat of the oil spill being managed?  How is the damage being contained?  How are we assisting those communities and individuals being harmed?  How are we progressing — what more do we need to do — to stop the spill?

Operational – What are the implications of this experience for current standards and practice in terms of risk assessment, risk readiness, regulation, public-private partnerships, preparedness and response capacity, and homeland security doctrine?

Strategic – What does the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath tell us regarding national energy policy, environmental policy, and what we mean when we bandy about the word “resilience”? What are our goals and when these goals conflict, how do we resolve the conflict… and why is this our choice?

In any case, this is the framework I will be using when I listen to the President on Tuesday night.

Updated for further consideration:

Documents from the June 15 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (intermittently not available, probably due to high demand)

US oil firms ‘unprepared’ for major offshore disaster (BBC)

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

Obama to outline oil plans in first Oval Office speech (CNN)

Obama’s personal decision to focus on the spill (MSNBC)

Obama to detail Gulf Coast recovery (Wall Street Journal)

June 15 Remarks by President at Pensacola (White House)

Obama on oil spill: “This is an assault on our shores.”  (USA Today)

White House transcript of June 15 Pensacola speech

Dirty Dancing: Pakistan’s Intelligence Service and the Taliban

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 14, 2010

A report released over the weekend by a Harvard researcher at the London School of Economics is receiving significant attention across the pond and in the subcontinent, but — so far — not so much in the States.  Just in case you missed it, here are a few links.

Pakistani agents “funding and training” Afghan Taliban (BBC)

Pakistan’s puppet masters guide Taliban killers (Times Online-UK)

Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence accused of directly funding Taliban (Times Online-UK)

Pakistan denies ISI supporting Taliban in Afghanistan (Pakistan Observer)

Pakistani President never met with Taliban (The Guardian)

The actual report (this was much more difficult to find than I expected, I don’t think the LSE web staff was working on Sunday):

The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents by Matt Waldman.

This week I expect key White House decisions on the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.  These decisions are likely to shape the policy and strategy context for domestic response to emergencies in a manner not seen since 9/11. (Yes, even more than Katrina.)   But the international dimension of homeland security will also continue to exert its influence.

June 12, 2010

Homeland security lexicon: hazards, incidents, and disasters, oh my!

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 12, 2010

We presume to manage emergencies, declare disasters, mitigate hazards, respond to incidents, and recover from catastrophes.  These are homeland security terms-of-art.  What do we mean?  Do we share a sense of meaning?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a branch of the national government that manages emergencies.  Some other day we may consider what “manage” means.  But today, what is meant by emergency?

The Stafford Act offers that an emergency is, “any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, federal assistance is needed to supplement state and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.”   An emergency is what the President says it is.  Well, okay…

The same legislation tells us a (major) disaster is, “any natural catastrophe… regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion, in any part of the United States, which in the determination of the President causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under (the) act to supplement the efforts and available resources or states, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby.”

So a disaster is a catastrophe?  Regular readers of this blog know I am inclined to split hairs on this question (see prior post defining catastrophe).  I am not the first to split hairs.  There are regulations that further define emergency and disaster threshholds.   But I am less interested in the legal or regulatory definition than in how these terms reflect, or not, a shared understanding across the homeland security community (and beyond).

Following 9/11 Congressional and White House staff noticed the imprecise, even circular, nature of these terms.  Whether their response clarified or further complicated is up for debate. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (2003) sets out,  “to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies, the United States Government shall establish a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management.”   HSPD 5 begat the National Response Plan (4MB) (2004) that, as far as I can tell,  introduced the term “incident of national significance.”


1375–1425; late ME < MF < ML incident-  (s. of incidens  a happening, n. use of prp. of L incidere  to befall), equiv. to L in- in-2 + -cid-  (comb. form of cad-  fall) + -ent- -ent; cf. cadence

We might say that an incident is something that falls out of cadence, out of step.  But it is also interesting that the middle Latin cadentia from cadere meant to fall as a dice falls.  Our English word accident shares the same derivation.  An incident, in its original meaning, is not just an event, but an unpredicted event. 

It was also in the years immediately after 9/11 that the term “all-hazards” began to emerge in legislation, policy, and speeches.  This was, at least, a rhetorical convenience to reduce the need to repeat the range of possible threats.  Some also saw the term as a way to encourage a capabilities-based rather than a threat-specific approach to homeland security thinking.   This strategic intent was never achieved.  The continuing preoccupation with terrorism even produced the awkward “man-made hazards” of some legislation.  Eventually hazards came to mean everything other than terrorism, as in the common usage: “terrorism and all-hazards”


1250–1300; ME hasard  < OF, perh. < Ar al-zahr the die, as the the uncertainty of the result in throwing a die.  Unpredictable harm.

So… we have a variety of hazards — including man-made hazards — that cause incidents: Unpredictable factors produce  unpredictable events.  Unless these happenings are quickly controlled they can become emergencies.  In other words, the unpredictable harm begins to emerge in an increasingly difficult form.


“unforeseen occurrence requiring immediate attention,” 1630s, from L. emergens , prp. of emergere  (see emerge).  (okay, I will) emerge 1560s, from M.Fr. emerger , from L. emergere  “rise out or up,” from ex-  “out” + mergere  “to dip, sink” (see merge). The notion is of rising from a liquid by virtue of buoyancy.

Depending on what unforeseen occurrence is rising up — as a black cloud from the ocean deep, so to speak — we may soon face a crisis.  A crisis, it seems to me, is when an incident moves from being of serious concern to a narrow set of people to a much larger set of people.  There is also something going on with the unforeseen happening that draws our attention and causes us to apply a much finer judgment to it.  We begin to distinguish this specific incident from other incidents and work with more diligence to explain the unforeseen happening.  When a sense-of-crisis emerges it is certainly a turning point… but the turn is not quite made.


c.1425, from Gk. krisis  “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein  “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei-  “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai  “to explain;” O.E. hriddel  “sieve;” L. cribrum  “sieve,” crimen  “judgment, crime,” cernere  (pp. cretus ) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar,  O.Welsh cruitr  “sieve;” M.Ir. crich  “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. A Ger. term for “mid-life crisis” is Torschlusspanik , lit. “shut-door-panic,” fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.

If the crisis is quickly resolved —  if the unforeseen happening is stopped, the emergence is contained, or if it is somehow explained away —  then our expected cadence is restored.  The crisis passes.  The turn is not made. What was not foreseen may now be  foreseen, mitigated, and better prevented.  The hazard, having been experienced, will be much more likely to be predicted and, thereby, be less hazardous.

But if the turning point is not successfully engaged, if the turn is actually made, then we face disaster.


 1580, from M.Fr. desastre  (1564), from It. disastro  “ill-starred,” from dis-  “away, without” + astro  “star, planet,” from L. astrum,  from Gk. astron  (see star). The sense is astrological, of a calamity blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet.

Being born under and remaining true to a particular star, identity, fate, genius… was what many ancients considered fundamental to living a good life.  Encountering a bad star or, worse yet, choosing the wrong guiding star was to choose a life without direction, without predictability, with no hope of happiness.  A disaster is the outcome of coming to a turning point (crisis) and choosing the wrong way.  In a disaster there is no sense of direction, no clear route away from harm, all is chaos.  Unless we are able to reclaim our true way, we are condemned to catastrophe.

I spent an hour this Saturday morning satisfying my own curiosity.  Since it is the weekend — and almost no one reads HLSwatch on the weekend — I thought it would not hurt to share.  Many thanks to the authors, editors, and webmasters at www.dictionary.com and to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English.

June 11, 2010

Resilience on the (Deepwater) Horizon?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 11, 2010

Managing risk and nurturing resilience are like night and day.  They each aim at a similar destination.  But they take very different roads to get there.  Along the Gulf of Mexico we are driving mostly at night along a very narrow road at the top of a steep cliff.

According to the Financial Times, Tony Hayward, British Petroleum’s CEO, said the company is “looking for new ways to manage ‘low-probability, high-impact’ risks such as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident.”

But in the Washington Post, Richard Posner explains, “There is a natural tendency to postpone preventive actions against dangers that are likely to occur at some uncertain point in the future (‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ as the Bible says), especially if prevention is expensive, and especially because there is so much else to do in the here and now… It seems that no one has much incentive to adopt or even call for safeguards against low-probability, but potentially catastrophic disasters.”

Faced with an actual and still growing disaster, for the moment Mr. Hayward and the rest of us have plenty of incentive to consider low-likelihood, high-consequence possibilities.  This is, as a first grade teacher might say, a teachable moment.  In an early June Wall Street Journal op-ed, British Petroleum’s CEO listed three lessons-learned so far:

  • “First, we need better safety technology…”
  • “Second, we need to be better prepared for a subsea disaster. It is clear that our industry should be better prepared to address deep sea accidents of this type and magnitude…”
  • “Third, the industry should carefully evaluate its business model…”  This is corporate-speak for cutting out sub-contractors and tightening command-and-control.  In related comments reported by The Financial Times, “Mr. Hayward argued that the industry could cut the risk of serious accidents in deep-water drilling to ‘one in a billion or one in a trillion’, but it might mean changing the way the drilling industry works.” 

These are entirely reasonable risk-management responses: enhanced prevention technology, improved response capacity, and tightening the relationship between responsibility and accountability.  Such risk reduction is helpful.  But in claiming to reduce risk to a one-in-a-billion or one-in-a-trillion chance (quite a range), Mr. Hayward demonstrates he still has some learning to do.

Drilling for oil anywhere involves risk, even more a mile under the ocean. The risk is amplified by an operating environment that is especially sensitive to the risk.  It is also an operating environment that complicates risk containment.  

One more lesson: Risk Persists. We can try to transfer, avoid, and reduce risk, but risk does not disappear.  The more we try to convince ourselves the risk has been managed away, the more we are probably putting ourselves at risk.  The best attribute of an effective risk manager is a persistent bit of professional (not personal) paranoia.

Which points toward another lesson: because our ability to manage risk is innately limited, the resilience of our environment, our resources, and our purposes are especially important.  Resilience is not a risk-management strategy.  Resilience is much more fundamental.

Derek Armitage developed the resilience definition I use, “(1) the ability of a system to absorb or buffer disturbances and still maintain its core attributes; (2) the ability of the system to self-organize, and (3) the capacity for learning and adaptation in the context of change.” According to the evidence so far, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform will be a great case-study of a non-resilient system.

Armitage also reminds us, “Systems experience changes that are unknowable and discontinuous, and involve sudden and dramatic flips.”  This insight into how complex systems operate is not yet common sense.  In fact, it remains uncommon among many – arguably most – managers, engineers, and others who are deeply invested in systems continuity. Since April 20 British Petroleum, TransOcean, and all of us have had the opportunity to learn quite a bit more about complex adaptive systems.  Have we learned?

Last week Mr. Hayward explained in his WSJ op-ed, “The industry and the government did not anticipate this type of accident—one in which all the ‘failsafe’ mechanisms failed.”  This is a valuable observation. But there is no evidence – yet – that Mr. Hayward or many in government, media, or the general public have learned that inability to predict is innate to catastrophic potential.  A catastrophe is the outcome of an unpredictable cascading failure of inter-related systems.

During his June 4 press briefing Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said, “One of the things we may want to look at in the future – when we look for a worst-case scenario – (is how) we look at a discharge and the equipment needed to deal with that particular discharge. I don’t think any response plan ever contemplated response over this long period of time moving into a hurricane season.”   Thinking through how to deal with worst-case scenarios is helpful.  But complex systems will sooner or later present a worst-case we did not predict.  It is important to manage risk, but risk persists. 

Given the reality of persistent risk, we should nourish a resilience that goes beyond any set of specific risks. Resilience is an expression of how the various elements of a system are in relationship with one another.  Over the last twenty years Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, has identified the principal attributes of resilience in human communities, including:

  • Broad based participation, collaboration, and deliberation:  Our risk management discussion is now focused on how to enhance command-and-control through new business models and better regulation. (see June 6 New York Times) But if this is our only strategy it will discourage meaningful community-based and regional risk assessment, under-value public-private partnerships in preparedness, and fail to cultivate a shared vision of how risk-taking and resilience-making can contribute to the common good.  Command-and-control has a narrow benefit.  Collaborating-and-creating has broad benefit, but it does not come cheap.
  • Multilayered and polycentric organizational structures: In the aftermath of the disaster, the risk management discussion is now focused on how to narrow and focus operations.  Tactically this makes sense.  But such narrowing will reduce strategic resilience unless our approach also allows for cross-cutting federal, state, local, and private-sector involvement in deciding how risk is undertaken. What is most efficient is not always most effective, especially in the most consequential risk-taking.
  • Networked organizational structures with mutual accountability built into how the network functions:  The authentic acceptance of mutual accountability is crucial.  A couple of weeks ago the Obama administration was experimenting with the notion of “collective responsibility.”  While roughly coherent with mutual accountability, the public was not receptive. The concept cannot be imposed after-the-fact.  Mutual accountability is cultivated over time through the other components of resilience-making.
  • Content-rich and meaningful interaction regularly occurring across the network:  One of the reasons that command-and-control or broadcast strategies (such as the current BP advertising campaign) have limited pay-offs is the lack of interaction.  The more interaction, the more potential collaboration, the more likely an acceptance of mutual accountability.  But making this investment in advance is non-trivial.
  • Facilitative and/or catalytic leadership (in sharp contrast with authoritative or control-oriented leadership): Thad Allen has, sometimes under considerable pressure, been the most authoritative and the most facilitative leader involved in the Deepwater Horizon response.  His uniform and demeanor contribute to the sense of authority.  But the admiral’s rhetoric and approach has been facilitative, even to point of continuing to treat BP as a “partner” long after public opinion has demonized the company.
  • All the preceding attributes and their activities produce knowledge of both the system and its environment:  Making resilience is the outcome of many parts. Through all the preceding steps a web of relationships is established.  This web is much more likely to survive in some form, no matter how hard it is hit.  If elements of the web are taken out, what persists retains the knowledge – intention and potential – of the entire web.
  • All the preceding attributes contribute to individual and system-wide learning, which is the application of knowledge to maintaining and/or potentially extending the boundaries within which the system maintains its equilibrium:  A resilient web of relationships continues to learn and grow even – sometimes especially – under stress.  We are motivated to learn by our relationships across the web and our mutual accountability.  For the same reasons we are also motivated to apply what we have learned, which is key to maintaining, restoring, or extending the systems equilibrium.
  • The sum of the preceding attributes creates a sense of mutual trust between most of the participants in the system.  Today there is very little trust in evidence along the Gulf (see BP makes progress on spill, less on trust).  This reflects the narrow, “business-like” relationship of the industry to the Gulf region before the disaster.  The lack of trust also reflects a nearly exclusive federal role in regulating the industry before the disaster.  Unfamiliarity does not nurture trust. Trust is built through ongoing substantive interaction over time. The disaster unfolding in the gulf would challenge the most robust circle-of-trust, but there had been no sustained effort prior to the disaster to form the circle.

The teachable moment is upon us, but I perceive the resilience lesson is yet to be learned.  The lessons are, in many ways, coming too late for British Petroleum and others involved in the Gulf disaster.  What about the rest of us?

Risk management and resilience complement each other, but are largely parallel paths.  Risk management is focused on defining the down-side and controlling it.  Resilience imagines the upside and tries to create it.

June 10, 2010

Drones and Dragon’s Teeth

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 10, 2010
Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth by Maxwell Parrish

Last week it was confirmed that a drone attack killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid.   Also known as Saeed Al-Masri,  he was directly involved in planning the 9/11 attacks.  More recently the dead man is thought to have coordinated al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and served as the AQ chief financial officer.

Also killed in the attack was the al-Qaeda leader’s wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women, and children sharing a residence in North Waziristan (Pakistan). Precise body counts are unlikely.

The Obama administration has significantly increased the use of drone attacks inside Pakistan and in other difficult-to-access areas.  Many — including yours truly — perceive the tactic has been fundamental to disrupting the capacity of al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies.  

On May 28 the United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings released a report on US drone attacks (and similar tactics by other member states).  The report is especially critical of killer drones being operated by non-military personnel, such as the CIA, and use of targeted killings outside a legally established war zone (Afghanistan is sort-of ok, Pakistan is definately not).

In 2007 a RAND report suggested that terrorist groups enhance their capabilities by “sharing dragon’s teeth.”  Earlier this year the Pakistani commentator Irfan Husain compared the resilience of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the face of US drone attacks to the mythological warriors born of dragon’s teeth.   Another commentator gave President Obama the role of Cadmus, dragon-killer and teeth-sower, “The drone attacks, rather than exterminating ‘terrorists’ are sowing the proverbial dragon’s teeth from which more and more spring, like whole armies, trained and ready for combat.”

The wanna-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was  reportedly motivated to revenge drone attacks in Pakistan.  According to the New York PostFox News,  and others, Shahzad — an American citizen — was in Pakistan when a drone attack killed several innocents (and others not-so-innocent). Did a drone’s dragon tooth sprout in Connecticut?

There are at least two versions of the Dragon’s Teeth myth.  One version reflects American mythologizing.  The original is more starkly tragic in its telling.  In both the American and the  original a brave Prince Cadmus slays a dragon and plants its teeth.  From the teeth suddenly grows a horrible army, thousands of grim warriors are barely ripe when they begin killing each other.

Uplifting his weapon, he smote his next neighbor a blow that cleft his helmet asunder, and stretched him on the ground. In an instant, those nearest the fallen warrior began to strike at one another with their swords, and stab with their spears. The confusion spread wider and wider. Each man smote down his brother, and was himself smitten down before he had time to exult in his victory. The trumpeters, all the while, blew their blasts shriller and shriller; each soldier shouted a battle cry, and often fell with it on his lips.

Only five warriors survive. In the original, the battle is the climax of the story. But in the Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne the five’s exhausted survival is transformed into thorough redemption. The American  commitment to happy endings began long before Hollywood.

Like savage beasts, they would doubtless have done one another a mischief, if Cadmus had not kept watch over them, and quelled the fierce old serpent that lurked in their hearts, when he saw it gleaming out of their wild eyes. But, in course of time, they got accustomed to honest labor, and had sense enough to feel that there was more true enjoyment in living at peace, and doing good to one’s neighbor, than in striking at him with a two-edged sword. It may not be too much to hope that the rest of mankind will by and by grow as wise and peaceable as these five earth-begrimed warriors, who sprang from the dragon’s teeth.

Each one killed by a drone plants at least one dragon’s tooth.  Each woman killed plants three  or four and a child even more.  If we are careful and have chosen well, the drone also kills a dragon.  

This is the tragic choice of which Reinhold Niebuhr warns us.  We ought not deny our responsibility for killing those who abide with the dragon.  We should recognize our role in planting dragon’s teeth.  Our only hope of redemption — at least in this kingdom — is precisely in taking responsibility for our tragic choice.

To actively and meaningfully fulfill this responsibility we must exercise our power with particular care. We should also attend to those who survive our victims. Simply in our own self-interest we should, “keep watch over them… who sprang from the dragon’s teeth.”   But if this remains the sum of our relationship, we will never overcome mutual suspicion and an easy slide into continuing conflict.  More is needed.

Cadmus and his five survivors went on to build a great city.  In Hawthorne’s tale it is a place of beauty, happiness and harmony.  In the ancient original it is, whatever its virtues, also the city of Oedipus and Antigone. Tragic potential persists.  But in both the ancient and American versions a future is practically envisioned, constructed, and shared.  Can we  leave aside our easy Hollywood hopes long enough to craft a — no doubt uneasy — common cause with our victims?

For further consideration:

The Year of the Drone (2010) by the New America Foundation

The Obama Administration and International Law by Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Adviser, US Department of State

Central Asia Institute

Catholic Relief Services in Pakistan

Oxfam America in Afghanistan

Oxfam International in Pakistan

June 9, 2010

Nobody’s Perfect

Last week the sporting world and more than a few people who pay no mind to sports whatsoever witnessed something extraordinary. Pitching with two outs in the ninth inning, Armando Galarraga of the Detriot Tigers was facing Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Jason Donald when the hitter stroked a ground ball into the gap between first and second base.  First baseman Miguel Cabrera played it cleanly and tossed it back to Galarraga who covering first toed the bag for what seemed a clear put out.

As Galarraga squeezed the ball tightly in his glove and looked over smiling to umpire Jim Joyce he saw his dreams of a perfect game — only the 21st in major league history and the first for his storied franchise — evaporate as Donald was called safe. Shock and sadness turned to anger and dismay as nearly everyone watching in the stands and on television saw the sequence replayed over and over again. Each time with the same result: Donald was out by at least half a step. Nevertheless, the call stood. A token protest from Detriot Manager Jim Leyland and repeated pleas from Cabrera notwithstanding it was the perfect game that was but never would be.

After the game, Jim Joyce himself reviewed the videotape and concluded as everyone else had that he had erred in calling Donald safe. Rather than letting it end there, though, he did something extraordinary, for baseball at least, and all too sadly rare in life as well, he admitted his mistake. He not only apologized to Galarraga personally but also released a statement through Major League Baseball  indicating his regret and calling it the worst call of his career.

In the end, Galarraga was robbed of the statistical claim to completing a perfect game. Instead he got something even rarer: A chance to restore faith in baseball’s overpriced players and confidence in the human capacity for forgiveness. Still smiling, he accepted Joyce’s apology, and was said to have responded, “Nobody’s perfect.” Combined with his stellar performance, he assured himself a place in the Hall Baseball of Fame at Cooperstown, if not in the record books.

Something about Joyce’s admission, if not Galarraga’s grace in forgiving him, must have been contagious because only this week we saw another amazing mea culpa. Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, resigned with immediate effect Monday after hurtful remarks she made in a private conversation with a rabbi visiting the White House surfaced over the weekend and quickly reached a crescendo.

Thomas, a veritable Washington, DC institution in her own right, served as a White House correspondent since the Kennedy Administration. Her caustic demeanor is well known inside the Beltway if not so much beyond it.  But she was largely seen to have earned the right to her opinions because of her tenure and the tenacity it took to reach that point in what was long a male-dominated domain.

In the few minutes between the blown call and his apology, baseball commentators remarked on Jim Joyce’s standing as a veteran of 29 years umpiring the big leagues, including several coveted playoff and World Series assignments. They made it clear that his tenure and experience were all the more reason why he should have got his call right in the first place.

Less than a week later, the controversy surrounding Jim Joyce’s bad call has largely dissipated though. Sure, people are still trying to use it to promote their arguments for video replay reviews of umpiring decisions, but no one seems inclined to make Joyce a scapegoat anymore largely because of the way he and Galarraga handled themselves and the incident. But this outcome also seems to hinge on the fact that the result of their actions left us with something better than a perfect game.

Thomas accepted responsibility for her remarks, but nothing she said or did will change the fact that no good will come of this incident, least of all a resolution to end the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was the subject of her remarks. Unlike the baseball game, which was nationally televised, recorded and replayed by mainstream media, the video used to out Ms. Thomas was recorded privately and circulated virally on the Internet leaving people of the opinion that had she not been forced to account for her remarks, they might have remained unchallenged as well as unchanged.

Thomas’s defenders cite her age as well as her heritage as explanations for her behavior. But in contrast to Jim Joyce, who many observers admitted must have seen something that tipped his call the other way, nobody seemed all that inclined to defend her remarks beyond saying they understood where she was coming from and felt she might deserve some slack because of her age, which is just shy of 90.

All of this may or may not strike you as interesting, particularly in respect of homeland security. But I think otherwise. For starters, trust and accountability are as much a part of the Deepwater Horizon narrative as they are a part of these stories. What’s missing though is the sense that anybody has learned anything from the mistakes underlying that disaster. Likewise, they are starting to wonder whether the willingness of BP and the White House to accept responsibility is producing tangible much less beneficial results.

Like these affairs, the images of failure keep coming at us non-stop. The replay of the sickening results of the oil spill and repeated failures to stop it or to make much progress cleaning it up leave us wondering whether those responsible are incompetent or simply out-gunned.

This makes the failure to acknowledge the real mistakes underlying the catastrophe all the more obvious and unsettling. No one from BP or the federal government has stepped up to the plate to say that the decision to drill at such depths was a bad call. (And that may be true even if off-shore drilling itself remains the only viable way of meeting our short-term energy needs while weaning ourselves off foreign sources of supply.) Sacking the Minerals Management Service administrator and imposing a moratorium on off-shore drilling communicates immediacy but instills no sense or urgency to develop demand for better options. And no one who has been willing to step up has earned the right to claim any benefit of the doubt much less respect for their past performances.

This leaves us watching as those who want to help are left wondering why no one will let them. Which begs the question often asked by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate (which I paraphrase here for the sake of clarity): ‘When we will stop treating those affected by disasters as victims instead of resources?’

Like the fans and policy wonks watching the other stories competing for air-time this past week, we all know what we saw (and that remains true even if we can’t see what’s really happening). When will someone acknowledge and act upon those reactions? Expressing anger may give voice to our frustrations, but it does not do much to make things better.

June 8, 2010

Why is NIMS and ICS the one-size-fits-all response to significant national incidents?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on June 8, 2010

The homeland security enterprise adopted the National Incident Management System (NIMS) with limited scientific, policy or public analysis.

The way I heard the NIMS creation story, several members of the U.S. Forest Service — the home agency of the planet’s preeminent incident command system (ICS) experts — helped bring organization to New York City’s initially chaotic response to the September 11, 2001 attack. The success of their effort led directly to the federal government in 2003 mandating NIMS — with ICS at its core.

In the early “ready, fire, aim” days of homeland security, finding any needle in a haystack was better than wasting time looking for the sharpest needle.

Federal agencies are supposed to use NIMS because a former president — in HSPD 5 — said so. States and local communities are supposed to use NIMS because otherwise they do not get homeland security money. Many emergency management, fire and other public safety professionals believe NIMS should be used because their experience says it works, and there just aren’t any better alternatives.

I am aware of only one academic study — in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management — that questions the utility of ICS and NIMS for major incident response. The paper is “A Critical Evaluation of the Incident Command System and NIMS,” by Dick A. Buck, Joseph E. Trainor, and Benigno E. Aguirre; all from the University of Delaware. The authors support the usefulness of ICS for a variety of incidents, but they conclude usefulness depends on context:

Our findings indicate that ICS is a partial solution to the question of how to organize the societal response in the aftermath of disasters; the system is more or less effective depending on specific characteristics of the incident and the organizations in which it is used. It works best when those utilizing it are part of a community, when the demands being responded to are routine to them, and when social and cultural emergence is at a minimum. ICS does not create a universally applicable bureaucratic organization among responders but rather is a mechanism for inter-organizational coordination designed to impose order on certain dimensions of the chaotic organizational environments of disasters…. Our final conclusions suggest that the present-day efforts in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to use ICS as a comprehensive principle of disaster management probably will not succeed as intended. [my emphasis]

The relevant finding for me: ICS works best when the incident is “normal” (i.e., a routine disaster — if one can use that term) and the responders know and have worked with each other. That’s what makes me question ICS’ appropriateness as an organizational model for “unique catastrophic incidents” where responders and agencies are strangers to each other.

(I recently read a master’s degree thesis that raises similar questions about the adequacy of ICS for a Mumbai-style incident. I will write more about that study when the author approves.)

The Deepwater Horizon disaster provides a tragic opportunity to examine the uses and limits of ICS and NIMS, including the added bonus of exploring the role the private sector plays in response. Surely that malignantly evolving catastrophe will provide homeland security lessons-to-be learned at least through the next decade. But for now, we have anecdotes from the ground.

What follows is an exchange last week between two people who have knowledgeable perspectives about NIMS, ICS, unified command, and the private sector.


Person One

Having spent three weeks in [Louisiana] working with the Coast Guard [and] National Guard …, I have some observations and opinions.

I had an opportunity to speak personally with some of the best and brightest from the USCG, BP, EPA, NOAA and others. Although I believe that BP should be more transparent with their information, they have an understandable concern. They feared the release of raw data, including imagery, could be distorted by the media and/or misunderstood.

Take for example the undersea picture of the spewing oil. Although BP has a motive to minimize the amount of the release, there is similar motive by others to maximize the estimated release. I heard one expert on the news talking about an accepted methodology of breaking down the images into small enough bits that the actual volume of the individual bit could be calculated. Once this is done, it is merely necessary to freeze a frame and count the bits. Simple math then gives you an estimated volume from a “bits vs. time” formula. The complication comes in when you try to estimate the volume of a liquid that contains gas (i.e. methane). Once this plume reaches the surface, the methane dissipates into the air. I do not suggest that it is a great idea to dump a bunch of methane into the atmosphere. It does however distort the volume of liquid contaminates that enter the water.

Although booms capture a lot of surface contaminate, my amateur opinion is that the heavy, subsurface tar will have a more devastating, and longer lasting impact on the environment. As the material reaches the surface, volatiles such as benzine and gasoline evaporate and become airborne. What is left is heavier than water, and settles below the surface as a heavy, tar like substance. This heavy tar travels on subsurface currents, such as the loop current, and can surface some distance away from the source, and some time after its birth into the ocean.

I do not believe that the Federal Government has such a brain trust at it disposal that it could immediately make great strides past the feeble BP effort. The feds do not have a reputation of being the best and most efficient at solving problems.

I compliment the USCG. They are an outstanding agency with many capable leaders, and they have experience dealing with oil spills, albeit not of this magnitude. I will not criticize them, and I may suggest an alternative.

My experience with emergency managers, FEMA and NIMS leads me to believe that these people and systems are good at inclusiveness, building teams from people with diverse interests and backgrounds. [But] I have seen this “management by committee” approach cripple response flexibility and efficiency. I would keep BP involved as an expert resource ( I am sure they have more oil well experts than the US Government), and I would involve their leaders in discussions at the higher levels. I would not however make them partners in a Unified Command. I would not give them a voice on resource expenditures. Their interests are potentially different from that of the Government. I would have a strategic plan that reflects the [national incident] commander’s vision…. I would have an integrated intelligence section that can make informed projections so that leaders can make choices and develop strategy based on the best information available. I would put someone in charge who has the necessary experience at leading this size and diversity of effort.

As a citizen watching the destruction of the environment, I would like to see strong leadership, clear vision, a supportable plan, and swiftexecution.

Can we agree on that?


Person Two

While agreeing with [my colleague’s] fundamental desire for timely and effective operations, I have to disagree with [his] characterization of the concept of NIMS as part of the problem. This is a favorite subject of mine so pardon the diversion from the spill particulars.

I have learned from my [professional colleagues] that some officials, particularly fed and most DoD, view NIMS and its component ICS as unstructured or somehow characterized by consensus decision making. In my experience nothing is further from the truth. ICS and NIMS embrace several familiar concepts as fundamental: unity of effort, consolidated action planning, chain of command, unity of command, span of control.

Put simply: one boss, one set of goals, one plan. ICS essentially got those principles from the military.

My DoD [colleagues] have acknowledged that [operations in the United States] are more complicated than overseas operations in some ways. Given our pluralistic governance, ICS allows for unified command (UC); emergencies don’t respect geographic or regulatory jurisdiction. UC has particular requirements. Members of a UC must have jurisdiction, funding to contribute and authority to speak and decide for their agency. Failing one of those, you’re [just] an agency representative.

UC is a course of study to itself and the product of UC is ONE set of goals (one vision if you will) carried out by one operations section and one organization. The US Forest Service does this admirably, as does the Coast Guard. The rest of the federal agencies, it seems, will take time.

ICS was started by a few metro cities, counties, and state and federal agencies before being chartered by Congress in the 70’s. When ICS was adopted in California by the rest of the local governments in the early 80’s there was a similar sense of disbelief in its utility, [and a] resistance to change — which still exists in some locations — and some incidents [where ICS was applied incorrectly].

A few fires I witnessed enjoyed fully developed overhead staffs, and no one putting the fire out. Many people wanted to argue tactics and dogma; ICS is a command, communication, management and control tool.

The President just visited [my jurisdiction] and NIMS was nowhere to be seen in the action planning. It has taken 30 years to achieve pretty consistent and competent use of ICS in California; I expect the national experience will be similar.

I have seen ICS work in fires, floods, vaccination clinics, special events, earthquakes, chicken flu, and Y2K. A similar but much smaller incident than the Deepwater one was the Cantara Incident of 1991. A train carrying pesticide derailed over the American River dumping a deleterious material into the river, which flowed into a number of recreational lakes downstream through two counties. Fifty-seven involved agencies (fed, state, local and NGO) are listed on the cover sheet of the Incident Action Plan (IAP). Three made up UC. The IAP had six clear incident objectives.

Deepwater response can be organized under NIMS and be effective. [My colleague’s] last paragraph’s desires fit well. In the local hazmat response world, [private sector] get first shot at clean-up. If the [private sector] can’t do the work, government steps in and [private sector] pays the bill.

Sometimes we’re too trusting or too nice.


Person One Again

The command post in [Louisiana] is a Unified Area Command, which means that there are incident commanders for each geographic section, which is generally by state boundary. The IC makes the operational decisions. …[The] Federal On Scene Commander (FOSC) … should be making the strategic decisions, including resource allocation.

For a period of time, BP had to sign off on resource allocations. This started to slow the resource response by not just hours, but sometimes days. That [was unacceptable to me].

The … strategic planning cell was made up of 50% BP reps, and they refused to allow the National Guard to be part of the strategic planning process. Once the “strategic plan” was briefed, [it turned out] there was no real plan, and no strategy….

The CG actually hired a team of contractors whose job it was to insure that ICS was followed, and people knew their job as defined by ICS. Clearly, they executed ICS by the book. So, if ICS did not work as well as it should, it was not due to a failure to follow doctrine. Command decision took a long time because of a need to reach a consensus among the command group. This is the same thing I saw in Katrina….

I wish the [command structure made better use of] strategic planners and intelligence analysts, but BP didn’t want them. [Asking] key questions about strategy did not nudge the [structure] towards a strategic plan.

But they did ICS like masters.


“Ready. Fire. Aim.” is not a bad way to respond to a situation that requires immediate action. Deliberation is important. But so is doing something.

There comes a time however for aiming.

ICS has proven its value countless times. It comes as close to doctrine as anything does in homeland security.

But is there any science to support the claim it is the best way to organize a response to every nationally significant incident?

When is ICS — and its NIMS encasement — the wrong way to go?

June 4, 2010

A Review: Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism

In 2005, Stewart Baker joined the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary of Policy for the entire Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Michael Chertoff. The position, which evolved from the Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning position, has the following responsibilities, according to the DHS website:

  • Leads coordination of Department-wide policies, programs, and planning, which will ensure consistency and integration of missions throughout the entire Department.
  • Provides a central office to develop and communicate policies across multiple components of the homeland security network and strengthens the Department’s ability to maintain policy and operational readiness needed to protect the homeland.
  • Provides the foundation and direction for Department-wide strategic planning and budget priorities.
  • Bridges multiple headquarters’ components and operating agencies to improve communication among departmental entities, eliminate duplication of effort, and translate policies into timely action.
  • Creates a single point of contact for internal and external stakeholders that will allow for streamlined policy management across the Department.

Baker would hold the position for the next four years, tackling a variety of issues from border and travel to cybersecurity and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to bioterrorism.  In his upcoming book, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, Baker offers an intriguing view of our homeland security posture that ties back to the central theme that technology is both our savior and our enemy as it empowers not only us but our foes.  Coming from Baker, who has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the most techno-literate lawyers around,” the analysis of homeland security technology from a policy/legal prism is refreshing.  This is not a Luddite’s view of why technology harms, but an expert’s finely woven story of “how the technologies we love eventually find new ways to kill us, and how to stop them from doing that.”

A subtheme throughout the book is that information sharing, or lack thereof, has hindered our nation’s efforts to fight terrorism, especially when “privacy” has played a role.  In setting up a discussion of what led to his time at DHS, Baker recounts some of the failures leading up to 9/11, including the information sharing wall put up at the Department of Justice between intelligence and law enforcement elements of the agency, as well as challenges at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. His view is of someone who has spent time in the intelligence world as the General Counsel of the National Security Agency and as General Counsel of the Robb-Silberman Commission investigating intelligence failures before the Iraq War. The account dives into the intricacies of Justice and its overseers, as well as how bureaucracy and personalities can so easily define our government’s most sensitive policies.

The book then looks at his days at DHS and attempts to strengthen border and travel programs and policies for acronym-named programs, including Passenger Name Records (PNR), the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), and Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System II (CAPPS II),  among others.  If you have ever doubted Washington’s love of acronyms and initialisms, this read will certainly change your mind.

In evaluating efforts in the aviation space, Baker is critical of a number of groups that he deems to have stood in the way of the Department’s mission during his tenure, including the private sector, European governing bodies, bureaucrats, Congress, and privacy/civil liberties groups, all of whom he argues are all about the status quo and not open to change.  Some of his criticisms are valid while others seem to simplify the views of the various actors.  For example, in dismissing some of the tourism industry’s concerns related to travel policies, he argues that the industry did not want innovation in government security on the border. Having been in the trenches at the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee during many of these debates, I would argue that the balancing of the numerous parties’ interests and concerns was not always that simple or easy to discern, especially when assessing the right security path forward.  Some programs mentioned in the book, such as WHTI, succeeded, in part, because they were implemented once necessary infrastructure had been deployed.

His strongest concerns are reserved for privacy and civil rights advocates and the government policies they either tout or hate.  There is a great deal of skepticism for “hypothetical civil liberties” and “hypothetical privacy concerns,” without evidence of demonstrated abuses by the government. He cites numerous incidents, some of which certainly demonstrate the tension between privacy and security co-existing.  A few of the examples he uses have even been explored here at HLSWatch, including complaints about whole body imaging machines in airports.  See, e.g. The Right to Be Left Alone (October 27, 2009) and “Where are all the white guys?” (November 10, 2009). Reading the book, privacy and civil liberties supporters may find it hard to balance Baker’s call for imagination when tackling homeland security policy and decisionmaking without calling for a similar level of creative thinking when addressing how those policies and decisions will affect privacy and civil liberties.

The book goes on to describe how the Department and Administration tackled (or failed to tackle) cybersecurity and biosecurity and the differences between the approaches. In both sections, privacy and information sharing are undercurrents, though we also see some interesting discussions of such topics as patent protections, self-regulation, and the evolution of security in each of these areas.  The discussions are intriguing and provide both a history and analysis of why we are where we are on those issues.   The cybersecurity and related CFIUS discussion brought back some memories to this self-proclaimed cybergeek, including some of my first interactions with Baker when he was in private practice and I was at the Justice Department.

One last observation: while the focus on the book is obviously on the time that Baker served at the Department under Secretary Chertoff, it leaves much to the imagination of what work Secretary Ridge and his team- from their early days in the White House after 9/11 until the changing of the guard to Secretary Chertoff – undertook and how that may have contributed to some of Secretary Chertoff’s and Baker’s successes, challenges, and mindset.  In addition, despite the focus on privacy and civil liberties, there is little mention of the other DHS offices, including the Privacy, Civil Liberties, and General Counsel’s offices, who may have been engaged in many of the battles noted by Baker. The book is not lacking in detail or intrigue because of these exclusions, though I wonder how they affected the decisions of Baker and his policy team. Perhaps these items are the subject of another book for another time.

Stewart Baker provides insight into a D.C. perspective of homeland security and the struggle of a Department to tackle technology, privacy, and information sharing. The book provides some valuable lessons for those who are on the frontlines of homeland security policy as they attempt to tackle future threats. For an observer of homeland security development, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism is a must-read. The book will be released on June 15th and is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.  In the meanwhile, excerpts from the book and other missives from Baker can be found at a blog with the same name, http://www.skatingonstilts.com/.

June 3, 2010

The National Security State’s B Team

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 3, 2010

In one of his first official statements, President Obama wrote — or at least signed  — “I believe that Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security — conceptually and functionally, they should be thought of together rather than separately.”

The new National Security Strategy is consistent with this belief, to the detriment of homeland security.

From the perspective of international security and homeland defense I have no serious problem with the strategy.  It is clear-eyed regarding our nation’s essential strengths and current vulnerabilities.  If I were part of the foreign policy, intelligence, or defense establishments I would find some obscure aspect with which to demonstrate independence and otherwise congratulate the White House for being wise enough to agree with me.

But instead of the establishment, I am part of a fractured, intellectually  immature, strategically incoherent, often squabbling, sometimes foolish, usually courageous crowd of competing tribes that, if pushed hard enough, travel together under a ragged banner on which is scrawled “homeland security.”  The new National Security Strategy — unfortunately — reflects the tattered nature of this very loose alliance.

According to the National Security Strategy the role of homeland security is similar to that of Puerto Rico in major league baseball, or Ringo Starr in the Beatles, or  the Gauls in the early Roman Empire.  We are occasionally crucial, usually peripheral, and just not something those at the political pinnacle spend a great deal of time thinking about.  

On page 15 of the National Security Strategy, homeland security is explained as one element in a whole-of-government approach.  Here is the full description:

Homeland security traces its roots to traditional and historic functions of government and society, such as civil defense, emergency response, law enforcement, customs, border patrol, and immigration. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the foundation of the Department of Homeland Security, these functions have taken on new organization and urgency. Homeland security, therefore, strives to adapt these traditional functions to confront new threats and evolving hazards. It is not simply about government action alone, but rather about the collective strength of the entire country. Our approach relies on our shared efforts to identify and interdict threats; deny hostile actors the ability to operate within our borders; maintain effective control of our physical borders; safeguard lawful trade and travel into and out of the United States; disrupt and dismantle transnational terrorist, and criminal organizations; and ensure our national resilience in the face of the threat and hazards. Taken together, these efforts must support a homeland that is safe and secure from terrorism and other hazards and in which American interests, aspirations, and way of life can thrive.

The use of  “strives” is key to reading this paragraph.   As Sisyphus strives to roll his rock up the hill, homeland security strives to adapt the tribal jealousies of narrow-minded provincials into some semblance of strategic value.  Strives is derived from an old Gallic term for quarreling and disputing, neatly implying the interdisciplinary, inter-governmental, and public-private struggles that characterize homeland security.  Gaul was divided into three parts, homeland security into three times thirty.

Notice too the strategic value that — if only our striving is one day successful — might be squeezed from this unwieldiness.  It is mostly responsive,  defensive, and protective.  Other more agile players are needed to analyze, prevent, mitigate, and strategically engage.   And even within these limitations, there is something mournfully uncertain in the use of, “taken together these efforts must support…”  It is the tone a frustrated father might take with squabbling children.

I sympathize with the frustration.  There is a part of me that respects the realism of the White House in framing homeland security so narrowly.  But — perhaps only from partisan pride — I regret this disemboweling of potential.

It is as if the wise (wo)men of foreign policy, defense, and intelligence have decided homeland security is beyond civilizing.  Rustics related to homeland security are to be integrated into the national security state as subordinate tribes were integrated into the ancient Imperium.  John Brennan is our Julius Caesar.  He has been assigned as our provincial governor, but serves purposes far beyond our province.  Janet Napolitano is our Titus Labienus.  She understands us better, but given our fractiousness such knowledge is no great advantage.

Returning to the text: did it seem to you that “other hazards” has been inserted in the last sentence apropos of  nothing else in the paragraph?  I imagine Richard Reed arguing that some courteous nod be given the old creed. Otherwise, the National Security Strategy gives intense focus to eliminating al-Qa’ida and its network. This narrow targeting of the enemy may be the strategy’s principal strength. Other hazards, it has been decided, can be managed by the B team.

If homeland security is in fact conceptually and functionally indistinguishable from national security, this strategy desiccates the capabilities-based approach that many in homeland security have struggled to cultivate. While resilience is often referenced in the National Security Strategy, it’s absence from the summary definition above is significant.   The cross-cutting, silo-busting, resilience-building capabilities-based potential of homeland security is ignored, neglected, dismissed, merely missed… choose your verb.

A White House blurb offers, “The strategy is grounded in a pragmatic understanding of our strategic environment – the world as it is.”  Long-time national security professionals have considered homeland security as it is and concluded our “traditional and historic functions” are only capable of a supporting role in confronting our threats and achieving our priorities.  Given the world as it is, I will not argue.

But in his foreword to the National Security Strategy the President writes, “Simply put, we must see innovation as the foundation of American power.”   What I have seen in the years since 9/11 is innovation in interdisciplinary and intergovernmental collaboration, in regional planning, and in risk assessment.  Since Katrina I have seen the traditional and historic functions of homeland security begin to work together to craft authentic, community based resilience.  In just the last few months I have seen the private and public sectors plan and work together in unprecedented ways to anticipate a range of natural, accidental, and intentional threats.  Whatever else, I hope the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico will spur public-private collaboration in risk-readiness and catastrophic planning. (See: BP “not prepared”) Innovation is underway.

The National Security Strategy underestimates and, as a result, under-values the potential role of homeland security.  This should not discourage further innovation.  If those of us loosely linked to homeland security are true to our traditional and historic values, we will find the National Security Strategy’s implicit critique an impetus to further and faster innovation. 

For further consideration:

The Gallic Wars by Gaius Julius Caesar

Bomb Power by Garry Wills

Creating the National Security State by Douglas T. Stuart

Analytic Architecture for Capabilities-Based Planning, Mission-System Analysis and Transformation by Paul K. Davis

Obama’s NSS: Promise and Pitfalls from the Council on Foreign Relations

The B Team’s Beachhead

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 3, 2010

In my principal post, immediately above, I argue the National Security Strategy relegates homeland security to the status of a strategic B Team (or continuing with Chris Bellavita’s basketball motif, homeland security is the Junior Varsity).  

If you disagree, it is probably because of the language excerpted below from pages 18 and 19 of the strategy. 

At the very least this section — especially the attention to increased public-private partnerships and engaging communities and citizens — provides a sliver of strategic justification for homeland security to continue positive efforts to cultivate meaningful risk readiness and resilience.   We may still be able to demonstrate homeland security’s potential to contribute to the core of our national security effort.

I don’t doubt the potential of homeland security to confront our challenges.  But convincing our foreign policy, defense, and intelligence colleagues of this potential is quite another matter.  The following is a thin beachhead on which to establish our credibility.  I hope we can make it work as well as Normandy and avoid the pitfalls of Anzio.

Strengthen Security and Resilience at Home

At home, the United States is pursuing a strategy capable of meeting the full range of threats and hazards to our communities. These threats and hazards include terrorism, natural disasters, large-scale cyber attacks, and pandemics. As we do everything within our power to prevent these dangers, we also recognize that we will not be able to deter or prevent every single threat. That is why we must also enhance our resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand, and rapidly recover from disruption. To keep Americans safe and secure at home, we are working to:

Enhance Security at Home: Security at home relies on our shared efforts to prevent and deter attacks by identifying and interdicting threats, denying hostile actors the ability to operate within our borders, protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure and key resources, and securing cyberspace. That is why we are pursuing initiatives to protect and reduce vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, at our borders, ports, and airports, and to enhance overall air, maritime, transportation, and space and cyber security. Building on this foundation, we recognize that the global systems that carry people, goods, and data around the globe also facilitate the movement of dangerous people, goods, and data. Within these systems of transportation and transaction, there are key nodes—for example, points of origin and transfer, or border crossings—that represent opportunities for exploitation and interdiction. Thus, we are working with partners abroad to confront threats that often begin beyond our borders. And we are developing lines of coordination at home across Federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, nongovernmental, and private-sector partners, as well as individuals and communities.

Effectively Manage Emergencies: We are building our capability to prepare for disasters to reduce or eliminate long-term effects to people and their property from hazards and to respond to and recover from major incidents. To improve our preparedness, we are integrating domestic all hazards planning at all levels of government and building key capabilities to respond to emergencies. We continue to collaborate with communities to ensure preparedness efforts are integrated at all levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. We are investing in operational capabilities and equipment, and improving the reliability and interoperability of communications systems for first responders. We are encouraging domestic regional planning and integrated preparedness programs and will encourage government at all levels to engage in long-term recovery planning. It is critical that we continually test and improve plans using exercises that are realistic in scenario and consequences.

Empowering Communities to Counter Radicalization: Several recent incidences of violent extremists in the United States who are committed to fighting here and abroad have underscored the threat to the United States and our interests posed by individuals radicalized at home. Our best defenses against this threat are well informed and equipped families, local communities, and institutions. The Federal Government will invest in intelligence to understand this threat and expand community engagement and development programs to empower local communities. And the Federal Government, drawing on the expertise and resources from all relevant agencies, will clearly communicate our policies and intentions, listening to local concerns, tailoring policies to address regional concerns, and making clear that our diversity is part of our strength—not a source of division or insecurity.

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.

Engage with Communities and Citizens: We will emphasize individual and community preparedness and resilience through frequent engagement that provides clear and reliable risk and emergency information to the public. A key part of this effort is providing practical steps that all Americans can take to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors. This includes transmitting information through multiple pathways and to those with special needs. In addition, we support efforts to develop a nationwide public safety broadband network. Our efforts to inform and empower Americans and their communities recognize that resilience has always been at the heart of the American spirit.

The National Security Strategy, pages 18-19

June 2, 2010

The Five Ps

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on June 2, 2010

We all know the Five Ps: “Proper planning prevents poor performance.” We take it as an article of faith that effective strategy depends upon good planning. And we usually accept that planning–to say nothing of plans themselves–does not equal much less ensure the success of our strategies. The National Security Strategy issued by the Obama Administration last Thursday is no exception to these observations.

Entrance Strategy

"Frankly, I'm more concerned with our entrance strategy."

The Canadian management professor Henry Mintzberg has written extensively on strategy and its relationship to planning and management generally. Like the five Ps with which we are already familiar, Mintzberg (1992) notes that strategies fall into one of five categories:

  • Plans
  • Ploys
  • Patterns
  • Positions
  • Perspectives

Some strategies do not fit neatly into any single category, and, of course, complex strategies may embrace aspects of more than one category.

As I read the National Security Strategy (NSS) over the weekend, like the Financial Times writer, Clive Crook, cited in Chris Bellavita’s post yesterday, I too wondered whether it could rightly be called a strategy. After contaminating my copy of the document from front to back with confusing marginalia questioning many of its fundamental premises and its authors’ intentions, I decided to take the broad view of strategy suggested by Mintzberg and asked myself instead what type of strategy it might be. So, here goes:

Is the NSS a plan? A plan identifies a starting point or beginning condition and aims for a clear destination or objective. As for a starting point, the NSS takes a rather vague stab at describing our current condition, preferring instead to describe where we are not rather than putting a marker down where we are. As such, the NSS repudiates most Bush Administration foreign policies, especially those that framed its response to violent extremism and its surveillance and interrogation programs. The nation’s principal conflict is narrowly framed as a fight with al Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates around the globe. We are not at war with Islam or any other ideology. In contrast, we stand for human rights but we no longer claim them as our own. Rather, we acknowledge that these rights are now universally recognized, and we expect those with whom we maintain diplomatic and trade relations to respect these rights. This could hardly be described as a destination. The closest the NSS comes to describing a desired end state echoes the administration’s recently released nuclear weapons policies, which seek to enforce nonproliferation regimes and secure vulnerable nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. As far as it goes, that’s not a bad goal, but I am still left wondering how the administration intends to get us there.

Is it a ploy? A ploy implies an effort to outwit or outmaneuver an opponent. The NSS is fairly clear that we live in a world where the threats come from many different directions both at home and abroad. The NSS does not underestimate our adversaries, but neither does it seek to outflank them with clever overtures or shake them with flashy moves. To the extent that the NSS sets its sights squarely on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qa’ida and its affiliates, it implies this conflict leaves no room for subtly or finesse. We might seek to remedy conditions that lead to the radicalization of young Muslims on the homefront, but the statements in this regard lack conviction and do not suggest a coherent strategic view about how to do this. As for others, the NSS seems to suggest that straightforward, plain dealing that rebuilds relationship and emphasizes engaging problems through international and transnational institutions is the order of the day. Again, no evidence of subterfuge, subtlety or positioning. That said, the NSS takes for granted that the U.S. remains in an economically and militarily superior position vis-à-vis the rest of the world despite the dominance of asymmetric warfare. If this is true, and it seems so, it remains unclear what this buys us as well as what it is costing us to maintain it. One might reasonably wonder whether the administration and its advisors have simply come to the conclusion that the U.S. is too big to fail.

Is it a pattern? A pattern describes a desired course of action or a new paradigm for engaging the environment and change. It is fair enough to say that the NSS is a departure from the Bush Doctrine, but the authors go to great pains to anchor the way forward in successful approaches to managing past problems. If anything, the NSS recommends a return to the strategic patterns that underpinned post-WW II rebuilding of Europe and the Cold War alliances that governed international relations for most of the following four decades. The NSS does not suggest that international affairs should be viewed as a zero sum game or that alliances should be viewed simply in with-us or against-us terms. But it does suggest that reciprocity and mutual respect will serve as the guiding if not governing principles of our foreign policy and international engagement efforts. What remains unclear is to what end we will pursue reciprocity and how we will reward our allies beyond nice words and warm handshakes.

Is it a position? The NSS does not make a convincing much less compelling case for the United States’ security position beyond the case for calling our situation turbulent but not necessarily tenuous. In doing so, it expends extensive effort (and not a few words) describing the challenges we face. But here it falls short by not accepting that we are largely the authors of our own destiny, or at least the culprits responsible for our current condition. We may not have flown airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but our policies and actions over many decades inspired our enemies and equipped an insurgency that continues to threaten us. A successful positioning strategy usually provides a clear vision of how people can resolve conflicts between the internal and external environment, in this case the difference between our ideals and the goals or our adversaries. The NSS makes a good faith effort to do this by noting the importance of engaging people as individuals as well as nations. At the same time, it notes the difficulties we face and have yet to overcome in mobilizing what it calls civilian expeditionary capabilities, whatever those might be.

Is it a perspective? It might be wiser to ask what perspective the strategy takes. Given the inevitable tendency to compare each new administration with its predecessor, the answer seems clear enough: “We are not the Bush Administration!” Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has chosen, often rationally and reasonably, to continue Bush Administration policies even while it wrestles with the problems these very policies created. But a strategic perspective should present an affirmative proposition: “This is what we stand for and why.” To the extent that the NSS attempts to do this, it speaks more of rather than to our national aspirations and values. To be sure, this reflects the innate pragmatism of the President and his closest advisors. But to the extent that the NSS, and for that matter the administration itself, takes these aspirations and ideals for granted, the NSS represents something more along the lines of wishful thinking than a coherent or better yet compelling vision of the nation and its role in the world.

If we can rightly call the National Security Strategy a strategy at all, and I am not one to quibble on this point, it seems to be a rather poor example of one. Mintzberg noted many times (often to the chagrin of his colleagues) that the problem of poor execution of the strategy conception and formation process–as opposed to inadequate implementation–plagues many attempts at strategy and much of what passes for strategic planning. More often than not, this owes to inadequate or incomplete reflection.

Vague overtures to change, hope and progress might win elections, but they do not make good foreign or domestic policy. “We are not those other guys,” will not endear you to the electorate for long. Accountability comes even even if you avoid setting unachievable goals or making promises you cannot keep. People want results. And in the absence of results they want to see clear evidence of effort and a good measure of empathy.

This leaves me with my final observation: The Obama Administration needs to start showing that it is learning from its own experiences not just the last administration’s failures. The economic recovery program and the response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe offer many opportunities to do things better, beginning with an acknowledgement that these are not technical problems to be overcome but rather adaptive challenges that require us to reflect upon and renew where necessary the fundamental values that inform our nation’s worldview. The President and his administration play a key role not just by framing the narrative but by leading our nation both in word and deed.

June 1, 2010

Playing basketball with the National Security Strategy

Filed under: Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on June 1, 2010

1. Sometimes I show a video about two groups of people playing basketball next to an elevator. One team has white shirts and the other team has black shirts. Both teams are bouncing basketballs. The task is to count the number of passes the white team makes. [If you have not seen the video, you might want to look at it first before you read further]

While the 30 second game is in progress, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. In my experience, 80% of the people watching the video do not see the gorilla.

As I was reading the 2010 National Security Strategy, I could not tell if I was watching people passing a basketball or watching someone in a gorilla suit walking through the world of homeland security.

2. I am reading a book by George Friedman called The Next 100 years: a Forecast for the 21st Century. Friedman believes the United States has five geopolitical goals that historically have directed its national strategy.

1) The complete domination of North America by the United States Navy.

2) The elimination of any threat to the United States by any power in the Western Hemisphere.

3) Complete control of the maritime approaches to the United States by the Navy in order to preclude any possibility of invasion.

4) Complete domination of the world’s oceans to further secure US physical safety and guarantee control over the international trading system.

5) The prevention of any other nation from challenging US global naval power.

When seen against the backdrop of our national history, any 100 year projection makes the 50+ page National Security Strategy seem insignificant. I am reminded of a man I used to work for who believed, “It all matters. But not very much.”

3. Last week I attended a four-day conference of state and local homeland security leaders. By leaders, I mean public safety officials with significant responsibility for the security of parts of the nation. No one I spoke with was  interested — even moderately interested – in the National Security Strategy that came out Thursday.

Maybe that’s ok. But it was disturbing

4. I watched part of a YouTube video of a White House question and answer forum about the National Security Strategy. It was one of those behind the scenes views that used to belong to radio, but now thanks to CSPAN it’s no longer unusual. It did not appear those folks were very excited by the National Strategy either.

Another video of the U.S. National Security Advisor talking about the Strategy also did not exude a lot of energy. Secretary of State Clinton was a bit more energized in her video. But I think it’s difficult to project excitement and read a somewhat dry speech at the same time.

The people I watched sounded like policy analysts briefing the results of study. It was not especially inspiring.

5. One columnist from the Financial Times doesn’t believe the document is even a strategy. Here are some quotes from the author, Clive Crook:

The worrying thing is that the US president and his team seem so deluded about what they have produced….

To judge the content of the statement [i.e., the Strategy], you have to overlook the way it is expressed, which is not easy. It was run through a management-speak machine. It emerged, repetitious and full of misprints, with added verbiage and reduced intellectual content. Then it was put through a second time.

Imagine 50 pages of this: “To prevent acts of terrorism on American soil, we must enlist all of our intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security capabilities. We will continue to integrate and leverage state and major urban area fusion centres that have the capability to share classified information….”

Previously, as you know, many people denied that homeland security capabilities should be used for homeland security. So much for that false doctrine. And notice how state and major urban area fusion centres will in future share information. Another bold departure. The previous approach to these strangely impaired fusion centres was different, entirely different. Thankfully, those days are over.”

I’m told what we call sarcasm, the British term irony.

6. “America’s greatness is not assured,” writes the president of the United States in his introduction to the National Security Strategy. “Each generation’s place in history is a question unanswered.”

Last week I participated in a discussion about the American narrative. The topic came up within the context of Al Qaeda’s narrative: that Islam is under attack all over the world. What is our narrative? Some people in the room asked why America even needs a narrative.

Another person — a scholar from Mexico — said the American narrative was about the future. America is where the world’s future emerges, created from the friction of multiple interests, battling factions, and conflicts about what to do next, all governed by a living Constitution.

Our strategic narrative welcomes those who can contribute answers to our never ending question.

7. Homeland security is mentioned directly almost 2 dozen times in the National Security Strategy. It is evident that under this administration, homeland security is an integral part of national security. Just as the president said in 2009 it was going to be.

Unsurprisingly, the language in the National Security Strategy echoes frequently the words of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (see pages 18 and 19, for example).  Resilience, all hazards, pandemics, information sharing — the usual suspects make their expected appearances.

According to GAO,

The statute mandating the National Security strategy [50 U.S.C. 404a] calls for the document to provide a comprehensive description and discussion of U.S. worldwide interests, goals, and objectives vital to national security; detail the foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities necessary to deter aggression and implement the strategy; identify the proposed short- and long-term uses of national power to protect our interests and achieve our goals and objectives; and assess the adequacy of our capabilities to carry out the national strategy.”

As untold gallons of oil spew without restriction from the crust of the Gulf of Mexico, the National Security Strategy seems as out of place — or maybe as invisible — as someone in a gorilla suit walking through a basketball game.

I have a vague feeling I’m missing something.

National Security Strategy (because this may be the closest some people come to actually looking at it)

Filed under: Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on June 1, 2010

« Previous Page