Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 31, 2010

Keep folding the cranes

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 31, 2010

September 2nd — this Thursday — marks the 65th anniversary of World War II’s end.  Japanese officials signed the surrender papers aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, docked  in Tokyo Bay.

I thought about this a few nights ago, when I found my 9 year old son — who should have been in bed — standing at the bottom of the stairs outside his bedroom.

He had tears in his eyes.  He wasn’t crying.  But it was close.  Like he was waiting for one more thought before the tears spilled out.

“What’s up?” I asked.

It was his first night home after he, his brother and my wife took a three day driving tour of southern Oregon.

“It’s not fair,” he said.  “They were just children and they were just on a picnic.  And they died. That’s just not fair.”

He started to cry.

It took some time and some hugs, but eventually I was able to piece together what happened.


My wife and sons stopped for a few hours in Bly, Oregon.  It’s a town of about 500 people in the central part of southern Oregon, fairly close to the California border.  Here’s what they learned about Bly:

On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell of the Bly Christian & Missionary Alliance Church took his expectant wife and 5 Sunday school children on fishing trip and picnic. Finding the main road blocked by equipment, he pulled off to a spot where the creek was accessible. As he got the food from the car he heard one of the children say “Look what I found!”. As his wife and the children ran to see what was found, there was an explosion. The 5 children and Mrs. Mitchell were killed instantly.

What the children had found was the remains of balloon bomb. Thousands of these balloons were launched from Honshu, Japan during a 5 month period that ended in April 1945. The hydrogen-filled paper balloons were 33 feet in diameter and carried 5 bombs – 4 incendiaries and one antipersonnel high explosive. The balloons … could be carried by the jet stream from Japan to North America in 3 days. More than 350 balloons were documented as having reached [the United States.]  Some were found as far east as Michigan.

A U.S. Forest Service employee (Jack Smith) was one of the first people on the scene that day in 1945.  He wrote about his experience:

Spike [Armstrong] and I happened to be at the ranger station in the morning of May the 5th when Jumbo Barnhouse, the forest road grader operator drove hurriedly into the ranger station and bailed out of his pickup.  He said, “There’s been an explosion on Gearhart Mountain and several people are hurt.”

Spike and I gathered up sheets, blankets, and first aid kits, and notified the supervisor’s office that we were headed to the site.  The accident scene was on the shoulder of Gearhart Mountain, perhaps five miles or so from Bly.  As we approached, Reverend Archie Mitchell pointed the way for us to hike to the site that was a short distance off the road.  The balloon canopy was mostly deflated and partially covered by a snowdrift.  It was white.  Near the canopy were six bloody bodies on the ground, somewhat like spokes of a wheel.  There was little brush, but a fair stand of mature Ponderosa Pine timber.  Everything was quiet; the bodies were close together.

Spike said to me, “Can you check their pulse?  I don’t think I can handle it.”  So I checked for pulse and breathing.  Mrs. Mitchell and the five young people were all dead, No one was breathing and I could feel no pulse.  The bomb that killed them was attached to a Japanese Hydrogen balloon that had come over the Pacific Ocean on the jet stream.  Forest Service employees were aware that these balloons were coming and we had been instructed how to report them by code to the military if we saw one in the air.

One of the victims was Jay Gifford, about a 12-year-old boy, whose father owned the Standard Oil bulk plant in Bly.  A couple of weeks earlier, Jay had found a weather balloon and had been praised by the weather bureau for returning it to the weather station in Klamath Falls.  Apparently one of the group must have touched something that caused the personnel bomb explosion.  Nothing could be done and so Spike and I waited.  I didn’t see Reverend Mitchell after we left the road ….  Apparently Reverend Mitchell had ran to the sound of the explosion and knew that he could do nothing for the victims.  He heard the Forest Service road grader and intercepted Jumbo to tell him of the accident.  Rev. Mitchell indicated that the group had planned to picnic and do a little fishing in a branch of the Sprague River.  He had gone back to the car to get picnic supplies when the group found the balloon and the explosion occurred.

Spike and I were there alone for a short while until the sheriff arrived.  Then the forest supervisor … arrived, and then the coroner showed up.  So there were four or five of us there for perhaps an hour.  Nothing could be done.  Larry Mays informed us that we had to wait for the Navy people to come from Whidby Island in Washington State.  This was enemy action.  The Navy people needed to inspect and make sure there were no radiological, biological, or chemical contaminants before anything could be handled or moved. [CBRNE 65 years ago]

The sheriff had duty elsewhere; Larry, the supervisor had duty elsewhere; the coroner had duty elsewhere; Spike had duty elsewhere; so I spent several hours alone, safeguarding the corpses….

Mrs. Mitchell was a few months pregnant and the youngsters were 12 – 15 years old and they were local neighbor kids so this was hard to take.  It was a great shock to the Bly Community.  We had held community meetings in Bly to inform the citizens.  This was war time, so it was hush, hush to keep the news from getting back to Japan that the bombs were getting to America.

The people who died were Richard Patzke, Joan Patzke, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen and Sherman Shoemaker, as well as Mrs. Elsie Mitchell.

More than 400,000 Americans, mostly military, died in World War II.  These six fatalities were the only civilian deaths directly attributable to enemy action in the 48 contiguous United States.

In a tragically romantic irony just begging for more details, Reverend Archie Mitchell eventually married Betty Patzke, sister of two of the victims.


According to another report about the World War II balloon attacks:

Many of the balloons had been made by patriotic Japanese school children as a part of the war effort. In 1987, several tried to atone. They folded 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of healing and peace, and sent them to the families of the Oregon picnickers. Here is an excerpt from one of the accompanying letters:

“We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”

If my son’s sensitivity to this random tragedy is any example, it — and what it symbolizes — is also a timeless sorrow.


However, like one more folded paper crane, life continues.

Reverend Mitchell and his wife went to Vietnam in 1962 to work at a leprosarium.  Archie Mitchell was captured by the Viet Cong and was never seen again.

Bly’s path from World War II to Vietnam continues into to the Terrorism Wars.

In 2007, James Ujaama pled guilty to trying to set up a terrorist training camp at a ranch just outside Bly.

Keep folding the cranes.

August 26, 2010

Katrina: At least we knew she was coming. No notice is even worse. (Several Friday Updates)

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2010

    Montage of August, 2005 Katrina storm track

Five years ago Sunday the hurricane weakened as it rolled past New Orleans.  What a lucky break. But then one levee broke, then another. Eventually there were 53 breached levees. 

Southern Mississippi was hit harder, but a certain fixation with the city is not inappropriate.  Eighty percent of Americans are concentrated in urban areas.   Our density depends on attenuated networks of infrastructure and supply chains that we seldom see and most barely understand. 

In the Big Easy infrastructure crumbled, the power grid failed, supply chains severed, and life became very hard.  Death came for over 1800.

Yet we knew Katrina was coming.  We saw her swing through Florida heading  our way.  There was a mandatory evacuation. Most escaped.  She ended up a Cat 1 or Cat 2, far from the worst. Still consequences were plenty bad.  The blues were given another deep bend.

Not to diminish the impact or its implications, Katrina was the “last war.”  Whatever was learned ought be used for the even tougher task ahead.  We cannot know precisely when it will happen or where it will hit, but we can be certain it’s heading our way.

The map immediately below projects  potential earthquake impacts in the United States.   The Pacific ring-of-fire we know, even if we are usually in deep denial.  The faults along the middle Mississippi and the South Carolina coast still surprise many.  The possibility of strong quakes without an adjacent fault stacks the odds higher still. 

     USGS earthquake hazard estimates

This is the best notice we will get.

Earthquake is hardly the only no-notice threat. Most natural, accidental, and intentional threats are no notice (or little notice) events.  Lack of notice increases the likelihood a trigger event will cascade toward catastrophe.

We cannot predict, but we can anticipate.  Knowing what we know now, what should we being doing now?  Are we doing it?

For further consideration:

National Earthquake Information Center  (United States Geological Service)

Sustainable Critical Infrastructure Systems (National Research Council)

Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster (Lee Clarke, University of Chicago Press)

Catastrophic Disaster Planning and Response (Clifford Oliver, CRC Press)

Building Resilient Communities (P.H. Longstaff and K. Perrin, Syracuse University)

Resilience: The Grand Strategy (Homeland Security Affairs Journal)

Updated Friday Morning:

Krakatoa Remembered

     2004 eruption of “Child of Krakatoa”

On this date in 1883 the Krakatoa volcano exploded.  It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.

  • The 23km square island of Krakatoa existed at a height of 450m above sea level. The blast leveled most of the island to 250m below sea level.
  • Pyroclastic flows traveled as far as 40km from the island consuming traversing ships in fire and ash.
  • The sound of the final explosion was heard over 4500km away and covered 1/13th of the Earth’s surface.
  • The eruption generated tsunamis 40m high that devastated nearby coastlines.
  • The final death toll from pyroclastic flows, volcanic bombs, and tsunamis was calculated to be a devastating 36,417.

More available at: http://www.earlham.edu/~bubbmi/krakatoa.htm

Thanks to Bill Cumming for the reminder.  I understand President Arthur asked Bill to undertake a close examination of the event in order to generate lessons-learned.

Mount Sinabung erupts, first time in 400 years

Early Sunday, August 29 — Priyadi Kardono from Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency told the BBC that more than 10,000 people were being evacuated from nearby villages. MORE FROM THE BBC

Some other stories, there are too many

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2010

Just in case like me you have had difficulty keeping up, following are a few links on some of the homeland security stories I have been trying to track.

The Natural Threat Beat

Friday Update: Fresh flooding displaces 1 million more: BBC

Flooding and misery deepen in Pakistan: Dawn (please also check “related news”)

Record heat and wildfires in California: Los Angeles Times, Bakersfield Californian (Personal note: Kern County public safety professionals are among the most intelligent, competent, and committed men and women with whom I have had the privilege to work.  In all of my work no other community has approached the level of effective interagency collaboration demonstrated in Bakersfield and Kern County.   This is a brutal time of year, especially this year.  They will need every skill they’ve got.) Friday Update: Intense heat for fourth day: Los Angeles Times

Over 2300 deaths in Chinese floods, more evacuations along N. Korean border : Xinhua, The Age

Cities attract hurricanes (!) (?): Inside Science News Service

The Intentional Threat Beat

Yemen and al-Awlaki are tagged “urgent” threats : Washington Post, USA Today

A new survey clarifies Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims: Pew Research Center for People & the Press

Friday Update: Various international angles on Mosque controversy: New York Times

72 murdered Mexican migrants found: BBC News

Friday Update: Mexico under siege: Los Angeles Times

Flash drive convicted of cyber attack: Computerworld

Canadians arrested with remote IED material: Ottawa Citizen 

The Accidental Threat Beat

Friday Update: Katrina Anniversary Coverage: Times-Picayune

Friday Update: Katrina Five Years Later: CNN special report

(Note: Given the critical role of levee failure, I categorize “Katrina” as an accidental failure of infrastructure more than a natural event.)

Significant piece of investigative journalism on the former Minerals Management Service: Washington Post

Engineer warned BP on cement seal: Wall Street Journal

Bacteria eating Gulf oil plume: Financial Times

At its core homeland security is mostly a local issue, but depending how it plays locally the issue can have far-reaching — even global — implications.  Think global, act local fits.

August 25, 2010

Stop with the Spin

Filed under: Legal Issues,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on August 25, 2010

The Sunday business section of The New York Times featured a long article by Peter S. Goodman looking for lessons in the ruins of the failed crisis management efforts of Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs (among others). Sadly, the piece overlooked the most important lesson we could take from these debacles: Look before you leap.

Goodman’s informants, like too many others, describe the jobs of crisis management practitioners from the limited perspective of what happens after the crisis become apparent to others. This narrative suggests effective crisis managers do little more than help their clients or bosses face facts, accept responsibility and chart a clear and direct course to safe ground. For this reason alone, they start from the flawed premise that the primary objective of crisis management is to protect — or failing that to restore — the tarnished image of the poor company and its executive whose best laid plans somehow went awry despite their best intentions.

To the extent that this position represents crisis management orthodoxy, it casts the affected company in the position of victim not villain. Sadly, most crises cannot be resolved by sinking to such simple tactics, especially when real victims are left with little recourse but to lick their wounds and hope someone will come along to make them whole again sooner rather than later.

Crisis management is not — or should not be — a separate and distinct discipline occupied predominantly by flaks and fixers. Clearly, many who labor under this label have little more to recommend them than their experience spinning for others or keeping them out of courtrooms rather than actually taking responsibility. Real crisis managers though are closely related to risk managers and emergency managers, both of whom take a comprehensive approach to their fields, which requires them to consider ways of preventing and mitigating harm before things start to become unwound.

Emergency managers think in terms of risk reduction, readiness, response and recovery (or prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery if you prefer). Crisis managers would do well to think in terms of awareness, ambiguity, adaptation and accountability. Conventional crisis management as practiced by spinmeisters and pettifoggers focuses on the external side of the crisis management diagram.

Crisis managers cannot, however, afford to overlook internal dynamics any more than they can afford to worry so much about what people will think tomorrow that they fail to do something constructive today. As such, crisis managers can play important roles helping organizations design effective monitoring systems that anticipate problems, amplify weak signals, appreciate their salience and ask (or inquire) actively what can go wrong and what should be done to avoid or control it. When problems emerge, effective crisis managers seek to promote and institutionalize organizational learning from the outset rather than rushing to deflect responsibility or avoid accountability.

Goodman and his experts wonder whether the problem is not what people could have done to avoid the problems they created, but whether the consequences of bad decisions are sometimes so riveting or revolting they make it impossible to change the subject. If that’s true in any way whatsoever, then those responsible for the decisions that led to these disasters should have considered such possibilities before things started going wrong.

How, you wonder, could anyone have foreseen such devastating effects from the actions of these companies and their executives? In hindsight, as Goodman and his experts note, it is all too clear that all these situations were both foreseeable and avoidable. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, if only as a thought experiment, to see what would happen if we assumed everyone did everything they could to prevent these disasters from happening. Why should this have stopped them from asking what they would do if their assumptions proved incorrect?

This is not such a far-fetched idea. Building codes require designers to consider the effects of earthquakes, which people cannot prevent. But they also require designers to protect a building from fire, which the occupants presumably can control. That’s right, we do not allow people to assume they will always be successful avoiding or controlling fire hazards. We require people to pursue fire prevention measures diligently. At the same time, we still require the same people to take reasonable precautions against the outbreak of fire so people can escape without injury and any fire can be controlled before spreading to the property of others.

We apply very similar logic to many other complex risks. When the stakes are big enough or the consequences terrible enough we ask people to do everything they can to avoid a problem while still taking precautions against its occurrence. Often these added investments prove unnecessary, but we rarely consider them entirely unwise.

Any company, institution or individual unable or unwilling to take a comprehensive approach to managing its crisis exposure leaves no one else to blame. We cannot blame the regulator or the consumer. We cannot assume bad things sometimes happen to good people. We can only make sure we hold good people accountable for becoming better people when they make big mistakes so others won’t have to suffer the same fate in the future.

August 24, 2010

“Why did the land of the free and the brave chicken out?”

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 24, 2010

In 2008, Fred Gevalt and his daughter Emelie flew around the country trying to find out why Americans tolerate the growing security state.

“We wanted to know why did the land of the free and the brave chicken out,” he told me.

The Gevalts focused especially on what happens at airports under the name of security.   They shared what they learned in a 94 minute film titled “Please Remove Your Shoes.”

You can see excerpts and get more information about the film and the people who made it by going to www.pleaseremoveyourshoesmovie.com.  Salon has a review here;  SecurityInfoWatch has a very thorough review here; the Wall Street Journal review is here, and the Washington Post review is here.


On the surface, the film appears to be about the security ineptitude of the FAA from the late 1980s through 2001 and the continuing problems of its genetically related TSA offspring.  The story is told through the eyes of whistleblowers, a few members of congress, newspaper and television reporters, and several other people in and around aviation security.

The film includes a review of several post 9/11 incidents that raise questions about the effectiveness of TSA and the safety of air travel.  It has an extended excerpt of Steven Bierfeldt’s chilling (and recorded) interaction in March 2009 with TSA and law enforcement officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport: was this reasonable suspicion or abuse of authority?


The film is not a political movie in a hatchet job way.  It is a political movie in the sense that it asks how much we are willing to put up with in the name of security; how we balance threat against consequences.

One of the people in the movie puts it this way:

“By sewing fear, Jihadist wield power out of all proportion to their numbers.  They threaten not just lives, but a way of life; fostering a paranoid mindset in which innocent travelers accept being bullied, harassed, and stripped of their constitutional rights. ….  [We]  still don’t have a system that is rational, effective and proportionate to the threat.  We continue to sacrifice our resources and freedoms for nothing more than an elaborate facade of security.”


In my view, the film’s TSA focus is as much macguffin as minotaur.  A central current of the film is how security has become a national shibboleth, something too sacred to question.

“Security has become too hot to touch,” Gevalt said during an interview.

“Congress is afraid to touch it. They just have to support it ad infinitum.  This is what frightens me.  The prospective budget for [security] is infinite.  It’s unbelievable.  And TSA is right in there.  The economy stinks. And we’ve got a bunch of guys [TSA] who, understandably, want to keep their jobs, hire more people, get bigger, get more important, get recognized.”

Gevalt says he and the others responsible for the movie have more to say than maybe what the film actually portrays.

“I’m not apologizing for it.  I think it’s a damn good movie.  But I think it’s necessary first to demonstrate that in many, many respects the system does not work. …. There’s a kind of naive expectation by the public that there is a statistical increase in [aviation security] because of TSA and homeland security.  And I just don’t think that’s true.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily the fault of TSA entirely.  I think it’s partly a function of the nature of the beast.  When you stop and think that we as a country lose 40,000 people a year to car accidents, 120,000 people a year to alcohol, and half a million to cigarette smoke — we haven’t forfeited all our personal liberties and we haven’t put ourselves into national bankruptcy over those three topics.  Yet look what we’re [spending] on security.

“The average is something like 104 people per annum from 1973 through 2001, including 9/11, that have died [from] terrorism [in the US].  That’s an extraordinary number, and I’m not going to suggest to the families of the 9/11 victims that [it’s not important].  But from a position of leadership, why are we doing this?  This is self flagellation.

“I think the bigger question is why are we throwing all this [security] money against the wall, with all the attendant employees, and gadgets, and policies and everything that comes with it.  It’s nuts.  It’s absolutely nuts.

That’s part of why I spent a good hunk of my nest egg [Gevalt financed the film himself] because I think we at least owe it to ourselves to think about it and talk about it.”

How does Gevalt think we can get out of the war on terror trap?

“Well, I think we start by looking at the statistical probabilities of death, doom and destruction right in the eye and try to make a cold blooded decision.”

In the world of homeland security, this is called risk management.

“But you can’t expect people in the business like TSA to think this way because it fundamentally undercuts what they are doing.”

I started to ask him if he thought TSA had improved over the years.  The movie closes with a dozen recommendations for improving aviation security.  Many have been implemented already.  The people in DHS I spoke with say the film mostly reports old news.

But whether TSA has improved or not is irrelevant to the larger point Gevalt is making.

“They probably have improved, but it’s kind of like saying ‘We need to fix this car over here, so we got a basketball team to help do it.  Don’t you think their drop shot is better than it used to be?’”


Why did Gevalt make this movie?  What does he hope it accomplishes?

“My hope is that someone in Washington knows what the point of all this is.  What are we doing here, at the strategic level?  What are we looking for?  What are we supposed to do?  What are we not supposed to do?  It would strike me that the biggest single problem that faces this agency [TSA] is whether or not they are operating as a deterrent or … to interdict.  Are they there to stop [a terrorist] or are they just there to shoe them away and have them go bomb the subway or something?”

The people at TSA I know are as serious about making sure flying is safe as are the whistleblowers and other critics in the movie.

Gevalt acknowledges that, but…

“How much are you willing to spend, how much should the government spend, how much does it make sense to spend in terms of time, employees, money, everything that costs you to build this kind of scarecrow?


“I gather you liked the movie?” Gevalt asked me at the end of the interview
“It’s not a movie you like or you don’t like,” I said.  “It’s a movie that you have to think about.”
“I’m glad it had that effect,” Gevalt said.  “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

August 21, 2010

Anti-Islam Protests in US Seen as Lift for Extremists (Updated Monday morning)

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 21, 2010

   Anti-mosque rally, Sunday, August 22.  Picture by James Estrin, New York Times

From the Saturday New York Times by Scott Shane:

Some counterterrorism experts say the anti-Muslim sentiment that has saturated the airwaves and blogs in the debate over plans for an Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan is playing into the hands of extremists by bolstering their claims that the United States is hostile to Islam.

Opposition to the center by prominent politicians and other public figures in the United States has been covered extensively by the news media in Muslim countries. At a time of concern about radicalization of young Muslims in the West, it risks adding new fuel to Al Qaeda’s claim that Islam is under attack by the West and must be defended with violence, some specialists on Islamic militancy say.  MORE

From the Sunday afternoon New York Daily News website:

Anti-‘Ground Zero mosque’ protesters descend on downtown Park51 site

BY Erik Badia, Kate Nocera and Simone Weichselbaum

Mosque hysteria reached fevered pitch Sunday as angry protesters opposed to building an Islamic center near Ground Zero squared off with supporters of the project.

In mostly peaceful counter-demonstrations, hundreds braved the rain in Lower Manhattan to voice their position on the contentious project that has spiralled into a national political issue. MORE

From the Sunday afternoon New York Post website:

Clash at World Trade mosque site


Supporters and opponents of the “Ground Zero mosque” clashed as they took to the streets this morning and held dueling rallies near the controversial site.

A group of 150 supporters of the planned  mosque and community center gathered at the corner West Broadway and Murray Street in Lower Manhattan and shouted, “Fascists get out!” while waving signs declaring, “Stop the fear and hate.”

Some 500 opponents of the project stood just a block away on the corner of West Broadway and Park Place chanting, “USA!” as they waved signs demanding, “No clubhouse for terrorists.” MORE

From the Sunday afternoon New York Times website:

Islamic Center Attracts Protesters on Both Sides


Two protests on Sunday morning, in the normally quiet blocks north of Ground Zero, claimed to be on the side of tolerance. One camp stood in favor of the mosque and Islamic center that has been proposed for the area; the other argued against.

Around 500 of those opposed gathered in a cordoned-off area, heavily monitored by police. They sang patriotic songs and spoke of a hijacked Constitution, a renegade presidency and tolerance toward the sensitivities of New Yorkers whose relatives died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

A counterprotest, smaller but equally passionate, gathered steam two blocks away, where about 200 people chanted that tolerance should be directed toward members of different religions, and that the values of the Constitution supported their side of the argument. MORE

From the Monday morning Los Angeles Times website:

New York mosque controversy worries Muslims overseas

By Borzou Daragahi

Reporting from Beirut —The heated debate across America over construction of the so-called ground zero mosque is reverberating across the globe, with the potential of creating a worldwide black eye for the United States.
Many Muslims abroad are miffed by the stateside debate, largely conducted by non-Muslims, that has grown so loud as to become a topic of discussion on talk shows and newspapers from Bali to Bahrain, from Baghdad to Berlin. The proposed Cordoba House has become a symbol of America’s fraught relations with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. MORE

From the Monday morning Washington Post website:

Far from Ground Zero, other plans for mosques run into vehement opposition

By Annie Gowen

MURFREESBORO, TENN. — For more than 30 years, the Muslim community in this Nashville suburb has worshipped quietly in a variety of makeshift spaces — a one-bedroom apartment, an office behind a Lube Express — attracting little notice even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But when the community’s leaders proposed a 52,900-square-foot Islamic center with a school and a swimming pool this year, the vehement backlash from their neighbors caught them by surprise. Opponents crowded county meetings and held a noisy protest in the town square that drew hundreds, some carrying signs such as “Keep Tennessee Terror Free.” MORE

For further consideration:

Ground Zero mosque”? America needs a reality check (The Guardian UK)

Fuelling fundamentalism (Daily Times of Pakistan)

Trapped at Ground Zero (Al-Ahram of Egypt)

President Obama backs mosque near Ground Zero (Daily Star of Dhaka)

Additional links to international coverage of the issue are available via a prior post.  My purpose is not to endorse the opinions offered by those outside the United States.  But given the homeland security focus of this blog, such international perceptions are relevant and often not referenced by US media.

August 20, 2010

Landing on Park Place: No matter what, it’s very expensive

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 20, 2010

Not being a native New Yorker, my familiarity with Park Place had been limited to the monopoly board.  Along with Boardwalk, it is a very expensive place to own.  According to most game strategists owning it also pays-off poorly.

Now I know Park Place as the planned location for a controversial Islamic community center.  The pay-off still looks iffy.

This blog is one of the few places where I pronounce.  Usually I ask questions.  I listen.  I confirm what I hear.  I ask follow-on questions.  Peter Drucker wrote, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

As a teacher, supervisor, and consultant, listening and trying to truly understand the other is critical.  My colleagues in the intelligence game — at least the analysts — make the point that they too are mostly very active listeners.

Whatever else, the controversy brewing along Park Place in lower Manhattan gives me an opportunity to listen.  As  made clear in prior posts (re-posted far below) I have made my own judgment and am unlikely to shift.  But I ought not stop listening.

On this issue much of what I hear is personally painful.  I often hear fear, anger, and a mangling of the truth.  But this is also a kind of truth.  As one who has pledged, if only to myself, to protect my nation, it is important to listen.  The issues — including fear, anger, and non-truths — are crucial to my work in homeland security.

Immediately below is an argument that I respect against the proposed Islamic community center.  This is followed by the best alternative argument I have seen.  I close by re-posting a personal reaction.

The Mosque at Ground Zero

By Abraham H. Foxman (Originally published in the Huffington Post)

Perhaps no issue in recent memory has aroused as much controversy and passion as the proposed Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Those passions came to a head as the blogosphere reacted, mostly in a headlong rush to judgment, over the recommendation by the Anti-Defamation League that New York City would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

The reaction was immediate, and in most cases we were maligned, and our position was mischaracterized and deeply misunderstood. The main charge was that an anti-bigotry organization had joined with the bigots. That false accusation was extremely painful and served to diminish and obscure the fact that our position on the Islamic center was carefully considered, clearly stated and consistent with our values and mission.

There are legitimate differences of opinion regarding the building of an Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero.

To us, after much discussion and debate it became clear that the overriding concern should be the sensitivities of the families of the victims that dictated finding another location for this massive, $100 million project.

At its essence, our position is about sensitivity. Everyone — victims, opponents and proponents alike — must pay attention to the sensitivities involved without giving in to appeals to, or accusations of, bigotry. Ultimately, this was not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center would unnecessarily cause some victims more pain. And that wasn’t right.

Having made our decision known, we expected disagreement and criticism from some quarters. What has been so disheartening, however, has been the nature of that criticism. Two kinds of attacks have been particularly troubling: that we are violating principles of religious freedom, and that we are stereotyping Muslims.

These criticisms simply ignore ADL’s record in dealing with such matters, particularly in the post-9/11 climate.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims were being stereotyped and in some cases individual Muslims or Muslim institutions were attacked. ADL took the lead in not standing idly by. We took out ads in The New York Times and other newspapers with the headline, “Don’t Fight Hate with Hate.” Our message was that a terrible event occurred on 9/11, a national tragedy brought on by hate, but the way to deal with it was to fight the terrorists, and not to stereotype and hate individual Muslims.

Similarly, when two mosques in Dallas were targets of shooting, ADL’s director in Dallas organized a press conference featuring the imam of one of the mosques, a Baptist minister and himself to speak together against this dangerous and inappropriate reaction to the 9/11 horror.

When a Muslim congressman was condemned by some for taking the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible, ADL was quick to defend his right to that option.

In Ohio, in 2002, ADL called upon Cuyahoga County corrections officials to reverse their decision not to permit Muslim women to wear their hijab in the courtroom. In 2006, ADL condemned remarks by a member of Congress depicting Muslims in a stereotypical way.

And there are many more examples in recent years of ADL’s voice standing out against anti-Muslim bigotry.

Indeed, ADL supports the building of mosques, like churches and synagogues, just about anywhere in the country. That is a religious freedom perspective.

And when French government officials sought to bar the wearing by Muslims of religious facial garments, ADL spoke out to defend the right of Muslims to wear traditional clothing and participate as full members of society.

Not to mention ADL’s day-to-day work across this country in fighting hate crimes, which affect Muslims, and in teaching about respect and tolerance for difference in schools, workplaces and federal institutions.

All in all, we have established ourselves as leaders in promoting pluralism and fighting against bigotry, particularly against Muslims in the difficult post-9/11 period.

Critics should consider that context and credibility before reacting to ADL’s position. Clearly we would not take a position to limit religious freedom. Clearly we would never take a position that would stereotype Muslims.

However, we also must take into consideration the feelings of the families who lost loved ones at Ground Zero.

The lessons of an earlier and different controversy echo in this one. In 1993, Pope John Paul II asked 14 Carmelite Nuns to move their convent from just outside the Auschwitz death camp. The establishment of the convent near Auschwitz had stirred dismay among Jewish groups and survivors who felt that the location was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so too we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero.

The better way for Muslims seeking reconciliation and moderation would have been for them to reach out to the families of the victims, who we are sure could have recommended any number of actions to achieve those goals other than the present plan.

To make this a test of whether one supports religious freedom or is stereotyping Muslims is to engage in demagoguery. Good people can differ as to what should happen, without falsely being accused of abandoning their principles.

Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

Religious Tolerance, then and now

By Dana Millbank (originally published in the Washington Post)

“To bigotry no sanction.”

— George Washington

“Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

— Sarah Palin

Two hundred twenty years ago today (August 18), the Jews of Newport, R.I., wrote a proclamation for President George Washington on his visit to their synagogue the next day.

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” the Jews wrote to their famous visitor, we now “behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People . . . generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”

Washington’s reply the next day, a simple letter titled “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” set a standard for religious tolerance that guided the nation through two centuries. Here is that message in its entirety — along with some alternative thoughts on the topic occasioned by the proposed mosque near Ground Zero:


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

“There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over. . . . Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”

— Newt Gingrich

* * *

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

“9/11 mosque=act of fitna [Arabic for scandal], ‘equivalent to bldg Serbian Orthodox church@Srebrenica killing fields where Muslims were slaughtered.’ ”

— Sarah Palin

* * *

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

“President Obama’s support of building the mosque at Ground Zero is a slap in the face to the American people. . . . In fact, the majority of the country is strongly opposed to building a mosque at the site of the most tragic terrorist attack on America. I will continue to demmand [sic] President Obama to reverse his support on this.”

— Sen. David Vitter (R-La).

* * *

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

“The Ground Zero Mosque is not about freedom of religion, as President Obama claims. It’s about the murderous ideology behind the attacks on our country and the fanatics our troops are fighting every day in the Middle East.”

— Carl Paladino, Republican candidate for governor of New York

* * *

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

“President Obama has this all wrong and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero, especially since Islamic terrorists have bragged and celebrated destroying the Twin Towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans.”

— Jeff Greene, Democratic candidate for Senate in Florida

* * *

May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

“Come on, we’re going to allow that at Ground Zero?”

— Rudy Giuliani


Help me understand

by Philip J. Palin

CNN poll is out reporting that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to creation of an Islamic center planned for 51 Park Place in New York.  I am surprised.

I might have expected similar numbers, but of reverse opinion: 68 percent in favor, 29 percent opposed, 3 percent uncertain.  Actually, I would have predicted a higher percentage of undecided.  My long-lost cousin Sarah certainly has evidence for me not “getting it.”

I am in the distinct minority that supports the Center. The more arguments I hear against the Center the more this judgment seems to be reinforced.

Based on what I read and hear the core argument against the Center is that Islam, as a faith, caused — or Muslims, as a group, conducted — the 9/11 attacks, two blocks away from the building to be developed.  Neither of these perceptions is accurate.  Such arguments are a horrible fiction the terrorists themselves have attempted to foist on the world.  In adopting this fiction we give aid-and-comfort to those who have chosen to be our enemies.

Rather, a few deluded self-defined, and largely non-practicing Muslims — contrary to the tenants of Islam — murdered nearly 3000 innocents, including at least 58 Muslims.

Moreover, from everything I have heard and read, those involved in conceiving the Islamic Center are explicit in rejecting the false teaching of those involved in terrorism. These individuals, by their own testimony and those of many faiths who have known them, are motivated to “improving Muslim-West relations.”  As such, it is hard for me to imagine a better place for such a center than lower Manhattan.  The current controversy demonstrates the need for such work.

I am proud to be an American.  For me this means I am proud of the values articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  These are challenging and ambitious values. As an individual I too often fail to keep faith with these values.  But it is very clear that among these values are religious freedom and significant property rights.  At 51 Park Place these two key values have intersected.  I understand I am duty-bound to protect these liberties.

Further, as a self-defined (if nothing more) homeland security professional, I perceive the stated intentions of the Cordoba Initiative  as supporting the core values of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  From what I can discover regarding those involved in the Cordoba Initiative their motivations are inimical to those of our terrorist adversaries.  I have heard accusations otherwise, but I have not yet found any evidence otherwise.

So this is an occasion when principle and pragmatism meet.   This highlights how the vocal opposition to the Islamic Center causes me significant concern.  In the rhetoric and actions of those opposed to the conversion of 51 Park Place I perceive Osama bin-Laden, Anwar Awlaki, and their ilk are being given an enormous amount of unintentional — even paradoxical — support. 

It is also my duty to protect the free speech of those who I perceive are playing into the hands of our adversaries.  I will do so.  But I hope that along the way we can speak together and  listen together.  I am very unhappy  that I seem to oppose two-thirds of my fellow Americans on a matter of core principle and pragmatic self-interest.  Help me understand our differences.

August 19, 2010

Paying attention to Pakistan

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on August 19, 2010

At this specific moment nothing is more important to homeland security than what is happening in Pakistan. 

The confluence of a  profound natural cataclysm, a whole range of cascading accidents and failures, and the prospect of what this will mean for violent extremism in South Asia and around the world is worth our careful attention and thoughtful action.  What we can learn from this cataclysm and how it may yet unfold has a host of domestic implications.

Today I urge you to visit the website for DAWN, the most widely read English-language newspaper in Pakistan.


Dealing with inappropriate expectations in a relationship. (Yes, this is a homeland security blog.)

Filed under: Cybersecurity,General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 19, 2010

Monday the House Homeland Security released a new GAO study: Key Private and Public Cyber Expectations Need to be Consistently Addressed.

The Government Accountability Office reports that the private sector is disappointed in the public sector and the reverse is also true.  From the report:

Private sector stakeholders reported that they expect their federal partners to provide usable, timely, and actionable cyber threat information and alerts; access to sensitive or classified information; a secure mechanism for sharing information; security clearances; and a single centralized government cybersecurity organization to coordinate government efforts. However, according to private sector stakeholders, federal partners are not consistently meeting these expectations… 
Public sector council officials stated that improvements could be made to the partnership, including improving private sector sharing of sensitive information. Some private sector stakeholders do not want to share their proprietary information with the federal government for fear of public disclosure and potential loss of market share, among other reasons.
Without improvements in meeting private and public sector expectations, the partnerships will remain less than optimal, and there is a risk that owners of critical infrastructure will not have the information necessary to thwart cyber attacks that could have catastrophic effects on our nation’s cyber-reliant critical infrastructure.

Our daughter just celebrated her first wedding anniversary.  I recently asked, “Have you uncovered any big expectations either of you brought into the marriage unrecognized by the other?”  I will not share her answer.  But many of us have been there and have our own answers.

Reading the GAO study, one cyber-partner expects the other to be brilliant, efficient, and consistently effective.   Meanwhile the “brilliant” cyber-partner expects the other to be generous, trusting, and communicative. 

Sounds entirely like too many just married couples.  We’ve been at this for nearly nine years now.  Where’s the realism? 

The GAO reports, “The two most expected services private sector stakeholders want from their federal partners are timely and actionable cyber threat and alert information—providing the right information to the right persons or groups as early as possible to give them time to take appropriate action. The percentages of private sector survey respondents reporting that they expect timely and actionable cyber threat and alert information to a great or moderate extent were 98 and 96, respectively.”

Sounding like a tough marriage counselor the GAO writes, “Only 27 percent of private sector survey respondents reported that they were receiving timely and actionable cyber threat information and alerts to a great or moderate extent.” 

I’m amazed the percentage is so high.  If I would take my wife’s top two expectations of me and she could confidently say I was regularly meeting those expectations 27 percent of the time… even if only to a “moderate extent.”  Well, she would probably be thrilled.

Most of the time the public sector has nothing specific to tell the private sector regarding an actionable cyber threat or alert.  Most of the time the private sector will know about the threat before the public sector.

When the GAO asked public sector cyber-professionals about their private sector partners even more good news emerged. “Many government councils reported that the private sector is mostly meeting their expectations in several areas… Four of the five government councils stated that they are receiving commitment to execute plans and recommendations and timely and actionable cyber threat information to a great or moderate extent.”  Without my ellipses the tone of the GAO report is more negative.  But the quote above is much more honest than quotes on most movie ads.

Despite the basically good news, the public sector wants the private sector to share more. (Isn’t that what the private sector is asking from the public sector?) “One issue is that private sector stakeholders do not want to share their sensitive, proprietary information with the federal government. In addition, information security companies could lose a competitive advantage by sharing information with the government which, in turn, could share it with those companies’ competitors. In addition, according to DHS officials, despite special protections and sanitization processes, private sector stakeholders are unwilling to agree to all of the terms that the federal government or a government agency requires to share certain information.”

Other than FOIA, Congressional hearings, and WikiLeaks what could those pesky private sector folks be worried about?

There are some real challenges.  Read the GAO report.  Sure, improvement is possible.  But what I read — admittedly between the lines — is the description of an amazingly productive relationship… especially if the two parties don’t focus too much on their unrealistic expectations of each other.

The following is from another website with a very different mission than HLSWatch, but in this case the advice seems appropriate:

It’s okay to have expectations. Everyone does. However, the expectations need to be achievable or the sense of disappointment, disillusionment and despair from failed expectations will bring (the relationship) to the point of wanting to call it quits.

Hopefully, your expectations will include being able to… resolve conflicts, to appreciate your differences… to respect one another, and to be able to discuss values and priorities.

It is very important to be able to identify and actually talk about expectations with one another. Together you can fine tune your expectations so that neither of you are trying to live up to something that is impossible.

I had finished the preceding before reading Mark’s Wednesday piece.  If you have not, just keep reading below.  Mark and I don’t know each other, live on opposite coasts, and usually start from very different places.  Somehow we keep meeting along the way.  After awhile recurring coincidence may suggest an emerging pattern.

August 18, 2010

The Seven-fold Path to Enlightened Emergency Management

Filed under: Strategy — by Mark Chubb on August 18, 2010

If I hadn’t known better before I clicked on the link that led me to the following list on Monday morning, I would have wondered whether the author was a homeland security or emergency management practitioner:

  1. Replace expectations with plans.
  2. Prepare for different possibilities.
  3. Become a feeling observer.
  4. Get confident about your coping and adapting skills.
  5. Utilize stress reduction techniques preemptively.
  6. Focus on what you can control.
  7. Practice mindfulness.

These seven steps do not appear in the National Response Framework or National Incident Management System guidance. But maybe they should. No, these steps were written as a guide to stress-free living in an uncertain future for followers of a website that bases its advice on Buddhist philosophy.

So, how would this advice apply if we accepted it in our practice?

Replace expectations with plans. Our expectations tend to be rather pessimistic assessments of the future state of affairs. All this negativity makes it difficult for people to engage our message, much less respond creatively or enthusiastically to the challenge posed by some of the threats we face. We cannot do much about some of these hazards, but we can choose to reduce our vulnerability one step at a time. We can start by making a plan with those affected by hazards that outlines our shared understanding of the problems we face and the process that will get us to a better place.

Prepare for different possibilities. This advice goes beyond applying an all-hazards approach. For each hazard we should consider the full-range of possibilities from different perspectives. Sometimes the worst-case scenario involves less complex trade-offs or less intense competition for resources than less severe scenarios. Really overwhelming incidents can limit our options in ways less intense events do not. How much more difficult is it to manage a response when lots of resources are available before you really understand what’s happening? Developing scenarios that reflect the range of interactions between major drivers and major uncertainties allows us to consider a number of plausible scenarios without worrying which is more likely or most taxing. This approach also allows us to look more carefully at how each element of our capability affects outcomes by interacting with the identified drivers and uncertainties.

Become a feeling observer. To protect ourselves we often seek to adopt a detached perspective and often argue that the best options are those that pass some sort of technical, rational litmus test. But disasters are experienced by people in very personal ways. Why not recognize and respond to the personal suffering we’re witnessing with understanding and compassion? This is, after all, exactly how most people respond when confronted with disaster. When confronted with the ambiguity and anxiety arising from disaster, people often respond in very adaptive even altruistic ways. Explicitly acknowledging the tendency of people to engage one another to alleviate suffering allows us to look to survivors as resources to be engaged rather than obstacles to be pushed aside so the “professionals” can get in to do the job. This is less about allowing them to share the burden than it is about letting them own the solution. After all, it is their problem.

Get confident about your coping and adapting skills. Perhaps the most important but undervalued coping and adapting skills are a high tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to get started without knowing where you will end up. Disasters do not wait for decision-makers to gather all the information they think they need. People in need don’t wait for us to know what’s wrong or what to do about it. We don’t need detailed plans or stacks of standard operating procedures to tell us how to act with compassion, humility and integrity. We can alleviate a lot of suffering by doing something as simple as holding a dying man’s hand, and that never appears in our plans anyway.

Utilize stress reduction techniques preemptively. If effective homeland security and emergency management are more about doing than saying, then they are also as much about reflecting upon what we have done as what we said we would do. We can do everyone a lot more good if we take time to relax, reflect and renew ourselves at regular intervals. Removing ourselves from the distractions and preoccupations of the work environment frees our minds to see hidden connections between our work and the wider world in which we live. When we realize that life is not a race, we learn to make the most of the little time we do have.

Focus on what you can control. For a discipline preoccupied with command and control thinking, we often fail to recognize that most of the things that need to happen and many of those that matter the most to the outcome of a disaster are beyond our control. We cannot control the weather or the timing of an event. We cannot improve preparedness after an incident occurs. We cannot change the past. But we can use the people and resources we have wisely. This often means employing people in ways that add the most value to their experience of the event, which means engaging them in decisions and actions that give them the opportunity to develop a sense of shared purpose and commitment to the end result. The most powerful and profound form of control involves knowing when to let go. When we make others our partners, we can achieve much more.

Practice mindfulness. It would be nice if we could maintain the distinction between intention and action. So much of what we do in homeland security and emergency management is misunderstood by policy-makers and the general public. We don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming their inability to understand what we do reflects an unwillingness to put themselves in our shoes. They will judge us by what we do or fail to do no matter how carefully we might tread. Practicing mindfulness means making ourselves truly present to others and opening ourselves and our processes to their positive involvement. People are less liable to criticize decisions and actions in which they shared a part. And they often contribute new perspectives we miss when we treat our problems and process as if they were our personal property.

August 17, 2010

Homeland Security, Home Depot, Fusion Centers, and a Local Hardware Store

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on August 17, 2010

July’s Washington Post investigation of the national security and intelligence system continues to live —  least on the internet, its blogosphere suburbs, and (in October) on public television’s Frontline.

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan summarized the size of the intelligence enterprise in her July 19th post. :

  • 45 organizations (with 1,271 sub-units) engaged in top-secret work.
  • 1,931 companies engaged in top-secret work for the government.
  • 854,000 individuals  hold top-secret security clearances.
  • Over 50,000 intelligence reports published each year.
  • A $75 billion (public number) intelligence budget for 2009.

What does the nation get for those numbers?  What does it lose?

Today’s post is from a colleague who is a member of what might be called the pre-9/11 intelligence community. Her essay was written before the Washington Post investigation was published.

She writes specifically about the growth of fusion centers (there are now more than 70 of them).  But she makes a larger point that something important may have been lost amidst the growth of Top Secret America and homeland security.


Recently, the joys that accompany homeowner responsibility found me on my way to the local Home Depot to purchase the supplies necessary to fix a leaky kitchen faucet. I arrived at the store lacking any anxiety about the shopping trip.  After all, I was bound to easily locate my required plumbing supplies at the largest home-improvement retailer in the United States… or was I?

Two hours later, the same, but now greatly decreased, joys of home ownership found me at my local hardware store, where the anxiety created by my Home Depot visit was alleviated by the knowledge and helpfulness of the familiar owner.

As I made my way back home, finally armed with the correct supplies to complete my project, I thought about the reasons I had encountered such obstacles at Home Depot. I realized the big-box concept that initially gave Home Depot its innovative value had been overcome by inconvenience and a loss of trust due to unfamiliarity. The resulting experience was less efficient and more time-consuming, thereby negating any monetary savings.

Upon further reflection, I recognized many similarities between my Home Depot visit and the problems besetting homeland security in the United States. Since the events of 9/11, the number of individuals working in the homeland security field has greatly increased. New initiatives abound, most of which consist of adding people and resources as the solution to any and all problems.

But given the current issues within this field, including the struggle for success of fusion centers, mission creep between agencies, and vast duplication of responsibilities, are the solutions working? Or has the safety of our nation fallen victim to big-boxization?

People working counterterrorism matters prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were part of a much smaller cadre of personnel focused on the security of our homeland. They operated through a voluntary collaborative effort on Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), before the days when collaboration became a forced requirement. They worked as a team, before the days when that team became a behemoth. They knew the right people to contact for the right information, before the days when all of those people were required to sit in the same location.

Revisiting my Home Depot experience, I can draw many parallels with the current problems found in homeland security and, specifically, within the fusion centers that have been established allegedly to ensure information sharing between federal, state, and local stakeholders.

Similar to the various departments within a Home Depot store, the fusion centers are staffed by people representing various agencies, levels of government, and areas of expertise. But just as the salesperson assigned to the electrical department at Home Depot could not assist me when I couldn’t locate a plumbing representative, the physical co-location of personnel within a fusion center does not produce the ease of one-stop shopping.  Instead, issues of security clearances, proprietary information, and the lack of data interoperability cause the same refrains to be echoed throughout the fusion centers as I heard in Home Depot: “Sorry, ma’am, that’s not my department.”

My inconvenience at Home Depot was further exacerbated by the sales staff’s lack of familiarity with the local community. I live in a town home community built in the 1940s and, as is often the case, the historic nature of my neighborhood is accompanied by many quirks in construction and materials. The plumbing salesperson at Home Depot (who I finally located) did not know anything about my neighborhood and its quirks.  His penchant for guessing what supplies I needed did not increase my confidence or trust in his knowledge.

When I finally abandoned my attempts to succeed in Home Depot and went to my neighborhood hardware store, I was greeted by the long-time owner who was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the construction of my townhouse. Combined with his broad-based knowledge of every item on the shelves within his store, his familiarity immediately fostered my trust that I would walk out of that store with the correct supplies.

The large number of agencies and personnel being pushed into fusion centers risks creating the same lack of familiarity exhibited by the Home Depot salesperson. Only time will tell whether this familiarity, and corresponding trust, will be established. The common physical location of personnel may not be the answer to full collaboration because, as is seen in Home Depot, the issues of stovepiping and the lack of broad knowledge still remain, no matter how many people and resources are assigned to a single location.

I know for certain that I will not be visiting Home Depot the next time I need home improvement supplies. Instead, I will return to my neighborhood hardware store in which I have full confidence. Will I soon say the same about homeland security and avoid the fusion center, as I long for a return to the days of the “mom and pop” version of counterterrorism?

August 16, 2010

NYC zoning becomes an international issue

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 16, 2010

On Sunday afternoon (US Eastern Time) the “Most Read” story on Pakistan’s DAWN newspaper’s website was headlined: Mosque near Ground Zero becoming political football.  In the midst of  catastrophic flooding this issue is nonetheless getting significant attention. (On Monday morning US time the story is in second place on the Most Read list.)

The DAWN story focuses mostly on partisan bickering during Fox News Sunday earlier in the day.  Whatever your angle on the proposed site for the mosque, most readers will see the story as effective encouragement to anti-US attitudes, which are already strong in Pakistan. 

This is in a moderate, generally pro-Western, English language media outlet.  The story in DAWN seems to be derived mostly from an AFP report by Michael Mathes.  I can only imagine how the story is being reported elsewhere in the Muslim world. 

A related August 14 Al Jazeera headline reads, “Prayer Hall or Provocation?”  Perhaps because it was written before the Sunday morning talk show appeared, the report gives much more attention to Mayor Bloomberg’s support for the mosque and President Obama’s comments regarding religious freedom at a White House Iftar dinner.

In March terrorist recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki warned American Muslims, “Slowly but surely your situation is becoming similar to that of the embattled Muslim community of Spain after the fall of Granada. Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history there are and ominous clouds gathering in your horizon. Yesterday American was the land of slavery, segregation, lynching and Klu Klux Klan and tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps. Don’t be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters.”

In today’s (Monday) edition of DAWN, both online and print, one of the newspaper’s lead editorial’s addresses the Mosque controversy and closes with:

The 9/11 attacks were executed by Al Qaeda, not Muslims at large. That Al Qaeda espouses a distorted view of Islam has nothing to do with ordinary, law-abiding Muslims practising their religion. These are obvious facts. Unfortunately, some American politicians appear to have calculated that Islamophobia is a potent vote-getter. But that is as dangerous as it is self-defeating. Al Qaeda and militant Islamists could probably not dream of a better propaganda opportunity: see, they will say, America really is against Islam. The furore over the mosque isn’t winning hearts and minds for America, it is poisoning them.

For further consideration:

The New York Times is consolidating its coverage as a Times Topic.

The proposed Islamic community center is being advocated by the Cordoba Initiative.

The organized opposition to the community center seems to be centered around the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization Of America.

Tuesday Update:

The battle over the mosque at Ground Zero (Telegraph UK)

Editorial: Fathom the faith at Ground Zero (The Daily Star, Lebanon)

Top US Democrat opposes mosque plan(Al Jazeera)

Hope at Ground Zero (Al-Ahram, Egypt)

Ground Zero mosque polarizes US (Arab News)

Hamas endorses Ground Zero plan (The Post, NYC)

We can all access related stories in Arabic, Urdu, and Indonesian language media, and I’m sure others, but I cannot read or translate.  If you can — or if you see trust-worthy translations — please let me know.

Wednesday Update:

The mosque issue (Al-Arabiya)

Muslims and Islam: Under siege in America. Still! (Accra Mail: Ghana)

A personal note as of Wednesday, August 18:

CNN poll is out reporting that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to creation of an Islamic center planned for 51 Park Place in New York.  I am surprised.

I might have expected similar numbers, but of reverse opinion: 68 percent in favor, 29 percent opposed, 3 percent uncertain.  Actually I would have predicted a higher percentage of undecided.  My long-lost cousin Sarah certainly has evidence for me not “getting it.”

I am in the distinct minority that supports the Center. The more arguments I hear against the Center the more this judgment seems to be reinforced.

Based on what I read and hear the core argument against the Center is that Islam, as a faith, caused — or Muslims, as a group, conducted — the 9/11 attacks, two blocks away from the building to be developed.  It seems clear to me that neither of these perceptions is accurate.  The core arguments are a horrible fiction the terrorists themselves have attempted to foist on the world.  In adopting this fiction we give aid-and-comfort to those who have chosen to be our enemies.

Rather, a few deluded self-defined, and largely non-practicing Muslims — contrary to the tenants of Islam — murdered nearly 3000 innocents, including at least 58 Muslims.

Moreover, from everything I have heard and read, those involved in conceiving the Islamic Center are explicit in rejecting the false teaching of those involved in terrorism. These individuals, by their own testimony and those of many faiths who have known them, are motivated to “improving Muslim-West relations.”  As such, it is hard for me to imagine a better place for such a center than lower Manhattan.

I am proud to be an American.  For me this means I am proud of the values articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  These are challenging and ambitious values. As an individual I too often fail to keep faith with these values.  But it is very clear that among these values are religious freedom and significant property rights.  At 51 Park Place these two key values have intersected.  I understand I am duty-bound to protect these liberties.

Further, as a self-defined (if nothing more) homeland security professional, I perceive the stated intentions of the Cordoba Initiative  as supporting the core values of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  From what I can discover regarding those involved in the Cordoba Initiative their motivations are inimical to those of our terrorist adversaries.  I have heard accusations otherwise, but I have not yet found any evidence otherwise.

So this is an occasion when principles and pragmatism meet.   This highlights how the vocal opposition to the Islamic Center causes me significant concern.  In the rhetoric and actions of those opposed to the conversion of 51 Park Place I perceive Osama bin-Laden, Anwar Awlaki, and their ilk are being given an enormous amount of unintentional — even paradoxical — support. 

It is also my duty to protect the free speech of those who I perceive are playing into the hands of our adversaries.  I will do so.  But I hope that along the way we can speak together and  listen together.  I am very unhappy  that I seem to oppose two-thirds of my fellow Americans on a matter of core principle and pragmatic self-interest.

August 15, 2010

UPDATED: Cataclysmic (?) conditions in Pakistan

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 15, 2010

UPDATE: Wednesday, August 18:

Recently a few of us have been discussing whether there is any benefit distinquishing between a disaster and a catastrophe and a cataclysm.  Too roughly, a disaster is very bad.  A catastrophe is a disaster from which there will be no real recovery.  In our personal lexicon, a cataclysm is an almost total washing away of what previously existed.

It is, perhaps, appropriate that the Greek kataklysmós means a thorough, complete, degenerating flood.

Desperation grows over Pakistan flood damage (New York Times)

Pakistan floods could sweep away weak government (CBS News)

Taliban will not be allowed to take advantage of crisis (DAWN)

Following is the original post from Sunday, August 15.  This was intended to build on the two prior posts.

Asian Jet Stream as of August 15

Weather Underground Forecast for Monday, August 16, 2010. A long front that will initially extend from the eastern Sea of Japan through southeast China will be the biggest weather producer in eastern Asia as it moves slowly eastward throughout the day. Steady precipitation is expected through southeast China, but farther inland than the normally hard hit areas due to the monsoons. The monsoons themselves will be weak in nature with only scattered showers and thunderstorms likely along the southeast coast of China.”

See current conditions and forecast for Peshawar, Pakistan.

See current conditions and forecast for Moscow, Russia.

See current conditions and forecast for Gansu, China

From Dr. Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog:

“The Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 is one of the most intense, widespread, and long-lasting heat waves in world history. Only the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 – 50,000 people, and the incredible North American heat wave of July 1936, which set all-time extreme highest temperature records in fifteen U.S. states, can compare. All of these heat waves were caused by a highly unusual kink in the jet stream that remained locked in place for over a month. The jet stream is an upper-level river of air, between the altitudes of about 30,000 – 40,000 feet (10,000 – 12,000 meters). In July over Europe and Asia, the jet stream has two branches: a strong southern “subtropical” jet that blows across southern Europe, and a weaker “polar” jet that blows across northern Europe. The polar jet stream carries along the extratropical cyclones (lows) that bring the midlatitudes most of their precipitation. The polar jet stream also acts as the boundary between cold, Arctic air, and warm tropical air. If the polar jet stream shifts to the north of its usual location, areas just to its south will be much hotter and drier than normal. In July 2010, a remarkably strong polar jet stream developed over northern Europe. This jet curved far to the north of Moscow, then plunged southwards towards Pakistan. This allowed hot air to surge northwards over most of European Russia, and prevented rain-bearing low pressure systems from traveling over the region. These rain-bearing low pressure systems passed far to the north of European Russia, then dove unusually far to the south, into northern Pakistan. The heavy rains from these lows combined with Pakistan’s usual summer monsoon rains to trigger Pakistan’s most devastating floods in history.”  MORE.

The historical record suggests these events are atypical, but recur.  We cannot precisely predict time and place, but we can anticipate the recurrence of such extremities.  We cannot prevent.  But we can make choices that exacerbate or mitigate the experience of harm when they do recur.

Monday Update:

Pakistan: Authorities warn of new floods as heavy rain falls (DAWN)

Pakistan: Food related inflation (DAWN)

China: Torrential rains forecast for August 16 and 17 (AFP)

Chinese economy surpasses Japan (Financial Times)

Russia: Fires shrink (Wall Street Journal)

Gale force winds hit St. Petersburg (Moscow Times)

More bread for your daily loaf (The Sun)

Tuesday Update:

Pakistan: Mother of all disasters: Second wave of death feared (Sydney Morning Herald)

China: Torrential rains leave 36 dead, 23 missing (Xinhua)

Russia: Industry output growth slows in record heat (Reuters)

August 14, 2010

Watching this wedge of white swans

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2010

Flooding in Pakistan, picture by Reuters

Further to my Thursday post (immediately below), comments on it, and unfolding events, please access the following updates:

20 million homeless in Pakistan (Guardian)

Cholera confirmed in Pakistan flood disaster (AP)

A long view of Indus River flooding (BBC)

Heavy rains continue in China (Xinhua)

Shanghai temperature hits 104 degree F (40 degrees C) (China People’s Daily)

Yuan has biggest weekly drop in 20 months (Bloomberg)

Russian fires shrink, consequences grow (Wall Street Journal)

Russia Wheat: Drought has reduced yield by 40 percent in key production regions (USDA, 1.08 MB download)

Residents save water in wake of Ames flood (Des Moines Register)

Consolidated coverage of all Iowa flooding (Des Moines Register)

Not to be a nag, but all these situations are white — not black — swans.  Each of these “natural” disasters have been amplifed by human choice.  Each has — at least local and perhaps broader — catastrophic potential.  Are we watching the way a white swan might evolve into a black swan?

August 12, 2010

Fire, flood, and famine are white swans

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 12, 2010

A persistent drought and intense heat has brought huge wildfires to the Moscow region, killing off  twenty percent or more of the Russian wheat harvest.  The international price of wheat doubled between late June and last week. (This week the market is a bit confused).

A super-flood has inundated the breadbasket of Pakistan directly affecting 14 million people. According to Al-Jazeera, “The prices of basic items such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes and squash have in some cases quadrupled in recent days, putting them out of reach for many Pakistanis.”

China has experienced significant flooding in several regions since late May, and more heavy rain is predicted.  In July Chinese food costs increased 6.8 percent as a result of flood-related supply problems. The floods have also worsened conditions in already hungry North Korea. The geopolitical and broader economic consequences remain to be seen.

These extreme events — plus the earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — are sometimes categorized as “low probability, high consequence” events.  That’s not quite right.  More accurately these are “low frequency, high consequence” events.

8.0 earthquakes are infrequent. But in any given year on a global basis such earthquakes are highly probable.  The probability of such an earthquake devastating California increases slightly each day.  

In homeland security — and other disciplines — we are helpfully encouraged to consider what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has tagged as Black Swan events.  Mr. Taleb explains a Black Swan has three attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

What is happening in the Indus River valley has also happened in the Yellow River valley and will recur in other river valleys.  Last night flooding in Iowa killed one and displaced hundreds. What is happening outside Moscow occurs each year outside (occasionally inside) San Diego and Melbourne.  Earlier this week California firefighters contained a large fire near Banning.

Such disasters should be a regular expectation because historical events convincingly point to their recurrence.   Unfortunately, our sense of history seems to have a half-life of about ten days.  As a result, we are perpetually surprised.

In a new history, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, the authors outline three fundamental policy errors that recur in history, across several civilizations, and which may characterize our contemporary situation:

In the modern world, we’ve made the same three mistakes that the Romans made and the Mayans made. And that first mistake is that we, too, have come to depend on fertile topsoil. And we have ignored the fact that the topsoil is eroding. Now, we’ve masked our problems with topsoil with chemical fertilizer, but that just swaps one dependency for another.

The second mistake we’ve made is the fact that we’ve come to depend on harvests, which we get from relatively nice climates. And the late 20th century was pretty good, generally speaking, for growing season – say, between 1930 and 1990, there were no major climatic shocks in the world’s bread baskets. Things are likely, however, to change.

The third mistake we’ve made in the modern age, which also echoes the historic antecedents, is that we have caused our farmers to grow economically efficient by specializing in one or two products. And while this makes wonderful economic sense, it’s terrible ecology. (August 7 NPR interview)

Patterns are perceived over time and space.  The scope of time and space available to us is key to the accuracy of our perceptions.   But… regardless of this scope, we are strongly inclined to favor direct over indirect perception.  It requires unusual effort to apply indirect knowledge as vigorously as direct experience.

I have only seen one black swan.  From a distance it was an beguiling creature.  I have  had, in contrast, several unhappy encounters with white swans. They are aggressive, mean, and smelly animals.  I understand — and accept — Mr. Taleb’s conceptual distinction.  But in the flesh, a white swan may not be so different from a black swan. 

If I am attentive and as well-prepared as possible to meet a white swan — or a flock of white swans — I should be a bit better prepared for the black swan as well.

For further consideration:

Is another food crisis coming? (Time)

Chinese economy slows (China People’s Daily) and related: US stocks fall (Wall Street Journal)

Russian fires, Pakistan floods may be linked (National Geographic)

Pakistan floods: An emergency for the West (The Telegraph)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You should have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them

Friday Update:

Floods likely to have destroyed crops worth $1 billion (DAWN) (Pakistan)

Devastating power of China floods (BBC)

Ames faces water crisis (Des Moines Register)

Russia’s peatland fires seen burning for months (Reuters)

Sunday Update:

In weather chaos: A case for global warning (Front Page of Sunday New York Times)


August 11, 2010

What Are We Protecting?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on August 11, 2010

Three announcements came out of the White House on Monday, the combination of which got me thinking, “What exactly are we protecting?” As depressing as this thought seemed, I managed to find one item of news heartening enough to give me hope that things might improve even if they keep getting worse.

First, President Obama, speaking in Austin, Texas, responded to growing concern about the decline in American competitiveness marked by the number of people graduating (or not) from its institutions of higher education. His speech announced no new policy initiatives. He did, however, highlight several programs launched earlier as evidence of his efforts to prepare students for success in the workplace. These include the Race-to-the-Top K-12 funding competition launched by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which asks states to throw under-performing schools and their faculties under the bus to qualify for federal financial assistance. Reforms to student loans, Pell Grant rules and college tax credits for working families were also cited as efforts to improve academic performance and economic competitiveness.

Later in the day, I received a request from President himself on my Facebook wall asking me to contact my representatives in Congress to let them know I wanted the Republicans to stop blocking progress on the jobs bill passed by the Senate on August 5, which helps states cover the costs of Medicaid and funds the salaries of police, firefighters and teachers. As Nobel-laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out in his Monday column, state and local governments have slashed spending since the beginning of the recession. Few areas of local service have been held harmless from furloughs, layoffs and service cuts. Public safety services were among the last to suffer serious budget cutbacks, but few communities can afford to maintain that position these days since local tax revenues always lag any recovery and the signs of such a rebound are weak at best.

Then, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he is taking drastic steps to reduce military spending by as much as $100 billion over the next five years by eliminating one major command, freezing senior uniformed and civilian executive appointments and curtailing spending on contractors. It should come as no surprise that Gates is interested in a strategic reassessment of our defense investment profile with the U.S. struggling to “win” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously countering threats posed by unstable regimes in Iran and North Korea despite spending what some estimates say is almost as much of its wealth on defense as all other nations combined.

Few areas of state and local government performance are harder to measure than public safety. At the same time, like defense these services have become all but sacrosanct, especially since 9/11 and the fear it provoked took hold of our society. Even those who were not moved by the threat of terrorism seemed moved enough by the sacrifices made by the men and women of New York’s emergency services to support their brothers and sister in blue elsewhere. Measuring educational outcomes using test scores, graduation rates and other objective measures has proven controversial even among those who do not consider the task all that difficult. After all, how can we truly assess the value of knowledge? Similar problems plague our assessment of efficiencies in national defense. What price can we put on our national security?

Sadly, the answer to this last question is all too clear. Our investments in government expenditures aimed at protecting us have only helped make us more vulnerable. Unlike investments in education and basic infrastructure, money invested in defense and protective services produces a very small multiplier. Even if you do not consider those who receive government salaries for delivering these services “special interests,” you would find it hard to come up with a convincing argument that these expenditures stimulate creativity, innovation or productivity in the broader economy that enhances national competitiveness. On the contrary, efforts to leverage defense spending to reduce our balance of payments deficit by exporting military technology put weapons and tactical capabilities in the hands of others who wreaked havoc in regions we consider key to our national security interests while arming those who now have become our adversaries.

Imagine how differently things might have turned out if we had invested only fraction of the money squandered on arming other nations and ourselves educating our own people and those in the countries we sought to liberate. Greg Mortensen has wondered just this. His book Three Cups of Tea has become required reading in some commands as our troops on the ground wonder how to defeat insurgents. If they follow Mortensen’s advice, this will involve building schools and educating women to develop their capacity to participate fully in shaping the future of their societies.

I know these are not either/or choices. We must spend on both defense and development. Judging by the quantum spent on security and defense compared to other programs though one might reasonably wonder what we aspire to in America. Are we a people who live in hope of a brighter, better tomorrow. Or have we been overtaken by a sense of impending doom, convinced that we are slowly sliding toward moral, cultural or environmental oblivion?

Amidst all this bad (or least not so good) news, I was heartened by one new item over the past couple of days. It seems researchers have confirmed what some might consider counter-intuitive: It seems those who identify themselves as being of lower socio-economic status are considerably more generous than those who think of themselves as better off. Researchers suggested this might be due in some small part to the fact that those who consider themselves poor are more likely to identify with those in need.

I suppose that finding should give us at least some small hope in the event the economy does not improve soon. Maybe with less to share we’ll be more willing to spread it around a bit if only so we won’t have to watch each other suffer.

I would like to believe though that we can become more compassionate and caring without suffering greater economic hardship in the short-term. But doing so will require us to rethink what we are doing and how we are going about it. For most of the post-war period, we have employed strategies consistent with a male-dominated worldview that takes an aggressive posture toward protection. Maybe it’s time we tried a more female-friendly, nurturing approach to protecting our interests? We can start simply enough by investing in the future of the world’s children and their mothers.

P.S.: It seems the former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary and University of California professor Robert Reich seems to have been thinking similar thoughts today; read his blog post at RobertReich.org.

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