Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 9, 2010

Natural, accidental, and intentional risks

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 9, 2010

Immediately above this post I address the role of strategy in homeland security.  I approach the issue abstractly (even pedantically). Below are some late Wednesday news reports that situate the need for strategy more concretely. 

Homeland security often references “all-hazards.”  I prefer shared attention to natural, accidental and intentional risks.  The categorical distinctions are, I perceive, helpful in a way the short-hand “all hazards” is not.  Yesterday’s headlines help make clear some important strategic overlaps and distinctions between the three categories… with just a bit of integrative thinking.

NATURAL: Wildfire in Boulder and Detroit

 Denver Post photograph by Meghan Lyden

FROM THE DENVER POST: One of the largest and most destructive fires in Boulder County history has burned at least 92 structures, from mansions to outhouses, officials’ preliminary survey of the area northwest of Boulder found Tuesday. Officials posted a list of addresses on the Boulder County website Tuesday night, which 3,500 evacuees have eagerly awaited. Officials did not know how many of the lost structures were homes. They said another eight structures were damaged.

FROM THE DETROIT NEWS:  An “act of Mother Nature” sparked by high winds and some fires labeled suspicious burned at least 19 other homes on the city’s east side alone — most abandoned, Detroit Fire Chief Gregory Williams said…  The flames, within a four-hour period, were fueled by low humidity and wind gusts of up to 50 mph that downed power lines, further fueling the blazes. Power was out for 36,000 customers — most in Wayne County — Tuesday night, down from 50,000 earlier, DTE Energy said.


 FROM THE FINANCIAL TIMES: The report identified eight critical factors that led to the accident, including weaknesses in the cement, design and testing of the Macondo well; misreading of pressure tests even though the well was not completely sealed; and the failure of the blow-out preventer – the stack of valves on the seabed designed to stop gas and oil escaping – to operate.

The full Deepwater Horizon: Accident Investigation Report (3.64 megabytes) is available here: http://media.ft.com/cms/81c95386-bb39-11df-b3f4-00144feab49a.pdf

INTENTIONAL: Pakistani Police Arrest 3 Connected to Times Square bombing

FROM DAWNThe police on Wednesday claimed to have arrested three accomplices of Faisal Shahzad, the main suspect/accused of Time Square bombing plot in New York.  Police said that arrested suspects Akhtar, Shoaib Mughal and Shahid had provided financial help to Shahzad. All the suspects belong to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), police added. Police also claimed to have recovered maps of Time Square, Pakistan parliament building and several other sensitive installations from the vehicle of the suspects.

Last week a TTP leader threatened attacks in the US and Europe “very soon.”  Over the last 24 hours there have been four US drone attacks in Pakistan killing several TTP members. (See more from the Associated Press.)

The intersection of catastrophic flooding and growing insurgent terrorism is of particular concern in Pakistan (and should be in the US as well).   Natural and accidental almost always travel together.  When intentional joins in the boundary between complex and chaotic has certainly been crossed.

Clearly, I could keep going in each category.  Our threats are strewn about.  Too often, so is our strategy.  Are there characteristics of our varied threats that suggest a common approach? Are there aspects of our vulnerability to one or more of the risk categories that suggest more-for-your-buck mitigation?   Is there an opportunity for a synergistic strategy?

It is no panacea, but I do perceive a broadbased approach to resilience — honestly pursued — would produce strategic benefits, strengthening our advantages and reducing our vulnerabilities.

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Comment by Art Botterell

September 9, 2010 @ 1:30 am

It depends on the context. In response the all-hazard perspective lets us apply generic techniques without getting bogged down down in what, at response time, are frequently little more than speculations as to agency and intentionality. We may not know for hours, days or even, in some scenarios, years whether a particular event was natural, accidental or intentional.

Law enforcement, to be sure, cares very much about intentionality. Civil attorneys, meanwhile, will wrangle for years after an event over whether an accident was negligent or an “act of God.” Systems scientists may view “normal accidents” in tightly coupled technological systems as effectively natural phenomena, even though there were human actors involved. And so on.

Any taxonomy will make sense in some context. But Homeland Security attempts to combine so many different activities under a single rubric that I’m not sure whether any single scheme of categorization .. or even a single strategy… can be equally useful in all of them.


September 9, 2010 @ 5:19 am

God disposes in the final analysis. You wanted to move upon my works and wish you didn’t. Find a wish bone or fish bone. Then you were a ghost with no bones to pick. This ain’t trick or treat here. Keep them buried and broken. Don’t get a divorce from reality.


September 9, 2010 @ 5:33 am

Old case file. Guy got out where he shouldn’t of been and got hit by a tree. Draws blood and gets messy. I guess a chainsaw can be dangerous, more so than a scatter gun. Planning missions, no gun or radio and everybody is going to turn up dead. At least they’ll be turning up. Feel down without falling down. Missing some tools of my stock and trade. Now it’s payback times. It’s going to get expensive. Watch for road hazards. Blood is going to flow heavy and traffic is going to be light. Keep the lights on, we’ll turn their lights out. Heads up!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 9, 2010 @ 6:29 am


I appreciate your evidence of how professional specialists will wrangle over which category is correct given the context. That is, I think, a key aspect of our problem.

We need the specialists. I don’t want to neglect, dismiss, or undervalue them. But I increasingly wonder if a kind of cult of specialization is now obscuring and complicating our ability to reach a (very rough always) strategic consensus.

Sometimes progress — especially of the strategic sort — involves setting aside our parenthetical qualifications, footnotes, and even well-founded skepticism in order to move forward together… at least a couple of steps.

The strategist’s “big picture” does not often survive our unwillingness to extend the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps as a result, our nominal strategists seem to be pulling their punches.

I often prefer the audacity of a 25 year-old (Alexander wanna-be or not) to the cautious plans of my gray-haired peers. But I would value even more the specialists responding to a roughly reasonable strategy by asking, “how can I make this better?” rather than, “how can I tear this apart?”

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 9, 2010 @ 7:33 am

The problem of course is that the Executive Branch is not organized on an all-hazards basis nor does Congress wish to organize itself on an all-hazards basis with respect to resilience, preparedeness, prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. Why? Just having to much fun developing separate constituencies and contacts to provide the overlap and duplication we now see in federal programs, functions, and activities. Proof? Remember the mandates in various documents to merge the FRERP, the NCP, the FRP, the Conoplan for Terrorism and other plans into an umbrella document? That history and its failure has somehow escaped the review by organizations like GAO, the respective OIGs, CRS and other planning and evaluation types. Why? Because bureacracies always want to preserve their niches, not necessarily do the hard work of collaboration and cooperation! And the Contractor community has no incentive to preclude duplication and overlaps. This is the real reason why there is no real central clearance on government contracting for goods and services. Nor do the states notify the Executive Branch when federal programs are duplicative and overlapping. Why should they when this is the life blood of current federalism. The life blood being not “thinking” but “funding”!
So Phil your suggestion just puts reform further down the road. But hey that is the concensus, right?

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