Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 15, 2010

Resilience: How much can we absorb?

The President took some hits for a comment Bob Woodward included in his most recent first draft of history. On page 363 of Obama’s Wars we read:

During my Oval Office interview with the President, Obama volunteers some extended thoughts about terrorism.

“I said very early on, as a Senator and continue to believe, as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack. We will do everything we can to prevent it. but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it, and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.”

Then he addressed his big concern. “A potential game changer would be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists, blowing up a major American city. Or a weapon of mass destruction in a major American city. and so when I go down on the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one area where you can’t afford any mistakes. And so right away, coming in, we said, how are we going to start ramping up and putting that at the center of a lot of our national security discussion? Making sure that that occurrence, even if remote, never happens.”

The partisan tit-for-tat regarding this comment was mostly about casting and cleaning red herrings.  With that behind us (I hope), what is the President telling us about his view of resilience?

The unstated implication — and principal source of the fishy critiques — is that there will be another successful terrorist attack on the United States.  We have already seen the Ft. Hood shootings and the fizzled Times Square bombing.  Other attacks are undoubtedly being planned.  The Taliban-in-Pakistan has specifically threatened an “amazing” attack on Washington D.C. 

It is realistic rather than fatalistic to recognize there will be another successful attack. Responding to several surveys over the years the vast majority of Americans (usually more than 80 percent) say they expect a terrorist attack. In the first half of 2010 a survey by  the Pew Center for People and the Press found that 58 percent of respondents expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon.

Experts disagree on the scope and scale of future terrorist attacks on the United States.  In September the Bipartisan Policy Center provided the following assessment:

Despite al-Qaeda’s long interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, on the infrequent occasions that it or its affiliates have tried to deploy crude versions of these weapons their efforts have fizzled, as was evident in the largely ineffectual campaign of chlorine bomb attacks by “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” in 2007. Militant jihadist groups will be able to deploy only crude chemical, biological, or radiologicalweapons for the foreseeable future, and these will not be true “weapons of mass destruction,” but rather weapons of mass disruption, whose principal effect will be panic but likely few deaths.

In contrast the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction has argued:

  • First, there is direct evidence that terrorists are trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
  • Second, acquiring WMD fits the tactical profile of terrorists. They understand the unique vulnerability of first-world countries to asymmetric weapons—weapons that have a far greater destructive impact than the power it takes to acquire and deploy them. The airplanes that al Qaeda flew into the World Trade Center were asymmetric weapons.
  • Third, terrorists have demonstrated global reach and the organizational sophistication to obtain and use WMD. As recent actions by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula demonstrate, the al Qaedanetwork is expanding through international partnerships. In particular, it is well within their present capabilities to develop and use bioweapons. As the Commission’s report, World at Risk, found, if al Qaeda recruits skilled bioscientists, it will acquire the capability to develop and use biological weapons.
  • Fourth, the opportunity to acquire and use such weapons is growing exponentially because of the global proliferation of nuclear material and biological technologies.

The President shares the expectations of most Americans regarding the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack.   While he considers the probability of a nuclear attack to be “remote,” he has given considerable attention to preventing such an attack.  During the campaign he gave a major speech on the topic that clearly set the stage for key elements of the National Security Strategy. A series of administration actions since the inauguration follow-through on what was outlined in the July 2008 speech.

In terms of resilience the President evidently makes a distinction between attacks that the nation can “absorb” and an attack that would be a “game changer.”  While it goes beyond his specific statement, the logic seems to be there is a fairly high threshold up to which the nation will bounce back.   This threshold is at least as high as the 9/11 attacks. 

But the President assumes there are some attacks that would produce a fundamental shift in the national game plan or even the national game.   He specifically calls out, “blowing up a major American city” with a nuclear device.   He seems to suggest that such an attack would ipso facto prevent a bounce back.

I wonder. 

National resilience — especially in such a rich, large and populous nation as the United States — is as much a psycho-social-political response as anything else.  Certainly a 10K blast in any major city and especially in Washington D.C. would severely test our resilience.  Would it necessarily break it? 

The fact that a significant majority of Americans already expect such an attack increases our potential resilience.  The facts on the ground may also redound to our potential resilience.  In a 2009 essay in Homeland Security Affairs Journal, Robert Harney writes,

Contrary to the predictions of traditional analysis and experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more “realistic” analysis presents a picture that is much less dire. Fatalities are 20% of those predicted by the standard analysis, while injuries are 10% of those predicted and the damaged area is 5%. Much of the infrastructure will survive. Most evacuation routes will remain viable (permitting relocation for fallout mitigation). Food, water, sanitation, power,communications, and transportation will remain available to most of the city.
Transportation to or from the rest of the country, especially air travel, is likely to be minimally affected. Airports are seldom located in the high population density areas that are attractive for casualty production. The first response system will remain intact. At most one or two police precincts and fire stations will be within damage zones. Only a small fraction of first responders will be among the casualties. The majority of the health care system will remain intact. Few hospitals, clinics, or potential shelter areas may be located within the small damage zones and thus will remain intact and operational. Few health care professionals will become casualties. Regional health care facilities (an estimated 60,000-70,000 beds at three beds/1000 people) have the theoretical capacity to handle the most badly injured. However, most of the 60,000-70,000 beds are occupied during ordinary times and emergency rooms are almost always crowded. Diagnostics and elective procedures account for at least part of the occupation of beds and many emergency room visits occur in lieu of seeing primary care physicians. In a major emergency, many could be discharged by applying triage to those already at the facilities as well as to the victims of the explosion. Nevertheless, emergency treatment facilities will be stressed. This should be considered during planning for disaster preparedness, as well as in any discussions of generally improving national health care.
Although horrific and highly stressing of existing resources, this scenario is nearly ideal for disaster response and relief by local, state, and national entities. Because structures and roads will be undamaged outside the immediate blast area, the effects of fallout from a single nuclear event can be minimized through immediate and effective response including fallout prediction and a combination of evacuation, sheltering in place and/or decontamination. Sheltering for as little as one day can reduce the fallout exposure to less than 20% of the maximum possible accumulated exposure at any location, even if the individual then elects to remain in the contaminated area. It can reduce the total exposure to less than 1% of the maximum possible if the individual elects to walk out of the fallout zone (estimated to take a few hours at most). There is a place for renewed interest in civil defense.

Harney starts his essay with, “The unthinkable is probably inevitable.”  But 58 percent of Americans are already thinking about it.  What is the resilience potential if we would forthrightly and specifically deal with a range of catastrophic possibilities? 

The San Andreas fault will shift (a recent study says it will be even worse than previously projected), so will the New Madrid fault.   Each will produce consequences far beyond the scope and scale of an improvised nuclear device.  A Cat-5 hurricane will pummel a major city.  An urban wildfire will jump the lines with frightening death, injury, and destruction.  A pandemic will emerge with all the surprise of H1N1 and thirty-times the punch.

Terrorism is not the only — or most likely — source of catastrophe.  But expecting the worst mitigates its impact.  Preparing for the worst is even more effective. We should certainly invest in prevention.  But in one form or another we will be catastrophically challenged. I perceive that if we would creatively engage this reality, the nation is even more resilient than the President may imagine.

For further consideration:

The Little BIG Things (Resilience Chapter) by Tom Peters

Building Resilient Communities: A Preliminary Framework for Assessment by Longstaff, Armstrong, Perrin, Parker, and Hidek

A quide for implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action by local stakeholders (UNISDR and Kyoto University)

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 15, 2010 @ 12:54 am

I applaud the need to plan for the worst and in general believe in this nation’s resilience (the social aspect anyway, perhaps not so much the critical infrastructure). I agree that the worst earthquake may cause greater damage than a nuclear attack. Where I disagree is your interpretation of Obama’s “game changer” comment.

I think the reaction to terrorist event differs from natural or even technological catastrophes. Consider our response following 9/11. And then consider how far the pendulum has swung recently towards overreaction following failed attacks. A nuclear attack will fall completely outside what people can imagine is possible by terrorists–despite the poll results, this will be vivid and not a concept they have heard about. The reaction will be swift–those not calling to nuke every country we don’t like because they MUST have supplied the weapon (fill in your favorite villain here____Iran, China, Russia, North Korea…) will demand that another attack be prevented at ALL costs. You worried about your email being read before…

And the security structure in this country will respond to this call to prevent another nuclear attack. For those who thought they believed in the threat will be shocked by the destructive power achieved by non-state actors. Other countries will do the same, because even those that have had long experiences with terrorist attacks (UK, France, Israel, etc) will be stunned by level of destruction they believe only achievable by nation states.

Even if the bomb “fizzles” and only produces a 1kt or smaller blast, the fact that they almost were successful would be a success (putting aside the enormous loss of life from even such a “small” nuclear explosion). The mushroom cloud would be the game changer.

Would we survive as a nation? Absolutely. Could we recover? It will take some time, but yes. But would we recognize the type of society under which we lived? I hope so, but I’m not so sure.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 15, 2010 @ 3:29 am

Arnold, I think we are back to dealing with Mark’s issue of expectations. Because we expect natural disasters we tend to react with less fear to a hurricane or earthquake than to the lesser consequences of an intentional act. There is something in an intentional act that can prompt a very different reaction.

If an Improvised Nuclear Device was detonated in the United States today I expect your description of our response would be accurate. It would be, in the President’s words, a game changer. You do not specify the type of society you expect would emerge from such an event. I expect it would offer an even more intrusive array of official security and expensive display of security theater. I expect our social, political, and economic openness would be constrained in an effort to prevent another such horrific event. I also perceive that such a reaction would, paradoxically, undermine our substantive resilience and our long-term national security.

This “predictable surprise” and its predictable response is something we can, however, do something about. We can adjust our expectations. As posts and comments here and elsewhere constantly suggest, there is an important role for public education and, as you wrote yesterday, public engagement. Especially in regard to nuclear terrorism, the surveys indicate we have a population ready-to-learn. In the partisan response that President Obama’s comments generated we can understand official hesitance. But that need not discourage the rest of us.

What would an effective, expectation-shifting program of public education and public engagement look like?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 15, 2010 @ 4:29 am

Well an interesting post and comments. First, whatever the inevitability of naturally occurring events even those bordering on risks somewhat uncalculable except in geologic time, the WMD issue has now been addressed repeatedly by Presidents and Commissions since the Congressional findings adopted as part of the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, Title XIV of the Defense Authorization for that year. Senator Sam Nunn was the leader behind that legislation and his Nuclear Threat Initiative is an interesting effort by a skilled former Senator.

The Harney article prompted a lengthy response in the form of a letter to the editor of the HSJ and should always be paired with the article to give another perspective.

The British government continues to focus on Bioterror as the favorite weapon for the future by non-state actors. They feel that the RDD event, even though worrisome, or the stolen nuclear device is a contained threat and well understood. In this country however, the administrative appartus and apparatckis [sic] have worried and fretted but not accomplished a whole lot if GAO reports can be believed whether in the civil agencies or DOD and its minions.
I have a completely different concern. The geographic entity known as the US surely will survive a long time and may even expand its jurisdiction. But the nature of our current government is disastrously infirm. What is my measuring stick? The ability to reform and reconstitute our governmental units is largely unknown to the public which is not as it should be in a democracy (Republic)! The best book on COG/COOP ever written was Professor Paul Bracken of Yale University’s work entitled “Command and Control” [1982] because of its parallels to the issues raised by the nuclear offensive chain of command in the US to the preservation of the President as Commander-In-Chief and his/her capability to give an appropriate retalitory order.

Well all very complex and worthy of the best thinking our country can generate whatever the source. Personally I think the DAY AFTER exercise of a few years ago generated some new thinking and perhaps some new resolve to deal with these issues. Some of the players are now policy makers in the Executive Branch. But if progress has been made it has largely been kept secret from the public. Thus once again we have to place our faith in our government based on little real information and my guess is little real progress has been made. I reach that conclusion because the most recent WMD Commission effort largely focused on the Bioterror threat concluded the same.
AS readers of this blog and my comments know I rate WMD defense and response and recovery the Numero Uno mission of DHS. But the various components that deal with WMD in any kind of significant program, function, or activity are almost unknown in this opaque organizational structure. The technical capabilities of DHS are also totally unknown. The numbers and training of personnel. Nuclear safeguard and safety issues were the last several demonstrated in the USAF to be about the same as those in the Balkans. Also not comforting to learn. NRC is voted by survey one of the best place to work in the FEDERAL WORKFORCE yet could that be that they draw salaries but still have no clue about emergency response. The off-site portion assigned to an underfunded understaffed FEMA unit largely existing on user fees from the industry still does not even have a certified health physicist on its staff. That is the speciality dealing with the impacts of ionizing radiation on the human body. And as noted in a recent comment the effective RADEF program eliminated by President Clinton and his FEMA Director James Lee Witt has never been restored. There was an interesting time when one policy fight in FEMA was over the level of dosimetry available to the citizenry of the US. Now the fights are of what NOT to do which ususally exceeds the TO DO list. How many people in DHS and FEMA focus in their daily efforts on WMD issues, or in the civil agencies or DOD? A simple question and probably all would be shocked at the answer. So it is another question never asked by those in a position to give oversight. GAO tries to identify the level of capability but in fact can only skim the surface. I do know that much of the real radiological knowledge in the country is passing with the end of the greatest generation and not being replaced.

As to bioterror and bioscience it is clear that most of the efforts in the US are transmission and historical preservation not the cutting edge that certain other countries are supporting.

Well the big happy puppy that is the US no cares and no worries seems more than willing to walk on the yellow line between heavy streams of traffic hoping for the best. We don’t have many serious people in government anymore, serious about more than their personal wealth and next jobs. So perhaps our expectations should be reduced as to what happens if a large-scale unplanned or accidental WMD event or incident occurs. If I had to pick an agency on the frontline of WMD issues that has almost no clue I would put EPA first in line because they are regulators largely and most of the regulated have no interest in providing security to the public or worry about the general welfare and public health of the citizenry.

And just to take a shot at the system, if all the money devoted annually to hokey water projects by the USACOE to Public Health we (US) would be much more resilient. Let’s develop a resilience overlay to test all federal programs, functions, and activities. Or that’s right the most money ever spent on resilience in the US was for restoring WALL STREET to its former glory.
A wrong bet in my opinion led only by the corruption by WALL STREET of the political leadership and their own leadership. Well the Longships are arriving off the coast just not quite as recognizable in their current shape.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 15, 2010 @ 4:50 am

Arnold and Bill, before this discussion focuses entirely on WMD, I will add and emphasize that I perceive public education and public engagement should focus on a full range of catastrophic possibilities and should be focused on a reasonable regional risk assessment. A national campaign would be too generic to do much good. So… there’s one suggested criterion for such an effort, it should be conceived and executed to reflect specific regional risks.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 15, 2010 @ 5:13 am

If the Chenoybl core-melt accident was overlayed on NYC the area from Boston to Washington, DC would have been contaminated for the following 500 years. Is that a regional or national level event in your opinion?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 15, 2010 @ 5:23 am

Bill, your scenario is global, national, regional, and local in scope. Having a regional focus would not obviate shared risks, but it would encourage attention to hurricanes in the Southeast and not in the Northwest, and attention to volcanoes in the Northwest and not in the Southeast.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

October 15, 2010 @ 9:23 am

Wow… great stuff today contributors!

Taking a few of Phil’s points and shaping them out for a response.

‘There is no evidence to the contrary that will not be attacked.”

Correct…. If we cannot assume we won’t be attacked we must therefore assume we will, at some time have another attack or at the very least many attempts.

“This threshold is at least as high as the 9/11 attacks.”

These attacks were very effective in a lot of the principles of war; simplicity, surprise, security, economy of force. While they were these things as well as creative and imaginative, they did not cause cataclysmic structural damage or loss. What they did do was emotionally tear at the veneer of autonomy and security we had felt up to this point. And we missed, failed to heed, or simply ignored many warning signs and activities in increasing intensity and boldness.

“National resilience — especially in such a rich, large and populous nation as the United States — is as much a psycho-social-political response as anything else. Certainly a 10K blast in any major city and especially in Washington D.C. would severely test our resilience. Would it necessarily break it?”

In this context, resilience is a state of mind, not a function.

On its surface, our geographical make up and our tens of thousands of municipalities’ should be strength rather than a weakness in this instance. The decision making infrastructure and deeply layered services could meet the demand for a surge capacity or short term interruption. However, there would be a stronger ripple within the logistics chains, but even there, there is a surge albeit short capability to shunt existing product and redistribute accordingly, over a short period of time.

“Terrorism is not the only — or most likely — source of catastrophe.”

Exactly! But its primary motivation is not damage; its fear. It is a psychological and than physiological interruption of individual and societal behavior. The attacks of 9/11 created a very concentrated damage field. So from a purely quantitative measure or battle damage assessment (BDA) it did not yield a great amount of physical damage.

What it did do of course, was expose our societal frailties, take lives and scare us. The fear possibilities were now endless and unknown, as opposed to the opportunities. A stark reality and contrast. It was the stripping away of our aura of invulnerability that paralyzed us and caused many knee jerk reactions.

“But expecting the worst mitigates its impact. Preparing for the worst is even more effective. We should certainly invest in prevention.”

Yes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but I am not sure Mr. Franklin had a metric as to cost and impact.

I agree, but only to a point. Prevention is much like defense…its very expensive, usually fixed, and reactionary. In that instance, the offensive member always has the advantage because of time/space relationships. One could make the philosophical argument that by keeping us on the extended defensive, prevention thought process, even more gaps are exposed. There is no amount of law or legislation that will prevent an enemy that is adaptive, resourceful and/or completely willing to die in their attempt.

Also from a criminal point of view; laws do not matter if you never intend to abide by them. This is the criminal advantage…the offensive; the terrorist advantage. The hesitation caused by restraint, law, and societies abiding by rules creates opportunity for nefarious activity to take place. There is also no random violence per se, but a calculation of risk reward on behalf of the criminal and their potential victim.

So from that instance, with all we’ve spent on preparation and prevention, what have we done to alter both our behavior and expectation? What is our safety and security need versus our societal capacity to adapt and persevere?

Who were a more resilient group of people; the children of the depression, dust storms, no work, and future soldiers that headed in to World War II or our current citizens? Does that question have any gravity or relevance today? Is it part of our iconic myth that we as Americans are a special group of people or is it simply a device of nostalgic waxing and waning for an era gone by?

It’s a question that formulates each and every one of our definitions of resilient and behavior. Look outside to an enemy foe a picture of resilience.

If you want to see a mode of resilience, read about the effectiveness of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trail was not a single route, but rather a complex maze of truck routes, paths for foot and bicycle traffic, and river transportation systems. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were equally adept at rapid redistribution and rapid repair of this circulatory logistics network. As early as 1965 there were hundreds of tons of supplies moving a day. As early as 1966, some 90,000 enemy combatants had infiltrated via the “trail”.

Although the trail was mostly in Laos, the communists called it the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, after a mountain range in central Vietnam.. According to the U.S. National Security Agency’s official history of the war, the Trail system was “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century. . .

So is it behavior or economic prowess that enables resilience?

With all due respect to my fellow Americans; if we hope to become resilient Nation we need more of the Right stuff (http://tiny.cc/ptgph ) that just more stuff! Serious people, doing serious work, for no onter purpose than SERVING A

The key, mentioned several times today, in a variety of context to a response and recovery from predictable surprises is adaptation, expectation management, and individual readiness. Call me a fool, but a little pioneer spirit and self reliance supplemented with knowledge goes a long way in building a strong Nation.

And this is moving well beyond the terrorism/WMD/doomsday lexicon and vernacular we all become accustomed to coloring our days with.

Behavior… how we live as a society, reproduce offspring, form our civility and human rights and attributes, manage our needs, embrace our differences, stand for something and export and/or extol a virtue is more important than all the security and readiness we can muster.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” – Eihei Dogen Zenji

For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” — Luke 12:48

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 15, 2010 @ 10:42 am

Nice comment DAN! And of course we were not resilient until well after December 7th 1941. Imagine if Mid-WAY had turned out differently. Longer war certainly. Also when the draft was restored and then extended by one vote in 1941 and even through 1942, almost 40% of drafted men were rejected for malnutrition. You had to weigh at least 90 pounds so that you could be inducted and fattened up. Normal backpack and webgear for WWII Infantry ran between 60-80 pounds. M-1 rifle almost 10 pounds. But hey we won, I think and they lost.
Personally I really think resilience is a wonderful term and used to underpin Amanda Dory’s “Civil Security” study for CSIS in 2003.

After all even flu vaccine policy now changed forever. It is the HERD that vaccines are designed to protect not the individual. All must be vaccinated unless pregnant.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 15, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

Dan, Regarding the comparative resilience of our contemporaries and our near ancestors, I am not sure — and not sure how to confirm or deny — if today’s proportion of saints and scoundrels, resilients and wastrels is higher or lower than in the past.

Count Von Bismarck is given credit for saying that, “God takes care of fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” If he said anything similar it would seem we have long misled others — and even ourselves — regarding our fundamental character. How was it the “lost youth” of the 20s became the stalwart survivors of the Depression?

But of the issues you have raised one to which I will readily agree is that whatever the proportion of resilients and wastrels in our midst, we know each other less well and, as a result, must be less certain of our context than was once the case. So… this suggests to me a second criterion for a campaign of public education and public engagement, we ought bring neighbors together to meet and get to know one another.

Comment by SummerRain

October 15, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

I agree, great article today. I’m still waiting for the “October Surprise” just before the elections in November. It seems to me that HomeLand Security is really over stepping it bounds on the anti-war protesters a few weeks ago.

Of course America will be attacked again…and again as long as we have foreign enemies, but America will continue forward.

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