Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 20, 2010

Considering Risk, Setting Priorities (or why baseball general managers should be in charge of homeland security)

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on November 20, 2010

“When it does [get crazy], you attempt to stay disciplined and look for other solutions that may carry risk in a different way.’’ … “It’s what kind of risk can you tolerate.”

Insightful words coming from a leading voice in the homeland security community?

Unfortunately, no.  Instead, they encapsulate the operating philosophy of Theo Epstein, general manager (GM) of the Boston Red Sox.  Elsewhere in the same interview, Epstein brings up risk as a determining factor in Red Sox decision making several more times.  In terms of baseball, the risk he is discussing involves filling positional requirements by investing in free agent players.  Whether they are superstars or bench players, free agents are normally priced according to their past accomplishments, not their expected future performance.  Often their best years are behind them and teams pay top dollar for declining returns.

To manage this risk, GMs can drive hard bargains with free agents, promote a prospect, or trade prospects for another team’s player.  As Epstein stated, these options all carry risk in a different way.  Obviously, managing risk is the means to putting together a winning team.  Savvy GMs do not put all their eggs in one basket—for example, putting together a team of sluggers but ignoring defense and pitching (an accusation levied against the Texas Rangers until recent seasons, paying off with a World Series appearance last season).  They do not fall in love with particular players, cutting the cord when the time comes for the sake of the team.  While they learn from the past, they are always cognizant of future trends.

If only homeland security officials could adhere to a similar philosophy.  I fear that despite constant affirmations regarding adherence to risk management principles, administrators, departments, agencies, and offices are often unwillingly to let go of “star players” in the form of politically popular grant programs or policies that are designed to react to the last threat or failed attack (that may or may not involve taking the measurement of your private parts).

I recognize that the Department as a whole has adopted the mantra of risk-based decision making and that several of the components have taken that to heart in their planning and daily operations. Yet when policy push comes to shove, few have been willing to stand up for such principles and call for commensurate security arrangements.  More importantly, few have been willing to end any program that proves ineffective if it has already attracted some institutional support.

Instead, we have statements such as those recently aired in a New York Post op-ed by Peter King (R-NY), incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee:

“Rep. John Boehner, who’ll be the next House speaker, and I have discussed the necessity of having the committee actively oversee DHS to ensure that it’s fulfilling its mission of protecting America against Islamic terrorism and effectively coordinating its activities with all elements of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities.”

While I have not asked Congressman King’s office to elaborate, this seems to me like an interesting interpretation of DHS responsibilities and priorities.  DHS was created in response to an act of terrorism perpetrated by followers of an Islam-related ideology.  Yet it does not seem prudent to focus only on one threat and ignore others, such as terrorism motivated by different ideologies, or those large natural catastrophes that seem to occasionally plague the U.S.

“As chairman, I’ll make securing our homeland from terrorists the committee’s primary focus. This seems like an odd thing to say, because that should be its top priority already. Yet, over the last four years, the committee’s Democratic leadership has moved its sights from that target. The Democrats have convened hearing after hearing on such issues as Hurricane Katrina and diversity in the DHS workforce. Those are important issues, for sure. Yet they convened those hearings to the exclusion of hearings on such serious terrorism issues as the al Qaeda-linked massacre at Fort Hood and President Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and transfer terrorists to the US homeland.”

Again, apparently the lessons learned from Katrina (and the more recent BP oil event) are considered important “for sure,” but not serious.  The Fort Hood shootings were tragic, and the issues of radicalization and lone wolf terrorists are worthy of continued investigation.  However, shouldn’t natural and technological disasters also be worthy of attention?  Or will it have to wait until there is an event that threatens to collapse the national preparedness and response structure?  This sounds like a move away from a well-rounded team to one that focuses only on home run hitters.

“I’ll work to strengthen Securing the Cities, a proven partnership among federal, state and local authorities to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism, through a ring of detection devices in and around the New York metro area. The administration has twice tried to end funding for this critical counterterrorism program; each time, I’ve succeeded in securing continued funds to protect New York City — and I hope to see it copied in other cities throughout the nation.”

This could prove to be an especially interesting issue.  Representative King will likely push through funding for this program with little resistance, but hopefully he will have to explain the cost-benefit ratio for the program when compared to other potential investments in deterring dirty bomb attacks (because let’s be honest: the vast majority of sensors currently deployed are unlikely to detect a nuclear weapon) and explain how this
“pilot program” can benefit other metropolitan areas that lack the vast resources and political capital and support of the NYPD.

Representative King hails from New York City, so I will not insult him by suggesting that Theo Epstein be hired as a consultant for the House Homeland Security Committee.  But is it too much to hope that he may reach out to the general managers of the Yankees or Mets?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 20, 2010 @ 2:32 am

Good post Arnold! To-date what have Representative King and DHS learned they must do to prevent relatively low-tech MUMBAI type terrorist attacks, besides make sure David Headly is not on the loose?

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 20, 2010 @ 9:14 am

What’s good for the Red Sox might be good for the country!

Sox Fan

Comment by Red Sox and Homeland Security

November 21, 2010 @ 10:21 am

As a life-long Bostonian who has been in the midst of the wolves under Paul Revere’s golden dome of the State House so utterly disappointed bybthe incompetence found in government here in Taxachusetts and like many in Beantown, so very disappointed more often than not by the BoSox despite our loyalty as fans for so many decades with an occasional win here or there, from this of the bluest states and Barney Frank and a team which is often in disharmony like Massachusetts itself, I think the country can look elsewhere for such intellect in philosophy, maybe not too far and to the Yankees who truly understand what it takes to look at differing solutions and keep the ball going!

A Disheartened Life-long Red Sox fan!

Comment by Ed Smithe

November 23, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

The reason why Peter King is stuck on Islamic Terrorism is because he spent the better part of his career trying to distance himself from Irish Terrorism.


Only in America can a man who unabashedly supported the IRA and didn’t say a word about their killing innocent people through acts of terrorism, end up as the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

What an absolute disgrace.

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April 1, 2011 @ 1:26 am

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