Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 15, 2011

Listening for Gabe and Gabby

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 15, 2011

We mourn the murder of Gabe Zimmerman and the others, even as we hope for the miraculous recovery of Gabby Giffords. We look and listen — in anger and in love, fiercely and gently — to discern what meaning we might make of these days suffused with deep darkness and brilliant light.


I have now come to give you insight and understanding.  As soon as you began to pray, a word went out, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the word and understand the vision.

I am Gabriel. I stand in the Presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.

And the angel came in to her and said… the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what kind of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid.

Whoever is the enemy of Gabriel — for surely he revealed to your heart God’s command, confirming what came before and giving guidance and good news for believers —  is the enemy of God and His angels and His apostles and Gabriel and Michael.

Muhammad is Yours,
Gabriel is Yours,
The Qur’an is Yours –
But this discourse,
This exposition in spoken song,
Is it Yours or is it mine?
Your world is illuminated
By the radiance of the same star
Whose loss was the fall of Adam,
that creature of earth,
Was it Yours or mine?

The breath of Gabriel
If God on me bestow,
I may in words express
What Love has made me know.

How can the stars foretell
What future holds in store?
They roam perplexed and mean
In skies that have no shore.

To fix one’s mind and gaze
On goal is life, in fact:
To ego’s death to lead
The thoughts that mind distracts.

How strange!
The bliss of self
Having bestowed on me,
God mighty wills that I Beside myself should be…

By Holy Prophet’s Ascent
This truth to me was taught,
Within the reach of man
High heavens can be brought.

The Life perhaps is still
Raw and incomplete:
Be and it becomes
Even as a voice repeat.


The quotations are drawn from the Book of Daniel, the Gospel of Luke, the Qu’ran, and the poetry of Iqbal. I have depended on the skills of expert translators, but the forms offered above are my responsibility.

January 14, 2011

Oil spill report: Two cheers and a shrug (well, more than a shrug)

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 14, 2011

Last week I commended the Commission’s preview chapter for its punchy prose.  Policy makers had, it seemed,  learned how to channel Raymond Chandler.  The full report reads more like a wonk’s wet dream.  But policy pornography has its place.  Depending on your particular fetish, you are likely to fill your fancy somewhere in the 360-plus pages.

Find the full report here: Deepwater: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.

There are two recommendations that have strategic implications for most of the homeland security enterprise.

1. “The oil and gas industry should establish a private organization to develop, adopt, and enforce standards of excellence to ensure continuous improvement in safety and operational integrity offshore.” In other words, there is an inescapable need for participation, collaboration, and deliberation by the community. This fundamental precondition for resilience and readiness cannot be achieved any other way. Government regulation or intervention no matter how prescriptive cannot achieve what a self-organized community can achieve.

2. “Congress should significantly increase the liability cap and financial responsibility requirements for offshore facilities.” In other words, the community and its individual members should not be immune to the financial consequences of choices — intentional or not — that are freely undertaken. This includes construction in flood-plains, wildfire zones, along earthquake faults, or drilling in high-risk deepwater.

There are many more helpful recommendations, but these two make the dovetail which holds together the remainder of the structure.

I hope substantially increasing the liability cap is a self-evident incentive to take responsibility for how the industry engages reality.  Being told in advance the rather modest consequence you will suffer regardless of your action or consequences to others does not inspire prudence… in industries or individuals.

Less obvious and interesting is how the Commission urges establishment of a self-policing function modeled after the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations.

Leading companies in the offshore petroleum sector should likewise take responsibility for reshaping industry attitudes and practices to create an overall culture of safety. They should make a commitment to and investment in safer offshore operations by establishing an autonomous body focused solely on the core mission of achieving excellence in process safety.

The Commission report offers persuasive evidence and argument that — properly structured and governed — this industry-wide, private sector safety institute is the most promising means of preventing future drilling disasters and mitigating the results of such disasters.  The argument is cumulative.  I will not undermine the argument by attempting a summary.  Read the report.

Seeing how the government pushes this private sector instrument to advance the public good — and how the oil and gas community responds to the proposal — has implications for a wide range of communities and for national resilience.

The Commission has been about as effective as these efforts can be in framing the issues and providing lots of grist for the legislative and regulatory process.  There is plenty of all-purpose flour for private use as well.  Let the baking begin.

I will, though, expose my own wonkish fetish and critique the Commission’s report in two ways.

First, the contrast between attention given to improved planning (HUGE) and that given training and exercising  (s c a n t)  is troublesome.  Plans are just about dead-on-arrival without training and exercising.  Plans are comparatively cheap and easy to file away, task complete.  Training and exercising have significant direct and indirect costs, but this is the only way plans are tested and readiness is realistically advanced.

Second, there is a subtext of  “never again” in the report that is, perhaps, as rhetorically required as it is epistemologically irresponsible. Consider the following paragraph excerpted in it’s entirety:

Properly managed, the presence of risk does not mean that accidents have to happen.  As Magne Ognedal, Director General of Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority, put it: “risk must be managed at every level and in every company involved in this business. . . . In this way, risk in the petroleum sector can be kept at a level society is willing to accept. And we can reduce the probability that major accidents will hit us again.” (Page 218)

The Norwegian’s quote is, I suggest, entirely accurate… especially, “we can reduce the probability that major accidents will hit us again.”  This demonstrable truth is, however, in considerable tension with the belief that “presence of risk does not mean that accidents have to happen.” 

We are better advised to invest in the best possible while expecting something worse.

January 13, 2011

“Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on January 13, 2011

President Obama’s remarks at the memorial for the Tuscon shooting were moving, appropriate, and at times powerful.  Taking one step back from the specifics of that terrible event, several portions of his speech have potential meaning for homeland security in general.

As the quote from the remarks I used as the title of this post makes clear, bad things happen and the reasons are not always easily identified.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

This holds true not only for the tragic actions of madmen, but also in the motivation of terrorists of any ideological stripe (think all the talk about “draining the swamp” that produces terrorism following 9/11) and even technological disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (find the final report of the National Commission here).  Problems that at first seem easily explained can instead be found to be caused by a web of interconnected failures.

Simple explanations may not hold true, and assumptions require examination:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations –- to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless.  Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system.  And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

Questioning assumptions is in general good practice, and especially vital for homeland security. Are the threats we perceive the ones we should be most concerned about?  Do the systems currently in place to prepare for and respond to disasters and terrorist attacks meet the benchmarks set?  Is it even possible to set goals or benchmarks for an amorphous subject such as resilience?

And the following passage makes me wonder if Homeland Security Watch’s own Philip Palin had a hand in the drafting process:

Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

Update: To be a little more provocative and question a larger underlying assumption, whither resilience?  I understand the concept as a philosophy, can see the importance of the idea for homeland security in general, and can point to particular actions taken in the realm of critical infrastructure….but as an overarching strategy for homeland security at all levels of government across all possible constituents: where is the beef? At this point, aspiration should not count as progress.  If a NSS desk is referred to as resilience, shouldn’t it mean something besides continuation and evolution of pre-existing policy?

January 12, 2011

Silence is Golden

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on January 12, 2011

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am rarely at a loss for words. But as I prepared to write this week’s post, I must admit I had a hard time thinking what to write about much less what to say. It occurred to me that the trouble was not a lack of suitable and timely topics nor opinions about them. Rather, I lack any certainty that I have anything much worth saying about them at the moment that has not already been said or that would make things much better.

That’s when it struck me that perhaps the biggest news to come out of the week’s grisly events — the shooting in Tucson, the floods in Queensland, the nasty weather afflicting many parts parts of the U.S., the lingering suffering in Haiti a year on from the terrible quake there, and myriad other disasters and threats — was the decision by the new Speaker of the House of Representatives to extend the chamber’s recess rather than convening so soon after the attempted assassination of one of the House’s more moderate and indeed temperate members. In light of the Speaker’s proposed legislative agenda, which sought to take up debate on the repeal of health care reform legislation or limits on funding for key provisions as the first order of business, this was no small concession to sanity or reason.

This legislative issue, among others on the House calendar, holds the promise of laying bare the nation’s deepest wounds and exacerbating deep-seated antipathies at a time when we need nothing so much as comity and civility. The extended recess allows the spotlight to shine where it ought to for the time being: On the national outpouring of sympathy and compassion toward the victims in Tucson.

This brief but blessed respite from the heated rhetoric of the past year reminds me of advice almost every parent once gave their young but which is not heard nearly so often these days: “If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all.” I for one am enjoying the relative quiet, and see little need to disturb it any more than I already have with this brief post.

January 11, 2011

A flood that covers Texas and Oklahoma

Filed under: International HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on January 11, 2011

Nick Earls is an Australian author, transplanted from Ireland. He wrote an essay in Sunday’s New York Times about another one of those apparently annual once-a-century events that visit our planet.

This one is the flood in Australia’s state of Queensland. The flood covers an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma. (That’s an area the size of France and Germany.)

This flood is a huge deal.

Nick Earls’ article reminded me of something I witnessed in Australia during the 2000 Olympic Games.

But first the homeland security resilience observation from Earls’ article:

Queensland faces a flood affecting an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. The mines that supply one-third of the world’s coking coal are shut down. Crops have been destroyed and the soil that grew them has been carried away. Mercifully few lives have been lost so far, but the economic impact has been estimated at $5 billion. Some 200,000 people have been affected, many of them forced from their homes by water and mud.

Nevertheless, there is none of the clamor of disaster, none of the chaos one might expect. Crisis management plans have been activated. Townships, towns and cities are hard at work, not only as governments but as communities. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and then helping people they have never met. When the hard-hit coastal city of Rockhampton put a call out over the radio for people to fill sandbags, 70 volunteers turned up within minutes.

…. Even after the rain stops, we’re told, it will be weeks before all the water is gone. As the less-fortunate evacuees return home, they will find mud everywhere: in their filing cabinets, their kitchen cupboards, their photo albums. As I learned in the aftermath of the Brisbane flood of 1974, the smell will remain for years — a swampy stench that comes out of the walls and down from the ceiling on hot days.

Those people will need room for grief and anger. Most of them, though, when interviewed standing in the wreckage, talk about how life goes on.

Events like this flood not only show our stoicism, but create it. It’s important to Queenslanders, like all Australians, that we see ourselves as people who look adversity in the eye, stare it down and band together to overcome it.

Houses will be repaired, and new ones will be built. Businesses will get back to work. In ground that was baked dry but is now soaked deep, eggs will hatch, seeds will germinate and hidden species will reveal themselves and make the most of this change in their luck before the next drought sets in. Life will go on and, for farmers and those dependent on the land, the next crop should be a good one, if the weather holds.

Ten years ago I was sitting along with 80,000 other people in Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. An Australian athlete named Jane Saville was leading in the final stage of the 20 kilometer race walk event.

An Olympic athlete trains almost her entire life for a very slim chance to win a gold medal. The gold was 100 meters within Jane Saville’s reach.

She approached the Stadium filled with 80,000 cheering and excited mostly Australian spectators.

I’ve been to a number of Olympic Games. I had never seen anything to match the national unity created in Australia by the 2000 Olympic Games. You could hear roars travel like waves throughout Sydney whenever one of its athletes won a gold medal (Australia won 16 of the 186 gold medals awarded.)

Winning an Olympic gold medal is a huge deal.

Here’s the transcript from an Australian broadcast about what happened as Saville moved into the stadium:

Announcer: It’s Saville of Australia. You’ll hear the roar all round Australia when she walks into the stadium. I heard the boys say to her, “80,000 there”. Wang [the Chinese athlete] is chasing her. She’s not all that far behind her, but Saville is leading still as they’re about to go out of my vision. And we’ll go to the commentator… she’s got a red disc! she’s got a red disc!

She was just about to enter the stadium, and the leader, Jane Saville of Australia has been disqualified. Can you believe that?

Jane Saville, leading the 20 kilometre walk and about to enter the main stadium, receives a red disc and has been disqualified from the competition. And that leaves Lipang Wang of China in front.

Well, that is unbelievable. She was within the shadows of the stadium, and Jane Saville has been disqualified from the women’s 20 kilometre walk.

She has broken down. She’s burst into tears. The cameras are following her. They’re not worrying about Wang. And Jane Saville, when she was about to reach out and grab Olympic gold, has been disqualified.


I was close enough to Saville to see her tears, her face contorted by what must have been total devastation.

Ten seconds later — at most 20 seconds — I saw her take a very deep breath, draw herself together, and transform herself from devastation to something close to serenity.

I have no clue how she did it.

Saville (a few moments after she was disqualified): “[Disqualification] is always playing in the back of your mind because as a walker there are the rules and things like that can happen. I wasn’t confident ’til I crossed that line, but I didn’t think it’d happen. I thought it’d be absolutely outrageous for it to happen, you know, where I was. I can’t say anything. I don’t know, I don’t know. Back to the drawing board and try and work out what’s wrong with my technique.”

When I think of resilience, I think of Jane Saville. When I read what Nick Earls writes about the floods in Queensland, I think he is probably right about the resilience of the Australian people.

I have no clue how they do it.  I wonder how our nation can learn from Australia.

January 10, 2011

Homeland Security Begins at Home

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on January 10, 2011

The tragic shooting in Tucson this past weekend that left six people dead and fourteen others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, wounded should remind us all that homeland security begins at home.

This blog has addressed in the past what defines a terrorist and when the line between a crime and an attack of terrorism is crossed.  While as a legal issue, it may matter; as a homeland security issue, such a definition does not.

This weekend’s events shocked America,  leaving the media befuddled as it attempted to report on the status of the Congresswoman, and causing the U.S. House of Representatives to cancel its scheduled votes this week.

Successful attacks on our political leaders are not that common.  A quick search of Wikipedia(maybe not the best resource, but one nonetheless) shows that there have been three incidents of “wounding” attacks on Members of Congress.  In 1856, there was the attack on Senator Charles Sumner with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor.  In 1954, five Members of Congress were wounded in the Capitol by Puerto Rico nationalists.  Then there was yesterday’s event – Away from the Hill. Away from Washington D.C.  At Home.  At a busy supermarket on a Saturday morning.  A place any or every American could be.

There has already been and will continue to be much debate over what lead to the attack. In many ways, all of the possible causes are right. And wrong.  The attack of this past weekend reminds us that political vitriol – on all sides – is not good for homeland security and exposes our nation’s weaknesses to the world.  So does the continual rush to judge motives too quickly and respond with anger and hate.  Sadly, one of those brought down in this weekend’s attack was a nine-year old girl born on September 11, 2001.  A coincidence that just reminds us how much an attack can affect our nation.

In the end, this weekend’s events should remind us all that homeland security begins at home. It happens when we put aside our differences and recognize that opinions can vary and as Americans we have the right to express ourselves but also the obligation to do so responsibly.  Let’s hope, as the days continue, we remember that as we pray for the survivors and grieve those killed this weekend.  Otherwise, we have made ourselves more vulnerable than any enemy ever could.

January 8, 2011

Time for some leading.

Filed under: Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on January 8, 2011

[T]his is a situation where … people … really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things, for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district.

When people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.

When you look at these examples [from the left and the right] around the country which really try to incite people and inflame emotions…. You’re going to have … extremes on both sides…, and that’s where leaders have to come together and say….

—– Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, March 25, 2010

And after leaders “say” whatever it is they are going to say, then what?


Update: Here’s one leader (Pima County Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik) talking.  Some thought leading at about the 1:30 mark in the video:

This is London calling… what does the news there mean for u.s. here?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 8, 2011

“Train stations across London have been put on high alert amid fears of a terrorist attack on transport hubs. British Transport Police cancelled leave and called in extra officers after intelligence was received that terrorists could be planning attacks. A security source said there was no “imminent” threat and the overall threat level had not changed but there was activity from one of a “handful” of extremist cells that cause concern at any time, leading to an adjustment in policing levels.” (More from Friday’s Telegraph)

This morning (Saturday) the Telegraph is reporting,

An alert issued by the security services warns of plots against transport hubs by al-Qaeda’s “international operations wing” designed to cause “a large number of casualties”. The “restricted” document, seen by The Daily Telegraph, details plans for “one or more attacks against Europe, including the UK”, aimed at “high-profile Western targets”. It warns of attacks against British airports and the London transport network – including the Underground – with the aim of inflicting “political, economic and psychological” damage. (More from the Telegraph)

The leader of the International Operations Wing of Al-Qaeda has been identified as Ilyas Kashmiri, 46, 6ft tall, one-eyed, with a long white beard, dyed red with henna. (More from the Telegraph)

All of this is happening in the context of a heightened level of terrorist chatter, concern, and security since at least October.  It is a context punctuated by a series of terrorist actions and arrests in many Western countries.

In his New Years Day broadcast, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, gave at least as much attention to the terrorist threat as the current economic difficulties (read the transcript).

The Telegraph (usually supportive of Cameron) took audio of the Prime Minister’s counter-terrorism remarks — 2.5 minutes — and spliced together some accompanying video.  You can hear and see the result here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/uk-politics-video/8232983/Listen-to-David-Camerons-New-Year-message.html

Maybe its the British accent — somehow a bit menacing to this Midwesterner — or perhaps it is the echo of George Orwell’s voice dancing along the seams of memory, but I feel as if I am watching the preview for a new science fiction disaster film.


It was even possible, at moments, to switch one’s hatred this way or that by a voluntary act. Suddenly, by the sort of violent effort with which one wrenches one’s head away from the pillow in a nightmare, Winston succeeded in transferring his hatred from the face on the screen to the dark-haired girl behind him. Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax. Better than before, moreover, he realized WHY it was that he hated her. He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity.

The Hate rose to its climax. The voice of Goldstein had become an actual sheep’s bleat, and for an instant the face changed into that of a sheep. Then the sheep-face melted into the figure of a Eurasian soldier who seemed to be advancing, huge and terrible, his sub-machine gun roaring, and seeming to spring out of the surface of the screen, so that some of the people in the front row actually flinched backwards in their seats. But in the same moment, drawing a deep sigh of relief from everybody, the hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother, black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm, and so vast that it almost filled up the screen. Nobody heard what Big Brother was saying. It was merely a few words of encouragement, the sort of words that are uttered in the din of battle, not distinguishable individually but restoring confidence by the fact of being spoken. Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:


From Chapter 1 of 1984 by George Orwell

January 7, 2011

Is the perfect the enemy of the good? New recommendations emerging from the Deepwater Horizon explosion

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on January 7, 2011

Using a marketing technique common to film and books, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling has released a preview chapter.  The full report is forthcoming next week.

It’s a good read: strong narrative, short paragraphs, declarative sentences. Crucial details are reported as in a better-than-average feature story.

In the preview chapter the Commission concludes:

The well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined to overwhelm the safeguards meant to prevent just such an event from happening. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure—a failure of management. Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them. A blowout in deepwater was not a statistical inevitability.

Retrospectively, this is no doubt accurate.  The report does a commendable job setting-out specific decision points, what decisions were made, and the consequences of those decisions.  With compelling evidence and narrative, the report goes on to conclude:

Corporations understandably encourage cost-saving and efficiency. But given the dangers of deepwater drilling, companies involved must have in place strict policies requiring rigorous analysis and proof that less-costly alternatives are in fact equally safe. If BP had any such policies in place, it does not appear that its Macondo team adhered to them.  Unless companies create and enforce such policies, there is simply too great a risk that financial pressures will systematically bias decisionmaking in favor of time- and costsavings. It is also critical that companies implement and maintain a pervasive top-down safety culture… that reward employees and contractors who take action when there is a safety concern even though such action costs the company time and money.

The Commission also criticizes failures of government regulation.  The Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of the Interior is treated almost as a public sector analogue of the private sector’s failure of management.

MMS’s cursory review of the temporary abandonment procedure mirrors BP’s apparent lack of controls governing certain key engineering decisions. Like BP, MMS focused its engineering review on the initial well design, and paid far less attention to key decisions regarding procedures during the drilling of the well. Also like BP, MMS did not assess the full set of risks presented by the temporary abandonment procedure. The limited scope of the regulations is partly to blame. But MMS did not supplement the regulations with the training or the processes that would have provided its permitting official with the guidance and knowledge to make an adequate determination of the procedure’s safety.

I look forward to reading next week’s full report. The preview chapter suggests a well-crafted document that should contribute to greater understanding of this particular event and, perhaps, a range of risks.

I will be especially interested if the full report avoids aspirations to Nirvana. Will it deal with the world as it is, not as we might hope and imagine?  The preview chapter suggests some temptation to deny dukkha.  If so, the Commission would not be alone.

Over forty years ago the distinguished UCLA economist Harold Demsetz offered, “The view that now pervades much public policy economics implicitly presents the relevant choice as between an ideal norm and an existing ‘imperfect’ institutional arrangement. This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements.” (“Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint,” Journal of Law and Economics, April 1969)

While I am writing this (on Thursday afternoon) the new House of Representatives is listening to the Constitution being read in its entirety.  The brilliance of the Constitution, it seems to me, is its embrace of human imperfection.  The goal of the Founders was not perfection, but the Good.

In my experience Voltaire was correct, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

January 6, 2011

Nuclear News: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on January 6, 2011

The Good

Potential ingredients for a terrorist nuclear bomb have been secured:

“Under extremely tight security, Ukraine has sent 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium, a significant portion of its Soviet-era stock, to Russia for disposal or storage, officials announced Friday.

The material, taken from research reactors, was moved by plane in December in specially designed casks as part of President Obama’s effort to reduce the chances that nuclear material might be diverted or stolen.

Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, agreed at a meeting convened by Mr. Obama in April to give up his country’s highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. In May, Ukraine shipped 123 pounds of highly enriched uranium by train to Russia, and officials said they hoped that the rest of the country’s stock would be exported by the end of 2012.”

This is yet another example of success for a low cost-high reward program.  Securing potentially vulnerable stocks of fissile material, particularly HEU, is the most effective way to prevent nuclear terrorism.  While a low probability event, the danger of such an attack will continue to exist as long as vulnerable caches of fissile material remain.

In other good news, a new repository for low-level radioactive waste may open:

“A Texas commission Tuesday set in motion the importation of low-level radioactive-waste from 36 other states, a move long sought by the nuclear-energy industry and long opposed by environmentalists.

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which manages the state’s radioactive-waste dump, voted 5-2 to approve rules governing the process for accepting the out-of-state material.”

“The site will permanently store low-level radioactive waste—contaminated materials and equipment from nuclear plants, research laboratories and hospitals. The material includes everything from parts from dismantled nuclear-energy plants to booties worn by scientists working in labs where radioactive materials are present. More highly contaminated waste, such as spent fuel from power plants, wouldn’t be stored at the site.

The waste will be stored at the 1,338-acre site in concrete-reinforced underground units.

States are responsible for handling low-level radioactive waste produced within their own borders, but space for it is limited. And the three disposal sites for it in the U.S. don’t take all kinds of materials within the low-level category or can only take waste from certain states. That leaves 36 states without a permanent storage place.”

Obviously there are always legitimate environmental concerns when it comes to the location of radioactive waste repositories.  Due to a lack of specific information regarding this particular site, I am not considering that in regards to my “good” value judgment about this development.  Instead, I am concentrating on the fact that there is a dire need for such a depository.  While not solving the problem of nuclear power plant spent fuel storage that was intended for the Yucca Mountain site, it does help address the need to centralize and secure lower-level radioactive material most likely to be used in a dirty bomb.

The Bad

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within DHS has finally completed their “nuclear detection architecture” assignment:

“The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office delivered its long-awaited “strategic plan” for the global nuclear detection architecture to Capitol Hill on Dec. 20, according to DNDO chief Warren Stern. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed off on the plan that same day.”

“The 31-page document defines the goals of the architecture, including detecting nuclear and radioactive materials; communicating information to relevant agencies and officials; and coordinating with those partners to “minimize gaps and also remove overlaps,” according to Stern, who was appointed to his post by President Obama last August.”

This is not bad as much as perhaps a continuing tragedy of misplaced priorities.  Nuclear detection capability can be useful, but to date the return on investment is small.  Despite the best of intentions, DNDO has yet to demonstrate an ability to exert much influence over any pieces of the “architecture” that it does not directly own.

“In addition, the interdepartmental road map outlines the roles of a number of federal branches in preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear or radiological device inside the United States, he said. Participating entities include the Defense, Energy, Justice and State departments, the U.S. national intelligence director and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

“He added that while the detection office intends to have its implementation plan developed by the third quarter of this calendar year, there is no deadline for the other departments to complete their documents, nor are officials required to submit those plans to Congress.”

DNDO/DHS has control over detection activities at the border.  The Department of Energy, through programs like the Second Line of Defense, holds sway overseas.  Domestically, while DNDO provides a wide range of assistance, it is still up to local and state authorities to decide their level of participation in radiation detection programs.

There is also the matter of resources.

“The office has received roughly $4 billion in funding since its inception, according to a Government Accountability Office statement released last year. Some of that money went toward expanding existing programs at other DHS components, including deploying radiation portal monitors at U.S. points of entry.”

Current technology is unlikely to detect HEU and only has a slightly better chance of finding plutonium, so for the most part the system is useful for finding potential dirty bomb ingredients.  What if some of the money directed towards detection was instead focused on decontamination/recovery?  What would be the point of terrorists attempting to use a dirty bomb if the technology existed to clean up afterward?

Perhaps nuclear/radiological detection is the missile defense of homeland security.  By that I mean it is a very useful capability to develop, one that in limited circumstances currently adds value, but also is seen as something of a technological panacea to problems that can be addressed through other means.

The Ugly

The recent assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer has implications beyond the political.  Steve Coll, blogging at the New Yorker, explains the nuclear connection:

“Pakistan’s Personnel Reliability Programs, as they are known in the nuclear security trade, involve not only evaluating the suitability of bodyguards for governors but also the management of the country’s swelling stockpile of fissile materials and nuclear bombs. Taseer’s betrayal should give pause to those officials in Washington who seem regularly to express complacency, or at least satisfaction, about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal.”

If true, this might be representative of  serious cracks in Pakistan’s nuclear security.  It is not only the risk of their nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands that we have to worry about.  Pakistan is currently working to expand their arsenal, exposing increasing amounts of fissile material to insider threats.

January 5, 2011

Duty Calls

Filed under: General Homeland Security,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on January 5, 2011

Last week President Obama signed into law a bill extending benefits to certain 9/11 attack responders presumed to have incurred illnesses as a result of their service. Much of the media coverage accompanying this legislation focused on efforts to delay or prevent its passage by Congress, not the legitimacy of the claims themselves.

After 9/11, politicians were all too happy to be seen standing alongside public safety officers extending gratitude for their service. It would be easy but incorrect to assume that the benevolence they displayed then by increasing the lump sum benefit for public safety officers’ survivors was the result of enlightenment much less an accumulation of factual evidence that such awards were scientifically or fiscally justified.

Benefits for public safety officers who become disabled due to injuries or illnesses incurred in the line of duty have usually been accompanied by controversy and disagreement. The original Public Safety Officer Benefit Act became law in 1976. The inclusion of firefighters alongside police officers was seen by many as an afterthought in the interests of comity if not some semblance of parity among the professions. The Act’s passage, according to some, marked an effort to make these risky professions more attractive at a time when public service was held in particularly low esteem. You may be saying to yourself right now that at least some things have changed since then.

Most career firefighters and police officers, if not other public safety officers and their non-uniformed and volunteer colleagues, are paid comparatively attractive salaries and enjoy much better benefits and job security than many private sector workers with similar levels of skill and experience. Despite that advantage, many are now experiencing many of the same uncertainties confronting the rest of the workforce.

It should come as no surprise that in the midst of the current economic and fiscal crises that some citizens and interest groups see survivor benefits as simply another perk lavished upon public employees that remains well beyond their reach. This is particularly true of those who lack employment or any prospect of employment in the near term.

This skepticism is understandable enough but still overlooks another important consideration. The justifications for these benefits lacks much if any sound scientific or economic basis. This is particularly true in the case of my own profession as it relates to qualifying victims of cardiovascular ailments or cancer for benefits. The decisions to recognize these ailments as qualifying conditions for survivor benefits is more representative of the growing political influence of firefighters than recognition the dangers associated with their occupation.

That said, the value of extending such benefits has become very clear and personal for me this week as my own agency has prepared for a memorial service for a fallen comrade who succumbed to malignant melanoma on December 30 leaving behond a young wife and two sons.

Matt Durham (pictured above) was a firefighter for 15 years. During that time he had accumulated an exemplary service record. His personnel file was chock full of letters of appreciation and commendation from colleagues and citizens and glowing performance appraisals from supervisors. He routinely went the extra mile serving on several specialist teams, including the regional hazardous materials team and the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Besides being a skilled emergency services professional, Matt was a remarkable photojournalist whose work was widely published and heralded by colleagues in California and Washington.

When I worked on the initial efforts to develop a firefighter autopsy protocol as a federal contractor in the early 1990s, firefighters argued that they were at higher risk than others of contracting cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers and felt certain that higher incidence was related to on-the-job exposures and stress. Few studies over the years have borne out these concerns or provided consistent much less solid evidence to support them. Nevertheless a growing list of states recognize at least some cancers as job-related for firefighters and amendments to the Public Safety Officer Benefits Act after 9/11 expanded compensation and added coverage for deaths due to certain cardiovascular ailments.

The value of these provisions is not so much the recognition they provide fallen firefighters or the financial security they afford bereaved families, although these are both obviously significant. Rather the presumption that their service led to the deaths of firefighters in such cases advances the cause of managing these exposures in meaningful ways by promoting wellness and fitness while honoring the ideals of service and sacrifice for their own sake.

Before the recognition of these ailments, most qualifying firefighters’ deaths resulted from catastrophic injuries sustained during firefighting and rescue operations or training for such operations. Unfortunately, an unsettling proportion of these deaths resulted from serious lapses in judgment or failures of operational discipline and oversight, often on the part of the deceased members themselves.

Recognizing the deaths of colleagues afflicted by cancer and cardiovascular diseases has had two significant positive effects on the profession: 1) it has encouraged firefighters to take more responsibility for their own wellness and fitness rather than chalking up their fate to the dangers and rigors of their jobs, and 2) it has recognized that some catastrophic risks, whether job-related or not, are simply beyond the control of individuals or organizations, especially when we know so little about how they develop in the first place.

For me, these benefits would be enough if that’s all they accomplished. But I have seen something else significant this week that further inclines me to think these benefits are not only justified but should be extended to most if not all workers as a matter of public policy.

A growing body of evidence suggests that people need three things in order to thrive: 1) the ability to feel they make a difference bigger than themselves, 2) the ability to share their successes with others who mean something to them, and 3) the ability to receive meaningful recognition (not necessarily reward) for their efforts, which often involves a combination of the first two elements by allowing them to form meaningful relationships with others through the shared experience of hard work and sometimes personal sacrifice.

This week, my colleagues and I have seen this dynamic at work as we come together to recognize Matt Durham, support his family and share our recollections of a valued friend and colleague. In the absence of financial hardships to the family, we have seen people step up in ways that impress and inspire others, more often than not without any expectation of compensation or recognition for themselves. If we can in some small way make this experience real for others, we will all feel we have done something truly special not just for Matt but as a legacy to his and others’ service to our communities.

January 4, 2011

From the other blogs – for Tuesday, January 4th

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 4, 2011

Heading into Year 10, a lot of people still write about homeland security-related issues.  Here’s what appeared in blogland over the past week or so:



Politico reminds us that climate change is the next security threat:

“Certain senators and the new Republican-controlled House are attacking the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit carbon pollution. This is likely to have devastating consequences for our environment and our national security…. [US] oil dependence is among the most dangerous threats to U.S. national security. For years, senior military and intelligence officials have warned that too much of U.S. oil payments eventually trickle down to terrorists, who use it to buy the weapons used against our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey said it best: “This [the war on terror] is the first time since the Civil War where we are funding both sides of the war.”

The folks at Climate Progress write about Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010. They claim “The NY Times and others blow the story of the century.”

We had jaw-dropping science in 2010 (A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice). We had gripping climatic disasters (Masters: “The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability”; Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”). And we even had major political theater — domestic (The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 1 and Part 2) and international (see The Cancun Compromise). But, as we’ll see, the one-time paper of record didn’t have climate change in a single one of its largest lead headlines. And analyses of multiple databases reveal that the rest of the media sheepishly returned to 2005 levels of coverage.

National Guard

Jason Sigger’s Armchair Generalist comments on an article about the National Guard’s ten top missions in 2010. Sigger highlights mission number 9: “the DoD’s decision … to develop ten Homeland Response Forces that will aid in the response to a CBRN incident.”

Really, guys? This makes your “top ten” list? You’re that proud of the 2010 QDR decision to add 5700 NG troops across the country to join the 57 WMD Civil Support Teams and the 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Forces that are already sitting quietly, bored out of their minds, waiting for any excuse to do something other than respond to “white powder” scares and other false alarms?Amazing to be so proud of such a colossal waste of federal funds aimed at developing such an overprotective response to an over-rated threat. Yes, these NG troops do help train state and local emergency responders on CBRN hazard response, but this technical skill isn’t unique to DoD. It’s not 1998 anymore.


CBS News’ Armen Keteyian reports (in late December ) on a terrorist threat to attack multiple hotel and restaurant salad bars and buffets in the US:

A key intelligence source has confirmed the threat as ‘credible.’ Department of Homeland Security officials, along with members of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, have briefed a small group of corporate security officers from the hotel and restaurant industries about it….

The plot uncovered earlier this year [2010] is said to involve the use of two poisons – ricin and cyanide – slipped into salad bars and buffets….The plotters are believed to be tied to the same terror group that attempted to blow up cargo planes over the east coast in October, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In online propaganda al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has praised the cargo attack, part of what it called “Operation Hemorrhage,” a plan to attack “the enemy with smaller but more frequent operations” to “add a heavy economic burden to an already faltering economy.”

2010 Counterterrorism Calendar

The Homeland Security Digital Library announces the availability (thanks to the National Counterterrorism Center) of the 2011 Counterterrorism Calendar (pdf copy of the calendar available here).

Look who’s materially supporting terrorists — arguably

Jacob Sullum, at reason.com comments on this New York Times story by David Cole. The article describes how — because of a Supreme Court decision last June — “former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and former national security adviser Frances Townsend arguably violated the federal ban on providing ‘material support’ to terrorist groups when they spoke at a conference in Paris last month.”

Hurricanes cause earthquakes – hypothetically

Brian Romans, at wired.com discusses an earth science idea “linking the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010 to strong tropical storm systems that struck the region in 2008…. The hypothesis put forth by [Shimon] Wdowinski and colleagues is that the mass of sediment removed from Haiti’s uplands (and deposited in adjacent lowlands) influenced the stresses on the Léogâne Fault zone enough to cause it to rupture, resulting in the devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. The cause of such rapid erosion, according to the abstract, was the combined effects of two hurricanes and two tropical storms in 2008 on a severely deforested landscape.”


PrivacyLives summarizes recent stories about privacy and camera surveillance systems.

Jim Harper of CATO@Liberty predicts new DHS programs will create more privacy concerns in 2011:

[T]he Department of Homeland Security is working on the “next big thing”: body-scanning everywhere. This “privacy impact assessment” from DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate details a plan to use millimeter wave—a technology in strip-search machines—along with other techniques, to examine people from a distance, not just at the airport but anywhere DHS wants.

Legal terrorism

Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation published its twice weekly brief on the legal war on terror. The current post is about terrorism arrests in Europe, the Obama Administration’s thinking about an indefinite detention review process, and the circulation on the internet of Al Qaeda’s English-language manual, “The Explosives Course,” about how to construct and deploy “explosives made from everyday materials.”

Homeland security and DHS

Foreign Policy also published a short essay by Anne Applebaum claiming “Homeland security hasn’t made us safer.” She argues “The events of 9/11 did not prove that the United States needs to spend more on local police forces and fire brigades; they proved that Americans need to learn how to make better use of the information they have and apply it with speed and efficiency.”

Security Debrief’s Rich Cooper has a new year’s wish for DHS

Having stability in leadership is good for everybody, but it also points to a fact that there should be no more excuses when it comes to actions and decision making. For the better part of this past year, there has been (for lack of a better description) an “analysis paralysis” on-going at DHS, and it needs to end. By “analysis paralysis” I’m talking about looking, talking and studying an issue to figure out what you’re going to do about it, and then never getting around to doing anything about it because you’re too busy (or acting busy) looking, talking and studying the issue without end. It’s sort of like the DMV’s of old where you stood in line forever to get nowhere fast.

• … what, if any, realignment or reorganization is going to happen with the department given the completion of the QHSR and the Bottoms Up Review.

• What’s the status of collective bargaining for TSA’s workforce?

• What about the future of … the Secure Border Initiative.

• What about improvements in information sharing? … And what impact, if any, did the WikiLeaks disclosures have on information sharing initiatives?

• What about improved management systems and acquisition processes?

Social networks and data

Kim Stephens, at idisaster 2.0 writes about “Swift River,” a web-based tool that allows users to aggregate a lot of social media.

Kim writes:

Why do emergency managers need to aggregate data from the web and social media sites? The answer is simple, they don’t. But, if your community is using social media to connect to citizens during non-disaster events, you should expect your citizens will use that same conduit to ask for assistance or to inform the city/county of problems during a crisis. The recent snow storm in the Northeast provided ample examples of how this may occur. Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, had an active twitter account before the blizzard–over a million followers; after the snow fell in prodigious amounts, the citizens used this communications platform to let him know about problems they were experiencing….

In the future–very near future, we will need to be able to do four things quickly:

• curate relevant/new situational awareness data as seen from our citizens’ perspective (they are everywhere–our city workers are not)

• verify information from non-governmental sources

• discard duplicative information

• display information in a interactive format with access to and from multiple agencies (including potentially volunteer organizations)

Kim thinks Swift River (which works well with Ushahidi)  is a promising approach to the real time aggregation issue.

TSA behavior

In a November post (that I saw recently), Government Against the People suggests some TSA behavior meets the USA Patriot Act definition of terrorism: “activities that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”

TSA’s Blogger Bob says the reports about a 70% TSA detection failure rate is based on testing from 2004-2005, and the tests were conducted at only three of the 450 federalized U.S. airports.  He also says most of the media reporting those data do not also report the “steps that have been taken since then to improve security.”

Human Trafficking

The JAWA Report’s Mike Pechar comments on human trafficking:

Rather Hook in Africa than Live in China

(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo) Eleven Chinese women were abducted by human traffickers and taken to Africa to work as prostitutes in a karaoke bar. After a joint raid by Chinese and Congolese police on the karaoke bar, however, the women decided to stay in the country, saying it was easier to make good money there than in China.

Interestingly, the decision to stay in Africa may have been swayed because of a significant alcoholism problem within the Chinese hooker population. Fortunately, the drunk Chinese hooker project funded by the National Institutes of Health is addressing the problem.


Cyber threats

James Andrew Lewis, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers a chart documenting cyber-attacks against the U.S. government since 2006.

Dennis O’Reilly writes for CNET news. Last week he wrote about how to future proof your electronic data (sort of home-based homeland security):

It’s easier than ever to make sure copies of your most important records, documents, photos, videos, and other personal data will be readable/viewable/playable long after the hardware and software used to create the files have bitten the dust.

The four keys to safe data archiving are to choose file formats that won’t become obsolete, use storage media that won’t deteriorate or become inaccessible, make multiple copies stored apart, and check your archived data regularly to ensure it’s still readable.

He provides more details about doing this at the CNET link.


Bruce Schneier points to thebrowser.com’s post about Mary Habeck’s (professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University) recommendation for five books you must read to understand the War on Terror.” Schneier’s blog has interesting comments about the list.

And, speaking of lists, the Homeland Security Digital Library’s (HSDL) On the Homefront blog offers its list of 2010’s interesting homeland security books:

Throughout the year, we at HSDL have brought you new and interesting reports and papers that explore the current Homeland Security debate. At the end of every year we like to step outside of the ‘digital world’ to give our readers some suggestions from the ‘printed world’. … The following is a list of selected titles that cover a range of current Homeland Security issues. Our special thanks to Greta Marlatt, a librarian on our staff, for compiling this list.

You can find the list at this link: http://www.hsdl.org/hslog/?q=node/5901

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