Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 14, 2011

We can be our own worst enemy

In the last week or so:

Rival military factions clash in Yemen’s capital

Pakistan tells US to pull out CIA

9/11 mastermind will be tried by military tribunal after all

In Georgia a white supremacist was found guilty on weapons and explosives charges

A mass grave is uncovered with 116 victims of Mexican drug violence

Wildfires are raging in West Texas and Oklahoma

The Coast Guard told itself (and us) that it was unprepared for last summer’s oil platform explosion and oil spill

The Red River is flooding (again)

The White House releases Presidential Policy Directive 8 on Preparedness

Current fiscal year DHS budget is cut by $784 million

Fukushima nuclear emergency is recalculated as “equal to” Chernobyl

One month after 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan water, electrical power, and gasoline supplies continue to be seriously disrupted. More than 150,000 continue to depend on the support of emergency shelters.

I am sure you can list several more headlines that have nothing to do with each other and, yet somehow, have everything to do with each other.

This is the homeland security domain.  These are our challenges, our risks, our wicked problems, and our recurring events.

Earlier this week I was on a webinar.  I was probably the only “civilian” (non-government employee) on the call. I am volunteering and had been asked by my sponsor to just listen.  The webinar’s purpose was to re-start a regional planning process.  The webinar had been rescheduled several times, trying to achieve a reasonable quorum.

This particular region is especially concerned about an abundance of toxic agrochemicals very close to schools and residential areas.  There is a significant flood threat.  Earthquake is infrequent, but possible.  There are no doubt other vulnerabilities and threats, but this is a re-start and risks still need to be identified.

Organizers did a reasonable job setting out the issues.  Japan was vaguely referenced.  A law enforcement participant shared some startling stats on a surge in drug violence.  A state environmental protection official distributed a scary map and photographs.

There was not much discussion.  The only questions were about the budget and how it could be used.   Whatever energy was present at the start of the call seemed to seep away about 20 minutes in.  The low point — about 30 minutes in — was when someone thought they had hit mute (but had not) and we all heard someone being chewed out for taking 10 minutes more for lunch than allowed.

It’s difficult to recover from that sort of interruption.

I think most readers of this blog might agree I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of guy.  After the webinar ended I needed a drink.

This work — homeland security, emergency management, public safety and related — has not been my life’s work.  I am a parvenu, an outsider, an interloper.  In any substantive way I have been at this barely ten years.

But perhaps it takes an outsider perspective to feel how privileged we are to have the opportunity to do this work.

Especially when we are asked to reach beyond our typical boundaries: jurisdictional, professional, intellectual, and otherwise.

Consider again the list at the top of this post.  For most of us at least two-thirds of the headlines have local implications. We are tasked to work on behalf of our neighbors, friends, families and others to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond, and recover from these and other prospective threats.  Don’t we need all the help we can get?

For the modest regional effort re-started with the webinar, funding and other resources are provided to bring together neighbors who will depend on each other in a crisis, but most of whom have never met.  What a simply great idea.  What an opportunity, what a privilege, what a practical step in regional risk readiness.  (My principal recommendation after the call was to not have another webinar or teleconference, but to first get people together face-to-face.)

The results of this unfortunate webinar seemed to me an especially dramatic example of a persistent pattern in homeland security.  There is a tendency to undervalue the opportunities presented.  There are several sources of this tendency: over-work, under-appreciation, budget-reductions, urgent demands, political stupidity, media idiocy, jurisdictional and professional parochialism, and the list could continue.

But I will offer at least one other impediment to meaningful regional risk readiness. In the midst of complexity and chaos we encounter a paradoxical threat: our own expertise.

As a species – and as professionals – we depend on experience to predict the future. We craft plans and procedures to ensure our future, reflecting what reality has taught us. We take pride in our practicality.

The more accurate our predictions, the more successful our course, the more assured we become of our future. Until… reality steps beyond our experience, undoes our predictions, and we stand vulnerable and uncertain before the truly New.

Catastrophe — such as we have seen in Japan — is beyond predicting. But catastrophe can be anticipated. To predict is to precisely foretell. To anticipate is but a foretaste, something much less suited to specific definition.

When you encounter the New, it is unlikely to come in the form of a 9.0 earthquake, thirty foot tsunami, and a six-core nuclear emergency. But when it arrives it is quite likely to cascade across your capabilities and challenge your essential capacities in a way that may just now leave a sour taste along each side of your tongue.

Even as we taste the bitterness, we are inclined to avert our eyes and remain fixated on what our experience has taught us. Experience is an effective teacher.  The School of Hard Knocks is a good school.  But there are other teachers also worth our time and attention.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 14, 2011 @ 6:41 am

A few editorial notes:

1. I have described the webinar in a way to purposefully discourage accurate identification of the region involved.

2. I am motivated to tell the story and make the case, in part, by the somewhat critical, skeptical reaction that I perceive has met PPD-8.

We — a very broad we — have been invited to actively contribute to defining a national goal for preparedness and the key capabilities thereto.

Will this be difficult? Yes.

Will this be contentious? Probably.

Is this sort of participation, collaboration, and deliberation regarding goal and capability a sine qua non to advancing “the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served”? In my experience, yes.

So… the invitation is not to a party with like-thinking friends, but an invitation to work hard… on something important.

3. Something has happened — I blame it on increasing mobility and the decline of neighborhoods, Berlin-inspired PhD programs, an increasing proportion of lawyers in the population, and John McClaughlin — where smart critique is often valued more than risky creation. I view this tendency as a profound threat.

4. I apologize to Arnold Bogis for cutting in line (Thursday is his day, Friday is mine) without permission.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

I don’t see any Black Swans on the list, does anyone?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

One aspect of the NPG would be any intervention does not aggravate the situation! Contrary views?

Comment by bellavita

April 14, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

Phil — what kind of reaction did you expect PPD 8 would receive? I ask this question authentically.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

I would add to Chris’ question! What did the authors expect to happen?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 15, 2011 @ 5:29 am

Chris and Bill:

I don’t know what the authors expected. Since the release I have engaged some of the authors, but I have not asked this question.

Because I had not seen a draft PPD for several months I had no specific expectations.

Yesterday I wrote to Arnold Bogis, “This moment is reminiscent of too many other moments in my life where I perceive a great opening, while others do not… and the others have usually been proven correct. But I have — arrogantly, perhaps — wondered if the non-opening was more due to their denial than my delusion.”

In the little town in which I was raised (the experience of which still defines most of my expectations) the practice of “affirmative inquiry” was the cultural norm, not a new discipline to adopt.

I am, as a result, always surprised and disappointed, when the first response is to break-apart and criticize rather than ask affirmative questions and attempt to recognize possibilities. I am old enough and far enough from that little town,that my surprise and disappointment is foolish.

But in this case, I will also note that the kind of skepticism the PPD has encountered has motivated me more than the original text.

Comment by John G. Comiskey

April 15, 2011 @ 6:24 am

Does PDD-8 mean anything “today”? Is it relevant today?


While my questions are skeptical they are appreciative of preparedness.

Boy Scout (ret.) “Be Prepared!”
US Coast Guard (SCPO) “Semper Paratus”

This week I mentioned cowboy ethics and suggested that they have a large role in homeland security and particularly in preparedness.

Montana’s Senate has voted to adopt the Code. I like it mostly because it promotes a sense of Emersonian self-reliance. My take on Emerson is that it is okay to seek help so long as you did what you could for yourself and then asked for help. One of my take-aways from the Cowboy code is a “posse up” mentality: when things get really bad, the public is deputized to do what needs doing and much of this is done locally.

The Federal government has a preparedness role and it is primarily meta-leadership and support. I don’t like the term buzzword because it is mostly used in the pejorative. Meta means beyond and IMHO, 21st century homeland security is inherently meta that which we are accustomed to.

HLS metas:

meta-leadership: leading those whom you have little or no control of. The Federal government’s idea of leadership, IMHO, is mostly about dangling grant and emergency money to the States. Good question: whose money is it anyway? Grant-crack [dangling federal money to locals] promotes addiction and resentment. Meta-leadership is about asking when appropriate and telling when it too is appropriate and the wisdom to know the difference.

meta-argument: arguably every conversation is an argument wherein the conversants assume rational [albeit sometimes irrational and parochial] positions to describe/prescribe something(s) as the ideal way to do the something(s). Ideally, meta-arguments would lead to meta-compromise -doing what is best for all concerned [sounds like democracy].

meta-cognition: thinking about our thinking. It would seem that we all do this sometimes and probably don’t realize that we think about how we think. I imagine that cowboys had time to reflect about their day’s events at campfires. They might not have used the term meta-cognition, but they had to outthink cattle they were herding and bad cowboys that wanted to unherd their cattle for their own purposes and they were mostly PREPARED for both.

meta-National [in development] Federalism is a “smart practice” and should be preserved but not necessarily in its current form. Republicanism 101 a government of the people, by the people and for the people -serve the public and let the public serve. How do we practice intergovernmental service? [answer TBD]

meta-community: [subset of meta-National ?]
recognition and practical integration of private sector and NGO’s into homeland security stakeholder community.

meta-education: It does take a village to teach a child and everyone else. Educators are nation builders! Somewhere within meta-education is a place where the School of Hard Knocks is integrated with the producers of PDD-8-like doctrine.

meta-humanitarianism [TBD]

PDD-8 is relevant today!

Comment by Paula D. Gordon

April 15, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

Thanks, Phil Palin, for sharing your insights, and all who commented here. I have been sharing information about HLS Watch with my students at several universities. I find that you what is said and shared here is really cutting edge and helpful. I thank you for keeping “affirmative questions” alive and for providing a venue for searching for and considering affirmative answers.


Paula Gordon
http://GordonPublicAdministration.com and http://GordonHomeland.com

Comment by bellavita

April 15, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

Re: “I am, as a result, always surprised and disappointed, when the first response is to break-apart and criticize rather than ask affirmative questions and attempt to recognize possibilities.” I have thought about this today, and I’m not sure I would agree with “break apart and criticize” in the way I think you mean it, at least with respect to most of the discussion of PPD 8 in this thread.

I think another phrase for breaking apart (in this context) is to identify assumptions; and I think I would prefer the word “critique” to “criticize.” I recognize the usefulness of appreciative inquiry (as one synonym for what I think you are describing), and I am thankful you take that approach. You demonstrate its utility. You and I have discussed many time how the dialectic is also a productive way to inquire about something. From that view, I see PPD 8 as a thesis statement. It provides an opportunity for what I hope is thoughtful — even if at time bumpy — antithesis. To me, that is where your desire to recognize possibilities through affirmation joins my desire to find opportunities (synthesis?) through disagreement.

I’m “surprised and disappointed you don’t see the affirmative questions and attempts to recognize possibilities” buried away within critique. :-)

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 15, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

One reason I like this blog is there seems to be an absence of one fundamental flaw in the USA today in its polity and politicians–a remarkable lack of curiosity!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 16, 2011 @ 4:48 am


If the critique you have offered was typical, I would not be surprised or disappointed. I was keen to quickly challenge what I thought would be a popular reading of “dishonest mask,” but otherwise your critique has been within my meaning of affirmative inquiry. Further, I perceive that masks are an ubiquitous — and sometimes helpful — aspect of social accommodation.

At HLSwatch, in a bunch of private emails, and in the Heritage piece what maddens me just a bit is a tendency to read-into the policy specific positions that are not explicit to the document. The most persistent example of this is a rejection of prior work generated under HSPD-8. For better or worse, there is no rejection of prior work. In fact, the PPD is explicit that “Individual plans developed under HSPD-8 and Annex I remain in effect until rescinded or otherwise replaced.”

In this PPD there is mostly an extension of prior work to a much broader state-and-local and non-governmental audience. I might make the case that some prior work ought to be rejected. But that is not what has been stated in the PPD or in any of the official commentary or in the policy/strategy context of the last two years. There is the prospect that as the prior work is considered by the broader audience that some trimming and refocusing (something bolder?) will emerge from wider participation, collaboration and deliberation. But otherwise the status quo ante applies.

I am overly sensitive to tone. Intellectually I recognize the value of the direct challenge. Personally, I cringe… even when I am not the target. But this is my own weakness. I am also sensitive to presumptuous projections of personal prejudice instead of sympathetic listening. This, it seems to me, is a social epidemic that causes real harm.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 16, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

It is of interest that as STATE and local capability continues to collapse no recognition of this in PPD-8!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 16, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

Bill, I agree with you that state and local capability is being threatened. In addition to the current financial and budgetary context, the generation change underway is removing many of our most capable leaders. In many ways the generation retiring now and over the next five-to-ten years was the pioneer generation in terms of professionalizing emergency management.

I perceive the PPD does implicitly recognize our concern. The National Preparedness System (as described beginning on page 2 of the PPD) “shall be an integrated set of guidance, programs, and processes that will enable the Nation to meet the national preparedness goal.” As if this might not be sufficiently explicit, the Secretary is, again, directed to coordinate this effort with the key audiences, including states and localities. Later there is reference to helping “all levels of government” to “build and sustain the capabilities outlined in the national preparedness goal.”

There is also a reference to “the provision of Federal financial assistance” to achieve the purposes of the PPD. The President, as a matter of policy, does not want to prescribe how to do this. He is inviting the stakeholders — including States and localities — to participate in determining the goal and key capabilities. He is, however, committing the federal government to implementation as framed by the goal and capabilities chosen. At least that is my reading.

Comment by bellavita

April 16, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

Bill — not to prolong this part of the discussion, but do you have supporting evidence for the claim that “STATE and local capability continues to collapse”? I know states, cities and counties have faced budget restrictions, but is there anything more than anecdote that has translated into a collapse of capabilities? If there is, that could mean someone has figured out a way to measure preparedness.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2011 @ 6:23 am

Chris! Have some documentation that will send to you. Not just anecdotal. Also Eric Holderman’s Disaster Zone has been featuring this topic. I will also send some early info on measuring of STATE Capabilities.

And interesting that the GAO report cited by Heritage Foundation that Phil found for me focuses on duplications and overlaps. Perhaps the focus should be on GAPS!

For one example, less than 10% of the FIRE SERVICE has SCBA gear [self-contained breathing apparatus] adequate for CBRNE! Is that a GAP? IMO yes! STATE of INDIANA once bought 600,000 masks theoretically for CBRNE activity that were worthless for that activity. Again an example how the FEDS let the free market continue to rip off the STATES and their Local governments. Two states have now mandated that fire engines and rescure vehicles all have external connectors that are standardized! NY and Florida. If you wanted a ticket that understands STATE and local preparedness you could have JEB BUSH and Rudy G. Personally would not favor that ticket except they are experienced by life events in that arena. My focus of course is foreign policy for the President as the BRIC’s eat our lunch.

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