Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 18, 2011

Not Grokking PPD-8: I’m a stranger in a strange land

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on April 18, 2011

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

–Robert Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land

In generic use, “grok” usually means a deep understanding of a particular topic. Not quite what Heinlein defined, but a term that can indicate an appreciation that goes beyond definition to intent and consequence.  So a step beyond simple reading comprehension.

While I generally consider myself to possess workable reading comprehension skills, I have to confess I still do not grok PPD-8.

I simply do not sufficiently understand what was offered, what the consequences might be, and what is genuinely required to meet the desired ends. Quite frankly, what are the desired ends?  A more prepared nation?  Of course…but how we get there  and what “there” looks like remains unclear.

Even with the invaluable analysis provided by Phil, Chris, and others I still feel myself at a loss to explain or understand what impact this new policy directive will actually have on either the normal operating lives of homeland security-concerned professionals throughout the country or even on those of us who are lucky enough to pretend to think big thoughts about such topics.

I found myself nodding my head in agreement with Chris’ post underlining the similarities between the new and old preparedness pronouncements (these events, in the previous and current Administrations, make me wonder if policy is being brought down from the mountain top.  Obviously today in short policy memo form, often in .pdf rather than stone tablets…). The Heritage Foundation’s WebMemo, noted in an earlier post, also raises some of the same issues of overlap with previous preparedness efforts.  The true sliver of originality seems to be in the form of a whole of “something” approach to the worst case scenarios.

I do not want to give the impression that my flip comments are meant to deride the hard work of current and past professionals working these issues at all levels of government, in particular the higher reaches of Administrations.  Some of them have given me jobs…but seriously, it is difficult from the outside to ascertain the benefit of rebooting and reorganizing these efforts instead of focusing and expanding.

If its possible to follow my disorganized thoughts, I’m thinking that HSPD-8 set a train in motion that is still running today in terms of preparedness efforts. Goals were set, planning scenarios written, and target capabilities listed.  In some form or other, these led to equipment being purchased, grant requests written, and exercises of various sizes carried out (am I the only one who things that an overwhelming number of these seem to be some form of the dirty bomb scenario?).

Now there could very well be serious concerns whether those exercises were serious, the grant requests appropriate, and the equipment required.  These concerns may have been addressed during the work of drafting PPD-8, though it is impossible to tell from the outside. But could the pre-existing system have crashed and required this reboot?

Phil argues that this stone tablet, I mean directive, does build on what came before it. I am prepared to be convinced of this (see non-grokking), in fact suspect that it is true to a large degree. But why bother seeming to set new goals and a new path if small course corrections were what was needed?

I probably seemed dismissive earlier with my “whole of something” comment.  Yet I think, perhaps grok, that this is the real talented rookie player for whom we’ve been waiting (by the way, given their recent play I’m truly sorry I ever brought up the Red Sox in past posts). Lip service has been paid to the important role of the private sector and citizens in all aspects of homeland security.  However, the low amounts of money provided to programs such as Citizen Corp and the exclusion of many private stakeholders in the immediate aftermath of Katrina pointed to a different mindset.  FEMA’s “Whole of Community” effort (the name that I prefer to “Whole of Nation” as it seems to me to focus more on the non-governmental entities) strikes me as paying more than lip service–it starts by considering MOMs, analyzes required capacity to deal with MOMs, and comes to the conclusion that government is unable to do everything necessary in the time frame required.  Working back from MOMs, the real inclusion of non-traditional homeland security players will only improve preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery to events of all sizes.  That logic progression hopefully will drive serious collaboration with people who aren’t privy to FOUO documents and don’t have access to homeland security information sharing systems (which seems to rarely occur and another reason I am skeptical about the otherwise forward leaning prose of PPD-8).

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 2:26 am

Not GROKKING here either. Skillful analysis of problems with HSPD-5 & 8 existed long before Obama became President. So why or why not no fix? The only explanation I can give is that most of the merger of the HSC staff and NSC staff into the NSS was to give a new home to holdovers very few of which understood the difficult issues of federalism underlying HS and EM and motivating the STATES and their local governments to do any kind of up tempo preparedness even beyond keeping their Public Safety forces (Police,Fire Service, EMT, HAZMATS, public health) going at full speed even with enhanced federal support while the economy of many STATES and their local governments were collapsing economically. So some hard hard decisions will have to be made. The real estate sector and small and middle banks are not going to recover any time soon from the debacle of underwater residential and commercial loans and foreclosures. The property tax underpins most if not all of local government finances. Many of those still are pretending in assessments that there has been no absolute reduction in values of residential properties. Just as computer restore capacity allows the owner to go back in time to restore the system as it was now we need the same for public safety. But I still see all levels of government pretending that (1) we don’t have a larger population that may need protection; (2) that technology has not just made life easier but has complicated impacts including adding expense that some cannot afford to achieve the realize the benefits of that technology; and (3) a political leadership that pretends that “resilience” is inherent in modern society and the polity when it is not.
There is something severely corrupt about the National Security State and perhaps that has overflowed to the Homeland Security State. Perhaps it all comes down to the desperation of many Americans just to maintain their status-quo in a problematic economy. A very difficult situation but fortunately at the moment not as difficult as that in Japan, or Haiti, or perhaps other nation-states. Although I count up to 25 nation-states out of say 200 existing that are not just on the ropes but on the mat knocked out. Robert Zoellick {President of the World Bank} has labeled the existing situation a world crisis in a major address and rests that conclusion based on food and energy prices. Perhaps he is wrong. MAIZE prices have climbed worldwide 76% in one year. WOW! Is anyone in circles of governance really paying attention. We have created a very very fragile economic and political system. History has not ended witness the Japanese and Haitians and NZ and Chilean events and others including drought here in US. Governing is the very toughest of jobs. Do we have leaders that can govern? TBD?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2011 @ 5:22 am


Reading your last paragraph regarding possible outcomes of PPD-8, I share most of these goals. I hope something similar will emerge from the process set out in PPD-8.

I do not want to be overly reductionist regarding what I perceive to be the purposes of PPD-8. There are a range of policy objectives it seeks to advance: focus on capabilities, a broader frame for prevention, renewed attention to mitigation, and more.

But mostly, I perceive — perhaps wrongly, it is not my document nor was I involved in its drafting — PPD-8 is saying that identification of a national preparedness goal and core capabilities is not meaningful unless the whole community is substantively involved in the process. While I do not read this in the PPD, it is my experience that a messy process of engaging the public in collaboration and deliberation will produce more authentic preparedness than the finest written preparedness plan.

There was pro-forma consultation and even some “coordination” with non-federal players in developing various outputs of HSPD-8 and in the prior swing at developing a national preparedness goal. Most of the state and local officials feel they were excluded and/or dismissed (though I will admit, this seems to be a chronic condition). The private sector — both commercial and civic — usually has no idea what you are talking about when the topic is raised.

In my view, the President has said, let’s stop talking to ourselves and fooling ourselves. Get out among the people and engage them, lead them, but mostly listen to them regarding the priorities that should shape national preparedness.

I do not view this as a “small correction.” If the NSS, DHS, FEMA, and others actually do what I hear the President instructing,it will be a monumental and difficult task. Bill’s reference to Don Quixote is not out-of-place (see Urban Cowboy post). But in my view the PPD is the man of La Mancha, not a windmill… and our colleagues in the agencies are Sancho Panza.

But then, that depends on how we each read Cervantes… and most do not read Cervantes.

From the original work, not the Broadway play: “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.”

Comment by Peter J. Brown

April 18, 2011 @ 6:58 am


PPD-8 is the latest chapter in the politics of preparedness, a process where a little real world connectivity is injected into the mix so as to confuse the masses. Want proof of the gaping hole between fantasy and reality in this domain? Just read this article that surfaced over the weekend.

“Justice Department shelves upgrade of communications
Sept. 11 panel called for single system”

By Shaun Waterman

The Washington Times
7:39 p.m., Sunday, April 17, 2011


The Justice Department is freezing efforts to create a single radio network that allows its various agencies to talk to each other — a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 panel…

So, do we still have a long way to go in terms of preparedness in general? You bet. This article just helps to remind us that PPD-8 may be little more than the latest distraction, and that a lot of the basic stuff that has haunted us from the start and constitutes the foundation for improved response measures remains unresolved. It makes it clear that despite the best efforts of a lot of people, our priorities are still unclear and decision-makers in Washington, D.C. either still don’t get it or they are apparently too reluctant to take bold steps – even after spending quite a lot of money searching for a fix.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 7:28 am

From Phil’s comment:
“But mostly, I perceive — perhaps wrongly, it is not my document nor was I involved in its drafting — PPD-8 is saying that identification of a national preparedness goal and core capabilities is not meaningful unless the whole community is substantively involved in the process.”

What do we know of efforts prior to issuance to involve the whole community in PPD-8? Is its issuance a product of cooperation and collaboration?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2011 @ 7:38 am

Bill, I am told that 40 plus different associations and such were involved in the consultations that produced the PPD. I have heard from several participants in the process who felt as if their inputs were meaningfully received and reflected in the document. It is also my impression — but no one has connected the dots on this for me — that the PPD was considerably influenced by the Preparedness Task Force (see: http://www.fema.gov/preparednesstaskforce/) which was a very collaborative consultation. There was also a pretty broad swath of unofficial consultations during the drafting process… at least through December or so.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 7:49 am

Peter Brown! What makes you think that the various sub-cabinet agencies in DOJ want to talk to each other?

The FBI of course has always been an independent kingdom!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 8:02 am

Well looks closely at the Preparedness Task Force final report and the membership. If that was the principal coordination it failed. That task force was largely STATEs and locals but very very odd picks. Often with almost no background in HS or EM. Hey new blood is fine sometimes. That final report has had no influence on anything or anybody and did not reflect the annual statutory mandate for FEMA to generate a preparedness report which DHS did for FEMA once in January 2009. That report not mentioned in the Task Force Report and no metrics. Most of the real conversation in that TASK FORCE was give the STATES and Locals federal money for which there is no accountability and let the feds do the heavy lifting in real world events.

If you or someone could turn the task force report into a word document [I have no ability to break up a pdf] then I would be happy to flyspeck it.

Oddly DHS and FEMA never ever seem able to incorporate or comment or include prior work effort and indicate why or why not it succeeded or failed. And of course the same for the NSS staff. Perhaps a Presidential Review Memorandum of the HSPD system and its successes and failures would have been useful.

I personally now believe the next administration will largely be starting over from scratch. Too bad when the world’s oldest and richest democracy can not afford competence.

And given the prominence of this blog and the skills and competence of the bloggers (except for all others than me) why did the powers that be not give you a chance to review and comment? Hey it is unclassified but of course the NSS staff probably does not know that only two published Executive Orders delegate authority to the National Security Council [and thereby its NSS] but hey who at NSC cares about the law. Only two AGs have sat as Ex Officio members of the NSC. Robert Kennedy and Ed Meese. Putting the AG on the NSC as a statutory member might just be a start to restoring the rule of law in the USA.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 8:09 am

And Phil! I went to the Preparedness Task Force link in your comment and it is to a cold website [April 2010] and not to the report. Hey some of us have important work to do so any time saved is valuable.

I am taking some time off now getting ready to review the over 20 heavy weight articles and books getting ready to be released after the 4th of July concerning the events of the last decade since 9/11/01 and lessons learned or not learned.

One thing I have learned is that given current levels of competence the merger of the HSC staff and NSC staff just meant that HS and EM was and is largely ignored. Probably worth an article. After all the resilience staff alone (over 32 FTE at NSC) is the single largest staff unit in my memory at the NSC although I only cover the last 45 years. What has the total production of that group been on HS and
EM? Hoping more than PPD-8!

Comment by Peter J. Brown

April 18, 2011 @ 8:55 am

Bill, Why can’t you just use txt version of report so as to avoid need for breaking down the pdf?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 10:28 am

Peter! If I knew how I would but never was able to locate a text version. And computer illiterate. Or cheap not sure which applies. I know adobe has a program to break apart PDF but last I checked over $125!

hey I am a nonprofit.

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