Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 31, 2011

A self-licking ice cream cone for homeland security?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Port and Maritime Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 31, 2011

I had an opportunity last week to travel on the nation’s largest ferry system.

The Washington State ferry system carries almost 23 million people per year.  It is the third largest ferry system in the world.  (I think British Columbia has the second largest system, and Sydney, Australia the first.)

While I was waiting at one of the terminals, I noticed a sign that said the facility was at Maritime Security (MARSEC) level 1: “the level for which minimum appropriate security measures shall be maintained at all times.”


I saw maybe five Washington State Troopers walking outside the terminal.  Two of the troopers had dogs with them as they walked between the vehicles waiting for the ferry.


I saw several signs inside the terminal reminding passengers to be alert for things that looked out of place.


I saw another sign that read “Bags without people don’t make sense.”


That sign was a little difficult to read.  It was hidden behind a vending machine that sold lottery tickets.


I would like to think some of the money the state makes from selling lottery tickets goes to pay – in part –  for the security at the terminal.

Blocking the “See Something – Say Something” poster with a tax revenue generating activity may be the homeland security equivalent of the self-licking ice cream cone.

May 30, 2011

In Memoriam

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on May 30, 2011

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

From Quartet Number 4, Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot

May 27, 2011

Risk to — and caused by — the cornucopia

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on May 27, 2011

Graphic provided by The Weather Channel

In the aftermath of Tuscaloosa and Joplin — and recognizing May and June are the peak months for tornados — we have particular cause to consider our preparedness and response policy.

The epic, if reasonably well-controlled,  Mississippi flooding is also part of the policy/strategy landscape. According to the Washington Post, “Since 2005, (FEMA) has borrowed $17.75 billion from the U.S. Treasury to pay flood insurance claims, mostly for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is unlikely to repay the debt…”

The Government Accountability Office has found,

Congressional action is needed to increase the financial stability of NFIP and limit taxpayer exposure. GAO previously identified four public policy goals that can provide a framework for crafting or evaluating proposals to reform NFIP. These goals are: (1) charging premium rates that fully reflect risks, (2) limiting costs to taxpayers before and after a disaster, (3) encouraging broad participation in the program, and (4) encouraging private markets to provide flood insurance.

Faced with extraordinary consequences and costs in Alabama, Missouri, along the lower Mississippi and elsewhere, on Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in additional disaster relief. If approved by the full Congress, FEMA will use the money through the end of September.

The Congressional Research Service has offered,

Some believe that the Stafford Act is appropriate for natural disasters of limited scope, but suggest that Congress should consider creating a “catastrophic tier” to address events of great magnitude. Such a tier, some have postulated, could include automatic cost-share adjustments and regulatory waivers. Should Congress establish the boundaries of aid in a catastrophic declaration or should this be left to the President’s discretion? Will the National Disaster Recovery Framework address these issues?

With exquisite (excruciating?) care the same CRS report notes, “While some point to what they consider FEMA’s limited role in the post-disaster environment, others note the huge investment FEMA’s programs make.”

Hurricane season begins on June 1.  According to the Tropical Prediction Center at Colorado State University,

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season will have significantly more activity than the average 1950-2000 season.  We estimate that 2011 will have about 9 hurricanes (average is 5.9), 16 named storms (average is 9.6), 80 named storm days (average is 49.1), 35 hurricane days (average is 24.5), 5 major (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.3) and 10 major hurricane days (average is 5.0).  The probability of U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be about 140 percent of the long-period average.  We expect Atlantic basin Net Tropical Cyclone (NTC) activity in 2011 to be approximately 175 percent of the long-term average.

We could easily continue with discussion of private risk transfer for oil spill disasters, recent FEMA action to reject State applications for federal disaster assistance, and the prospects of catastrophic earthquake, wildfire, or nuclear detonation.  Over 100,000 Japanese continue to depend on congregant emergency shelter.  The policy and strategy issues are very real.

In recent weeks hundreds have died.  Tens of thousands have suffered devastating financial loss. The future of communities and entire regions is at risk.  A presidential election  is underway and control of Congress is at stake.  This is also our reality.   It is not a propitious moment to tackle the complicated conundrums of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.  I expect such moments seldom arrive and quickly pass.

The policy/strategy issues we face today are classic.  One of the founding documents of emergency management is Tornado at Worcester by Anthony F.C. Wallace.  This is a 1956 National Academy of Sciences report.  Following is a long quote from near its close.

In disaster operations, when materiel and personnel are pouring out of a cornucopia, deluging the impact area, the results in rescue and rehabilitation are almost inevitably impressive.

This is what happened at Worcester. The impact area was blanketed with protective agencies: hundreds of police, firemen, National Guards, public works people, CD volunteers, and miscellaneous helpers invaded it during the rescue period; hospitals had more blood donors than they could handle; the Red Cross mobilized hundreds of nurses; equipment and supplies of all kinds were funneled into Worcester from all over the northeast, and four hundred twenty -five trailers came from Missouri. While the results of this sort of provision are so good that post-mortem studies have little to criticize except relatively minor matters and little to recommend except more efficient utilization of what was already available, they take for granted the fact that the cornucopia principle’s successful application at Worcester depended on the fortunate (and not at all inevitable) co-existence of two conditions: a complete lack of damage to Worcester’s own protective agencies and to those of any other source of regional aid; and the absence of any competition from anywhere nearer than Ohio for emergency supplies and personnel…

The cornucopia theory thus rests on the two assumptions that any given disaster will not destroy the cornucopia itself, and that any given disaster or combination of disasters will be unable to exhaust the cornucopia before adequate relief and rehabilitation can be provided. I have the feeling that this theory is widely held if rarely formally stated…

Now pointing out the potential inadequacy of the cornucopia does not imply that there is anything wrong with having a cornucopia. The questions which I should like to raise, however, are: (1) Does the faith in the cornucopia, as experienced in natural disasters, produce a tendency to think in terms of repair rather than prevention? (2) Does the faith in the cornucopia tend to produce organizations which are better adapted to excess supply than to inadequate supply? In other words, there is a basic question whether the type of organization and planning which gets results where there is more than enough of personnel and supply will be most effective when everything is short.

These continue to be good questions. A half-century later we probably do have a better sense of how to answer the questions. But we are not yet ready to fully engage the implications of our answers.

Japan: Strategic lessons being learned

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 27, 2011

This week two more steps were taken to assess the cause of the cascade of consequences in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake-and-tsunami. Both signal some interesting strategic assessments.

Tuesday the Japanese cabinet put in place an expert panel to review the Fukushima nuclear emergency. It will be chaired by Yotaro Hatamura an expert in failure.   In an interview with Reuters, Kenji Iino a colleague of Hatamura offered,

“While final conclusions must wait for the probe, it appeared the utility’s first fatal error was its failure to take steps to prevent an accident whose risk of occurring was low but whose consequences were huge.”

The utility, known as Tepco, has said that the deadly combination of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting massive tsunami was “soteigai” — beyond expectations.

But a review of company and regulatory records by Reuters showed Japan’s government and the utility repeatedly played down the danger and ignored warnings.

The probability was small and I think they didn’t properly calculate how big the damage would be if it happened,” Iino said.

Hatamura’s investigation will look not only at the causes of the accident but the response by Tokyo Electric and the government, both of which have been accused of bungling their handling of a disaster which nearly three months on poses a continued threat to the environment and health.

An inability to think outside the box when the unexpected strikes can make things worse, Iino said.

“If there is someone on the ground who can make the right judgment, that’s fine. The problem is when there is no one who can make that call,” he said.

“People’s jobs have become narrower and more fragmented and there are fewer who understand the big picture.”

An entirely separate United Nations study has apparently drawn some similar conclusions. According to the Kyodo news agency, drawing heavily on a United Nations report released this week:

The March 11 killer tsunami that hit the Tohoku coast following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns revealed the fragility of Japan’s infrastructure, according to a recent U.N. report on natural disasters.

The report describes Japan as a country whose infrastructure collapsed in a way more closely associated with less-developed countries and from which lessons can be drawn.

“The earthquake, its aftershocks, the tsunami and the nuclear emergency illustrate what a synchronous failure looks like: a multisectoral system’s collapse,” says the 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.

It also describes how the disaster disrupted “critical sections” of Japan’s power grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and how backup systems were disabled, thereby resulting in the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

“The full consequence of the trauma and costs will not be known for years to come,” the report says. “However, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it became evident that even in this highly sophisticated and well-prepared society, the impact of physical hazards on infrastructure can quickly lead to outcomes normally associated with poorer countries: large-scale food and water shortages, shelter crises and logistical collapse.

The 2011 floods in Australia, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year and Japan’s latest disaster serve as a “reminder that developed countries are also very exposed,” the report says.

The March 11 disaster additionally highlighted that there are “emerging risks and new vulnerabilities associated with the complexity and interdependency of the technological systems on which modern societies depend,” it says. MORE

About two weeks ago I was talking to a long-time professional with an extensive network of emergency management contacts across the United States.  “Japan is already old news, nearly forgotten,” he said shaking his head.  “We will not learn from their failures.  Unless we experience the pain ourselves, we never pay attention.”

Patriot Act Extended

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Privacy and Security — by Philip J. Palin on May 27, 2011

Following is a good example of why pay walls are going up all over the web.  I have — contrary to my stated principles — reproduced in full a Dow Jones news story.

When we take action contrary to our principles we usually convince ourselves there is sufficient cause, good cause, even a noble cause.  In this case I am probably being lazy and expedient.

Even when our rationalizations have some validity we almost always pay the consequences sooner or later in ways predictable or not.  I have not been a fan of Senator Rand Paul.  But in regard to the Patriot Act we should at least be giving close attention to his arguments. (Please see video and transcript of the Senator’s comments on two failed amendments to the Patriot Act.)


WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–The U.S. House of Representatives voted to renew three key provisions of legislation granting law enforcement officials authority to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists.

The Senate voted earlier Thursday to approve the extension bill, after resolving a week-long impasse over the legislation.

The House vote was 250 in favor, with 153 opposed.

With the House vote, Congress has completed its work on the bill, but it must still be signed by President Barack Obama by midnight EDT Thursday in order to avoid an expiration of the three provisions. Obama is in France for a meeting of the G-8 group of nations. A White House spokesman said the president will use an “automatic pen” to sign the legislation into law.

All week long, the Senate has been in a logjam over attempts, primarily by a single lawmaker, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), to amend the legislation. Paul, a self-styled libertarian, opposes the legislation and spent the last several days decrying it as an invasion of privacy.

As the deadline approached, top lawmakers and senior Obama administration officials began issuing stark warnings about the impact on the ability of the nation’s intelligence community to continue to do its job if the provisions were allowed to expire. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a letter this week to Senate leaders there could be serious repercussions for law enforcement’s surveillance efforts if the measures expire.

The provisions are contained within the Patriot Act, a law passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that vastly expanded the abilities of law enforcement officials to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists both in the U.S. and abroad.

Over the years, the legislation has gradually been more tailored, with some of its provisions allowed to expire and others made permanent.

But some of the authorities granted by the law require Congress to renew them. There are three such provisions in the legislation.

One would enable law enforcement officials to conduct surveillance on suspected individuals who switch communication devices, such as using disposable cellular phones. A second would let officials conduct surveillance on so-called “lone wolf” individuals–suspects not currently linked to any known terrorist organization abroad. The third would enable officials access to suspects’ business transactions–rental cars, hotel bill and other credit card transactions.

All three have been extended until June 1, 2015.

Ultimately, 22 senators joined Paul in opposing the legislation. The majority of those no votes were cast by liberals who are opposed to the continuation of the expanded authorities contained within it. Several of them, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had hoped to add language providing for further oversight and audits of the activities the law permits. This wasn’t allowed as part of the compromise reached Thursday, which sparked some of those no votes.

Leahy pledged to bring up the oversight language as stand-alone legislation soon.

Before they moved to a vote to finalize the legislation, lawmakers first had to deal with a Paul amendment that would have excluded gun sales from law enforcement officials’ ability to monitor business transactions.

Paul said this was a violation of individual rights protected by the second amendment to the U.S. constitution.

“It’s very important that we are eternally vigilant of the powers of government,” Paul said on the Senate floor. “I don’t think the government should be sifting through the records of gun owners.”

Even the National Rifle Association didn’t support Paul’s gun amendment. The organization didn’t oppose it outright, but chose to take no position on the issue.

The proposed change was easily defeated by the Senate


May 26, 2011

Zombie Preparedness…No, Really….

Filed under: Humor,Media,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on May 26, 2011

Yesterday, Mark provocatively asked if preparedness even mattered in the face of catastrophic incidents.

Not only do I say yes, but I’m doubling down on cases of the impossible.  By that I refer to recent CDC guidance on preparing for a zombie outbreak.

Yes.  A zombie outbreak.

At the surface, this example of public outreach can appear quite frivolous.  At the core, it is a fantastic example of simple innovation with the potential for significant reward.

The story:

“Zombie apocalypse.” That blog posting headline is all it took for a behind-the-scenes public health doctor to set off an Internet frenzy over tired old advice about keeping water and flashlights on hand in case of a hurricane.

“You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency,” wrote Dr. Ali Khan on the emergency preparedness blog of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Note the reporter’s characterization of “tired old advice.”

The blog post in question basically summarizes some pop culture consideration of the zombie threat and offers basic preparedness advice.  However, that same information does not often penetrate into the consciousness of a younger audience when presented in phone books or as bus stop advertisements.

More important, CDC officials said, it is drawing interest from teens and young adults who otherwise would not have read a federal agency’s guidance on the importance of planning an evacuation route or how much water and what tools to store in case a major storm rolls in.

What do the kids pay attention to/what’s the reward?

Khan’s postings usually draw 1,000 to 3,000 hits in a week. This one — posted Monday — got 30,000 within a day. By Friday, it had gotten 963,000 page views and was the top item viewed on the agency’s Web site, thanks in part to media coverage that began mid-week.

Obviously, this is not a paradigm shift in public outreach that essentially solves existing problems in promoting personal preparedness.  However, it is a great example of one influential official listening to advice and acting:

The idea evolved from a CDC Twitter session with the public earlier this year about planning for disasters. Activity spiked when dozens of tweets came in from people saying they were concerned about zombies.

Dave Daigle, a veteran communications specialist, proposed the idea of using a zombie hook to spice up the hurricane message. Khan, director of emergency preparedness, approved it immediately and wrote it himself.

There will be of course those doubtful about such efforts:

There have been few comments asking whether this is the best way for the government to spend tax dollars. The agency is under a tight budget review at the moment and facing potentially serious budget cuts. But the zombie post involved no extra time or expenditure, CDC officials said.

“We have a critical message to get out and that is CDC saves lives while saving money. If it takes zombies to help us get that message out, then so be it,” said agency spokesman Tom Skinner.

What I find particularly interesting, and gratifying, about this exercise is the fact that it is not simply a one-off attempt at injecting a little humor into the standard preparedness message.  Apparently, there will be follow up:

Whether the message sticks still has to be determined. The agency is planning a follow-up survey to see if people actually did prepare emergency kits or follow Khan’s other advice.

Picking up on current trends in pop culture seems like an easy route to travel for those charged with promoting a preparedness message with the public.  Yet, given bureaucratic inertia that exists in most agencies and a reluctance to independently try new things, this relatively small experiment is hopefully an indicator of additional such efforts to come instead of the imaginative work of one individual.

While I do not disagree with other authors on this blog about the need to engage the public about risks and consequences, I feel strongly that a basic preparedness message continues to represent a fundamental building block of this amorphous thing that is popularly known as resilience.  If zombies can help getting there from here, then I say why not?

[H/t to Eric Holdeman at Disaster Zone, though I have to question his self-proclaimed zombie expertise if he advises “Conserve your ammo, one shot seems to work fine!”  Does he not know about the “double tap rule” of Zombieland?]

May 25, 2011

Is Preparedness Pointless?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Mark Chubb on May 25, 2011

Watching coverage of the devastation wrought by the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri over the weekend, I have been pondering the theme of the Washington State Emergency Management Association’s conference scheduled for later this year: “Preparedness: It’s Not a Mystery.” As catchy as that may sound, I find it hard to accept.

Gregory Treverton’s famous distinction — first made in the context of national security but certainly applicable here — warns us that things we do not know are very different from things that are contradictory, confusing or complex.

For most of us, weather remains one of the most enduring if not profound mysteries affecting the course of our daily lives. The uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of severe weather — will it rain today or not? — pales in comparison to the mysteries surrounding the capricious nature of the forces unleashed upon us when it strikes in with the suddenness and severity of a tornado.

The heartbreaking images and stories of personal loss strike a particular chord with me as a survivor of the F5 tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio on April 3, 1974, as part of a super-outbreak that spanwed 148 twisters across the country’s mid-section. Like a similar outbreak last month in Alabama, the Xenia tornado was huge and stayed on the ground for a very long time. Thirty-two people died as a direct result of the storm, and two National Guard soldiers were killed a couple of days later when fire swept through a downtown furniture store in which they were billeted.

As painful as the loss of life was for those who knew someone killed by the twister, the scope and scale of the devastation left many of us bewildered. So many landmarks were swept away that many had difficulty even figuring out where they were despite having grown up in the town. The loss of schools, homes, businesses and so many historic structures simply obliterated by the storm had a profound and lasting impact on the town. Xenia, like Joplin, has a long and proud history that changed forever in just a few minutes.

Nothing we say or do can really prepare us for the devastation that such disasters bring. Despite efforts to develop better building standards, we still cannot build economical structures for routine human habitation that will resist the effects of catastrophic storms like those that struck Xenia and Joplin. Even if we could, that would not make it any easier for those left to pick up the pieces of these shattered communities to make their way back to a sense of normalcy.

At best, preparedness helps people provide themselves, their loved ones and neighbors with the necessities of life for a short time following such an extreme event. Those who make a big deal about preparing for events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes often have little or no first-hand experience of such devastation themselves. As such, their exhortations strike even my sympathetic and trained ears as preachy and moralistic.

Any objective assessment of the situation in Joplin today, like that of Xenia almost 40 years ago, makes it clear that the survivors do a pretty admirable job of looking after one another despite their so-called lack of preparedness. What people lack in preparedness, they often more than make up for in empathy and resourcefulness.

If we want the public to take us seriously, we would be much better off telling it like it really is: “We can neither prepare for nor adequately protect against events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes or the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown that struck Japan or other similar events. What we can do is help you understand the sorts of challenges that will face us as a community when these events strike.”

With any luck, such honesty will motivate people to do something that will make a difference: Worry less about the uncertainties and do more to resolve the ambiguities associated with disaster risk, such as figuring out what systems will fail and why. A clear-eyed assessment of these risks just might encourage people to invest in the institutions, develop the dispositions and reinforce the relationships that will allow them to respond with resilience when disaster strikes rather than relying on the planners and preachers who spend so much of their time extolling the virtues of preparedness that they have neither the time nor the inclination to come to the rescue.

When it comes to the capriciousness of catastrophic disasters like the Joplin tornado, rescue doesn’t really start until the recovery phase. The skills and sensibilities emergency managers need for this work emphasize asking the right questions not supplying prepackaged answers. Inevitably, the communities that come back better have taken the time to get the questions right before they start implementing the answers. And it’s never too early to start asking these questions since every community that has been through a disaster before is already in line for another one. [Last paragraph added by author at 0710 hours PDT, May 25, 2011.]

May 24, 2011

“See something, say something” – Old School

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on May 24, 2011

“It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.”

That was a line from a 1950s Air Force radio advertisement, looking for volunteers to join the Ground Observer Corps.

The GOC (and I refuse to believe anyone used that acronym in the 1950s) started in World War II when 1.5 million civilians volunteered to staff 14,000 observation posts along the U.S. coasts.

According to the Ground Observer Corps website: The “mission was to visually search the skies for enemy aircraft attempting to penetrate American airspace.”

The Corps disbanded in 1944, but was brought back to life in 1950, “with the belief that the Korean War served as a precursor to a possible Soviet attack.”

Here’s another commercial (thanks, Rudy), from 1954.  Click on the “Will You Volunteer” link below to listen.  The ad runs a bit more than one minute:

Will you volunteer?

Here’s a transcript of the ad:

If you’re of teen age or up, a loyal American, male or female,  your country needs you in the civilian Ground Observer Core.

You’ve heard the radio broadcasts, seen the television pictures.  You know the facts.  You know what a single H Bomb dropped in any metropolitan area could do.  And today’s long range bombers have made intercontinental war possible.  Enemy planes based on the other side of the world could reach the United States in a matter of hours.  Radar can help detect them.  But there are dangerous gaps through which low flying planes can  penetrate without detection.

To fill out our detection system, civilian personel is [sic] needed, particularly along the east and west coast and in the northern states.

Sky watching is not a game.  It’s a necessary precaution.

The Ground Observer Core is now operating on a 24 hour a day basis, and needs at least 200,000 volunteers to contribute a few hours of their spare time to this vital work.

Will you volunteer?

Get in touch with your local civilian defense center at once.

The campaign seems to have worked: “Eventually over 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts and seventy-three filter centers.”

A 2006 story in Air Force Magazine reported the Fate of GOC:

By the late 1950s, the need for volunteer sky watchers was diminishing. In July 1957, the main Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was declared technically ready. … That September, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was established.

By then, both the US and the Soviets had ICBMs capable of delivering atomic warheads to their adversaries’ homelands. Volunteer sky watchers, trained to spot aircraft when there still was time to intercept them, would be of little use against such weapons.

In January 1958, the Ground Observer Corps was reduced from 24-hour to ready-reserve status. A year later, it was inactivated. That same month, the first Semiautomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) division became operational in Syracuse.

Fifty years later, the wings and badges of the GOC observers and the airplane models used to train them in recognition are collector’s items enshrined in museums or sold on eBay. Many of the teenagers who helped man the ramshackle observation posts are drawing Social Security. Only a few of the towers from which they phoned their reports have survived as historic monuments…..

Whether keeping watch on the skies helped to head off a fatal attack on the US is debatable. There is no way to tell how things would have been different if the watchers and plotters had not been there.

Like the GOC members of World War II, however, those who served in the Cold War leave another legacy. For a brief period, thousands responded to the perceived threat and served alongside the uniformed services in defense of the country.

“The Cold War was starting to crank up,” noted Sutter. The Ground Observer Corps “had a feel-good element to it, where people felt they were doing something. Then, when word got out that there were actually people up there watching, it had a warm fuzzy feeling for other people who weren’t participating but knew that it was going on.”

The article closes a tad wistfully:

The US has not experienced anything quite like that kind of nationwide public participation with the military since the GOC disbanded.


May 23, 2011

A confluence of events in Pakistan

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on May 23, 2011

The Monday morning newscasts in the US are largely — appropriately — preoccupied with the Joplin twister.  A couple of developments over the weekend in Pakistan are important to readers of HLSWatch, so just in case:

Friday May 20, the Dawn newspaper, perhaps Pakistan’s premier English-language newspaper, began extensive coverage of Wikileaks content related to Pakistan. A series of stories has already been published and more are planned.  Here’s one quick excerpt:

The reports reveal that US special operations forces were embedded with Pakistani troops for intelligence gathering by the summer of 2009 and deployed with them on joint operations in Pakistani territory by September that year. MORE

This series of reports reveal a depth of close cooperation between the United States and Pakistani military quite in contrast with recent accusations in both nations subsequent to the Abbottabad operation.

Beginning Sunday night there was a fierce attack on a Pakistani naval base in Karachi, the nation’s largest city.  According to Dawn:

Taliban militants assaulted the headquarters of Pakistan’s naval air force, battling on Monday security forces in the most brazen attack in the country since the killing of Osama bin Laden, killing 13 people, injuring 16 others and blowing up at least two military aircraft. Blasts rang out and helicopters hovered above the PNS Mehran base near Shahrah-e-Faisal almost 14 hours after more than 20 Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants stormed the heavily guarded building with guns and grenades, blowing up at least two aircraft and casting doubt on the military’s ability to protect its installations. MORE

The near-coincidence for the American operation against bin-Laden, the Wikileaks revelations, and this extraordinary attack will — one way or another — have a significant impact on Pakistan’s position going forward.  One judgment of the likely direction is offered by Adnan Rehmat commenting in today’s late edition:

For Pakistan the pressure is just beginning. The world is running out of patience with Islamabad running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. It will have to cooperate to hunt down Mullah Omar, Aiman Al Zwahiri and others. For Pakistan there’s no avoiding the denouement. The sham of the caricaturised accountability of security failure of the intelligence agencies in parliament is far from enough. There is no shift in policy post-Abbottabad. An anti-US, pro-military resolution by parliamentmay have only ensured Pakistan will be dealt with the hard way. Because Pakistan refuses to become a ‘normal’ country like those in the rest of the world, its extraordinary posture will be dealt with extraordinarily. Pakistan will have to admit its failing and call for help. It’s the only way to stop from tipping over. MORE

The TTP has, of course, threatened to attack the United States and was implicated in the Times Square bombing attempt.  Seemed too important for you to possibly not hear about through our domestic media.

May 21, 2011

Solo gives way to duet; next the chorus

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 21, 2011

The Prime Minister and President, between them is a bust of Martin Luther King.

The line from the President’s  Thursday’s speech that has generated the most attention and controversy is: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

The reaction to this line by Prime Minister Netanyahu and others has been dramatic. Here is what the Prime Minister said in his joint press conference with the President:

I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible; because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.

Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide. It was half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.

So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan. I discussed this with the President and I think that we understand that Israel has certain security requirements that will have to come into place in any deal that we make.

Emotionally, perhaps intellectually and personally, certainly diplomatically the differences are real.   But there is nothing in what the President has described as an outcome of negotiations that necessarily excludes what the Prime Minister has described as basic reality.

I am not sure why the Prime Minister has taken such offense to this line.  His offense has distracted attention from several other important lines.

For the purposes of homeland security — and especially concerns related to counter-terrorism — there was a sustained theme in the President’s speech worth highlighting.  Three of several possible excerpts from the speech:


Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades. Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age -– a time of 24-hour news cycles and constant communication –- people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days and there will bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we’ve already seen, calls for change may give way, in some cases, to fierce contests for power.


We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be. Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -– it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.


For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union –- organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -– words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There’s no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope.

I will not patronize you by delivering a tritely simplistic interpretation, the President has been clear enough for anyone prepared to read or listen.

In an early Thursday morning post I closed an extended opera analogy with, “I want my President to hit and hold a very high C in his performance today. The United States cannot decide how the Arab Spring, or the Arab-Israeli conflict, or many other stories will play out. But we ought play our role honestly, reaching as high as we possibly can.”

The young Luciano Pavarotti was known as the King of High Cs and probably owed his professional breakthrough to that thrilling skill. But his amazing long-term success was much more a result of  the honesty, humility, and authenticity of both his persona and his art.

On Thursday I did not hear my President hit and hold a thrilling high C. I did hear an honest explanation of reality and an expression of policy to fit that reality.

May 20, 2011

Choosing between hope and fear

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on May 20, 2011

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama are scheduled to begin meeting at 11:15 today.  Most are expecting at least a tense engagement, perhaps even a serious clash. See Jerusalem Post, New York Times, and Ynet.

Each of us have our positions, our certainties, our minimums. Each of us have our particular fears and, if we are fortunate, our own well-springs of hope.

As the President and Prime Minister confront each other in the Oval, thousands of Syrians will stream out of mid-day prayers in protest against the Assad regime. A few more — perhaps many more — will pay with their lives. I am sure they are afraid.

For complicated reasons the Arab people perceive they are under siege. So do the people of Israel. Some days, so do I. We are not paranoid. Our enemies are real enough. The siege is certainly real in Daraa and Misurata and Kandahar. It is no less so in Gaza and for their neighbors in Israel. We each know besieged places near us. Under siege, not unreasonably, we can be inclined to strike out.

We have not been able to see much of what is happening in Syria. But what we have heard is extraordinary. Crowds leave Friday prayers, walking together, shouting “Salmiyeh, salmiyeh” (Peaceful, peaceful) as the regime’s security forces descend upon them with gas, guns, and tanks.

Salmiyeh, salmiyeh. In the midst of deadly fear, a lively hope persists.

As the President and Prime Minister meet, fear — and the certainties born of fear — will come all too easily. May they find the courage to make and share sources of hope.

The Siege
by Mahmoud Darwish

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.

A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent
For we closely watch the hour of victory:
No night in our night lit up by the shelling
Our enemies are watchful and light the light for us
In the darkness of cellars.

Here there is no “I”.
Here Adam remembers the dust of his clay.

On the verge of death, he says:
I have no trace left to lose:
Free I am so close to my liberty. My future lies in my own hand.
Soon I shall penetrate my life,
I shall be born free and parentless,
And as my name I shall choose azure letters…

You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!

When the planes disappear, the white, white doves
Fly off and wash the cheeks of heaven
With unbound wings taking radiance back again, taking possession
Of the ether and of play. Higher, higher still, the white, white doves
Fly off. Ah, if only the sky
Were real [a man passing between two bombs said to me].

Cypresses behind the soldiers, minarets protecting
The sky from collapse. Behind the hedge of steel
Soldiers piss—under the watchful eye of a tank—
And the autumnal day ends its golden wandering in
A street as wide as a church after Sunday mass…

[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.

The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on the tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.

Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.

We have brothers behind this expanse.
Excellent brothers. They love us. They watch us and weep.
Then, in secret, they tell each other:
“Ah! if this siege had been declared…” They do not finish their sentence:
“Don’t abandon us, don’t leave us.”

Our losses: between two and eight martyrs each day.
And ten wounded.
And twenty homes.
And fifty olive trees…
Added to this the structural flaw that
Will arrive at the poem, the play, and the unfinished canvas.

A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.

If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]

Oh watchmen! Are you not weary
Of lying in wait for the light in our salt
And of the incandescence of the rose in our wound
Are you not weary, oh watchmen?

A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.

It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.

On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here…not over there.

In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.

The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
And relieve the sleepers from the echo’s buzz.

The martyr enlightens me: beyond the expanse
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But I cannot reach it, and then, too, I took aim at it
With my last possession: the blood in the body of azure.

The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I first, I the first one!

The martyr encircles me: my place and my crude furniture are all that I have changed.
I put a gazelle on my bed,
And a crescent of moon on my finger
To appease my sorrow.

The siege will last in order to convince us we must choose an enslavement that does no harm, in fullest liberty!

Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health,
The health of the testicles and of your tenacious disease:
The disease of hope.

And in what remains of the dawn, I walk toward my exterior
And in what remains of the night, I hear the sound of footsteps inside me.

Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!

Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.

My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died…who?

Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.

Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

By Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Marjolijn De Jager

May 19, 2011

The President’s Speech: Audience reactions at the opening of the second act

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 19, 2011

A quick collection of a few early reactions to the President’s speech.

Herb Keinon writes in the Jerusalem Post: “Although Obama made an effort to give some points to Israel and some to the Palestinians, in the final analysis he essentially adopted the Palestinian position that the 1967 lines – and not defensible borders – should be the baseline of any agreement. Obama also adopted the Palestinian position that was a point of sharp contention during the proximity, or indirect, talks last year: that the negotiations should start with borders and security. Israel’s position was that all the core issues, including Jerusalem and the refugee issue, should be discussed simultaneously so that the Palestinians, and not only Israel, will have to make concessions.” MORE

A statement by Israel’s Office of the Prime Minister includes: “Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace.  Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state. That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.  Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”  MORE

According to Al Jazeera English, the spokesperson for the Hamas government in Gaza said, “We were expecting a lot more from Obama’s speech today regarding the Palestinians who suffer from the hardships of the occupation, and what the Israeli occupation does against the Palestinians. But Obama did not bring anything new. What Obama needs to do is not to add slogans but to take concrete steps to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation. The peoples of the region are not in need of Obama’s lectures. Obama reaffirmed his absolute support for the policies of the (Israeli) occupation and his rejection of any criticism of the Occupation. We affirm that Palestinian reconciliation is a Palestinian affair and that the (peace) negotiations have proven to be pointless. Hamas will never recognise the Israeli occupation under any circumstances.” MORE

Ahram Online reported, “At a Cairo screening of the speech at the Semiramis hotel, heavy applause greeted his statement: ‘At the time when the whole MENA region are casting off the burdens of the past, the change is more urgent than ever for the Palestinians.'” MORE

The Arab-American academic, political activist, and pollster James Zogby, writing in The Guardian, concluded, “For Americans, then, it might be fair to say that the speech was challenging and uplifting. It may even have been a useful speech for US policy-makers, although our current “slash and burn” Congress may be disinclined to act in support of the president’s initiatives – dooming them before they get off the ground. But if the intended audience was in the Arab world, then sadly, the speech fell flat… Recognising the new realities in the Middle East is important. But recognising that Arabs see Palestinian rights as a central concern and have grown weary of what they feel is America’s enabling of Israel’s bad behaviour is important, too. The president got the new realities part right, but he missed a vital opportunity on Palestine. MORE

Reuters is running a collection of man-in-the-street comments from across North Africa and the Middle East, including this one: “”It was a great speech, very eloquent, full of hope, there was a real commitment to democratic transition in the Arab world. But we have heard a lot of beautiful speeches from Obama before and we don’t know whether he can deliver this time,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. MORE

Tomorrow after Friday Prayers it will be interesting if the Syrians in the audience have any particular response.

If the 2009 Cairo University speech was the opening of the first act, then this speech is the opening of the second act.

Last night after posting my President-as-Pavarotti opera analogy I had a dream about Mr. Obama playing the lead in Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet.” In March this opera, based on the Shakespeare play, was performed by the Met for the first time in 113 years.  It is an opera in five acts that has two entirely authentic and completely different endings, one happy and one not.  My dream only made it through the third act.  I’m not sure how this will end.


The President’s speech: Will it play in Peoria (should it try to)?

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 19, 2011

President Obama speaking at Cairo University, June 7, 2009.

Later today — at about 11:00 Eastern Time — the President will give a speech at the State Department. Last Friday Jay Carney, the Press Secretary, explained its purpose as, “We’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year in that region, in the Middle East and North Africa, and the President obviously has I think some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S. response to the events in the region.” (Additional White House framing is available.)

Tuesday the King of Jordon was at the White House.  After the meeting, the President remarked, “We also discussed the situation with respect to Israel and the Palestinian conflict.  And we both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes that are taking place in the region, it’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security.”

The recent reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, aimed at a unity government for Palestine, has been rejected by the Israeli government.  Prime Minister Netanyahu insists Israel cannot negotiate with Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist and threatens violence.  But in a Monday speech to the Knesset, the Prime Minister also seemed to suggest new flexibility on key border issues.

Friday Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama at the White House.

It is all very operatic.  The well-known characters take their usual places, sing their usual lines, and the performance unfolds with a portentous — and entirely predictable — drama.   The President’s speech is awaited with the same anticipation of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma: Surely it will be a great performance… of something we have all heard before.

Except… except the Arab people have been busy writing their own new opera.  The music is certainly different, the lyrics are not finished, and the plot is, well, rather complicated.

Here’s how the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri recently described what is emerging:

Three fascinating circles of political players have emerged that deserve tracking: the Arab countries, the non-Arab neighbors, and major foreign powers. Among all three, there is plenty of bafflement, a sure sign that something important is going on that is refreshingly being driven and defined by Arab popular will rather than by local or foreign thugs.

The pattern of regime response is now clear, and comprises three categories. A few regimes like Tunisia and Egypt will tumble and give way to constitutional pluralistic democracies with varying degrees of armed forces participation, mimicking the situation in Turkey a decade ago. Others (Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya) will fight back with arrests, shootings and pro-regime street demonstrations. Some of these regimes will collapse soon and be replaced by more democratic systems (Libya and Yemen); others (Syria and Bahrain) will probably remain in power, but with considerably more stress within their systems, making it likely that domestic protests and serious political challenges will recur in the near future. The third group (Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia) faces varying degrees of less ominous domestic challenges, to which the countries will respond by negotiating constitutional changes that bring about limited reforms.

Changes within Arab countries will redraw the map of regional relationships and power politics. The most intriguing and important countries in this respect are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran; and, a fascinating aspect of this is how the three powerful non-Arab states of Israel, Turkey and Iran are simultaneously disoriented and almost flailing in their unimpressive attempts to come to terms with changing Arab realities.

In his speech this morning — timed more for Middle Eastern viewers than Midwesterners — the President is auditioning.  Does he have — does the US have — what it takes for a major role in the new opera being written?

Wednesday morning John Brennan called the President of Yemen encouraging him, “to sign and implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement so that Yemen is able to move forward immediately with its political transition.” So far President Saleh is staying put. Wednesday afternoon the United States imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six of his government’s top officials. NATO operations in Libya continue. Perhaps even more important to the current context, yesterday global wheat prices closed 17 percent higher than just one week earlier.

Part of the challenge is finding an angle that will play reasonably well on Broadway (and in Peoria) while also finding fans in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Riyadh, Rabat, and across the Arab arc.  Mr. Obama’s opening aria at Cairo University in June 2009 was well-received there, but reinforced a reputation among some Americans for being highfalutin.  Meanwhile the President’s starring role (and off-stage direction) in the Incident at Abbottabad prompted standing ovations in the United States, but barely a shrug among Mideast crowds entranced by the surprising (and treacherous) success of Arab Spring. (Including, it would seem, our antagonist at Abbottabad.)

For many (most?) Americans the Arab world is the source of expensive oil and dangerous terrorists.  For many (most?) Arabs the United States is a strong supporter of unwanted political “stability”, aka oppression, and source of insidious cultural values.  It is difficult to claim significant numbers of both audiences. But Mr. Obama has demonstrated a desire to do so and he has a strong track record as a crossover artist.

In opera Pavarotti was the most successful crossover star of his decidedly non-operatic generation. The Italian tenor’s explanation of his success may offer the President some pointers: It is a very honest world, our work. I think you cannot fake anything… Am I afraid of high notes? Of course I am afraid. What sane man is not?

Despite good cause to fear, he kept reaching for the high notes. At age 69 Pavarotti made his last Metropolitan appearance singing as Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi. Puccini’s Tosca can be confusing. Featuring despotic corruption, torture, murder and suicide, it teases with a happy ending and then closes with melodramatic tragedy. It is precisely the plot we do not want to play out across North Africa and the Middle East.

Despite its unfortunate storyline Tosca is often acclaimed and regularly performed. The music transcends the story.

I want my President to hit and hold a very high C in his performance today. The United States cannot decide how the Arab Spring, or the Arab-Israeli conflict, or many other stories will play out. But we ought play our role honestly, reaching as high as we possibly can.

May 18, 2011

Freedom to Focus

Filed under: Strategy — by Mark Chubb on May 18, 2011

On a recent long flight home, I had a little bit of time to catch up on my reading. Two articles caught my attention, and despite their divergent topics, I was struck with the sense that their insights were somehow related.

In the first piece (sorry, subscription required), New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell explored our understandings of innovation, particularly in the technological realm. He observed that the organizational cultures best suited to developing innovations are often very different from those required to adapt or advance them. The sorts of cultures required to do the latter often find it just as difficult to exploit their improvements as the former find it to advance innovations from ideas to prototypes.

Ostensibly, Gladwell sought to explain the pattern of innovation by tracing the evolution of the humble personal computer mouse. In doing so, he drew an unusual analogy between the Stanford lab that developed the original idea, the Xerox PARC research and development center that refined and applied it to a desktop computing platform, and the Apple Corporation, which successful brought the device to market, and the ways in which the Soviet Union, the United States and Israel developed, refined, and applied sophisticated electronic technologies to war-fighting. This was less a story about the power of ideas or the people who promote them than the sorts of environments that form, attract, employ and deploy expertise for comparative advantage.

Gladwell argued persuasively that hierarchical, highly bureacratic organizations may do a good job of developing new ideas, but they often have great difficulty determining which ones to back. Decentralized, entrepreneurially-oriented organizations do a much better job of adapting ideas, but sometimes become so obsessed with what they think their business is about that they miss important opportunities right under their noses to achieve higher levels of success. As it happens, you need a really sophisticated hybrid of these two types to make innovations pay off, but even that does not guarantee organizational advancement as opposed to the advancement of the innovation itself. It’s worth noting too that even such a limited definition of success often requires a pretty hostile, high-stakes environment that demands time-critical decision-making to motivate an adequate sense of purpose and urgency.

While I was still digesting these insights, I read Marc Ambinder‘s National Journal cover story on the Navy SEAL Team that executed the mission on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad. I was struck by the similarities between Gladwell’s observations and the way our leaders positioned this mission in the nation’s military-intelligence complex.

Clearly, the success of the SEALs was a product of many factors, not the least of which was an incredible amount of preparation and raw courage. At the same time, the circumstances that made these investments pay-off seem to reflect hard-learned lessons about the importance of developing strong but nimble networks among intelligence, law enforcement, and military specialists. Just as no single SEAL can claim credit for the mission’s success, neither can any one agency or discipline. This was clearly a team effort.

The dynamics that created the necessary and sufficient conditions for success seem to be the same as those Apple applied to their development and deployment of the Macintosh personal computer, which was the first mass produced machine to feature a graphical user interface and a mouse. Breaking down silos between disciplines and not just authorizing people to communicate and collaborate but actually creating an imperative for them to do so, provides people with freedom of motion without sacrificing their focus on critical outcomes.

Those operating within the homeland security mission sphere often confront a hostile bureaucratic operating environment. Despite these conditions, homeland security practitioners still manage to develop some pretty entrepreneurial ideas beyond the purely conceptual phase. While these efforts may generate long term success of the mission as currently conceived, one important lesson from the demise of bin Laden is the tradeoff we face if our efforts to achieve long-term success (win the war) come at the expense of the operational flexibility required to rack up high-value wins (success in individual battles). Leaving enough room for skilled and committed operatives to collaborate requires leaders to create the imperative for individuals to put aside organizational differences when high risk decisions can generate high rewards.

P.S.: Also on the value of collaboration — my favorite post-bin Laden joke comes via Cpl Willie Apiata, VC of the New Zealand Special Air Service on Twitter: “RT @_socialize bin Laden’s death reminds us all that working from home is not a long-term option.”

May 17, 2011

Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military

Filed under: Media — by Christopher Bellavita on May 17, 2011

I saw this post initially on TomDispatch.com.  It was written by Peter Van Buren, an American foreign service officer who spent a year leading a reconstruction team in Iraq.  His argument is “we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public” when reporting about war and the people who fight them.  It is also his “warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.”

Van Buren is the author of  “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” scheduled to be published later this year.  His blog of the same name, We Meant Well, can be found at this link.

According to the publisher’s description, Van Buren’s book “is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world’s largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can’t rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.”

Van Buren notes the views in the essay that follows “are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. The Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.”


The War Lovers

Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military
By Peter Van Buren

Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone — the SEALs’ phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free…

You get the point. Towel off and read on.

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I’m a diplomat, just back from 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.

In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.

One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was now back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”


Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media

Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.

I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.

The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.

Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. “Don’t end up on the front page of the Washington Post,” was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to “re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it.” And that’s when we’re deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.

When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen.  Now, it’s Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid “unscripted interactions” with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building,  Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.

So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a“runaway general.”

We were, however, dead wrong.  As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who has since been redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?

I’m waiting.

I saw it myself in Iraq.  General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow.  I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.

Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert.  When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.

Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies like DADT.  (Do I have to freaking spell it out for you? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.) The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.


Fear Not: The Force Is With You

But the military wasn’t worried.  Why?  Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.

Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them

You arrived a stranger and a geek.  Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them.  Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.

One time I got so sick that I spent half a day inside a latrine stall. What got me out was some anonymous soldier tossing a packet of anti-diarrheal medicine in. He never said a word, just gave it to me and left. He’d likely do the same if called upon to protect me, help move my gear, or any of a thousand other small gestures.

So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.

And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military.  War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.

I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.

Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.


Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren



May 14, 2011

Flood, tornado, earthquake (more) and thousands suddenly homeless

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

Map developed by Times-Picayune, click to enlarge.

Today or tomorrow the floodway, up river from Baton Rouge, is likely to be opened.   According to the Associated Press: “About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way when the Morganza spillway is unlocked for the first time in 38 years. Sheriffs and National Guardsmen were warning people in a door-to-door sweep through the area, and shelters were ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.”

UPDATE: The USACE opened the Morganza Floodway at 3PM Eastern Time on Saturday.  (See: Times-Picayune report) USACE is also providing Facebook updates at http://www.facebook.com/OperationWatershed2011

According to the Times-Picayune if Morganza is not opened the flooding in New Orleans would be much worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Several news reports claim the epic Mississippi flooding has already swamped at least 1000 homes just between Memphis and Vicksburg.

Housing has — predictably — emerged as the most persistent challenge of the April 27 tornado outbreak. According to the New York Times:

In the tornado-torn rural stretches and cities of the South, the scope and size of a newly homeless population are beginning to sink in.

There are as yet no solid estimates of the number of people who need places to live, although it surely will be more than 10,000, federal and state emergency officials say. And many of them are poor, working class or elderly — those most at risk of becoming permanently homeless.

In Tuscaloosa, at least 5,000 homes and apartments were heavily damaged or lost completely in a city of 93,000 residents, according to a city estimate.

State and city inspectors spent the week combing the city, trying to determine how much foreclosed or vacant housing was available, what could be repaired, and just how many people might truly be left without somewhere to live.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, has suggested using existing stock and foreclosed property combined with low-cost loans to house everyone who needs it in urban areas. But Mayor Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa is not so sure.

“I don’t think you’re going to find enough available stock, but I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “What I want to see from FEMA is measurable goals and objectives.”

Just to be on the safe side, Mr. Maddox has identified 12 sites around the city with sewer and water hookups that might be suitable for FEMA mobile homes.

Two months after the March 11 earthquake-and-tsunami 127,000 Japanese remain in emergency shelters, mostly schools. The number of evacuees living with family or in other unofficial sources of shelter cannot be accurately estimated but is thought to be at least as high. Construction of replacement housing has been much slower than promised by political leadership. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The delays have resulted from complicating factors like the lack of suitable land, struggles to procure building supplies and labor, and the complexity of funneling the requests between different government levels.

But the hardest trial thus far has been to find enough safe construction sites. The tsunami that wiped out whole villages and redrew the coastal shores left towns with limited options on where to build houses to accommodate displaced residents, many of whom prefer to remain close to their hometowns.

Iwate Prefecture said it has secured sites to build 12,500 houses, but is still in need of enough to land for another 2,500 residences – a burden left up to each municipality. It has also been difficult for coastal towns in Miyagi Prefecture, where some 30,000 houses are needed, to locate secure building sites.

“Much of the damage was sustained along the coastline, once heavy residential areas. Most of that is now unusable, which has forced towns into the difficult position of looking for land elsewhere,” said Kuniyuki Onodera, a Miyagi Prefecture official.

Some towns like Minami-Sanriku are maximizing the use of public lands by building on school yards, and have begun approaching private owners to lease their plots. The dearth of sufficient land is prevalent in Minami-Sanriku, heavily flooded from the tsunami, with over 6,600 residents in local shelters. Out of the 3,300 housing requests, construction has begun on about 800 units as of May 2, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

In Otsuchicho, located in Iwate Prefecture, where public land is scarce, negotiations with private land owners to procure enough space for 2,000 temporary homes was perhaps the biggest cause for the slow start, said Tatsuo Kimura, a town official. But the town recently secured land for all temporary houses. Some 80 homes were constructed in April and the land ministry aims to erect 860 more by the end of May.

“The pace has picked up gradually and we hope that with the negotiations behind us, progress will be faster in the coming months,” said Mr. Kimura.

It takes about three weeks to build a prefab home, which ranges from 20 to 40 square meters in size.

Replacement housing is a persistent — and pernicious — problem for disaster response and recovery.  From a policy/strategy perspective there are at least two fundamental problems.  First, in the vast majority of jurisdictions there is no serious replacement housing preparedness strategy.  Anywhere and anytime that emergency housing is needed for more than a handful of families local capacity is quickly exceeded. Second, even in those rare cases where mass housing preparedness (different than emergency shelter) is on the official agenda, the private sector is almost never involved until after the fact.

The HUD secretary’s proposal to look hard at existing housing stock, see above, makes sense.  According to the Birmingham News, “Donovan is even considering using foreclosed homes, having identified 1,000 such homes in Alabama that are vacant and could be occupied by storm victims, either to buy or to rent.”  But it is time-consuming and difficult to develop an innovative process when hundreds of families are in immediate need.

A suggestion:  Create a low-cost options market for a national strategic housing reserve.  Through this system private sector owners and managers of housing would be involved well-ahead of the event to identify available shelter, guarantee the price, and pre-load contracts to be exercised in case of emergency.

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