Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 6, 2011

Three uncertain, yet decisive choices reflecting the core of what we profess to be

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 6, 2011

According to Time Magazine, CIA Director Leon Panetta (soon to be Defense Secretary) told them:

What if you go down and you’re in a firefight and the Pakistanis show up and start firing?” Panetta says some worried. “How do you fight your way out?” But Panetta concluded that the evidence was strong enough to risk the raid, despite the fact that his aides were only 60%-80% confident that bin Laden was there, and decided to make his case to the President. At the key Thursday meeting in which President Obama heard the arguments from his top aides on whether or not to go into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden, Panetta admitted that the evidence of bin Laden’s presence at the compound was circumstantial. But “when you put it all together,” Panetta says he told the room, “we have the best evidence since [the 2001 battle of] Tora Bora [where bin Laden was last seen], and that then makes it clear that we have an obligation to act. (We know now how it turned out.)

Over the next few weeks the Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds will likely exceed their historic flood-crests.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took the next steps Saturday (April 30) to prepare for blowing up a Missouri levee to ease near-record flooding on the Mississippi River, hours after a federal appeals court rejected a request from the Missouri attorney general to stop the process. “We are seeing water in places we’ve never seen it before,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission and a top Corps official, who said he had flown over much of the Lower Mississippi and Ohio River systems earlier in the day. He stressed that he had not made his final decision and that he would try to give 24 hours notice between the decision and the actual blowing of the levee. Residents in the area were ordered to evacuate a few days ago. (The levees have since been blown up.)

In the midst of plenty of other news, you may have missed the emergency shut downs of Texas City refineries operated by BP Plc, Marathon Oil and Valero Energy Corp accounting for a combined 765,000 barrels of oil a day. According to Reuters:

A BP spokesman said no injuries had been reported due to the power outage, which also knocked out electricity at BP’s adjoining chemical plant. The cause of the outage was unknown. BP “immediately called the city and declared a level 3 emergency,” said BP spokesman Michael Marr in a statement. “The city declared a shelter-in-place for its residents.” “I can confirm that we’ve had issues with power at Texas City,” said Valero spokesman Bill Day of his company’s refinery. “To what extent we don’t know yet.” (Refinery operations were restarted on May 3.)

A March 2005 explosion at the BP refinery killed 15.  The April 1947 explosion at Texas City of two ships carrying ammonium nitrate killed 581, injured 5000 and is still considered by many the worst industrial accident in the United States.

What our intentional, natural, and accidental threats share is profound and persistent uncertainty. We seek to  prevent or mitigate or prepare to effectively respond or recover from what may not happen in this time and space: not in our life-times or in our neck-of-the-woods.  Interesting job.

When a threat does begin to emerge we are willing to curtail the freedom of some, destroy the property of some, and kill if necessary  in order — we hope and say — to save other freedoms, preserve other property, and protect other lives.

In a letter to President Obama — which the White House would have received on the eve of the decision to send Seal Team Six to Abbottabad — the local Missouri Congresswoman and two Senators wrote,

Besides the predictable long-term destruction of property and the environment within the 130,000 acres that would be deliberately flooded, a secondary risk is the uncertainty associated with the Set Back Levee which, if inadequate, will unleash the flood water across (six) Missouri counties of the Missouri Bootheel area with a population over 75,000 in addition to as many as 10 Arkansas counties.The known and unknown risks of blowing the levee and releasing over one-half million cubic feet per second are sufficient to demand the highest level of attention and accountability. The human evacuation alone would be a critical challenge to public officials as well as the extraordinary cost of post-disaster mitigation and repair and productive economic opportunity cost.

There are always known and unknown risks, the more significant a risk probably the more that is unknown… and often the greater need to decide and act wisely, courageously, and quickly in the midst of deep uncertainty.

The men and women of homeland security, national security, emergency management, and public safety are our guardians, but would clearly benefit from the attributes of philosopher kings. (I once attended a wedding heavy with members of Seal Team Six and if not philosopher kings they were, at least on that occasion, thoughtful princes whom Plato would honor.)

Two weeks ago I quoted from the work of a rather obscure, now dead, Air Force colonel named John Boyd.  For reasons tied to his obscurity, Boyd is a principal progenitor of a revolution in the way we fight and increasingly how we compete in many non-military domains.  Boyd, a fighter pilot whose final academic degree was a bachelors in industrial engineering, was also a great reader of Immanuel Kant.

Human reason has a peculiar fate… it is troubled by questions it cannot dismiss, because they are posed to it by the nature of reason itself, but that it also cannot answer, because they surpass human reason’s every ability. Our reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. Reason starts from principles that it cannot avoid using in the course of experience and that this experience at the same time sufficiently justifies it in using. By means of these principles our reason (as indeed it nature requires it to do) ascends ever higher, to more remote conditions. But it becomes aware that in this way, since the questions never cease, its task must remain forever uncompleted. Thus it finds itself compelled to resort to principles that go beyond all possible use in experience, and that nonetheless seem so little suspect that even common human reason agrees with them. By doing this, however human reason plunges into darkness and contradictions; and although it can indeed gather from these that they must be based on errors lying hidden somewhere, it is unable to discover these errors. (Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the First Edition, Immanuel Kant translated by Werner S. Pluhar)

I understand it seems pretentious and/or pedantic to apply a late 18th Century philosopher to our contemporary choices.  Would it help in any real way for Kant to appear on the reading list for students at the Emergency Management Institute?

But considering the life and death choices made by this profession (and even more the choices we fail to mindfully make) what does Kant’s absence mean? Even more troublesome is the absence of those issues with which Kant struggled. Given what we decide and do, might we find — somewhere between the ICS 200 course, the debris management course and the mortuary affairs course — a moment when our preoccupation with imposing order can make way for considering the nature of order itself?

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8 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2011 @ 12:52 am

There is no doubt that human reason and the complexity of the human habitation of planet Earth are intertwined.
Perhaps the focus should be on simplifying systems and processes rather than introducing more and more complexity.
Levees are in fact false choices and in the particular case at hand reduced prices for the land when purchased reflected the flowage/drainage easements that had been granted. But occupancy was not changed by the possibility that the levees might have to be blown up and so now those who made that choice either in ignorance or hope are paying a price.

Unfortunately, even tougher choices are ahead as the river crest moves south.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 6, 2011 @ 5:16 am

Bill, It seems to me our reaction to the Great Flood of 1927 — especially through the Flood Control Act — was an effort to simplify lives through more control and greater predictability.

In executing this effort to simplify, we minimized the complexity of the underlying systems… and sharpened the “precariousness” of our situation. (For an interesting technical take on precariousness of systems, see: http://fiesta.bren.ucsb.edu/~gsd/resources/courses/Walker.pdf)

Did a similar tendency influence our response to the 9/11 attacks? What about the way we prepare for and respond to industrial accidents? What will be our response to the Great Flood of 2011? To the terrorist attacks yet to come?

I am all for simplifying what can be simplified. I also perceive it is simpler to embrace complexity than deny it. This perception is debatable. Spending some focused time considering the contending issues would be, it seems to me, worthwhile as we develop our next generation (I would benefit too).

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2011 @ 7:31 am

Most federal agencies and departments have few who understand the overall mission and goals of the individual agency or department! Why is that issue not addressed by those specializing in the study of political science and government! Oddly several institutions exist largely to break down those stovepipes which gives them immense bureaucratic and and even political power. The WH staff! OMB! But our system involves the information flow to the interested citizen and that system has almost totally collapsed. Therefore many artificial complexities are erected not to make more efficient or effective but to obscure from those who need to be able to judge the competence of their government–the citizens.

Comment by John Comiskey

May 6, 2011 @ 8:03 am

Reports of UBL hideaway was O’s day in the arena [Teddy R]. With 60-80% certainty he acted wisely, courageously, and quickly in the midst of uncertainty. Today, I and most of the USA and the international community praise O for his actions.
Had the operation failed –had UBL not been there and/or civilian casualties followed and/or US forces sustained heavy losses, might those same “praisers” praise O today.

On April 24, 1980, President James Carter ordered Operation Eagle Claw to free 52 Americans held hostage by Iranian students [or Iranian somethings]. IMHO, Operation Eagle Claw was a noble effort and Mr. Carter acted with no less sagacity and courage then O did this week.

Whether it is the Mississippi or Louisiana levee we discuss, my technical knowledge is superficial. I decided long ago to defer to knowledge workers (engineers et al) to handle these matters. Is there a Levees For Dummies? I have come to understand the political aspects of building and living in less-then what I consider safe zones. My first-hand knowledge is primarily from deployments in NOLA where I repeatedly asked: why would you build here? [certain areas] and why would you live here? [other certain areas].

I am familiar with Kant and ICS 200 et al. Recently, I have been deluged with new HLS material mostly regarding UBL. Late last evening, John Rollins forwarded a draft-issue of CRS’s Implications of UBL to me. It is added to my pile. The executive summary suggests that the US should reconsider its grand strategy. Last week Chris B recommended John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart’s Terror, Security, And Money: Balancing The Risks, Benefits, And Costs of Homeland Security see: http://polisci.osu.edu/faculty/jmueller/MID11TSM.PDF. Mueller and Stewart make a point of demonstrating that the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to apply risk and cost-effectiveness of security measures put in place to deal with terrorism has been largely unheeded. They assume that we are safer post-9/11, but the correct question is “are the gains in security worth the funds expended?”

Another colleague, called me urgently two weeks ago; “you are so lucky to live in NYC, you can see Atlas Shrugged in the theater tonight, If I was there, I would.” My colleague Rich G is a Randian [Ayn Rand]. Rich invokes Randyian principles into core homeland security mostly about balancing individualism and collectivism. I perceive that Rand though that reason was best accomplished by doing and that certain people (individuals) were better at both reasoning and doing then were others (the collective to include parasites).
Somewhere between ICS 200 and the debris management course is a seemingly endless pile of papers and books to read. I have come to organizing my reading, what must, should, and can I read. I spend about a half-hour every Sunday doing just that. I have taken to listening to some books on CD and mastering executive summaries. Still, my efficiencies do little to make the pile smaller.
How do I find a place for Kant et al and should I? Does the man and woman in the arena need Kant? Are the men and women of tomorrow’s arena ready for Kant? I perceive that the Homeland Security Enterprise [and much of the world] needs knowledge workers with fundamental critical thinking and writing skills AND there is and will be a shortage of able HLS practitioners.

What to do?
1. Create real-world education.
2. Read Kant et al during but not before. Or get the CD: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Downloads/Politics/Political-Philosophy/Kants-Foundations-of-Ethics/24045
3. Understand that multi-tasking sounds great, but mostly doesn’t work.
4. Understand incremental burden and its impact on core functionality.
5. Identify our risks and decide if mitigation is cost-effective.
6. Revise reading list accordingly.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 6, 2011 @ 8:05 am

Bill, My own limited expertise is more focused on a similar problems in the private sector. Attention, inattention, knowledge and lack-of-knowledge (and skill and absence of skill) in regard to mission and goals are common problems. I do not believe they are problems that can be “fixed.” But I am confident they can be mitigated and the underlying causes can actually be used to advance mission and goals. I probably don’t agree that many of our complexities are, in your words, “artificial.” In fact I find most of the dysfunction in large organizations (private or public) very natural. But I absolutely agree there are productive paths for engaging the problems. I continue to think one of the best books on the topic is Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science (see: http://www.margaretwheatley.com/lns.toc.pdf)

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 6, 2011 @ 8:18 am

John, I was thinking of you quite a bit while writing the post. You have — as Boyd had — an ability to take the complexity that others spin and make something accessible and usable out of it. I want to better understand where you are heading with your six “to-do’s”. I will initially react with an alternative approach: We need, we depend on specialists. Each of us should probably carve out our own specialty… this will help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of other specialists. But I increasingly perceive we need to share some common frames-of-reference, some common texts, common stories, that — even if we take a position contrary to the common understanding — facilitate our collaboration and deliberation across disciplines (across generations and cultures and sectors and other zones of specialization). I am not sure Kant would be at the top of my list, but I am sure Kant’s concerns should be at the top of the list. And for this portion of the reading list I would urge very, very little revision over time. These few texts and stories will give our diversity an attractor of meaning around which to organize.

Comment by Donald Quixote

May 6, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

Anyone who quotes John Boyd catches my attention and respect. Robert Coram’s book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002), should also be required reading for emergency management and other homeland security leaders. I have recommended the book to many friends and associates that I believe wish to truly make a difference in this world, not just obtain a rank, promotion or grant.

However, I would not recommend the adoption of this personal life.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 6, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

Ah the dialectic of synthesis vis a vis analysis. What pushes the humans on earth to a more positive future.
IN both the governments of the USA and the private sector organizations the leadership gap seems to grow. Perhaps unrecognized sometimes when seen or heard. Lincoln’s Cooper UNION address in spring of 1859 may have awakened many to his leadership potential. Perhaps that is what some saw in the Obama convention speech in 2004.

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