Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 29, 2011

Disaster Dharma

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures — by Mark Chubb on June 29, 2011

Their sense of humor intact, Cantabrians have learned to make the best of a bad situation. (Photo by Bronwyn Hayward)

This week the New Zealand Government announced that it will buy out more than 5,000 Christchurch homeowners affected by the February 22 earthquake that devastated the Southern Hemisphere city of 400,000 people. Many more are still awaiting assessments of geotechnical conditions that threaten to undermine any investment in rebuilding their shattered lives where the rubble of their homes now rests.

Since the original earthquake last September, Christchurch has experienced more than 7,300 aftershocks. Two of them had moment magnitudes greater than 6.0 and several more exceeded magnitude 5.0.

With their central business district and most iconic landmarks still in ruins people are wondering when they will get the chance to start rebuilding. The logistics alone suggest the task ahead will be Herculean — although for many it seems, at least for now, rather more Sisyphean. Some estimates indicate that it will take about five years to raze all of the damaged buildings and clear the debris left behind.

With each significant aftershock the community has come together to meet immediate needs, but some wonder how long this can continue. No firm estimates seem readily available to indicate how many people have packed up and left for awhile if not for good. But the impact of their departures are beginning to show signs of straining the social fabric even as the physical fabric of the community remains tattered and torn. This begs the question how people will organize themselves to meet the ongoing challenges of living in the devastated city.

From what I can tell from monitoring Facebook posts and talking to friends, the people coping best with the situation are those who have managed to keep a small but strong social circle intact. A sense of humor has helped immensely with this. As has the willingness to share other forms of human capital.

The most valuable commodities being exchanged in Christchurch these days are not dollars or dozers but instead quick smiles, soft shoulders, firm handshakes, hearty laughs and quiet strolls together along the dark and dusty streets. The duties of those undaunted by disaster are few but strict: In Christchurch they are summed up by a song written and recorded by New Zealand arist Dave Dobbyn entitled Loyal. The second verse summarizes much of what drives those still living in Christchurch these days:

Out in the battle, flung far and used.
Where does allegiance lie?
Sometimes when all of your hopes, and all of your dreams,
Are too much to value in one moment.
And all of us anxious, but why hurry love?
History’s here and now.
Oh and why are you waiting – waiting for what?
The history of some love?

Those daring enough to remain in Christchurch these days seem to share something in common much more powerful than their love of the place or the economic interests they have in homes or jobs. It’s the relationships that have nurtured and sustained them through this serial tragedy that now bind them tightly together. They have history together; a history bound up in love and hope.

The dharma of disaster requires little more of us than a willingness to share our vulnerability by being present in the suffering of others. No burden is too terrible or too great when enough people are willing to bear it.

Those awaiting answers, like those who now know the Government will step in to buy up their properties, have important decisions to make. Here’s hoping they find comfort and direction in the help offered by their friends and families.

June 28, 2011

Absolute security as the minimum adequate security

Filed under: Aviation Security,General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on June 28, 2011

Andrew Bacevich described (in this video) what happened when the United States lost its nuclear monopoly in 1949, and faced the possibility it would be completely destroyed by the Soviet Union:

“Policymakers reacted in panic….  [This] possibility came to be seen as something that was intolerable.  And from that time down to the present … there has been a theme in US national policy that posits absolute security as the minimum adequate security.”


The woman in the picture is 95 years old.  She weighs about 100 pounds.  She uses a wheelchair because she has difficulty standing.

According to a story in the Northwest Florida Daily News, written by Lauren Sage Reinlie, the woman was detained, searched, and asked to remove her soiled adult diaper.  The TSA screener had to complete the pat down search before the woman would be permitted “to fly to Michigan to be with family members during the final stages of her battle with leukemia.”

The familiar and predictable outrage the incident generated was balanced by the familiar and predictable response from TSA:

The TSA works with passengers to resolve any security alarms in a respectful and sensitive manner….

During any part of the process, if there is an alarm, then we have to resolve that alarm….

[T]he procedures are the same for everyone to ensure national security.

TSA cannot exempt any group from screening because we know from intelligence that there are terrorists out there that would then exploit that vulnerability….

While every person and item must be screened before entering the secure boarding area, TSA works with passengers to resolve security alarms in a respectful and sensitive manner.

We have reviewed the circumstances involving this screening and determined that our officers acted professionally and according to proper procedure.

The woman’s daughter thought about the official response:

“[If] you’re just following rules and regulations, then the rules and regulations need to be changed….  I’m not one to make waves, but dadgummit, this is wrong. People need to know. Next time it could be you.”


I think Bacevich’s observation is important.  Absolute security ought not be the minimum level of adequate security.

The woman’s observation is also important, “Dadgummit, this is wrong.”

Congress and TSA know this.

As Kelley Vlahos’ article in the June issue of Homeland Security Today summarizes, the future of airport security screening is supposed to be a shift from “no one is exempt” to an approach driven more by intelligence and risk.

Congressman Mike Rogers agrees with this vision.  But — like some DHS leaders and many fliers — Rogers is impatient:

I don’t think [TSA has] to explain to people that it’s potentially dangerous to fly … with terrorists continuing to target Americans, but we have to be reasonable in our efforts.  When American’s see intrusive practices that don’t seem to be intelligence-driven or smart, it drives them nuts….  I think [TSA] wants to get there, but we need to do it tomorrow and not three years from now.”

Absolute security takes a very long time to achieve.  Adequate security may take even longer.

June 26, 2011

A “Carrington Event” — How Seriously Do We Take Low Probability, High Consquence Events?

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Arnold Bogis on June 26, 2011

Among his many other skills, Phil is obviously also a gifted mentalist.  In his previous post he raises exactly the set of questions that occurred to me (perhaps not expressed in my own mind so succinctly or eruditely…) when I read about another issue that could possibly define “low probability, high consequence” events, solar storms:

While a video of the eruption captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed an enormous plume spraying from the sun, this solar tantrum would not be the big one — it would not be the 1859 event all over again.

Sept. 1 of that year saw the largest solar flare on record, witnessed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. While tracing features of the sun’s surface, which Carrington had projected via telescope onto paper, he saw a sudden flash emerge from a dark spot. Although such sunspots had sparked curiosity for centuries — Galileo famously drew them, too, in the early 1600s — Carrington had no idea what the flash could mean.

Within hours, telegraph operators found out. Their long strands of wire acted as antennas for this huge wave of solar energy. As this tsunami sped by, transmitters heated up, and several burst into flames. Observers in Miami and Havana gaped skyward at eerie green and yellow displays, the northern lights pushed far south.

What could possibly happen during such an event?  The Washington Post article I noted gives a taste:

Such a “Carrington event” will happen again someday, but our wired civilization will suffer losses far greater than a few telegraph shacks.

Communications satellites will be knocked offline. Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses. The GPS system will go wonky. Astronauts on the space station will huddle in a shielded module, as they have done three times in the past decade due to “space weather,” the scientific term for all of the sun’s freaky activity. Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight. And oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.

So there is a potential storm heading our way at some point, but if it wasn’t so bad in the past, could it possibly have a greater impact now?

But the biggest impact will be on the modern marvel known as the power grid. And experts warn that the grid is not ready. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences stated that an 1859-level storm could knock out power in parts of the northeastern and northwestern United States for months, even years. Report co-author John Kappenmann estimated that about 135 million Americans would be forced to revert to a pre-electric lifestyle or relocate. Water systems would fail. Food would spoil. Thousands could die. The financial cost: Up to $2 trillion, one-seventh the annual U.S. gross domestic product.

Utilities say they’re studying the issue, with an eye toward understanding how to protect the grid by powering down sections of it during an hours-long solar storm.

However, getting exactly to the core of one of Phil’s questions:

Representatives of the power industry take issue with the worst-case scenarios.

Leaders do acknowledge that huge solar flares are a serious issue, one the industry is addressing. But “the idea of 130 million people out of power for 10 years is an overstatement,” said Gerry Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC.

Reinforcing the unpredictable nature of the issue of when it will happen is Tom Bogdan, head of the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

“It’s the extreme solar events I’m worried about,” he said. “It might not happen this solar cycle. But sometime in my lifetime or my children’s, that storm will be here. The question is ‘Will we be prepared for it?’?”

Scientific advisers to leaders in both the U.S. and UK suggested mitigation fixes several months ago:

And there is much that can be done to reduce risks. The possibilities include back-ups for crucial systems such as GPS, tougher protective shielding for satellites, and blocking devices to harden power grids; and replacements for aging scientific satellites are needed to provide advanced warnings.

Some of these measures can bear fruit quickly, while others will pay off over the longer-term. What is key now is to identify, test, and begin to deploy the best array of protective measures practicable, in parallel with reaching out to the public with information explaining the risks and the remedies. There is commitment on both sides of the Atlantic to doing exactly that.

All of which should again bring up Phil’s insightful questions:

  • What is the appropriate place of low frequency, high consequence events in planning, preparedness, and — especially — public engagement?
  • How and when does our desire to manage risk unintentionally increase our risk exposure?
  • What is the appropriate balance of public sector accountability, private sector accountability, and personal accountability in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery?

I am already on record with a previous blog post expressing my doubt about the risks of an EMP attack from any non-celestial adversary. However, as an advocate for dealing with nuclear and biological terrorism, I do have to point out the obvious differences represented by a massive solar storm.

I, and many others, consider both nuclear and biological terrorism within the realm of possibility to a degree that both should be considered top-tier national security threats.  I can also understand arguments against that notion, in particular concerning intent and technical ability.

Here we have a potential natural disaster that is not likely to re-occur within the span of a lifetime, but one that will happen again.  A black swan not directly swayed by any direct action.

In tight fiscal times should we be spending money on such threats or take  our chances that we have time to kick these particular cans down the road? Should future generations live under the same risks because we are concerned about our current fiscal situation?  How can the government, and citizens, judge various risks and decide upon a generally agreed upon threat ranking which allows some sort of acceptable allocation of scarce resources?

June 25, 2011

Public policy implications of personal pain

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on June 25, 2011

Above is the inundation and evacuation map for Minot, North Dakota. A more detailed PDF is available.  At least 2500 homes have already been flooded and up to 5000 homes are in harms way as the flood crests today.  Most are not covered by federal flood insurance.

The flooding of the Souris River raises many of the same policy and strategy questions we have engaged with other floods, the triple-header crisis in Japan, and the wildfires in the Southwest. Toward the top of the list:

  • What is the appropriate place of low frequency, high consequence events in planning, preparedness, and — especially — public engagement?
  • How and when does our desire to manage risk unintentionally increase our risk exposure?
  • What is the appropriate balance of public sector accountability, private sector accountability, and personal accountability in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery?

These questions also apply to earthquake, nuclear terrorism, cyberterrorism, dam failure, a range of industrial accidents, and much more.

The flooding story is national headline news. Three sources for a more local angle:

Minot Daily News

Ward County, North Dakota Emergency Management information (Extensive resources)

City of Minot Facebook page

SUNDAY UPDATE: On Saturday rain  fell across the Souris watershed, but in lesser amounts than predicted.  It appears that the crest has been reached in Minot, several inches below worst case projections.  The crest is, nonetheless, substantially above the previous historic record and will be slow to recede.

June 24, 2011

Three arrests and shadows of myself, et tu?

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 24, 2011

SUNDAY UPDATE: According to the BBC — and to the group’s Twitterfeed — LulzSec has disbanded.  The BBC indicates no reason for disbanding has been offered.  To the contrary, I found the LulzSec explanation reasonably clear… and not inconsistent with considerations set out below.

Original post from early Friday morning:

This week three very different men were arrested in three very different places suspected of three very different crimes.

Is it just me or do the three share something important?

Tuesday the Pakistani military confirmed the detention of Brigadier Ali Khan (top left).  The soon-to-retire head of regulations at Army General Headquarters is suspected of using his military connections to support Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist political and religious movement.

Also on Tuesday — half a world away — the head of La Familia cartel was captured.  According to Excelsior, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas (middle), age 37, “was arrested in Aguascalientes by elements of the Federal Police, without fighting or deaths reported from the action and was later transferred to the facilities of the SIEDO in Mexico City.” (SIEDO or Subprocuraduría de Investigación Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada or Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Special Investigations.)  Additional coverage is available in English from the Houston Chronicle.

According to The Guardian, “A British teenager has been charged with five offences of computer hacking. Ryan Cleary, 19 (right at age 13), was charged with offences, including a cyber attack on Monday on Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca). Cleary was arrested on Monday evening at his family’s home in Wickford, Essex. His arrest was linked to a series of cyber attacks by a group called LulzSec, which investigators believe had targeted websites including ones belonging to the US government and the electronics giant Sony.”


We can be more confident of the criminal complicity of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, aka El Chango or The Monkey, than of the other two. La Familia has been one of the principal Mexican drug cartels since at least 2006.  But it was founded in the 1980s as a quasi-religious organization seeking to protect and purify Michoacán, an impoverished region — and Mexican state — west of Mexico City.  El Chango was one of a handful of founders.  In the broadest terms the La Familia narrative has a striking resemblance to the origins of the Afghan Taliban. Religiously inspired reform, resulted in power and was followed by the abuse of power. By the 1990s the group was allied with the Gulf Cartel, in recent years it has established an independent power base.  Even in the murderous context of the Mexican cartels La Familia is known as especially violent.  Jesus Mendez Vargas has defended the use of violence as a form of “divine justice.”

Brigadier Khan has not yet been charged, much less convicted.  According to the Daily Times (Pakistan), “There are contradictory reports that the detained brigadier had been targeted due to his concerted campaign to promote self-reliance and do away with the need for US assistance. The last straw is said to be his outspoken criticism of the US raid in Abbottabad after which he was arrested.”

There is plenty of smoke suggesting burning embers of religious radicalism in the Pakistani military. The group Brigadier Khan is accused of assisting is banned in Pakistan and other majority Muslim nations, but is not on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.  According to the group’s English language website, “Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political party whose ideology is Islam. Its objective is to resume the Islamic way of life by establishing an Islamic State that executes the systems of Islam and carries its call to the world.”

Hizb ut-Tahrir opposes US-Pakistan cooperation. While the Brigadier’s attitudes and actions are currently beyond knowing, the leadership of  Hizb ut-Tahrir is clear in it’s criticism of the United States and the current Pakistani political and military elite:

Even though Pakistan is a strong Muslim country, with an army bigger than America’s, and braver due to the Muslims’ love of Shahadah, you have cheated the people of their right to security by siding with the enemy. Due to your alliance with the open enemies of the Muslims, America’s presence in the region has led to unprecedented insecurity, with America’s private military organizations and intelligence orchestrating a campaign of assassinations and bombings, as they did in Iraq. You added to the harm upon the Muslims, by sending the Muslim soldiers to the tribal areas to fight on behalf of America, just like Musharraf before you. Until now 30,452 people have been killed and injured since 9/11 in America’s war of fitna. Some 2,273 Pakistani soldiers including 78 officers, two Major Generals and five brigadiers besides others, have lost their lives while 6,512 sustained injuries, even though the Western crusaders have only sacrificed 1,582 of their own troops! You are cheating the Muslims of their strength when America is at its weakest, with its allies abandoning it and its economy crippled and collapsing, when there is ample opportunity to allow America’s crusade to collapse rather than supporting it with the blood of Muslims.

To in any way compare LulzSec to La Familia and Hizb ut-Tahrir is, perhaps, to invite an apocalyptic hacker attack on HLSWatch. So… if we disappear, thanks for the memories.

The teenager arrested on Tuesday has been charged on five counts, mostly involving denial-of-service attacks.  His involvement with the LulzSec collaborative of hackers has not been specified.  But some link was confirmed by LulzSec via its Twitterfeed, “Clearly the UK police are so desperate to catch us that they’ve gone and arrested someone who is, at best, mildly associated with us.”

LulzSec has claimed responsibility for a series of successful attacks on the CIA, Sony, PBS, and others around the world. Wednesday they brought down the President of Brazil’s website. Earlier today Lulzsec hacked the Arizona Department of Public Safety data repository and released a broad array of information. They describe themselves as, “a team of entertainment and security experts that specialise in the production of malicious comedic cybermaterials.”  The attack on Sony’s PlayStation network left that system offline for a month.  Not much laughing by the company or its roughly 77 million customers or its depressed shareholders.

The Arizona attack has been explained as a protest against state laws perceived as unjust toward immigrants. The hackers’ motivations are not always clear. On June 17 LulzSec outlined its purposes in a post at Pastebin.  Self-entertainment is big; so is exposing the vulnerability we all share online.  They want to protect us… and “spread fun, fun, fun.”


I want to be a hero. I want to protect the vulnerable and punish the unjust.

Is this what motivated Ali Khan to follow his father into the military? The Non-Com’s son committed his life to the Army and advanced to brigadier.  Ali’s wife, Anjum, claims, “He loves the Pakistani army more than his life, and he can’t even think of betraying the institution.” His sons are junior officers, proud parts of — until recently? — the only reasonably functioning element of Pakistani society. Who is to blame for the dysfunction of Pakistan, including attacks on the military itself? What and who is the source of this shame? What enemy can the brave Brigadier bring to justice?

Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, seeing family and friends disappear into the prison of poverty and madness of drug addiction, was motivated by love of neighbor. According to a Drug Enforcement Administration backgrounder La Familia, “has a strong religious background. It purportedly originated to protect locals from the violence of drug cartels. Now, La Familia Michoacana uses drug proceeds to fuel their agenda that encompasses a Robin Hood-type mentality – steal from the rich and give to the poor. They believe they are doing God’s work, and pass out bibles and money to the poor. La Familia Michoacana also gives money to schools and local officials.” He only decapitated predators (and threw their heads onto dance floors).

According to the Daily Mail the young Mr. Cleary is a deeply troubled man seldom leaving his bedroom, fearful, and suicidal. Yet when asked what he did all day online, he reportedly replied, “God’s work.”

In November 2009 the Times of London published an indepth profile of Goldman Sachs. It included an interview with the unlikely-to-be-arrested CEO of the firm, Lloyd Blankfein. Even while skid-marks from the crash of capitalism were still smoking, Mr. Blankfein was confident of his purpose.

Is it possible to make too much money? “Is it possible to have too much ambition? Is it possible to be too successful?” Blankfein shoots back. “I don’t want people in this firm to think that they have accomplished as much for themselves as they can and go on vacation. As the guardian of the interests of the shareholders and, by the way, for the purposes of society, I’d like them to continue to do what they are doing. I don’t want to put a cap on their ambition. It’s hard for me to argue for a cap on their compensation.” So, it’s business as usual, then, regardless of whether it makes most people howl at the moon with rage? Goldman Sachs, this pillar of the free market, breeder of super-citizens, object of envy and awe will go on raking it in, getting richer than God? An impish grin spreads across Blankfein’s face. Call him a fat cat who mocks the public. Call him wicked. Call him what you will. He is, he says, just a banker “doing God’s work.”


I should probably leave it there. The case is sufficiently made for anyone who has read this far and cares to consider the case.  But I will be tediously explicit: My ability to mistake my own desires as God’s intention is significant.  I am not alone.

So, some will say, we have further proof for the dangers of divine delusion.  Especially as a believer I agree that danger and delusion are involved.

The issue is how to engage the threat.  I don’t perceive secular empiricism as a promising near-term therapeutic regime. Too many most in need of the therapy are evidently immune to it’s ministrations.  Might we extract a vaccine from the virus itself?

In his 1927 book, “Does Civilization Need Religion”, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Religion intensifies selfishness when it adds sanctity to a respectable selfish life and creates a self-respect which is impervious to emotions of contrition. If the religious ideal is to gain any potency in modern life it must be able to convict men of sin and inspire them to a conversion. But the sins of which they need most to be convicted are those which are covert in the social and economic relations which custom has hallowed; and the conversion of life which is most needed is that which will express itself in terms of the economic and political relationships in which men live…

Religion is therefore under the necessity of developing the critical faculty even while it maintains its naivete and reverence. The necessity of cooperation between the naturally incompatible factors of reason and imagination,of intelligence and moral dynamic, is really the crux of the religious and moral problem in modern civilization. The complexity of modern life demands that moral purpose be astutely guided; but moral purpose itself is rooted in ultra-rational sanctions and may be destroyed by the same intelligence which is needed to direct it. Both humility and love,the highest religious virtues, are ultra-rational; yet they cannot be achieved in an intricate social life without a discriminating intelligence which knows how to uncover covert sins and to discover potential virtues. The incidental limitations which every historic type of religion reveals can be dealt with only if the religious devotee can be persuaded to regard the values of his religion critically…”

Religiously-inspired terrorism — or mayhem or pride — is usually the signal of an immature and ill-considered religiosity.  The most effective solution may be in cultivating a more discriminating and self-critical engagement with the religious domain.

In other words, love others and approach God with deep humility.

June 23, 2011

Lessons learned, and not learned, from Fukushima

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 23, 2011

Harvard Associate Professor Matthew Bunn gives his analysis of the fallout (if you can pardon the pun) from the Fukushima event at the IAEA ministerial meeting on nuclear safety:

At Monday’s opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Vienna on what to do about nuclear safety after Fukushima, Director-General Yukiya Amano laid out a sensible five-point plan for improving global nuclear safety.

But Amano missed a crucial point: Disasters like Fukushima can be caused not only be accident but by terrorist action.  The nuclear industry in many countries is much less prepared to cope with security incidents than with accidents, making the need to take steps to strengthen global nuclear security – protecting against both sabotage of nuclear facilities and theft of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them – particularly urgent.

He sensibly approves of the current menu of IAEA-suggested nuclear safety improvements:

Higher safety standards. Amano called for better preparedness for multiple disasters happening together (such as an earthquake and a tsunami), strengthened measures to cope with prolonged blackouts, more effort to assure water will be available to cool reactors in an emergency, special protection for sites with multiple reactors, and increased preparedness to cool spent fuel when normal cooling is lost.

More peer review. Heinonen and I had urged that all states operating major nuclear facilities ask for an independent and international team to review their safety and security measures.  Amano had an interesting twist on the idea, arguing that it was impractical for the IAEA to review all 440 operating reactors anytime soon, and proposing instead that all countries agree to accept IAEA peer reviews, and the IAEA would then randomly select reactors to review, covering perhaps 10 percent of the world total in the first three years.

Stronger regulation. Amano called for all states to make sure their regulatory bodies were genuinely independent (a definite problem in Japan’s case) and had the resources and expertise to do their jobs.

Beefed-up emergency response. Amano urged states to establish stronger emergency response capabilities, including, for example, mobile diesel generators that could be brought to a stricken site.  In the case of Fukushima, the IAEA had little to offer Japan to enhance its ability to respond to the crisis; Amano suggested that the IAEA put together an international register of who has special expertise available in areas such as robotics or fire-fighting in a nuclear environment.

Better emergency information. The IAEA was widely criticized during the Fukushima crisis for simply passing on Japanese information with little or no real effort to answer key questions such as: “What could happen next? What should we be prepared for?”  Implicitly acknowledging this critique, Amano argued that the IAEA’s role in a crisis “should be expanded to providing analysis and possible scenarios on how a crisis might develop.

The bar of nuclear safety and security is not high enough, even if you consider the cited suggestions.  Professor Bunn doubles down:

Strengthened nuclear security measures. Terrorist attacks could also cause many of the disasters Amano described.  Both al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups have repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear reactors – and Fukushima provided a compelling example of the scale of terror such an attack might cause.  Indeed, given the multiple layers of safety systems in place for nuclear facilities today – and the extraordinarily weak security measures in place in some countries – the chance that the next big radioactive release will happen because someone wanted to make it happen may well be bigger than the chance that it will happen purely by accident.

Better safety and security culture. An organizational culture that gives safety and security top priority, and that structures incentives to encourage staff to find and fix potential risks rather than ignoring them or covering them up, is crucial to high performance.

Special attention for older reactors, rapidly growing programs, and new entrants. Aging reactors that do not have all the most modern safety systems should either be shut down or upgraded to the point that they can make a case that they do not pose significantly higher risks of a major radioactive release than newer reactors do…  Nuclear programs that are expanding at a furious rate, such as those in China, India, and Russia, also need special attention to ensure that no corners are cut in the rush to build, and that nuclear regulators and other safety infrastructure can expand to cope with a much larger nuclear enterprise.

Tools beyond the IAEA. The reality is that the global effort to ensure that nuclear power is safe and secure extends far beyond the IAEA.  The actual operators of nuclear facilities bear the largest responsibilities, but, vendors, builders, and suppliers all have major roles to play.  Effective national regulators are crucial.  Responders from off the site, whether firemen or armed forces to help cope with an attack, are also key.

Reporting and learning. Reporting on incidents, analyzing their root causes, and sharing that information so that everyone can learn how to prevent similar problems in the future is crucial to nuclear safety.

More specific binding standards. The effects of nuclear accidents or nuclear terrorism know no boundaries.  Yet currently, decisions about what safety and security measures to take are left in the hands of each individual country operating a nuclear facility.  Existing safety and security conventions establish only broad principles, with no specific standards states are obligated to meet.

Not much to argue with in these suggestions.  The one point I would make is that Bunn, like the vast majority of analysts, stops considering the issue around the end of the “response” phase.  There is little to no discussion about the vast array of recovery issues involved in any radiological event.

These include not only decontamination, but the psychological, economic, and social healing that will need to take place over decades of interaction between the public, government, and nuclear industry in Japan.

You can read Bunn’s entire piece here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/06/21/mostly-getting-nuclear-safety-at-the-iaea-%E2%80%93-but-missing-nuclear-security/


June 22, 2011

Are Clouds Getting in the Way?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 22, 2011

Judging solely from the tweets emanating from the Urban Area Security Conference this week, two topics were at the forefront of discussion in and between sessions: cuts in the number of metropolitan areas receiving funding (and indeed the nature and extent of homeland security funding cuts generally) and issues attending advanced technology. I find it hard to separate the two topics, especially in light of the fact that much of the discussion about technology at the conference seemed to focus on the central role vendors played in the conference proceedings.

In some circles (certainly not here) the term networking almost always involves sophisticated technology and considerable cost. You know one of these conversations is spinning out of control when terms like “cloud” no longer refer to the things that shield us from the sun and occasionally deposit rain on our heads.

LIke real clouds, these terms and the discussions in which they get exchanged often obscure much more fundamental problems. My favorite example of this is the ongoing discussion about public safety communications interoperability, especially the push now on in Washington to get a sizable chunk of 700 MHz  spectrum allocated to a nationwide public safety service, the centerpiece of which presumably will include secure broadband data.

Now it’s quite possible that I have already lost a few of you, because, as I said, these terms often have meanings far different from what you might expect. Let’s start with interoperability. I once thought this meant making it possible for police, fire, EMS, public works, and other agencies at all levels of government to exchange information about an incident to which they had all responded and to do so in whatever way was most appropriate. The key was sharing information.

An optimist would tell you I was at least partly right about that. But I am not that optimist, since I have yet to see any evidence that such a system exists in the wild.

Instead, interoperability has meant marrying up sometimes terribly outmoded or outdated technologies so people from different agencies can get together and talk about an incident if they happen to remember to use the technology in the way someone set it up when the time comes to use it. In most cases, the systems have become too complicated for the users to understand, and because they cost so much they rarely keep pace with the commercial-off-the-shelf equipment people buy and use for their own personal communications.

How many of you have been to an incident where a frustrated officer has pulled out her iPhone and texted or called a colleague rather than using a radio? If you haven’t seen this, you have surely seen someone at an incident pull their smartphone out and snap a few pictures of whatever is happening.

These days you don’t have to look very hard or listen very closely to see and hear arguments about how D-Block spectrum will revolutionize public safety communications and make it easier than ever before to communicate in a crisis. While I have no doubt that devices and services designed for this new spectrum will have impressive features, I am much less certain they will improve communications.

My reason for skepticism comes back to the first problem receiving attention at the UASI conference: money. The people who have it and can afford to spend it will determine what the rest of us can buy later. Perhaps fortuitously federal fingers are finding it harder to reach the wallet in Uncle Sam’s deep pockets just as this issue comes to a head.

Oddly enough, the dark clouds of fiscal austerity might be just what we need to whisk away the airy, bright and lofty clouds of “technological progress” impeding or at least obscuring our efforts to communicate. When money is scarce, people have to be a lot clearer about what they need now as opposed to what they want later. In addition, they have to be more open to alternatives and willing to adapt as opposed to simply adopting.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: The argument presented here emerges from my own first-hand experience and a quick reading of a handful of messages consisting of less than 140 characters sent by a handful of friends using an essentially free technology accessible to anyone. That strikes me as pretty effective communication for a very limited investment of time, money and effort.

June 21, 2011

Hurricane Lesson: Riot Watch

Filed under: Events,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on June 21, 2011

Nick Catrantzos, who writes at http://all-secure.blogspot.com, contributed today’s post.  His writing has appeared several times before in Homeland Security Watch:


In the pantheon of devastating events, hurricanes rank high. One of the few handles a hurricane offers defenders for at least mitigating loss — if not taking charge — is that you can see it coming, hence the benefit of hurricane watch and hurricane warning. Indeed, official sites exist to explain the difference between the two (such as www.nhc.noaa.gov/HAW2/english/basics.shtml).

Why not apply similar lessons to riots, such as the sore loser Stanley Cup riot that Vancouver experienced June 15th?

Some fundamental differences compel attention, however. First, a hurricane is a natural disaster. A riot is an induced catastrophe. (Mayer Nudell first breathed life into this distinction for me in his classic Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management, available at www.amazon.com).

Consequently, there are fewer political impediments to declaring a hurricane warning — an announcement that a hurricane is imminent — than to declaring a riot warning. After all, to declare a riot warning is to admit to failures of planning and prevention — something that Vancouver’s (or any jurisdiction’s) leadership would hesitate to do for fear of inspiring lawsuits and removal from office.

But what about a riot watch? Wouldn’t this be more benign and easier for a police agency or merchant’s association to announce every time a public event is likely to produce crowds, the sine qua non for mobs and riots?

Assuming this to be the case, what is a merchant to do? Again, transferring a lesson from hurricanes to riots may avail.

Everyone has seen certain supplies run out as people prepare for hurricanes, including plywood and duct tape. If I were a merchant in downtown Vancouver, I would anticipate the destructive impact of a possible riot the same way a Floridian counterpart would try to minimize damage to the store in the face of an approaching hurricane. Seal off the shop. Affix plywood panels to cover the display windows, under the likely assumption that if any crowd is transiting the area in large numbers after being stoked on high emotions, liquor, or drugs, the best of glass-break sensors and intrusion alarms will never summon any response force that will be able to arrive in time to defend your property and source of livelihood.

Private security will not be able to reach your store and police will have other, life safety priorities taking precedence over protecting your inventory. So, if you do not see to your own defenses, looters and vandals will likely face no impediment to stealing and destroying your shop and any others in their path. Under the circumstances, making access to your business just a little more difficult than to the next shop may make all the difference between staying in business and going broke.

Here is where I would veer a bit off the hurricane preparations, though. Paint the plywood in the colors of the local sports team, whatever it might be, and then stencil across these plywood window protectors a message of support for the local team. In Vancouver’s case, the message would be, “Go Canucks!” Then, affix a small sign on your front door saying, “Closed for the game. Go Canucks, go.”

What does this do?

For rioters whose inspiration or pretense for mayhem retains even the thinnest connection to the sporting event that drew them to congregate in the first place, your sign is the equivalent of a metaphorical cross before a vampire. Attacking your shop so adorned takes on the symbolic appearance of attacking one’s own team — sacrilege to even a drunken sports fan.

Best of all, this serves your interests equally regardless of whether the home team wins or loses. Remember that riots increasingly break out among exuberant crowds even when they are celebrating home team victories as much as when they are lamenting home team defeats.

Do I have research-supported data guaranteeing this defense will work? Not at all. But compared to the high cost of insurance and potential exclusion of coverage for riot-related damage, a business owner may well feel there is more to gain than lose by trying it out.


June 17, 2011

The terrorist threat is real; constitutional guarantees need to be at least as real

Filed under: Privacy and Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 17, 2011

UPDATE: The lead editorial in the Sunday New York Times focused on the same issue as set out below on Friday.  Please see: “Backward at the FBI”.

— +–

Just this week: two were indicted for conspiring to bomb New York synagogues,  British police arrested another suspect in what is thought to be a plot against nuclear power plants in the UK,  four were arrested in Austria for terrorist intentions, and sixteen were arrested in Indonesia for planning to use cyanide in a mass police poisoning.  The list could easily be longer.

All the suspected terrorists noted above are alleged to have at least loose links to Al-Qaeda.

Yesterday news reports confirmed the selection of Ayman Al-Zawahiri as Osama bin-Laden’s successor.  In video remarks released on June 8 Zawahiri promised new attacks on the United States.  There are also signals that with bin-Laden out of the way, Al Qaeda may be ready to advocate much more free-lance work or so-called “individual jihad.”   While bin-Laden was focused on another big hit, his successors seem as ready to kill with a thousand cuts.

In April Mark F. Giuliano, Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation did a good job summarizing a range of recent terrorist threats.  It is too long to reproduce here and offer any analysis.  Please read what Giuliano said about terrorist threats.

To deal with the constantly evolving threat, revisions are reportedly underway, or by now perhaps completed, on the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (copy courtesy of the NYT).  According to CBS News:

Under the FBI’s (existing) rules, agents are allowed to retain personal information obtained about a subject even if no evidence turns up of any wrongdoing. Agents were also authorized to “proactively” begin investigations (the lowest level of which is termed an “assessment”) on potential targets, even without specific justification; and restrictions on the use of intrusive techniques (such as infiltrating organizations, use of informants, or photographing subjects) were loosened.

Now the FBI’s revised document will ease rules further. For example, instead of being required to formally open assessments on subjects before conducting searches for information, agents may do so without keeping a record.

Julian Sanchez, with the Libertarian Cato Foundation, explains the possible policy and privacy implications:

Agents can already do quite a bit even without opening an “assessment”: They can consult the government’s own massive (and ever-growing) databases, or search the public Internet for “open source” intelligence. If, however, they want to start digging through state and local law enforcement records, or plumb the vast quantities of information held by commercial data aggregators like LexisNexis or Acxiom, they currently do have to open an assessment. Again, that doesn’t mean they’ve got to have evidence—or even an allegation—that their target is doing anything illegal, but it does mean they’ve got to create a paper trail and identify a legitimate purpose for their inquiries. That’s not much of a limitation, to be sure, but it does provide a strong deterrent to casual misuse of those databases for personal reasons. That paper trail means an agent who might be tempted to use government resources for personal ends—to check up on an ex or a new neighbor—has good reason to think twice.

Removing that check means there will be a lot more digging around in databases without any formal record of why. Even though most of those searches will be legitimate, that makes the abuses more likely to get lost in the crowd. Indeed, a series of reports by the Inspector General’s Office finding “widespread and serious misuse” of National Security Letters, noted that lax recordkeeping made it extremely difficult to accurately gauge the seriousness of the abuses or their true extent—and, of course, to hold the responsible parties accountable. Moreover, the most recent of those reports strongly suggests that agents engaged in illegal use of so-called “exigent letters” resisted the introduction of new records systems preciselybecause they knew (or at least suspected) their methods weren’t quite kosher.

The new rules will also permit agents to rifle through a person’s garbage when conducting an “assessment” of someone they’d like to recruit as an informant or mole. The reason, according to the Times, is that “they want the ability to use information found in a subject’s trash to put pressure on that person to assist the government in the investigation of others.” Not keen into being dragooned into FBI service? Hope you don’t have anything embarrassing in your dumpster! Physical surveillance squads can only be assigned to a target once, for a limited time, in the course of an assessment under the current rules—that limit, too, falls by the wayside in the revised DIOG.

I share concerns regarding invasion of privacy and gradual erosion of Fourth Amendment guarantees. In September 2010 the Justice Department Inspector General completed a multi-year study of FBI domestic operations and reported:

The evidence in our review did not indicate that the FBI targeted any of the groups for investigation on the basis of their First Amendment activities.  However, we also concluded that the factual basis for opening some of the investigations of individuals affiliated with the groups was factually weak. Moreover, in several cases there was little indication of any possible federal crimes as opposed to state crimes.  In some cases, we also found that the FBI extended the duration of investigations involving advocacy groups or their members without adequate basis, and in a few instances the FBI improperly retained information about the groups in its files. In some cases, the FBI classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its “Acts of Terrorism” classification.

Beyond the Fourth Amendment, I am nearly as concerned over law enforcement distraction and intelligence mission-creep. Did you see the May 28 story on a self-confessed Texas anarchist and his 440 page FBI report?  In this case, there is criminal predicate, but reasonable people may disagree over reasonable suspicion.   The guy is eccentric, maybe even worth a close look… but for how long, with what resources, and at what cost?

Or how about this week’s report on a series of subpoenas and warrants served across the Midwest.  According to the Washington Post:

Investigators, according to search warrants, documents and interviews, are examining possible “material support” for Colombian and Palestinian groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorists.

The apparent targets, all vocal and visible critics of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South America, deny any ties to terrorism. They say the government, using its post-9/11 focus on terrorism as a pretext, is targeting them for their political views.

They are “public non-violent activists with long, distinguished careers in public service, including teachers, union organizers and antiwar and community leaders,” said Michael Deutsch, a Chicago lawyer and part of a legal team defending those who believe they are being targeted by the investigation.

Several activists and their lawyers said they believe indictments could come anytime, so they have turned their organizing skills toward a counteroffensive, decrying the inquiry as a threat to their First Amendment rights.

With warrants issued probable cause was demonstrated to the satisfaction of some magistrate.   I will watch to hear and read more, but political activism — from the right, left, or constantly confused — must not be conflated with criminality.  I owe it to my neighbor, my self, and the constitution to defend the political and free-speech rights of everyone, especially those with whom I disagree.

Even without loosening the standards needed to begin a pre-criminal assessment, the amount of information already available tends to overload the system… and the minds of individual investigators.  Meaningful standards not only protect our privacy and the constitution, they help the law enforcement and intelligence systems focus on suspects worth the investment of time and effort.

June 16, 2011

The Problem with Assumptions

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2011

The problem with bad assumptions is that given enough time they eventually come to the surface:

At that meeting, teachers for the first time addressed what they call a critical flaw in the state’s emergency evacuation plan for events at Seabrook Station. While the current emergency plan states teachers are charged with getting students on evacuation busses and accompanying them to a designated reception center, a 1987 state Supreme Court ruled teachers cannot be required to assume the role of providing assistance to schoolchildren in the event of an evacuation.

Teachers made it clear they are not part of the plan because they needed to attend to their own families in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The Seabrook nuclear power station is in New Hampshire.  It seems that emergency planners made what would seem to be common sense asumptions, such as if an evacuation was called for during a school day teachers would accompany students during the initial journey out of the 10-mile emergency planning zone.

The assistant director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management believes the current evacuation plans for the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant are sufficient, despite the refusal of some SAU 21 teachers to accompany students on outgoing buses should a public evacuation of the region ever be necessary.

Sometimes, the need to believe existing plans are adequate can overule otherwise persuasive evidence:

“If schools were in session and we had to do an evacuation, it would work,” Kathy Doutt told the audience at a public hearing on Seabrook Station safety held on June 8 at the Galley Hatch Conference Center at the Best Western Hotel in Hampton. “It may not be pretty, but it would work.”

Following a catastrophic event, people will be concerned about their loved ones.  Sometimes I think that those in a position to make plans forget the overiding importance of this fact:

Teachers made it clear they are not part of the plan because they needed to attend to their own families in the event of a nuclear emergency. They said state officials need to once and for all determine who would take on the responsibility to ensure students safety.

And while some planners assign roles to various members of the community, it is important to remember that sometimes (or even often) those people do not even realize what is expected of them:

Dunfey said when teachers were first assigned responsibility of evacuating students under the plan, a survey revealed that 97 percent of those within the entire evacuation zone would be unable to assume that task for family reasons. She said the plan states teachers are trained to react in the event of a radiological emergency and that is not the case.

“I can tell you that the staff of the school doesn’t know how to proceed,” the middle school teacher said. “I can tell you that the children of the school do not know how to proceed.”

As an aside, though an important one, is the issue of fear of radiation, especially following events in Japan:

At the June 8 meeting, Moyer also asked Doutt about rumors school bus drivers charged with evacuating SAU 21 students would not come into the area if a nuclear accident occurred. Doutt said officials are looking into that rumor but that alternative transportation has already been contracted.

However, most importantly events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant should have convinced those responsible for emergency planning that assumptions should always be questioned, especially when in hingsight they can seem almost incomprehensible.

Seeing A Really Big Box and Saying Something?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2011

Upon entering the Harvard Square MBTA (i.e. subway) station in Cambridge, MA one sees this:



A box.  A really big box you can’t miss.  So now that you see something, who do you say something to?



Oh.  Well there you go.  A phone number.  Perfect. Though I have the suspicion that even if I called that box isn’t going anywhere.

It is part of an advertising campaign run by the MBTA (the local transportation authority) and funded by a $1 million homeland security grant to promote the “see something, say something” message.  Eye catching and direct, I find this and other variations in the campaign innovative and perhaps worth emulating elsewhere (as the slogan itself was, having originally been designed for use by New York City’s MTA).

However, it also raises several questions for me.  Is the campaign truly effective, and how could that be measured?  True, if explosives are discovered on a subway car by someone who followed the instructions it would be hailed as a victory.  But what if the terrorists are of the suicide varietal and don’t arouse suspicion before detonating their explosives?

How long will the message “stick” with the intended audience?  Once the campaign ends, will people forget or does it implant lasting behaviors?

Could the money be better spent on other homeland security-related areas?  Perhaps instead of this particular public information campaign the money could be used to bolster the area’s public health system?

I am not arguing against the campaign or questioning decision makers who felt this was a good way to spend federal funds.  In fact, I support it and feel that is important authorities interact with the public and include them in homeland security activities before something happens.

Yet I am left with these nagging questions and no answers that also seem to apply on a larger scale to pretty much the majority of homeland security issues.

June 15, 2011

Two “see something, say something” reports from America

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on June 15, 2011

The following Police Blotter items — reprinted below, and without comment — are from my town’s weekly paper.


Suspicious Vehicle

Caller advised seeing an older male inside a vehicle in park parking lot. Advised that it appeared the subject was pleasuring himself. Contact made with subject, who was rolling newspapers.



Suspicious Condition

Reporting person believes a human arm is stuck in a tree near Silk Creek area. Caller has observed it through his binoculars. Better binoculars helped determine item to be a branch hanging from a tree.


If you see something… from http://www.ct.gov/dot/cwp/view.asp?a=1386&q=424498
Man rolling news paper from http://www.flickr.com/photos/brandace/3873140495/
Tree from http://hubpages.com/hub/Abract-Art-Free-Images-in-the-Public-Domain

June 14, 2011

Getting out from under God in the Pledge of Allegiance

Filed under: Events,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on June 14, 2011

“Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”

Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress, June 14, 1777


June 14th is Flag Day.

According to the National Flag Day Foundation,

On June 14th, 1885, Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19 year old teacher at Stony Hill School, placed a 10 inch, 38- star flag in a bottle on his desk then assigned essays on the flag and its significance. This observance, commemorated Congresses adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777.

[On] May 30, 1916, [President Wilson]issued a proclamation calling for a nation wide observance of Flag Day. Then in 1949, President Truman signed an Act Of Congress designating the 14th day of June every year as National Flag Day.

You can read this year’s presidential Flag Day proclamation here.

In part, you will see President Obama urges:

… all Americans to observe Flag Day and National Flag Week by displaying the flag…. and to publicly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.


When I was in grade school, I remember we started each day standing by our desks, placing our right hands over our hearts, and in one voice saying:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I think it was the first poem I memorized.

When I entered sixth grade in 1955, after summer vacation, we all had to learn a slightly different poem:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I was eleven years old at the time. I was not troubled the state required me to start each school day saying I believed the nation was under God. It didn’t bother me because I had no idea what those words meant.


A month ago I attended a public meeting that began with the Pledge of Allegiance.

For reasons of my own, I left the “under God” part out.  I thought back to sixth grade, and realized I had no idea why the words changed from 1954 to 1955.

In the depth of my historical ignorance, I suppose I figured the Pledge emerged whole from the ferment of the Continental Congress during or shortly after the Revolution.



According to several sources (here, here and here), the original pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy as an expression of patriotism. (Bellamy was a socialist or a christian socialist, depending on who you listen to.)

The first Pledge read:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 1923, concerned the new crop of American immigrants might interpret the phrase “to my Flag” to mean their previous country, a clarifying amendment was added:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


In the early days, the Pledge was accompanied by a military salute.

Here’s how that salute was described in an 1892 magazine article :

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

In case you have a difficult time visualizing what the words “the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation” look like in practice, here’s a picture:

In December 1942, the salute was changed.  People were instructed to keep their right hand over their heart.


In 1954, President Eisenhower heard a minister called George M. Docherty give a sermon encouraging the US to add “under God” to the pledge.

The minister said,

“…I could hear little Muscovites repeat a [pledge similar to the US pledge] to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship…. [What is missing in our pledge is the] one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this country. … Once [we add] ‘under God,’ then we can define what we mean by ‘liberty and justice for all.’ To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.

Congress eventually agreed with Docherty and Eisenhower and the Knights of Columbus and gave us the current version of the Pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The bill changing the language was signed by Eisenhower in 1954, on Flag Day

There has been a lot of criticism over the years about the Pledge of Allegiance.

But in case anyone has problems with the “under God” logic, Congress in 2002 thoughtfully included 16 Findings — as a part of Public Law 107-293 — demonstrating why “under God” just acknowledged the historically obvious.

My favorite finding is Number 16: ignoring the nation’s history with God could “lead to the absurd result that the Constitution’s use of the express religious reference ‘Year of our Lord’ in Article VII violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that, therefore, a school district’s policy and practice of teacher-led voluntary recitations of the Constitution itself would be unconstitutional.”

Some people are still not convinced. They want the Pledge to be restored to the way it was said during World War Two. Others think the language should read, “…one Nation, Under the Constitution….”

Still others do not believe we need any pledge:

No truly peace-loving nation would ask its people to pledge allegiance to any flag. Flags are for battlefields: potent symbols of a nation’s military power and prowess. Currently, our nation’s government seems infinitely more committed to the well-being of a piece of colored cloth than it is to the welfare of its own people,

I am disturbed by the claim that we are a nation under God.  I think the assertion is too small.

If we want to bring God into the national discussion, I have a difficult time understanding why we don’t hedge our bets and acknowledge our entire planet is under God — especially as we evolve from a nation state to a market state.

But if we are not ready to surrender the nation state — and I think I’m still in that group — then I much prefer “one Nation, under the Constitution.”

Our nation has a history of the occasional anti-Catholic, and anti-Mormom and anti-Jewish hysteria. The anti-sharia law movement in this country continues our unfortunate tradition of I-am-anti-your-version-of-god-because-it-is-not-the-same-as-my-version-of god rhetoric.

I do not think God approves of this.

I would like to see Congress remove “under God” from the Pledge and replace it with “under the Constitution.”

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 it was unconstitutional for public schools to allow prayer, President Kennedy suggested [see a brief clip here] people who disagree with the Court’s ruling have “a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves and I would think that it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all of our children.”


While I am waiting for Congress to act on my suggestion, I will still fly the American flag on Flag Day. I will talk to my children about the history of Flag Day and the history of the Pledge. I will invite them — encourage them — to say their version of the Pledge with me.

Happy Flag Day



June 10, 2011

Wallow fire strategic lessons-observed

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 10, 2011

Twelve days after ignition the Wallow Fire continues to grow. According to Wallow fire updates on InciWeb, as of late Thursday 386,690 acres have been consumed, 24 structures destroyed, 3012 personnel are involved in response, and several communities have been required to evacuate, including Springerville (population 2000) and Eagar (population 4000).  The wildfire is roughly five percent contained.

Ponderosa Pines are adapted to wildfire. Over geologic time, lightning strikes started fires every two or three years. The fires would sweep through meadows and grassy understories.  The grass fires were seldom hot or high enough to threaten mature trees with fire-resistant bark, but would clear the understory of woody firs and other plants. The grasslands themselves quickly recovered from fire.  The interval between fires was sufficient for new generations of Ponderosa Pines to emerge.  With a lifespan of 300 to 600 years the Ponderosa tends to be patient (if prolific) regarding reproduction.

In historic time — roughly the last 150 years — wildfires have been less frequent.  Grazing by sheep, goats, and cattle reduced the grasses that carried cooler ground fires.  Beginning in the early 1900s a comparatively wet half-century or so further reduced the frequency of fire. Human fire suppression has also been a factor.  With less grass and fewer fires, dwarf mistletoe, sagebrush, Douglas fir and other woody flora have been able to establish dense thickets beneath the Ponderosa Pines.

The onset of persistent drought has resulted in what we see unfolding across the high plateau of Northeast Arizona.  According to the Arizona Republic the understory now holds as much as 50 tons per acre of dry fuel.

I perceive strategic analogies in this. (I have been accused of seeing strategic implications in whether a bologna sandwich is served with mustard or mayonnaise):

A complex adaptive system that we do not (cannot?) fully understand is under stress. The complex adaptive system in this case is the ecology of the mountainous plateaus of the American Southwest.  But it could be nearly any complex adaptive system: nationalism, federalism, capitalism, the supply chain, et cetera, et cetera.

The source of stress is multifaceted. Explicit human decisions certainly influence the system and can be sources of stress. But there are also larger, more implicit — even innate — influences and sources of stress: climate, demography, technology, prices, randomness, crowd behavior, et cetera, et cetera.

Whatever the sources of stress, the existing equilibrium of the complex adaptive system is threatened.   Perhaps Ponderosa Pines are no longer well-matched for the long-term climatic conditions of Arizona (are humans?).  Perhaps a new climax community is emerging.  Perhaps the Westphalian system of nation-states is disintegrating.  Perhaps the traditional frameworks of Christianity and Islam are fracturing.  Perhaps the “strange attractor of meaning” around which several core systems have long self-organized are shifting.

Into this precarious situation an “event”  is inserted. Perhaps it is natural, such as a lightning strike.  Or it may be accidental, as when a campfire’s embers are not fully extinguished (thought to be the cause of the Wallow fire).  It might also be intentional arson.  In any case, a fire is started and two weeks later we are trying to deal with an inferno.

In such precarious situations if we wait for the spark — regardless of source — it is already too late.   If we seek to preserve the current equilibrium we need to invest in deepening and widening the basin of attraction well in advance. There are also situations where the forces of change are far too compelling to resist and our best bet is to invest as we can in nudging the system toward a new attractor of meaning.  Knowing when to fold or call is not always clear.

If homeland security has any comparative advantage to offer the pre-existing disciplines and professions, it may be — should be — in brokering the bet.

Three Americans reflect on the death of Osama bin Laden

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 10, 2011

Last weekend a 100 minute videotape featuring several Al Qaeda leaders was released. The purpose, in part, was to eulogize Osama bin Laden  Included were comments by the American born Adam Gadahn:

Muslims in the West have to remember that they are perfectly placed to play an important and decisive part in the Jihad against the Zionists and crusaders, and to do major damage to the enemies of Islam, waging war on their religion, sacred places, and things, and brethren. This is a golden opportunity and a blessing. Let’s take America as an example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?

On Wednesday FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

The FBI has never faced a more complex threat environment than it does today. Over the past year, we have seen an extraordinary array of national security and criminal threats, from terrorism and espionage to cyber attacks and traditional crimes. These threats have ranged from attempts by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to place bombs on airplanes bound for the United States to lone actors seeking to detonate IEDs in public squares and subways, intent on mass murder.

A month ago, the successful operation in Pakistan leading to Usama bin Laden’s death created new urgency for this threat picture. While we continue to exploit the materials seized from bin Laden’s compound, one of the early assessments from this intelligence is that Al Qaeda remains committed to attacking the United States. In addition, we are focused on the new information about the homeland threat gained from this operation.

We also continue to face the threat from adversaries, like Anwar Alaqui, who are engaged in efforts to radicalize people in the United States to commit acts of terrorism. In the age of the Internet, these radicalizing figures no longer need to meet or speak personally with those they seek to influence. Instead, they conduct their media campaigns from remote regions of the world, intent on fostering terrorism by lone actors here in the United States.

On Thursday CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

The death of Osama bin Laden is a significant blow to al Qa’ida and brings us closer to its strategic defeat.  However, al-Qa’ida remains a potent, dangerous, and adaptable foe.  Its close allies, such as Pakistan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, have increasingly adopted al-Qa’ida’s jihadist vision and, as core al-Qa’ida is weakened, there is a risk that decentralized affiliates may pose an increased threat to the United States.  To achieve the President’s objective of defeating al-Qa’ida and preventing its return to either Pakistan or Afghanistan, it is vital that we continue to aggressively pursue our accelerated counterterrorism campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Al-Qa’ida and its adherents are diverse, dispersed, and decentralized.  They are present in the Arabian Peninsula, North and East Africa, South Asia, Iraq, and elsewhere around the globe, including within the United States.  Intent and ability to attack the United States varies by group, but such attacks are a common theme in their propaganda and planning.   Bin Laden himself remained very focused on attacking the Homeland.   Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula has already demonstrated both the intent and the capability to conduct attacks against the United States.  Despite the death of Bin Laden, core Al-Qa’ida and its adherents in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region remain a very dangerous threat.

June 9, 2011

A Joint U.S.-Russian Assessment of the Nuclear Terrorism Threat

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 9, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog must be asking themselves, “seriously, nuclear terrorism again?!?”  Yes again, because I find the issue of vital importance.  Today, however, I have two new twists to the topic.

First, I am writing this post in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon.  So just a meaningless twist that adds nothing to the discussion, but since I’m on vacation this will be a shorter effort.

The second twist, and to the point of the topic, is that this assessment of the threat of nuclear terrorism was conducted together by a group of retired U.S. and Russian intelligence and military officials.  Men who had worked tirelessly in the interests of their own nations during the Cold War, often at odds with their current collaborators, came together to assess the risks that both the U.S. and Russia face from nuclear terrorism.

It is an interesting report and should be read by those concerned about the issue of nuclear terrorism. The cases studies, technical analysis, and conclusions will seem familiar to those immersed in the topic:

Al-Qaeda and North Caucasus terrorist groups have both made statements indicating that they seek nuclear weapons and have attempted to acquire them; these groups are presented together as a case study to assess nuclear terrorism as a present and future threat. (The only other terrorist group known to have systematically sought to get nuclear weapons was the Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo.) This study makes the case that it is plausible that a technically sophisticated group could make, deliver, and detonate a crude nuclear bomb if it could obtain sufficient fissile material.

The study recommends measures to tighten security over existing nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials terrorists would need to make a crude nuclear bomb, along with expanded police and intelligence cooperation to interdict nuclear smuggling and stop terrorist nuclear plots. The report also calls for improved protection of nuclear facilities that might be sabotaged, and of radiological materials that might be used in a dirty bomb.

What is particularly striking who the group of people who authored the report:

Matthew Bunn. Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Principal Investigator of Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Colonel Yuri Morozov (retired Russian Armed Forces). Professor of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and senior fellow at the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, chief of department at the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, 1995–2000.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. Senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, 2005–2008.

Simon Saradzhyan. Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Moscow-based defense and security expert and writer, 1993–2008.

William Tobey. Senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and
International Affairs and director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, 2006–2009.

Colonel General Viktor I. Yesin (retired Russian Armed Forces). Senior fellow at the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and advisor to commander of the Strategic Missile Forces of Russia, chief of staff of the Strategic Missile Forces, 1994–1996.

Major General Pavel S. Zolotarev (retired Russian Armed Forces). Deputy director of the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the Information and Analysis Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense, 1993–1997, deputy chief of staff of the Defense Council of Russia, 1997–1998.

Adding additional gravitas to the authors’ collected credentials is the larger group of retired U.S. and Russian officials who make up the “U.S.-Russian Elbe Advisory Group” that reviewed and endorsed this report:

Organizer of the Elbe Group:
Brigadier General Kevin Ryan (retired U.S. Army). Executive Director for Research, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


Members of the Elbe Advisory Group:
U.S. Participants
Mr. Rob Dannenberg (retired CIA). Former Chief of Operations for the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA.

General Eugene E. Habiger (retired U.S. Air Force). Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Command from 1996 to 1998.

Lieutenant General Franklin L. (Buster) Hagenbeck (retired U.S. Army). Commanding General of the 10th Mountain Division and Superintendent of the United States Military Academy until his retirement in 2010.

Lieutenant General Mike Maples (retired U.S. Army). Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2005 until his retirement in 2009.

Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (retired CIA). Former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department at the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA.

Russian Participants
General Major Vladimir Dvorkin (retired Russian Armed Forces). Director of the Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Ministry of Defense in 1993-2001.

Colonel Vladimir Goltsov (retired Russian Interior Troops). Former Deputy Head, Department on Physical Protection of Nuclear Sites and Counteracting Nuclear Terrorism of the Russian Interior Troops.

General of the Army Valentin Korabelnikov (retired Russian Armed Forces). Chief of
the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces  from 1997 until his retirement in 2009.

General of the Army Anatoliy Kulikov (retired Russian Interior Troops). Commander
of the Joint Group of Federal Forces in Chechnya in 1995, Interior Minister of the Russian Federation from 1995 to 1998, Deputy Prime Minister from 1997 to 1998 and State Duma member in 1999-2007.

General Colonel Anatoliy Safonov. First Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1994-1997, and temporarily served as FSB Director in the summer of 1995. Currently Ambassador Safonov is Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on International Co-operation in Combating Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime.

I believe it is fair to say that this group knows the topic of terrorism, understands the technical dimensions involved, and have had access to the best intelligence that both the U.S. and Russia have gathered on the topic.

The report, “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism,” is a joint project of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and The Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.  The entire report can be downloaded here in English:


Here in Russian:


Next Page »