Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 31, 2011

Test anthrax vaccine on children: A bad biodefense policy idea

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 31, 2011

I was surprised, last week, to see this story in the Washington Post about the efforts of a working group of the National Biodefense Science Board. Seems that, back in April, the board decided to examine whether children should receive the standard anthrax vaccine in the event of a wide-area anthrax attack on the nation. Although it’s not explained well in the story, it is assumed that this would be a post-treatment administered under emergency matters after an attack, rather than as a pre-treatment.

“At the end of the day, do we want to wait for an attack and give it to millions and millions of children and collect data at that time?” said Daniel B. Fagbuyi of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who chaired the group. “Or do we want to say: ‘How do we best protect our children?’ We can take care of Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle and Auntie. But right now, we have nothing for the children.”

Yes, oh who will think of the children? As the article explains, the vaccine has been tested for safety for the military, but it doesn’t explain that the vaccine’s efficacy is sometimes in question. Critics of the vaccine note that it hasn’t been tested against humans who have been exposed to a weaponized form of anthrax. And that’s true. There have been animal models that show the airborne vaccine should be both safe and efficacious for humans. And all of our researchers and veterinarians who work with anthrax use the vaccine, without any losses. Both the airborne vaccine and the natural form of vaccine work in the same way on the human body. So we’re pretty sure it’s a very good vaccine.

But back to the children. Medical experts and emergency responders have always been concerned about the “sensitive population” and how they are treated in the event of an emergency. Yes, it’s possible that an anthrax vaccine developed for adults might be too powerful for children or have detrimental side effects. We don’t know. But the chance of a wide-area anthrax attack affecting thousands, let alone “millions and millions of children,” is almost zero. Close enough to zero to not worry about it.

Except for this National Biodefense Science Board.  They decided, on a vote of 12-1, that in fact, we do need to have the vaccine tested on children in order to prepare for that day that is “not a matter of if, but when.”

“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine as we develop plans to use the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack,” said Ruth L. Berkelman of Emory University, a panel member.

Now these are smart people. I don’t doubt their sincerity or intelligence. I do question their common sense and rationality. The absolute possibility of a transnational terrorist attack involving kilograms of anthrax to cause such an event are just insignificant compared to the storm of controversy and outcry if the US government starts testing the anthrax vaccine on kids.

It doesn’t matter if the side effects of the anthrax vaccine are far less severe than nearly any other vaccine. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. government has been using this vaccine for over a decade and has literally millions of health records to study. The critics will argue that the government hasn’t proven the vaccine’s efficacy for adults, let alone children. And they’d be right, technically; but it still works. This is a lousy argument.

The recommendation to test the vaccine for use on children is just wrong.

Any sensible mayor or governor would suggest that the appropriate risk-management approach would be to plan and resource for the widespread use of Cipro or other antibiotics on the population, to include children and other sensitive population types, as a first course of action. And then if, and only if, an actual anthrax attack occurred, the parents would be asked if they want to take the chance on the vaccine – and sign a release form for its use. It needs to be explained that this is a post-treatment, and without its use, the affected patient may die a very horrible and sudden death. This testing is unnecessary because the scenario too remotely theoretical.

It’s really that simple. How our community responds to bioterrorism is too important to be left to the doctors. Let’s get some public policy analysts involved and make better decisions.


October 29, 2011

Scott Olsen: Personifying the turbulence and flux we face

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 29, 2011

The Tuesday night injury of a Marine veteran of two tours in Iraq while peacefully protesting in Oakland marks a major shift in my attitude toward the Occupy Movement.

Scott Olsen, age 24, was apparently struck by a tear gas canister as Oakland police attempted to clear “occupiers”  from the intersection of 14th and Broadway.   Mr. Olsen’s skull was fractured and he has been unable to speak since the injury.  See more details from the San Francisco Chronicle.  Additional information is also available at the Occupy Oakland website.

Occupy Nashville has been camping at Legislative Plaza in front of the state capitol.  After the Tennessee Governor declared a curfew, State police conducted a Friday pre-dawn raid that ended in twenty-nine arrests. Even more occupiers were back on Saturday. There were further arrests Saturday afternoon.  But a Nashville judge has released them finding the Governor has no legal authority to declare a curfew for the Capitol grounds.  See more news from The Tennessean and a relevant analysis by one of the newspaper’s columnists.

As I write this (6:30 PM Mountain Time) Denver police remain engaged in a day-long struggle with Occupy Denver on the steps of the Colorado state capitol and nearby.  See more at the Denver Post. This was the first day for a new police chief in Denver.

In all of these cases, according to the media reports I have read and a few emails and phone-calls from locals, the conflict has been prompted and/or seriously escalated by aggressive police activity.   My personal sources are public safety or retired public safety personnel.  This is in contrast with the so-far much more restrained police response in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Chris Bellavita was the first to write about Occupy Wall Street here at Homeland Security Watch.  When Chris made this choice I was not convinced the movement was a homeland security issue.  Mark Chubb has given the movement considerable attention.

While I understand — and usually support — the role of all-crimes, all hazards, and intelligence fusion as contributions to homeland security, that does not mean I always think homeland security has anything to contribute to the particular crime, specific hazard, or fusing of intelligence.   In the case of the Occupy Movement I did not even recognize a crime, hazard or legitimate intelligence target being involved.  I still don’t.

I am, however, an advocate for the homeland security discipline’s potential role in assisting our more command-and-control oriented colleagues to recognize when a complex adaptive system needs to be given enough space to resolve itself and, if possible, prevent the complex adaptive system from blowing up in our faces and injuring too many innocents along the way.


Many of the links embedded in the post above include updates on the situation in each city.

Denver strikes me as the most treacherous.  Trying to piece together several reports from Denver suggest there have been a series of tactical missteps that have contributed to the violence.  In particular, it sounds to me (and some of my sources) that too few police officers have been assigned to undertake clearing actions. This has tended to increase the force applied by the officers involved… and Newton’s third law of motion has been socially confirmed (again).

Early Sunday morning thirty-seven were arrested in Austin, but without significant violence.  The Austin city government has requested that Occupy Austin appoint leaders to meet Monday to discuss new rules for the occupation of the City Hall plaza.  There was a General Assembly of the Occupiers on Sunday night, but I cannot find a report of their decisions.  It is an interesting request to make of the resolutely leaderless movement.

Not included in yesterday’s post was a potentially important tactical shift by the Occupiers in Portland, Oregon.  There the protesters have begun to target the affluent  mostly residential Pearl District.  Jamison Square, a city park serving the Pearl District,  has a long-established midnight curfew which police enforced Saturday night.  There were thirty arrests, no significant violence was reported. (Also see Occupy Portland website.)

In Oakland and Nashville there was clearly an effort on all sides to avoid further confrontations on Saturday night.

According to a Sunday report in the San Jose Mercury-News, Scott Olsen is recovering. “Olsen was listed in critical condition at first, suffering damage to the speech center of his brain, according to Olson’s roommate, Keith Shannon. But though Olsen remained hospitalized Sunday and was not able to speak, doctors expect a full recovery, Shannon added. His condition Sunday was listed as fair.”

OCTOBER 31 UPDATE: The Occupy Together site has begun providing a round-ups of outcomes across the nation.

October 28, 2011

Persons and due process, terrorism and war

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Legal Issues,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 28, 2011

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States


Because most readers of Homeland Security Watch are also  news-nerds you may have noticed we killed another US citizen recently. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki the sixteen year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki was killed during a drone attack in Yemen.   The young American was traveling with Ibrahim al-Banna, media chief of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the presumed target of the attack.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Abdul had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the care of bad guys, and being the son of a very bad guy. As far as we know though, he was not directly involved in planning or implementing terrorist actions against the United States.  No legal action had been taken in his regard, certainly no Grand Jury indictment.

There are some rumors (but only rumors) that al-Banna was taking Abdul and a 17 year-old cousin (also killed) to visit the remains of his father.

The US government does not officially comment on our drone operations in Yemen (or Pakistan).  While we have acknowledged the death of both father and son, we did not discuss the means or our involvement in the means.


I was surprised when reminded of the Bill of Rights use of “person” rather than “citizen.”   It has been an instructive surprise.

The differences between person and citizen have proliferated since the first amendments were adopted in 1791.   The French Revolution, the 14th Amendment, and increasing international mobility have all served to give enhanced attention to the  rights of citizenship.

But the Constitution still refers to persons.

The classical Latin persona was a  mask as used in Greek plays: A temporary and even misleading representation.  The early Christian church transformed our understanding of the word when Tertullian used it to explain the distinct “persons” of the Trinity.  Each person of the Trinity is a particular expression of an essential unity and substantive reality beyond the individual manifestation.

Through a complicated process of ecumenical councils, Medieval scholasticism, popular misunderstanding, and much more, Western culture came to view each individual as an expression of the divine.  This is the foundation of natural rights and the personhood of English Common Law.

The rise of nationalism has challenged the universalist claims of personhood.   Increasingly it is citizenship —  national identity — that matters, not some tendentious claim to being a child-of-God.

Congress is currently considering a new measure which would further diminish the personhood of non-citizens.    As adopted by the House of Representatives,  Section 1046 of the Defense Authorization Act reads,

After the date of the enactment of this Act, any foreign national, who–

(1) engages or has engaged in conduct constituting an offense relating to a terrorist attack against persons or property in the United States or against any United States Government property or personnel outside the United States; and

(2) is subject to trial for that offense by a military commission under chapter 47A of title 10, United States Code;

shall be tried for that offense only by a military commission under that chapter.

This section is causing consternation among some Senators and administration officials. The General Counsel for the Department of Defense has critiqued this legislation as follows:

Section 1046 of the House bill imposes an across-the-board requirement that, if military commissions jurisdiction exists to prosecute an individual, we must use commissions, not the federal courts, for the prosecution of a broad range of terrorist acts. Decisions about the most appropriate forum inwhich to prosecute a terrorist should be left, case-by-case, to prosecutors and national security professionals. The considerations that go into those decisions include the offenses available in both systems for prosecuting a particular course of conduct, the weight and nature of the evidence, and the likely prison sentence that would result if there is a conviction. A flat legislative ban on the use of one system – whether it is commissions or the civilian courts — in favor of the other is not the answer.

A weak procedural critique, it seems to me.

Since the Constitution was adopted “due process of law” has changed in a variety of ways.  Military commissions meet a minimum test of due process.  But it is very difficult to imagine James Madison smiling at the prospect of military officers being preferred as the agents of the judicial power set out in Article III.


We are increasingly inclined to treat non-citizens as non-persons.  Our rights are less and less a matter of the dignity due any child of God.   For many, a non-citizen obviously does not deserve the rights of a citizen.  The non-citizen is inherently other and the other is innately a possible threat.  This is an entirely reasonable judgment based on a purely nationalist perspective.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, born in Colorado, fan of The Simpsons and Harry Potter, was a citizen.  Some would claim he was also a suspect other and potential threat.   His personhood?  His citizenship?  Nice abstractions for a courtroom perhaps, but distractions in the midst of deadly conflict… others would argue.

I am concerned that as the source of our rights shift from existential personhood to instrumental citizenship our sense of shared identity and common dignity is diminished and the very concept of fundamental rights is weakened.

The Constitution still refers to persons.

October 26, 2011


Filed under: Events — by Mark Chubb on October 26, 2011

It should come as no surprise that the Queen of Soul was onto something.

The past few weeks I have been pondering the growth and spread of the Occupy Movement and the related undercurrent of political disquiet sweeping across the political spectrum here and abroad, and have wondered aloud what they might mean from a homeland security perspective. This week I am in New York to attend the Northeast Conference on Public Administration, which will be focused on the theme “Building Trust and Confidence in the Public Service.”

The paper I am presenting at this conference draws on several themes I have already explored in greater detail in this forum for many months. Drawing on these themes, I question whether the high public trust and confidence typically shown in public safety officers, particularly firefighters, translates into anything meaningful when it comes to public policy and effectiveness. After all, governors and state legislators enjoy incredibly low public trust and confidence ratings, but nevertheless managed to muster the political capital in several states needed to overcome objections by public employees unions and a small but committed band of supporters to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Given my interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs, it only seemed reasonable to conduct some field research last night in Zuccotti Park. When I arrived shortly before 9:00 p.m., the protesters were still going strong. A police cordon was established around the park perimeter and a strong police presence was evident, including representatives from NYPD’s community affairs unit. The south side of the park was populated by TV satellite trucks from CNN and a couple local stations.

Although activities in the park were lively and loud, they certainly weren’t out of control. Small groups were in evidence amidst the tent city, and small groups of people could be found engaged in conversation. A few protestors on the east end of the park and someone dressed in a Santa suit made sure the TV cameras had something to shoot. At a teach-in or lecture in the southeast corner of the park, the crowd could be heard repeating the speaker’s main points in unison as a means of amplifying the message and projecting it beyond the reach of the meagre sound system.  Tables of leaflets and a lending library at the northeast corner of the encampment provided a large a diverse assortment of propaganda and reading material consistent with unfocused themes filtering through the gathering.

To be certain, the presence of anarchists, truthers, and cannabis legalization activists amidst the throng was clear. But so too were people from 18 to 80 years of age from what seemed a wide range of social, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. This was not simply a student protest or a protest led by unemployed workers or one promoting any single social agenda. The unifying theme, to the extend one could be found, seemed to be the overwhelming sense that the vast majority of Americans have grown disaffected with and disconnected from the social and economic system they once believed would ensure their success in exchange for hard work and good behavior.

Probably the most striking characteristic of the gathering was the utter absence of evidence that it was organized in any way. That said, posters at the main entry points promoted what passed for community standards. They seemed more like a plea or a pledge than any kind of command.

As I completed my walk around the perimeter of the park, I stopped for a moment to speak with one of the NYPD officers on the cordon. Officer Sheehan seemed young, but by no means naive or inexperienced. When I asked him whether he was yet to the point of having dreams that he came to work and found the park empty and the protesters dispersed as if nothing had happened, he smiled wanly and said he didn’t think the protesters were that much trouble. “They don’t want a piece of us, and we don’t want to mess with them,” he said.

As we talked, I explained that I was intrigued by his response in light of both my reason for visiting New York this week and coming to the park on this particular night. I told him I was more and more doubtful that public trust and confidence were helpful in implementing public policy even if they are useful to its making. As we talked candidly, I wondered aloud whether the best if not the most we could hope for in the near term was respect for government and its agents as opposed to genuine trust and confidence in their intentions and actions.

As we ended our conversation, Officer Sheehan sighed and said, “Yeah, respect. That would be nice.” Maybe the Occupy protesters are onto something after all.


October 25, 2011

Looking for interesting homeland security ideas

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 25, 2011

Francis Bacon wrote a book in the early 1600s called “Sylva Sylvarum: or a Natural History in Ten Centuries.” In the book, Bacon used the word “resilience.”  To him it meant “The action or an act of rebounding or springing back.”

In the early 2000s, according to Appendix A of the September 2011 National Preparedness Goal report, resilience means “The ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

In 4 centuries the meaning of resilience has not changed much.

I don’t know how the term came to be adopted by homeland security’s mainstream lexicographers, but the search for resilience now consumes a lot of attention inside the Enterprise.

Do you know other ideas not typically associated with homeland security that might have something interesting to offer the Enterprise?

If you do, the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security invites you to enter its annual essay competition.

The formal topic is: Identify a theory or insight from a field outside homeland security that has not been applied to homeland security but should be.

You can find the official rules, including how to enter, here.

Unofficially, here’s what the rules look like:

Submission Guidelines — Your response may be general, or focus on a specific element of or discipline in homeland security.  Essays may be written from any perspective – government, private sector, cultural, local community, citizen, and so on.

Who may enter — The competition is open to everyone with an interest in homeland defense and security.  Center for Homeland Defense and Security employees, students and graduates (of the Master’s or Executive Leaders Programs) are not eligible.

Competition Guidelines — The essay should be no more than five single-spaced pages.  Essays must be original and not published elsewhere.

Timeline — The deadline for submission is January 31, 2012. Finalists will be announced no later than May 31, 2012.

Criteria — Essays will be evaluated based on relevance to the question, innovativeness of the idea, strength of the argument, and quality of the writing.

Award — The winner will receive a $1000 cash award.  The winning and four top finalist essays will be considered for publication by Homeland Security Affairs, the online journal published by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for the Homeland Defense and Security.

October 24, 2011

Packing Homeland Security Related Links

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on October 24, 2011

I am in the weeds packing for a big move.  So instead of even a few paragraphs of analysis, I offer instead a virtual buffet of homeland security-related news links:

The most current homeland security news is the recent earthquake in Turkey. Information is constantly being updated, so instead of one specific article I would suggest following a news site with above-average international coverage.  For a good example, check out the the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15425268

Perhaps the largest domestic security not yet touched upon by others on this blog is the alleged plan for assassinating the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. by blowing up one of his favorite restaurants during his dinner (involving a used car salesman from Texas related to the head of an elite Iranian special forces group?).  Specifics of the case are still bubbling up to the public surface,yet  regardless the lines in the sand are already being drawn:

The Iranians are crazy!  (Cough…let’s invade yet another Mideast country…cough):


Perhaps not…maybe this is just an outcome of their decentralized governing structure and fractured domestic political system:


In the background is the looming nuclear threat.  Technical questions of if, when, how, and in what form could an Iranian nuclear arsenal (or virtual deterrent) might/could take aside, those parties advocating for a military solution might want to consider the historical record and resulting outcomes of previous efforts resulting from previous deployment of force to prevent proliferation:


In nuclear, but otherwise unrelated news, decontamination efforts in Japan following the Fukushima crisis ain’t cheap…with that in mind, is it worth while to reconsider the amount of focus given to research in decontamination technologies and research into radiation affects?


Finally, while the general idea sounds terrific, I can’t but help wonder what the specifics require in this George Washington University report applying “a systems-based approach” and “risk management principles” to “operationalizing” resilience.  There seems to be a lot of firepower within the group involved in developing this report, yet after reading it  I am left grasping for any semblence of something actually ready to be applied to real-world issues.  Can anyone with much deeper emergency managament experience either tell me why I’m on the right path or barking up the wrong tree?


October 22, 2011

US as mother-in-law: If Pakistan is the bride, who is the groom?

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2011

I assume readers of HLSWatch are otherwise accessing the extensive news reports on the Secretary of State’s mission to Pakistan.  I was struck by the following small piece by the Associated Press.  It was published on the front-page of Saturday’s edition of DAWN, a Pakistani English-language daily.


ISLAMABAD, Oct 21: Washington’s troubled relationship with Islamabad has triggered plenty of heartburn for US officials, but rarely side-splitting laughter.

That changed on Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton erupted in amusement during a town hall meeting in Islamabad when a participant described the US as Pakistan’s impossible to please mother-in-law.

“We all know that the whole of Pakistan is facing the brunt of whatever is happening and trying to cooperate with the US, and somehow the US is like a mother-in-law which is just not satisfied with us,” said a woman who identified herself as Shamama and elicited a round of applause from the crowd.

“We are trying to please you, and every time you come and visit us you have a new idea and tell us, ‘You are not doing enough and need to work harder’,” said Shamama, who works for a women’s group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Laughing at length, Ms Clinton said she could personally relate to the woman’s perspective because she too was a mother-in-law. The secretary of state’s daughter, Chelsea, married an investment banker last year in New York.

“I think that’s a great analogy I have never heard before,” Ms Clinton said. “Now that I am a mother-in-law, I totally understand what you’re saying and hope to do better privately and publicly.”

She said: “I personally believe this relationship is critical, important to us both, and therefore we cannot give it up. Once a mother-in-law always a mother-in-law, but perhaps mothers-in-law can learn new ways also.

October 21, 2011

Economic Terrorism

Filed under: Events,Radicalization,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on October 21, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I questioned the meaning of the growing protest movement that started with Occupy Wall Street and its relationship to the economic discontent expressed in other quarters by the Tea Party Movement. This angered at least a few readers who claim to have moved on from reading this forum regularly.

In a follow-up comment, I noted that despite my sympathy for their message, I was less than sanguine about what the rising tide of discontent on display around the country (and now the world for that matter) might portend for the nation as disaffection spreads from those angry with the government to those who work for the government in our public safety services.

Recent media commentary on the Occupy movements has questioned their sustainability in the absence of clear leadership, a coherent direction, and some sort of decisive action beyond sign-waving and chanting. Others have noted that the movement is doing just fine without these things, and, in fact, has articulated a clear and convincing objective: Ending capitalism as we have known it, at least in the United States. This leads some observers, particularly those who see themselves targeted by the movement, to believe the group is anything but benign and probably not as disorganized as it might seem to some.

This makes me wonder, does this make the Occupy protestors economic terrorists? Some might think so, especially if their activities begin having a destabilizing effect on markets or market actors. The Geneva Center for Security Policy defines economic terrorism as, “varied, coordinated and sophisticated, or massive destabilizing actions [undertaken by transnational or non-state actors] to disrupt the economic stability of a state, groups of states, or society.”

Clearly, the Occupy protestors see themselves quite differently. They have been telling us for weeks now that the real terrorists are the bankers, hedge fund managers, and barons of international high finance who have so thoroughly coöpted and corrupted the engine of democracy that it no longer serves the interests of ordinary people.

Occupy protestors and their supporters have noted with disgust that the number of people arrested at rallies now far exceeds the number charged with crimes arising from the financial debacle that has so ruined our economy. The tactics employed to enforce local ordinances against such misdemeanors as curfew, camping in public parks, excessive noise, interfering with traffic, and tramping through flower beds have often involved the application of force to detain or remove protestors. These actions stand in stark contrast to those used in the detention and prosecution of those accused of felony financial crimes.

Despite police actions in quite a few cities, the American protests seem mild compared to the unrest sweeping some European cities as instability accompanying the debt crises in Greece, Italy and other nations continues. As the frequency and intensity of strikes and riots mounts, one can only speculate as to whether the mood here will turn from gloomy and overcast to stormy.

As we watch the drama unfold here and abroad, wondering what will happen next, it’s worth remembering: One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

October 20, 2011

Moammar Gadhafi Dead?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on October 20, 2011

The Libyan National Transitional Council is reporting that Muammar Gaddafi has been captured or killed in his hometown of Sirt.  These reports have not yet been confirmed by U.S. officials, who are awaiting final word.

If it is true, then 2011, which will probably be remembered more for global economic upheaval, has been a bad year for terrorists and dictators.  Among the terrorists killed this year – Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Hafs al Shahri, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.

In addition to the above, there has been regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

These changes could potentially make the U.S. more complacent in its homeland security efforts or, hopefully, more diligent as the removal of leaders and structures in terrorists network means that the U.S. may be more in danger from lone wolf  attacks or rogue cells, both of which are challenging from an intelligence standpoint.

October 19, 2011

Mitigation is to resilience as storm cellars are to root cellars

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 19, 2011

The new National Preparedness Goal is “a secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.”

The upgrade given mitigation is arguably the most important policy shift represented in the NPG.   Mitigate now joins Prevent, Protect, Respond, and Recover as “Mission Areas.”  Once the red-headed stepchild of preparedness, mitigate has — at least intellectually — been fully accepted as a strategic priority.

According to the NPG several “core capabilities” are necessary to achieve the mitigation mission area, including:

  • Community Resilience
  • Long-term Vulnerability Reduction
  • Risk and Disaster Resilience Assessment
  • Threats and Hazard Identification

The details of these capabilities are not — yet — specified.  The forthcoming National Preparedness System is likely to provide much more.  All of these capabilities have significant pedigrees in both research and practice.

There has tended to be an engineering orientation to mitigation.   Fifty-four of 77 examples in the FEMA Mitigation Best Practices Portfolio relate to flooding.  A specific threat is identified, vulnerabilities related to the threat are assessed, risk is reduced usually through some change in the built environment.  You can see this same logic embedded in the capability list.  All of this is helpful and works for earthquakes, wildfires, industrial accidents, and terrorism too.

According to the NPG mitigation is, “The capabilities necessary to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.”  Unpacking the definition, this suggests that community resilience (see capability list above) contributes to mitigation.

As a strategic principle I would turn this around: mitigation contributes to community resilience.  Resilience and mitigation can be complementary.  But they are also quite distinct. The very best mitigation cannot ensure resilience.  Nor does less-than-full mitigation negate the possibility of significant resilience.   If I had to choose, I would choose resilience over mitigation.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose.  Attention to both mitigation and resilience is helpful.

The NPG defines resilience as, “The ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

The use of steel reinforcement to allow buildings to sway with an earthquake is an example of both mitigation and resilience.  The ability of the Internet to allow information-packets to find multiple open channels and opportunistically use whatever is available is another example of resilient design that can mitigate the impact of a threat.

But resilience and especially community resilience is much more than mitigating impact.

Last Thursday I was driving a narrow road through rural Virginia when the radio sounded a tornado warning.  The rain and wind were already strong.  At the first opportunity I pulled off at a convenience store to allow the tornado, about five miles ahead, to finish its run Northeast.

Paying for coffee and a cookie I asked the sales clerk if she had heard the tornado warning.  Glancing at the rain lashing the windows she replied, “Nope.  No radio.  Grew up in Oklahoma thought I’d gotten away from ’em. ”

I showed her the tornado’s track on my smartphone’s screen.

“Funny thing.  Both my grands (grandparents) had storm cellars, purpose built in the backyard,” she said. “We never did and no basement neither.  Just a ranch house on a slab.  Was like we don’t believe in tornadas no more.”

The storm cellars — my mother’s parents in Oklahoma also had one — are examples of mitigation.   But as the sales clerk observed, before mitigation there was something the authors of the NPG would no doubt call “Threat and Hazard Identification” (this is tornado alley) and “Risk and Disaster Resilience Assessment”  (I need a place to be protected from a tornado) which leads to “Long-term Vulnerability Reduction” (I will build a storm cellar).  In other words, our grandparents actively acknowledged a realistic threat.

On May 22 the residents of Joplin, Missouri were alerted to a Tornado Watch at 1:30 PM local time.   A Tornado Warning was br0adcast at 5:09.  Sirens were sounded at 5:11.  The killer tornado touched down southwest of Joplin at 5:34.  According to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  “The majority of surveyed Joplin residents did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning.”  There were 159 deaths and several hundred injuries.

“Was like we don’t believe in tornadas no more.”

I was never in a storm cellar during a storm.  Several times I was in the cellar to retrieve a sack of potatoes or a jar of preserves.  Most storm cellars were also used to store what was harvested from the garden.  Every storm cellar I can remember was dug next to the garden.

You can argue that gardening is also a mitigation measure (against hunger).  But that would squeeze all the joy out of it.  My father’s parents owned grocery stores, but were also gardeners.  I have never had such luscious tomatoes, fresh or canned, since they stopped gardening.

Here’s my hypothesis:  As gardening declined and home refrigeration increased, storm (root) cellars fell into disuse, eventual disrepair, became a hazard themselves, and were filled in. The prospect of tornadoes was not sufficient  to sustain the mitigation activity.  The need for a cool dark place to store vegetables was a crucial indirect motivation for the mitigation.

We never really believed in “tornadas”, but once upon a time we believed in tomatoes (and green beans and peas and potatoes) and retrieving the taste of an August garden deep into February.

Resilience is the outcome of positive behaviors regularly practiced.  Resilience is being aware and appreciative of your environment. Resilience is being enmeshed in a dense network of human relationships.  Resilience is caring for yourself and others.

Resilience is about tomatoes.  Mitigation is about tornadoes.


For a more technical take on resilience:

Resilience: Five principles of good practice

A Super-cell outbreak is one kind of complex threat: Do the principles of good practice apply?

Principles of good practice for advancing resilience: Awareness of complex context and connections

Afpak border operations: Top news over there but not much here

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 19, 2011

I go to sleep and wake up earlier than most.   You know: healthy, wealthy and wise.  I’m about one-third there.

Just before I turned out the lights last night I noticed that many Pakistani and British media sources (perhaps echoing each other) were speculating about a major incursion of US forces into Pakistan to take on the Haqqani network.  I could not find any equivalent attention by major media in the US.  Most were focused on the Las Vegas debate.

But I was tired and self-indulgently decided it was a matter of time zones.  I went to sleep.

This morning, US Eastern Time, the most viewed story in The Telegraph (UK) is US Forces Massing on Afghan-Pakistan Border.

The lead story in Dawn, the Pakistani daily, is US Attack in North Waziristan Unlikely.

Likely or not, as of 0500 Eastern, still not much in the US media.   The very brief  AP story running in most US media does not suggest an impending cross-border operation.

Earlier this week NATO confirmed an operation code-named “Knife Edge” focused on the Haqqani network in the border region.

In the two hours since I first posted the Associated Press is reporting,

“Marine Gen. John Allen told The Associated Press that the “high-intensity, sensitive” operation that began in recent days was focused on the Haqqani group, a Pakistan-based militant network with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida. The U.S. has been urging the Pakistanis to clamp down on the Haqqani fighters who are attacking Afghan and coalition forces and have been blamed for most of the high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul. Allen would not discuss details of the operation, which began just days ago, saying only: “Every now and again, one of these organizations that has been able to manifest itself on this side of the border is going to have to get some special attention and that’s what’s happening now.”

I have no inside track to suggest which angle may be more accurate.  A major incursion across the border would be a huge step with extraordinary political implications.

But now that I’m awake,  it did seem worth highlighting for you the significant difference in attention being given the speculation… story… non-story… whatever.

I’ll be offline most of the rest of today (0739 Eastern Time).

October 18, 2011

Flunk the Graders, Not the Country

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 18, 2011

Last week, former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO) released an assessment of the U.S. government’s preparedness for a biological terrorism event. The timing of its release, so near to the Hollywood drama “Contagion,” was not an accident. They wanted a reaction based on fear of a fictional global outbreak of a super-disease. Similar to their past report cards, this assessment was not a good news story.

“Today we face the very real possibility that outbreaks of disease — naturally occurring or man-made — can change the very nature of America,” the report concludes. Technology is also making it easier for terrorists to create deadly mischief, the report says.

A small team of individuals with graduate-level training and readily available equipment “could produce the type of bio-weapons created by nation-states in the 1960s,” the report warns.
The center stressed that one key to improving the nation’s preparedness is leadership.

“We have recommended that there should be someone in the federal government who has (bioterrorism preparedness) as their sole responsibility,” Graham said. “That someone should be an individual who has the capability to direct and influence actions by the multiplicity of agencies that are involved and provide leadership to non-federal entities.”

The office of the vice president would be an appropriate spot for that job, Graham suggested.

Funny thing, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisor “Scooter” Libby were the original proponents for pushing a significant biodefense strategy for the United States, a strategy that has put about $6 billion per year into the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Defense Department for the past ten years. The fact that this biodefense strategy has failed to protect the United States from a range of biological agents, due to lack of oversight, poorly chosen goals, and limited resources, doesn’t seem to faze Graham and Talent from suggesting putting that office in charge again.

The report card can be found at the former senators’ new digs, the “Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center” or WMD Center for short – which ironically, doesn’t address WMDs, just biological terrorism. I don’t understand why they didn’t call it the “Bioterrorism Center” – it would have been more honest. But I suppose they miss all the attention given to them in their role leading the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

This report card gives the U.S. government 15 “Fs”, 15 “Ds”, and no “As” in its assessment of both small- and large-scale biological terrorist incidents.

The executive summary cautions the reader to view each grade on its own:

“it should not, however, be interpreted by calculating a grade-point average (GPA).”

You know, I used to tell my mother that when I brought home my report cards from junior high school, but she didn’t seem to view it that way.

It’s a strange assessment, one that seems to ignore the development of a National Biosurveillance Integration Center and the nation-wide Laboratory Response Network to give the nation a “D” for biosurveillance preparedness.

Not prepared enough, the report says, but “promising.”

Really? I thought a “C” would have been acceptable for “promising.” The way they assess the diagnostics and reporting process, you’d think that they were reporting about some third-world nation instead of the nation with the largest and most expensive health care system in the world.

Amazingly, the report says that it is “unclear” whether Project BioWatch, with its air samplers in 30+ cities, is worth the long term financial investment required to protect the nation.

Clearly it is not a sustainable program to expand to other cities, and the much vaunted “Gen III” detector has been in testing for some time. It’s not going to be cheap, just like DHS’s attempts to field next-generation radiological monitors in its “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.” Are they trying to protect DHS’s S&T Directorate, which appears heading for significant budget cuts?

The report’s assessment on attribution capabilities is riddled with carefully parsed definitions to justify the failing grade that it provides the government. There are a few direct statements, but too many “probably” and “unknown” statements here for my taste.

Again, I am not sure why there is a National Bioforensics Center at Fort Detrick, one that includes participation from the FBI, DHHS, and DoD, but I imagine that it doesn’t deserve the charges that this report lays out.

The report’s assessors don’t seem to take into account the billions of dollars that DHHS is prepared to provide in the development of “private-public partnerships” for two new vaccine development centers. Yes, it will take a few years to build the centers and for the FDA to approve them, but still, not good enough to address a large-scale (multiple cities) outbreak. Yes, our past successes with pandemic disease outbreaks must have been flukes.

You can make up your own minds. From what I see, this is not an honest assessment of what the nation’s capability is to prepare for and respond to a bioterrorism incident. We are intended to overreact to this “lack” of preparedness because the report suggests bioterrorism is so easy. The report actually suggests that the success of Bruce Ivin in 2001, releasing his letters filled with anthrax, means that any general terrorist out there can do the same.

Yes, a man with more than 20 years experience working with anthrax on a regular basis in a well-prepared government lab; just the same as the man on the street. Really.

Fortunately, no one appears to be paying much attention to these Cassandras. They predicted in 2008 that there would be a bioterrorism incident prior to 2013. That’s only two years away. When this date comes and goes without such an incident, maybe we can shame them into retirement. We really don’t need these amateur-hour scare tactics. We have more important things to do with the billions of dollars poured into this money sink.


October 17, 2011

Is Regional Planning Just Too Hard?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on October 17, 2011

The Washington Post Editorial Board took time off from calling for further U.S. involvement in Middle East quagmires to bring some attention to the continuing problems of coordination and cooperation in the National Capital Region (i.e. Washington, DC and all the surrounding areas located in various states where much of the population has ties to the Capital):

The D.C. Council and a House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee held separate hearings that reviewed the response to the earthquake that shook the region in August. “Everyone did the wrong thing,” council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said of the gridlock that occurred when workers, ill advisedly exiting buildings, tried to get home. In a separate hearing on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that federal workers “literally had no idea what to do.” Sadly, the earthquake, which Ms. Norton aptly called “a perfect proxy for a terrorist attack,” was not the first time weaknesses have been revealed in the area’s response to an unexpected, rapidly developing situation.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed nor is it likely the last. The issue is not a simple one:

The mayor has the authority to order an evacuation from the city, but beyond that there is no single entity with authority to advise the public in a fast-moving emergency. Instead, there are 17 local jurisdictions and the federal government sharing information (to be sure, a good thing) but each able to call its own shots.

Identified as a concern following 9/11 (and I’m sure an issue raised before that event provided a bullhorn), there are officials, committees, papers, and government offices focused on finding solutions.  One could argue that despite the attention paid there has not been enough attention paid.  Or is it a question of quality and not quantity? The fact that particular aspects have to be addressed makes one’s head hurt:

The first message alert about the earthquake came nearly a half-hour after it occurred, and the message about what to do was mixed. Officials with the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said they’ve taken steps to refine the messages and get them out sooner. In particular, they say, it’s likely they will advise people to stay put rather than to drive home because it’s clear that an area so congested on a routine day can’t manage a mass exodus.

(That last sentence indicates that maybe someone is listening to Phil who has made that exact point…). The notion of a regional authority able to make “the call” is not a bad one, but is it viable if modeled on incompatible systems?

A more sensible system, as we’ve pointed out before, is one in which there are designated, trained staff people to collect information, make decisions and inform the public. New York City has such a system. So does London.

The political and geographic terrain of the National Capital Region greatly differs from that of New York and London.  Expected evacuation route destinations and decision-making authorities must be taken into account not only in tactical decisions of why, when, who, and how but also strategic constructions of why, when, who, and how. It is easier to repeat “regional working group!” and “cooperation!” and “New York City is awesome!” than wrestle with the reality of a city that does not have control over much of it’s real estate, budget, or even public safety authority.

Considering that even the National Capital Region frame of the issue is such a tough nut to crack, what can be reasonably expected when the problem is expanded to include municipalities further out which should expect to be affected by a truly catastrophic event? This applies not just for the greater Washington, DC region but for all major urban areas where the biggest players must ask “will you jump, and if so, how high are you able or willing to go” rather than simply bark orders.

Regional planning: too hard or too necessary?

October 15, 2011

“If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later.” Abdulmutallab to US

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on October 15, 2011

The following is the transcript of what accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said/read to the court as he pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges in federal court in Detroit (thanks, RD):

In the name of Allah, the most merciful, if I were to say I the father did not do it, but my son did it and he conspired with the holy spirit to do it, or if I said I did it but the American people are guilty of the sin, and Obama should pay for the crime, the Court wouldn’t accept that from me or anyone else.

In late 2009, in fulfillment of a religious obligation, I decided to participate in jihad against the United States. The Koran obliges every able Muslim to participate in jihad and fight in the way of Allah, those who fight you, and kill them wherever you find them, some parts of the Koran say, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I had an agreement with at least one person to attack the United States in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine, especially in the blockade of Gaza, and in retaliation for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants.

As a result, I traveled to Yemen and eventually to the United States, and I agreed with at least one person to carry an explosive device onto an aircraft and attempt to kill those onboard and wreck the aircraft as an act of jihad against the United States for the U.S. killing of my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.

I was greatly inspired to participate in jihad by the lectures of the great and rightly guided mujahedeen who is alive, Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, may Allah preserve him and his family and give them victory, Amin, and Allah knows best.

Participation in jihad against the United States is considered among the most virtuous of deeds in Islam and is highly encouraged in the Koran; however, according to U.S. law, which is unjust and oppressive according to the Koran, my actions make me guilty of a crime in the United States, in particular, the following counts in my indictment.

Count 1, conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries, so by me traveling to Yemen, then to Djibouti, to Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, the Netherlands, and eventually the United States, with an agreement with at least one person to carry an explosive device in an attempt to kill those onboard for the U.S. killing of innocent Muslims, I’m guilty in U.S. law of this count.

Count 2, possession of a firearm or destructive device in the furtherance of a crime of violence, I carried with me an explosive device onto Northwest 253, again, to avenge the killing of my innocent Muslim brothers and sisters by the U.S. So I am guilty in U.S. law of this count.

Count 3, attempted murder within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, again, in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and Israel massacres of innocent Palestinians, so I am guilty of this count, too.

Count 4, use and carrying of a firearm, destructive device during and in relation to a crime of violence by carrying an explosive device and attempting to use it on Flight 253 for the U.S. killing of innocent Muslims, I am guilty of this count, too.

Count 5, willfully placing a destructive device in and upon, in proximity to a civil aircraft which was used and operated in interstate, overseas, and foreign air commerce which was likely to have endangered the safety of such aircraft, I intentionally carried an explosive device onto Flight 253, for the United States tyranny and oppression of Muslims, so I am guilty of this count in U.S. law, but not in the Koran.

Count 6, possession of a firearm/destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence. I was in possession of an explosive device intended for use against the United States for U.S. interference in Muslim countries, so I am guilty in U.S. law of this count.

Count 7, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, I attempted to use an explosive device which in the U.S. law is a weapon of mass destruction, which I call a blessed weapon to save the lives of innocent Muslims, for U.S. use of weapons of mass destruction on Muslim populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. So I am guilty in U.S. law of this count and innocent in Muslim law.

Count 8, willful attempt to destroy and wreck a civil aircraft, I intended to wreck a civil aircraft for the U.S. wreckage of Muslim lands and property, so I am guilty in U.S. law of this count.

The United States — the United States should be warned that if they continue and persist in promoting the blasphemy of Muhammad and the prophets, peace be upon them all, and the U.S. continues to kill and support those who kill innocent Muslims, then the U.S. should await a great calamity that will befall them through the hands of the mujahideen soon by God’s willing permission. Or God will strike them directly with a great calamity soon by his will, Amin.

If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later in this life and on the day of judgment by God’s will, and our final call is all praise to Allah, the lord of the universe, Allahu Akbar.

Source: U.S. District Court, Detroit

October 14, 2011

Authority, attraction, and advocacy

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 14, 2011

A new national strategy for an important aspect of homeland security is nearly complete.  I expect it will emerge from the interagency process in another three to six weeks.

The subject matter is of particular interest to me.  Because of prior work done on the issue and relationships of trust within the homeland security community I received an unauthorized copy for review.

[un·au·thor·ised adj not having official permission]

With the benefit of the preview I have had conversations with various  parties involved in authoring the national strategy and those who are likely to be most affected by the national strategy.   I have tried to use these conversations to influence how the national strategy will be finalized and initially received.

[in·flu·ence n. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort.]

I happen to mostly agree with the draft I have seen.  It is short, truly strategic, and offers a substantive argument.  Even if you disagree with its goals, it will be helpful to engaging the issue.

Because I am drawn to the principles and priorities set out by the new strategy I am  inclined to portray it as being as  attractive as possible to those who will be affected by it.

[a·ttrac·tive adj 1. appealing to the senses or mind through beauty, form, character, etc. 2. arousing interest an attractive opportunity 3. possessing the ability to draw or pull an attractive force.]

Especially in terms of practicing mitigation and advancing resilience, I find the new strategy appealing. (It has other goals as well.) But some will perceive a potential threat.  Depending on how the new strategy is interpreted and implemented it might hurt as much as help.  Threats can also attract.

I perceive human life — and especially social life — as a complex adaptive system.  While certainly susceptible to over-abstraction, most humans and most societies are inclined to descend into deepening basins of attraction.   The deeper the basin the greater the stability.  But regardless of how deep or how shallow, once inside the basin the system tends to cycle again and again around a point (or points) of equilibrium.

[Basin of Attraction (physics) The collection of all possible initial conditions of a dynamical system for which the trajectories representing that system in phase space will converge to a particular attractor.]

We can conceive the Roman imperial system as an especially deep basin of attraction.  Even after the Western empire collapsed the cultural attractor continued to exercise considerable influence through Byzantine, medieval German, and Russian political systems and perhaps most directly through the Catholic Church.  Certain British and American notions of power and influence can be seen emerging from this basin.  I have spent a considerable part of my life in an ancient Roman plunge pool.  Two generations ago the pool was full.  Not today.

Every living society or culture can be conceived as a collection of basins — a veritable lake district — where from time to time there are periods of flood and drought.  One basin joins with another and another yet.  A single basin is divided in parts.  A once deep basin is filled by silt and debris becoming more and more shallow, finally evaporating away on one especially hot day.

As long as the basin of attraction persists it serves as a source of authority.  The deeper the attraction and the more who are attracted, the stronger the authority.

[authority early 13c., autorite “book or quotation that settles an argument,”from O.Fr. auctorité (12c.; Mod.Fr. autorité), from L. auctoritatem (nom. auctoritas) “invention, advice, opinion, influence, command,” from auctor “master, leader, author”.]

The book or citation that could claim real authority did so on the basis of broad and deep attraction.  We approached the Bible or Aristotle or symbols of tradition or the Congressman or the President with authentic respect, even affection.  Not today.

As I have worked to encourage a positive response to the forthcoming national strategy, the recurring question is whether or not it will make any difference.   Its origin in the federal interagency process, authored in the White House, and signed by the President is not sufficient and may, in some quarters, considerably heighten skepticism.

The process of framing and forming this new strategy and other official documents assume a basin of attraction that too often is nothing more than a muddy puddle. Authority is little more than a thin sheen.  It is not the intent, invention, or content of the document, decision, or initiative that produces this outcome; it is the time, place, and environment into which it is introduced.

I perceive we are living in a time of shallow and very permeable basins.  Rather than a lake district, our fitness landscape is more like a swamp.  There may be a deep clear pond out there, but that’s not where we are today in homeland security, national security, or most of modern life.

[“Evolutionary adaptation is the process that increases the fit of a population to the fitness landscape it inhabits. As a consequence, evolutionary dynamics is shaped, constrained, and channeled, by that fitness landscape.” (Critical Properties of Complex Fitness Landscapes)  My use of a basin’s depth, rather than height reverses the most common visualization of a fitness landscape.]

For some — turtle, muskrat,  alligator, snake, many birds — the swamp is okay, even preferred.  For me it is not preferred.

I am looking for something deeper, something less susceptible to flooding and freezing.  I perceive the new national strategy may point to at least one way out of the swamp.  But authority will not get us there.  There must be attraction, sufficient attraction to move quite a number of stakeholders considerably upstream to higher ground and deeper basins.

It is an interesting challenge:  Can government eschew the mirage of authority enough to attract meaningful collaboration?

October 12, 2011

Know Nothing or Say Nothing?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on October 12, 2011

Last week I managed to offend more than a few people when I questioned conservative orthodoxy and tested the boundaries of what passes for homeland security. This week I’m looking to finish what I started. (Thanks for inspiring me, Steve Jobs!)

In comments on his own post the day before I posted last week, which mentioned Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Together Movement, Chris Bellavita recounted the story of a colleague compiling a risk assessment who was denied access to source material to support the value of a key variable he was furnished by a federal official with access to classified information. The colleague too had appropriate clearances and expressed a need to know the information, but was nevertheless denied access.

This all-too-common situation has become so endemic to the homeland security enterprise that I’m left wondering whether secrecy itself is the real existential threat to our national interest. Indeed, it is becoming harder all the time to know whether anyone in te federal government knows anything at all.

Case in point: The CIA’s climate change initiative. Despite a very public opening for the Center on Climate Change and National Security, its work is reportedly classified. The center opened a year ago with some fanfare as well as skepticism about its focus, and was steeped in controversy from the start. Now, with calls for belt-tightening in Washington, DC reaching a fever pitch it seems the center’s continued funding is now uncertain.

Most of the world does not consider the reality of climate change much of a secret. Likewise, others outside the U.S. do not consider the persistent denial of this phenomena (or its consequences) that arises in certain quarters of our body-politic all that surprising. What does cause many of these observers and potential partners real concern are real questions about a) whether the world can avert disaster without U.S. leadership – not just participation – in efforts to curb human contributions to resource depletion and carbon emissions and b) whether the United States’ toxic political dynamic climate will accelerate the collapse of the economic and social systems upon which many other developed and developing nations rely for their survival before we can identify strategies to ensure the survival of human society.

I doubt very much that the CIA is withholding information about the environmental impacts widely reported by other sources. They are almost certainly reluctant to release imagery that confirms these effects because it could compromise details about the technology used to collect the information. If that was the whole story most people could probably understand what’s going on here. Somehow I suspect there is a lot more to it though.

Most reasonably intelligent people who have given serious thought to the twin problems of resource depletion (especially non-renewable energy sources) and carbon emissions have concluded that the world has a limited window of opportunity to rescue itself from inevitable and irreversible adverse consequences of expansive scope and massive scale. This window of time leaves almost no time for dithering or doubt.

Many, if not most, of the technological solutions that would allow existing patterns of consumption to continue require massive energy inputs themselves for successful development, deployment and delivery – think about the large amounts of electrical energy required to produce concrete for nuclear reactor shielding or glass for solar panels. Conservation alone will not produce sufficient savings unless we are prepared to completely redefine contemporary expectations of comfort and convenience.

The financial meltdown plaguing our economy and threatening to collapse the Eurozone economies has curbed consumption, but not nearly enough to abate growing hazards to our way of life. The stakes for our nation are big for sure. But the stakes for humanity in general might well be a matter of life and death.

Supposedly, we reserve top secret classification of information for situations that pose extremely grave danger to national interests if those who pose a threat to the United States were to possess it. Applying this test to the issues arising from resource scarcity and the effects of climate change on the country suggest the national security policy priority is focused squarely on maintaining uninterrupted supply and consumption according to current patterns.

In the absence of cooperation with others facing these same threats, we face a future all but certainly plagued by conflicts and catastrophes of greater frequency and intensity than ever before experienced. At a minimum, we all face a scary ride as we accelerate down the steep and slippery slopes of peak oil, peak gas and peak coal – for that matter peak everything.

You don’t need a top secret/SCI clearance to know climate change poses enormous risks to not just the United States but to human survival itself. But if you do have the clearance and the need to know what the CIA does, you might have a very big vested interest in keeping that secret – open or not – to yourself.

In the current climate in Washington, DC, the most salient danger facing most federal civil servants is the risk of personal social and economic collapse attending massive disruptions to the political environment that supports and sustains their jobs.

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