Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2012

Being sent to the minors can be a good thing – even in homeland security

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues — by Arnold Bogis on March 19, 2012

As most fans of baseball could tell you, Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper is a potential star in the making.  He took his GED to leave high school early and enrolled with a junior college to jump start his professional baseball career.  At the age of 16 he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  In 2010 he was picked first in the baseball draft by the Nationals, switching positions from catcher to right field to speed his arrival to the major leagues.  Going into this year’s spring training, one of the most discussed story lines was whether he would be sent back down to the minor leagues to begin the season or break camp with the Nationals.  The baseball-obsessed community (of which I count myself a member) now has an answer:

The Nationals optioned 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper to Class AAA Syracuse, ending his longshot pursuit to make the opening day roster. Harper will play mostly center field at Syracuse, with some right mixed in, and the Nationals see him as a center fielder when he reaches the majors this season. The position represents a shift for the Nationals, who have been trying to solve a long-standing center field issue.

News that will undoubtedly disappoint a legion of sportswriters (who may only be second to political reporters in regards to trying to stir the pot with stories that stretch credulity). Yet to serious baseball analysts, the idea of promoting such a young player with such great future prospects so soon didn’t make sense.  In essence, the team would be trading a full year in the future when Harper is at the height of his skills for a few months this season when his production is likely only to be marginally better than the expected replacements.  On a cost/value basis, optioning him to the minor leagues for at least a few months makes sense.

If only most homeland security programs could be so analytically managed.  Too often, especially in the years immediately following 9/11, programs and initiatives were approved and funded without serious thought or analysis of details, capabilities, and consequences.

One specific example is the Biowatch Program that aims to quickly detect any pathogens released in a terrorist attack.  Nuclear and biological terrorism were (and remain) big concerns after 9/11 and this program aimed at achieving quick recognition of such an attack that would allow relevant agencies at all levels to begin to respond before the first cases are identified in the emergency room.  The problem has been that the technology never lived up to the promise of the program–filters that required manual replacement each day, added to a delay in getting results from the laboratory tests.

The story is that the situation is improving, but one is left to wonder if a push for prevention above all other potential measures for dealing with the same issue, such as syndromic monitoring and improved communication capabilities between emergency rooms/hospitals and public health officials, could not have provided a better capability at this point for responding to an attack or outbreak of a natural pandemic.

Along the same lines would be many of the difficulties experienced by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in DHS.  Analysts with deep experience in the issue of nuclear terrorism have long recognized that securing weapons and fissile material is the sweet spot for this particular problem.  Detection technologies artfully deployed can play useful roles in deterrence and occasionally detection of illicitly trafficked material.  However, they are not an answer to this threat by themselves.  While never officially characterized as such, DNDO efforts often seemed as grasping at technological solutions to diplomatic problems.

In other words, the nuclear terrorism problem could only be marginally affected by detection technologies, while efforts at securing fissile material worldwide represents the real game.  But the “away” game is much messier than the “home” game, and less attractive to officials who believe we should only rely on ourselves for our own security.

Each of these examples deserve their own posts (or papers) to properly characterize their pros and cons. What I imagine as a potential lesson learned is that both initiatives deployed equipment and programs before their time.  Early detection of biological and radiological/nuclear materials is a more than constructive goal, and one that seems not too far out in the future (to a point). But the push following 9/11 for these capabilities resulted in deployment of technology that more likely than not damaged the prospect of future use.  Rushing ahead when the technology wasn’t ready will have innoculated local officials in the usefulness of future systems.

Put another way, will systems exhausted of responding to false alarms now react differently in the near future even if improved technology is in place?  Or, in the language of baseball, why waste a few years early in the development of a significant player if it will truly have an impact in the short term future?


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Comment by Alan Wolfe

March 20, 2012 @ 6:54 am

Project BioWatch and DNDO’s rad/nuke detection efforts both have one thing in common – their project managers went to DoD to ask for advice and equipment on how to detect bio and rad/nuke hazards. The fundamental problem is that these are two very different cultures with different requirements. DoD expects a bio/rad/nuke threat from certain enemies and has to provide a minimum level of detection for a short duration of time (immediate combat – days, months), and it is expensive. It assumes that everyone has suits and masks and training.

DHS has to provide a much higher level of detection for a long duration of time (365 days) for a population lacking masks and without training. And instead of doing it for a limited battlefield, DHS has to do it for the entire United States. Detection hardware was never a valid capability for such a task, even if DoD successfully uses these detectors for its purposes. That’s why Proj BioWatch can’t get past its initial 30+ cities, and why DNDO can’t protect every border crossing, sea port, air port, and city from rad/nukes. It’s not fiscally responsible or even necessary.

Special response teams and security guards need detectors to make decisions. If DHS is concerned about the general threat, it needs to change the paradigm to something that works and that can be sustained. Part of that solution is increased domestic intelligence assets, probably through a law enforcement agency partnered with DHS. The current process is broke, but there are those who like admiring the emperor’s new clothes.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 20, 2012 @ 9:12 am

Pretty much agree with Alan and DoD efforts mask hugely difficulties in this arena, perhaps even incompetence and waste, fraud and abuse.

Just as the illegal “druggists” stay ahead of controlled substance regulation, the organic chemists as an example constantly are developing new compounds in their research with high levels of toxicity.

I would be happy if I thought the chlorine tanker spell could be handled throughout the USA.

HAZMATS shipments daily throughout the USA total amazing numbers. Few detectors deployed along those routes. Fire Service personnel used as canaries.

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