Over the last couple of years a FEMA grant supported a locally driven process to anticipate a possible nuclear detonation in the nation’s capital. I was peripherally involved in the local process.
On March 14 the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists posted a principal document emerging from this local effort. (See: http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf)
I commend the report to you. In my judgment it’s a fine piece of policy-and-strategy oriented science.
Since the document was posted by the FAS it has been the focus of an Associated Press piece and several other media mentions.
“Have you seen the leak?” was the first line of several emails I received after the AP story appeared. As a “leak” the document suddenly had a previously unrecognized appeal.
When the document was initially completed in autumn 2011 it was simply a technical report — generated by a National Laboratory under a FEMA grant — but otherwise unofficial. It was conceived by local leadership to provide an empirical and expert-informed basis for a process of whole community engagement. Public information and education regarding the IND issue had been a priority from very early in the process. This original version of the report was distributed to the National Capital Region planning community, including me.
Sometime in December a decision emerged from FEMA to create an official version of the document designated as For Official Use Only (FOUO). This new version superseded the original document. If DHS guidance on application of FOUO exists, I have not seen it. In my experience FOUO means to know who’s getting the document and be sure there’s some good cause for that person to get the document.
While this is a very low level of “security”, there was still push-back to the designation from the response planning community. Local leaders argued they spent grant money on the report with an explicit expectation it would not be classified. My favorite push-back quoted at length from a December 2 speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute:
In national security there is a culture of confidentiality, the need to protect the nation’s most sensitive information. In homeland security there’s an expectation of transparency: it’s not a need to know, it’s a duty to share, it’s an expectation to share. In national security there’s unity of command. In homeland security, it’s a unity of effort. It’s a different model. It’s a different model. And we need to understand the things that we deal with from the differences that that model represents. (The underline appeared in the original push-back.)
Despite local requests — and appeals to higher authority — the FOUO revision stuck.
Several weeks before there was even a rumor of FOUO, I was using the original technical report and other materials in an effort to entice some long-form journalism focusing on the issues involved. There was not even a nibble.
Maybe it was my angle. For me one of the most interesting issues exposed by the report is how public preparedness is fundamental to surviving any really bad day. Whether the cause is earthquake, hurricane, nuclear detonation or whatever, our best science is finding public readiness and resilience before an event largely determines the success (or not) of response and recovery afterwards.
In the particular case of an IND in DC, tens-of-thousands will survive and potentially thrive if they don’t immediately try (and probably fail) to evacuate and instead shelter-in-place. The technical report made this clear. So does the original AP report.
Most of the headlines and much of the commentary since have neglected this aspect of the report. But at least one media outlet led with this angle. The headline in the Arlington (VA) Sun-Gazette was: Local Officials: Report Confirms Nuclear Attack Survivable If Right Steps Are Taken.
A new federal report looking at a low-grade nuclear explosion’s impact across the metropolitan area provides better insight on how to react and survive such an incident, county officials said.
For the most part, the mantra of public-safety officials boils down to: Shelter in place until the danger passes.
“If you’re outdoors, get indoors. If you’re indoors, stay indoors,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management. “The public needs to resist the urge to go outside, get in their cars and get on the roads – the last thing we want the public to do is to be outside. Buildings do provide a lot of buffer.”
Seems to me a helpful message. Glad it’s gotten a bit more attention because of reports on the report.
Here’s a guess, the report was news-worthy — it appeared in dozens of the nation’s principal news outlets — for two reasons: 1) it was a government report about something very bad and 2) there was a slight suggestion the government was trying to keep the report secret. As such the report fit two of the core narratives of journalism: “the king has announced” and “the king is corrupt.” These two story-lines have been the top of the news for about two centuries.
Thank goodness for the FOUO designation. Without that, no one may have noticed at all.