Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 30, 2012

Need to know, duty to share, and — Hey, is anyone paying attention?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on March 30, 2012

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  This new version superseded the original document.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.

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11 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 30, 2012 @ 1:35 am

Thanks Phil! Technically FOUO has been officially abolished several times in the past and is specifically not a National Security document classification. But hey perhaps it did help to keep people in FEMA who needed to know of the reports preparation and existence from knowing about it.

I would argue that almost 50% of the DC metropolitan area population including special needs populations is transportation dependent and could not evacuate even if it wished to do so. And sheltering in place has to do with fallout only not blast and heat effects. According to ORN [Oakridge National Lab] the average home allows even with appropriate preparation and shielding only 2 hours of protection due to air infiltration. Commercial buildings built before 1990 often underwent shelter surveys paid for by the former federal civil defense statute Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress repealed in 1994.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

March 30, 2012 @ 7:27 am

I read the report, it was interesting, a good piece of work, but so what? What do we do to implement improvements in evacuation processes, public information, etc? “In case of a nuclear attack…” Yeah, not seeing it. But I am more intrigued by the comment you made, Philip, about how military is unity of command and homeland security is unity of effort. That’s an interesting observation. Not sure that it’s entirely pure unity of effort but that should be the goal.

To William, yes, FOUO is not a security classification but it’s still heavily used by the USG to deliberately keep documents out of the FOIA process.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 30, 2012 @ 7:35 am

Five emails on this post were waiting when I began my day at 4AM. I hope my correspondents will cut-and-paste their comments here. But I may not be online to respond. So here’s an attempt to “respond” before every reader has the benefit of what is prompting my response:

I fully understand the frustration of local leaders — and the authors of the original technical report — regarding the FOUO designation. They were right to resist the designation.

I also understand what could motivate the FOUO designation and am not inclined to second-guess such motivations.

FOUO is a very ambiguous designation. It has been my personal practice to treat official-use as broadly as possible. I have had a digital copy of both the original technical paper and the FOUO version, each of which I have provided to others.

I am not surprised the FOUO document was released to the public through something like the Government Secrecy Project. I expect those who prompted the designation are not especially surprised.

I am glad an AP reporter noticed the released document. I am glad the AP story was accurately written and broadly distributed.

I think it is helpful we have the opportunity to discuss the entire matter here and elsewhere.

I don’t know everyone involved in this sequence, but I know many of those involved. Everyone I know has been motivated in good faith to advance the public interest… even when they have disagreed on what should be done.

What I think is helpful and encouraging in this particular case is how a kind of ethical ecology unfolded. Each participant in the system behaved, more or less, in accordance with their particular role. Because individuals were attentive to their roles and behaved with integrity a particular outcome emerged. As of this morning, I perceive the outcome has been positive.

It is a very small event — a veritable tempest in a teapot — but reality is often not more than an accumulation of such small events.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 30, 2012 @ 7:43 am

Alan, To your “so what” question: This report was in many ways the set-up for taking on the so what questions. In other documents and work this group and others have undertaken to move from problem-analysis to implementing improvements. That work is still ongoing. And again, to me one of the most interesting aspects of the work is its all-hazards implications, even though it begins with a particular threat.

To give credit where it is due: The distinction between unity of command and unity of effort was made by Jane Holl Lute (and others). Out of time for now.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 30, 2012 @ 8:01 am

SBU [Sensitive But Unclassified] is the recommended term last I notice not FOUO but over 100 versions of the SBU apparently exist.

With the money spent by various agencies over the years an equivalent report could well have been prepared for the 500 largest US cities.

An interesting major major defect in the report is the failure to identify what models, in particular atmospheric models, were used in the reports preparation and the assumptions as to weather conditions at the time of the detonation and of course the assumption is that it was a ground burst not an airburst. But we do know that terrorists have seized aircraft in the past.

What would be of most interest is how this report has been dissiminated and officially utilized in FEMA.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 30, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

To the few dozen who have sent me private emails: I appreciate your interest. In most cases (though not all) I appreciate the diverse perspectives being shared. But on this issue I personally do not see much black-and-white. There are gradations of gray and many different angles that are potentially helpful to publicly engage. But that requires a willingness to — anonymously or not — share your perspectives with the public either here or elsewhere.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 31, 2012 @ 1:24 am

I definitely see your point about what the influence of a sense of secrecy will impart on a reporter’s or editor’s decision making process. (And you might want to take into account the Nuclear Summit which thrust nuclear matters into the news during an otherwise highly-charge political climate focused on domestic issues).

Yet I still feel that the FOUO designation remains a net negative. While it may have helped garner a few press stories, the long-term impact still adversely affects preparedness and any sense of a true “whole of community” response. The FAS site might host the document for a while, but the AP and other news outlets are much less likely to do so. Without it being officially public and available on FEMA or other government sites, what happens with a change in Administration–in either the federal or District government? Where do the people of DC go to get that information?

Some documents get a life of their own on the web, while others surprisingly become harder to find with each passing year. Any attempt to keep this particular document from being freely and widely available by the relevant federal officials makes it less likely to be utilized by anyone.

A little press now is good; easier access and a true sense of a duty to share is much better–even if one doesn’t read about it on the commute into work.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 31, 2012 @ 5:47 am

Arnold, I am working with some others to develop a website that will make a wide-range of resources on catastrophe preparedness freely available. If I make the document available there, does that satisfy the need… or how does that not satisfy the need? Does it depend on the “success” of the website?

My particular role in the”ethical ecology” around this issue is to be an active agent of persistent whole community involvement. I am not official although I spend alot of time in their offices. I spend much more time in the private and civic sectors. Someone called me a pollinator who moves back and forth between “ecological niches” that would otherwise be isolated from each other. FAS is another sort of pollinator. AP is yet another. There are others.

In each niche — public, private, and civic are three big climax communities within the ecology — there are genetic characteristics helpful to success within the particular niche, but which complicate cross-pollination. Being overly secretive with information is not only a problem in the official domain. There are characteristics in each niche, not just the official niche, that are toxic to other niches. A pollinators role is to filter out the toxic and share the most interesting, potentially helpful characteristics across the niches. Pollinators are abettors of complexity, diversity, and long-term fitness. Along the way some of us make honey. Several pollinators have stingers, but most of us are not aggressive.

Hmmm, just re-read what’s above, maybe I should have another cup of coffee before pushing submit…

Well, it’s a Saturday and this is just a blog. To continue a bit with the analogy: I perceive that up to the 1950s the ethical ecology of the United States was much more mixed — less mature in biological terms. With the exception of a few relatively small (if powerful) climax communities, the terrain was very transitional without any community dominating much ground and certainly not dominating other communities… perhaps there were more pollinators too (?). In the last sixty years each of the big climax communities have tended to establish themselves and have each deployed exclusionary and parasitic behavior toward other communities in an effort to maintain comparative advantage.

The systemic threat today is an increasing over-specialization within particular climax communities, which left to themselves have a tendency to collapse.

So the free-lance website outlined at the top is a kind of phase-space between highly adapted climax communities. I think we need alot more phase spaces.

Comment by Phil - Thank you. Very insightful .

March 31, 2012 @ 7:07 am

Thanks Phil.

A very good post. Certainly thought provoking.

From my perspective and what I have seen of public preparedness for the most part, little and when we talk of a detonation which most probably will be an airburst version not by a terrorist attack, but by a nation which will be a surprise by most as future politics and power transitions to a German led downsized EU which will become a problem for US interests…

“Well, it’s Saturday and this is just a blog” and that’s what is about whther it is this Saturday or an early Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, whether saturday morning or a 911 Monday morning, We Americans are so out of touch and we cannot clearly see the evolving politcs and threats cl;early and any such event will cause calamity and talk of evacuation, to where and how? Washington is so gtridlocked by such ineptness and a community like most so self centered and when reality truly strikes, neither government can be relied upon as it is so ill prepared and today’s population will for thye most part fail itself.

We are a nation w/many Blessings. We are so unappreciative of the richness and the gifts bequeathed to us by truly insightful and brilliant men and women who gave us Liberty by so much of their own sacrifice and a Constitution and core Judeo-Christan values which this WH in parricular seeks along with George Soros and others to tear to shreds.

Thank God for the folks at NSA. Thnak God for our military command, however when we here on “Main Street USA” look locally and nationally, we see little other than narrow perspective and while government emphasizes the lack of tolerance for bullys and no place for hate, we see government itself made up of bully and sich hatred, such devisiveness and led by this Barry obama and his “Goldman Sachs” admnistration and all the banker pals who with the Cambridge professor types – the elitists – should be recalled and this Barry Obama held for treason and I am not kidding whatsoever.

We have bene embracing behind the scenese these “Brutes of Tehran” and these “KGB Putinites” and we have lost our stride..w/military equipment aging and a government promoting everything else than stern leadership which is a prerequisite if our beloved Republic is to move forward in the 22nd century.

Need to know and is anyone paying attention – yes, Phil, you and a select few are striving to represent our best interests, yet unfortunately We here on “Main Street USA” are being duped by less than genuine folks and whith our precious and “entrusted” vote, We have lost confidence Not in our military, but certainly government….

Let’s truly worry about cyber attack. Let us worry about a dirty bomb. Let us rethink our foreign policies. We are no longer at the top of the lost in a number of categories because we have lost prioroty in our perspective….We have lost position because of the weakness from within, our government which desperately, despwertaely needs term limits from local, to state and national posts and the abuse by public servive employees raping the coffers for themsel;ves and their perks and benefits, while local communities fail. Our esteemed – first responders – need more federal monies..more training. Their budgets are already threatened in basic response.

Well, this is Saturday and just a blog…

…and if – it – were to happen today including an east coast tsunami and wave from off Spain or whatever and even far less overwhelming, We are just not prepared and we should be given the trillions of federal reserve notes we have handed to the Chinese thes emany decades and they are the astute who have not only stockpiled their commodities and food for the enxt 100+ years ijn anticipation of global disunity and calamity, but they are the Chinese who I am desperately striving to keep their $1.75 billion in available check writing from buying a Greenland – treasure – which I represent owner and who pleads with me to sell to western interests, these precious rare earths (heavy) reminding me daily that if this – treasure – he has acquired and wishes to sell is secured by the Chinese, China will become dominant with this purchase in rare earths affecting supply and prices, stretgic policies affecting all of us and guess what, when I approached these “beltway bandits’ these past weekls, they look at me with little knowledge and as Chinese officoals advised me nearly tens years ago, their science and engineers, whose discipline and background in education and whose academic and professional leadership in preparedness will assure China good fortune while the West wallows in its self-serving and arrogance among rich men whose background in litigation promote only their self interests, i.e., “Mitt the Unifit” and tyhis local Chicago community organizer and his Rev Wright and his narrow perspective seeking to discuss Black slavery while deceiving us as he and his elitist pals seek to enslave us all by not only Obamacare, but spending as depcited by soaring national deficit which again, he should be held and prosecuted as a treason against the Republic for this deficit and ever broadening – government – seeking – change – every last penny of our change here on “Main Street USA” to make us dependent of government…well, it is Saturday morning Phil and while we say to you, thank you for your service and to others, this is not just a blog…

We are at war from within. raise your muslets and be serious in your intent to preserve the American tradition which is reenacted every April on the Lexington Green to remind us of those whose insight and unselfishness and their seeking to get away from the King and government imposed taxes and dictates, remidns us that We have an obligation to stand shoulder to shoulder and expect our government to be competent, to safeguard us from within and from those who seek our demise from distant shore…

We have failed and we shall do so. We have lost course. Neither the intent of those present to embrace this social movement or this adversary who seeks more corporate schemes and did so poorly in Massachusetts in this ever so corrupt Comonwealth of Massachusetts and a State Legislature w/less than desireables holding the reaigns…so corrupt in their ways…if this is all We here on “Main Street USA” have to look at and shake our heads daily, we;ll We Sir are in the midst of wolves and We Sir are in dire trouble. It is time to realize that the future does not involve our influence for we have declined in such influence as we lost our course. Winston Churchill is gone and and his bust removed and Martin Luther King placed on the mantle at the WH to portray just how in touch the WH is as the 21st and 22 nd centuries unfold…we are so unprepared.

Thank God – we have this invaluable blog to share our worries and concerns as We need to know and we need to share for soon, We, too will be further abused by government which seeks to dictate to each of us what We will eat at lunch!

God Bless America! We love you so and appreciate the Liberty which our Constituition conveys and is so much under siege not from hamas and the Taliban, but by those who seek to shred it as quickly as possible and it is Not what Barry Obama leaned over and told these corrupt hoodlums in Moscow which disturbs us, it is the fact that if he is afforded another four years, We will perish and our Rights stripped from us for we are so unprepared and ignorant, however if this the raelity and he is reelected by the ignorant…at least China will eventually build its colony on the moon with Chinese flag in neon light shining down upon us and mankind will survive in the nahds of scientists and engineers who at least will seek the benefits that God has afforded us in the riches he has bestowed upon us and we so easily toss away having no steadfastness in our way to truly appreciate the Liberty we have today which our forefathers have goiven us aftyer fleeing from the King and his taxes and ill intent much like this Goldman Sachs WH administtration and a Congress comprised of such rich and powerful men who seek fortune and list in more power to dictate in condescending manner what you and I will do every day, each and every moment….

If you truly believe that harry reid and Nancy Pelosi, “Mr. Barney” and Han Paulse et al have your interests and understand and care about our preparedness and our future, then you are mistaken this Saturday morning.

We here on “Main Street USA” are very worried about calamity and cyber attack and dirty bomb, yet our anxiety is foremost about our government and the inept as well as the wise who seek to abuse our government and take advantage in their self-serving way and again – treason – a word when spoekn in front of Barry Obama, be attentive as his facial expression and his eyes tell much…He is a scholar in Constitution law, why do you think he was hand picked to run for President over Ms. Hillary, far more astute and far more committed to America, though she, too has issues and cannot see the future as we are destined for failure….

the Doomsayer and Realist!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 1, 2012 @ 9:06 am

Go Phil! Actually view you more as a synthizer as opposed to Busy Bee. Could you separately e-mail me your home address so can mail some docs over time. Thanks! Bill

P.S. The Rand study is posted on my Vacation Lane Blog also under FEMA Historical docs. This page mirror images the FAS/FEMA page.

By the way NY Times today has excellent article on the cholera medical catastrophe in Haiti.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Barriers to a Whole of Community Response to Anything

April 16, 2012 @ 1:41 am

[...] a detriment to moving forward with the Whole of Community approach.  For example, see Phil’s recent post on a study of a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington, DC. He has a good point that it garnered [...]

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