Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 29, 2012

Learning and doing are too often different

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 29, 2012

Earlier today the President signed a Major Disaster Declaration for El Paso and Larimer counties in Colorado.

During his afternoon visit (seen above) to the fire ravaged western edge of Colorado Springs, the President remarked:

In the meantime, some lessons are being learned about how we can mitigate some of these fires in the future, and I know that the Mayor and Governor, and other local officials are already in those conversations.  It means that hopefully, out of this tragedy, some long-term planning occurs, and it may be that we can curb some of the damage that happens the next time, even though you obviously can’t fully control fires that are starting up in these mountains.

Some of these mitigation lessons had already been “learned” but not applied.  This is a recurring issue in risk-readiness.  We know more than we choose to recognize or implement.  A few examples of extant lessons:

Development at the wildland–urban interface and the mitigation of forest-fire risk (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) 2007

Specific to Colorado Springs:

Wildfire Risk and the Housing Market (2007)  Fascinating findings.  The Firewise website mentioned in the study is available at http://csfd.springsgov.com/ Basically, the Colorado Springs Fire Department provides parcel-by-parcel risk ratings for all houses in the wildland urban interface through a website.  One finding:

… some home buyers prefer a densely wooded lot or a house on a ridge. The results… suggest that pre-Web site, these positive amenity values outweighed the negative effect of wildfire risk on housing price… However post-Web site, the coefficients on the overall risk rating variables were no longer significant. This result suggests that post Web site, the positive amenity effects were offset by the increased wildfire risk associated with such parcels.

For even more please see a whole collection of prior findings from the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Lots of implications for recovery planning, future mitigation, and risk-awareness.

June 28, 2012

Colorado Springs: The (potentially catastrophic) consequences of density and proximity

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 28, 2012

Walls of flame and towers of smoke are exploding across several Western states.

A life-long friend and his family live in Colorado Springs. Pike’s Peak, Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Mountain, and Manitou Springs are very real to me. The Flying W Ranch, destination for my first teen trip without parents, has been burned to cinders.  So, I have mostly focused on the Waldo Canyon Fire (seen above).

There are more than 32,000 evacuees.   According to the Colorado Springs Gazette perhaps 200 to 300 homes have been destroyed. The fire is so intense and widespread that precise numbers cannot be confirmed.   Between the time I post this and you read it, these consequences could multiply.

Tuesday night the fire doubled in size.  As of Thursday morning, over 18,000 acres have burned. The fire is only about 5 percent contained. High heat and low humidity persist.  The weather forecast for Thursday is, “Partly cloudy with temperatures rising towards the mid 80s. Winds NE at 5 to 10 mph.” The best forecast in many days.  Still, according to the US Forest Service, the fire’s growth potential is assessed as “extreme”.  (For other updates: KRDO is a local television station.)

Waldo Canyon Fire as of Wednesday afternoon

It could be even worse.  It will be worse, somewhere sooner or later.  In late August 1910 over 3 million acres of the Northern Rockies were simultaneously ablaze.

Much of the mountain west remains sparsely populated.  The threat to humans is reduced by plenty of space (and time) in which turbulence can dissipate.   But in El Paso County (where Colorado Springs is located), the population has increased from 397,000 in 1990 to 622,000 in 2010.

Colorado Springs is a beautiful place with a diverse economy.  Greater concentration is not surprising.  Eighty-two percent of Americans now live in urban areas.  Until the Great Recession we were rapidly relocating population from the wet, cold, old North to the dry, hot, sparkling South and West.  Along the way, we were relocating from the cold-threats of snow and ice to the hot-threats of wildfire and hurricane.

On their way a few million have said something like, “I won’t miss these winters, don’t cha know.” I would be surprised if one person has said, “Yes, I have decided to exchange the risk of nor’easters for tropical cyclones” or  “I prefer the risk of sustained drought to several more winters of bitter cold.”  But this is the choice — risk-informed or not — that is made.

There are wonderful — truly wonder-full — reasons to live in Colorado Springs. Some might include among these reasons an average annual precipitation of only 16.5 inches.  Since October 1, 2011 the city has received a total of 4.01 inches of precipitation. All of Colorado is experiencing drought.  The Northwest third of the state is in the midst of an exceptional drought. Drought is cyclic on the Front Range.

Never before has this region supported the population now concentrated along I-25 between Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins.  As recently as 1905 the population of the entire state of Colorado was less than the current population of Colorado Springs.

But we can program our processes or manipulate our spreadsheets or design our products or fulfill digital orders (or sell to those with such jobs) from almost anywhere.  Why not do it with a mountain or ocean out our window?

As it turns out,  oceans are more popular than mountains.

Along with most of the world, the US population is increasing its geographic density and its proximity to the coasts. A variety of benefits unfold from these choices.  For example, the densest cities tend to be the most efficient users of energy. But these choices also increase certain risks.  Density multiplies the potential economic and human consequences of any realized threat.  Coastal proximity increases vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding, two of the more deadly and destructive threats.

Droughts and wildfire, hurricanes and floods are older than the human race.  I will leave to others the debate over whether the threat-level is increasing.  It is undeniably clear that humans amplify these threats by making choices that increase our vulnerability… even as we gather together in fatter targets… even as we depend on water, food, pharma, and other essentials to be delivered through more complicated, extended, and technologically-dependent processes.

Making such choices — individually or collectively — is not in itself my concern.  Many of my most meaningful choices have involved considerable risk and I have experienced both positive and negative consequences.  In retrospect I might engage some risks with an amended strategy, but I would very seldom choose to avoid the risk… and even in retrospect cannot be sure how a different approach might unfold.

I am concerned when risky choices are taken thoughtlessly — with no awareness of the risk — and, especially, when one person’s choice becomes another person’s consequence.  Embracing risk is an essential aspect of creativity.  Denying risk is probably the fastest path to catastrophe.


This is part of a series of posts examining possible connections between catastrophes, resilience, and civil liberties and implications for homeland security.   Reader comments are fundamental to the value of the series.

Early June 28 I received the following Email, “Phil, I have not commented. Probably shouldn’t under my own name and feel disingenuous using another identity.  But the dialogue you have stimulated is worth more than you may know. I hope it continues.  The substance is valuable even, maybe especially, when I disagree with it.  Potentially as valuable is the example of intelligent conversation.  The last two weeks serious people have listened to each other, contributed to each other, disagreed with one another and continued consideration in a way that makes a mind want more.  While I appreciate your output, I’m really writing to thank your commentators.”

June 27, 2012

Coming Soon to a City Near You

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 27, 2012

If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.

To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.

My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.

Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.

The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.

As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.

Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.

In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.

I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.

The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.

When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.

Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.

Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.

The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.

We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond.  By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.

Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.

If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.

June 26, 2012

The scream becomes a yawn

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on June 26, 2012


Dana Priest and William Arkin ( in Top Secret America) describe why almost one million Americans have top-secret clearances.  They write about 1200 government organizations and 2000 private companies that work on classified counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs at over 10,000 locations across country.

Priest and Arkin are describing what has emerged from a complex adaptive system.

As is the case for any complex adaptive social system I am aware of, no one is in charge of the national security state, and no one can manage its growth. The system seems to have transcended human control. It will manage itself.


Complex systems have their own management logic.

I’m in the tribe that believes humans can’t control complex adaptive social systems. I do think people can influence how those systems emerge. But I don’t think control works very well in complex social systems.

A man called William Ward wrote “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

He was suggesting a strategy for engaging complexity.


I think it’s time for homeland security realists to adjust sails again.

And I don’t just mean realists in the Department of Homeland Security. DHS realists are always adjusting sails.

And I don’t mean realists in the rest of the enterprise needing to adjust to less money. That adjustment started years ago.

I don’t have good words to describe the change.  Only images.  And comparatively small ones at that. But they feel fundamental to me.


Some time ago I heard a senior police executive from a major urban area say — respectfully — ideas about terrorism, the dangers of violent extremism, and all hazards preparedness were somewhat tired.

He was not saying these threats were unimportant and could be ignored. His observation was more aligned with a belief the public and private sectors have adapted to the shocks symbolized by the September 11 attacks and by Katrina.

It seems the nation was much more resilient than the commentaries in the years following the shocks acknowledged.

Terrorism and all hazards are old ideas, the police executive said. “Is there anything new going on in this homeland security world?” he asked.


Does the homeland security world need new ideas to sustain itself?

For some parts of that world — as Chapter 6 in Top-Secret America suggests in language reminiscent of Bartleby, the Scrivener– maybe not.

After describing how Northern Command lost influence over a WMD program (p121-125), Priest and Arkin write

But the fact that Northern Command would even continue to exist as a major, four-star-led, geographic military command, with virtually no responsibilities, no competencies, and no unique role to fill, demonstrated the resiliency of institutions created in the wake of 9/11 and just how difficult it would be to ever actually shrink top-secret America. Northern Command, with its $100 million renovated concrete headquarters, its 2 dozen generals, its redundant command centers, its gigantic electronic map, and its multitude of contractors, looked as busy as ever, putting together agendas and exercises and PowerPoint briefings in the name of keeping the nation safe.

For other parts of the homeland security  world, the winds are not as institutionally benign.

Over the past few months I’ve been hearing how some homeland security education programs are having difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified students.

I came across research that said most of the homeland security jobs are in TSA and Customs and Border Protection. It’s not obvious most people who are successful at those jobs need an undergraduate or graduate degree in homeland security. Other experiences and degrees are quite acceptable.

Here’s another image:

A police chief I know recently attended a Police Officers Standards and Training (POST) Executive Development program. One of the courses was about the history of terrorism. The chief told me that for a variety of reasons, POST is considering revising the entire two week program, including taking out the terrorism piece altogether. “The feedback from the participants,” the chief said, “is that this is no longer a relevant topic.”


Last night I heard a song called “Dreams So Real,” by Metric.

The refrain seemed relevant:

So shut up and carry on
The scream becomes a yawn

Maybe this is another strategy for engaging complexity.

June 25, 2012

The Godfather School of Counterterrorism

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 25, 2012

The triumphalist tone of the leaks — the Tarzan-like chest-beating of various leakers — not only is in poor taste but also shreds a long-standing convention that, in these matters, the president has deniability. The president of the United States is not the Godfather.

–Richard Cohen, Washington Post, “Obama loses veneer of deniability with intelligence leaks

One of the (many) iconic scenes in the first “Godfather” movie is the baptism, where Michael Corleone becomes a godfather at the same time his men are killing the heads of the rival mafia families.  Putting aside much of the other symbolism, at it’s core this scene is about protecting the future of the Corleone family by killing enemy leaders.  Sound familiar?


Both the Bush and Obama Administrations focused on eliminating Al Qaeda leaders, and it could be argued that this effort has recently been raised to a science of deadly precision with a mix of intelligence gathering and exploitation, special forces’ strikes, and drone attacks.

Putting aside the issue of what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage” — not because it is not morally and strategically important, but because it’s beyond the scope of this particular post — the general argument put forth against this approach is a perceived lack of intelligence gathering. Drone strikes in particular might eliminate a terrorist threat, but they do not allow for questioning of the individual to gather information. On face value this makes sense, yet it also doesn’t take into account the daunting logistical hurdles required for “snatch and grab” missions as compared to drone strikes. And often it seems more like the last resort of a political opposition that has no other argument to make while this Administration has vastly accelerated the elimination of known Al Qaeda leadership. In other words: “yes, you killed the enemies we wanted to kill…but you didn’t capture and torture, uh, we mean subject them to enhanced interrogation!”

A new, novel, and interesting argument on the side against a concerted elimination campaign has begun to be made by Leah Farrall, an Australian counter-terrorism expert. She suggests that perhaps the simple elimination of the current cadre of Al Qaeda senior leadership might result in an even worst outcome due to the ideology of the next generation of leaders:

What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

In the years to come, owing to this generation being killed off, this type of restraint will disappear; in fact it is clearly already heading in this direction. A significant part of this change  is directly attributable to the counter terrorism strategies being employed today. I’m working on a more detailed, research driven piece on this. But in the meantime, the best way of summing up the consequences of a strategy of killing off leadership instead of using a criminal justice approach lies with what happened in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa many years ago.

This provocative opinion set off a virtual firestorm of response…on twitter and among the counter-terrorism blogosphere. You may have missed it.  A good summary of the counter-argument was provided by Will McCants of the blog Jihadica:

In summary, al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies. AQ Central’s senior leaders choose their physical targets and means of attack overseas based on opportunity and policy impact. High body counts are welcome. They sanction these attacks for a variety of strategic reasons, the main one being that they want to pressure the US and its Western allies to reduce their influence in Muslim-majority countries so that it will be easier to establish Islamic states.

It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago. AQ Central may have moderated in how it conducts itself in Muslim-majority countries, but it certainly hasn’t moderated toward the United States, which is what has to be uppermost in the minds of US government counter-terrorism policymakers.

In a fortuitous coincidence, the journal International Security not only published two articles addressing this very issue, but have made them available free to the public.  As editor of the journal, Sean Lynn-Jones, describes them:

In “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” Bryan Price, who will soon join the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, analyzed the effects of leadership attacks on 207 terrorist groups from sixty-five countries between 1970 and 2008. Price argues that the health of a terrorist organization is tied closely to the strength of its leadership. Removal of a charismatic leader can undermine a terrorist organization. In addition, leadership succession poses particular challenges in secretive organizations that do not institutionalize their operations or train lower-level leaders to assume control. Price finds that killing or capturing the leaders of a group significantly increases the probability that the group will collapse or dissolve, although the organization may endure for several years. This effect was much stronger for new groups; groups that have existed for twenty years are much more likely to survive the killing of their leaders. One of Price’s most important findings is that religious terrorist groups were almost five times more likely to end than nationalist groups after having their leaders killed.

Patrick Johnston, a former fellow in the Belfer Center’s International Security Program who is now at the RAND Corporation, considers whether leadership decapitation reduces the effectiveness of terrorist and insurgent groups. In “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” Johnston compares the consequences of 118 failed and successful attempts to kill top-level insurgent leaders. His study finds that removing the leaders of militant groups enables governments to defeat insurgencies more frequently, reduces the number of insurgent attacks, and diminishes levels of violence. Johnston points out that killing insurgent leaders does not guarantee success, but it increases the probability that governments will defeat insurgents by 25 to 30 percent. He also finds that killing leaders has a stronger effect than capturing them.

You can take or leave these different points of view.  However, I believe they are all worth serious consideration.

June 21, 2012

Core characteristics of catastrophe: Complexity, cascades, and culture

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 21, 2012

The Deluge IV by David Bates

Three core characteristics of catastrophe:

1.  Catastrophes are complex and can become chaotic.

2.  Catastrophes cascade over time and space.

3.  Catastrophes are cultural phenomena.


More on Complexity: Catastrophes can often be anticipated, but cannot be predicted.  A general pattern may be observable, even measurable.  But precise projections of time, place, power, speed, and other outputs are innately difficult, perhaps impossible.  This reflects a wide range of underlying, sometimes hidden,  interdependencies. The scope of cause-and-effect relationships is such that prior experience with more predictable events can potentially mislead as often as help.  Misplaced efforts to contain an emerging catastrophe may actually increase volatility.

Example: The 1960 tsunami benchmark selected by the Japanese resulted in siting and protection decisions that in some cases amplified the impact of the 2011 tsunami.

Implications for homeland security: Catastrophe planning and preparedness should focus on strategic capacity and capability rather than tactical response.   Leadership in a catastrophe is a courageous, creative process of probing and acting more than a management function of analyzing and responding.


More on Cascades: Interdependent systems — whether natural or constructed, physical or social — generally facilitate cascading effects.   Changes in one system can influence many other systems simultaneously or successively.  Networks of nodes and links characterize a wide-array of ecological, technological, economic, and cultural systems.  The more connections between nodes and the more convergent each node, the more likely — and powerful — a cascading effect involving all nodes.  Synergies are amoral.  Connections that breed health and wealth can also contaminate.

(We tend to think of cascades as quick and they can be.  As interesting are slower cascades that emerge from, for example, drought.  In my own research, I perceive that cultural confirmation of catastrophe is most likely when the event persists over significant time or is regularly repeated over time.  What humans perceive as single events are seldom catastrophic.)

Example: The Eurozone comes immediately to mind.  More relevant to many readers might be wildfires, power grids, and telecom carrier hotels.  (Hmm, mix those three together for a catastrophic scenario?)

Implications for homeland security: Dense hubs of multiple connections — such as an Emergency Operations Center — are great for propagating efficiencies and catastrophes.  Mitigation is a function of reducing both the overall density of connections and the concentration of connections at any single node.


More on Culture: Well… over the last two weeks, here and here, we have probably written enough about culture.   But this characteristic of catastrophe is often overlooked.   Major earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, pandemics and even nuclear-capable terrorists will occasionally grab our attention.   There are a few thoughtleaders giving sustained attention to cascades, self organized criticality, and other aspects of complexity.  The cultural inputs and outputs of catastrophic events are not, typically, topics for homeland security conferences.

Over the last two weeks we have suggested that from a cultural perspective not all catastrophic outcomes are necessarily bad.  The decisive factor in differentiating good from bad may be the self-critical self-discovery of the survivors.

Example: In prior posts we have given particular attention to literary examples,  but we have also pointed to the judgment of many that the “catastrophic” outcome of horrific plague in 14th Century Europe was the Renaissance.   We might also point to how survivors reacted to the San Francisco earthquake and fire or the Great Chicago Fire.

Implications for homeland security: Whole community anyone?  How about private and civic engagement in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation?   How about private and civic leadership in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation?  How about the following comment by a long-time emergency management professional? (I will not name who said it, he still needs his career.) “With the best intentions we have become major contributors to the infantilization of the American people.”


This is part of a series of posts that is examining possible connections between catastrophes, resilience, and civil liberties and the implications for homeland security.   Reader comments are welcome and have already influenced the direction of the series.

June 19, 2012

Consequence Management for Critical Infrastructure Using an Environmental Threat Model

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection — by Christopher Bellavita on June 19, 2012

Today’s guest writer is Steve Kral, the Homeland Security Government Relations Officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)

The usual caveats apply: Steve’s opinions are his own. Please do not assume they reflect the views of WMATA or any other agency.


An enduring problem facing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the lack of a universally accepted and transparent scientific model for determining priorities among critical infrastructure vulnerabilities. DHS may want to review history and examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) prioritization model used to rank the relative threat of actual and potential release(s) of hazardous substances from a site. EPA’s evaluation criteria, based upon relative risk or danger to public health or welfare of the environment, may afford insight into developing an acceptable critical infrastructure prioritization model. Such a model may also be beneficial in responding to Congress’ concerns about homeland security expenditures.

The lack of environmental oversight and enforcement regulations, led to the creation of thousands of hazardous waste sites throughout the United States prior to the 1970s. On December 11, 1980 the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress in response to the numerous threats of hazardous waste sites in the United States, typified by the Love Canal in New York, and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky.

Section 105(8)(A) of CERCLA required EPA to establish criteria for determining priorities among releases or threatened releases (of hazardous substances) throughout the United States for the purpose of taking remedial action and, to the extent practical, taking into account the potential urgency of such action.

To meet this requirement and help set priorities, EPA adopted the Hazard Ranking System (HRS), a scoring system used to assess the relative threat associated with the actual and potential releases of hazardous substances from a site. The HRS was designed to be applied uniformly to each site, enabling sites to be evaluated relative to each other with respect to actual or potential hazards. As EPA explained when it adopted the system, “the HRS is a means for applying uniform technical judgment regarding the potential hazards presented by a facility relative to other facilities.”

Could DHS take advantage of the successes of the HRS and build an acceptable model for evaluating critical infrastructure? I think the answer is yes.

The likelihood of a hazardous substance being released, the quantity of a substance, and the population effected are all examples of known scientific factors the HRS scoring system uses to calculate the threat. Unlike hazardous substances, the threat of a terrorist attack is extremely dynamic and ever changing. DHS may be focused on liquids on planes today, and tomorrow it could be a vehicle improvised explosive device somewhere. Factors for calculating threat are often unknown and based on intelligence, not science. Where EPA assesses the “threat” associated with hazardous substances of a site based on scientific factors, homeland security professionals may want to evaluate the consequences a critical infrastructure facility poses to an urban area or state if the facility were to be lost or compromised.

The success of the HRS lies not only with the scientific analysis used to determine the known or potential threat a site poses to human health and the environment, but also with the transparency associated with the evaluation of a site. All sites evaluated using the HRS are listed within the Federal Register and open for public comment, allowing the general public access to all data used to score the site.

DHS may want to consider a similar transparent process with the evaluation of critical infrastructure facilities.

David J. Kaufman and Robert Bach discussed the concept of transparency in their paper, A Social Infrastructure for Hometown Security: Advancing the Homeland Security Paradigm. They reflect on how the United Kingdom conducts and share a risk assessment annually, combining national, regional, and local results. It publishes a National Risk Register designed to encourage public debate on security and help organizations, individuals, families, and communities, who want to do so, to prepare for emergencies.

A similar transparent process for assessing critical infrastructure facilities may allow DHS to gain the public’s confidence with the evaluation and prioritization of sites within the United States. The public would become more aware of the critical infrastructure within their communities and may be more willing to contact law enforcement if they see anything suspicious.

Some people might argue that DHS is currently performing such evaluations. Unfortunately, DHS requests individuals at the state to prioritize their own critical infrastructure, using broad categories. The logic behind such categories has never been fully explained. DHS may want to establish oversight and enforcement regulations based on a consequence management formula focused on protecting the citizens of the United States rather than trying to calculate the risk of a terrorist attack occurring.

An article entitled, Changing Homeland Security: In 2010, was Homeland Security Useful? asserts, “If homeland security is to become a useful academic and professional discipline, it has to demonstrate how looking at enduring problems through a homeland security framework adds significant value not provided by other disciplines.”

Developing a scientifically acceptable model for prioritizing critical infrastructure by evaluating the consequences associated with such sites may help homeland security become more useful as an academic and professional discipline. A sound model could be used within the urban planning discipline in developing more resilient communities, or the insurance industry in determining insurance rates for critical infrastructure facilities.

June 18, 2012

Zombies vs. Drones

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 18, 2012

I know what you’re thinking: another post about zombies?

Don’t worry, this is not actually about zombies.  But a more accurate title, such as “a comparison of social media and public messaging strategies involving the CDC and EPA,” is likely to receive far fewer Google hits.  And just sounds tedious.

Yet the subject matter is likely to be very important going forward, particularly for however one would like to define homeland security.  Both of the agencies I cited play significant, if not publicly acknowledged, roles in “the enterprise.”  Yet both seemed to be operating under different playbooks when it came to dealing with incorrect information pinging around the internet.

As I posted a few weeks ago, the CDC reached out to the Huffington Post to deny the existence of any “virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” While this seems like a silly public relations stunt, the rash of scary sounding incidents involving deranged people exhibiting “zombie-like” behavior stirred a significant amount of internet attention.  Lacking knowledge of internal CDC deliberations, I would guess that having utilized the recent popularity of zombie stories to promote disaster preparedness, the CDC decided to get ahead of the story and attempt to put an end to silly rumors.

To me this showed a remarkable level of social media awareness and a willingness to engage the public (or “whole of community” if I really wanted to tie this is in a neat “homeland security enterprise” knot…) early and on issues not traditionally considered within the public health arena.

Now compare that with a recent story in the Washington Post concerning the rumors that the EPA is utilizing drones domestically to spy on farmers:

It was a blood-boiler of a story, a menacing tale of government gone too far: The Environmental Protection Agency was spying on Midwestern farmers with the same aerial “drones” used to kill terrorists overseas.

This month, the idea has been repeated in TV segments, on multiple blogs and by at least four congressmen. The only trouble is, it isn’t true.

It was never true. The EPA isn’t using drone aircraft — in the Midwest or anywhere else.

The reporter goes on to describe the immense difficulty of dealing with this type of information problem:

The hubbub over nonexistent drones provides a look at something hard to capture in American politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood. This one seems to have been born less than three weeks ago, in tweets and blog posts that twisted the details of a real news story about EPA inspectors flying in small planes.

This is at the same time a story both harder and easier to deal with then zombies.  Harder because drones exist, are in the news, and concern about domestic drone use is real and seems to be increasing.  Easier because…well it doesn’t have anything to do with zombies.  Combined with an already existing distrust of the EPA, this meant that this story hit the mainstream press (I realize Fox prides itself as not being a member of this tribe, but if you are the top-rated cable news network doesn’t that make you mainstream?) quickly and should have been been a visible red flag to EPA officials:

That same afternoon, the falsehood spread to television. On a Fox News Channel “ensemble opinion show” called “The Five,” Fox contributor Bob Beckel said, “They are drones, they are flying overhead.”

“No, they’re not,” said fellow panelist Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “They’re taking pictures.”

“No, no, no. They’re drones,” Beckel said.

Over the next three days, the story appeared on blogs, was tweeted and re-tweeted. It had all the makings of a great rumor. It combined two ideas that many people already believed to be true: that domestic use of drone aircraft was soon to increase, and that President Obama has used environmentalism as a cover for government overreach.

At this point the EPA should have been alerted to this spreading meme and the possibility of a further negative public relations impact. So did the agency attempt to get out ahead of this wave?  Uh…no.  They waited until:

At EPA headquarters, a spokesman said, the first inquiries about EPA drones began coming in.

The CDC appears to have have been monitoring the internet and social media about any issue that could possibly concern the Center, and upon realizing that zombie rumors were flying, provided an answer (no matter how ridiculous it seemed to some).  In contrast, the EPA seemed oblivious to the rising chorus of criticism and didn’t seem to wish to respond until requests for information arrived through official channels.

That is too slow for modern problems.  We have yet to face another 9/11 or Katrina with our current state of social media connectivity. I fear that some government agencies will be ready to engage the public conversation while others will look at Twitter or Facebook as simply an updated fax machine to be used to push out press releases. Can we trust that responsible agencies will include the online community in any future whole-of-community response?

June 15, 2012

Everyday homeland security heroes

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 15, 2012

Catastrophes come and go.  A long-time plot line is lost, a predicted trajectory suddenly shifts.   We eventually accept the radically new normal as simply normal.

Some characterize catastrophes as high-consequence, low-probability events.  For the statistically challenged (like me), I suggest a better description is high-consequence, low-frequency events.   In any single place, they don’t happen often.  Look at a world-wide context and they seem to happen all the time.

San Francisco will, again, be hit hard by earthquake.   The mid-Atlantic will, again, suffer a deadly drought.  A stupendous tsunami will, again, devastate the Pacific Northwest coast.  It is unlikely any of these things will happen today.   We can be almost certain each will happen one day.

We can be especially certain that human engineered systems will fail.   Blow-out preventers will break, dams and levees will fall,  the outer limits of rigorous safety specifications will be exceeded: some by accident, others with malicious intent, many through obsolescence and/or an atypical externality.  In several cases the failure will be blamed — retrospectively — on incompetence and malfeasance, even when — prospectively — the choices seemed practical, prudent, and a fair balancing of competing needs.

Probably not here, not now, but certainly somewhere a bad day will become a catastrophic day.  Even today a catastrophe may be unfolding, perhaps in the fire-prone Rockies or flood-ravaged Southern Philippines or bloody Northern Mexico.  There are plenty of other candidates for catastrophe.  Egypt anyone?  What about Nigeria?  Want to talk about Tokyo?

I have argued the 9/11 attack was a low-probability, low-frequency event which our response amplified.   In our effort to contain the original hurt we have multiplied the hurt.  What might have been a highly localized event has assumed global scope and scale.  What might have been a collection of personal catastrophes,  has unfolded as a radical shift in our national narrative.

Along the way we have also shredded the operational capacity of core al-Qaeda and preempted several specific threats.   An accurate balance sheet of hurt avoided, hurt self-inflicted, and hurt inflicted on others would be tough to generate.   Has near-term suffering advanced long-term security?  I hope so.  But I’m not sure.

At least one commentator doubts 9/11 has marked a true national catastrophe, a fundamental shift in the nation’s narrative. (See Pat Sullivan 357340.)  S/he suggests that someday 9/11 will be as much a cultural, political, historical side-bar as the Spanish-American War.  The comment reminded me of Lorenz’ point about the potential relationship of Brazilian butterflies to Texas tornadoes.  How do we know when, where and why a catastrophe truly begins?  One of the key aspects of complexity is impenetrable uncertainty regarding cause-and-effect.

The skeptical commentator may have had something else in mind, but I hope the national commitment to our pre-9/11 American narrative is sufficiently resilient that whatever our over-response has been, we are able to reclaim and extend the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to future generations.   Perhaps the past decade will eventually be compared to the Red Scare after World War I.  Despite the Palmer Raids and plenty of personal catastrophes, the Red Scare did not fundamentally alter the Great American Narrative. Many would argue it was one of many such eruptions of intolerant paranoia that periodically punctuate our narrative.

In any case, I am working to prove the skeptic correct, precisely because I perceive s/he is wrong.   I see 9/11 as the beginning of a persistent shift in the wrong direction. (Bill Cumming has asked us to each list ten fundamental changes since 9/11.)  I am, as a childhood hero commended, standing athwart this particular historical moment yelling, “Stop!”

Which may point to a role for intentionality.

Another commentator writes (see Django 157354), “We have been in the abyss for over 11 years now and I am not sure that we have learned that where we fail lies our lessons. I am not sure it is part of the US myth. We may be too proud… We must realize that we are both the hero and the monster.”

Django does a great job adapting homeland security and counter terrorism to  the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s framework for self-discovery… self-making… becoming fully human.  Fundamental to this process is fully experiencing, recognizing, accepting and potentially transcending our flaws and failures.

Can a nation be heroic?  Is heroism a civic virtue? Perhaps it is inappropriate to expect a people to exhibit what is tough enough for any person.

Yet… wasn’t Britain heroic in the months after the Fall of France?   Would you say the Hungarians were heroic in 1956?  I was inspired by the heroism of Norwegians in the days following Brevik’s massacre of innocents.

In each of these cases there were complications, compromises, contradictions.  The Hero’s Journey is not a victory parade.  Typically the hero emerges from temptation, difficult ordeals, and profound self-examination.  In most classical Greek narratives the hero is characterized by a fatal flaw — often the pride of self-sufficiency — which must be found and undone (or unleashed) in order for the potentially tragic character to transcend the self.  As Django writes, recognizing the monstrous self seems to be a prerequisite to becoming the heroic self.  (Is this avatar a reference to the spaghetti western and, if so, what more does Django have to tell us about herorism?)

Last Friday I expended a few paragraphs on the dramatic — sometimes melodramatic — plot lines of fictional heroes.  This week I open with real-world catastrophes that will eventually call for our heroic engagement.

What about today?  Tomorrow? What about when the test of our heroism is less than an earthquake or a suicide terrorist?

The heroic challenge of homeland security often emerges in much more subtle forms.  Overcoming temptation is a key threshold for the hero.  Classic temptations are power, pleasure, and security.  Are we able to intentionally recognize and reject these temptations, especially when they arrive in banal bureaucratic costume?

When I work with others on a risk analysis is it an honest examination of context or a revenue justification?

When I design and deliver an exercise or tabletop, is it a significant system stress or just a chance to review Standard Operating Procedures?

When I develop a catastrophe preparedness plan is it based on a real catastrophe or just a very bad day?

When I fail, do I accept the failure and learn from it, or seek to blame others, or perhaps deny any failure was involved?  Maybe worst of all, do I decide I will avoid future failures?  (My grandfather’s favorite chair was immediately below a framed needlework reading, “The man who has not failed has not done anything.”)

I have not always made the heroic choice.  How about you?

Perhaps the difference between a nation that is heroic or not is a matter of arithmetic: the sum of a billion everyday individual decisions.  Is there a tipping point where the heroism or non-heroism of a certain number effectively suppresses the influence of their opposites?   Is it that tipping point, either way, that makes the catastrophe?

June 14, 2012

The story of our flag: 1938 version

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on June 14, 2012

Today is Flag Day.

Here is a link to a 10 minute video created in 1938 that, according to the website:

Follows the evolution of the flag of the United States from the colonial flags to the stars and stripes of today. Shows by animation the development of the western territories into the present states and how this development effected changes in the flag.

I can’t say much about the film’s historical accuracy. But it has a few homeland security harbingers: a justification for protecting critical transportation infrastructure against attacks (by people who thought they owned the land), and a boast that we didn’t need to protect out borders.

(I think I saw this film in 9th grade, shortly after my classroom got electricity.   Kasia Cieplak-Mayr Von Baldegg’s work reminded me of the film.)

President Wilson signed the Flag Day authorization in 1916, when the flag looked like this:

“All hail the flag of the United States of America,” says the narrator as the film come to its end.

June 12, 2012

The War between Words and Pictures

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on June 12, 2012

Richard laughed good-naturally.  “Must I choose sides?”

Joshua took a step toward the center of the room and spoke a bit too loudly. “Mr. Boren … in any civil war, sooner or later you have to choose sides.”

Richard’s smile faded a little. “I’m not sure I understand you.”

“It’s a war between Words and Pictures.”

Joshua’s strange vehemence silenced everyone in the room….  Richard laughed, a good sport.  “You’re way ahead of this old man, Joshua.”

“Okay.  Think of it like this: Imagine America as a boxing match. Words are the skinny lightweight with the glasses, spouting off logical propositions and complex thoughts, even after the round starts, when he should be swinging. Mr. Word can’t stop himself, because that’s his nature: Sentences propose ideas, paragraphs develop them.  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ ‘When, in the course of human events…’ Now, wading toward him you’ve got Pictures: big, beefy, good-looking. Seeing is believing.  Feeling is believing.  Pure sensation.  And in a knock-down drag-out between logic and sensation, guess who goes down?”

Richard went quiet for a moment, then answered.  “Well, I think you’re not being entirely fair to pictures, there, Joshua.  Television news is a fantastic tool for informing people—”

Joshua interrupted him.  “No, on the contrary, Mr. Boren! On the contrary: It’s a fantastic tool for giving people the illusion they’re informed! People watch a thirty-second news spot and actually think they know the story.  But it’s only pictures, because that’s what makes good TV.  Not numbers, not complicated relationships.  Just gut-level sensation.  Little ideas on a big canvas.  It engages people’s emotions, not their minds.”….

“The last time I checked, Joshua, words hadn’t disappeared! There’s magazines, newspapers, journals, novels.  Publishing is a multibillion dollar business.”

“That’s true, but they’re losing.  Pictures shape everything. Seventy percent of Americans use television as their primary news source.  Look at any major political speech of the last ten years: It’s crafted to the television mind, with Freedom this, and Liberty that.  It’s show biz, not thought.”….

“Come off it, Josh! You can’t blame pictures!”….

“I’m just saying that in our country, in a democracy that depends on a well-informed public, it comes down to this: The Constitution was written words. Debilitate the written word, and all you have left is America: The Movie.”

— From “The Army of the Republic,” by Stuart Archer Cohen (pp 101-102).




(thanks DL)

June 10, 2012

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

– + – + – + –

An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

June 8, 2012

Homeland security as a national monomyth

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012


I have proposed that homeland security is, itself, the consequence of a catastrophe.  Further, I have suggested homeland security is a consequence that — among other things — reinforces and extends the catastrophic nature of the original event. For good and bad homeland security contributes to marking a catastrophic before and after.

The uncanny, even surreal success of the al-Qaeda plot was the crux of this catastrophe.   If the Pentagon alone had been hit, would our (a populist “our”) response have been as it was?  With both towers hit and casualties as high, if the structures had remained standing would our sense-of-devastation have been the same?

It was the televised — “you are there” — impact of not one but both towers collapsing before our collective eyes that ensured an awful day was widely experienced as little less than apocalyptic.  Pennsylvania and the Pentagon were dreadful subplots to the ghastly spectacle in New York.

I don’t know how to test it, but even the shared shock of Pearl Harbor may not have been as profound as that of 9/11.   Many were aware of the Japanese threat.  The conflict in China was big news, the European war well-known context. But eleven years ago most were unaware of AQ, even after the attacks on the USS Cole and the East African embassies.  For the vast majority of Americans, this terrorist threat might as well have emerged from Mars.

This was the genesis of homeland security.  Such a beginning matters.

Most of us expected — certainly I did — follow-on attacks.  Given the creative audacity of the “first” attacks anything seemed possible.   The following is from Ashton B. Carter, currently Deputy Secretary of Defense, writing in Countering Terrorism (2003):

The varieties of extremism that can spawn catastrophic terrorism  seem limitless… What is clear is that war-scale destructive power is becoming increasingly available as technology advances. The same advances heighten the complexity and interconnectedness of civilization, making society more vulnerable at the same time as technology deliver to small groups destructive powers that were formerly the monopoly of states. (Page 18)

According to a 2010 survey, 53 percent of Americans expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear device.  The President is evidently among this majority.  Having experienced the nearly unimaginable on 9/11, we can easily imagine much worse.

Since 9/11 there has been no new use or known attempted use of war-scale destructive power.  Yet many — probably most — Americans perceive that a small number of evil men present a clear, present, and existential threat to the United States.  This is the sustaining justification for homeland security.  This is the continuing cascade of catastrophe.

We talk and write about risk-informed decision making.  But our core homeland security narrative is not so subtle.

Nine weeks after 9/11 the first Harry Potter movie was released.  It was the highest grossing film of the year. The 2001 Christmas season saw the first Lord of the Rings movie open to crowds only a bit smaller than those for Harry.  The righteous anger of September was already predisposed to stark distinctions of good and evil.  Popular culture readily reinforced these tendencies.

But… as with the fictional Harry and Frodo, the most significant struggle has been internal.  Do not misunderstand, the external threat is real.  The existential challenge, though, is much more a matter of our national sense-of-self.  Are we brave, generous and loving or are we fearful, greedy, and vengeful?  The gravest question is not if we will defeat the enemy, but what this fight will make of us?

Homeland security has become our Hogwarts, our Middle-earth: a set of problems with which we are crafting our national character.  (“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets via the character Albus Dumbledore)

In 1998 Ashton Carter served as co-chair of the “Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group.”  He and his co-authors prophesied:

A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. (Foreign Affairs,  November/December 1998)

They failed to predict weaponized passenger jets, but the rest sounds accurate to me.  Please notice the most catastrophic consequences are self-inflicted.

The Lord of the Rings transpires over two years, the Harry Potter series in seven.  We are well into our second decade since 9/11.  By now our fictional heroes had  engaged their demons, returned home, and had earned the freedom to live fully.  We are not there.  The catastrophe is still unfolding.  Crucial choices still confront us.  We are unfinished.  We are unresolved.  We have not yet abandoned the “self-generated double-monster” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell).

Homeland security is double-minded, as Harry could so often be; as Frodo was even in his final struggle with Gollum at the Crack of Doom.

Homeland security problems are often as intimate as they are important.  Who do we trust? Why? What are our trials?  What are our temptations? Where are we most vulnerable?  To whom are we loyal?  What and whom are we prepared to betray? What is the call that would prompt betrayal?  Precisely because these are problems of self-identity and relationship they can be especially treacherous.

Our double-mindedness will be resolved.  When and how are pending.  I wish I was more certain of a happy ending.

Next week: Homeland security on the road of trials


This is the second in a series of posts on the relationship of homeland security to catastrophe (here’s a link to the first).  About ten posts on catastrophe are expected to be followed by another ten on resilience and another ten on civil liberties.  But this series is open, exploratory, and susceptible to tangents.  There were great comments on last week’s post that I am still thinking through.  This post is not especially responsive to particular comments, but I promise future posts will try to seriously engage the important issues you raised.  Please join in with your questions, concerns, and comments.


House action on DHS appropriations

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012

Yesterday, June 7, the House approved the fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill by a vote of 234-182.  The White House has threatened a veto unless key changes are made in conference with the Senate.

Lots of important details in the bill and related report.  Following, without comment, is a long excerpt from  pages 115-116 of the Committee Report dealing with FEMA programs.


State and Local Programs help build and sustain the preparedness and response capabilities of the first responder community. These programs include support for various grant programs andtraining programs.


The Committee recommends $1,762,589,000 for State and Local Programs, $1,137,623,000 below the amount requested and $412,908,000 above the amount provided in fiscal year 2012.

As part of the budget request, the Administration proposed including the Firefighter Assistance Grants and Emergency Management Performance Grants under this program. The Committee again denies this proposal and recommends funding for both of these grant programs as separate appropriations, consistent with prior years.

In fiscal year 2013, FEMA proposed a new grant program called the National Preparedness Grant Program under State and Local Programs. This proposal is denied due to the lack of Congressional authorization and the lack of the necessary details that are required for the initiation of a new program to include grant guidance and implementation plans.

The Department should work with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction to obtain the necessary authorizing legislation and to clearly define the Federal role and reassess the most effective delivery of support and resources to sustain and improve homeland security capabilities prior to submittinga budget request for such a program. Additionally, the Committee met with and heard testimony from numerous stakeholders that expressed concern not just with the grant proposal but also with the lack of stakeholder outreach prior to the program’s introduction. The Committee considers this lack of outreach concerning and it should be addressed.

Due to these concerns, the Committee continues the grant structure as enacted in fiscal year 2012. The funds provided for State and Local Program grants are to be allocated by the Secretary of Homeland Security according to threat, vulnerability, and consequenceto assist high-risk urban areas, States, local and Tribal governments, and other homeland security partners in preventing, preparing for, protecting against, and responding to acts of terrorism.

June 5, 2012

How much does it cost? Inoculating thought in homeland security

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on June 5, 2012

The book that received the most positive reaction in a recent homeland security course was Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics. He never took an economics course. He is one of the people who created behavioral economics.

Creating a new discipline is a very good way to avoid taking an economics course.

I think the book is overwritten. It’s more than 400 pages; 250 pages would probably have been enough.

But if you’ve received a Nobel Prize, your books can be as long as you want.

Here is a video (about an hour long) where Kahneman outlines the core ideas in his book.

The video gets going for real at about the 8 minute mark. (Modified Wadsworth Constant at work.)

Here’s a question:

What is 2+2?

You probably have an immediate answer.

Here’s another question:

What is 17 times 36?

You probably do not have an immediate answer.

Kahneman posits two thinking styles. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional.

System 2 isn’t.


What do you think about this image?

Unibomber climate change

Or what about this headline and paragraph:

Climate-Change Deniers Are On The Ropes — But So Is The Planet

It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it: “I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable consequences.

According to Kahneman’s findings, if you like and trust the Heartland Institute, you are likely to accept the anecdotal story the billboard tells, more than any climate-alarmist propaganda or scientific evidence about climate change.

If you like and trust, ThinkProgress — the source of the On the Ropes tale — you like their anecdotes; maybe more than science.

If you don’t know anything about Heartland or ThinkProgress, you used some other System 1 shortcut to decide which story worked better for you.


Stories are concrete, specific and immediate. They cut through the need for all that heavy thinking stuff.

Stories appeal to System 1.

System 2 is slower, deliberative and a more logical way of thinking. It’s also a more difficult style to use.

It takes work.

Have you calculated 17 times 36 yet?

Nope; probably not worth the effort.

That’s System 2 at work; or rather at avoiding work.

Here’s another question:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

System 1 says the ball cost ten cents.

Next question?

System 2, when it gets around to it, — and in some tests, 80% of the time it doesn’t get around to it — System 2 will let you know ten cents is the wrong answer.

(If your System 2 gets off the couch, you’ll see why ten cents is not the correct answer.)

People are more afraid of dying in a terrorist attack than they are afraid of dying.

But the chances of dying are greater than the chances of dying in a terrorist attack. Why does the less likely path to death have a more greater emotional impact?

System 1 again.

People are more likely to believe the following statement is true:

“Woes unite foes”

than they are to believe this statement is true:

“Woes unite enemies”

Why do people tend “to see the rhyming [aphorisms] as more accurate than the non-rhyming ones”?

Even if both sayings mean the same thing.

System 1 likes rhymes.

What does this have to do with homeland security?

The April 2012 issue of Risk Analysis (“An Official Publication of the Society for Risk Analysis”) is filled with examples illustrating the significance of risk perception and communication.

The issue is titled “Risk Perception Behavior: Anticipating and Responding to Crisis.”

Take a look at the table of contents.

Or look at this report about one of the articles: [my emphasis]

A dirty bomb attack centered on downtown Los Angeles’ financial district could severely impact the region’s economy to the tune of nearly $16 billion, fueled primarily by psychological effects that could persist for a decade….

“We decided to study a terrorist attack on Los Angeles not to scare people, but to alert policymakers just how large the impact of the public’s reaction might be,” said study co-author William Burns, a research scientist at Decision Research in Eugene, Ore. “This underscores the importance of risk communication before and after a major disaster to reduce economic losses.”….

“The economic effects of the public’s change in behavior are 15 times more costly than the immediate damage in the wake of a disaster.”

“These findings illustrate that because the costs of modern disasters are so large, even small changes in public perception and behaviors may significantly affect the economic impact….”

Or look at these slides that report on a recent experiment about “Inoculation as a Strategy for Achieving Assertive Risk Communication.” [Please keep in mind the important caution that slides cannot substitute for the full study or being present at what I was told was a “fascinating” presentation by world class scholars.]

Assertive risk communication means “actively and continuously anticipating and preempting counter-arguments” that might be generated by someone else’s System 1 response to, say, a catastrophic incident in the United States.

“Inoculating messages foster resistance to counterarguments,” says one of the slides.

“Inoculation messages move individuals in the desired direction—initially enhancing confidence.
Inoculation messages enhance resistance to counter-arguments in high-risk circumstances.
Using inoculation messages fortify what is known about best practices for risk and crisis communication.” reports another slide.

So, what does that mean in practice?

Assume “a commercial airliner carrying 253 passengers from Los Angeles to New York exploded 70 minutes into flight leaving no survivors. Air traffic control lost radar contact with the plane and within minutes local officials in Nevada began receiving reports from witnesses who saw debris falling from the sky.”

Some people speculate it was terrorism. Others wait for evidence. No one is quite sure

What should the assertive risk communication message be to inoculate an uncertain nation against jumping to “inappropriate” System 1 conclusions? Or if people are going to jump to System 1 anyway, what kind of counter-perception could be seeded?

One message is:

The Department of Homeland Security said it had “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time, although we continue to monitor efforts by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks, both in the Homeland and abroad.”

Or how about this one:

“In addition to this event, DHS has detected and prevented numerous terrorist plots. All of these plots have been thwarted by a combination of intelligence work, policing, and citizen participation.”


Right now, I’m wondering what your System 1 response is to either message and to the idea of inoculating people through assertive risk communication.

My System 2 reaction is I think people interested in homeland security will benefit from reading  Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Or at least listening to Kahneman talk about his ideas.

June 4, 2012

“CDC Denies Existence Of Zombies Despite Cannibal Incidents”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 4, 2012

Yes, that happened.

It is an actual headline on the Huffington Post website. Prompted by an actual CDC email.

As this website is no stranger in confronting the zombie menace, a little background is probably in order:

First came Miami: the case of a naked man eating most of another man’s face. Then Maryland, a college student telling police he killed a man, then ate his heart and part of his brain.

It was different in New Jersey, where a man stabbed himself 50 times and threw bits of his own intestines at police. They pepper-sprayed him, but he was not easily subdued.

Did we bring ourselves to the brink of a zombie apocalypse?

Zombies represent America’s fears of bioterrorism, a fear that strengthened after the 9/11 attacks, says Patrick Hamilton, an English professor at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., who studies how we process comic-book narratives.

Seriously, it may be time to prepare.  Read the following now and thank me later:

–An Ace Hardware store in Nebraska features a “Zombie Preparedness Center” that includes bolts and fasteners for broken bones, glue and caulk for peeling skin, and deodorizers to freshen up decaying flesh. “Don’t be scared,” its website says. “Be prepared.”

–On uncrate.com, you can find everything you need to survive the apocalypse — zombie-driven or otherwise — in a single “bug-out bag.” The recommended components range from a Mossberg pump-action shotgun and a Cold Kukri machete to a titanium spork for spearing all the canned goods you’ll end up eating once all the fresh produce has vanished.

The CDC would like you to believe none of this is possible.  That this threat doesn’t exist.

“CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms),” wrote agency spokesman David Daigle in an email to The Huffington Post.

Who to believe?  A government agency staffed by medical professionals?  Or this somewhat anonymous blogger begging you to prepare?

The choice should be easy.  Just remember: double-tap.

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