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.