Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 31, 2012

If Thad Allen ran DHS

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on July 31, 2012

The homeland security enterprise got a glimpse of what DHS might look like if Thad Allen becomes the Secretary of Homeland Security.

He testified a few weeks ago at a senate hearing about “The Evolution of the Homeland Security Department’s Roles and Missions.”

Here’s some of what he had to say in his written statement.


Allen reminded people how quickly DHS got started 10 years ago. The perception of urgency in 2002 meant “little time was available for deliberate planning and thoughtful consideration of available alternatives” for establishing the Department.

The consequence of “fire before aiming?”

Basic mission support functions of the department such as financial accounting, human resource management, real property management, information resource management, procurement, and logistics were retained largely at the component level in legacy systems that varied widely. Funding for those functions was retained at the component level as well. In those cases where new entities were created (i.e. Departmental level management and operations, the Under Secretary for Science and Technology, the Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) support systems had to be created rapidly to meet immediate demands of mission execution. Finally, components and departmental offices that did not preexist the legislation were located in available space around the Washington DC area and the Secretary and number of new functions were located at the Nebraska Avenue Complex in Northwest Washington.

The result was an organizational mess.

According to Allen,

Many of these issues persist today, ten years later. Despite several attempts to centralize and consolidate functions …, most support functions remain located in departmental components and the funding to support those functions remains in their appropriations. Because of dissimilarities between appropriations structures of components transferred from legacy departments there is a lack of uniformity, comparability, and transparency in budget presentations across the department. As a result it is difficult to clearly differentiate, for example, between personnel costs, operations and maintenance costs, information technology costs, and capital investment….”

Allen outlines other structural and process problems that have “severely constrained the ability [of] the Department [to] mature as an enterprise.”

What to do about it?

In the May/June issue of Public Administration Review (subscription required), Allen wrote an article called “Confronting Complexity and Leading Unity of Effort.”  The title summarizes the approach he’d take to remedy the structural disarray that is DHS.

I proposed that the major emerging challenge of public administration and governing is the increased level of complexity we confront in mission operations, execution of government programs, and managing non-routine and crisis events. Driving this complexity are rapid changes in technology, the emergence of global community, and the ever-expanding human-built environment that intersects with the natural environment in new more extreme ways.

So far nothing very new here. Just another statement from someone stuck in what Sebastian Gorka, Michael J. Gallagher, and Joshua A. Geltzer call the Complexity Trap [one of the few articles I’ve found that challenges the assumption almost everything interesting is complex.]

Allen moves away in his testimony from the theoretical and suggests what his complexity analysis could mean for DHS: as a unit of analysis, DHS may be too small.

No single department, agency, or bureau has the authorizing legislation, appropriation, capability, competency or capacity to address complexity alone. The result is that most government programs or services are “co-produced” by multiple agencies. Many involve the private/non-governmental sector, and, in some cases, international partners. Collaboration, cooperation, the ability to build networks, and partner are emerging as critical organizational and leadership skills. Homeland Security is a complex “system of systems” that interrelates and interacts with virtually every department of government at all levels and the private sector as well. It is integral to the larger national security system. We need the capabilities, capacities and competency to create unity of effort within the Department and across the homeland security enterprise.

Allen is unwilling to wait for complexity and the magic of emergence to produce unity of effort in the system of systems that is the homeland security. He wants to create unity of effort. He’s shifting from a managerial toward a leadership perspective.

What is Allen’s vision for DHS?

As we look forward to the next decade I would propose we consider two basic simple concepts: Mission execution and mission support. Mission execution is deciding what [you do] and how to do it. Mission support enables mission execution.

For the mission execution piece of the vision, Allen wants to take another look (through the next QHSR) at what DHS is responsible for.

[T]here should be a baseline assessment of the current legal authorities, regulatory responsibilities, treaty obligations, and current policy direction (i.e. HSPD/NSPD). I do not believe there has been sufficient visibility provided on the broad spectrum of authorities and responsibilities that moved to the department with the components in 2003….

Once that’s done, he wants to look at how homeland security missions still worth pursuing are carried out, and “without regard to current stove piped component activities.”

Using borders as an example, Allen writes

…envision the border as an aggregation of functions across physical and virtual domains instead of the isolated and separate authorities, jurisdictions, capabilities, and competencies of individual components.

Resilience also would get a new, expanded look:

Instead of focusing on “insuring resiliency to disasters” we should focus on the creation and sustainment of national resiliency that is informed by the collective threat/risks presented by both the natural and human built environments. The latter is a more expansive concept than “infrastructure” and the overall concept subsumes the term “disaster” into [the] larger problem set that we will face. This strategic approach would allow integration of activities and synergies between activities that are currently stove piped within FEMA, NPPD, and other components. It also allows cyber security to be seen as activity that touches virtually every player in the homeland security enterprise.”

Allen succinctly illustrates the mission support element of his DHS vision this way:

…[W]hen you go to work … every day you [do] one of two things: you either execute the mission or you support the mission…. [If] you cannot explain which one of these jobs you are doing, then we have done one of two things wrong … we haven’t explained your job properly or we don’t need your job.

How to accomplish the vision Allen sets out?

… I see three possible ways forward. The desirable course of action would be build the trust and transparency necessary for the Department and components to [collectively] agree to rationalize the mission support structure and come to agreements on shared services. The existing barriers are considerable but the first principals of mission execution apply here as well … unambiguous, clearly communicated strategic intent and unity of effort supported by transparency and exploitation of information. A less palatable course of action is top down directed action that is enforced through the budget process. The least desirable course of action is externally mandated change.

I think what that paragraph says to the people in DHS is “You’ve been building this agency for a decade. Get your act together internally and fix what you know is not working. If you don’t do it on your own, you will be directed to do it either through the budget or through law.”

I don’t believe the last two options can work. They depend on control, and I think the evidence — including DHS’s first decade — is very clear: deliberate control is not a property of a complex social system, like homeland security.

The first option might work. But it’s up to the men and women inside DHS and the enterprise to make it work. That takes leadership. Not leaders.

July 30, 2012

Savor Complexity

Filed under: Humor — by Philip J. Palin on July 30, 2012

Earlier today I received a solicitation for paid advertising at Homeland Security Watch.   The placement would be part of a national campaign that you may have seen in your neighborhood.

I’m pleased to say the taste-test was a great success.  I also appreciated the obvious effort made to match the advertising to the sophisticated expectations of HLSWatch readers.

But the HLSWatch mission requires continued allegiance to our long-time non-commercial values.  No paid  advertising here.  We can, however, promise plenty more complexity to savor.

(The “Savor Complexity” campaign is real.)

July 27, 2012

SnOODAn: Boyd, Snowden, and Resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 27, 2012

Last Thursday I posted a bit on Cynefin. Developed by David Snowden and others, the Cynefin Framework can be a helpful tool for engaging reality’s varied flows, especially the flows — sometimes floods —  from known to knowable to complex to chaotic and betwixt and between.

Cynefin is both a strategic and an operational tool. Depending on one’s strategic perception it calls for adjusting how reality is engaged. For example, dealing with what is known is a matter of sensing, then categorizing, and responding appropriately. We choose a response to match our understanding of what is happening, our prior experience with what is happening, and how we have previously dealt with this category of event.

In contrast, a complex context presents a novel environment that needs to be probed in order to sense what is happening and then we respond to that understanding… often an incremental understanding that comes from multiple probes (some helpful and some not). Snowden argues that chaos does not allow for investigatory probes, but requires full-fledged actions and adaptation as we move with reality’s cascade.

In a comment to last week’s post John Plodinec suggested that Cynefin reminds him a bit of the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) framework developed by John Boyd.  I agree.  The two frameworks are especially helpful when applied together.

I use Cynefin to understand the context in which I find myself.  I use OODA to better understand myself.  Simultaneous application helps me adjust effectively to unfolding reality.

The principal impediment to recognizing a shift from a complicated context into complexity or from complexity into chaos is my own orientation, my own readiness and (un)willingness to recognize reality.

By clicking on the illustration a larger version will appear in a new window

My orientation has significant influence on my observation.  Instead of seeing unfolding circumstances I often “see” a prior circumstance.  Instead of receiving outside information, I may depend on inside information (often inside my own mind).  Instead of interacting directly with the environment, I interact with data-feeds, indirect reports, and other representations of reality rather than reality-itself.

Not surprisingly given this warped view of reality my decisions (conscious or usually not)  can produce actions wildly mis-matched to reality.  In mistaking a complex context for a merely complicated context, my decisions and actions amplify the complexity.  By mistaking a chaotic situation for a complex situation I undertake tentative decisions and actions that merely delay the bolder steps that are the best bet for stabilization.

Snowden warns that mistaking chaos for a known — and controllable — situation is often the precursor to catastrophe.  This is an error to which experienced experts are, paradoxically, especially susceptible.

The Orientation element of the OODA framework (inside the blue in the illustration) consists of what Boyd suggests are five anchors… predispositions… core capabilities…

  • Genetic Heritage:  We see, hear, smell, taste,  feel and think within the limits of our species.
  • Previous Experiences:  We tend to expect what we have previously experienced.
  • Cultural Traditions:  We tend to process new experiences with concepts derived from our social experience.
  • Analysis and Synthesis: Boyd especially emphasized the speed with which we can analyze and synthesize, greater speed providing greater potential advantage.
  • New Information:  Our receptiveness to novelty can profoundly affect every other aspect of orientation.

The more open I am to new information, the quicker I am to analyze/synthesize new information, and the less constricted I am by genetics, culture, and prior experience the more resilient I am likely to be in dealing with complexity and chaos.

Another way of saying the same thing:  My resilience is advanced when I can take thoughtful action even when seriously doubting my own judgment.  The more complex and chaotic the context, the more self-doubt is productively adaptive… as long as I take action, monitor outcomes, and adjust as best I can.   Will this work for a group?  For a community?  For a region?  For a nation?

Can a society increasingly organized around specializations affirmatively embrace self-doubt?  We usually speak of self-doubt as a problem.  Yet Jim Collins found that Level 5 Leaders “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  What is humility, but self-doubt courageously deployed?


I constantly stumble over pronouncing cynefin (it’s Welsh and sounds something like “kuh-ne-vin”.  Whenever I ask someone if they know about OODA they seem to think I’m asking about a breakfast cereal.   So I’m going to start writing and talking about “The Snoodan Frameworks” (Say Snowden with a kind of Scottish brogue or Scandinavian sing-song.)

We’re about one-third or so through a series on catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties that started with a post on May 18. The series will continue next Thursday or Friday.

July 25, 2012

Ungrateful, Unfeeling or Just Numb

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 25, 2012

When Vice President Joe Biden addressed a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia this afternoon, he probably expected the blue-collar throng to be a friendly crowd. After all, firefighters have few friends in Washington, DC more loyal or admiring than he’s been. Few politicians appreciate the influence wielded by firefighters better than Mr. Biden, who once referred to them as Delaware’s third major political party.

As you might expect, the Vice President set a complimentary tone in his remarks, assuring firefighters that he and the President see them as the key to protecting America’s middle class. It was unclear whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was both.

For the most part, the Vice President’s remarks suggested he was aiming to evoke the sort of mutual adulation that firefighters and politicians routinely share with one another in public. GIven the political season, Mr. Biden did not shy away from taking shots at the other side by suggesting the Obama Administration supports firefighters and their brothers and sisters in blue, the police, but those other guys, represented by Mr. Romney, do not.

Not long after he finished speaking, the reviews were in. Most firefighters were glad to see the second-highest ranking elected Democrat reaching out to the party’s traditional base at a union convention. But some expected more.

One of those who was not exactly thrilled with Mr. Biden’s remarks was the president of the Philadelphia local of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who expressed dismay bordering on disgust because the Vice President had not explicitly cited and endorsed the union’s victory in an arbitration case that awarded Pennsylvania firefighters protection against furloughs and a pay raise. City officials in Philadelphia, like those in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which recently implemented unilateral cuts to all city workers’ pay in a desperate bid to avoid bankruptcy, are appealing that decision.

These are tough times for cities. And that’s because times have been tough for city-dwellers. Not only have many Americans seen the value of their homes plummet, but many have seen real wages shrink even as their workplace tenure has become more tenuous.

Firefighters face few of these problems. For the most part, their pay has been stable or increasing since the recession started . Their benefits remain far more generous than those available to comparably trained workers in similar occupations. (I know, firefighters think no one has a job like theirs. They are right about that, many far riskier jobs provide far less secure employment and much poorer pay and benefits. Take fishing for instance. Or driving a taxi.) And until recently, they could be reasonably confident that they would continue being employed.

Now that the recession has lingered far longer than anyone expected, many firefighters are finding themselves in much the same position as those they protect. And that doesn’t sit well with a group that sees themselves as different, even special.

Firefighters have a difficult time relating to the plight of cities. Perhaps this is because so few of them live there. In most urban communities the days when fire departments were composed of neighbors stepping up to help one another is long gone. Today, the fire department is just another municipal service we pay others to provide.

Mr. Biden suggested that firefighters are the very soul of their communities. I am sure he meant to imply this was true of the communities where firefighters work, not the ones where they live, since these are rarely the same place anymore. I’m not sure he didn’t get this the wrong way around though.

Like Mr. Biden, though, I still admire firefighters. After all, it’s hard not to like anyone who enjoys his or her job as much as firefighters do, especially when they take so much pride in doing it well. But this does not make firefighters special. Neither do the risks they take. Although firefighting has its dangers, firefighters succumb to these far less often than one might imagine. The same things that kill other workers in far less dangerous occupations claim firefighters lives too, and take many more of them than fires do.

What makes firefighters special in my book is the peculiar compassion they show for others in their times of greatest need. Mr. Biden recognized this when he spoke of the selfless actions of responders to the Aurora theater massacre. Sure, these men and women faced perils in responding to an active shooter call. But the actions they took caring for the wounded was not simply about confronting risks or the skillful performance of well-practiced routines. It was also about the concern they showed not just for the physical wellbeing of those involved, but for their emotional and psychological welfare as well.

You can’t really train people to do this. They either feel empathy or they do not. The fact most of them do feel empathy means that the mere act of showing up when needed is the point at which they add the most value.

This value can easily get lost in debates about what the work people do is really worth. It can also get lost in the heat of a political fight for the heart and soul of a great nation whose public servants like her people have started to become just a little too numb to the pain most of us share.


July 24, 2012

All Olympics are the same. All Olympics are different.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 24, 2012

The 30th Olympiad — otherwise known as London 2012 — officially starts on Friday.

Forty years ago, terrorists killed 11 athletes, coaches and a police officer during the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Here’s what a senior official of the Black September group said about the attack at the Munich Games:

In our assessment, and in light of the result, we have made one of the best achievements of Palestinian commando action. A bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao Tse-tung, an earthquake in Paris could not have echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation at Munich. The Olympiad arouses the people’s interest and attention more than anything in the world. The choice of the Olympics, from the purely propagandistic viewpoint, was 100 percent successful. It was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth.” (cited in One Day In September, p. 248)


I’ve had the fortune to participate in or observe security operations for six Olympiads. Based mostly on that experience, I’m not a fan of the Olympic Games.

The Olympics are a circus that comes to town for a little while, selling promises and dreams. It helps separate people from their money, then packs up the tents and moves on to the next stop.

Athletes also participate in the Olympics.

I think the Olympics — like college football — commodify athletes. Since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, competition for the actual gold takes place among corporations, not the men and women who spend lifetimes getting ready for what may, in retrospect, seem like an instant.

But I believe mine is a minority opinion.


While I’m not fond of the Olympics, I am a fan of Olympic Security.

There is an aphorism in the event security world that says all Olympics are the same and all Olympics are different.

All the Games are similar when it comes to the rhythm and patterns of security planning. But one enters dangerous territory relying too much on sameness. The differences can bite.


London was awarded the 2012 Games on July 6, 2005. The next day, suicide terrorists detonated 4 bombs in the city.

Even without an attack to arouse “the people’s interest and attention,” security planning for the Olympics starts the day after a city gets the Games, and continues for 7 years. At least it has for every Olympiad I’ve seen.

Security officials can’t just plan for venues. Anything significant that happens anywhere in the host city has the potential to be perceived as an Olympic incident. So they have to protect a circus watched by the world, and at the same time take care of everything else they are normally responsible for. It’s a tough and mostly thankless job, made more difficult and more expensive each time the Olympics comes to town.

Every two years I try to ignore the Summer and Winter Olympics. This Olympiad — this week — is no exception.

But Olympic memories seep through the slough.


Barcelona 1992

The Spanish National Police provided my housing during the 1992 Games. I stayed on a heavily fortified paramilitary police base. There were humvee-like vehicles and heavily armed guards everywhere in and around the base.

“Can’t get much safer than this,” I thought.

Then someone told me the police lost an average of 2 officers a month to terrorist attacks during the 7 year planning period.

I got to watch one athletic event: a baseball game between two countries I did not even knew played baseball. I think that was my first introduction to globalism.

Baseball is no longer an Olympic sport.

Globalism still is.

In Munich, terrorists broke into the athletes’ village.

The village was also a huge security problem in Barcelona. But the problem mostly had to do with athletes who finished competing. They were breaking out of the village at night to enjoy one of the most spectacular cities in Europe.

The village also ran out of condoms.

Athletes may be commodified. But they are in incredible physical shape.


Atlanta 1996

The Atlanta Police Department procured the services of a blimp to fly “observation missions” over the city during the Games. One location the blimp frequently observed was the roof of a downtown strip club. I think there was a clothing optional swimming pool on the roof. It provided a training opportunity during the 100 degree Georgia days to practice sending real time videos from the blimp to the command center.

I recall one day during the Games someone found a suspicious package in an underground mall in Atlanta. CNN thoughtfully televised images of the bomb squad responding to the package. When police found out what was going out on live television, they asked CNN to stop doing that. CNN complied.

In Munich, television helped the terrorists in the village know what the police outside were up to. Now most everyone carries a video camera in their pocket.

The Centennial Olympic Park was created by the games organizers (malappropriately called ACOG) for people to enjoy the Olympic ambiance. It was not a secure venue, in the parlance of the security planning world. It was a public park. A place to hang out.

At 1:20 am on July 27th, while a band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was about the play “Take me to the river,” a bomb planted by Eric Rudolph exploded, killing Alice Hawthorne and Melih Uzunyol, and wounding 111 people.

Rudolph later said:

In the summer of 1996, the world converged upon Atlanta for the Olympic Games. Under the protection and auspices of the regime in Washington millions of people came to celebrate the ideals of global socialism. Multinational corporations spent billions of dollars, and Washington organized an army of security to protect these best of all games. Even though the conception and purpose of the so-called Olympic movement is to promote the values of global socialism, as perfectly expressed in the song Imagine by John Lennon, which was the theme of the 1996 Games even though the purpose of the Olympics is to promote these despicable ideals, the purpose of the attack on July 27 was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand. The plan was to force the cancellation of the Games, or at least create a state of insecurity to empty the streets around the venues and thereby eat into the vast amounts of money invested.

July 27, 2012 is the 16th anniversary of the Centennial Park bombing. It’s also opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games.

I will be surprised if the 2012 Games take a moment to remember the people killed and injured in 1996 or in 1972.

I hope I’m wrong, but during the Olympics it’s bad form to dwell on the negative.


Sydney 2000

These were the greatest Olympic Games I’ve seen. The entire nation — or at least the Sydney part of the nation — was transfixed by the spectacle. You could not go anywhere without hearing crowds yelling Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy; Oi, Oi, Oi, whatever that meant.

As loud as those cheers were, they were a whisper compared to the roar that exploded across the city when the Australian Cathy Freeman won the 400 meter gold medal.

At that moment, even someone cynical about the Olympics felt a chill. A good chill.

On the last night of the Games, two million people lined Sydney Harbor to watch the closing fireworks. I was on the roof of a hotel watching crowd control operations. Two million people can’t be controlled, I pontificated to myself, especially when there is as much alcohol flowing as there was that night.

“This should be something,” I thought.

It was something.

Two million people watched the fireworks, had a good time, then left. Peacefully. From a public safety perspective, it was thoroughly uneventful.

I do remember one obviously drunk young man staggering around in the crowd picking up empty beer bottles. He was putting them into recycle bins.

Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy; Oi, Oi, Oi.


Salt Lake City 2002

I heard a reporter describe the Winter Olympics as a competition involving “various forms of sliding.”

Opening ceremonies took place 5 months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. US athletes and New York City Port Authority police carried the American flag recovered from the World Trade Center into the Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium. 55,000 people did not make a sound.

A few days later there was a traffic problem at one of the mountain venues. The head of the Olympic organizing committee (known as SLOC) reportedly used the F word while chastising one of the Olympic traffic control volunteers. Mr. Romney said he did not use the F word. Other people had a different memory of the incident.

One night during the Games, “a sample from the [Salt Lake City airport’s] C concourse tested positive for anthrax.”

A detection system had been set up as a prototype for what eventualy would become the Biowatch program. If anthrax were present, the Salt Lake City airport — maybe every airport in the nation — would have to be shut down.

There’s an instructive story about the executive decision making process used during this incident. But that will have to wait for a different post.

Turned out it wasn’t anthrax.

The February night before closing ceremonies was a warm spring-like Salt Lake City Saturday. Too many people — mostly young — tried getting into the Bud World tent. Because even Utah’s famous “3.2 beer” can get to you in the high mountains, the crowd got a bit unruly. The unruliness turned into a riot.

I particularly remember one very drunk woman in the front of the crowd, screaming at the police, “You can’t arrest me! You can’t arrest me!” She held a small, thin dog in her arms.

Later I learned the police did not arrest her because “We didn’t know what to do with the dog.”

Even if you have seven years, you can’t plan for everything.

The riot was latter called “the riot that wasn’t a riot,” because during the Olympics it’s bad form to point out the negative.

An explosion caused a power outage near the Salt Lake City airport the day of closing ceremonies. It wasn’t terrorist related, we discovered later. But still — Olympics? Explosion? Who knew for sure?


Athens 2004

(This post is already much longer than I thought it would be.  Must. Stop. Remembering.)

One memory from Athens. The Europeans — and a guy from the US State Department — were nervous the Olympic venues in Athens would not be ready for the Games.

I worked with a general from the Hellenic police. He laughed at the criticism. “We started the Olympics in 776 BC,” he said. “The venues weren’t finished then either. But we managed.”

That’s one reason why I don’t worry too much about the Greek “financial crisis.” Somehow Greece always seems to manage.


Turin 2006

One more memory. I had a colleague from the Carabinieri who was the lead security planner in Turin for awhile. (Another Olympic truism: all lead security planners are only lead security planners for awhile.)

He was getting ready for a headquarter’s inspection of the Olympic security plan. According to him, the inspection consisted of people from Rome who knew nothing about Olympics or security. The visit would be a waste of his time.

“I hate the Romans,” he said, as if he were talking about one of the Caesars.

“We all hate it when the Romans come. Nothing good can come of it. But it’s Rome. What can you do?”

If he were an American Olympic security planner, or maybe even a state, local or tribal homeland security professional, he could just as easily have been talking about a visit by someone from Washington DC.

“But it’s Washington. What can you do?”


Last point, again from Simon Reeve’s book about the Munich attack.

Reeve writes about Israeli officials who wanted to retaliate against the Black September group.

The officials cited the ancient “Olympic Truce.” The words of the truce portray an ideal for the Olympiad. They coldly warn anyone who seeks to disrupt the Games. They sear an inviolable duty on all charged with protecting the Olympics.

Olympia is a sacred place.
Anyone who dares to enter it
by force of arms commits an
offense against the gods.
Equally guilty is he who has
it in his power to avenge a
misdeed and fails to do so.

From a security perspective — since 776 BC through 2012 AD — all Olympics are the same.

July 23, 2012

Damned If You Trim, Damned If You Don’t

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 23, 2012

One of the primary complaints made against power companies following major power outages seems to be their deficiencies in the field of tree cutting/pruning/etc. Basically, the story is told that X amount of customers would not be without power following Y “unforeseen” event if the utilities had done a better job of cutting down trees that grow next to power lines.

A seemingly related phenomenon is the uproar when those same utilities attempt to address the issue but don’t take into account aesthetic value of the same trees (when in non-stormy times they don’t represent a threat to the transmission of electricity but instead add value to home, uh, values).

On the same day similar articles appeared in the Boston Globe and Washington Post. First the paper addressing the most recent event:

Like so many other people in the area, Rock Creek Woods residents were already furious with Pepco for the multiple days they endured without power during a relentless heat wave a few weeks ago. Now neighbors here are angry over Pepco’s strategy to prevent future outages: the slicing and dicing of much-beloved Yoshino cherry trees.

The outrage in Rock Creek Woods, just north of Kensington, and elsewhere in Maryland signifies the conundrum faced by Pepco: People get mad when trees fall on power lines and cause long outages. But residents also fume when they feel Pepco prunes too aggressively and spoils their neighborhood’s aesthetic charms.

Surprising to me was that fact that this issue appeared in the press up in New England around the same time, despite the lag in time since their similar “event” last fall:

Officials at NStar, which came under heavy criticism after widespread power outages last year, say clear-cutting around transmission lines is the only way to guarantee consistently reliable power. But communities are increasingly up in arms over the the utility’s integrated vegetation management program, launched in 2010. In Sudbury, tensions between tree cutters and residents ran so high that a police detail was called in to keep the peace.

While I can sympathize with the general concern about the impact on the nature of the, uh, nature in these neighborhoods, I can’t but help wonder if in terms of increasing resilience we have already met our most intractable foe–and it is us.

What happens when a drone has one too many drinks?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 23, 2012

It apparently tweets and pens op-eds for Foreign Policy:

Every morning, the hangar doors roll open and the sunlight flares my electro-optical sensors. I drag myself onto the flight line, load up my pylons with Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and try to get some coffee into my tank before takeoff. If all goes well, I lumber into the air, loiter over some godforsaken warzone du jour, and occasionally lob weaponry at those I’m told are the enemies of the free world. By broad consensus, I’m pretty good at my job — and when I’m not soaring above the mountains of Afghanistan or Yemen, I even find time for hobbies, like posting on Twitter. But after I return to base, I self-medicate with extreme prejudice. Because I’m a Predator drone, and you people make me drink.

Beyond the imaginative premise, the vehicle, if you will, of a drunken drone provides what in my mind is a reasonable response to the important question posed by regular commenter Michael Brady in response to my last drone post:

Shall we have any moral, philosophical, or legal concerns for the collateral maiming and killing of untargeted persons or innocent bystanders who happen to be in the house or the vehicle when the Hellfire arrives?

The drone, after finishing it’s martini, answers:

But I’ll simply say this: Blaming a new weapon for the consequences of a society’s willingness to use deadly force against its enemies obscures the real issues of America’s adventures abroad. And it’s terrible for my self-esteem. But you humans show no signs of letting up, and so … I drink.

I think that cuts to the point of this argument against drones.  Thinking about the bigger picture, aren’t we better off as a nation arguing about the collateral damage from a drone strike as compared to what constituted the largest plank of our national defense strategy from just a decade or two ago? Has everyone forgotten that to defend our freedom we were ready to launch nuclear weapons against a full menu of targets that would have resulted in the deaths of millions of non-combatants?

Instead, we have these philosophical questions posted on a New York Times blog site:

First, we might remember Marx’s comment that “the windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam engine gives you one with the industrial capitalist.” And precision guided munitions and drones give you a society with perpetual asymmetric wars.

Second, assassination and targeted killings have always been in the repertoires of military planners, but never in the history of warfare have they been so cheap and easy.   The relatively low number of troop casualties for a military that has turned to drones means that there is relatively little domestic blowback against these wars. The United States and its allies have created the material conditions whereby these wars can carry on indefinitely.

Third, the impressive expediency and accuracy in drone targeting may also allow policymakers and strategists to become lax in their moral decision-making about who exactly should be targeted.  Consider the stark contrast between the ambiguous language used to define legitimate targets and the specific technical means a military uses to neutralize these targets.

Again, the history of recent military conflicts and of the Cold War seems to have escaped the authors. The ending of the draft effectively disconnected the suffering of a the martial class from the rest of society. Intelligence and Special Forces operations have been ongoing for years, without the benefit of drone or other technology but far from public perception.  Where is the outcry? And the moral decision making about those in the path of countless hydrogen bombs seemed not to be questioned during the Cold War by those within the national security-related academic community.

(Just as an aside, my favorite line of that post is: “However, technology itself (the physical stuff of robotic warfare) is neither smart nor dumb, moral nor immoral.”  Just because I’m willing to wager a nice dinner that no drone follows Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics…)

For those concerned I’m getting too far out of the homeland security box, the drunken drone addresses your concerns:

The second constituency I’ll call the “Orwells.” Their primary concern about drones is domestic. They see the technological potential for drone surveillance, the interest from law enforcement and government agencies, and the massive aerospace industry primed to meet the demand. While there are often noises made about UAV safety, the primary gripe of Orwells- who can point to an actual passage in 1984 which describes small unmanned aircraft peering through people’s windows- is that drones are vanguards of a pervasive surveillance culture. The police watch you outside with robots, corporations like Facebook and Google parse your user data to better bombard you with ads, and the NSA hoovers up your phone and email communications to feed through a secret counter-terrorism algorithm.

But the Orwells face a problem of domestic case law. Despite fractious debate over “reasonable expectations of privacy,” the Supreme Court has consistently held that police departments are permitted to conduct aerial surveillance of private citizens and property, so long as they traverse publicly-available airspace and use the same technology commonly available to members of the public. Those rulings made no distinction between whether the platform used for such surveillance was manned or unmanned, nor do many court-watchers expect that precedent to be soon overturned.

This is a serious issue that requires serious thinking.  All jokes aside, the authors of both the drunken drone work and the New York Times blog should be commended for addressing some of the larger issues in the room when it comes to drone technology.  I suppose I consider drone technology still far enough away from being the true civil liberties game changer that some believe it to represent.  No one within the continental United States are going to be killed by a drone anytime soon.  Neither will their civil liberties be challenged.  But what will come in the future?

Perhaps the worst case scenarios where robots kill with almost no trace….or a society where new technology is successfully integrated into a moral construct upon which (almost) everyone agrees.

(h/t to the Lawfare Blog)

July 21, 2012


Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 21, 2012
I’ve wandered lone
for longest hour
to ask the eyes with no reply
is just as sour

I see the still
and feel the chill
please understand the light
has left me quiet tonight

Save me from the fallen shadows
Pull me out of my dream
Wade me through the phantom shallows
Shelter me from the screams

you hear me call
and shine your eyes
blind my heart, linger inside
beneath your skies

an ancient sense
reveals your charm
such a delicate grace
of embrace within your arms

Save me from the fallen shadows
Pull me out of my dream
Wade me through the phantom shallows
Shelter me from the screams

Shelter me from the screams
That I see in my dreams
Shelter me from the pain
Appear to me in my dreams

Save me from the fallen shadows
Pull me out of my dream
Wade me through the phantom shallows
Shelter me from the screams
The scream
The scream

By The Sexual Side Effects (December 2011) 

July 19, 2012

Security and resilience, knowledge and uncertainty

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 19, 2012

Wednesday I spent the day at a meeting focused on an aspect of critical infrastructure and key resources (CIKR).  The sixty-some participants included invited experts from the federal government, academe, and the private sector.  The private sector was mostly represented by consulting firms and associations, but a few crucial owners/operators were also in the room.

It was a room with a history.  Most of those in the room knew each other from several previous meetings.  I was a newbie.

The purpose was to respond to, inform, and influence emerging policy at both the national and international level.  I am being vague on purpose.  I don’t think the specifics are needed to explore the issue of this post and I want to keep faith with what needs to be a discreet process… especially as a newbie.

Security and resilience were explicitly on the agenda.  I was there as an expert on resilience.  (I have a strong urge to write “expert”, but that was the label applied to get me in the room.)  Most of the others in the room were security experts.  Further, most of these others demonstrated a very real quotation-mark-free expertise.

It was a bit unnerving.  There was a great deal of knowledge in the room.  There was also an extraordinary faith in the power of knowledge and the possibility of true wisdom.  Some quick, perhaps overly personalized definitions:  Data are discrete facts and observations, information is organized data, knowledge is information-in-context, wisdom is knowledge effectively applied to solve problems.

Early in the meeting one of the veterans said that in regard to our specific CIKR focus, “all the information exists.” I initially took this as a form of understated humor.  Then it became clear he was serious.  Then I realized no one was going to challenge his claim.    My own silence emerged from both real surprise and the social caution of being a newbie.

As the morning progressed it seemed that most of the veterans agreed, “all the information exists.”  Moreover, there was an often unstated, occasionally explicit assumption that all the information exists necessary for us to make well-informed, validated, expert decisions that will secure and ensure the resilience of the focus-of-our-concern.

Or per my definitions: there was broad consensus that all the data exists necessary for this purpose.  The problem-at-hand is the lack of processes and technologies to transform this data into information from which knowledge and wisdom will be derived.  So most of the discussion focused on how we ought to use cooperation or incentives or regulations or some other tool to gather up all the data and appropriately organize it.

Late in the morning I made a brief intervention.  Who knows what I really said (writing is much more trust-worthy), but my intention was to argue:

1) We have seemingly agreed our focus-of-concern is complex.

2) If you mean complex as I mean complex, then there are by defintion many aspects of our focus-of-concern that are unknowable.

3) While we should seek to know what we can know, isn’t it also important to our goals that we recognize there are unknowns, some of which we may sense and many that will remain hidden until they emerge?

4)  What can we do to anticipate and mitigate unknowns?

In making this argument I pointed to the Cynefin framework that our meeting’s facilitator had previously introduced.

The Cynefin Framework, David Snowden et al.

Perhaps I had something green caught between my teeth.  Perhaps my zipper was open and a white shirt tail had escaped. Perhaps in my newbie-caution — or lack of insider-language — I was speaking gibberish.   Perhaps in the afterglow of confirming the Higgs boson all things seem knowable.  In any case, nothing came of this intervention.

Yet as morning unfolded into a long afternoon the prospect of capturing the needed knowledge seemed — not just to me — to recede before our eyes.   Data and information that at 9AM was clear had by 4PM become profoundly suspect.

By this morning-after most of my colleagues have probably regained confidence in the power of knowledge and the possibility of wisdom. I hope so.  For many, many aspects of reality this is an appropriate, important, and productive faith.

I also want knowledge and seek wisdom.  I want to be an expert too.  But I have found myself knowing mostly about aspects of homeland security (life?) that are — so far — beyond fully knowing.    It is tempting, at least for me, to descend into a deeper consideration of how we know what we know.

Instead of epistemology I will offer this observation: security and resilience are two distinct operational — and even psychological — responses to distinct categories of reality.   When reality is simple or complicated we can know and predict and control a great deal.  When this is the context, security is our appropriate focus.

But when reality is complex or chaotic there is much we cannot know, cannot predict, and cannot control… and if we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise we only increase our risks.  When this is the context resilience is the preferred strategic stance.

So says the “expert”.

July 18, 2012

Half-Full, Half-Empty or Too Big

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on July 18, 2012

I had lunch with an old friend on Tuesday. Like me, he was trained first as an engineer then as a public administrator, and spent most of his career working for the fire service in local government. He recently retired to accept a new position with a Fortune 100 company.

Over a very nice lunch, we discussed our common interests and experiences of feeling more than a bit disillusioned of late with the career we had chosen. Still passionate about public service, my friend noted that few of our colleagues seemed to be aware that the situation in which they find themselves these days is very much of their own making.

By the end of our conversation, the topic had shifted from work to life in general. My friend is Iranian. His parents sent him to the U.S. as a boy of sixteen to study out of fear for his safety if he stayed in his homeland after the Shah was deposed. (My friend, like me, tends to be more than a little outspoken, a trait his father feared would mark him with the authorities.) When he finished college, he helped his parents emigrate to the U.S. to join him.

His observations about the state of affairs in the Middle East and the U.S. role shaping the changes in his native land intrigued me. We agreed that the situation in which the U.S. finds itself with Iran and so many other hostile states in the region is largely of our own making.

It occurred to me later that the U.S. and firefighters have a lot in common this way. They both think pretty highly of themselves. They both know they have flaws, but do not seem to see them reflected when they look at themselves in a mirror. Many firefighters and many U.S. leaders alike take their influence for granted. They presume they deserve the respect and admiration of others to such an extent that they have difficulty understanding why anyone does not revere them, much less give them everything for which they ask.

As the U.S. looks upon the situation in the Middle East, what they see situations adapting according to their own rules and needs, not our national will. To be certain, people in many Arab nations are embracing democratic principles, pluralism and tolerance, values we purport to cherish. But not universally.

In many of these nations, democracy is not simply a question of individual liberty and respect for human rights. Achieving a balance of power means something much more difficult and delicate there than it does here. Balance must be achieved not only among co-equal branches of government or between the government, civil society and corporate interests or between secular civil society and competing or conflicting religious traditions and their peculiar institutional strictures and structures, but among all of these, all at once.

Our society can trace its democratic traditions back more than 200 years. Persian society, as just one example, can trace the emergence of democratic ideals in its literature, culture and customs back more than two thousand years. Clearly, we do not have that market cornered.

Whether we are wondering about the future of democracy in the Middle East or the sustainability of local and state government finances in the United States, we have to ask ourselves not only what we see but what perspective gives us the impression we perceive as reality. Not long ago, someone told me an old joke with a slightly new twist: “An optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘It’s half-full!’ A pessimist looks at the same glass and says, ‘It’s half-empty.’ An engineer looks at the glass as well and says, ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.'”

As engineers, my friend and I agree about quite a lot, both in respect of the situation in our chosen profession and our view of world affairs. In both cases, we feel obliged to help others see these problems differently. Engineering is not just a way of evaluating alternative solutions to problems, it’s also about the ways we define the problems themselves.

As we parted after our meal, we both left feeling satisfied not only with the quality of the meal we enjoyed, but also with the quality of the company and conversation we shared. Perhaps more importantly, we left one another confident that we just might avoid making matters worse if we’re willing to be patient enough and astute enough and open enough to our own faults to accept the things we cannot change by ourselves.

July 17, 2012

Highlights from “The Future of Homeland Security: Evolving and Emerging Threats”

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on July 17, 2012

Last week, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held the first in a series of hearings about the future of homeland security. Wednesday’s hearing focused on evolving and emerging threats.

You can watch and read the hearing transcripts here.

I gleaned a few excerpts from the speakers prepared remarks. I encourage those with an interest in homeland security rhetoric, thought, analysis, fact, social construction, discourse, comity and history to download and read the full statements.


First, my favorite part of all the testimony, from Brian Jenkins.

The sentiments are not new; they appear in his Unconquerable Nation. But neither are they old.

Common Will and Common Purpose

Terror is just as much an enemy as the terrorists who try to create it. Our reactions to terrorism are part of any assessment. America has come through the dark shadow of 9/11, but as a nation, are we stronger?

Individual acts of courage inspire us, but Americans remain anxious rather than confident in the country’s ability to survive the threats we face. Fear-mongers and doomsayers still find a receptive audience.

Instead of our traditional self-reliance, Americans look too much to government to protect them, in part the reflection of rhetoric that, rather than involving us in a national effort, tells us that as individuals we can do nothing beyond remaining vigilant.

Americans have come to hold unrealistic expectations about security, believing that risk can be abolished. We are too ready to seek someone to blame when security fails.

Instead of the stoicism needed for a long fight, Americans remain vulnerable to overreaction. A terrorist attack of even modest scale could provoke paroxysms of panic.

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom, or the folly, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sacrifices of war have been borne unequally. Our sense of community has eroded.

Terrorists did not create America’s anxieties. Terrorism acted as their condenser. Nor will America’s homeland be secured in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, or the sands of the Sahara. Our commonwealth, our common defense, will come only from the recovery our own sense of common will and common purpose.


Joseph I. Lieberman

This coming November will mark the tenth anniversary of the signing into law of the Homeland Security Act legislation created in this Committee in the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attack on 9-11. Given this coming milestone, it seems appropriate not only to reflect on the major homeland security developments of the last decade but also to look ahead to the next ten years, and examine whether we are adequately prepared to address them.

The preeminent threat to our homeland security today remains the threat of terrorism….

The cyber threat is the second most significant threat to the United States….

The violence in Mexico by drug trafficking organizations has reached the level where it is now a direct threat to our national security….

Transnational organized criminal groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are engaged in a wide variety of activities, from human smuggling to Medicare fraud….

…[While] our threats are becoming increasingly interrelated, we continue to address them in a fragmented way, with different agencies responsible for different threats.


Susan M. Collins

In an understatement, the [9/11] Commission’s report observed that, “[i]magination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.” Yet, imagination is precisely what is needed to address emerging threats. We must persistently ask: Where are the future threats? What technology could be used? Do we have the intelligence that we need? Are we prepared to thwart novel plans of attack? What will our enemy look like in two, five, or even ten years?


Michael V. Hayden

Because of globalization, the international structure that was created by the Treaty of Westphalia more than five centuries ago is no longer dominant. …. most of the attributes of the age of industrialization made the state stronger and more relevant. Most of the effects of today’s globalization make the state weaker and less relevant…. But here we sit with institutions optimized and practiced for the earlier age: methodical, thorough, stable….

We all agreed in the 9-11 Commission Report that we needed a domestic intelligence service and it would be best to house it in the FBI. But look at the reaction even today when the bureau tries to collect information without a criminal predicate, in that area we called “spaces between cases.”

And heaven save us from the Associated Press if the New York City Police Department tries to do the same thing….

This committee knows more than most how many of our secrets (state and industrial) are being stolen by foreign governments; how much of our wealth is being pilfered by criminal gangs; and how much of our infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber enabled anarchists and malcontents….

I should add that cyber, terrorist and criminal threats today all merge in a witches’ brew of danger.


Brian Michael Jenkins

The United States confronts a more diverse terrorist threat in 2012 than it has in the past. Al Qaeda, still our principal concern, has exploited the turmoil created by the Arab uprisings to make tactical advances and open new fronts. In addition, several incidents in the past year suggest a resurgence of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Mexico faces what some analysts have called a “criminal insurgency” by the country’s drug cartels, which could expose the United States to the kind of savagery seen in that country. The global economic crisis has spawned mass protests.

These are legitimate expressions of popular discontent, but they attract violence-prone anarchists and may generate their own violent fringe groups. Anti-federal-government sentiments, a continuing current in American history, have become more virulent, fueled in part by economic dislocation that transcends the current economic crisis, deep national divisions, and the rancorous partisanship that characterizes contemporary political debate.


Frank J. Cilluffo

… [At] the level of principle, we need to be as flexible and adaptive as our adversaries, who are nothing if not creative and ever-thinking. A static posture is an ineffective one. After all, each time we raise the security bar (often at great cost to the U.S. Treasury) our adversaries devote themselves determinedly to crafting a reasonably inexpensive and clever way around the latest security measure(s). Their ingenuity and inventions are often vivid, and include body and “booty” bombs. Now is not the time to ease off the gas pedal. Rather we should and must keep up the pressure and exploit this unique window of counterterrorism opportunity by maintaining, if not accelerating, the operational tempo. The threat would look and be markedly different otherwise….

To my mind, the cybersecurity community’s state of development is akin to that of the counterterrorism community as it stood shortly after 9/11….

Now is the time to act. For too long, we have been far too long on nouns, and far too short on verbs.


Stephen E. Flynn

In response to the attacks on 9/11, the Bush Administration mobilized U.S. national security capabilities to go after al Qaeda and those within the international community who supported them. To an overwhelming extent, the strategy was one of prevention by way of military force supported by stepped-up intelligence. … The hoped for outcome of engaging the threat in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… was “so we do not have to face them here at home.”

This strategy has involved a considerable amount of national treasure…. That amount translates into a burn-rate of $350 million for each and every day for ten years.

By contrast, the cost of one-hour of these war operations—$15 million—has been the most that has been invested in the entire annual budget for the Citizens Corps Program which was initiated after 9/11 to engage citizens in the homeland security mission by volunteering to support emergency responders….

… [The] total amount of containers inspected overseas in 2011 was just 45,500. This represents 0.5% of the 9.5 million manifests that CBP … reviewed overseas in advance of loading. If the 45,500 number is divided by the 58 … ports and 365 days per year, the result is [security] inspectors are examining with their foreign counterparts on average, 2.15 containers per day per overseas port before they are loaded on carriers bound for the US–two containers each day.

This does not represent much of a deterrent.

…In addition to the ongoing risk associated with terrorism, there is an even more clear and present danger to the safety of Americans that should animate the homeland security mission: natural disasters. It turns out that 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high wind damage….

[The] investment Washington makes in homeland security remains a fraction of the resources devoted to traditional national security. At times, this can have the perverse outcome of actually making civilian targets potentially more attractive to our adversaries. For instance, the U.S. Navy has invested more in protecting the single port of San Diego that is home to the Pacific Fleet, than the Department of Homeland Security has invested in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma combined, upon which the bulk of the U.S. economy relies….

…Everyday civilians, supported by state and local officials, will need to be better informed and empowered to play a meaningful role. This role includes not only preventing acts of terrorism, but making investments that mitigate the risk of disruption to our communities and critical infrastructure. This will require a homeland security enterprise centered around three efforts: (1) setting appropriate expectations, (2) increasing transparency, and (3) building community and infrastructure resilience.

July 16, 2012

Scanning Cargo Containers: A Sticky Issue

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

On July 1st:

The Obama administration has failed to meet a legal deadline for scanning all shipping containers for radioactive material before they reach the United States, a requirement aimed at strengthening maritime security and preventing terrorists from smuggling a nuclear device into any of the nation’s 300 sea and river ports.

The Department of Homeland Security was given until this month to ensure that 100 percent of inbound shipping containers are screened at foreign ports.

Since this requirement was passed into law, the Secretary of Homeland Security (irrespective of political party) has given it a pass:

But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.

This has been the general response to this mandate by Chertoff and Ridge before Napolitano.  Paul Rozenzweig, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in DHS, captures the essence of the issue in a blog post at Lawfare:

The delay of the scanning requirement is, frankly, a good thing.  It is another example of the inability of our system to effectively communicate and manage risk.   The right answer to multiple threats has to be the risk based allocation of resources.  We can’t protect against all things at all times — the costs, in resources and lost liberties would simply be too high.  Instead, DHS allocates its inspection resources based on a judgment about risk.  Dollars spent on 100% scanning are dollars NOT spent on some other threat (cyber?  bio?).

What he doesn’t address is that if the concern is the possibility of a nuclear weapon being smuggled into the country in a shipping container, the better use of resources would be to lock down the limited amount of fissile material required to construct a bomb at the source.  The Washington Post article I cited in the beginning of this post is likely cherry-picking the interview of one of the leading proponents of this approach when it states:

Graham Allison, a Harvard University political scientist and author of a best-selling book on nuclear terrorism, said that a nuclear device is more likely to arrive in a shipping container than on a missile. But he acknowledged that preventing such an attack is expensive and that there is no guarantee prevention measures will work.

“The game between hiders and seekers is dynamic, and there is no 100 percent solution,” Allison said in an e-mail interview. “The cost-benefit trade-off is the toughest issue.”

What Graham is saying is that with the Cold War over, the greatest nuclear threats we face are asymmetric in nature. Nation states with the capability to field nuclear-armed ICBMs would be deterred by our own nuclear force.  It is terrorists and perhaps “rogue” regimes (but only those that fail or are pushed up against the wall) that might attempt to smuggle in a nuclear weapon.  Yet I’d bet that his email correspondence likely pointed out that if a terrorist group were to acquire a nuclear weapon, they would be pretty reluctant to stick it in a shipping container out of their control and pray that it reached the intended target.

Instead, I imagine he’d argue that the resources proponents of 100% cargo screening wish to expend on the issue would be better spent on locking down highly enriched uranium and plutonium, as well as the nuclear weapons in fragile states (*cough* Pakistan *cough).

A sticky issue that just won’t go away.

Drones: A Moral Question?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

Was the Godfather a moral actor?  Truth be told, I really don’t know.  Though I’d wager there is an undergraduate philosophy class somewhere that has addressed this issue.

Are drones a moral weapon of war?  This is a bit more pertinent to homeland security.  It is a question addressed in a New York Times article this past weekend.  The takeaway:

So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.

As technology allows for ever more precise military strikes, the call for limiting to eliminating civilian casualties grows louder. This is not a bad thing–but within a generation or two it has escalated to a constant, underlying condition of carrying out military operations.  Again–not a bad thing.  But an unusual thing when one considers the “strategic” bombing campaigns of WWII, plans for thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union, and B-52 strikes during the Vietnam War.

AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the C.I.A. drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.

In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.

The ever-increasing accuracy and ever-decreasing number of civilian deaths raises another question:

The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?

As a personal opinion and not a moral judgment or philosophical conclusion, I have no problems with the use of drone strikes in our current effort against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.  What does trouble me, along with many others who have given far greater consideration to this issue, is what comes next.  Other nations are already developing their own drones.  There is no doubt that they will soon be used for targeted killings.  But instead of aiming at those we consider national security threats, the point-of-view might be different and a political dissident or controversial opposition figure could be the target.

Given the standards we are setting today, with what arguments will we argue against these strikes in the future?

July 13, 2012

Can you envision a “successful failure”?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 13, 2012

In the movie Apollo 13 — recounting the nearly deadly 1970 moon mission —  the heroic NASA mission director says, “Failure is not an option.”

The real hero — Gene Kranz — never said this.   It’s a scriptwriter’s creation.   After the movie’s success, Mr. Kranz did use the phrase as the title of his memoir.

Failure is always an option.  We recently received several reminders of this reality:

The final report on Air France Flight 447 found that “the crew was in a state of near-total loss of control” because of inconsistent data reports.

A  Japanese parliamentary commission found the Fukushima nuclear emergency was a “profoundly man-made disaster.” (See a good summary from the BBC.)

Last week from Columbus, Ohio to Charleston, West Virginia to Washington DC the best laid plans of intelligent people and competent organizations unraveled before an unexpected strong storm.

There was failure.   There was passivity, fear, denial, selfishness and greed.

At Fukushima and in response to the derecho there was also creativity, courage, patience,  generosity, self-sacrifice and resilience.  We don’t know enough about what happened over the South Atlantic to be sure, but I expect even in those horrific 3 minutes, 30 seconds the full range of humanity could be found.

Across all these situations there was uncertainty.   Some uncertainty is innate to nearly every context.  But we are increasingly adept at self-creating even more.

Responding to the Air France Final Report, William Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation, told The Guardian, “Pilots a generation ago would have… understood what was going on, but [the AF447 pilots] were so conditioned to rely on the automation that they were unable to do this,” he said. “This is a problem not just limited to Air France or Airbus, it’s a problem we’re seeing around the world because pilots are being conditioned to treat automated processed data as truth, and not compare it with the raw information that lies underneath.”

It’s a problem well-beyond commercial aviation.  We organize much of our lives around the assumption that automated processes will persist and critical information will be available.  We expect to be warned of a threat, about the location and condition of our family and friends,  and about when a crisis will be over.  We expect to be able to access our credit and cash accounts. We expect to be able to travel from here to there to purchase what we need and reunite with those we love.   If necessary, we expect to be able to call 911 and quickly get professional help.  Over the last two or three generations everyday life has — increasingly — demonstrated these are reasonable expectations.

We are habituated to success.

But like the Air France pilots, when our information habit is not being fed our response can be self-destructive.   In the absence of information we tend to continue as usual or focus on restoring access to information. Both behaviors can significantly increase our risk by ignoring rapidly changing conditions and/or delaying thoughtful engagement with changed conditions.

The Apollo 13 Review Board found the accident, “…resulted from an unusual combination of mistakes, coupled with a somewhat deficient and unforgiving design.”

The deficient and unforgiving design that many of us — private citizens as well as public safety agencies — have adopted is dependence on just-in-time information.

My twenty-something children  seldom pre-plan in any significant way. They expect cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and email to allow them to seize the best opportunities that unfold.   It works and I envy them.  Except when it does not work.  Except when these digital networks fail.

Much of our consumer culture is built around the same approach. We have become an economy, a society optimized for just-in-time. It can be a beautiful dance of  wonderful possibilities emerging in a moment and rapidly synchronized across time and space.  Until the music stops.

In the three examples above (not all catastrophic) there is a shared over-confidence in the fail-safe capabilities of protective design and effective communications.   In each of these cases the design bias increased risk exposure, communications was confusing or worse,  and both the design and the communications protocols complicated effective human response once risk was experienced.

There are several contending definitions of resilience.  Something that all the definitions I have encountered share is an expectation of failure.  Resilience is in many cases the learned-response to failure.  If it doesn’t kill you, you can learn from it.   The good news — and the bad news — is that catastrophes are sufficiently rare that we don’t get many opportunities to learn about catastrophic resilience.  What is a “forgiving design” for encountering catastrophe?

In April 2010 Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, called the mission a “successful failure.” Lovell explained that while Apollo 13 never reached the moon, there was  “a great success in the ability of people to take an almost certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery.”

Envision a complete blackout of telecommunications (voice and data) across a region, say, extending from the mouth of the Susquehanna River south to the Potomac River and from about the Bull Run Mountains in the West to the Chesapeake Bay in the East.  This encompasses roughly 5 million residents.

Such a blackout for any sustained period  is an “an almost certain catastrophe”.   Can we envision how to “turn it into a successful recovery?”  What could be done?  What should be done?  What does the mental exercise (more?) tell us about our dependencies, our operational options, mitigation opportunities, and creativity?

I know, I know… such an event is wildly unlikely… nearly unimaginable.  Just about as silly as a bad thermostat undoing a mission to the moon.


This is part of a series examining potential relationships between catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties.  We have spent the last several Friday’s looking mostly at catastrophe.  With this post we are pivoting toward resilience.   There have been a couple of great conversations.   Please contribute to the conversation by selecting the comment function immediately below.

July 12, 2012

All Star play-by-play

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 12, 2012

The Homeland Security All Star games (aka the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearings) on Wednesday and Thursday gave us examples of two very different kinds of major league play.

The National League came out strong with Mike Hayden at the top of the batting order, followed by Brian Jenkins and Frank Cilluffo.  These long-time pros demonstrated how counter-terrorism remains the bread-and-butter of the game.  Cybersecurity gets a lot of smart talk, but mostly as  another place to protect from bad guys.

Last up Wednesday was Steve Flynn,  the first American League (aka  Coastie League) batter at plate.   American League players are usually more eclectic than their  National League peers and Flynn did not disappoint, making a couple of big hits that rallied the whole community.

Thursday morning opened with Jane Harman in the batter’s box.   While “Darlin’ Jane” has played in both leagues, she showed her National League origins by focusing on enhancing intelligence operations.

Up next was the American League heavy-hitter Thad “Big Boy” Allen claiming that the key to homeland security success is, “Confronting Complexity and Leading Unity of Effort.”   Those old terrorist fast balls ain’t nothin’ compared to the complexity knuckle balls.

Richard Skinner was last up to bat.  I think he was actually playing Cricket.


Here’s the prepared testimony and video for Wednesday.

Here’s the prepared testimony and video for Thursday.

Just like ESPN already TIVOed.  Enjoy.

HSToday has a piece summarizing the Wednesday testimony.

July 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff and Slippery Slope

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 11, 2012

In Washington, D.C., a great deal of discussion surrounds competing conceptions of the fiscal cliff and what, if anything, the government should do to avoid going over it. As I have mentioned repeatedly in recent weeks, many cities around the nation find themselves on a slippery slope toward bankruptcy (or its equivalent) as they confront the lingering effects of the economic crisis and past political decisions by their elected officials.

This week another two California cities sought bankruptcy protection. San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes join the likes of Stockton and Vallejo.

Such dire fiscal situations are  not limited to California. Public employees in Scranton, Pennsylvania received unwelcome news with their pay packets this week when city leaders kept their promise to unilaterally cut pay to the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour in a desperate bid to meet payroll. This confrontation with public employees unions and among elected officials at city hall follows an arbitrator’s ruling that awarded public safety employees significant compensation increases.

As I read news of these developments, I wondered why these experiences do not seem more salient to others and what, if any, effect they have on the debate in Washington, D.C.

Evidence that they are beginning to influence the policy debate beyond the Beltway is abundant. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted recently as pleading with Capitol Hill to stop sending him federal assistance to pay employees he cannot afford to retain and will have to layoff. At the same time, others around the country are clambering for still more aid in any form they can get it.

Grants to help communities hire law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs have existed for a long time, in many different forms. They did not suddenly appear with the fiscal crisis. But what did change was the requirement for local communities to come up with plans to match a portion of the aid they received by sustaining these positions over time. Likewise, grant applications that help jurisdictions avoid layoffs receive priority consideration in making awards without regard for circumstances contributing to these sitiations.

In many instances, this approach creates the same kind of moral hazard that the European Union’s effort to help Greece avoid default. Bailing out a government that made bad decisions and citizens who stand complicit (or in most cases simply sat by and watched) does nothing to correct the situation or prevent it from occurring again. Moreover, it may present an incentive to continue making the sort of bad decisions that led to the crisis in the first place.

Normally, I find little to agree with Gov. Christie and his party about. But from where I sit, he’s right to question whether the federal government is doing anything particularly helpful by sending grant monies to local and state governments for police officers and firefighters they cannot afford.

Interestingly enough, I have seen at least one proposal floated recently to expand AmeriCorps to serve rural communities’ public safety needs. Some local officials rebelled against this notion suggesting without irony that it amounted to little more than socialism in the form of a federal takeover of local service delivery. This criticism, however, ignores the fact that many communities simply cannot attract or retain enough volunteers to meet their own needs even if they can afford to train and equip them. I know many of these same officials would hold their noses and accept money, not people, if they were offered it even though they oppose the taxes used to collect and disburse it.

I am intrigued by the suggestion of an AmericCorps expansion. It appeals to me on several levels. First, it encourages national service without requiring it. Second, it rewards community service by offering educational assistance to young people who commit to a period of national service in an underserved community besides their own. Third, it transforms what might otherwise be a deadweight economic loss into a positive externality by providing kids who are finding themselves priced out of the market for education with an opportunity to earn the money required to earn their degrees. It also manages to do this without forcing kids to compromise by dividing their time and attention between the two tasks — working and studying — at once. By reducing the future debt burden on these young people, it also reduces economic uncertainty and accompanying long-term risk associated with burgeoning student debt.

The idea of offering students education or housing incentives to volunteer as firefighters has long proven successful. It has also proven antithetical to the labor movement who see students stealing living wage jobs from people who neither need nor desire a college education. I might find it easier to accept this argument if I thought communities could afford to hire firefighters on the same terms as current employees but simply chose not to. IT might also be easier to swallow if firefighters in so many communities were not overcompensated for their labor compared to similarly skilled workers, including those engaged in risky occupations.

Many, if not most, other countries employ a two-tiered hiring system for firefighters. In some cases, the entry level positions are held by a combination of working class recuits and conscripts, much like our own military has operated in times past. The officer corps, on the other hand, tends to be stocked with managerial and technical professionals recruited from post-secondary educational institutions, which is most certainly not true of our own local fire service leadership. Many foreign fire service officers possess professional qualifications in engineering or scientific disciplines, which is rarely true here.

If every jurisdiction that enters bankruptcy exits in a fashion similar to Vallejo, such a course of action may not end up being such a bad thing. Somehow, though, I doubt this will be the case. Recent grand jury findings concerning the Orange County Fire Authority’s employee compensation arrangements and operational inefficiencies delivering emergency medical services suggest that particular community did not learn such lessons from their dance-with-economic-death in mid-1990s. (To be fair, their fiscal disaster arose from different circumstances entirely. Nevertheless, they formed the fire authority for the ostensible purpose of avoiding unsustainable fiscal circumstances that already affected many municipalities that depended upon the county for support if not service.)

If federal officials really want to help local communities, creating a win-win like the suggested AmeriCorps expansion just might work. But for that to be the case, local and state officials of both left and right political persuasions will have to lose their fear of their own public employees, abandon ideological posturing about for purely political purposes, and lose their learned  indifference to accepting help that comes with strings attached. Here’s hoping more wake-up before hitting bottom.

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