Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 10, 2012

Three Different Reflections On 9/11

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on September 10, 2012

What follows are three strikingly different reflections on the latest 9/11 anniversary.  While they don’t strike me as a Goldilocks combination, I can imagine that some readers will pick the one that is “just right” in their view. Others, like myself, may take a little bit of wisdom from each.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post criticizes what he perceives as the current “Washington” viewpoint of 9/11:

Nine-eleven just isn’t what it used to be. Residents of the capital will awaken to what is forecast to be another clear Tuesday morning, just like that one 11 years ago, and they will find that the day that changed the nation is becoming more and more ordinary.

In some ways, this is a good thing: Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda isn’t as scary, and Sept. 11, 2001, is on its way to joining Dec. 7, 1941 — more historical, less raw. Yet it’s also unsettling that the day is losing its power to make Americans pause. This is part of the general amnesia that led Mitt Romney to deliver his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination without mentioning a country called Afghanistan.

The sheer volume of events shows how ordinary the day has become: Public-housing directors are having a legislative forum, health insurance companies are meeting to talk Medicare, CPAs are having a banking conference, the Cato Institute is attacking the IRS, a health group is recognizing Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is talking about the elderly.

Strangely enough, to me Milbank has penned a great testimony to resilience:

Less easy to understand is why Jeff Faile from Fiola restaurant chose 9/11 to give a “cocktail seminar” at A.M. Wine Shoppe (featured aperitifs: Cocchi Americano and Aperol). The nerve! Doesn’t he know he’s competing with the arts gala at the Mayflower?

No. Mr. Faile is living life and not allowing what Graham Allison refers to as “a band of terrorists headquartered in ungoverned Afghanistan” disrupt our lives forever despite that they “demonstrated that individuals and small groups can kill on a scale previously the exclusive preserve of states.”

Graham goes on in his International Herald Tribune article to remind us:

Today, how many people can a small group of terrorists kill in a single blow? Had Bruce Ivins, the U.S. government microbiologist responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, distributed his deadly agent with sprayers he could have purchased off the shelf, tens of thousands of Americans would have died. Had the 2001 “Dragonfire” report that Al Qaeda had a small nuclear weapon (from the former Soviet arsenal) in New York City proved correct, and not a false alarm, detonation of that bomb in Times Square could have incinerated a half million Americans.

His underlying thesis:

Many are therefore attracted to the chorus of officials and experts claiming that the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda means the end of this chapter of history. But we should remember a deeper and more profound truth. While applauding actions that have made us safer from future terrorist attacks, we must recognize that they have not reversed an inescapable reality: The relentless advance of science and technology is making it possible for smaller and smaller groups to kill larger and larger numbers of people.

I believe that is one of many points most miss in their obsession with Al Qaeda and associated terrorist threats as the Alpha and Omega of this story. Juliette Kayyem of the Boston Globe takes a slightly, uh, different approach to the same storyline:

The e-mail had a simple enough subject line: “Al Qaeda.” It was from my cousin Karen, who also used to be my dentist. I have been, based on my government career in homeland security, the “terrorism expert” in the family. The e-mail came last year on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

“Can you help? I’m a little nervous now. My daughter wants to go to NYC for the weekend. But I just saw that they think there could be a 10-year anniversary attack there, so I don’t want her to go. She says I am crazy. I said I could contact you. By the way, how are your gums? Are you flossing?”

Dental care and Al Qaeda: Never before have the two been so closely linked. But there was something illuminating in Karen’s question, something that seemed to herald a different way of thinking about 9/11 as we head into yet another anniversary tomorrow. Terrorism has settled into a place on the list of our modern anxieties — next to gum disease and hurricanes — but it no longer looms as the overwhelming, existential worry that it seemed to be in the first few years after the attacks.

Maybe it has something to do with the distance of Boston from Washington, but she feels a little differently than Milbank:

It’s fitting, then, that the 11th anniversary is arriving tomorrow with little of the fanfare of past commemorations. There are no major public events. The anniversary has become personal, acceptable to remember in ways that are appropriate to the level of grief we still feel or the commitment of friends and family to the wars still being fought. As a nation, we will meet again in the initial post-9/11 spirit for only two reasons: the 20th anniversary or another terrorist attack.

And perhaps she paints the best picture of what resilience, in the general societal sense–not the uber-homeland security strategy sense, really means:

And as the politicization of the attacks fades, fear has been replaced by attitudes like my cousin Karen’s. Her question reflected the sincere desire of citizens to get realistic information about terrorism risks so that they can weigh the threat and make the best decisions. It’s not paranoia, just an honest attempt to better understand, and take responsibility for, bewildering information that is so often overwhelming and so rarely presented in a practical way.

Sunday Times: How resilient is post-9/11 America?

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2012

Yesterday Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt joined our ongoing conversation.  They write:

Have we become America the brittle?

“Resiliency” has finally entered the lexicon of American political leaders. The military has instituted programs for the fighting force. Officials are looking to the experiences of such countries as Britain and Israel, examples of individual and national resilience earned the hard way.

Federal law enforcement and homeland security experts are advising corporate America to build better security into their business practices — to safeguard their goods and services, to recover from attack and, from the companies’ perspective, to boost their brand…

See their entire essay.


September 6, 2012

Plaquemines Parish: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 6, 2012

From Wednesday’s Times-Picayune:

Dwight Robinson spent Wednesday afternoon looking for his mother’s casket along the levee in eastern Plaquemines Parish. He had just driven past his aunt’s crypt, now tucked in the slant of the east bank levee that skirts the Mississippi River. Robinson, 59, was walking through the world in utter shock. He was overwhelmed and in disbelief that Hurricane Isaac had moved the crypt about a quarter mile from its cemetery…

“I tried to go back to see if my mom’s tomb was there,” he told a Times-Picayune reporter while waiting along the levee in mud-soaked sneakers. “I just fear it might have floated away.” He looked up at the levee as though he might see her…

He then drove about 100 yards before noticing a beautiful pink casket with ornate metal fixtures resting parallel to the river.

He swerved off the road, stranding his car in some mud along the highway. Later, the Mercury had to be pulled out by a nearby truck.

He climbed the levee and studied the pink casket, attempting to find markings.

“I wonder what you could do to know … to identify these things?” he pondered.

When asked whether he thought it belonged to his mother, he said he wasn’t sure but that it looked familiar.

“I started to think what color her casket was, and pink is what came to mind,” he said. “I hope it’s not hers. Well, in a sense, I’m hoping it is.”

Robinson said his biggest fear is that it might have floated down into the Gulf.

He noticed the casket was upside down. He quickly flipped it, water pouring out as it turned. No identifying markings were present on its top.

Despite it all, he says he’s going to rebuild in Bertrandville.

“This is our little piece of the swamp,” Robinson said. “It’s a swamp but it’s our little piece. Our little piece of America.”

“It’s a mess, but, you know, this too shall pass.”


Plaquemines Parish is a narrow straw of land bisected by the Mississippi River extending southeast from New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico.

The 2010 census found 23,000 people up from 12,500 since 1910.   There is about 850 square miles of (sometimes) dry land down from about twice that in 1950.

Once dependent on hunting, trapping, sugar, citrus, and piloting ships from the Gulf to New Orleans, Plaquemines is now an operational center for oil and gas drilling for much of the northern Gulf.

Like most of southern Louisiana, Plaquemines  is made up of sediment deposited by the Mississippi.  About 1200 years ago the river’s course shifted east and the erosion of the Northern Plains began forming this new spur of delta.

Over the last half-century not nearly as much sediment has arrived and most that does flows right by.  The engineering of the Mississippi has reduced sediment flows by 50-to-70 percent.   Where the delta once meandered and moved and thereby replenished itself, we now maintain persistent navigation channels.   And because the mouth of the Mississippi has reached the edge of the continental shelf,  our navigation channels are very efficient at delivering the silt into a thousand-foot-deep maw.

In January the State of Louisiana and others announced a plan to reverse land loss in the Mississippi delta.  The core concept is to open up diversions on the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to allow silt and freshwater into marshlands, build new ridges, pump sediment into eroded marshes, build new shorelines, and pour sand onto barrier islands.  Basically it is an engineered approach to what happened naturally before our engineering got in the way.

Experts are divided on the plan’s prospects for success.  But in May the Coastal Master Plan was adopted unanimously by the Louisiana state legislature.  From my layman’s perspective, the plan is more likely to be effective in restoring the wetlands west of Plaquemines.  With one mile of land on one side of the river and, maybe,  a mile-and-a-half on the other, sitting on the edge of an underwater cliff, Plaquemines is an inherently vulnerable place.

Dwight Robinson says, “This too will pass.”  Well… yes it will, but not necessarily to a better place.

The last few weeks we have been using this blog to explore resilience: For several thousand, Plaquemines is home.  This is where their mother is buried.  This is where they were married and raised their children.  The economy of Plaquemines is stronger than many other places.  The seafood is among the best in the world.  On a bright March morning with the sun rising over the Gulf, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

This week Plaquemines looks like the Reuters picture at the top and a mother’s casket has gone missing.  Today a remnant of Isaac makes a return visit.   Next week or next year another hurricane will hit.

Resilience is, I have argued, mostly a matter of human relationships.  The stronger, more numerous, and more diverse our relationships the more resilient an individual or community or organization or nation.  These relationships are quite often tightly tied to a shared place.   We cling to those we love and the places where we have loved them.

Even to our detriment.  Sometimes even to our death.


Following are the lyrics for Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a YouTube of Ella Fitzgerald’s version.  Her voice communicates this sometimes exquisite, sometimes perverse sort of resilience better than any words alone.

I don’t want you
But I hate to lose you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

I forgive you’
Cause I can’t forget you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

I oughta cross you off my list
But when you come knocking at my door
Fate seems to give my heart a twist
And I come running back for more

I should hate you
But I guess I love you’
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

She’s no Ella, but here’s a 1957 recording of Lee Wiley that begins to suggest the power and pathos of profound attraction to… almost anything.


Related Links:

Plaquemines Resiliency Index

Atlas of Shoreline Changes in Louisiana from 1853 to 1989

Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act website

September 4, 2012

Badges? In a homeland security education future, your kids might actually want some stinkin’ badges.

Filed under: Education — by Christopher Bellavita on September 4, 2012

This week’s post is an excuse to share a video a friend showed me a few days ago. (Thanks RNG.) But since this is a homeland security blog, I want to first make the connection between the video and homeland security.

Last week I had the chance to talk with homeland security educators from around North America. I came away from the conversation thinking about three issues: jobs, curriculum, and the costs of education.

Jobs was the big issue. Depending on what counts as homeland security higher education, there are between 200 and 400 programs across the nation. Where are the graduates of these programs going to find jobs? That was the number one question being asked.

There were very not many answers. A few programs (one of which I will mention later) did not have a significant problem finding jobs for its graduates. But those programs were the exceptions.


The second issue was what to teach in a homeland security program. This issue is as old as homeland security. So that means not very old if you are in the “homeland security started after 9/11/01” camp. Or really old if you’re part of the “we’ve always done homeland security” tribe.

The curriculum answer is often arrived at through vigorous assertion, sometimes supported by focus groups (as if focus groups are representative of anything other than the interests in the room); sometimes by more systematic analysis: for instance here and here.

According to the people in the room, employers know what skills they want from the people they hire: critical thinking, the ability to collaborate, the ability to communicate effectively. Knowledge about specific homeland security skills — whatever they might be — was not emphasized, at least not in the conversations I heard.

I don’t know how much critical thinking employers actually want in the public sector, or the private sector for that a matter. But I don’t know the data either way on this topic.

I am reminded, however, how organizations can conduct a nationwide search to try to get the very best person available. Once that person his hired, he or she has to then fit in with the rest of the people. Maybe not all the time. But enough.

“It’s path dependency,” a smart friend explained to me today.

In my opinion, there is no consensus on what should be included in homeland security curriculum. I think we are still in 100 flower territory.

Before too long the 100 flowers may fragment into 1000 flowers. And that could be a good thing for homeland security education and for homeland security. That leads to a third issue: money.


The third issue that came up was the cost of education. The “total outstanding student loan debt in the United States now stands at above $1 trillion dollars.”

I find it interesting the student loan figure runs parallel to Mueller and Stewart’s finding that “the increase in expenditures on domestic homeland security over the decade exceeds $1 trillion.”

No doubt just a coincidence.

But I don’t know anyone who knows what a trillion dollar really means. So I suppose the best one can say is a lot of money was spent on homeland security during it’s first decade. And students owe a lot of money for going to college.

What the nation received for the trillion dollars in homeland security spending remains an open question. Apparently it’s even harder to figure out what college students got for the trillion dollars they borrowed.


One person I heard speak is working at a new edge of homeland security education. It’s an edge where badges (sometimes called certificates) are more valued than degrees.

His program (the name is not important for the point I’m making) is not concerned about granting degrees. Instead, his organization trains/educates (discussing the distinction would add several hundred more words to the post) people to be intelligence analysts. The students in that program graduate with demonstrated competence in a skill certain employers want. They don’t end up with a degree. But they do get hired.

Badges/certificates are not especially new. Computer professionals and emergency managers, among others, have been collecting badges for decades. But the looming rupture of the student loan bubble portends an opportunity for the “Badges not Degrees” movement.

If the badges trend grows, what might the future of homeland security education look like?


That’s a very long way to get to what I actually wanted to write about.

Here’s a link to a ten minute video introducing a quasi-science fiction concept called EPIC 2020. (There’s a longer video on the page, but the first one gets the main idea across.)

If you’re interested in where education, curriculum and assessment might be going, the ten minute video is worth your time.

Maybe some of the concepts are fanciful (e.g., Apple buys Amazon, and Google buys the Khan Academy). Other ideas, like the student loan bubble, are a disturbing reality. Still other parts of the trend are happing now (a Stanford professor taught one course to 160,000 students from all over the world; that’s more students than most faculty teach in a lifetime).

The badges approach is not without downsides. But the current approaches to homeland security education — to higher education in general — also has its problems.

(Caution: very long sentence with unconventional spacing coming up. )

What could it mean for homeland security education
if we moved toward a future where a degree in homeland security
(or in any of the dozens of disciplines and professions related to it)
did not matter as much as a badge that certifies a potential employee demonstrated competence
in one of the higher level skills homeland security employers want:
collaboration, being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, measurement, mash ups, social networking, resilience…
who knows what else?

I don’t know how many people are entering homeland security higher education programs this fall.

But I’m guessing the jobs the best of those students will be competing for when they graduate haven’t been invented yet.

That is an interesting curriculum design problem.

September 3, 2012

The blurring of homeland and national security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on September 3, 2012

[Forgive the rambling nature of this post.  I blame the long weekend, skimming an article I should read more carefully, and too much Doctor Who.]

The term “homeland security” is notoriously hard to define. Even more difficult is where to draw the line between “homeland” security and “national” security.  Simply perplexing is the issue of whether there should be a line or not, and the possibly negative effects of attempting to draw one.

Large natural events, such as Hurricane Issac or the western wildfires, serve to highlight the emergency management/preparedness/response/recovery/etc. portion of the enterprise.  Terrorism, health events, and technological disasters comfortably fit here as well, at least in terms of preparing for and responding to effects.

Preventing terrorism would seem, at first, to fit easily within the homeland security arena.  “See something, say something,” fusion centers, the concern about domestic radicalization, and the shift in FBI focus from criminal investigations to terrorism prevention.  But set alone, this effort seems a bit inconsequential in terms of fighting terrorism.  The minor leagues, if you will, to the game being played by intelligence services (and not just U.S. agencies…) and the military overseas.  What major, potentially catastrophic, and realistic (an aspect that is interpreted by different people for different reasons) plots have been disrupted solely on the basis of domestically-gathered information?  Besides the FBI and the NYPD, what domestic agencies are conducting true intelligence-type operations domestically?

This is not a bad thing.  I personally do not want the CIA carrying out operations against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.  We do have rights…or so I was led to believe in civics class.  Intelligence gathered abroad can be filtered and shared with relevant domestic law enforcement agencies in the hope of preventing attacks.  Well…one hopes.  Radicalization of at-risk individuals can be countered by developing relationships with responsible authorities among particular (really wanted to avoid the term “suspect,” sounds a little too NYPD-ish…) populations. Well…perhaps. And is anyone paying attention to the non-Islamic groups? (I know they are, but I also know that the Red Sox are still playing games. The underlying issue is who’s paying attention?)

My point is that counter-terrorism is neither simply a home or away game–it’s a continuum better understood with sci-fi metaphors rather than sports.

So how do we talk about homeland vs. national security?  Should we even bother? (Though I suspect that if we don’t, the “national security” community will out of superior numbers and positioning take what it wants from “homeland security” and leave the rest to emergency management.  Kinda like if FEMA had been separated from DHS following Katrina.)

What prompts these rambling thoughts are two somewhat recent articles.  The first is a Washington Post story on the successful melding of a homeland security sector, customs at the border, with a traditional national security realm, counter-proliferation:

The Chinese toymaker said he was seeking parts for a “magic horse,” a metal-framed playground pony. But the exotic, wildly expensive raw material he wanted seemed better suited for space travel than backyard play.

Only in recent months did the full scope of the ruse become apparent. The destination for the specialty steel was not China but Iran, and the order had nothing to do with toy horses, U.S. investigators say.

“We are certain,” said a law enforcement official familiar with the case, “that the metal was meant for advanced centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program.”

How this effort was discovered:

Perhaps the most striking fact about the toy-horse plot, investigators say, is that it was discovered at all. The tip came in late 2008 from an obscure Homeland Security program that involves occasional factory visits by U.S. officials to guard against foreign pilfering of sensitive U.S. technology.

During a visit to a Puget Sound steelmaker, an export manager there told a U.S. official about a bizarre query he had gotten from China.

Export controls have a long and important history in the national security efforts aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  However, they remain a little publicized but very important mission of the Department of Homeland Security’s broader border security efforts.

The other nugget that got me thinking was this from a Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) news brief mounting a public health defense of the Biowatch program

Some public health officials’ discomfort with BioWatch also may be related to a culture clash between the public health world and the law enforcement and security realm, according to Biedrzycki.

“Public health typically hasn’t been part of that culture, of law enforcement or national security and the intelligence community,” he said. “This is new territory, and I think we don’t fully understand how to operate within that culture.

“It’s very difficult for us, coming from a very transparent, open, trust-building relationship with many of our clients, going into a less open environment in terms of information sharing. I can understand those criticisms, but in reality I think the trend is for public health to be integrated with the intelligence community.”

Emphasis added to underline my concern.

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