Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 13, 2012

Am I vulnerable or am I threatened? Does it make a difference?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 13, 2012

Monday I participated in an “Emerging Threats Forum.”  Facilitated by Toffler Associates, a major jurisdiction was working to think through the atypical and potentially new.   Among the issues offered were:

  • Aging Infrastructure
  • Engineered Viruses
  • Climate Change
  • Cyber Attacks
  • Nano robots
  • Solar Weather

And more.  I perceive the purpose was less a matter of tactical planning and more an effort to conceive a strategic stance that might meaningfully engage a wide range of threats, not just those specified.

While our rather small, but diverse group was in conversation, the National Intelligence Council released it’s quadrennial report: Global Trends 2030: US Leadership in a Post-Western World. (Warning: 20-plus MB)

If you read HLSWatch, I’d be surprised if you have not already read a news piece or two on the report.  The Telegraph (UK) headlined: US will be “first among equals by 2030.” The Economic Times (India) headlined: India- China unlikely to topple American supremacy by 2030: Intelligence.  Same report viewed from two different contexts.

Here’s how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence frames the report:

“Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” projects that by 2030 the U.S. most likely will remain “first among equals” among the other great powers, due to the legacy of its leadership role in the world and the dominant role it has played in international politics across the board in both hard and soft power. The replacement of the U.S. by another global power and construction of a new international order is an unlikely outcome in this time period.

Nevertheless, with the rapid rise of other countries, the “unipolar moment” is over and no country – whether the U.S., China, or any other country – will be a hegemonic power. In terms of the indices of overall power – GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment – Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined.

The empowerment of individuals, the diffusion of power among states, and from states to informal networks, will have a dramatic impact bringing a growing democratization, at both the international and domestic level. Additionally, two other “megatrends” will shape the world out to 2030:  Demographic patterns especially rapid aging and growing demands on resources such as food and water, which might lead to scarcities. These trends, which exist today, are projected to gain momentum over the coming 15-20 years.

On Tuesday Dan O’Connor asked, “Why are Americans so scared?” Well, if you’re predisposed to fretting there’s plenty of encouragement in the Global Trends report.   If worst case thinking is your particular fetish, the six Black Swans described will be as titillating as the Four Horsemen.

I was surprised how the emerging threats conversation unfolded.   To effectively deal with any exotic threat — and many others as well — those in the room concluded there was a need to proactively engage the public.   The public should know the government does not have sufficient capabilities to effectively respond to many of these threats.  As a result, individuals — and the private sector generally — should be self-sustaining for a significant period, potentially well-beyond the 72-hour window.  It is especially important that those with the financial and physical capacity to be self-sustaining do so in order to allow the government to assist those without such capacity.

In other words, the conversation gave much more emphasis to shared vulnerabilities than to specific threats.  The strategic stance focused on individuals and the community being informed, realistic, and proactive regarding existing vulnerabilities.  (The group also perceived it would be difficult — both politically and functionally — to achieve this strategy, but that is for a different blog post.).   At least one HLSWatch reader was also involved in the discussion, I will be interested if she finds this a fair representation of what seemed to me to be a consensus conclusion.

The National Intelligence Council addresses vulnerabilities (and opportunities), but it does so within a rhetoric that presumes a threat.   The calculus of action and options unfolds from preventing or mitigating a threat.

The micro does not always translate into the macro but as the father of young children I discouraged attention to potential threats, even while I encouraged sustained attention to potential vulnerabilities.   I was taught by my parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and community that strength emerges from diligent self-development — doing my very best — not from preoccupation with threats or competition.  For better or worse — and I think mostly for better — this is the strategic stance with which I have lived my life.

Are we vulnerable or are we threatened? Does it make a difference?

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 13, 2012 @ 12:42 am

I call.

Show the cards.

“those in the room concluded there was a need to proactively engage the public.”

Please post either a proceedings document or a summary or something from the discussion. It sounds fascinating and I’m sure the general public could gain some insight from the ideas put forth.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 13, 2012 @ 2:24 am

Phil thanks for this post! Threats vis a vis vulnerabilities, perhaps just two sides of the same coin. What what is the coin? The coin is modern society and government and business and its ways of conducting itself IMO! And as to engaging the public that is relatively nonsense when the public understands that those who are involved with both sides of the coin really often thrive on ensuring that the public does not have the disclosure it needs to protect itself. Thus, governmental organizations, e.g., don’t feature those things it cannot do or cannot do well and why as opposed what it might be able to do and whether well or not to be decided only down the road.
This week six relatively young men installed 140 ft. of riprap along a vulnerable point on my shoreline. Skillfully handling both machinery and tons of rock I now have added protection against tides, wake from water craft, perhaps modest sea level rise, and other factors. But the largest threat to this small outpost is probably hurricanes and climate change and drought.
So here are some threats and vulnerabilities never listed.
(1) Lack of understanding of many cultures and languages and religions;
(2) Lack of disclosure of regulators of the risks they expose the public to by the way they regulate;
(3) Lack of disclosure to public of what is and is not regulated, e.g. the hundreds of thousands of organic chemicals that are not listed or studied or analyzed as to their short term impacts or long term impacts on human society and its necessary food chain;
(4) The Lowest Common Denominator of much of the governmental system so that some states really have no idea how deeply they have been corrupted and the impact of that corruption [perhaps a simple example is state regulation of insurance and how few actuaries are employed in the behalf of regulators and the public];
(5) How much of k-12 education is warehousing not learning;

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 13, 2012 @ 2:38 am

(6) The Lack of self-control by the MSM and its owners as its corruption deepens;
(7) The dominance of organized violence as a problem solver world wide;
(8) The two edged sword of the technology made available without thought or study of consequences solely on the basis of profits;
(9) The fact that many of the world’s institutions, in particular a gasoline driven military is already in the advanced stages of permanent obsolence;
(10)Destruction of privacy and civil liberties by various states and non-state actors.

Well the list could go on much longer but will leave that for another time.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 13, 2012 @ 2:41 am

FAS [Federation of American Scientists] has produced their own analysis of current National Security threats which is publically available. Comparison with the DNI I find of interest but leave to others.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 13, 2012 @ 6:17 am

Arnold: I’ll plan something more on these details for next week. Phil

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 13, 2012 @ 6:27 am

Bill: There is clearly a relationship of threat with vulnerability. I am trying to ask, does it make a difference if we emphasize threats, which tends to focus the problem on sources external OR if we emphasize vulnerabilities, which tends to focus on the problem on sources internal?

In my experience, individuals who think a lot about threats are often fearful and foolish, while those who attend much more to vulnerabilities are often paragons of strength and wisdom. Any implications for the habits and perspectives of nations?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 13, 2012 @ 9:49 am

Phil! Whatever the threats or vulnerabilities both must be studied because the coin exists.

I dealt with two OMB regulatory officials this week. One stated definitely that OMB had no authority over NRC regulations but he would refer me to the FEMA regulatory official. That official who had not read the regulation in question had little or no interest in how FEMA is involved with nuclear power plant safety and clearly was a highly paid time server that no sense of the implications for him or others of his lack of curiousity and incompetence.

Seven books are being written about the details of FUKISHIMA DAI-ICHI! I wonder how many will be written about the HAITIAN Earthquake now almost three years past!

It appears intervention in Syria a given by the IDES of March. Then I guess Iran also. What was the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE citation for Obama?

Comment by Donald Quixote

December 13, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

I have been waiting for this post discussing the Global Trend 2030 document. This thought-provoking document contains a wealth of topics for serious discussion, especially the potential black swan scenarios (page xi). Unfortunately, I expect that there will not be too many meaningful and impactful discussions until after the fact.

I wonder if our current financial challenges and previous failures will finally force governmental agencies to proactively engage the public to enhance their preparedness as you discuss – to adopt more of a British preparedness mindset. Will the public see the light and become more self-sufficient and self-sustaining? What evidence do we have that this will happen or it is trending in that direction? Hurricane Sandy has demonstrated quite the opposite on the micro and macro level. I am unsure how effective our public pre-engagement will be when our post-engagement is so profitable for the unprepared – fostering the wrong mindset.

There are some positive developments in planning that recognize the need for broad preparedness with limited resources. The recent HHS Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) Implementation Plan (December 2012) appears to be a positive development with recognition of our limitations and priorities.

“As stated in the Strategy, the PHEMCE is driven by two core principles: (1) the medical and public health imperative to limit the potential adverse health impacts posed by a variety of threats, and (2) the fiduciary responsibility to maximize the preparedness that can be gained with the significant but finite resources available” (p.4).

The strategy and implementation plan stress the difficult choices and importance of the responsibilities in light of fiscal constraints. The documents encourage overlapping planning to address as many threats as possible with a common solution. Yes, many others have done the same thing, but these seem to incorporate the need for doing more with less in an intelligent manner.



We can encourage and document these concepts in strategies, frameworks, plans and policies, but can we truly change the culture? Do we really want to do what it takes or is it just time for a new buzzword? Resilience is great, but it is so 2012……………..

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 13, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

Don, Thanks for these important links and connections. A wise man I know has observed, “Once people talk long enough about making a change they usually start actually changing even if only a bit.” Over the last five or six years (perhaps especially since Katrina), I have heard more and more private sector folks talk about the need for self-sustaining choices. In the last year or so (perhaps especially since the Japanese Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Emergency), I have seen some of them beginning to actually shift behavior. The noise volume has reached a new level since Sandy. Behavior? Too early to say.

Over the last two or three years, perhaps for similar reasons, I have heard many public sector professionals begin to say similar things. Most of the folks at the emerging threats forum were public sector, which is one of the reasons I was so surprised by what seemed to be the consensus. Cultural change is tough to assess, especially from inside the culture, but I perceive that in some important places — for many of the reasons you have outlined — there is a significant shift underway.

I will add one other potential influence: I perceive that the youngest generation of emergency management professionals (under-30) are VERY realistic regarding what is possible and not and this seems to reflect a generational value related to self-reliance (self-empowerment in the language of the NIC report) that, maybe, we haven’t seen since young adults during the Depression. No credible data, just impressions, just hypotheses…

Comment by Donald Quixote

December 13, 2012 @ 10:32 pm


Have you observed the increase in self-sustaining choices and the behavioral shift in the private sector in both the business and individual environments? I am guessing that you are encountering the majority of the increase in the commercial or business sector more than the average citizen. Obviously, this sector is easier to observe and assess. This acceptance is real progress and very important, but only part of the challenge. Hurricane Sandy demonstrates the importance of basic planning and preparedness for the average citizen in addition to the business sector. Any lessons learned and implemented may be beneficial, especially if they are maintained for more than a year or two. I just fear that the lessons are not often truly learned or implemented, especially when the long-term benefit is not valued and institutionalized by the person, group or organization.

I yearn for this change that you have observed for self-reliance in the youngest emergency management professionals. It would be nice to foster it to counterbalance a rather wider common culture of reliance and dependence on others that appears to be well-established and spreading like a cancer in our society. It is hard to beat the independence and dedication of many of those from the depression era. Unfortunately, we lose more of them and their influence everyday as time marches on. Hopefully, it does not take another depression to hit the reset button for our society.

For your original question, are we vulnerable because we are threatened or are we threatened because we are vulnerable? Or are we just caught up in it all?

Comment by Lack In Leadership: Vulnerability

December 14, 2012 @ 12:31 am

Saturday, Egypt will be lost to the Islamic fundamentalist and then Ethiopia and Iraq along with a sharp rise in oil as Suez traffic will soon be disrupted and we shall see few who can truly portray self-sustaining methods as our lack in leadership depicts the reality of vulnerability….Read Daniel 12:1. Calamity and utter suffering will aboud and few will be prepared.

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 14, 2012 @ 5:28 am

Don: I promised Arnold Bogis that I would report out more on public engagement. I will try to do this in my regular post next week (I am scheduled for Thursdays). Look forward to continuing the discussion then.

There are threats. Each and all of us are vulnerable. What I have not yet been able to communicate — I’ll try again — is that history, spiritual leaders across cultures, and my own personal experience suggests that it is much more productive and creative to engage our vulnerabilities than to obsess over our threats. This is not to deny the reality of threats, but it is a potentially important distinction of priority and perspective.

I perceive that at least since Pearl Harbor the United States has been much more attentive to threats than to vulnerabilities.

There seems to be evidence for threat-centric thinking and behavior being self-fulfilling, while meaningful and sustained attention to vulnerabilities is self-fulfilling in a very different sense of the term. I am exploring — sort of arguing for — a disciplined intellectual and attitudinal approach.

Comment by Donald Quixote

December 14, 2012 @ 11:42 am

Without delving into risk management and its different formulas and methods of evaluation to assess risk, are you vulnerable if the threat does not exist or affect you? I concur that it is important to engage our vulnerabilities rather than to obsess over our threats – defined as they may be. However, it is dangerous to obsess on perceived vulnerabilities when the threat is unknown or does not likely exist (such as procuring expensive armored vehicles for small rural 20 officer departments when neighboring agencies have several of them or multiple mobile command centers). I concur that it is perspective and priorities. Unfortunately, it often appears to be convoluted among inadequate definitions, fiefdoms, funding sources and a laser focus on the last incident.

I look forward to your next posting Sir.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 14, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

Don: I appreciate your patience. I have also spent considerable time working with various ways to calculate threat, vulnerability, consequence, and risk. I have often found a variety of formulas and methods helpful. Another approach — or a variation of more traditional approaches — is to begin with considering fundamental needs (water, food, shelter, pharma, etc.) Or some communities begin with their “most important” assets (cultural, economic, whatever…). Then they begin to consider how they are vulnerable to losing access to fundamental needs. Or how their assets are vulnerable. Both of these approaches almost always back into threats. Not beginning with threats seems to produce a different sort of outcome. But I suppose this method could also unfold into getting an armored vehicle for that “very important” pumpkin festival. So… I very much appreciate your help working this through and to answer my own question: Well, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

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December 20, 2012 @ 12:11 am

[…] Last Thursday I reported on an “emerging threats forum” that had decided the best strategy for the most serious threats is to: […]

Comment by GS test demo

April 1, 2013 @ 1:42 am

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