Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 8, 2013

An abundance of caution

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 8, 2013

Diplomatic Posts ClosedOn Monday the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, explained several U.S. diplomatic posts would remain closed for up to a week out of an “abundance of caution” prompted by a potential terrorist attack.

As the Tsarnaev brothers fled, flinging explosives from their stolen car, residents of Boston and many close-in suburbs were told to stay inside behind locked doors.  The unprecedented, rather amazing, shut-down of a huge urban area was justified by an abundance of caution emerging from a proven murderous capacity and a continued proximate capability demonstrated just hours before.

As Hurricane Sandy churned north, Mayor Bloomberg announced mandatory evacuations and scheduled suspension of the transit system as warranted by an abundance of caution. Soon enough — and well before landfall — he was warning of a clear and present danger.

Congressional leaders who have been briefed on the intelligence “stream” are unified in endorsing the abundance of caution undertaken in recent days.  It is reassuring that our feuding representatives can find anything on which to agree.  Especially when such vociferous political adversaries make common-cause, I am inclined to defer to their assessment of the current context.  The evidence has, apparently, pointed to a fast-approaching threat.

But I will raise an issue of strategy or perhaps policy beyond the current circumstance: With Hurricane Sandy the threat velocity was known and New York was absolutely in the target zone.  In the case of Boston, Watertown, and near-by, bombing, murder and mayhem were undeniably clear and present.

What seems to be the situation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and AQ-Core is a communications intercept involving a vague instruction to do something big.  I will admit this strikes me — so early in the post-Snowden period — as a suspicious choice by Messrs. Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. (Or… in our Kafkaesque counterterrorism context is the intercept report a false-flag to distract AQ et al from the actual tradecraft involved?) When or where or precisely who might carry out the attack is not known.  So… we evacuate or shelter-in-place across roughly the same expansive space as the Umayyad Caliphate.

But… taking the reported intercept on face value, AQAP has a significant capacity in Yemen.  Given demonstrated AQAP capabilities, the shuttering of our Sana’a facility and evacuation of most personnel is probably a prudent measure.  (The government of Yemen disagrees and claims to have foiled a local plot.)

We have seen that other AQ franchises across North Africa, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere also have existing capacity.  I don’t have the resources to assess threat capabilities in each nation where our official outpost has closed its doors.  No doubt if the decision-criterion is an “abundance of caution” a sufficient argument can be made for each.


Last week I was given a boilerplate contract to sign.  It included a clause that could have been used by the other party to claim 125 percent of any revenue I generated from a set of long-time clients.  This was not the original intent of the clause, but was a possible application.  Such action by the other party is very unlikely, but out of an abundance of caution I arranged for an amendment to the agreement.

This is an example of the origins of the phrase.  In Latin it is “ex abundanti cautela”.  In Roman law the tendency to explicitly engage and counter very unlikely possibilities is prompted by an an abundance of caution.  Such action is certainly prudent. It is also — at least in the context of ancient Roman law — tedious, pedantic, and often so ridiculous as to become absurd.

Today the phrase is usually unveiled with a kind of magisterial flourish that suggests no reasonable person could possibly contest the good sense of behaving with an abundance of caution.

Is over-abundance possible?

New York could — out of an abundance of caution — announce voluntary evacuations every time one of those individual tracks in the hurricane cone-of-probability crosses between Atlantic City and the Hamptons.

The Boston area shelter-in-place order was lifted about 6:15 PM.  After nearly eleven hours behind locked doors, caution seemed a bit over-ripe. The surviving suspect was located in the boat about a half-hour later.  What would have been our assessment of the Boston shut-down if the second suspect had not been located that evening?


Most of our risks are no-notice. But with hurricanes — and to a lesser extent tornadoes and blizzards — there is an emerging ability to take action to avert harm.  The reason we spend billions on  the intelligence community and offer the first fruits of liberty on the altar of security is to give us similar warning for evil intention.

What we have learned from weather-related warning is that preventive action not followed by a confirming event increases the tendency of the population to take unnecessary risks next time.  Over-zealous — or unlucky — efforts to prevent harm can perversely cause greater harm.

While we are certainly dealing with probabilities, this is not — yet — a matter of contending mathematical models.  We are left with concepts… judgments… words.  Always fallible, but fully worth our careful thought.

An abundance of caution is an ancient legal principle supportive of taking preventive action. So is the common law’s “bad tendency” which was succeeded by “clear and present danger” which has evolved into justifying preventive action by the State only where the threat of violence is both imminent and likely.

Is the threat proximate in time and space and probable?  We will still disagree, but these are the right questions to ask.  These are the right questions to answer in justifying dramatic preventive or preemptive action.

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Comment by JCOMISKEY

August 8, 2013 @ 4:16 am

Metric for counterterrorism is nothing.
Did nothing happen due to counterterrorism activity or would nothing have happened without the counterterrorism activity?
The answer is unknowable (what if history.

Abundance of caution might also be disinformation-counter tactic to protect sources and methods.

If U.S. Intelligence has more specific threat on hand and wants to protect sources and methods, the threat warning “might” be more broad than necessary so as to protect certain sources and methods. Example, the threat might be target a/b/c. If U.S. government warns only a/b/c sources and methods connected to a/b/c might be compromised. So, U.S. government identifies a/b/c/d/e/f to minimize the chances that sources and methods might be compromised. U.S. government should (moral imperative) protect sources and methods and also has realpolitik rational to protect sources and methods (notwithstanding their morality or lack thereof).

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 8, 2013 @ 5:11 am


Thanks for adding that our behavior will sometimes include disinformation to cover sources and methods or otherwise influence our adversaries.

I would take exception, however, to your “nothing” metric. Even when nothing happens counterterrorism measures create their own wrinkle in reality. As your disinformation tactic suggests, perception and attitudes are impacted.

I have some concern that in making our choices we too often focus on minimizing tactical losses and avoiding domestic political criticism. We can, unintentionally and inadvertently, deliver a strategic success to our adversaries because we fail to fully recognize how they can leverage what seems entirely prudent from our angle.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 8, 2013 @ 7:03 am

And AQ cannot wait a week or two before attacking?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 8, 2013 @ 7:03 am

What was the thinking behind announcing the closures?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 8, 2013 @ 7:04 am

What did the IC know and when did they know it?

Comment by Quin

August 8, 2013 @ 8:41 am

“ex abundanti cautela”

I guess Paullus and Varro must have missed that class in school.

Comment by JCOMISKEY

August 8, 2013 @ 8:42 am

Nothing is nothing or less than nothing to talk about and certainly less than what the news cycle demands.

IMHO, society is driven in large part by news cycle demands.

IC “should” be apolitical. Reality: everything has a political aspect.

O administration promised greater transparency but found that a hard promise to deliver. Again reality check.

What the IC knew and when did they know it “should” be TOP SECRET. IC must protect sources and methods. Congressional Intelligence oversight “should” and largely does check IC.

In government and especially intelligence we assent to a degree of ambiguity see Lowenthal


Comment by Christopher Tingus

August 9, 2013 @ 4:13 am

Obama Picks Homeland Security, Energy, and NLRB GCs
By Andrew Ramonas Contact All Articles
Corporate Counsel
August 2, 2013

President Barack Obama

Former Union Counsel Said to be Next NLRB GC
President Barack Obama on Thursday made his picks for the general counsel at the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy, as well as the National Labor Relations Board.

The GC nominations went to Stevan Bunnell for DHS, Steven Croley for DOE, and Richard Griffin Jr. for the NLRB.

Griffin’s selection came as Obama withdrew his original nomination for Lafe Solomon to serve as the NLRB general counsel. Solomon, the NLRB acting general counsel, spent more than three years as the nominee for the post. He faced Republican opposition over a complaint he filed as acting GC against The Boeing Co., which built a new plant and tried to move work on a new airplane from Washington State to anti-union South Carolina. After Boeing compromised, the complaint was dropped.

Since January 2012, Griffin has served as an NLRB member. He previously was at the International Union of Operating Engineers from 1983 to 2012, holding positions that included general counsel and associate general counsel. Griffin also was a counsel to NLRB members from 1981 to 1983.

For the Energy Department nomination, Obama looked to his White House staff. Croley is deputy assistant and deputy counsel to the president. Since coming to the White House in 2010, Croley also has held posts that include senior counsel and special assistant for justice and regulatory policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Before the White House, the DOE nominee was a special assistant to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and an associate dean at the University of Michigan Law School, where he is on leave.

Homeland Security GC nominee Bunnell is a private-sector pick who has served as the managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office of O’Melveny & Myers since 2011. But before he joined the firm in 2007, Bunnell spent 17 years at the Department of Justice. His last job at DOJ was Criminal Division chief at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Read more: http://www.law.com/corporatecounsel/PubArticleCC.jsp?id=1202613617742&Obama_Picks_Homeland_Security_Energy_and_NLRB_GCs#ixzz2bSfvx149

Comment by Christopher Tingus

August 9, 2013 @ 5:47 am

Philip another great post and fortunately you do read the fine print and amended the Agreement/contract you were to sign!

Our much respected William Cumming asks, “What was the thinking behind the announcing of closures” and “AQ cannot wait a week or two before attacking” – whether a partisan supporter of Barry Obama or one like me who demands his House arrest for his and Ms. Hillary’s shoulder to shoulder charade in blatant lie and breach of faith, treason given their willingness to place self-serving political agenda before the lives of four brave American patriots so willingly left behind at the “Benghazi Massacre” – I say all this la..la..la and these closures, politically driven and another intentional attempt to portray America as a weakened nation whereby his $6.1 trillion increase of deficit since ’08, a decreased capability by US forces and this policy of appeasement to those seeking our demise when in fact, whether AQ or other, it is Germany and Not the good ol USA which is really the enemy of the Middle East with its side kick, the ever powerful Vatican at its side as we see a fast deployment army, shiny new naval vessels and Merkel’s attempt to surround Tehran and continues exporting billions in arms to the Middle East in hopes of establishing a new Confederate of Middle East States in ally to Germany as Germany as our arch enemy as well, again hoodwinks so many as it marches forward as it has in 1870, 1914, 1939 and presently.

While a failed US administration so perverse, so divisive and biased in its mannerisms, narrow-minded in its willingness to close the doors of the White House only open to select guests and rappers….since when do we close down our embassy doors and portray an eroding America and our presence as a beacon of hope to so many oppressed for an America to be strategic and effective requires an America which possesses an arsenal for our Democracy and integrity must be preserved and our now tattered Constitution must be restored!

How dare the White House Doors remain Closed to our kids who deserve better and how dare we close our embassies rather than bolster their security and place our heightened presence in the midst of those who see America as their enemy when in fact, it is Germany who is really the threat to those so fundamental in their mannerisms for America as a people here on “Main Street USA” seek Not to impose their values or Christian faith on another and respects religious preference and differing cultural mannerisms for there is no better a place for a melting pot of similar, yet differing folks residing on the same block together, yet respecting one another….

How dare this administration share such information and close the doors to our presence and when it comes to DoD and technological innovation, we must be proud of our armed forces, assure them that they have all the support required to protect our national interests and continue to strive to produce quality product and as far as this Chicago city street slicker and nothing more, the 21st century and the Chinese leadership academically prepared and disciplined in the sciences and engineering disciplines are moving far past those here and in the Middle East and Europe and now with 5,000 years and more in presence, this religious war in the west led by the Vatican and the Islamic fundamentalists in their continued centuries old quest to permanently control Jerusalem which neither shall do for it is God’s city for all to share w/all our God, well, like Barry and Michelle Obama so narrow minded in perspective and only seeing history’s reference to America’s slavery issues and the colonialism of Great Britain as the only focus they prefer…. it is time for those in the Middle east to look within and begin to address the education of its youth with the same science and engineering disciplines to enhance their opportunities and the quality of Life while still retaining cultural and religious preferences and Respecting Life and the individual.

It is true America and its pornography and its tainted ways and especially the corrupt politicians we “entrust” to serve the public and to preserve our Constitution and yes, our Judeo-Christian values and seemingly these folks unembarrassed by much, seeking to impose themselves in every way and certainly not representing the populace in legislation much like what forced our brilliant forefathers to flee taxes and more taxes by King George and the same blatant lies, deceit and lack of any real representation other than fees and laws imposed to support the same lust in power….however while We here on “main Street USA” as a People will always support the Hebrew and their covenant which you do not acknowledge for We are Christian and Jew and Muslim here in America Respect one another and seek not to impose our values on one another and not necessarily to embrace one another, but to Respect one another and look to our similarities rather than only our differences….

We are in the 21st century and while We here in America have some very big challenges ridding ourselves of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol corrupt politicians on both sides of the aisle and looking past Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barry Obama, the Bush family and seeking a refreshing and renewed America who can especially thwart the marching advances of Germany while striving to work with those in the Middle East, Muslim, Jew and other to acknowledge one another with Respect and understand differences and like those who benefit in this country in continuing this divisive civil rights course and continually dividing the nation by the color of a man’s skin when in fact, the Caucasian was duped into thinking it was voting for a capable Black man, when in fact, White America who should be applauded and in general is far past discrimination and all related and voted for a half white man whose agenda is his pledge to Hussein Obama and his Kenyan pals and has left Black America and especially its precious youth with even more unemployment than in ’08…. those in the Middle East need not embrace another, however it is time to stop spending Life and monies on taking up the sword and to become better educated and aspire in ambition and excel which will enable many to make a difference and contribute to the respective societies and religious and political preference of choice, yet not imposing such choices on another….

Folks, America needs to clean its own house and these restrictive and perverted ways and it must retain a strong defensive arsenal against those that seek her demise, however We must also continue to work closely with the many cultures and wonderful fellow humans, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim or other and to seek a better world where one another Respects and is willing to stand tall for Life, not abort human life, babies and especially late term birth as this “Chicago-Hollywood-Washington Charade” continues to support….Obama’s health plan spurred on by Teddy Kennedy whose agenda left Mary Jo beneath the bridge and any other endeavor based on self-serving and biased ways when we hear this week that Congress and our illustrious Senators and their staffers will be exempt from Obamacare…what a hoax placed upon us so open the Embassies and Open the White House Doors and let’s begin today to gather together and rally to address our own woes in an expedient manner for far too many are now hungry here in America and more and more in distant shore are being oppressed by the same corrupt and self-serving soldiers of Lucifer and hand in hand, again not necessarily to embrace one another, a handclasp to begin to reach out to one another and restore America and her beacon of hope from within and then to utilize individualism and compassion rather than to follow policies which cause such consternation and are conflagrant in their ways….

Let’s take back America and restore our faith and preserve our best attributes and repent in every way and proudly read Biblical verse and pledge allegiance to our beloved republic and to those preferring to read their Qur’an or others choosing their preferences on every way, let’s celebrate one another rather than catering to those so corrupt here and there in every way stripping us of the quality of Life the Palestinian, the Hebrew, the Christian, the Muslim and all of us deserve rather than again steer ourselves as merely sheep once again to calamity and deprivation as War truly looms ahead and America has lost its way with the empty rhetorical orations of the Wright-Obama pulpit and the same ‘ol whether Bush or Clinton for if we are to help ourselves and then others, we must be a healthy nation and We are Not and as long as You allow the White House Doors to be Closed to our kids who deserve better and to allow politicians to detract from our proud history , you as a citizen of this great nation, allow the lawlessness we see become dominant in so many ways which will lead to our own demise.

I remind you of the caution found in the words to us as written in (1785) by James Madison:

“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be under the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. But, in reality it will be an enemy from within” –

What do you mean we cannot deploy a naval vessel to a strategic position, but we can spend $100 million to send the Obama family to Africa or to Spain rather than to see the Grand Canyon? ….or for “smug-smiled Pelosi with all her millions in her bank accounts to travel to California expense paid with kids having little food, the shelves of food banks often with little available and her Grandkids and their kids well taken care of….Enough is enough!

Open the White House Doors Now and Open our Embassies and never mind whimpering around…We are America and have much to be proud of despite our politicians who seem to have so much time on their hands to go to their cell phone or to their copy and fax machines and depict such perverted ways…no shame and we, too are to blame taking little notice of our wonderful history or understanding how wonderful it is to be an American and making sure present laws are enforced and especially by an AG who obviously could give damn?

You have placed our nation in the hands of special interest groups and it is time to take back our country and to demand that Muslim, Christian and Jew and anyone and everyone else be held accountable….while transparency was promised and quite the contrary, it is time Now to be far less transparent to those who seek our demise and attack and kill our brave men and women and are left behind at the “Benghazi Massacre – now almost a year ago….

God Bless America and all its people, Christian, Muslim and Hebrew and anyone and everyone else and their preference and responsible and living together in lawful purpose.

We are in great peril!

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