Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 9, 2013

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 9, 2013

On this date in 1945 an atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki, immediately killing 39,000 residents of the Japanese city.  On this date in 1971 British forces initiated Operation Demetrius involving the mass arrest and internment of suspected Irish Republican paramilitary personnel.  Riots and significant displacements resulted.  On this date in 2006 several arrests were made in the United Kingdom alleging a plot to bomb at least seven trans-Atlantic flights.

What’s on your mind related to 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.

August 5, 2013

Tricking out your disaster kit – buying emergency “gee-gaws”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on August 5, 2013

Thanks to longtime friend of this site Claire Rubin and her “Recovery Diva” blog (I have to say I’m jealous she gets to refer to herself as “the Diva”) for pointing out this Wall Street Journal article with suggestions for “Stylish Yet Practical Emergency Gear.”

As the Diva puts it, “Leave it to the Wall St. Journal to come up with a lot of expensive gear that will help you get through an emergency with less stress.”

I believe this is my favorite, and obviously the one tool no one should be without in an emergency:

3. Kem Playing Cards

Power outages call for old-school gaming. Kem playing cards are made of cellulose acetate (plastic), hence, they are waterproof and beer-proof. Casino pros, take note: The company asserts that the tear-resistant cards have the “classic snap and feel of paper.” The decks are sold in pairs, and include a hard-plastic carrying box. $30 for a set, either poker- or bridge-size, kem.com

August 2, 2013

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 2, 2013

On this day in 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait.  Gulf War I had something to do with Gulf War II.  Each in very different ways have implications for what we now call homeland security.  But 1990 certainly seems distant from 2003 and each of these prefaces seem profoundly distant from today.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

August 1, 2013

Counter-anxiety mission?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 1, 2013

Rectification of names

Confucius — the Chinese philosopher and statesman — was asked what he would do if made sovereign of his own land.  He replied that he would focus on the rectification of names (Chinese characters above).  Confucius concluded that as long as we fail to correctly understand the words we use, we will never understand the concepts behind the words and confusion will reign (no matter who or what is sovereign).

A modest attempt at rectification, drawing on the etymology of the English words:

Home: abode, dwelling place, village, world

Land: meadow, heath, region

Security: without anxiety, absence of care (se- is a Latin prefix meaning without)

Homeland security is a populous area free of anxiety.

Given the role of anxiety, it is worth recognizing that anxiety is the anticipation of pain.

I am reminded of fragment from W.H. Auden:

Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb. (Spain, 1937)

Homeland security is — evidently — an anti-anxiety therapeutic.  If so, we have, I worry, been giving more attention to symptoms than underlying cause.

(I am offline most of this week.  This post was cued-up long before August 1 and I will not be around to comment.  I hope today is mostly anxiety-free in terms of breaking homeland security news.)

« Previous Page