Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 31, 2013

The Constitution as homeland

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 31, 2013

This is the fourth in a series of anticipated posts closely reading the Constitution of the United States for homeland security implications. Readers are encouraged to use the comment function to add background, analysis, exegesis or exposition related to the text highlighted.



We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Jefferson was not in Philadelphia to debate the Constitution.  At the time he was serving as the ambassador of these (profoundly plural, but potentially) United States to the French court.  In late 1787 Jefferson wrote a friend, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Jefferson was writing about Shay’s Rebellion.  This was a sometimes violent anti-government — anti-tax and anti-debt foreclosure —  movement that arose especially among Revolutionary War veterans in Western Massachusetts.  The national government did not have sufficient funds to mobilize an effective response and Massachusetts was nearly as hard-pressed.

Especially as the Convention delegates — mostly prominent men of property — gathered in Philadelphia between May and September 1787 the rebellion’s very recent challenge to domestic tranquility was much on their mind.

What is the difference between a terrorist and freedom-fighter?

Elbridge Gerry was a Massachusetts delegate to the Philadelphia Convention.  Gerry had little sympathy for the rabble-rousers, saying, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.”  (Later as Governor of Massachusetts, Gerry was progenitor of the “gerrymander,” no doubt easier to justify when you mistrust the character of voters.)

But for Gerry the prospect of a stronger national power to deal with such challenges could be even more dangerous.  During debate he argued, “A standing army is like a standing member. It’s an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”  And a potential means for suppressing personal liberty.  Gerry was one of three delegates at Philadelphia who refused to sign the proposed constitution because of the absence of a Bill of Rights.  When this was later corrected, Gerry served as Vice President under James Madison.

Disagreements regarding the appropriate balance between liberty and security go all the way back.

In 1995 Timothy McVeigh wore a t-shirt featuring Jefferson’s words on “refreshing the tree of liberty” when he bombed the Murrah Building spilling the blood of 168, including fifteen children enrolled in America’s Kids Day Care Center.

December 20, 2013

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 20, 2013

On this day just last year a winter storm was sweeping across much of the middle United States causing blizzard conditions from Colorado to Wisconsin. Iowa bore much of the storm’s brunt on December 19 and 20 with locations from Des Moines northeast through Dubuque receiving over a foot of snow. Strong winds of 50 to 60 mph paralyzed the region for several days. Two people died in a 25 vehicle pileup on Interstate 35 during the height of the blizzard.

On this date in 1987 the Philippine ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker.  More than 1750 people were drowned.

The December 20 Movement (Movimiento de Diciembre 20 or M-20) was active for several years during the 1990s. The group targeted members of the Panamanian government organized after the ouster of General Manuel Noriega. In addition, M-20 attacked U.S. government installations, including diplomatic buildings and military facilities.

Worth noting that tomorrow, December 21, is the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

Pending some extraordinary event, Homeland Security Watch will be on vacation next week.  May you find meaning in reviewing the year soon to end and make a bright beginning of the New.


December 19, 2013

Klayman v Obama

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Legal Issues,Privacy and Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 19, 2013

Many of the issues we have previously discussed in terms of balancing liberty and security are taken up in Monday’s decision by a federal district judge to grant a Motion for Preliminary Injunction regarding bulk collection of meta-data by the National Security Agency.

Among most legally-trained commentators, there seems to be a consensus the district court’s injunction will be overturned by the US Court of Appeals, based largely on the Supreme Court’s previous decision in Smith v Maryland where no reasonable expectation of privacy was extended to the telephone numbers we choose to dial.

Judge Richard Leon probably also expects his decision to be overturned at the appellate level.  His opinion is written, it seems to this non-lawyer, more for the benefit of the Supreme Court than as a matter of conforming with the details of current law.  Indeed, the Judge stayed his own order “in view of the national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues involved.” (My italics)

As regular readers might imagine, I am sorely tempted to opine on what the judge wrote.  I spent (too) much of Tuesday reading and re-reading the sixty -eight page decision.  I agree with most of what I read and while the government’s argument may still prevail I am grateful Judge Leon has teed-up the issues so well.

But in this instance I will exercise more restraint than usual and not share with you my favorite bits.  If you have cause to read Homeland Security Watch you really owe it to yourself — your life, fortune, sacred honor and posterity — to read the full opinion and order. Please find it here:  Klayman v Obama

Judge Leon has written the clearest non-technical description I have read of what the NSA has actually been doing.  His statement of facts places these actions in their full legal context. Some important operational judgments are offered.  His footnotes are especially insightful and trenchant.  Whatever your angle on this issue, this is an original text worth your time and careful attention.  Get it, read it, and reflect.


Almost a month earlier than previously promised (gosh, I wonder why?), Wednesday afternoon the White House released the Report and Recommendations of The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.   Including appendices the full report is 308 pages long.  I have not yet mastered the text.  Eventually we should try to compare and contrast Judge Leon’s text with this one.  It is entitled, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World.”

December 18, 2013

The Boston Globe on the “Fall of the House of Tsarnaev”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on December 18, 2013

A few Boston Globe reporters have collaborated on a lengthy and perhaps unique look into the background of the alleged  Boston Marathon bombers and their immediate family. The piece, “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev,” suggests that the older brother, Tamerlan, exhibited signs of schizophrenia and that the younger, Dzhokhar (Jahar), had a history of manipulation and brash risk raking.  In addition:

The Globe’s five-month investigation, with reporting in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, and the United States, also:

  • Fundamentally recasts the conventional public understanding of the brothers, showing them to be much more nearly coequals in failure, in growing desperation, and in conspiracy.
  • Establishes that the brothers were heirs to a pattern of violence and dysfunction running back several generations. Their father, Anzor, scarred by brutal assaults in Russia and later in Boston, often awoke screaming and tearful at night. Both parents sought psychiatric care shortly after arriving in the United States but apparently sought no help for Tamerlan even as his mental condition grew more obvious and worrisome.
  • Casts doubt on the claim by Russian security officials that Tamerlan made contact with or was recruited by Islamist radicals during his visit to his family homeland.
  • Raises questions about the Tsarnaevs’ claim that they came to this country as victims of persecution seeking asylum. More likely, they were on the run from elements of the Russian underworld whom Anzor had fallen afoul of. Or they were simply fleeing economic hardship.

What seems unique about this article is the depth of investigation into the background and family history of alleged terrorists that have carried out an attack inside the United States.  Following 9/11 there was a considerable degree of discussion around the social conditions in which terrorists emerge, or what might cause young men and women to enlist in the jihadist cause.  “Draining the swamp” was a popular, if unclear, concept that seemed to offer a menu of options to address what were referred to as “root causes” of terrorism.

Then the Iraq war happened and our incursion into Afghanistan turned out not to be a swift and clear victory.  COIN or counter-insurgency became the new buzzword, soon followed by a concentration on special forces raids and drone strikes.  Understanding the conditions that possibly drive some to terrorist acts drifted to the background.

In my opinion, this article helps bring some of those concepts back into the counter terrorism discussion.  It should not be read as an argument to absolve these brothers of their (alleged) acts, or an attempt to provide support for leniency in Dzhokhar’s upcoming trial due to the facts of a difficult upbringing.  Instead, I hope that it may provide at least a kernel of information that others can learn from to possibly prevent future radicalization.

Again, the article is long but worth your time and can be found at:


December 17, 2013

The Constitution as homeland

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 17, 2013

This is the third in a series of anticipated posts closely reading the Constitution of the United States for homeland security implications. Readers are encouraged to use the comment function to add background, analysis, exegesis or exposition related to the text highlighted.



We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Several of the Framers would have been able to quote various classical sources on justice.  In the Republic Plato argued, “Everyone ought to perform the one function in the community for which his nature best suits him. I believe that principle, or some form of it, is justice.”  This Greek notion seeming very similar to the mishpat of the Jewish scriptures, a favorite of Puritan preaching (especially when mishpat dances with tsedeq).

Cicero was even better known than Plato among the Latin-reading (less often Greek-reading) men of the mid-to-late 18th Century.  His Stoic conception of justice was similar, “Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives every man his due.”  What was due certainly might be culturally framed, but Cicero claimed, “justice must be observed even to the lowest.”  From most of their ancient texts, Founders and Framers received an idea of justice that exalts in the dignity of each individual. (At least if the individual is white, male, and Protestant, but a case can also be made that this idea — seeded with care in the 18th Century — just had a very long germination period.)

Of the fifty-five delegates at the Philadelphia Convention thirty-five were lawyers, most of whom had read William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  Consistent with the Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian understanding of justice (especially when consonant with the  Protestant revolution), Blackstone addresses the rights of the individual (I apologize for this very long passage, but Blackstone is tough to quote both accurately and succinctly.  The bold second paragraph would be easy to misunderstand outside the context of the first paragraph, and even here, Blackstone has much more to say).

By the absolute rights of individuals, we mean those which are so in their primary and strictest sense; such as would belong to their persons merely in a state of nature, and which every man is entitled to enjoy, whether out of society or in it. But with regard to the absolute duties, which man is bound to perform considered as a mere individual, it is not to be expected that any human municipal law should at all explain or enforce them. For the end and intent of such laws being only to regulate the behaviour of mankind, as they are members of society, and stand in various relations to each other, they have consequently no concern with any other but social or relative duties. Let a man therefore be ever so abandoned in his principles, or vicious in his practice, provided he keeps his wickedness to himself, and does not offend against the rules of public decency, he is out of the reach of human laws. But if he makes his vices public, though they be such as seem principally to affect himself, (as drunkenness, or the like,) then they become, by the bad example they set, of pernicious effects to society; and therefore it is then the business of human laws to correct them. Here the circumstance of publication is what alters the nature of the case. Public sobriety is a relative duty, and therefore enjoined by our laws; private sobriety is an absolute duty, which, whether it be performed or not, human tribunals can never know; and therefore they can never enforce it by any civil sanction. But, with respect to rights, the case is different Human laws define and enforce as well those rights which belong to a man considered as an individual, as those which belong to him considered as related to others.

For the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature, but which could not be preserved in peace without that mutual assistance and intercourse which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals.

The justice to be established is much more than procedural (though that too) and even the notion of equity under law is not sufficiently expansive.  Justice involves honoring the particular potential of each individual within a society that seeks to optimize the potential of all.


Implications for homeland security

Well… while certainly easier said than done, sounds like about the best possible long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Johnson Confirmed

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on December 17, 2013

On Monday the Senate confirmed Jeh Johnson as Secretary of Homeland Security.  The vote was 78-to-16.  Sixteen other DHS positions involving Presidential appointments, ten requiring Senate confirmation remain open.

December 14, 2013

Twenty-six stars of lost innocence

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 14, 2013

Virgo Constellation

This week and especially today the nation recalls the twenty-six killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Others were also killed that day in Newtown, nearby and abroad.

Among the warriors, wild animals and deities of the classical constellations, Virgo is distinguished by her fertile innocence.  Even as late as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Virgo was understood to have twenty-six stars which rose over the season for sewing the ground.

We now know the Virgo Constellation encompasses billions and billions of stars in a dense cluster of galaxies.

Above is a photograph of the night sky including the Virgo Constellation by David Malin.

December 13, 2013

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 13, 2013

On this day in 115 AD the city of Antioch, in modern day Turkey, experienced one of the several earthquakes that struck during its centuries as the leading city of the Eastern Mediterranean.  This particular seismic event was remarkable for its destructiveness and the records of it still available.  It is estimated to have been about 7.5 on the Richter Scale.  Up to 260,000 are thought to have died.  We know more about it than many ancient quakes because the Emperor Trajan and his successor, Hadrian, were both in the city at the time and barely escaped.  Four centuries later another earthquake began a catastrophic cascade from which Antioch did not recover. (A previous post at HLSWatch has addressed the modern implications of the eventual catastrophe at Antioch.)

On this day in 1994 there was a stupendous explosion at an ammonium nitrate plant 16 miles south of Sioux City, Iowa. Four workers at the plant were killed,eighteen were injured. Four nearby electricity generating stations were disabled. A high-voltage line running adjacent to the plant was damaged, disrupting power in the neighboring state of Nebraska. Two 15,000-ton refrigerated ammonia storage tanks were ruptured, releasing liquid ammonia and ammonia vapors which forced the evacuation of 1,700 residents from the surrounding area.

On this day in 2001 the compound housing the Indian Houses of Parliament was successfully penetrated by a team of five. With many MPs and senior government officials in harms-way, eleven security personnel and a gardener were killed before all five of the attackers were killed.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

December 12, 2013

Five surveillance principles proposed

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on December 12, 2013

Several leading technology companies have called on world governments — and especially the US government — to abide by five principles when engaging in information surveillance:

1.  Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

2. Oversight and Accountability

Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.

3.  Transparency About Government Demands

Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.

4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

5.  Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments

In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty — or “MLAT” — processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.

More background on this initiative and the guidelines can be found at reformgovernmentsurveillance.com

Eric Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency practice has reminded me of a now quarter-century old critique of US intelligence practices by a British pal.  He commented that even the old rifle versus shotgun analogy did not capture the difference between US intelligence gathering and behavior by other spy agencies. “A shot-gun still requires some rough targeting.  US intelligence is more like a gas attack, wafting wherever the wind blows.”

My British colleague explained the difference as a matter of resources and especially budget.  “We have to choose our targets carefully.  The US has the money, men, and machines to spend billions on blind alleys.”

In this new century we have women and even better machines.  The so-called “black budget” also found in the Snowden leaks suggests the NSA spends about $10.5 billion per year, roughly 20 percent of the overall federal intelligence budget.  The British government spends about $3.2 billion on its overall intelligence operations.


I look forward to a great future for America – a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. (John F. Kennedy)

December 11, 2013

Another example of sports aiding recovery – this time in Japan

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on December 11, 2013

During baseball’s postseason I posted about the apparent contribution to Boston’s resilience and recovery following the Marathon bombings provided by the Red Sox. I said it then and I’ll repeat it now: while difficult to quantify or even confirm, it seems that local sports teams can be particularly helpful in aiding a region’s recovery from a particularly bad event.

With that note of caution in mind, I’d like to share another similar story.  Baseball again, but this time in Japan.

Dean of baseball writers, Peter Gammons, recently penned a piece for the Boston Globe on the impact that a Japanese League baseball team had in the area hardest hit by the tsunami of 2011.  I want to just note up front that this is a piece from a Boston-based baseball writer on the impact of a baseball team on a region’s recovery.  While he has few peers in writing about baseball, he does not have any background in recovery, nor is his piece explicitly linking the magnitude of what took place in Japan with Boston (just wanted to get that out of the way…).

(For you baseball fans, the team involved in this story also is the one that would/could/may post a coveted Japanese pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, he of the 24-0 season.)

Hiroshi Mikitani was in Boston a week after April’s horrific Marathon bombings, so he had a sense of the scars that were inflicted to the city and region where he had studied twenty years earlier. Months later, in Sendai, Japan, he watched on television as his friend Koji Uehara closed out the United States World Series, then, four days later proudly watched in person as ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka came out of the bullpen—a day after throwing 160 pitches—to close out Mikitani’s Rakuten Golden Eagles’ seventh game 3-0 victory over the Yomiuri Giants to finish the Japan Series and give Sendai its first championship.

The point of future research perhaps?

“I understood the similarities in terms of what each championship meant to their regions, their communities,” says Mikitani.

The value added:

“I know how sports teams can be a symbol of recovery,” Mikitani says. He knows very well, first hand. He got into the sports business in 1995 when he took over the Visser Football Club in Kobe when an earthquake had rendered so much damage that the city could no longer afford to maintain the team in Japanese professional soccer and made it a symbol of recovery.

And when the Golden Eagles won that seventh game of the Japan Series championship, there may have been no greater symbol of a region’s recovery than Rakuten. Two years earlier, the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated Sendai and the Tohoku region, resulting in what the National Police Agency estimated as close to 16,000 deaths, 340,000 people displaced and more than $120B in damage.

“It was very emotional when we won,” says Mikitani. “It was a great, historical moment. There had been so much interaction between the fans, the people of the region and the players, there was a feeling that they won not just for themselves, but for hundreds of thousands of people whose lives had been devastated. Our baseball people did everything they could do to take part in the recovery from 2011 on. They visited shelters. They donated food and blood and money, they volunteered, they tried to aid in the coordination of the recovery, always saying ‘we’ll do whatever we can do.’ And they became more than a baseball team.”

My question, is this valid?

The Rakuten Golden Eagles became the soul of the once-devastated city of Sendai and Tohoku region. So the 2013 champions of the major league baseball cultures of the West and East are effectively soul mates, fellow symbols and participants in their constituents’ recoveries that extend far beyond “championship ring” significance.

Don’t get me wrong, I love baseball.  However, I’m still lukewarm on resilience as a concept/strategy/anything other than a buzzword. Regardless, I’d like to believe the following is true:

“To get to this championship was a great moment,” Mikitani says. “Personally, it was very satisfying. For all the people with the team, it means so much. Most important, for the fans and the people of Sendai and the region, it was the fulfillment of hope.”

December 10, 2013

The Constitution as homeland

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 10, 2013

This is the second in a series of anticipated posts closely reading the Constitution of the United States for homeland security implications.  Readers are encouraged to use the comment function to add background, analysis, exegesis or exposition related to the text highlighted.



We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Our prior polity under the Articles of Confederation had proven insufficient.   There were many shortcomings — and threats of worse to come — emerging from the self-interest of individual States (and factions within each State) which ill-served the people as a whole.

James Madison gathered his thoughts, and the most credible critiques of the (original) Confederacy, in his Vices of the Political System of the United States.  The document includes:

The practice of many States in restricting the commercial intercourse with other States, and putting their productions and manufactures on the same footing with those of foreign nations, though not contrary to the federal articles, is certainly adverse to the spirit of the Union, and tends to beget retaliating regulations, not less expensive & vexatious in themselves, than they are destructive of the general harmony.

Hence the Commerce Clause and the role of economic union as a (necessary?) foundation of political union.

One fundamental means for advancing “general harmony” is to cultivate a political culture so expansive and diverse as to make factionalism a creative rather than destructive force.  In the same critique of the Confederacy Madison writes:

If an enlargement of the sphere is found to lessen the insecurity of private rights, it is not because the impulse of a common interest or passion is less predominant in this case with the majority; but because a common interest or passion is less apt to be felt and the requisite combinations less easy to be formed by a great than by a small number. The Society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other, whilst those who may feel a common sentiment have less opportunity of communication and concert.

The profound paradox at the heart of the American notion of political union and personal freedom is prolific division and difference.  Our interests are so diverse and our opinions so disparate as to mitigate against a sustained political consensus by which a majority can continually oppress a minority.  Our Constitution anticipates, reflects, and nourishes variability as the best guarantor of prosperity and freedom.  As the beauty and resilience of a great garden depends on the abundant diversity of species and parts, so does our Union.

The prior polity had not been perfect.  The new polity has not been perfect. But the Constitution facilitates a perpetual process of forming a more perfect union.


Implications for homeland security:

Diversity of opinion and practice is a source of economic and cultural strength, proof of freedom-in-action.

Jurisdictional diversity is a framework for protecting diversity of opinion and practice.

As a matter of constitutional predisposition we do not merely tolerate diversity but depend on diversity as the most effective breeder of freedom, therefore of creativity and adaptation, and thereby of strength and resilience.

Hence the preoccupation of homeland security with intergovernmental and private-public collaboration, of engaging the whole community, and a strategic focus on resilience.

December 9, 2013

FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino Stepping Down

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on December 9, 2013

Satala, American Samoa, April 16, 2010 -- FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino meets with staff at the FEMA Disaster Recovery Office.  FEMA Officials toured several sites to learn about the progress toward recovery.  FEMA/David Bibo

From the Boston Globe:

Richard Serino is coming home.

Serino, widely considered a founding father of Boston Emergency Medical Services, has been the No. 2 man at the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2009. He is leaving the agency next month.

“It’s been great,” Serino said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But it’s time to come home.’’

For the same article, he frames what he considers part of his legacy at the agency:

He also said he is proud that FEMA has reoriented the way it views disaster relief. Instead of a top-down approach, Serino said, planning and responses are designed as if they were being viewed “through the eyes of a survivor.’’

“Survivor-centric is what we do, and how we do it’’ at FEMA now, he said.

What struck me was a quote that strengthens my conviction that despite what naysayers contend, we as a nation are not particularly less resilient than those who settled the Wild West or lived before we as a nation agreed that it is the right thing to do to take care of the most vulnerable in our society: the old, the young, and the poor.

He recalled being in Rainville, Ala., after it was destroyed by a tornado. A resident, standing in front of the crumpled wreck of his home, urged Serino to go help somebody else that was worse off, he said.

“That is something I have heard over and over again from different people around the country, almost everywhere I went … neighbors helping neighbors,’’ Serino said. “That’s what helped make Boston great and it’s what helps make our country great. That’s something I’ve seen coast to coast.’’

December 6, 2013

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 6, 2013

On this date in 1861 the Willamette River crested at its highest historic peak, part of a sustained period of extraordinary flooding across much of the far western United States.  (See: California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe)

On this day in 1917 a munitions ship in Halifax (Nova Scotia) harbor exploded killing  over 1900 people.

On this day in 1989 an anti-feminist gunmen murders 15 young women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?



December 5, 2013

Agreed: Terrorist tactics are tough to track

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 5, 2013


The optics of a male Republican House Committee Chair and a female Democratic Senate Committee Chair appearing together and mostly agreeing on substance has continued to resonate, harmonically or discordantly depending on taste.

Last Sunday Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) were interviewed by Candy Crowley on State of the Union. (Complete transcript here)  From the top of the piece:

CROWLEY: The big question that’s always asked, are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago? In general?

FEINSTEIN: I don’t think so. I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up. There are new bombs, very big bombs, trucks being reinforced for those bombs. There are bombs that go through magnatometers. The bomb maker is still alive. There are more groups that ever and there’s huge malevolence out there.

CROWLEY: So congressman, I have to say, that is not the answer I expected. I expected to hear, oh, we’re safer. Do you agree?

ROGERS: Oh, I absolutely agree that we’re not safer today for the same very reasons.

So the pressure on our intelligence services to get it right to prevent an attack are enormous. And it’s getting more difficult because we see the al Qaeda as we knew it before is metastasizing to something different, more affiliates than we’ve ever had before, meaning more groups that operated independently of al Qaeda have now joined al Qaeda around the world, all of them have at least some aspiration to commit an act of violence in the United States or against western targets all around the world.

They’ve now switched to this notion that maybe smaller events are okay. So if you have more smaller events than bigger events, they think that might still lead to their objectives and their goals. That makes it exponentially harder for our intelligence services to stop an event like that.

In part — but only in part — the chairs of the intelligence committees are continuing an effort to explain and justify the sort of activities the Eric Snowden leaks have exposed. (Intelligence methods that many surveys find the American public tends to support.)   This does not mean their threat perceptions are inaccurate or misplaced.

Certainly decentralized — and particularly free-lance — terrorism is much more difficult to anticipate and track.  Certainly such events — Oklahoma City, Boston Marathon, Spokane MLK parade, Oak Creek Sikh Temple Shooting (should we include Newtown and Aurora, what should we exclude?) — can cause profound suffering. Certainly we would prefer to avoid such horrific consequences.

A case can be made that with more rigorous and sophisticated intelligence and policing most of these threats might have been recognized and action taken to save lives.  In retrospect there is — almost always — a trail  through thick underbrush, beneath a dense canopy that could have been seen.

But how much of the forest would need to be cut to bring that trail forward?  Is such clearing a trade-off we are ready to accept?   Is the forest that would remain sustainable?  Even if less than clear-cut, would it still be the forest we have learned to love?

Between the fetid terrorist swamp at one end of our forest and the glistening peaks of freedom at the other there is a varied topography and ecology on which our living daily depends.  Surely we need be vigilant.  But there are options other than flattening orchards, uprooting vineyards and harvesting ancient oaks for new fence posts.

To sweep the landscape so that every terrorist trail might be exposed threatens to leave us desolate.  Continue to identify and articulate threats.  Post guards.  Inform and empower citizens.  Mitigate vulnerabilities.   But the effort to obviate every threat involves a price too high (for me) to pay.

Mexican radioactive material retrieved?

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Philip J. Palin on December 5, 2013

As I go offline Wednesday night it sounds as if the truck carrying radioactive medical waste hijacked north of Mexico City has been located and is in the hands of Mexican authorities.  The status of the cargo is not yet clear.

The hijacking occurred on Monday and has been widely reported as a random criminal act, not a purposeful effort to claim the cobalt-60 being transported from a medical facility to a waste treatment facility.

But whether by accidental release or intentional “weaponization” radioactive medical waste can present a substantial threat.  In 1987 the theft of a different radiotherapeutic agent in Goiania Brazil resulted in the death of four and health-threatening contamination of over 200.

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

Today’s guest blogger is “Donald Quixote”  Don comments frequently on Homeland Security Watch.  He writes under what he likes to call his nom de guerre because his agency frowns on its employees posting material without agency approval. 


The House Committee on Homeland Security recently passed the Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act (HR 5997)/ (HR 1791) authorizing the expansion of the use of existing grant programs for enhancing medical preparedness, medical surge capacity and mass prophylaxis capabilities during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Reportedly, it does not furnish any additional funding, but provides the ability to leverage the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The pending bill can be viewed from several different perspectives.  The optimist may view this initial accomplishment as Congress finally addressing a very serious threat of a chemical or biological attack that may be looming, or  — rather more likely — the threat of a serious novel pandemic illness.  The pessimist may view it as the continued, wider distribution of limited resources between numerous partners in the ever-vague world of homeland security (whatever that entails, but that is another conversation).  I tend to believe it is both.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the 2009 H1N1  influenza virus killed 10 times more than previously estimated by the World Health Organization.  A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine estimated the number that died was 203,000.  Although the number appears quite small when compared to the current world population and the momentous number that perished during the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it remains a relevant number, if accurate, as a warning indicator.

However, how many of us truly appreciate the conceivably massive cascading consequences of a serious novel pandemic threat?

Are MERS, SARS, H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 warning shots over the bow or just natural occurrences that come and go over time without serious implications?

The topic of biosecurity is not new to this blog.  Mr. Bogis and Mr. Wolfe have identified numerous areas of interest regarding the funding and resources already appropriated for biosecurity and biodefense.  There have been valuable discussions and debates regarding the perceived and actual risks and returns on investment.  The practical value of the previous investments and effectiveness of the many programs shall remain the subject of debate until they are partially or fully tested by an incident or event.

In the realm of a serious novel pandemic illness, I controversially continue to argue that it could easily outrank a conventional terrorist attack as a current threat due to the possibly catastrophic consequences to our citizens, critical infrastructure and civil stability on a broader scale.

We can only ignore the low-probability\high-consequence biological attack or serious novel pandemic illness threat until it happens.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of ignoring this threat because of limited resources and impaired strategic vision.

The Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act, if ultimately enacted, may affect some change in this area or at least spark interest in expanded medical preparedness.




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