Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 2, 2014

QHSR: tension between HS and hs

Filed under: Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on July 2, 2014

I’m a week late to the QHSR discussion and while I don’t have any big thoughts, I do have a few small ones.

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There are some problems at the foundation of the QHSR. Issues that point to underlying confusion of what homeland security is, or at least an unclear characterization of what it should be, at the federal level. However, this isn’t the fault of the DHS staff who put together the review, but rather the direction of Congress. As readers are reminded of in the report itself, the scope of the QHSR is:

Each quadrennial homeland security review shall be a comprehensive examination of the homeland security strategy of the Nation, including recommendations regarding the long-term strategy and priorities of the Nation for homeland security and guidance on the programs, assets, capabilities,budget, policies and authorities of the Department.

Soooooo…the Department of Homeland Security (let’s call it capital HS) is mandated by Congress to review the current Administration’s homeland security strategy that includes the work of other agencies (counter-intuitively, I’m going to refer to the whole enchilada encompassing what anyone might wish to include in homeland security as lowercase hs), while at the same time providing DHS-specific recommendations on force structure, authorities, budget, etc. I haven’t checked the authorizing language, but on a quick review of the last DOD QDR (which is supposedly the model for the QHSR) , it pretty much focused entirely on the last half of that charge.  There was little to no language that pointed to the concerns of their national security “partners” or the military’s analysis of the National Security Strategy. Instead it focused on questions of force structure and the impact of sequestration on the military.

In this matter, the important difference between DOD and DHS is that DOD has a long tradition, and specifically, a mature relationship with Congress.  DHS, on the other hand, seems to be generally regarded by many (if not most) lawmakers as the sole actor in the hs sphere.  The consequence being that anything that is considered a hs issue by Congress often becomes a HS issue by default.  A dumping agency.  Even if it is a topic long worked by experienced professionals elsewhere in the government.

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Contrasting examples of this can be seen in the chapters on bio and nuclear threats. At it’s creation, I do not believe any of the agencies or offices brought to DHS a primary role in either arena (outside of FEMA’s responsibility post nuclear attack).  But in the wisdom of a few, since that time the agency has grown both an Office of Health Affairs (OHA) and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

I can see the utility of a health office for the protection of the DHS workforce, not unlike the equivalent in DOD.  Perhaps over time they develop particular expertise to contribute to the larger efforts of the government as a whole.  Instead, projects such as the never-quite-right Biowatch placed them in a bureaucratic competition with agencies with long-standing expertise in public health, such as the CDC (the center of biosurveillance), and those newer offices with a concentration of expertise and responsibility, like ASPR (ESF-8 lead, partner in the National Disaster Medical System, and the government developers of new medical countermeasures through BARDA). The QHSR seems to acknowledge this, as it stresses a whole of government approach to public health and bioterrorist threats. DHS went hs rather than HS in addressing biological threats.

The reverse is true for nuclear terrorism. After identifying the issue and stressing the importance due to the possible consequence of such an attack (if this is so important to HS you’d think FEMA would have gotten it’s act together by now regarding planning for such an event…but I digress), the QHSR takes an entirely parochial view of the subject.

We prioritize a sustained, long-term focus on preventing nuclear terrorism through two foundational capabilities: (1) nuclear detection and (2) nuclear forensics. These capabilities are aimed at preventing our adversaries from developing, possessing, importing, storing, transporting, or using nuclear materials.

In stark contrast to bio-events, nuclear terrorism can and must be prevented.  And that prevention is likely not to occur along the pathways of the “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” or due to forensic capabilities. It happens because while large, the amount of special materials required for a nuclear terrorist attack are finite, thus possible to secure or eliminate at the source.  Hoping that THE major plank in preventing such an attack is detection of very hard to detect materials with the cooperation of others sitting along a spectrum of competence, corruption, and cooperation would be unwise.

I am not suggesting detection and forensics are unimportant, only that they are secondary to securing and eliminating fissile material.  Yet the QHSR focuses on these capabilities because that is what the DNDO does.  So DHS went HS for addressing the nuclear terrorism threat.

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One last small quibble with the Review: why did they have to include a “Black Swans” section?  I don’t mean addressing potential future events that could have a significant impact on homeland security.  Rather, why did they have to attempt to co-opt the term itself?  Hasn’t the mess everyone has made with “resilience” taught us anything?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book “The Black Swan” that popularized the term, summarizes the attributes of these events: “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” The QHSR has already violated the third attribute, and their list of four potential Swans have been previously suggested and analyzed elsewhere.  They are neither unforeseen or unexpected.

Personally, I’d prefer to think of Natalie Portman when considering Black Swans.

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4 Comments »

Comment by John Comiskey

July 2, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

Coopting or what have you, the Black Swan section was IMHO the most forward looking and best component of the QHSR. OK, some attribution would have been appropriate.

I am a meta-black swan advocate. What do we not know that we should be preparing for?

While they were at it, DHS should have coopted the term “wicked problems.”

Second best section was the notion of an evolving enterprise as exemplified by DWH, Sandy, and Boston.

Coopt also the term “focusing events”)

Comment by E. Earhart

July 2, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

Yeah, someone really went out the the limb writing the black swan section. Two of the four have arguably already or are in the process of occurring.

A real potential Black Swan would be a severe Judicial/Legal rebuke and nullification of the intelligence and law enforcement tactics and techniques that have been implemented over the last 13 years.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 3, 2014 @ 1:39 am

Perhaps coopting wasn’t the best term. But your point is spot on: “What do we not know that we should be preparing for?” Or better yet, how do we prepare for the unexpected?

That’s my problem with that section. Once you start listing already discussed if not imminent issues, you’re not talking black swans. Earhart is spot on about that.

Resilience once was a simple concept. Then everyone started interpreting it. The black swan concept isn’t as central to homeland security, but there also isn’t a pressing need to start confusing it either. (Don’t get me started on the continuing practice of lumping chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear together either…not impressive analysis work).

Comment by Donald Quixote

July 6, 2014 @ 11:06 am

A Black Swan: Highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.*

* Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), inside cover.

It may be a Black Swan if we choose to only talk about it, but never address the threat thinking\hoping that it can never happen again or it is just too hard to try.

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