Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 17, 2014

The Ebola Czar and the missing Homeland Security Council

Filed under: Biosecurity,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on October 17, 2014

The President has announced the appointment of Ron Klain as his new “Ebola czar”, as numerous news outlets have reported this morning. From the New York Times:

President Obama will appoint Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joseph R. Biden Jr., to manage the government’s response to the deadly virus as anxiety grows over its possible spread, a White House official said on Friday.


Mr. Klain will report to Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, and Susan E. Rice, his national security adviser, the official said. His appointment was first reported by CNN.

The official praised the work already done by Ms. Rice and Ms. Monaco, but said that Mr. Klain would provide “additional bandwidth” in the fight against Ebola, which is important because the two women have to manage other national and homeland security issues.

I view this appointment of an “Ebola czar” and the need for such “additional bandwidth” as a symptom of a broader problem within the policy-making apparatus at the White House, due in part to the decision in 2009 to merge the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council staffs into a single integrated “National Security Staff” (since renamed the “National Security Council staff”).

Prior to the integration of the HSC and NSC staffs, the Homeland Security Council played a very active role on pandemic planning and response issues. It issued the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza in November 2005, and the subsequent Implementation Plan for that strategy in May 2006, and a progress report on implementation in 2007. During the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, the Homeland Security Council was utilized as a primary convening mechanism by the White House.

But since the end of the H1N1 crisis in late 2009, the Homeland Security Council (which was retained as a policy-making entity, in part because it was mandated in law in Title IX of the Homeland Security Act) has almost entirely disappeared from view. From January 2010 to the present, I can find only one public record of the Homeland Security Council being convened: a meeting in July 2014 to address the unaccompanied minor issue on the southern border. (It is possible that there have been additional meetings of the HSC during the last five years, but there is no public record of it).

These concerns about homeland security issues being downgraded were predicted by opponents of HSC-NSC integration at the time. In February 2009, I helped to staff a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing where we heard a variety of opinions on the potential HSC-NSC merger, including from former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who was critical of a potential merger. His prepared remarks highlighted biosecurity as a particular area of concern, and are prescient in light of today’s decision to appoint an Ebola czar (emphasis added):

From HHS to Energy to DOD to the FDA and elsewhere – more than 30 departments and agencies have homeland security functions. Take biosecurity, for example. What the United States needs to do to improve our biosecurity against major biological threats is complex. Biosecurity depends on different programs managed by different agencies – there is no way to simplify it. DHS is in charge of the biological risk assessment that analyzes biological threats. HHS is responsible for the research and development of medicines and vaccines. DOD does its own R&D. The Food and Drug Administration has its role. Let’s not forget NIH. CDC is responsible for our national stockpiles and for coordinating the grant program and technical assistance to state and locals. The intel community is responsible for assessing the biological threats posed by our adversaries. Without close White House coordination, our bio programs will move in different directions to different goals and different timelines. Putting this and other challenges under the NSC’s purview would only complicate the NSC mission and the HSC’s ability to receive adequate attention from a Council that already has Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan-India, the Mideast and other matters in its inbox.

There have been some benefits as a result of integrating the HSC and NSC staffs, in terms of breaking down domestic vs. international policy stovepipes and allowing for integrated decision-making on transnational issues such as cybersecurity. But I have become increasingly concerned over the past few years that the downsides of HSC-NSC integration are outweighing its benefits, largely due to the “bandwidth” issue highlighted in this post, but also because of the decreased public visibility into homeland security decision-making at the White House due to the adoption of NSC protocols, as I discussed in a blog post last year.

In the near-term, the focus needs to be on dealing with the Ebola pandemic, but these broader structural issues also deserve to be reviewed during the last two years of this Administration and/or by the next Administration, whomever is elected President in 2016. And in light of the Homeland Security Council’s statutory role, this is an issue that Congress should also take a fresh look at, including by convening hearings and requesting information on the activities of the Homeland Security Council since 2009.

(Note: this commentary is cross-posted by the author from the site HSPI.org)

Less czar than troika

Filed under: Biosecurity,Media,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2014

CNN, the New York Times, and others are reporting the imminent announcement of a White House “Ebola Czar”. The man-of-the-hour is Ron Klain.  The former chief-of-staff to Vice President Biden (and Vice President Gore) has been in the private sector since January 2011.

The appointment responds to a burgeoning cry of “who’s in charge?” from the news media and others.

It’s a very primitive question, not well-suited to an infectious disease emerging into a highly-networked global system.  Mr. Klain will, I perceive, actually be part of a troika involving Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice.  He is very experienced riding the back of both the “interagency” and the media. Despite rough rides in the past, the tigers have not yet eaten him up.

Hold on and best wishes.

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2014

On this day in 1091 an estimated F4 tornado strikes London, England. Two are killed. London bridge is destroyed.

On this day in 1989 the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake strikes the Bay area killing over fifty and causing extensive damage.

On this day in 1966 twelve FDNY firefighters are killed while responding to a fire at 7 East 22nd Street.

On this day in 2012 Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis is arrested for attempting to detonate a vehicle bomb at the New York Federal Reserve office.  He is captured as part of a law enforcement “sting” operation.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

October 16, 2014

Adjusting our signal to noise ratio

I am currently involved in planning three different tabletop exercises.  Each are efforts to enhance “whole community” involvement.  My particular role is to enhance private sector involvement.  Currently the news media is not targeted for participation in any of these exercises.  In my several years of being involved with various homeland security training and exercises I can only recall two occasions when news media have been involved as participants.

There are several impediments to involving news media in these sort of activities, including:

  • Effective exercises are designed to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to improve preparedness.  News media are inclined to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to increase readership/listeners/viewers.
  • Many public sector participants tend to be “authoritative” or “officious” or “control-freaks”.  This is troublesome enough with other private sector participants.  With members of the media it can be explosive.
  • News media participation can discourage the involvement of other private sector parties due to fear of exposure (see first bullet).

But it seems to me increasingly clear we must find a way to involve news media in preparedness activities or continue — and deepen — the risk of serious mis-communication and public mistrust on the very worst days.  While major media are no longer the only or even primary sources of information, they are a significant source of amplification and confirmation.  Too often they are amplifying and confirming misleading information.  An ongoing example:

The media’s attention to symptoms can obscure attention to the source of problems.  I am astonished by the extraordinary attention given to a few instances of Ebola in the United States in contrast with lack of attention to sources of the problem in West Africa… despite clear and consistent and, at least to me, very reasonable analysis that until the source of the problem is better managed the risk to the United States will only grow.

On Tuesday afternoon the United Nations coordinator for Ebola response told the Security Council that the world basically has sixty days to contain the virus or face a serious risk of pandemic.  In much of the world, this was the Wednesday morning headline.  Not in the United States.

Below are two screenshots.  The first is for the Google News US edition.  The second is for the UK edition.  According to Google, “articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online.”  The source stories can be found in US media, but too often buried beneath the symptoms.

Google US edition

UK edition

In my judgment a similar symptom vs. source issue is endemic to most US media coverage of terrorism, urban wildfire, flooding, and many aspects of border security.  It even erupts in how longer-term electrical outages are reported.

I am not arguing against news coverage of symptoms.  The attention given to the series of false steps in Dallas has clearly facilitated enhanced readiness across the US health System. But these are tactical –symptomatic — issues, not strategic issues addressing the problem at its source.

When novel and especially deadly threats emerge, the failure to distinguish between symptom and source is at least distracting and too often misleading… in a manner that can undermine public health and safety and, certainly, competence.  Sources can be even more complicated to understand than symptoms, but this further underlines the need for insightful media coverage.

There are very few editors, producers, or reporters who can afford to specialize in any of the so-called “low-probability, high-consequence” risks that confront us.  That’s a problem for most of the private sector and across the public sector as well.  We all need help adjusting our standard-operating-procedures to these non-standard events.  We should start to do so in workshops and exercises before the symptoms explode.

Some possible discussion topics and exercise issues:

In dealing with “high-intensity-risk-environments” (HIRE), do not mistake ambiguity for inattention.  Recognizing ambiguity may be evidence of close attention.

In engaging a HIRE, do not confuse uncertainty with incompetence. The compulsion to sound certain in the midst of complexity is, in my opinion, a principal cause of incompetence.

In the midst of a HIRE, complexity and lack of control does not necessarily signal lack of organization or progress.  Efforts to control can escalate complexity and suppress resilient self-organization.

In a few months I should be able to let you know if I am successful in involving media in any of the exercises currently being planned.


And since I’m writing about attention to sources as well as symptoms, in regard to Ebola here are some potentially helpful sources on sources:

FrontPageAfrica – A Liberia based newspaper. (BTW, this is not the largest circulation Liberian newspaper, but some of its competitors have, in my opinion, their own serious noise-vs-signal problems.)

The Concord Times – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

The Telegraph – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

Doctors Without Borders Guinea News

Guinea (Conakry) Guinee Focus (French)

World Health Organization Africa Regional Office

US Department of Defense Africa Command

CDC Ebola Hub

Resources from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine here and here and here  (and it’s worth looking for more)


Thursday evening NPR broadcast an interview with Dr. Lewis Rubinson.  An intensive care physician with the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Rubinson spent three weeks in September serving Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.  The full interview (with transcript) is, I suggest, a good example of well-informed, realistic thinking about dealing with symptoms.  Following is an excerpt:

RUBINSON: There are nearly 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. It wouldn’t have made sense to me that every single facility would have the ability to be honestly prepared. It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t need to be an appropriate level of the ability to identify patients and provide early treatment and keep staff safe. I think that’s really on every institution because we can’t control where patients present. But I think out in West Africa, we got very, very good at being 100 percent all of the time. You had to. In the U.S. there’s no technological fix for this. We can’t buy a widget and just solve it and give it to the hospital and say, you’re prepared right now. Most of this is about diligence, it’s about discipline and it’s about 100 percent adherence. And I think, again, that’s very hard to imagine that every facility could do that. Not because they aren’t good facilities, it’s just there are other priorities that they need to be taking on at the same time. Again, every facility needs to be able to identify the patient, take care of the patient early, keep the staff safe, but I think it’s very hard to imagine that every facility would be good at managing a patient throughout their course of the disease, especially if they get very sick, like had happened in Dallas.



In regard to sources rather than symptoms, here’s “top of the fold” attention being given British operations in West Africa.  According to Friday’s Telegraph,

Ebola is the “biggest health problem facing our world in a generation”, David Cameron has said, as he urged foreign leaders to “step forward” with more resources to fight the crisis.

The Prime Minister urged other leaders to “look to their responsibilities” to help tackle the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa… 

He said: “Britain, in my view, has been leading the way. The action we are taking in Sierra Leone where we are committing well over £100 million, 750 troops, training 800 members of health staff, providing 700 beds; we are doing a huge amount.

“I think it is time for other countries to look at their responsibilities and their resources and act in a similar way to what Britain is doing in Sierra Leone, America is doing in Liberia, France is doing in Guinea.

“Other countries now need to step forward with resources and action because taking action at source in West Africa is the best way to protect all of us here in Europe.”


October 14, 2014

A funny thing happened on the way out of Fargo, through the American Terrordome, and into the 2014 Playoffs

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 14, 2014

Flying News

— Brian Schmidt won the 2011 Nobel Physics Prize for his co-discovery of dark energy. He went to Fargo, North Dakota to show the prize – a half pound medal, made out of gold – to his grandmother.

As he was leaving Fargo, with the medal in his laptop bag, he had an encounter with airport security:

[As the bag] went through the X-ray machine. I could see [security agents] were puzzled. [The medal is] made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.
“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

— In other flying news, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown of Portland, Oregon ruled that

…people placed on the [No Fly] list have a constitutionally protected interest in traveling by air, and the right to due process when its denied.

Seven American citizens were part of an ACLU lawsuit. They wanted to be taken off the No Fly list or told why their names were on it. The government decided to take them off the list.  According to news reports, this was “the first time the United States has ever informed someone whether they are or are not excluded” from the list.  “This is huge in terms of the secrecy regime, and a regime of unconstitutional unfairness crumbling,” said an ACLU lawyer.

— In still more news about flying rights, the Association of Flight Attendants wants the FAA to stop people from using portable electronic devices during take off and landing.  Again. Apparently people are ignoring the how to use a seat belt and oxygen mask speeches. Besides, devices could turn into projectiles.

— Tom McHale, at mygunculture.com, complains that TSA is forcing gun owners to violate federal laws (Title 49: Transportation, Parts 1540 and 1544) when they make travelers flying with firearms surrender gun case keys to security inspectors.

— In a related story, TSA continued its unbroken streak and found 50 more firearms in carry on bags last week.

Privacy News

— Edward Snowden told a New Yorker crowd that people who argue “if you have nothing to hide you shouldn’t mind a little government intrusion every now and then” have it backward:

You’re inverting the model of responsibility for how rights work… When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.”

— Robert Turner – writing in the August/September issue of (the consistently informative) Homeland Security Today Magazine – believes “Snowden is a pathetic, narcissistic, high-school dropout… [who] may very well [be] the most injurious traitor in American history.” Turner also writes that he does not see how NSA is violating the Constitution. The NSA is not “spying” [sic] on hundreds of millions of Americans. It is collecting information like telephone records so a computer [sic] can scan through vast amounts of data….”

— Glenn Greenwald gives a 20 minute TED talk presenting his reasons why privacy matters.  Most of the argument seems to be a synthesis of chapter 4 in his book No Place to Hide.

Fear News

— Tom Englehardt continues his quest to convince people we’ve moved way beyond Stupid with the fear business.  His latest example is the ISIS hysteria: Inside the American Terrordome.  After giving a few examples of the current soundtrack of terrorism fear, he writes:

You can repeat until you’re blue in the face that the dangers of scattered terror outfits are vanishingly small in the “homeland,” when compared to almost any other danger in American life.  It won’t matter, not once the terror-mongers go to work….

Let’s be honest.  Post-9/11, when it comes to our own safety (and so where our tax dollars go), we’ve become as mad as loons.  Worse yet, the panic, fear, and hysteria over the dangers of terrorism may be the only thing left that ties us as a citizenry to a world in which so many acts of a destructive nature are being carried out in our name….

Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you “safe.” Amid the waves of fear and continual headlines about terror plots, we, the people, have now largely been relegated to the role of so many frightened spectators when it comes to our government and its actions. Welcome to the Terrordome.

 Data News

— Speaking of things to be afraid of, the 2013 National Health Security Preparedness Index is available at this link. Called “a new way to measure and advance our nation’s preparedness,” the Index charts the health preparedness of the states.  Says the website, “The NHSPI™ applies the National Health Security Strategy definition of national health security: the state in which the Nation and its people are prepared for, protected from, and resilient in the face of health threats or incidents with potentially negative health consequences.”  I have no clue why the Index is trade marked

Climate News

— A British company, Shoothill, has an online tool called GuageMap that can (eventually) send messages to interested parties when one of the 2,400 rivers in England and Wales is either threatening to flood or is becoming dangerously low.

— The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society issued a report titled “Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective.” One conclusion: “Climate change influenced several of the world’s most extreme weather events of 2013, including heat waves in Australia, Europe, China, Japan and Korea.”  The report is available at this link.  Said one government research meteorologist (in a USA Today story about the report), “It’s a granted that climate change is influencing all manner of weather….” This report looks not if climate change influenced weather, but how it did – trying to quantify the influence….”

— Speaking of the weather, NASA confirmed there is a “vast methane cloud over the southwestern U.S.” “[The] 2,500-square mile methane cloud over the region where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet traps more heat in a year than all the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Sweden,” the Christian Science Monitor reports. Scientists first noticed the methane data several years ago but ignored it because the readings were so extreme.

Homeland Security Baseball News

— The Kansas City Star reports:

It had been 29 years since the Kansas City Royals made it to the postseason and no one in town wanted to miss the end of what turned out to be their thrilling 9-8 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

No one – not even the police department.

The Kansas City Police took to Twitter with a message for folks across the city, and it was hard to believe that anybody disobeyed the request:

“We really need everyone to not commit crimes and drive safely right now. We’d like to hear the Royals clinch.”

October 12, 2014

Evil as complexity denied

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 12, 2014

Over the last few weeks I have tried to listen as others have claimed evil as a justification for a variety of homeland security related missions.  I have appreciated your indulgence — and in some cases, important contributions — to this process.  Following are concluding personal reflections on this exploration.


In the myths of many cultures and the precepts of several religions and across a range of philosophical systems the first step from good to bad begins with failing to listen.

The protagonist is so distracted or deluded or self-consumed that truth — while knowable or even well-known — is neglected or rejected in favor of a rendering that better suits the hero’s (or emerging villain’s) internal narrative, unrestrained by external evidence.

I was recently standing in line for a train.  So was a young mother (or aunt or such) with a three or four-year-old boy, who she had harnessed to a seven or eight foot tether.  He was entertaining himself while she was on her cell-phone.  I don’t know how long they had been there when I arrived.  For the first ten minutes all was fine.  Then he increasingly sought her attention.  She continued on the phone.  He increased his attention-seeking behavior. She interrupted her conversation to sharply admonish. This became an rapidly escalating cycle to the dismay of everyone nearby.

While observing this scene unfold, I happened to read about the President calling the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to ask for additional funds to be included in the Continuing Resolution to support anti-ISIL training of “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.  It was apparently the first time President Obama had made such a call.  Chairman Rogers seemed both pleased and more than a bit annoyed. The very first call since Rogers was elected Chairman in 2011?

This was in early September, at the time I was working with an on-again off-again client who was not acknowledging my emails or returning my phone calls.  When he did finally schedule a meeting, I was prepared to resign… and probably in a bit of a huff.  Similar to the four-year-old, I was feeling neglected.

The client began our meeting by describing a problem that was clearly commanding his attention.  The same issue had been the topic of my unread emails. But I listened and as I listened I better understood his angle on reality and adjusted accordingly. After listening to him I was much better prepared to speak in a way that would be heard.  And he was  ready to listen.  The problem has since been mostly solved.  We continue in relationship. (I even allowed him to preview this post.)

I was about to end the relationship because I felt he was not listening.  My ego was bruised. My time was wasted.  He was being an ignorant, arrogant jerk, and I was tempted to respond in kind. The relationship was renewed by an opportunity for me to listen and then reflect back what I heard.  As helpful to the client as anything else was the ability to hear his own situation reported back to him.

Our English word relationship is derived from a Latin construct meaning to carry back or bring back.  We bring back our story and relate it to others.  In this way a relationship can be strengthened. But telling depends on being heard.  If we offer our story and are not heard — neglected or rejected — we are inclined to deny being in relationship with those who are dismissively deaf.

As noted in my post last Thursday, I mostly neglected early reports of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I have given very little attention to the extraordinary story of corruption, criminality, and violence emerging from several Central American states.  Yesterday I counted twelve homeless in a brisk walk of three blocks. They were wanting to talk. I noticed but did not listen.

There is a tendency not to notice until a connection to our self-interest is made explicit: until Ebola is in Dallas, until an American is beheaded, until children appear on our doorstep.  And even then we can be quite adept at not seeing — much less hearing — what is immediately before us.

This is, I suggest, how evil emerges: in narrow self-interest, in neglect of others, in rejected relationships, and with these preconditions it is easy to slip toward anger, abuse, and violence.

This is hardly a new insight. But disciplined practice of an alternative ethic is challenging.  Even between individuals, but especially on the macro-scale.  It is one thing for parent and child or Executive and Legislator or counsel and client to learn to listen.  It is a different category of action to “hear” the voices of victims hundreds and even thousands of miles distant.

Yet more than ever before we are being told their stories.  They know we have been told.  They can also discern our response or non-response.  One of the most damning discoveries I made during this exploration was a Google-spawned link to a post from February 2012 that I had entirely forgotten.  I heard. But did very little. Nothing at all effective.

So… for reasons set out previously and above I perceive that evil is a meaningful concept, worth much more than the self-indulgent rhetorical references that are too often applied.  Evil is a consequence of failing to honor the reality of our neighbor.  It is stubborn unwillingness to listen. It is denial of reality. It is angry self-assertion when our delusions are threatened.

I expect this deeply dysfunctional behavior to continue.  Evil will not be prevented.  But it can be mitigated and we can better prepare ourselves to more effectively respond to the emergence of evil and recover from it.  It is the privilege of homeland security professionals to focus on these opportunities.

Emerging from this series of blogs, my contribution will include giving more time and attention to listening to family, friends, clients, students, colleagues, you, and others with whom I am in obvious relationship.  Yesterday I sent a sizable gift to an organization that listens and works with others with whom I have a less obvious relationship.  I have committed myself to regularly engaging with this organization. I’m still not sure what to do as I encounter the homeless (and many other voices I tend to exclude), but I will experiment with options.

Complex problems — such as evil — are seldom solved. But they are sometimes more or less resolved through spontaneously self-organizing individual behavior. The good and bad news is that we are in relationship and the actions and inaction of each of us have an influence… in ways we cannot always predict.

October 11, 2014

Secretary Johnson on the border

Filed under: Border Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 11, 2014

Thursday the Secretary of Homeland Security gave a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  I was on the west coast.  But DHS has given the speech — and related PowerPoint — considerable priority.

It is a fact-filled report — with obvious political and policy implications — but the presentation is lawerly in its gathering of evidence.  Very much a reflection of Johnson’s worldview.

I encourage you to read/see the entire package at  http://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/10/09/remarks-secretary-homeland-security-jeh-johnson-border-security-21st-century?utm_source=hp_feature&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=dhs_hp

October 10, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 10, 2014

On and about this date in 1780 the “Great Hurricane” kills more than 20,000 in the Caribbean.

October 10 was the third day of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

On this date in 2009 terrorist militants attacked and held hostages at the Pakistani army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

October 8, 2014

The drawstrings on your jacket are more likely to kill you than Ebola

Filed under: Public Health & Medical Care — by Arnold Bogis on October 8, 2014

So says Chelsea Rice, a Boston.com staff writer in her provocatively titled piece, “104 Things More Likely to Kill you than Ebola:”

Ebola has made it to the U.S., and everyone is freaking out. They shouldn’t be—at least not until they’ve sufficiently freaked out about these 104 things that, according to nationwide data, are even more likely to kill them.

  • Walking to work
  • Stroke
  • Hunting accidents
  • COPD
  • Drawstrings on your jacket
  • Wrong-site surgery
  • Alligators

Yes.  Alligators.

This should not be taken as demeaning the suffering of any Ebola victims anywhere, and especially the horrific conditions faced by those living in nations hit especially hard in West Africa.

It is, however, a reminder that despite the constant drumbeat of fear coming from cable news and internet pundits that the threat to Americans remains astonishingly low. A couple of other favorites from that list:

  • Falling in the shower
  • Bunk bed accidents
  • Cheerleading
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Roller coasters
  • Bouncy houses
  • Trampolines

What has surprised me most about this entire situation is the lack of calls for increased public health spending.  There are cries for cutting off travel to afflicted nations, increased monitoring at our international airports, and even attempts to tie this situation with border security. However, I haven’t heard a peep about cuts to spending on public health.  A note to advocates out there: if not a teachable moment, it is definitely what they call a “hook” in making the case to spend more on public health. While it may seem unseemly, this is the time to push your argument.

One of the few exceptions, that unfortunately makes a weak case in my opinion, is from Frances Bevington of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.  While Ms. Bevington lays out a scholarly argument, it unfortunately won’t move any Congressional officials to increase grant funding, nor state or local decision makers to shift limited resources back to public health.  She concludes:

Will cuts in preparedness funding to local health departments make an Ebola outbreak in the United States more likely? The answer is no. The conditions that would limit the spread of Ebola, including better infection control in healthcare facilities and different cultural traditions, are not factors influenced by preparedness funding at local health departments. Despite funding cuts, the public health workforce stands ready to do whatever is necessary to stop Ebola from spreading. But those cuts have put deep dents in the public health shield that protects the lives of all Americans and make it more likely that local health departments faced with even a few cases of Ebola would significantly strain their already thinly stretched workforce and financial resources during the response.

Her point is correct.  And I’m not asking for people to stretch the facts to make a point. Nor hype the threat of Ebola.  But it might do some good to point out at least a little more strongly that the systems, infrastructure, and most importantly people protecting this nation from an outbreak of Ebola have recently experienced significant cuts in their funding.  There is probably no better time to make the argument for increased public health funding than when both CNN and Fox reference the public health system roughly at least once each hour.

October 7, 2014

On plastic volcano drones, iPhones, Guantanamo medical care videotapes, Ebola and other outbreaks

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 7, 2014


…Wired treats viewers to a minute and a half closeup video of lava eruptions in the Bardabunga volcanic system in Iceland. The video was taken by a quadcopter drone. (The music was added – I hope.)


… Eighteen months ago, blueprints for creating a gun with a 3D printer were downloaded over 100,000 times in two days.  Last month, Wired wrote about researchers at the University of Virginia who used a 3D printer to make a drone for the Department of Defense. The drone can carry a 1.5 pound payload. It can be printed in a day for around $2,500. It can fly 40 miles and hour for 45 minutes; an earlier version of the plane reached speeds over 100 miles per hour. “3-D printing is at the phase where personal computers were in the 1980s,” the project director said “The technology is almost unbounded.”

… Speaking of guns and drones, On The Homefront notes an FBI report “Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” [that] shows an annual increase in active shooter threat. In the first 7 years of the study, an average of 6.4 incidents occurred annually and in the following 7 years that number jumped to 16.4.  The report is available here: http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013.  I did not see anything in the report about shooters using drones.

… Schneier On Security  dismisses law enforcement officials’ concerns that Apple’s new iPhone encryption will open a carnival for kidnappers, sexual predators, terrorists and worse. Schneier write “…You can’t build a backdoor that only the good guys can walk through…. You’re either vulnerable to eavesdropping by any of them, or you’re secure from eavesdropping from all of them. Strong encryption protects us from a panoply of threats. It protects us from hackers and criminals. It protects our businesses from competitors and foreign spies. It protects people in totalitarian governments from arrest and detention. This isn’t just me talking: The FBI also recommends you encrypt your data for security.”   The New York Times has one of their “Room for Debate” debates about Apple’s encryption move at this link http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/09/30/apple-vs-the-law (subscription might be required).

The Security Law Brief reports without comment that a federal judge ordered the US government to release videotapes [is the government still using videotapes?] of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner being force-fed.  An attorney for the prisoner said “we are very gratified by this decision, which will enable the American people to see with their own eyes the sorts of abuses that are being heaped on these peacefully hunger-striking detainees…. Once the truth is fully brought to light, we believe these terrible practices will come to an end….”  A former commander at Guantanamo told the court “even though the forced cell extraction videos are lawful, humane and appropriate, they ‘are particularly susceptible to use as propaganda and to incite a public reaction because of their depiction of forcible … guard interaction with detainees.’ The videos that also contain footage of forced-feedings could be used ‘to foment anti-American sentiment and inflame Muslim sensitivities as it depicts … personnel providing medical care to a detainee while he is restrained…’.”

… Speaking of medical care, Recovery Diva links readers to a U.S. National Library of Medicine cite providing Information Resources for the 2014 Ebola Outbreak.

… Dr. Will Pilkington’s Medium Post about Ebola  also reminds readers how the New York Times’ Brian McFadden sees outbreaks in America.

outbreaks in america

October 5, 2014

Deadly serious but not existential

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 2014

Last week the Vice President gave a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  The speech was mostly a quick skim of global issues and US priorities.  Not much new.  But as is Mr. Biden’s tendency, he can with tone or particular emphasis, give an old song new life.

Below are his remarks on counter-terrorism.  I have highlighted some elements with which I agree and, in my judgment, are too seldom emphasized.

The fourth element of our strategy is countering violent extremism.  As you know, we’ve engaged in a relentless campaign against terrorists in Afghanistan, in the so-called FATA, in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.  This campaign against violent extremism predates our administration, and it will outlive our administration.  But we’ve made real progress against al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates since 9/11.  But this threat of violent extremism is something we’re going to have to contend with for a long time. 

Today, we’re confronting the latest iteration of that danger, so-called ISIL; a group that combines al Qaeda’s ideology with territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria and beyond, and the most blatant use of terrorist tactics the world has seen in a long, long time.  But we know how to deal with them.

Our comprehensive strategy to degrade and eventually defeat ISIL reflects the lessons we have learned post-9/11 age about how to use our power wisely.  And degrading them does not depend upon an unsustainable deployment of hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground.  It’s focused on building a coalition with concrete contributions from the countries in the region.  It recognizes outside military intervention alone will not be enough.  Ultimately, societies have to solve their own problems, which is why we’re pouring so much time and effort into supporting a Syrian opposition and Iraqi efforts to re-establish their democracy and defend their territory.  But this is going to require a lot of time and patience.

The truth is we will likely be dealing with these challenges of social upheaval not just in Iraq and Syria, but across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, which will take a generation or more to work itself out. 

We can’t solve each of these problems alone.  We can’t solve them ourselves.  But ultimately — and we can’t ultimately solve them with force, nor should we try.  But we can work to resolve these conflicts.  We can seek to empower the forces of moderation and pluralism and inclusive economic growth.  We can work with our partners to delegitimize ISIL in the Islamic world, and their perverse ideology. 

We can cut off the flow of terrorist finance and foreign fighters, as the President chaired the hearing in the United Nations Security Council on that issue just last week.  We can build the capacity of our partners from the Arab world to Afghanistan to solve their security problems in their own countries with our help and guidance.  The threat posed by violent extremists is real.  And I want to say here on the campus of Harvard University:  Our response must be deadly serious, but we should keep this in perspective.  The United States today faces threats that require attention.  But we face no existential threat to our way of life or our security.  Let me say it again:  We face no existential threat — none — to our way of life or our ultimate security.

You are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as you around to be affected by a terrorist event in the United States.

And while we face an adaptive, resilient enemy, let’s never forget that they’re no match for an even more resilient and adaptive group of people, the American people, who are so much tougher, smarter, realistic and gutsy than their political leadership gives them credit for.

We didn’t crumble after 9/11.  We didn’t falter after the Boston Marathon.  But we’re America.  Americans will never, ever stand down.  We endure.  We overcome.  We own the finish line.  So do not take out of proportion this threat to us.  None of you are being taught to dive under your desks in drills dealing with the possibility of a nuclear attack.  And I argue with all of my colleagues, including in the administration, the American people have already factored in the possibility that there will be another Boston Marathon someday.  But it will not, cannot — has no possibility of breaking our will, our resolve, and/or our ultimate security.

That “And I argue… ” is interesting.  I hope he does and I hope he’s right.  Anticipating more freelance threats would be realistic — and resilient — behavior.

October 3, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 3, 2014

On this date in 1974 an 8.1 earthquake hit Peru, including metropolitan Lima, killing over seventy, injuring more than 2000, and leaving tens-of-thousand homeless.

On this date in 2013 a trawler carrying African migrants caught fire off Lampedusa (Italy).  Over 360 died.

On this date in 1993 eighteen Marines and over 1000 Somalians are killed during a US effort to capture or kill insurgent forces in Mogadishu.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

October 2, 2014

Another execution

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2014

samira_al-nuaimiSamira Salih al-Nuaimi

Over the last week, did you read or hear about this execution?  I assume HLSWatch readers are watching more carefully than most.  But did the report get to you?  Here’s the Associated Press blurb:

Militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group publicly killed a human rights lawyer in the Iraqi city of Mosul after their self-styled Islamic court ruled that she had abandoned Islam, the U.N. mission in Iraq said Thursday (September 25).

Samira Salih al-Nuaimi was seized from her home on Sept. 17 after allegedly posting messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, al-Nuaimi was tried in a so-called “Sharia court” for apostasy, after which she was tortured for five days before the militants sentenced her to “public execution.”

She was killed on Monday (September 22), the U.N. mission said.

Here’s the official US response.

Here’s the Washington Post piece.

I have wondered about our potentially evolutionary preference to personalize threats. Does it now take a real-time snuff video?  Has our imagination become so anemic?  Or does it require a shared “tribal” identity with the victim?  Is empathy dependent on some sort of perceived cultural or national proximity?  Or perhaps in a promiscuously proximate world we purposefully keep our emotional distance?

In any case, I will admit I did not see a report until a week after her execution. But I will also note, this execution captured my subconscious more than any previous.  Given what seems to be the paucity of reporting, this is not the anticipated response.  Or perhaps I was just distracted.  You tell me.

Evil as a non-integrated gap

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2014

Pentagon's New Map

The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett (click to open larger version)

This is the fifth — and probably penultimate — post on the use of “evil” in homeland security rhetoric. (Prior posts: as referenced on September 10, as otherwise used by President Obama, as self-assertion, and at the United Nations.)

Six quotations on evil, classical to contemporary:

For no man is voluntarily evil; but the evil become so by reason of an ill disposition of the body and bad education, things which are hateful to every man and happen to him against his will.  (Plato quoting Socrates, Timaeus)

Evil in itself has neither being, goodness, productiveness, nor power of creating things which have being and goodness… thus evil has no being, nor any inherence in things that have being. Evil is nowhere qua evil; and it arises not through any power but through weakness… And, in a word, evil (as we have often said) is weakness, impotence, and deficiency of knowledge (or, at least, of exercised knowledge), or of faith, desire, or activity as touching the Good. (Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology)

I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)

Whence then come my errors? They come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds, but extend it also to things which I do not understand: and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin, and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true. (Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy)

Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life.  In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good (Carl Gustav Jung, The Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy)

Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. . . Upholding a Good-Evil dichotomy also takes ‘good people’ off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror, and violence. (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect)


Evil as an active and intentional otherness is predominant in many Western language and culture systems.  When  most Americans — perhaps most Westerners — hear a reference to “evil” it implies an aggressive force contending with good.   According to one 2013 survey fifty-seven percent of all Americans believe in the Devil as a personification of evil.

As the quotes above suggest, however, this is not the only perspective. Long-time and respected philosophical, religious, and socio-psychological arguments exist for evil emerging from absence of good or distortion of good.  In this view, rather than aggressively active, evil is a contingent experience of disintegration and disorder.  Other surveys find that up to fifty-nine percent of practicing US Christians perceive that Satan, “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.”

To the extent evil is and continues in the lexicon of homeland security — and especially counter-terrorism — these differences matter.  Clearly it matters in terms of rhetoric.  What does a President or Prime Minister or wanna-be Caliph mean when s/he references “evil”?  What is heard?  Is it possible to better calibrate what is said with what is heard?

It can also matter in terms of long-term strategy.  Absence is arguably non-activity.  Anemia is treated differently from a virus. A deficiency of B12 and an over-abundance of Lewey Bodies can produce the same symptoms, but respond to very different therapies.  Managing a chronic disease is very different than responding to an acute illness.  Executing a war is different than carrying-out a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Thomas P.M. Barnett’s insights regarding the world’s “non-integrated gap” are a contemporary policy approach coherent with Dionysius the Areopagite.  Some of us remember The Pentagon’s New Map.  Barnett wrote that.  In 2005 he also wrote:

We need to end the disconnectedness that defines danger in our world. We need to shrink the gap and all its pain and suffering  — right out of existence.  We need to make globalization truly global in a just manner… This process of economic, political, and social integration among many of the world’s states is the defining characteristic of our age, and as such, it defines conflict in this era…

Barnett describes the dysfunction and eventual conflict that emerges from an absence of connectedness.  Tighten the full suite of connections, he argues with considerable credibility, and the risk is reduced for the worst sorts of conflict.  I am arguing — or really just renewing the classical and orthodox argument — that it is the connections we consciously and creatively cultivate that most effectively and happily connect us to reality.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s observation that “Everything is connected to everything else,” can be threat or opportunity depending on how we engage (or not) the connections.

For nearly three years thousands have been horribly killed in Syria.  The pictures of gassed and bombed and starved children have proliferated.  We have observed the increasing power of the most extreme forces on every side.  As this has unfolded we — the supposed demos of the democratic and prosperous “core” (Barnett’s term) — have neglected, perhaps rejected, any meaningful sense of connection.

Then videos are distributed of two, then three (now more) Americans and Europeans being beheaded.  The balaclava-clad executioner with a British accent emerges as a personification of evil. Suddenly we perceive a clear-and-present connection. Warships are dispatched. Jets are scrambled.  Missiles are launched.  A multinational coalition is assembled.

What might have been achieved with more careful attention at an earlier date?  What if we were able to recognize the evil potential of absence — even our own thoughtlessness — rather than waiting for absence to unravel into disintegration, discord, and the fully demonic?

And if absence-of-connection — the non-integrated gap — is the breeding ground for evil in Syria, something analogous is as possible in Seattle.

The suppression of evil is and will probably continue as a prominent justification for domestic and international counterterrorism. But for many — potentially most English-speakers — evil is not understood as related to absence.  Evil is misunderstood as a sudden irrational eruption of accelerated entropy.  This misunderstanding — or very partial understanding — of evil overly constrains our strategic, operational, and tactical engagement with evil. Our orientation-toward-evil colors our observations which inform our decisions that shape our actions.

Recognizing the crucial role of connectedness — and absence of connectedness — allows for much wider and potentially accurate observation.


Next Thursday:  Some personal conclusions.

« Previous Page