Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 28, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 28, 2014

William R. Cumming Forum

November 27, 2014

A context for thanks-giving

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 27, 2014

Many of us are cognitively — perhaps genetically — predisposed to romanticize the past and catastrophize the present.  Our expectations of the future are more malleable, but usually reflect how our internal narrative frames past and present.

Where have we been? How did we get here?  Where are we going?  A few personal snapshots, with a very wide lens:

1944: The year opens with Nazis controlling most of Europe. In the Spring the Soviet Army shifts from defense to offense. On June 6 the Allies launch the Normandy Invasion. In November 1944 the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is closed, after murdering over 1 million mostly Polish Jews.  Chechens are internally deported to Siberia. Over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens are interned for another year.  The Supreme Court avoids a substantive decision on internment, allowing the practice to continue. The Warsaw Massacre.  Paris is liberated.  Roosevelt is reelected for a fourth term.  The Senate consists of 57 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and one other.  The House is made up of 242 Democrats, 191 Republicans, and two others.  US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $16,181.

1954:  Crimea is transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukranian SSR.  First mass vaccination against polio.  Puerto Rican nationalists open fire on the US House of Representatives, wounding five.  Army-McCarthy Hearings.  The French are defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, leading several months later to the withdrawal of colonial forces and the creation of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  In Brown v. Board of Education the US Supreme Court unanimously finds that segregated schools are unconstitutional.  The Algerian War of Independence begins.  The Soviet Union for the first time tests a thermonuclear weapon.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average — for the first time — exceeds its previous peak achieved just before the crash of 1929.  In the newly elected Senate the Republicans and Democrats each have 47… with 2 others.  In the House there are 232 Democrats and 203 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $15,745.

1964: Plans are announced to build the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.  The 24th Amendment to the Constitution is adopted banning poll taxes. De facto segregation of New York City public schools prompts a boycott by most African American and Puerto Rican families.  The man later convicted of murdering Medgar Evars is freed as a result of a hung jury. The summer is punctuated by race riots in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  The New York Times reports that Kitty Genovese is murdered in plain sight while her neighbors refuse to get involved. Three civil rights workers are murdered in rural Mississippi by local Klansmen and a deputy sheriff. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law.  Berkeley Free Speech Movement.  Johnson wins a landslide against Goldwater.  The elections produce a Senate with 68 Democrats and 32 Republicans and a House with 295 Democrats and a 140 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $19,455.

1974:  First OPEC oil embargo ends. Oil prices are 4-times higher than when the embargo started.  Patty Hearst is kidnapped, later cooperates with Symbionese Liberation Army in bank robbery. Universal Product Code (UPC) is first used to sell a retail product. April Super-Outbreak of tornadoes kills over three hundred in the central US.  President Richard Nixon resigns.  Car bombs are used in Dublin, Birmingham and elsewhere as “The Troubles” escalate. World Trade Organization starts.  India joins the nuclear weapons club.  The annual inflation rate for 1974 is eleven percent. The mid-term elections return a Senate with 57 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 2 others. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $25,227.

1984: Hezbollah car-bombs the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut killing 24.  US Marines withdraw from Lebanon (following October, 1983 bombing that killed 241 US military personnel.) The Provisional IRA fails in an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Thatcher and most of the British cabinet.  Prime Minister of India is assassinated, followed by sectarian strife with over 10,000 killed. Famine in Ethiopia threatens over ten million. A mentally ill man attacks a San Ysidro, California restaurant killing 21 and injuring 19 others. This year’s 4.3 inflation rate is down from 13.5 percent in 1980. Ronald Reagan wins in a landslide over Walter Mondale.  The new Senate consists of  53 Republicans  and 47 Democrats.  The House has 253 Democrats and 182 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $30,817.  Despite all, not nearly as bad as Orwell predicted.

1994: Northridge earthquake. Rwandan Genocide kills up to 1 million. Last Russian troops leave Germany and most of Eastern Europe. US and Russia agree to cooperate to  de-nuclearize Ukraine. NATO intervenes in Yugoslavian Civil War. Aum Shinrikyo launches sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway. Provisional IRA announces complete cessation of military operations.  Iraq threatens Kuwait, US deploys troops to Kuwait, Iraq withdraws military forces from border with Kuwait. Russian troops are ordered into Chechnya to quell insurgency. America Online offers “retail” access to the World Wide Web for the first time.  The elections give Republicans control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1954: Senate 53-47, House 230-204 (plus 1). US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $37,598.

2004: Madrid train bombing kills 191. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia join NATO. NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. The European Union accepts ten new members: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus. Nick Berg is decapitated by a proto-ISIS organization in Iraq, a video of the execution shows Berg in an orange jump-suit. The US-led coalition transfers sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government.  Ground-breaking for Freedom Tower (replacing WTC).  Beslan school hostage-taking results in over 300 deaths and 700 serious injuries.  Orange Revolution in Ukraine.  Earthquake and tsunami kills over 180,000 across the eastern Indian Ocean.  George W. Bush defeats John Kerry for President.  The new Congress will consist of 55 Republican Senators and 44 Democrats (plus one other).  The House also has a Republican majority: 232-201.  US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $46,967.

You can take/make your own snapshot for 2014.  You know the election results.  Our current GDP per capita is $53,429 ($49,811 in 2009 dollars). This is a week when memories of Birmingham or Selma or the Summer of 64 weirdly echo.

We live in a time of profound and rapid change.  This is only a cliché if we fail to fully recognize its reality.  If we engage the reality, then we will also acknowledge that about the best most of us can do is surf the social-technological-economic tsunami on which we find ourselves.

There are certainly those who — for good cause — fear the water.  There are some who grandly presume to reverse the waves. Others retreat deep into the interior.  I empathize.  I do not crave the clash of currents and soaring crests that threaten to crush me.  But here I am.  With you.

How can I make the best of my circumstance?  How can we, together if possible, enhance our chances of getting safely to shore?  Even have some fun?

I give thanks.  This is, I am told, an attitude and habit that strengthens.  But whether or not this is true, I am authentically thankful.  I have not yet drowned.  The water is invigorating.  The waves are awe-inspiring.  I am constantly challenged to be better: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I give thanks for prior challenges overcome by others.  I give thanks for the undeniable progress I have seen in a society becoming more diverse, inclusive, wealthier, more knowledgeable, and creative.

I give thanks for seemingly insoluble problems. These have often given me employment.  While the most rigorous waves usually swamp me, on rare occasions after a wild ride they bring me to some sandy shore for rest and recovery.  Occasionally the very worst waves — most fearsome problems — have scooped from the ocean floor or retrieved from a tidal cave priceless treasure.

Very best wishes for your own thanks-giving.

November 26, 2014

Stafford at twenty-six

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Disaster,Legal Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on November 26, 2014

Quin Lucie authored this post. Mr. Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.


A Quarter Century More?

Nearly 26 years after it was passed, it’s time to take another look at the Stafford Act.

November 23, 2014 was the 26th anniversary of Public Law 100-707, The Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988. Probably doesn’t ring a bell does it? But if you’re reading this, you might know the name of the 1974 disaster relief statute it renamed, The Robert T. Stafford Act, or as most just call it, the Stafford Act.

The Stafford Act was the fifth major change to a series of Disaster Relief Acts beginning in 1950 and amended or replaced in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1974. The Stafford Act itself has seen at least four significant amendments since 1988. However, none of these later changes was done holistically. They were all crafted in a near vacuum of each other.

In 1993 and 1994, partly in response to the abysmal response to Hurricane Andrew, Congress first amended the powers of the Civil Defense Act of 1950 and then completely removed them. Some of the preparedness authorities of the old act found their way into a new title to the Stafford Act. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 added significant mitigation authorities. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA), for the first time, explicitly authorized the activities of FEMA, though those changes appear in the Homeland Security Act, not the Stafford Act. In the Stafford Act, PKEMRA made subtle changes to its response authorities, such as allowing the President to provide assistance, after a declaration, without a specific request from a Governor. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 made significant reforms to the way public assistance programs are delivered to State, tribal and local governments and made tribal governments eligible to ask for disaster declarations on their own.

The result of these independent, and occasionally improvised changes has been predictable. There are now major parts of the nation’s most important disaster relief authorities that are either forgotten, misunderstood or no longer work as intended. The lack of national dialogue approaches three decades.


I’m not aware of a single person in FEMA, much less the Federal Government, outside of myself, who has  taken the time to read the legislative history of the Civil Defense Act of 1950, much less understand the factors that led to its demise and reinstatement of part of it in the Stafford Act. Or know why it is the FEMA Administrator, not the President, who was given control over it. There are several parts that could be of significant use to national preparedness efforts, and at least one could provide a very significant source of authority for catastrophic relief efforts. However, these authorities remain outside of the mainstream of planning efforts and the knowledge of emergency managers.


“FEMA could develop an updated formula… to determine the capacity of jurisdictions to respond to those disasters.” So stated Mark E Gaffigan, Managing Director, Natural Resources and Environment Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in February of this year. What Mr. Gaffigan failed to realize, even though he correctly labeled these formulas as recommendations, was the reasons they have not been updated in decades (Mr. Gaffigan said these fomulas have not been updated since 1986, I’m not sure that is correct – the particular regulation was last updated in January, 1990). Those reasons, which I spelled out in a post on this blog last year, were a direct result of Congress intentionally not wanting to reign in disaster declarations and to keep the criteria broad enough to allowed affected states and jurisdictions to lobby for a declaration.

No longer work as intended.

At that same February hearing, Collin O’Mara, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, spoke at length about how his state was not rewarded for significant pre-storm mitigation efforts it took, while New Jersey was rewarded with billions of dollars of assistance for failing to make similar efforts before Hurricane Sandy. It was clear from the testimony at this hearing that the Stafford Act, at least in parts, is no longer operating as intended.

In some cases, years of experience extracting Federal dollars under the law may have led to the exploitation of inefficiencies that can promote less than optimal mitigation strategies while discouraging more useful resilience policies. It probably now makes more sense for some state and local governments to avoid taking mitigation measures for certain risks, as they will be penalized or at least lack compensation for those measures, and instead wait for a future disaster and then use federal funding at no more than 25 cents on the dollar. In a future Stafford Act, a way needs to be found to reward the efforts of Delaware and Secretary O’Mara while incentivizing the next New Jersey to act before disaster.

These changes can be seen in real time in the States of Illinois and Pennsylvania. Illinois, who experienced several recent events where they did not receive a Federal disaster declaration, has seen legislation introduced in both its own legislature to provide state disaster assistance, and in the U.S. Senate by its two Senators to amend FEMA’s disaster declaration criteria. The proposed state law, last referred to a rules committee in April, is consistent with years of national disaster relief practice, namely that disasters should be handled locally, and then by the States before seeking Federal assistance. On its face, funds available under this law would be available immediately to local governmental bodies without waiting on the Federal government. If this reflects the consensus of the current Congress, it is this type of legislation that would presumably be encouraged and incentivized in a new Stafford Act. On the other hand, the legislation introduced by the two senators is a bit puzzling as it appears to treat FEMA’s regulations for disaster declarations as binding, when in fact they are only recommendations.

In Pennsylvania, there is a similar debate going on. Unlike in Illinois, Pennsylvania would make funds contingent on the fact areas eligible for assistance are not covered by a “Presidential disaster declaration.” This is different than the approach potentially taken by Illinois and could be seen as making Federal funding the primary source of disaster relief, rather than the State (Considering it was Pennsylvania’s own Tom Ridge who was the primary driver of the Stafford Act, it would be interesting for his perspective). Should this statute pass, the State would presumably then make grant assistance under this law unavailable to those in federally declared disaster areas. (After this post was written, a version of this statute was signed into law the last week of October).

Times change.

During the debate over the first disaster relief act in 1950, members of Congress went so far as to ensure its more cynical legislators that under the act there would be “no new agencies or bureaus” authorized under this new law. In fairness it only took around 24 years before a bureau within HUD was solely dedicated to disaster relief and 29 years before the creation of FEMA.

There are two main questions Congress must ask of itself, constituents, and State, tribal and local governments. First, does the Stafford Act currently reflect consensus national priorities for the mitigation, response, and recovery from disasters and the funding of disaster relief? Second, does the Stafford Act, taken as a whole, incentivize the most (politically feasible) efficient strategies for mitigating for, responding to and recovering from disasters? If not, what are the more (most) efficient strategies and can they be adequately prescribed under the current framework of the Stafford Act, or should the Stafford Act be completely restructured?

While not a primary consideration, Congress should also look closely at the relationship between the Stafford Act and the Homeland Security Act. For instance, the primary agency to carry out the Stafford Act, FEMA, has its primary authorities found in the Homeland Security Act. The danger is that such a discussion might quickly bog down over how changes to these two laws might change committee jurisdictions. It might also fuel the underlying friction between “emergency management” and “homeland security” something that is probably continuation of the debate between what is “civil defense” and “all hazards” from decades before.

After six generations of being taken apart, amended and replaced, the Stafford Act, when seen up close, looks more like something found in the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, cobbled together from years of compromise and improvised in the wake of major disasters. Maybe it’s time to take another peek under the hood and see everything that has been connected to the engine. It’s only been 26 years.

November 25, 2014

The world watches

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 25, 2014

F australian

Australian f


F al jazera


F bbc


F nigeria


F the times

F new zed

F mexico

F itv

F israel

F india

F germany

F france

F china

F canada

November 22, 2014

Office of Legal Counsel Analysis

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,Legal Issues — by Philip J. Palin on November 22, 2014

In an unusual move, the administration has released the analysis of presidential authority undertaken by the Office of Legal Counsel in regard to the role and limits of the President to set priorities in the enforcement of immigration laws. Worth a careful read by all of us… on issues well-beyond immigration.

I will not have time to offer much more any time soon.  Our friends at Lawfare have begun a conversation that should be illuminating.  First up, Paul Rosenzweig on Executive Discretion and Immigration Law.

November 21, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 21, 2014

As part of my professional triage I will dispense with the natural, accidental and intentional antecedents for each Friday.  Starting next week I will just launch the post.

Bill Cumming — the originator of the Friday Free Forum — has suggested making some regular place for homeland security book reviews.   It seems to me Friday comments would be a good place.  A three sentence introduction, a positive or negative personal judgment, and a link to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or the publisher would be great.

Over the last ten days I have had several meetings where regular readers of HLSWatch have introduced themselves.  All claimed to value the blog.  Even more impressive, each quoted from memory the principal themes of recent posts by Chris, Arnold or me.

Even for our less-than-mass-market readership, I did not hear from a statistically significant sample.  But I noticed when roughly four out of five also referenced a real regret that conversations were so seldom able to get going.

The whole field of homeland security missed an opportunity when earlier this year an effort here to host a meaningful discussion of the QHSR failed.  People were listening.  We did not advance the conversation.

So as I prepare to recede a bit over the next few weeks, I will offer:

  • Every post benefits from thoughtful questions
  • Every post benefits from real-world stories that confirm or challenge the post
  • Most comments benefit from being read and questioned or challenged or reconfirmed
  • Self-restraint, as in staying on topic and hoping for the good faith of another, is an attractive and constructive habit
  • Conversations unfold when a thought is heard, meaning is confirmed (not yet challenged), alternatives are politely offered, alternatives are heard and confirmed… you know the method.

In my experience real conversation requires real vulnerability.  To further explicate, below is a poem.

The backstory for this poem is relevant.  Last March I facilitated a multi-jurisdictional, private-public homeland security exercise. This was the culminating event for a process that had been underway for over a year. One of the public sector participants was inserted at the last minute. For almost everyone else this was the third (or more) event in a series.  We had already dispensed with a lot of dogma.  She arrived still believing in some federal processes that the private sector had previously persuaded the public sector participants were time-sinking dysfunctions.  I shut her down much too quickly and with a tone that was much too harsh.

Writing this poem was part penitence, part personal AAR.

Words rush forth untethered
Inflating this space between us
Where quiet might have

condensed our difference

Remaining asymmetrical
But also fully tangible
Undeniably actual
A warm body
Liquid eyes

Hearts contracting
Next expanding
Two independent
Yet syncopated rhythms
Rising to the same coda

Words can distance with
Anger disgust or fear
Disinterest irrelevance
Self-involved tedium
Pretentious posturing

Before I say anything
May I hear see touch
Taste feel the reality
Of you, the adventure
Of being here with you

Then may I choose
Words you will hear
As sure evidence
You have been heard

Words that even in
Listen with love

November 20, 2014

Mass migrations

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration — by Philip J. Palin on November 20, 2014

Whatever the President says tonight and however the Congress responds, human migration — legal and illegal — will persist. Following is some of the context any effective policy or strategy will need to reflect.

The Global Context

Rapid population growth, rising economic expectations, and improved transportation networks have spurred unprecedented numbers of humans to move from places of economic disadvantage, social turmoil, and political oppression to places of greater wealth, security, and freedom.

Statistical sources are not always counting the same things in the same way. Many of the sources are estimates. And I am new enough at this topic I do not have confidence in my ability to rationalize the different approaches.  Accordingly the following numbers should be seen as suggesting scope and scale, not as a precise accounting.

The United Nations International Migration Report (2013) indicates that there are over 232 million international migrants.  These are citizens of one nation currently residing in another country regardless of status.

Approximately 41 million residents of the United States are foreign-born (13 percent of total population).  Of this total the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that somewhat more than 11 million are not legally authorized (3.5 percent of total population) to be in the United States.

In 2013 roughly 1 million migrants entered the United States with some sort of authorized status.  The United States is the single largest destination nation for migration, but there are other significant destinations.

The map immediately below reflects comparative migration in-flows.  The second map shows comparative Gross Domestic Product.

International migrationNet inflows of migrants (Worldmapper)

gdp 800x400Gross Domestic Product (Worldmapper)

While the poorest of the poor are not the most typical migrants, perceived vulnerability and/or persistent lack of economic mobility is clearly a major motivation.  In an origin-analysis for unaccompanied minors presenting at the Southern border in the first half of this year, DHS/CBP found a pattern that coincides with poverty and, especially, violence (see map below).


Historical Context

In 1875 when construction began on the Statue of Liberty there was no federal legislation restricting immigration.  In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote these words,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Even by then it was a bit more accurate to write, “Let me choose among your tired…”  The Page Act of 1875 was aimed mostly at curtailing Asian migration to the United States. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.   The Immigration Acts of 1903 and 1907 excluded several classes of potential immigrants such as anarchists, lepers, epileptics, and those with a variety of psychological disorders. The Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas for some nations of origin. Mexican immigration was restricted for the first time in 1965.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 emerged from a set of political, economic, and ethical issues rather similar to the situation today.

Regular readers may be annoyed — but you are not surprised —  that I perceive a classical analogy.

Fundamental to Roman imperial policy was assimilation of “barbarians” (either conquered or immigrants).  This was especially true in the Fourth Century as several Germanic tribes pressed hard by Hunnish invasions and migration piled up against and over Roman borderlands. Gibbon seems to argue the Goths were too different and too numerous to assimilate.  So there is a traditional narrative that Rome fell to especially aggressive “immigrants.”  Some contemporary scholars disagree.  Alessandro Barbero and others point to the decision of the Emperor Valens in 378 to fight rather than make common cause with the Goths as a fundamental error. The Battle of Adrianople reversed several centuries of a culturally inclusive strategy and committed the Empire to an unsustainable effort to exclude. The city of Rome was sacked in 410.

Historians can argue what really happened then.  We are making similar choices now. As with Valens and the Goths, it is sufficiently complicated that even historians may be unable to agree on the implications of what we do or fail to do.

Ebola — no sitrep — but an update

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on November 20, 2014

One Wednesday the World Health Organization released a new update on the situation in West Africa.  The rate of new transmissions has continued to decline in Liberia and Guinea.  But the curve is continuing upward in Sierra Leone.

I have not seen a persuasive analysis to explain the difference between the three neighboring nations.  But there is some indication that too many social-networks in Sierra Leona may still be in denial.  Community engagement and organization are widely thought to be what turned-the-curve in Liberia.

On Tuesday a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on fighting Ebola in West Africa.   You can see/hear a video of the hearing and read the prepared testimony at the committee’s website.

I probably will not prepare a new sitrep this weekend as I have the last few weekends.  A couple of new “day job” assignments are going to take a serious commitment through mid-February.  I may be a bit AWOL from HLSWatch.  We’ll see.

November 19, 2014

Origins of ISIS: a short cartoon

Filed under: Border Security,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on November 19, 2014

Via the Lawfare Blog, here is a short animated video narrated by terrorism expert Bruce Riedel explaining the history of what has become known as ISIS, ISIL, and/or the Islamic State.


November 18, 2014

Seeing something about school shootings on Yik Yak and saying something

Filed under: Education,Social Media — by Christopher Bellavita on November 18, 2014

“Just saw a sketchy looking dude load some assault rifles into his car on the walk to campus, so that’s chill.”

Last week a friend sat waiting at the airport for her flight. To pass the time she checked out some of the posts on Yik Yak.

Her son attends a university on the other side of the country, and sometimes she skims the Yik Yak posts to see what’s happening on her son’s campus. It’s a way to get a sense of the anonymous culture college marketing departments don’t talk about much. Or at all.

“Hey that’s not even something to joke about. This better be a joke.”

When my friend saw the assault rifle post, her first thought was it’s a prank. She looked at more of the replies:

“That’s not funny. Someone should call public safety.”

“Call the cops. Don’t play around with this.”

She looked at a few posts on other topics, but her mind would not let go of the image of a “sketchy dude” putting weapons in his car.

She sent a copy of the text to her husband.

“I just saw this on Yik Yak. It’s 30 minutes old. Probably nothing. I’m at the airport. Do you have contact information for the university police? Again, it’s probably nothing.”

“OK everybody, don’t get your panties in a bunch. There’s nothing illegal about putting rifles in your car. Lighten up.”

A few more minutes went by. No word from her husband.

“There really probably isn’t anything to this. Just a bad joke. Besides, the police probably monitor Yik Yak. I’m pretty sure they’re on top of it.”

“You can’t joke about this. It’s not funny. I’m down voting you.”

“I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t go to class today. Just stay in my room.”

“Somebody should tell the police.”

My friend thought, “The chances this is real are practically zero. It’s college kids. Besides, I’m hundreds of miles away. I feel helpless.”

She knew she wasn’t helpless.

“I realized I could do something,” she told me. “I used my phone to look up the number for campus security and called them. I just didn’t want to take the chance. I told them I was a parent and told them what I saw on Yik Yak.”

“It’s probably nothing,” I told them, wondering why I kept repeating that.

“Relax everyone. My guess is it’s the ROTC cadets storing their weapons after yesterday’s Veterans Day ceremony.”

“This is scary. How come the cops don’t know about this?”

“Assault what?” asked the person on the other end of my friend’s phone call.

“Assault weapons, assault rifles. Something like that. I don’t recall exactly. It’s probably nothing. Don’t you guys monitor Yik Yak?”

“We don’t approve of Yik Yak,” the person said.

“I don’t approve of it either,” said my friend, “but you know… ‘see something, say something?’ I just saw something on Yik Yak and I’m telling you.”

“OK,” the person responded. “Thanks for letting us know.”

“Is that it?” my friend thought. “They didn’t even ask my name.”

A few minutes later she boarded her plane, feeling surprisingly pleased that she’d acted, rather than waited for someone else to act.

“I knew it was probably nothing. But if it turned out to be real, and I hadn’t done anything,….”

She did not complete her sentence.

Yik Yak is a geo-fenced, micro-blog version of Twitter. It’s a social media (some say an anti-social media) smartphone app that allows people in a geographically constrained area to anonymously communicate with other nearby people. I’m not sure how constrained the area is. I’ve read it’s anywhere from a 1.5 to 10 mile radius.

Yik Yak appears to be intended for use primarily by college students. It blocks anyone from posting if they are near a high school or middle school.

Sometimes the posts are amusing:

— “There is no reason to tailgate me when I’m going 50 in a 35. And those flashing lights on top of your car look ridiculous.”

— “Sister: Where is Nicaragua? Me: Central America. Sister: So like near Kansas? Me: I see poles and body glitter in your future.”

— “FUN FACT: If you take out your intestines and lay them end to end, you will die.”

Other times, the posts are ugly: Racist Posts On Yik Yak Prompt Student Protest At Colgate University

One writer believes Yik Yak is “the most dangerous app I’ve ever seen.”  Another author suggests Why Your College Campus Should Ban Yik Yak.  A third article writes about Yik Yak as A Weapon That Should Be Treated Like One, describing it as a “bulletin board for bomb threats.” (At least two people have been arrested for using the app to make bomb threats. Yik Yak gave law enforcement the names of the people who made both threats.)

The application also has its defenders. Here are some comments in response to the charge that Yik Yak is dangerous:

— “I find your view on Yik Yak very cynical. I hardly ever see hateful yaks, and if I do, they are gone within seconds because people down vote them.”

— “Yik Yak builds strong community and opens up honest discussions. It has the potential for some abuse but overall I think it is a fun, brilliant app.”

–“Anonymity is the only thing we have left to guarantee our first amendment, sad but true. Yeah there will be people that will abuse it, but we have to take the bad with the good in the ideal of freedom.”

My friend’s plane landed a few hours later. When she turned her phone back on she had a voice mail message.

“This is Lieutenant [—-] at the [—- ] University Police Department. Please call me when you get this message.”

She called the number and spoke to the police officer. The department checked the Yik Yak post about the assault rifles and, based on the post, conducted a sweep of the entire campus. The city police checked the neighborhood surrounding the campus.

They did not find anything.

Was the post a hoax? An inappropriate attempt at humor? A warning that disrupted a potentially significant event?

It was probably nothing.

Like it always is.


November 16, 2014

Not in my name

Filed under: Media,Radicalization,Social Media,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 16, 2014

Early Sunday morning a web-based video claimed to show the dead body of Peter Kassig, age 26, a US citizen. The army veteran had started a small humanitarian not-for-profit operating in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey providing basic medical services and supplies to refugees. In 2013 he was captured by Syrian insurgents. The group claiming responsibility for his execution is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

If confirmed, this would be the fifth beheading of a Western captive by the group.  The Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS or Da’ish) has become notorious for using an extensive toolkit of organized violence: beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.  Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed using means clearly designed to engender fear and compliance.

The Kessig video is the longest IS production yet.  While it includes a warning to Western — especially US and British — leaders, the propaganda is designed mostly to advance the IS brand-strategy and to recruit young men. The beheadings are a hook to ensure Western media attention that will prompt the target audiences to seek out the videos (they are not that difficult to find) where the rest-of-the-story is persuasively pitched as an answer to their search for adventure and meaning.

It seems to be working.   Most recent intelligence estimates find at least 15,000 foreign fighters from up to 80 nations are currently attached to a variety of insurgent groups — not just IS — in the Syrian civil war and its overflow into Iraq. (Potentially an interesting comparison:  During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 the total number of international volunteers serving with Republican forces is estimated have totaled 35,000.)

But it may also be emerging that even as IS is achieving some tactical success among a very small slice of disaffected — mostly — young people, it is prompting a blow-back by many others that could have significant strategic implications.

As was the case with David Haines and Alan Henning, British aid workers previously beheaded, the evidence seems overwhelming that Kessig was only involved in delivering compassionate care to those displaced by the Syrian civil war.  There is also no evidence that the two journalists who have been dramatically beheaded had any particular animus toward the Syrian insurgency.  The killings have not only been brutal.  They have, to most minds, been innately unjust.  For most Muslims this is a perversion of their faith.

The video above was developed — apparently independently — by a group of mostly young British Muslims following the execution of David Haines.  It crystalizes a movement that has spontaneously emerged  and is growing online very much contrary to the purposes of IS.

See more at  https://twitter.com/hashtag/notinmyname. Social media — not so much YouTube — is where most of the activity is taking place.

A shared revulsion to IS is also prompting others to perceive, conceive, and act in ways previously unseen.  On Friday, probably while the terrorists were putting finishing touches on their snuff video, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others were gathering for an unprecedented Muslim prayer service hosted by the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC. The sermon by Ebrahim Rasool included, “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility but keenly aware that it is not a time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The challenge for us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people… whose very existence threatens extremism.”

As the American experience with war has too often  demonstrated, tactical skill can seldom overcome a strategic deficit.  How ought our anti-IS strategy reflect the strategic vulnerability of our adversary?

November 15, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 5

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 15, 2014

The number of deaths traced to the current Ebola outbreak now exceeds 5000.  The rate of transmission has not increased in Guinea and has slowed in Liberia. But the situation in Sierra Leone is continuing to worsen.  A new network of Ebola cases has emerged in Mali among health workers who were exposed while caring for a man with kidney failure.  The patient was also suffering from a non-diagnosed Ebola infection.

Ebola_November 14

The fatality rate among those exposed to the Ebola virus is falling. In June the fatality rate for this West African outbreak was estimated at 90 percent.  In September the fatality rate was still at least seventy percent.  In prior Ebola outbreaks — much smaller in scope — the fatality rate has averaged 50 percent of those infected.   There are some studies that suggest with early intervention the fatality rate is now as low as 25 percent.

These are small and still unconfirmed studies.  But on a preliminary basis it is reasonable to observe:

  • The amount of circulating viral load was higher in those who died than in survivors; those patients with the highest levels of virus were most likely to die.
  • One of the strongest determinants of survival appears to be patient age. Patients older than 40 years were nearly 3.5 times more likely to die than those aged less than 40. The association between an older age and a higher risk of death was found regardless of whether the patient had co-morbidities or not.
  • Evidence of substantial fluid loss and profound electrolyte derangement associated with severe diarrhoea appears to increase the risk of a fatal outcome. More aggressive supportive care, especially intravenous rehydration, is thought to improve the prospects of survival.

Seriously compromising the ability to provide early diagnosis and care is a public health infrastructure insufficient to conduct the necessary contact-tracing. According to the November 12 WHO update:

Between 3 and 8 November, 5301 new contacts were identified in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, compared with 4067 new contacts traced in the previouwoulds week. A total of 95% (124,214 of 130,140) of required daily contact visits were conducted. However, the proportion of contacts reached was lower in many districts. Each district is reported to have at least one contact-tracing team in place. On average, only 10 contacts were listed per case in the three countries in the past week. The low average number of contacts listed per case suggests that the estimate of 95% gives an unduly favourable view of the success of contact tracing. Active case finding teams are being mobilized as a complementary case detection strategy.

The situation in West Africa remains very bad, but it is not — yet? — as bad as some projected in September or even early October. The predictions have, in part, been disrupted by increased public health interventions, improved clinical care, and — especially — altered population behavior.  While the threat of the virus was too long underplayed, since August a creative and committed response has paid-off.

In recognition of the continuing high risks, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an NGO with deep experience in the region, has recommended a new strategic approach, “Agile and well-equipped rapid response teams should be deployed quickly to actively investigate hotspots wherever they occur, and mount a comprehensive response.” This approach would depend much less on the construction and operation of isolation-and-treatment centers.

The rainy season is coming to an end in West Africa.  Typically the dry season sees a substantial increase in population movements.  This increased mobility will threaten the fragile progress that has been made.  The current ten-day forecast for Monrovia predicts almost daily rain and thunderstorms.  But early December is predicted to be bright and sunny.

Meeting early today in Brisbane the G20 affirmed and expanded commitments to fight Ebola in West Africa.  The world’s leading economies also signaled that more needs to be done to prevent and mitigate infectious threats much worse than Ebola: “This outbreak illustrates the urgency of addressing longer-term systemic issues and gaps in capability, preparedness and response capacity that expose the global economy to the impacts of infectious disease.”

November 14, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2014


According to my usual sources, November 14 seems to be less disastrous than most other days.  But above is a picture of the Caffe Chioggia in Venice on this day in 2012.

High water is not uncommon in Venice this time of year. There was flooding just last week. Venetian infrastructure and its people’s habits in many ways accommodate — and mitigate — the risk.  But  floods are recurring more often and tides seem to rising higher.   Will resilience be enough?

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

November 13, 2014

Immigration: Prepping the bowl game

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS,Immigration,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

It appears our end-of-year celebrations and contests will include a sustained play-by-play on immigration policy.  USA Today warns of “political war” on the issue.  We will probably see the gaming continue deep into basketball season.  Baseball? The 2016 World Series?

Despite the clear importance of immigration policy and practice to the Department of Homeland Security (where it can be seen as consuming the majority of resources), I have not given much space to immigration in my own working concept of homeland security.

Given the perpetrators of 9/11 it makes some narrative sense why immigration, border, and related agencies were brought together in the new DHS.  I will not resist that how we facilitate flows of goods and people into the nation has some sort of security implication. (Though Prohibition and the drug trade and human trafficking and mass migrations across all of human history suggest how tough it is for a big place to be anything close to impermeable.)

In terms of a terrorist threat, while we can make it more complicated and — with unusually good intelligence or vigilance or luck — actually stop some threats at the border, I have never met a professional who thought any of our immigration and border apparatus to be equal to a well-planned terrorist operation.  Much more effective is to disrupt the planning in Yemen or Af-Pak or Raqqa or wherever.  Border protection is like football’s free safety.  If that is what’s left, it’s already been a very tough play. You really want to stop them at the line of scrimmage or farther back.

When it comes to other aspects of homeland security: preparedness, mitigation, resilience, response, recovery, etc., etc….  immigration has seemed to me tangential.  There are issues of communicating in languages other than English.  Some immigrant communities — or areas where they tend to live — are considered more vulnerable.  But there are also studies that find the tight social connections of recent immigrants to generate a resilience-advantage compared to wealthier but more isolated neighbors.

There are a few cases where immigrant communities have become flash-points for radicalizing clusters of (mostly) alienated second-generation young men.  But to view this as an immigration or border issue strikes me as, again, giving too much attention to the free safety and not enough attention to the front line. (If you can’t tell, more than forty years and thirty pounds ago I was a defensive tackle.)

But whatever the actual homeland security implications, Secretary Johnson and his senior staff are going to be plenty focused on immigration in the weeks ahead.

So… an attempt to frame the issue for our future dialogue:

I have already acknowledged a personal prejudice on this topic.  But I will attempt to listen and learn from those with alternative points-of-view.

There is a plethora of expert — and advocacy — resources available.  Just a few:

Migration Policy Institute

Bipartisan Policy Center: Immigration Task Force

Cato Institute: Immigration Studies and Commentary

American Immigration Council

Texans for Sensible Immigration Reform

Brookings Institution: Immigration Workstream

Immigration Reform Law Institute

Federation for American Immigration Reform

Heritage Foundation: Immigration Workstream

US Chamber of Commerce: Immigration Resource Collection

If you have other sources of information, please include them in your comments.  At some point I will try to develop an annotated list of sources.

Trying the football analogy again, the two teams that are coming onto the field this season strike me as having very different strategies and styles of play:

Pragmatists versus legalists

Economic offense versus economic defense

Passing strategy versus ground strategy

Maybe Oregon versus Alabama?  Perhaps suggesting comparisons that go well beyond the gridiron.

The differences between the contestants are, in any case, so profound that I expect it may not be much of a game to watch.  The ducks may just sort of ride the tide.

I’ve never been a big fan of purist approaches to just about anything.


After I posted on Thursday the two teams started sending pre-game signals to each other.  Actually it sounded more like set-ups for a boxing match than most football games.  Anyway…

The Washington Post gives Capitol Hill trash talk top-of-the-fold prominence: Before immigration action, sides dig in.

Politico leads with Defiant Obama: I will use my power.

The Hill also calls the President defiant.

Roll Call quotes Senator Cornyn warning Presidential action on immigration could lead to a failure to fund the government.

Defiance abounds.

Our English word “defy” has its origin in a vulgar Latin term fidere meaning to trust, to have fidelity. That de on the front reverses the meaning.  Defiance emerges from mistrust.

Victimizing survivors (including us)

Filed under: Media — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

In last Saturday’s post I previewed a 60 Minutes report on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.  The report ran on Sunday.  Over 12 million Americans watched.

In many ways it was an excellent primer on the nature of the disease and the need — practically and ethically — to address the disease at its source. Those watching met competent and committed Americans bravely serving on this very important front.

But unless I zoned out, there was not a single interview with a Liberian.  Frankly this only occurred to me toward the close of the report.  If my memory has failed, please correct me.   In any case, I am sure Liberians were mostly presented as victims.

There are several problems with this image, but to start: it is simply not accurate. Liberians have been courageous, creative, and self-sacrificing to a degree that has to inspire anyone who takes notice.  If the transmission curve has indeed been bent in Liberia, it has mostly been the achievement of Liberians.

Given an American audience, the interviews with American health care providers in Liberia makes some sense.   There is a tribal aspect to most of our narrative realities that any story-teller does well to acknowledge.

But the 60 Minutes report — in what it omitted —  patronizes our tribal tendencies to a point that distorts reality.   The omission is even more treacherous because I expect it was unintentional.

I raise this issue because if the producers, directors, and reporters at 60 Minutes can fall into this very narrow trap, it suggests the challenges homeland security faces on a wide range of issues.

Terrorism is deeply rooted in human tribalism.  Introducing a new flood map into many communities makes introducing a new religion look easy.  You want to enhance private-public relationships?  It helps to be familiar with anthropological literature on tribal conflict.

We usually see, hear, perceive what we are prepared to believe.   Our self-identity is the principal determinant of what constitutes the other… and therefore the threatening.  We can escape these blinders.  But it is not easy. These are deeply wired predispositions.

I am concerned that media is, as Sunday’s report gives evidence, serving — both intentionally and unintentionally — to divide us into more and more distinct market segments (tribes).

More than a half-century ago Marshall McLuhan suggested the rise of television and other electronic media would reverse the objective stance encouraged by the written word and retrieve the subjectivity of the visual. This process would also, he argued, result in “retribalizing” humanity.

In a 1969 interview McLuhan commented,

The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences… All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

It’s been more than forty years, the prediction seems more true everyday.  Does this confirm his hypothesis?


The WHO released a new Ebola update on November 12.   The death toll is now over  5000. Sierra Leone’s transmission rate is not — yet – bending. Several new cases are threatening an outbreak in Mali.

Yesterday the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the Administration’s Ebola funding request.  Lots of testimony and such at the website.  Good reporting on the hearing at Politico.

More detailed analysis this weekend.

November 12, 2014

Upcoming film: “Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security”

Filed under: Climate Change — by Arnold Bogis on November 12, 2014

In light of the recent release of the Department of Defense’s “2014 Climate Change Adaption Roadmap,” along with similar contributions from other federal departments, the following trailer for a soon-to-be-released documentary is on topic. It frames current and potential future impacts of climate change in national security terms.


If you happen to be in the Boston area, this screening and discussion may be of interest.

Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security

Series: ENRP Film Series
Open to the Public – Land Hall (Belfer Bldg, 4th Flr)
November 19, 2014
6:00-8:00 p.m.

Related Project: Environment and Natural Resources


Join us for the next film in the 2014-2015 ENRP Environmental Film Series: “Extreme Realities: The Link Between Severe Weather, Climate Change, and Our National Security.” Introductory remarks by Harvard Professor James McCarthy, climate expert & board chair, Union of Concerned Scientists. Discussants: Lt. Katie Burkhart, US Navy Reserve & HKS Master in Public Policy candidate;Captain Michael A. Mullen, US Coast Guard & Harvard National Security Fellow

Refreshments served

Co-Sponsor: Environment & Energy Professional Interest Council (EEPIC)


ENRP Program Coordinator
Environment and Natural Resources Program 79 John F. Kennedy Street Cambridge, MA 02138
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Harvard Kennedy School
Email: enrp@hks.harvard.edu
Phone: 617-495-1351
Fax: 617-495-1635
Url: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/project/43/environment_and_natural_resources

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