Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 10, 2015

National Security and the Crusades…, but why would you throw the ball?

Filed under: Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on February 10, 2015

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.

So reads the final sentences of the 2015 National Security Strategy.

Phil Palin already posted the two paragraphs in the Strategy that directly refer to homeland security. They include the unsupported assertion that guarding against terrorism is the core responsibility of homeland security.

A few years ago John Mueller and Mark Stewart demonstrated that “to be deemed cost-effective [homeland security expenditures] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.” I have not seen an analysis that comes close to refuting their conclusion.

But everyone who disagrees with Mueller and Stewart knows they were academics playing with statistics. And everyone understands how statistics can be used to prove just about anything.

When I was an older man, I used to believe that as a nation, data mattered.  I am much younger now and understand what matters more is data filtered through the lens of beliefs.

Last week’s theological and historical discussion sparked by Barack Obama’s National Prayer Day remarks was just one more demonstration that first comes opinion, then comes data.

Thanks Obama.

But those who still believe in what Andre Breton called “the reign of logic” should have been heartened last week by the post-hoc application of game theory to what was effectively the last play of Super Bowl 49.

(In case you forgot, game theory is “the study of strategic decision making, … the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.”)

In an article titled Game Theory Says Pete Carroll’s Call at Goal Line Is Defensible , Justin Wolfers describes the decision context:

26 seconds remain in the Super Bowl, your team is 4 points behind, you have the ball just one yard short of the end zone, it’s second down, and your team has arguably the N.F.L.’s best running back. What’s your call? Run or pass?

Wolfers – who is an economics professor – applies the basics of game theory to the Seattle Seahawks’ decision:

The logic is that if you always choose to run in this situation, then you make the opposing coach’s job too easy, as he will set a defensive formation aimed at stopping your running back. Forget guarding the receivers, Belichick [the Patriot’s coach] would respond by piling players between Marshawn Lynch [the Seattle running star] and the end zone. As great as Lynch is, even he would find it difficult to run over a stacked defense that was waiting for him. Likewise, if the Seahawks would always decide to pass in this situation, there would be little need for the Patriots to guard against the run, and so their defense could double-team the eligible receivers.

Instead, you need to keep your opponents guessing, and the only way to do this is to be unpredictable. The only way to be unpredictable is to be a little bit random.

Get it? It’s sort of like rock, paper, scissors.

But it’s not.

The winning strategy is to be random. Because if you’re predictable, it’s not a winning strategy. (I wonder if our National Security Strategy is predictable?)

Anyway, Seattle threw the ball.  It was intercepted. The Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. But strategic logic says it was a defensible football call.

Game theory points to the possibility that Carroll’s decisive call was actually the result of following the best possible strategy, and that this is a strategy that involves an element of randomness in play-calling…. It may defy common sense, but it makes good strategic sense.

Hang on, says another rationalist author wise in the ways of game theory, “Game Theory Cannot Rationalize Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss.”

Cullen Roche – who runs a financial services company — argues that the Seattle coach wasn’t trying to out strategize or out think the Patriot’s coach.

Carroll explained his call after the game. With 26 seconds left and just 1 timeout the Seahawks did not want to waste a timeout, but also didn’t want to leave the Patriots with any time left and a chance to score. Carroll was emphatic that they would score on 3rd or 4th down with a run play. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind whether they could score. He didn’t need to outguess Bill Belichick.

This had nothing to do with Game Theory or trying to outguess the other coach. Pete Carroll had the New England Patriots dead in the water. He knew that there was virtually no chance that the Pats could stop one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with the best running back in the NFL

… So, what happened here was that Pete Carroll let Tom Brady [the Patriots’ quarterback] get into his head. And this resulted in an irrational decision to throw a slant pass into a crowded backfield…. In essence, Carroll did exactly what the Game Theorists wanted – he inserted the probability of a pass play into the minds of the defense. …Inserting the idea of randomness actually increased the odds of the interception because the defenders altered their thinking…. [In] the rush to protect against the improbable, [Carroll] called an improbable pass play.  No amount of theorizing can rationalize it.

This is an ideal dialectical situation. There’s a thesis that the call made sense from a game theoretic perspective. The antithesis is nope.

Where else to go for a synthesis but to the mother country.

The story in the Economist was called “Defending the indefensible: Game theory in American football”

To bring readers among the 98.5% of humanity that did not tune in up to speed (around 115m people watched the game, meaning that some 6.9 billion did not), the final minutes unfolded as follows.

The story unwinds the final two minutes of the game until Seattle is on the five yard line with a first and goal:

On the following play, Mr Carroll had Mr Wilson hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s superb running back. He advanced four yards, putting the Seahawks inside the Patriots’ one-yard line. That put Seattle in the driver’s seat: even though they were still trailing, they had three chances (the second, third and fourth downs) to advance the ball less than 36 inches (91 cm) and gain a three-point lead. Teams in that situation go on to win just under 85% of the time.

This case, however, would be the exception. After letting another 40 seconds burn off the clock, to ensure that New England would not have time to answer with a score of their own [thanks to Mr Brady], Mr Carroll chose to pass instead of run. Mr Wilson took the snap, and saw Ricardo Lockette … appear wide open with a clear path to the end zone. The quarterback fired the ball in his direction. But Mr [Malcom] Butler was about to have his revenge for being beaten by Mr [Jermaine] Kearse two plays earlier. Reading Mr Wilson perfectly … he broke straight for the spot Mr Wilson was targeting and intercepted the pass …, ending the Seahawks’ season.

The Economist offers its description of game theory [my emphasis], and throws in an interesting factoid:

A brief game theory refresher may be in order. There is no play that cannot be stopped if the defence knows it is coming. If the Seahawks were to sign a blood oath promising to have Mr Lynch run the ball, the Patriots could simply throw all 11 defenders at him and stop him in his tracks. In order for a run by Mr Lynch to be effective, the opposing team must believe there is some chance, however small, that the offence will do something else. For such a threat to be credible, Seattle must randomly call a different play every so often ….

In one of the rare demonstrations of mathematically optimal play in the NFL, the league’s coaches as a group have found their way to a textbook equilibrium. During the 2014 season, offences on an opponent’s one-yard line ran two-thirds of the time (there were 212 rushes and 106 passes). The running plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time…and the passing plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time. This is exactly what theory would predict: if either rushing or passing offered a superior success rate, teams would shift their play mix towards the better option until the balance was restored.

The conclusion to all this? According to the Economist,

The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking”, which originated with American football but is now used broadly, was invented for a reason: to heap appropriate scorn on critics who wait for the benefit of hindsight before rendering judgment…. There was nothing wrong with Mr Carroll’s play call. It just didn’t work out.

Facts? Opinions?  Rationality? Emotionalism? Motivated Reasoning?  Failure to use common sense?  Who really knows what play to call when the game’s on the line?

In my uncertainty and confusion I take refuge in the wisdom of the 2015 National Security Strategy.

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.


February 6, 2015

National Security Strategy

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 6, 2015

Late this Friday afternoon the long-delayed National Security Strategy was released.  It is available from the White House website.

This administration has consistently treated Homeland Security as, essentially, indistinguishable from National Security.  Given this angle, the entire document must be read to conceive the strategic intent for what most readers of this blog probably understand as homeland security.

Even so it is interesting that the following is the entire extent of language that the document explicitly organizes as Homeland Security.

Reinforce Homeland Security

Our homeland is more secure. But, we must continue to learn and adapt to evolving threats and hazards. We are better able to guard against terrorism—the core responsibility of homeland security—as well as illicit networks and other threats and hazards due to improved information sharing, aviation and border security, and international cooperation. We have emphasized community-based efforts and local law enforcement programs to counter homegrown violent extremism and protect vulnerable individuals from extremist ideologies that could lead them to join conflicts overseas or carry out attacks here at home. Through risk-based approaches, we have countered terrorism and transnational organized crime in ways that enhance commerce, travel, and tourism and, most fundamentally, preserve our civil liberties. We are more responsive and resilient when prevention fails or disaster strikes as witnessed with the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy.

The essential services that underpin American society must remain secure and functioning in the face of diverse threats and hazards. Therefore, we take a Whole of Community approach, bringing together all elements of our society—individuals, local communities, the private and non-profit sectors, faith-based organizations, and all levels of government—to make sure America is resilient in the face of adversity.

Whatever your take on the full document’s substance, these two paragraphs are a very long way from the world according to Richard Falkenrath.

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 6, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

February 5, 2015

Immigration physics

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,International HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on February 5, 2015

The continuing resolution under which the Department of Homeland Security is being funded will end on February 27. The House has passed a new DHS appropriations bill. This week Senate Democrats have used procedural votes to block further progress by the House bill.

Riders on the House appropriations measure would constrain Presidential discretion on immigration enforcement.  Many Republicans perceive this is needed to deter illegal immigration and to reassert what they understand to be appropriate constitutional boundaries. The President is “making” rather than enforcing the law, they complain.  Many Democrats, including the President, perceive the House bill to be constitutionally myopic or naive, operationally impractical, and deeply inhumane.

The constitutional issues strike me as murky, but not entirely outside reasonable consideration. Deterrence is often inhumane, in a way that’s the point of many negative actions intended to deter. The core issue — ethically and politically — is mostly about what ought be done with an estimated eleven million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States.  We are divided between arguments of principle and pragmatism, accountability and mercy.  These divisions are sufficiently deep that, so far, we do little more than question the intentions of those with a different opinion. Progress on this core seems so unlikely that each side is tempted to various end-runs and special plays.

Caught in the middle of this skirmish is the DHS budget. In the last week there has been more and more talk of letting the CR expire and holding the Department hostage. Why talk about it when playing chicken is so much more fun?

Last week Politico reported,

Top Republicans are increasingly unworried about missing the Department of Homeland Security’s funding deadline… Lessening the urgency, in some minds, of passing a Homeland Security funding bill is the fact that DHS’s operations wouldn’t necessarily shut down if funding expires after Feb. 27. In the October 2013 federal government shutdown, roughly 85 percent of DHS employees continued to work because their jobs were considered essential. However, their paychecks were withheld until the shutdown was over.

“In other words, it’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop — whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said, though he stressed that Congress shouldn’t ignore that deadline. “Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”

The Congressman’s first sentence, above, has gotten more attention than his second. This includes a White House website headline posted above remarks the President made on Monday at the Nebraska Avenue offices of the Department.

 If Republicans let Homeland Security funding expire, it’s the end to any new initiatives in the event that a new threat emerges. It’s the end of grants to states and cities that improve local law enforcement and keep our communities safe. The men and women of America’s homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that.

So, once again, the kids at each end of the country road are revving their engines and threatening to race down the tunnel of tall corn toward each other.

Homeland Security Watch typically works to avoid the starkly political.  In this case, I felt the need to at least acknowledge the current context, which seems to be hurtling toward collision.

In my judgment both Democrats and Republicans and both Legislative and Executive branches have trapped themselves in an analysis of symptoms.  The underlying condition is not unknown.  Last week Secretary Johnson mentioned it briefly,

Much of illegal migration is seasonal. The poverty and violence that are the “push factors” in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador still exist. The economy in this country – a “pull factor” — is getting better. There is still more we can and should do.

Push and pull are the essential elements of immigration physics. Presumably we do not want to reduce the pull.  That leaves dealing with push. How can we influence the force, reduce the speed, or change the direction of what’s pushing toward us?

Current approaches mostly wait to treat the issue until contact is made or imminent.  So we increase our investment in border protection and argue over deportation. Physics also allows action-at-a-distance.  Indeed in most cases, a small change in velocity introduced at a great distance has a much more profound effect than enormous force introduced at contact.

Last Spring and early Summer we saw a huge push of very young people toward our Southern border.  The push originated largely in three Central American states.  The force of the push related — and will relate — to poverty and especially violence.

In 2012 the Council on Foreign Relations published a special report that found:

Violent crime in Central America—particularly in the “northern triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—is reaching breathtaking levels. Murder rates in the region are among the highest in the world. To a certain extent, Central America’s predicament is one of geography—it is sandwiched between some of the world’s largest drug producers in South America and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States. The region is awash in weapons and gunmen, and high rates of poverty ensure substantial numbers of willing recruits for organized crime syndicates. Weak, underfunded, and sometimes corrupt governments struggle to keep up with the challenge. 

The CFR report goes on to recommend a series of steps designed to bend the velocity and reduce the force behind the push factor.  Many of its recommendations are reflected in the high level plan that Vice President Biden recently outlined.  The President’s budget references $1 billion to address “root causes” in Central America.

But reading between the lines, I’m not sure I see much there.  The what is thin and the how a mere mist quickly evaporating.

In late December Eric Olson and others at the Woodrow Wilson Center produced a detailed report on the situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and recent US policy engagement with each.  It is a resource that should help all of us understand the complexity of the issues and why previous US policy engagement has not been successful.  They also outline several key recommendations to do better.  To summarize here would be a disservice to their careful analysis. Please read the original: Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.

Many ancient physicists, including Democritus and Epicurus, perceived reciprocal collisions to be the source of both creation and destruction.  Newton helped us understand the possibilities of mutual attraction and action-at-a-distance.  The collision that now seems likely on February 27 strikes me as mostly distracting from creative opportunities that could advance much more humane and effective security.

February 3, 2015

A quiet but notable reorganization at DHS headquarters

Filed under: DHS News — by Christian Beckner on February 3, 2015

(Author’s Note: this analysis is cross-posted from the Security Insights blog that is affiliated with the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, where I currently work).

This past Monday (February 2, 2015), the Department of Homeland Security released details on its Fiscal Year 2016 budget request, both in summary documents as well as the nearly 4000-page Congressional Budget Justification (CBJ) for the Department. The full budget justification each year typically contains details on newly-proposed programs and activities within the Department, and this year is no exception. In particular, the CBJ includes details on a significant reorganization within the headquarters elements of the Department. This reorganization has been underway since last summer – that’s when I first heard the broad outline of the leadership team’s plans in conversations with several DHS officials – but the details within the budget justification constitute the first public overview of this reorganization.

First, the DHS Policy Office is reorganized into a top-level “executive office” and four subordinate offices (three of which are new), a significant change from what is currently still described on the DHS website. These four offices are identified as: (1) Threat Prevention & Security Policy, (2) Strategy, Plans, Analysis & Risk, (3) Border, Immigration & Trade Policy, and (4) International Engagement. The last office replaces the Office of International Affairs, which DHS had formerly proposed to separate from the Office of Policy for several years – a proposal that met Congressional resistance.

Three existing offices are moved out of the DHS Policy Office as part of this proposal: the Private Sector Office, the Office for State and Local Law Enforcement, and the Homeland Security Advisory Council. These three offices are moved into the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at headquarters, which the Department proposes to rename as the “Office of Partnership and Engagement.” In addition to the three offices realigned from the Policy Office, this new office would also take over responsibility of the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign from the Office of Public Affairs, and absorb an academic liaison position from the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer.

Another existing DHS office significantly impacted by the reorganization is the DHS Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS). Its Planning function is moved from OPS to the Strategy, Plans, Analysis and Risk (SPAR) element of the DHS Policy Office. The budget for the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) is shifted from OPS to the Office of the Chief Information Officer. (The CIO’s office has already been running HSIN for the last few years, per the terms of an MOU with OPS). Several senior liaison positions are transferred to the DHS Chief of Staff’s office, and additional positions are transferred to the Office of the Chief Security Officer. The Secretary’s briefing staff is transferred into OPS, but overall these transfers constitute a significant reduction in the size of the Operations Directorate, leaving it primarily with the National Operations Center, and perhaps still its continuity of operations function, as best I can tell. (It is difficult to fully comprehend the Operations Directorate budget request based on public budget documents, since its funding its embedded with that of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis in the classified “Analysis and Operations” account).

The budget request also provides the first public details on the Department’s plans to reestablish a Joint Requirements Council (other than a brief mention in testimony last September), locating it within the Office of the Secretary (as opposed to within the Management Directorate) and requesting $5 million in initial funding for it. The budget justification describes the role of the JRC as follows, on page 96 of the full CBJ:

The new Component-led Joint Requirements Council (JRC) will formulate recommendations to DHS leadership on options to meet the capability needs of DHS operators and provide a vital link between strategic guidance and investments. The JRC will look at cross-component requirements and develop recommendations for investment, as well as changes to training, organization, operational processes and procedures, and proposed law changes. By linking Department-wide strategies and investments, the JRC will increase operational efficiencies by achieving economies of scale and eliminating unnecessary duplication. Additionally, the JRC will improve traceability and defensibility of DHS resource decision making to committee oversight and Components.

There are a number of other minor shifts of offices and personnel within Department offices as part of this reorganization, but these are the major elements of it. Taken together, they amount to the most significant reorganization of the Department’s headquarters since the 2005 Second Stage Review, but to date have not been publicized by the Department, reflected on its website, or received significant attention in Congressional hearings.

Hopefully that will change soon, starting with the House and Senate DHS budget hearings that will take place in the next few weeks. The rationales for these plans need to be explained publicly to DHS’s external stakeholders, and are deserving of robust Congressional oversight, first to assess whether any statutory changes are needed to facilitate such a reorganization, and secondly, if such changes are supported by Congress, to examine ways to reinforce their chance of having a meaningful impact on the headquarter’s role in supporting the performance of the Department’s missions (for example, by finally establishing the Office of Policy in law, and led by an Under Secretary).

Parking lot fears

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on February 3, 2015

DHS Secretary Johnson went to the Woodrow Wilson Center last week to talk about how DHS is doing, what’s working and what needs to work better.

You can see a video of the one hour session here, read the speech for yourself here, or (if you are one of those kinds of people) download his powerpoint slides here.


Something bothered me about the speech.

It had nothing to do with the recited lists of successes and challenges, promises or goals.  A leader is expected to say these kinds of things periodically.

What troubled me was a blind surrender to an assumed deep reality about “the way things have to be.”

Here’s what I mean.


The Secretary began his speech with a story:

Good afternoon. I want to start with a family photograph.

Jeh Johnson 1966 outside Capitol

Though you won’t believe this, this is me and my kid sister in 1966. I was 8 years old, standing next to my Dad’s 1966 Buick convertible. The most striking thing about the photograph is that as recently as 1966, a private, everyday family of tourists like ours could drive our car onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and park it, with no inspection or prior notice, just a few feet from the building.

This is the same spot, today.

Jeh Johnson same spot today

The public parking lot is gone, replaced by a few black Suburbans, police vehicles, and heavily-armed members of the Capitol Police. Sadly, there are threats to our homeland security today that did not exist in 1966….


Fifty eight slides later, the Secretary ended his talk with words that seemed contrary to his opening image:


Jeh johnson conclusion

I will end with the very last two words I ended last year’s speech with. Last year, I said that, in the name of homeland security, we should not sacrifice our values as a Nation of people who cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, and are not afraid. Fear is corrosive.

In the final analysis, courage and resolve in the face of challenge are the greatest strengths of any nation. Terrorism cannot advance if we refuse to be terrorized. Whether in response to a terrorist threat, a natural disaster, a deadly virus, or in the pursuit of a more perfect union, courage and resolve will always prevail.

Thank you for listening.


I’m not sure anyone is listening.  I think we have sacrificed those values.  Closing down parking lots does not illustrate courage and resolve.

I don’t know anyone who believes we can ever go back to the days when, as Johnson said,  “a private, everyday family of tourists like ours could drive our car onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and park it, with no inspection or prior notice, just a few feet from the building.”  

But why not?  What stops us – not from going back to the past, but from going into a future where fear does not dominate the national psyche?

It’s not just about parking near the Capitol.  But that’s a good symbol for what corrosive fear has done to privacy and freedom.

The Secretary says the people of our Nation “are not afraid.”  He says “courage and resolve” are our greatest strengths.  He says “terrorism cannot advance if we refuse to be terrorized.” He says “courage and resolve will always prevail.”

Those are excellent sentiments. What national behaviors support those ideals?

There was nothing in the Secretary’s speech about how to create a 21st Century version of his 1966 security reality, how to recreate a nation “of people who cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, and are not afraid.”

I don’t think that’s even part our national strategic vision (if there is one), let alone a homeland security objective.

For a start, how about letting “everyday families of tourists” park near the Capitol again?  As Justin Schumacher suggested in December, maybe that’s not as unreasonable as it sounds.

And if not that, then how about something else? How do we demonstrate, before the 21st century gets much older,  the nation’s homeland security leaders and institutions and policies are not stuck on fear?

Fear is also corrosive to a nation.


February 2, 2015

Which is harder to defeat – Ebola or ISIS?

Filed under: Biosecurity,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on February 2, 2015

That is the question that Graham Allison, Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, tackled in a short opinion piece for Time magazine. It was originally published last December when attention on Ebola was high due to the presence of a few cases cases inside the U.S. (in contrast to the thousands in West Africa), but Phil’s post this past Thursday on “Epidemiology of Violence” reminded me of Allison’s take on the same general concept.

His conclusion:

About Ebola, the world knows a lot and is doing relatively little. About ISIS, we know relatively little but are doing a lot.

But that doesn’t answer which is the harder to defeat.  His analysis:

Finally, we should acknowledge the fact that for the foreseeable future, there may be no permanent cure for Islamic extremism. Against Ebola, researchers are racing toward a vaccine that could decisively prevent future epidemics. But the past decade has taught us that despite our best efforts, if and when the ISIS outbreak is controlled, another strain of the virus is likely to emerge. In this sense, violent Islamic extremism may be more like the flu than Ebola: a virus for which we have no cure, but for which we can develop a coherent management strategy to minimize the number of annual infections and deaths.

Not to give too much more away from the article, but it is interesting that a political scientist looks at ISIS through the lens of public health:

Over recent centuries, medicine has made more progress than statecraft. It can be useful therefore to examine ISIS through a public-health lens. When confronting a disease, modern medicine begins by asking: What is the pathogen? How does it spread? Who is at risk? And, informed by this understanding, how can it be treated and possibly prevented?

About Ebola, we know the answers to each. But what about ISIS?

I haven’t given away all the good stuff here, so if you’re interested you can read the entire article at: http://time.com/3618049/viral-threats/

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