Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 31, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 31, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

July 29, 2015

Homeland Security: How do we get there from here (can we)?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 29, 2015

Independence Pass_Looking West higher on the ascent

The Aspen Security Forum offers a wonderful pastiche of theory and practice, creators and critics, ambitious aspirants and reflective achievers.  The size, setting, and structure encourages authentic conversation and actual thinking.  It could — should — facilitate self-criticism, but whether or not this is wide-spread is beyond my observational capability.

As I reflect on the plenary and side-bar discussions at last week’s mountain-top experience (7890 feet), I am struck by a persistent reductionist predisposition.  Partly this is the healthy result of having a room packed with people who are working current assignments with serious consequences.

Hegel offered, “To generalize is to think.”  William Blake countered, “To generalize is to be an idiot.”  The difference, it seems to me, depends on whether our generalization is an accurate abstraction of reality or a convenient manipulation of reality.

To over-generalize — but perhaps not inaccurately — again and again I heard serious men and women trying to reduce our current risk environment to some set of binaries: us versus them, right versus wrong, if we can do this then we can be much better assured of that.  Participants were trying to conceive a direct path from our current situation to a better place.

It may imply some helpful self-criticism that even as this  earnest effort was made, almost no one found the proposed direct pathways entirely satisfactory.  Some version of “much more consideration is needed” was referenced again and again.

Clark Ervin, if you’re reading this, for the 2016 Forum I suggest an early session that gives everyone a basic fluency in network theory.  John Arquilla is typically a provocative panelist.  Networks and Netwars could benefit from an update, but its core concepts would have advanced the cause at last week’s Forum.  John’s colleague at Naval Postgraduate School, Ted Lewis, has done wonderful work on the role of network analysis in critical infrastructure, supply chains, and more. (See Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World).

Binaries are seductive.  Pong was fun.  But we live in a much more complicated — complex — world.  Eulerian paths (or stigmergetic trails) accurately reduce excess information, noise and distraction to help us find — or confirm the impossibility of — an effective way from here to where we want to go.  This often begins by plotting strategic intersections.

To avoid inaccurate reductionism I need to acknowledge that last week I heard at least three panelists/interviewees lead with a worldview that was non-binary:  Jeh Johnson, Mike Leiter, and — even when she was not feeling well — Juliette Kayyem.  Each of them described challenges involving multiple vertices.  Each encouraged looking for intersections worth our sustained investment. Each attempted to show how the matrix could be used as scaffolding for our own architectures, our own destinations.  They were being reductionist while embracing complexity.

But when I tried to discuss with others the potential solution trails I heard these three suggesting… Well, maybe I was the problem (even though I never mentioned Euler or ant analogies in any of these conversations).


Above is the view from Colorado Route 82 just west of the Continental Divide.  There are many different ways to travel between Denver and Aspen.  Some easy, others difficult. Many beautiful.  Each with its share of contemporary banality.  Some theoretical connections are practically impossible; or if not impossible, so difficult as to be foolish.  Choosing the “right” way is a matter of time, resource, and purpose.

July 25, 2015

Cyber: still lost at sea

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 25, 2015

Norbert Wiener’s neologism — cybernetics — draws on the classical Greek term for helmsman or steersman or guide to highlight our odyssey across vast largely uncharted and emergent currents of human-machine interface.

Most of the cybernauts at Aspen confirm we are still far from home.  If anything, the  digital ocean is rapidly expanding, our risks are increasing, and self-proclaimed helmsmen disagree on our best course. Some also paused to praise the beauty of the sea and its potential bounty.

Cyber was clearly the preeminent issue this year. Several different panels dealt with some aspect of cybersecurity.  I heard three issues emerge as top tier concerns: encryption, protection of engineered networks, and influencing social networks.  You can listen to the details at the Aspen video archive.  I will give you my high-level, overly reductionist and annoyingly analogous take-aways.

Encryption:  It is effective and will soon be ubiquitous.  This will undo a current strategic capability of the United States to intercept and track communications.  Our guardians will lose a considerable portion of their ability to hear and see risks arising.  But it is technically inevitable and the proposed technical “fixes” create their own new problems.  No less than Mike Chertoff came out against proposed “duplicate key” or “back-door” solutions.  I practically sprained my neck trying to see Suzanne Spaulding’s (DHS Undersecretary for NPPD) reaction to Chertoff’s comments, but from where I sat her blond bouffant was as impenetrable as Athena’s helmet.

Protection of Engineered Networks:  At the beginning of the Aspen Security Forum, I perceive this is what most of the audience meant by “cybersecurity”.  By the last day of the conference our physical systems are still seen as important, but only one part of cyber-strategy.  Several smart men in uniform cogently and persuasively explained how these systems can and will be defended. Continuing with my classical analogy, engineered systems are the fleet of twelve ships with which Odysseus departed Troy bound for home.  This is our legacy.  It has been our strength.  It is worth defending.  It may also be worth remembering that our Greek hero returns home (under the protection of Athena) with nothing.  He does return home.  He is a hero.  But over-time the fleet has been lost.

Influencing Social Networks: Since Wednesday this issue was inserted into almost every cybersecurity discussion. I’m not sure its a good match, but again and again the use of social networks by ISIL (ISIS, Daesh, name your poison) was treated as a cyber issue.  This ranged from questions about how the United States could/should just “take out” the enemy’s network connections to how the normative values of large online populations are formed, can be discerned, and potentially deployed. It was frequently emphasized — admittedly, vaguely — that this problem will require agile, creative, and (therefore) whole-of-nation collaboration to solve.  It is beyond the capacity of the government alone. [Another reminder: When our hero finally arrives home, he finds 108 rowdies consuming his wealth, spoiling his palace, and trying to marry his wife. Odysseus overcomes these varied — and mostly domestic — adversaries in an unlikely alliance with a goddess, his young son, a slave, and a cowherd. The people of Ithaca then forgive their ruler all his failures and peace is restored to the land.]

Please listen to the experts on the videos.  But it was striking how our last victory (the Cold War) permeated perceptions of what many see as the rapidly increasing heat of cyber-war.  Essential discontinuities between then and now are recognized, but the current context and particularities are framed in weird ways to “fit” the intellectual categories developed and deployed back then.  This sort of strategic rigidity is not what finally brought peace to Ithaca.


With great appreciation I need to acknowledge the Institute for Public Research at CNA for financially supporting my attendance at this year’s Aspen Security Forum.  This rigorously empirical organization is obviously not responsible for any of my observations or potentially misplaced classical analogies.

July 24, 2015

Empowering positive narratives

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 24, 2015

Friday after lunch Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recommended that a collection of social media firms could (ought to) establish a joint funding mechanism and otherwise collaborate to work with specific communities to provide training and other support to facilitate the communication of positive narratives.  I could not really tell how the other panelists or audience reacted.  There was no substantive follow-on.

Mr. Leiter suggested this would be an appropriate way for private sector technology firms to take some responsibility for their unintended role in online terrorist operations.

I could not tell if this concept was related to Secretary Johnson’s Thursday comments (see prior post) or is a parallel emergence. But this is the first glimmer of a bit of convergence.

It is interesting that there seems to be an assumption that more expansive online involvement would tend to marginalize the terrorist trolls and trawling.  I’m not sure, but I hope the assumption is true.


Since the four paragraphs above I have had a conversation with two people especially knowledgeable regarding online behavior within the Islamic community.  (For a variety of reasons, I will not name them.)  It is also their assessment that private efforts to encourage more American Muslims to use social media would serve to suppress the attraction and effectiveness of the terrorists.  One quoted some statistics that suggest an even greater youth-versus-other gap among American Muslims than is typical.  More Muslim presence in social media will, he claimed, serve to innately give rise to more positive narratives… and more effective counter-messaging.

Given my own experience of wide-spread non-listening online and regular digital yelling, I may still be a bit skeptical.  But I am very pleased to report these alternative judgments.

Counterterrorism: counter-messaging, counter-narratives, counter-ideology; but not hearing much very positive

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 24, 2015

So far I am not hearing much evidence that Secretary Johnson’s advocacy of a positive counter-narrative was really heard here in Aspen.  I’m glad he confirmed my understanding, otherwise — based on the comments of others — I might decide I had heard what I wanted to hear.

The best opportunity for a reinforcing follow-on has been Friday’s morning session: Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (just finished as I write this).  It was a good panel discussion, but they focused on something very different — if complementary — to what the Secretary said on Thursday morning.

Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy and Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the State Department, outlined his current content-strategy for countering the self-proclaimed Islamic State as:

  • The principal victims of ISIL are Muslims
  • Providing communications platforms for ISIL defectors to tell their stories
  • Demonstrating that the international coalition against ISIL is being increasingly effective (Jane Harmon, also on the panel, offered “to win the war of ideas, it would help to win the war.”)
  • Highlighting the tough living conditions of ISIL fighters (Juliette Kayyem, also on the panel, emphasized the need to counter ISIL’s projection of a “terrorist chic” brand.)
  • Amplify credible anti-ISIL voices, such as those who have suffered under ISIL’s rule.

To his credit, Mr. Hussain situates these tactics as near-term counter-messaging, something different than a mid-term serious engagement with narratives or addressing long-term ideological challenges.

But most — perhaps all — of these panelists seemed to suggest that it is very difficult, often inappropriate or even illegal for governments to go beyond rather narrow rebuttals of terrorist arguments.  In a question for the panel, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States characterized the panel’s approach as very “responsive” and wondered (worried?) if the West had the will to engage more fundamental issues.

At least in regard to the ability of terrorist organizations to “inspire” Americans, I heard the Secretary suggesting a much more proactive and positive approach.  I’ll be here another day.  Will continue to let you know what I’m hearing.

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 24, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

July 23, 2015

Threat, risk, and opportunity at Aspen

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 23, 2015

Wednesday night Jim Comey, the FBI Director, provided an update on the terrorist threat to the United States.  As has been well-reported elsewhere (and here), he gave particular attention to the convergence of social media and ISIL’s ambitions.  I did not hear anything we have not heard  and seen and understood for several months.

Thursday morning a discussion with Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, picked up where the FBI Director had left off.  Here’s the video archive for all the Aspen discussions.   This morning I heard something, if not exactly new, an angle less often considered.

Ryan Lizza’s opening question to the Secretary asked the former DoD Chief Counsel to contrast his experience being on counter-terrorism offense at the Pentagon to being on the “defensive” squad at Nebraska Avenue. Over the remainder of the interview — in a very thoughtful, nuanced, and lawyerly way — the Secretary countered the predicate at the heart of the question (again and again).

The crowd at the annual Aspen Security Forum can be a bit treacherous.  Almost everyone looks familiar.  But this familiarity ranges from a few who you really know, to many with whom you have only seen at other meetings, and at least as many you have only “met” on television.  It is easy for your facial recognition synapses to get confused.  It is also — increasingly — much more a national security crowd than a gathering of homeland security players.

Appropriately, I think, this configuration influenced the Secretary’s answers.  This is an audience oriented to external threats. He did not want to suggest he does not share their concerns.  There are real external threats.

But in a very cogent manner Jeh Johnson suggested there is a significant difference between a terrorist who is “directed” and one who is “inspired.”   What I heard — with my homeland security ears on — is an argument that policy, strategy, and tactics that will work to counter-inspiration is going to be very different than what may be effective against directed attacks.  I wonder if this is what the national security mavens heard?

The Secretary even went so far as to suggest that our ability to counter narratives that inspire violent extremism in the United States will have to involve positive alternatives that are persuasively communicated and enabled by those outside the government.  As reasonable as this might sound to many, I wonder what this sounds like to long-time government officials, former officials, and national security contractors?

I was encouraged by the Secretary’s comments.  I will be at the Aspen Security Forum for two more days, I’ll try to let you know what others heard… and their reaction.


Mid-afternoon I took the opportunity to speak briefly with the Secretary.  He was seated alone during a break between panels.  Mr. Johnson confirmed what I outlined above as the importance of a positive counter-narrative… or counter-narratives.

In our conversation I suggested his comments were very “homeland security” for a national security audience.  The Secretary disagrees with my distinction between homeland security and national security.  I did not try to argue the issue again.  Those of us who perceive a valuable distinction, lost that policy-argument a long time ago.  Besides, by advocating a strategy involving  a compelling (even Kantian) “civic” counter-narrative, the Secretary is making the essential homeland security case.

In retrospect, I should have said something about how effective the Coast Guard can be in understanding and helping shape the narratives of port communities.   It is a great analogy — even model — for how public sector agencies can behave to “deploy” the values, social relationships, and competence of whole communities.

July 21, 2015

HHS emPOWER Map – how many rely on electric powered medical equipment in your community?

HHS has developed an online tool that maps the number of people using electric powered equipment for their health down to the zip code level. This could include things such as ventilators, wheelchairs, and other devices required by some individuals to live independent lives but which also puts them at risk when the electricity goes out.

Kristen Finne, a Senior Policy Analyst with ASPR at HHS, explains in a blog post:

As many of the people who use electricity-dependent equipment are Medicare beneficiaries, the HHS emPOWER Map provides the total number of Medicare beneficiary claims for certain electricity-dependent medical and assistive equipment down to the zip-code level. It also provides National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “real-time” severe weather tracking to assist community members in identifying areas that may be at risk for weather-related power outages.

What is this information good for?  Back to Finne:

Beyond the total number of people who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment, health officials also can collaborate with ASPR to obtain additional de-identified data that provides the totals for each type of equipment in their community. By working with health officials and using this important tool:

  • Emergency managers can determine whether emergency shelters need a larger generator to accommodate an influx of electricity-dependent residents.
  • Community organizations and businesses can plan with emergency managers and health departments and offer a place for some residents to plug in and recharge the batteries.
  • Electric companies could prioritize power restoration based on the concentration of electricity-dependent residents in given areas.
  • Hospitals could better anticipate local medical needs and be better prepared to handle a potential surge of patients in an emergency.

Basically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) provides data without any personal identifying stuff about how many people down to the zip code get reimbursed for this equipment. ASPR then took this data and combined it with a zoomable map where one can search for these numbers for any community, and included a weather app as well.  So good work by HHS, in general, and ASPR, in particular.

You can access this tool here: http://www.phe.gov/empowermap/Pages/default.aspx

July 17, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 17, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

July 10, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 10, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

July 8, 2015

DHS Secretary Johnson talks about cybersecurity

Filed under: Cybersecurity — by Arnold Bogis on July 8, 2015

Considering the cyber-events of the day – the Wall Street Journal’s website going down; the majority (if not all) of United Airline flights grounded due to a reported “router” issue; and the New York Stock Exchange ceasing trading for almost four hours due to “technical difficulties” – Secretary Johnson’s address at the Washington think tank CSIS was more than a little timely.

He didn’t seem to say anything terribly new, but anyone who follows this space more closely than I (which wouldn’t be hard…) please feel free to correct me.


July 4, 2015

“We hold these truths to be self evident….”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Dan OConnor on July 4, 2015

“Active Shooter Confirmed in DC Navy Yard.”

“Shots Confirmed, Gunfire Reported Inside the Building.”


We now live in a tyranny of fear.  We are a fearful nation.  The United States: afraid of everything.  Land of the free and home of the helicopter parents and politicians.

Say it’s not so?

Let’s look at what unfolded Thursday morning.

The mere words; “I thought I heard gunshots” sent a dizzying panic through the nation’s capital.  Morning News shows steeped in monophonic Gregorian chants about the presidential elections quickly changed gears and had the scoop: a shooter at the Navy Yard, again.  The city went into lockdown, nervous leaders calling their security personnel demanding action against the terrorists.

Alas, there was none.

There was no shooter.  There was no terrorism.  There was a histrionic, knee jerk reaction to a phantom.

Quickly thereafter the news shifted back to the chanting and refocusing on ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda et al.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States. That’s how serious this is,” said Michael Morell the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Clearly he would know.  But he didn’t make his assessment in his former capacity.  No, Mr. Morell made his assessment as the security correspondent on CBS. So my question is what will be the surprise about next week if nothing happens?

Waiting to exhale, crisis averted, lets focus on some more conjurings.

This is America in 2015, the 239th year of our Independence.

We record everything that takes place.  We spy on our own people.  We spent trillions of dollars we don’t have on a threat that is less likely to kill you than getting hit by lightning.  In fact Americans are 69 times more likely to die in their tubs than at the hands of the maniacal evil genius terrorists.

I cannot help but be sarcastic.  We are quickly becoming a half assed nation.  No real strategy, no discipline, no resilience; a weak nation.

And now General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tells us his guidance from the honorable Mr. Carter is to prepare for the long war.  The U.S. military needs to reorganize itself and prepare for war that has no end in sight.  We have been at war — hot, warm, and cold — since 1941.

Um, that’s like 75 years…so what is long? And gentlemen, what does victory look like?

We’re screwed.  We can no longer even let our kids play in a park or walk home.  Not because of the threats.  No, it is because of the mere idea there is danger everywhere…danger and legislation.

When we are attacked again, because clearly that is likely, what limited civil liberties we do still have will be usurped not by evil geniuses wearing turbans but by Americans wearing Brooks Brother suits.  And it will be done in the guise of our safety and security.

If I save money every pay period in the form of cash and then go to redeposit, I am suspected of nefarious activity.  If my tracked behavior changes in any way, I am highlighted.  If I purchase one way tickets via air, rail, or bus or simply travel too much, or post anything derogatory against the prevailing culture, meme, or trend, I am dangerous.  Before my eyes I am seeing a nation that “had it all” piss it away.  We have lost our moxie and courage and live for the sound byte.   A bit of hyperbole on my part, but it is required to illustrate our current state.

We are fearful.  And, we have become diagnostically insecure.

In one sense, security is the measured resistance to or protection from harm.  Security is also a state of mind, a physiological/psychological symbiosis. We have spent much treasure trying to quantify what is difficult to qualify.  If security is a biological state of being and a relational state in ones environment than how can it be quantified?  This is where we find ourselves now.

This is becoming a bad Seligman and Maier’s experiment where our perpetual learned helplessness is resulting in the realization that we have little of control over the outcome or state of affairs we find ourselves in and are constantly bombarded with conditioning to be afraid.

“Fatigue gentlemen, makes cowards of us all.” Vince Lombardi

Being constantly consumed with the idea that at any moment an existential threat will evaporate the United States is fatiguing; so much so that we begin to exist in a chronic state of fear.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Let us remember this Independence Day that the very idea of Independence — freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others — must be embraced and cultivated and not taken for granted.  It is a quintessential American ideal: to be independent.  Independence is not being influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc. It is thinking and acting for oneself.

Independence is not yielding to another’s authority or jurisdiction.  It is not influenced by the thought or action of others: Independence is possessing competence.

Fear negates all the aforementioned.  Fear drives wedges, undercuts, and dissipates. Fear makes cowards of us all.  Therefore, let’s all remind one another that we are a Nation that declared themselves free of fear, tyranny, and oppression.  Let’s also remind ourselves that if being afraid is our method for preserving our independence, than we have summarily lost it.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln.

Happy Independence Day.


July 3, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 3, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

July 1, 2015

Happy Canada Day!

Filed under: International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on July 1, 2015

I don’t have any one specific Canada-related homeland security topic to discuss or highlight. In fact, this post will go up near the end of the day. However, I felt it important to wish all our Canadian colleagues, friends, and family a Happy Canada Day!

It should be obvious the important role that Canada plays in our own security.  We share a long border.  They are one of our, if not the most, important trading partners.  Canada has been an integral part of our air defense system, epitomized by NORAD, for decades.

Despite the old backpacking idea that Americans should sew a Canadian flag on their gear for extra protection overseas, Canada faces the same terrorist threat that the U.S. is dealing with today.  In case it has already been forgotten, the Canadian Parliament was attacked by a terrorist after he killed a soldier standing guard at their national war memorial.  In a scene that should be familiar to all Americans, Canada came together in solidarity following this tragedy.

Not unlike the Patriot Act, the Canadian parliament has passed legislation aimed at responding to this evolving threat.

“Canadians know that Canada is unfortunately not immune to the ever-evolving threat of terrorism,” jointly stated Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Steven Blaney, and Minister of Justice and Attorney General Peter MacKay.

This legislation “will directly address the threat of terrorism by enhancing our government’s ability to share information between relevant government departments and agencies for national security purposes; criminalizing the advocacy and promotion of the commission of terrorism offences; preventing terrorists from travelling and recruiting others; and providing our police forces with the additional tools they need to prevent, detect, deny and respond to the threat of terrorism.”

Every year one of the preeminent conferences focused on disasters is held in Toronto: The World Conference on Disaster Management.

Last, but not least, it should be pointed out that one of the most intelligent and insightful homeland security analysts working today comes from the Land of Gretzky.  Sharon Cardash, Associate Director at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, previously served as Security Policy Advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. She has authored and co-authored many perceptive and thoughtful pieces on homeland security topics.  About the only reason to question her analytical rigor is her insistence that Tim Hortons is better than Dunkin’ Donuts…

And, following the Iraq war and the missing WMD, in case you may have forgotten how misguided our intelligence services can sometimes be, the following evidence provided by the Canadian Desk at the CIA should give us all pause…