Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 23, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

Thanks and noting these conferences are excllent targetds if no real security.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 23, 2015 @ 8:00 pm

Bill: Real security at Aspen. Mostly discreet, but several are identifiable. I understand the Federal Protective Service, among others, are on-site.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 24, 2015 @ 8:17 am

FPS has both uniformed and non-uniformed officers. It is part of DHS and wondering about it current location in NPP Directorate and who leads it and numbers?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 24, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

Next you’ll be telling us that you discussed supply chain resilience with Bono at Davos…I kid, I kid.

Watching the video of the CVE panel today, I am reminded that no one really has an idea of what any counter message should be. American values? For the ones living in the U.S. if they don’t get it already I’m not sure tweeting and posting youtube movies about how awesome this country is will do the trick. I don’t think it will matter if Jane Harmon gets her wish and we can quickly target people online if we really have nothing convincing to say to them.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Empowering positive narratives

July 24, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

[…] 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 […]

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 25, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

Arnold: You have articulated a core issue. Off-stage and off-the-record there was more willingness to discuss the potential attributes of a “positive narrative”. But even without the video running it could be an awkward and, too often, a rather superficial discussion. These are (we are?) policy wonks and sometimes strategists. Very few have much fluency with existential and spiritual and religious lexicons and frameworks.

I think this is a big reason there was so much willingness to “crowd-source” the narrative.

I would like to see Mike Leiter’s recommendation, as referenced in a subsequent post in this series, piloted in some community. Unfortunately, none of the social media firms are going to welcome being blamed for a small minority of terrorist-friendly trolls (or worse)any more than any of these folks at Aspen. It reminds me of MLK’s comment about what happens when good people are silent. In our (certainly my own) tendency to avoid “strident clamor” we can leave the arena to the most strident.

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