Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 29, 2015 @ 7:32 am

And was self-delusion served hot or cold?

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 29, 2015 @ 7:34 am

The House and Senate about to recess for almost a month!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 29, 2015 @ 8:57 am

Bill: Self-delusion (convenient manipulation of reality) is always in abundant supply, especially at higher (policy/strategy) altitudes. But I most often find it served lukewarm.

I really encourage you and others to listen to some of the archived videotapes for the Aspen sessions (see http://aspensecurityforum.org/media/live-video/). These are mostly men and women who, even with mixed motives and big egos and petty fears and weird foibles, are wanting to be constructive. If anything, in the tribe that gathered last week there is more awareness of self-deluding possibilities — even self-cynicism — than is typical of most populations.

And I think you know from personal experience, a paradox of power is that the more responsibility is given, the less authority one seems to have. Given this reality, a certain level of self-delusion may be a job requirement.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 29, 2015 @ 9:50 am

Thanks Phil!

Comment by Christopher Tingus

July 29, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

Are we at all serious when it comes to reality and protecting our Homeland?
How absurd this all sounds when we have a White House running to “apologize” for the United States and allowing terrorists to be returned to the front lines against us, DHS allowing convicted felons to run free among us and even worse if that is at all possible, a White House running to the UN before Congress engaging in discussions with Tehran whose intent is to control the seas from Yemen to the Mediterranean and cause far many woes to the Europeans than even they can imagine!

Oh…how complacent we have become and so obvious when reading this “How do we get there from here (can we)? Are you kidding?

Let’s get serious and stop wasting time for we have scoundrels among us who feel they are above the law and seek their own agenda so contrary to our Judeo-Christian values and the Constitution so explicit in its ways….

Matthew 24:36-39: “Watch therefore…..be ye ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh” verses 42,44 —

If you think the ground is rumbling in Vancouver or shortly in California or that for some 1,669 years Pompeii was quiet and today some 600,000 people choose to live in a red zone for Pompeii killed 4,000 in 1631, 2,000 more in 1906 with the latest eruption in 1944 and with the winds blowing towards Naples, well, the loss of human Life will be substantial yet it shows just how weak human nature truly is compared to the lessons and sounds of nature which a dysfunctional human ignore much like the lessons of history and the evil that walks among us!

“For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3)

“Choosing the “right” way is a matter of time, resource, and purpose” – ho goodness, we have enabled a return to Sodom and Gomorrah! (Isaiah 1:10)

I think best if this conference discussed the relevancy of – transgression – at this conference for God has made it plainly clear that within the blindness, our inability to recognize the cause of our failure and fail to see the spiritual dimension, well I believe these folks who you say are working assignments with serious consequences, what a waste of time for without understanding just why deleting emails or not providing a computer server or “staining” the White House or dealing with the Cubans for instance who have such a poor human rights portrayal and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and talking to the South African Union and so on and so forth, well, you have enabled this tainted Justice Department and this biased White House to attack our police departments and mock the fine officers who stand for us when we need them most no matter the color of the individual calling 911 and by tearing down our nation’s number one defense as this WH and Justice Department has on false claims, well to these participants with their serious consequences, read (Isaiah 1:7) for it clearly states that unless we get a hold of our nation and support our first responders and – enforce – laws and demand everyone adhere to the laws of this great nation – including Ms. Hillary and Barry Obama – well, Biblical verse states that “our cities will be burned with fire” –

Now let’s all get a grip on what serious challenges we face as our country sinks into a recession and even worse as time now goes forward and we all including such participants understand the calamity which could choke us quickly unless we demand that both sides of the aisle and every elected official Respect the law and put a halt to these self-serving ways all witnessed by the Lord!

God says Even when you lift up your hands and pray to me, I will not answer you (Isaiah 1:15)

Pray for us all – God Bless America and close our borders, enforce the laws and regain our position of strength for no Democracy can withstand such attack from within unless portraying an inherent strength and strong arsenal!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 29, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

Out of curiosity, what was the makeup of the attendees (not speakers)? Aspen is not a cheap conference, so I imagine mostly folks from various contracting and consulting firms? Did you get a sense that most accepted the reigning conventional wisdom regarding cyber, ISIS, etc or was there a some diversity in opinion?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 30, 2015 @ 4:17 am

Arnold: The audience was very white and male. Not completely of course, but much more than most other venues. It is my impression, on limited evidence, that there was a much higher proportion of lawyers than usually show up in my meetings (other than when I am at the ABA).

My most interesting conversations were with a woman from Los Angeles who summers in Aspen and an insurance executive who is trying to put together commercial cyber policies and having difficulty framing-the-risk. Most of the younger men in the room seemed to be related to major tech companies, but not necessarily government contractors. I think emerging regulatory issues related to cyber may have been a big motivator for attendance this year.

Aspen is very friendly to media, which helps them get the top policy/strategy folks. So a heavy dose of the fourth estate. Other than media, most of the audience members who asked questions during the plenaries identified themselves as related to various think tanks, public policy NGOs, and other civic sector players.

I would also guess that government-related consulting/contracting was heavily represented. But, if so, they were discreet. Certainly not the stereotypical feeding frenzy. I have never seen so many private jets in one place as Aspen airport. But that may have had nothing to do with the conference.

In terms of “reigning conventional wisdom”, I encountered very little. Rather, among other dialectics, I encountered a tribe of security-mavens confronting a tribe of tech-innovators. Each have very different goals that at present seem strictly antithetical (no synthesis on the horizon). And, at least today, the security tribe is seriously disadvantaged. I met person after person who seemed to view the present and future with profound uncertainty.

The conventionality that I encountered and concerned me, was in terms of the intellectual angles being applied to these uncertainties. The core paradigms and skill-sets that informed and empowered the careers of those at Aspen may be maladapted to several parallel challenges. On this theme, I offer for your careful read The Mystery of Isis in the current New York Review of Books.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 30, 2015 @ 8:00 am

Phil! Any estimate of foreign attendance?

A reliable source tells me Craig Fugate now placing huge emphasis on cyber security and catastrophic disasters!

FEMA little prepared for either vulnerability IMO!

And NPPD assigned cyber security in DHS.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 30, 2015 @ 9:14 am

Bill: The proportion of foreign attendees is an interesting question. I am embarrassed to report I did not notice. Thinking back to conversations, there were more British or Australian or Kiwi accents than I always encounter. I spent the first day avoiding the French ambassador because I felt like he was an old friend, but I had forgotten his name and our connection (I have only seen him on television). The Iraqi ambassador was very engaged off-stage. I was suppose to have received a list of attendees, but it must have been lost. Just not sure.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 30, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

Everyone should approach the present and future with uncertainty, unless they are supremely confident in their visions of the future and interpretations of the present.

What concerned me, at least from the speaker point of view rather than audience, was the acceptance of the ISIS risk.

I can remember that shortly after 9/11 it was accepted conventional wisdom that those events might present the new floor regarding the type of terrorist attacks we’d face, not the ceiling. Now we gather some of the most important current and former security mavens in a meeting and talk about preventing the same level of violence as perpetrated by the drifter at a movie theater, a racist at a black church, and a mentally deranged individual at an ELEMENTARY SCHOOL!

Not for nothing, but taken in context we ain’t in such bad shape…

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 30, 2015 @ 6:01 pm


I misunderstood your question, there was a widely shared concern regarding ISIS and, especially, the ISIS capability for online recruitment. While there was not, perhaps, much consensus on why/how this happens or what to do about it, I think there was considerable consensus that this presents a very new kind of risk that presents an existential threat in Mesopotamia, implies serious threats to Europe, and probably poses an increased threat to the United States ala Boston Marathon, Ft. Hood, and Chattanooga type incidents.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 30, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

No worries. You didn’t misunderstand anything. I wasn’t clear and am asking questions more along the lines of stream of consciousness thinking rather than considered interviewing.

In that regard your last line to me underlines, at least to me, an emerging conception of the present state of risk to our security. On 9/11/2002, if someone presented at the same meeting that our greatest terrorist threat within the homeland would be “ala Boston Marathon, Ft. Hood, and Chattanooga type incidents” (however defined at the time), wouldn’t it have been called victory?

Yet somehow we are turning ourselves into knots attempting to counter seductive (to X population) messages on social media to prevent attacks at or below the level unfortunately already experienced on a somewhat regular basis in this country.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 31, 2015 @ 5:32 am

Arnold: You are making a valuable argument. I hope you will bring it to the front-page.

I wonder if you could be right… and the high-anxiety at Aspen (and elsewhere) could at the same time be right?

On September 12 we expected an asymmetric war on the “homeland”. Instead we got two asymmetric wars in Southwest Asia, a proliferation of all sorts of violence along the Tenth Parallel, and occasional explosions elsewhere.

Certainly someday historians will frame this as another “Thirty Years” or “Hundred Years” or whatever War.

The Europeans are even more concerned by ISIS than we are (and many at Aspen were very concerned). I think you heard the CVE panel and the EU guy’s acknowledgement that the lack of social integration across Europe is feeding attraction to ISIS both in Europe and Syria/Iraq.

Social cohesion can be fragile. On September 12 the United States was alarmed by deadly evidence of a “new” external enemy. That threat, if real, has morphed into something different. Something more inside than outside… and so far something seething much more in the Old World than, so far, in the Western Hemisphere. As you note, compared to what we feared, our state-side challenges have been much less existential. But have we seen emerge — even helped create — something quite literally insidious?

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 31, 2015 @ 7:42 am

The OLD SAW about those with PARANIOA being partially correct sticks in my mind perhaps just like broken clocks correct time twice daily?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 3, 2015 @ 11:52 am

J.Johnson Secretary DHS appeared on c-span in broadcast from ASPEN Conference over the weekend.

He never speaks to his successes and failures but hoping he invites Peter Bergen in to repeat to his senior aides his presentation at the Miller Center Forum at UVA discussing the Big Pic on terrorism since 9/11/01!

Comment by erik

August 20, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

Great stuff–thank you for being so thought-provoking.

Looking at the numerous new web pages I have added to my reading list after following your links, I wonder whether the lukewarm fodder you mention might be spiced with a dose of Bayesian networks. I know next to nothing about that realm, but wonder if the incorporation of past events into present decision making might not be useful here.

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