Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 28, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 28, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

August 25, 2015

George Will on immigration policy

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

The following is a brief excerpt from the George Will column that appeared in the Sunday Washington Post.  You can read the full commentary HERE.


It has come to this: The GOP, formerly the party of Lincoln and ostensibly the party of liberty and limited government, is being defined by clamors for a mass roundup and deportation of millions of human beings. To will an end is to will the means for the end, so the Republican clamors are also for the requisite expansion of government’s size and coercive powers…

The policy is: “They’ve got to go.”

“They,” the approximately 11.3 million illegal immigrants (down from 12.2 million in 2007), have these attributes: Eighty-eight percent have been here at least five years. Of the 62 percent who have been here at least 10 years, about 45 percent own their own homes. About half have children who were born here and hence are citizens. Dara Lind of Vox reports that at least 4.5 million children who are citizens have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant.

Trump evidently plans to deport almost 10 percent of California’s workers and 13 percent of that state’s K-12 students. He is, however, at his most Republican when he honors family values: He proposes to deport intact families, including children who are citizens. “We have to keep the families together,” he says, “but they have to go.” Trump would deport everyone, then “have an expedited way of getting them [“the good ones”; “when somebody is terrific”] back.” Big Brother government will identify the “good” and “terrific” from among the wretched refuse of other teeming shores…

Trump’s roundup would be about 94 times larger than the wartime internment of 117,000 persons of Japanese descent. But Trump wants America to think big. The big costs, in decades and dollars (hundreds of billions), of Trump’s project could be reduced if, say, the targets were required to sew yellow patches on their clothing to advertise their coming expulsion. There is precedent.


August 21, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 21, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

August 14, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

August 13, 2015


Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 13, 2015

Natural:  Drought, wildfires, flooding, possible hurricanes, eventual earthquakes, tsunami, sea rise, climate change, epidemics and pandemics… what else?

Accidental: Contamination or destruction.  Spills, leaks, and other unintended releases, mechanical and structural failures, collisions and other explosive combinations, random and persistent expressions of entropy.

Intentional: Absence, alienation, anger, dismissal, exclusion, fear, mistrust, neglect, prejudice, abuse, suspicion, dehumanization, displacement, hostage-taking, militancy, murder, mass-murder, terrorism, torture, tribalism, war, xenophobia… much more.

When does intention or lack thereof cause/amplify natural or accidental hazards?

Strategy (strategies?): Prevention, preparation, mitigation, resilience, response, recovery… enough?


On July 25 Wilma Sturgeon, age 97, died.  Mrs. Sturgeon served as the Fulton County (Illinois) Public Health Nurse from 1946 to 1980. For most of this period she was the entire county health department. Three personal memories:

  • She worked with nurses and physicians to organize Sunday after-church whole community polio vaccination drives.  Health care workers associated with every church in town shepherded whole congregations to schools or American Legion Halls or other central locations for mass inoculation. She did the same thing at several coal mines and at the International Harvester plant. Sophisticated social physics.
  • Each August she instructed football coaches at every school in the county on the fundamentals of avoiding and treating heat exhaustion. Prevention, preparedness, mitigation, resilience, response, and (in every case I heard about) recovery… including my own heat stroke.
  • She worked with teachers, pastors, and others to temporarily relocate children with evidence of physical abuse — and discreetly work with families to alter behavior and facilitate reunification — without the involvement of law enforcement (other than in a few repeat cases).  She was not deterred from seeking the best out of the worst.

It was a different time and a particular place, but I perceive our times and many of our places (see above) could benefit from Mrs. Sturgeon’s sort of  very practical and persistent care… multiplied.

August 7, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 7, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

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 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 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.


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