Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 27, 2014

A context for thanks-giving

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 27, 2014

Many of us are cognitively — perhaps genetically — predisposed to romanticize the past and catastrophize the present.  Our expectations of the future are more malleable, but usually reflect how our internal narrative frames past and present.

Where have we been? How did we get here?  Where are we going?  A few personal snapshots, with a very wide lens:

1944: The year opens with Nazis controlling most of Europe. In the Spring the Soviet Army shifts from defense to offense. On June 6 the Allies launch the Normandy Invasion. In November 1944 the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is closed, after murdering over 1 million mostly Polish Jews.  Chechens are internally deported to Siberia. Over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens are interned for another year.  The Supreme Court avoids a substantive decision on internment, allowing the practice to continue. The Warsaw Massacre.  Paris is liberated.  Roosevelt is reelected for a fourth term.  The Senate consists of 57 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and one other.  The House is made up of 242 Democrats, 191 Republicans, and two others.  US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $16,181.

1954:  Crimea is transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukranian SSR.  First mass vaccination against polio.  Puerto Rican nationalists open fire on the US House of Representatives, wounding five.  Army-McCarthy Hearings.  The French are defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, leading several months later to the withdrawal of colonial forces and the creation of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  In Brown v. Board of Education the US Supreme Court unanimously finds that segregated schools are unconstitutional.  The Algerian War of Independence begins.  The Soviet Union for the first time tests a thermonuclear weapon.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average — for the first time — exceeds its previous peak achieved just before the crash of 1929.  In the newly elected Senate the Republicans and Democrats each have 47… with 2 others.  In the House there are 232 Democrats and 203 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $15,745.

1964: Plans are announced to build the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.  The 24th Amendment to the Constitution is adopted banning poll taxes. De facto segregation of New York City public schools prompts a boycott by most African American and Puerto Rican families.  The man later convicted of murdering Medgar Evars is freed as a result of a hung jury. The summer is punctuated by race riots in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  The New York Times reports that Kitty Genovese is murdered in plain sight while her neighbors refuse to get involved. Three civil rights workers are murdered in rural Mississippi by local Klansmen and a deputy sheriff. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law.  Berkeley Free Speech Movement.  Johnson wins a landslide against Goldwater.  The elections produce a Senate with 68 Democrats and 32 Republicans and a House with 295 Democrats and a 140 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $19,455.

1974:  First OPEC oil embargo ends. Oil prices are 4-times higher than when the embargo started.  Patty Hearst is kidnapped, later cooperates with Symbionese Liberation Army in bank robbery. Universal Product Code (UPC) is first used to sell a retail product. April Super-Outbreak of tornadoes kills over three hundred in the central US.  President Richard Nixon resigns.  Car bombs are used in Dublin, Birmingham and elsewhere as “The Troubles” escalate. World Trade Organization starts.  India joins the nuclear weapons club.  The annual inflation rate for 1974 is eleven percent. The mid-term elections return a Senate with 57 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 2 others. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $25,227.

1984: Hezbollah car-bombs the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut killing 24.  US Marines withdraw from Lebanon (following October, 1983 bombing that killed 241 US military personnel.) The Provisional IRA fails in an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Thatcher and most of the British cabinet.  Prime Minister of India is assassinated, followed by sectarian strife with over 10,000 killed. Famine in Ethiopia threatens over ten million. A mentally ill man attacks a San Ysidro, California restaurant killing 21 and injuring 19 others. This year’s 4.3 inflation rate is down from 13.5 percent in 1980. Ronald Reagan wins in a landslide over Walter Mondale.  The new Senate consists of  53 Republicans  and 47 Democrats.  The House has 253 Democrats and 182 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $30,817.  Despite all, not nearly as bad as Orwell predicted.

1994: Northridge earthquake. Rwandan Genocide kills up to 1 million. Last Russian troops leave Germany and most of Eastern Europe. US and Russia agree to cooperate to  de-nuclearize Ukraine. NATO intervenes in Yugoslavian Civil War. Aum Shinrikyo launches sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway. Provisional IRA announces complete cessation of military operations.  Iraq threatens Kuwait, US deploys troops to Kuwait, Iraq withdraws military forces from border with Kuwait. Russian troops are ordered into Chechnya to quell insurgency. America Online offers “retail” access to the World Wide Web for the first time.  The elections give Republicans control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1954: Senate 53-47, House 230-204 (plus 1). US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $37,598.

2004: Madrid train bombing kills 191. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia join NATO. NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. The European Union accepts ten new members: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus. Nick Berg is decapitated by a proto-ISIS organization in Iraq, a video of the execution shows Berg in an orange jump-suit. The US-led coalition transfers sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government.  Ground-breaking for Freedom Tower (replacing WTC).  Beslan school hostage-taking results in over 300 deaths and 700 serious injuries.  Orange Revolution in Ukraine.  Earthquake and tsunami kills over 180,000 across the eastern Indian Ocean.  George W. Bush defeats John Kerry for President.  The new Congress will consist of 55 Republican Senators and 44 Democrats (plus one other).  The House also has a Republican majority: 232-201.  US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $46,967.

You can take/make your own snapshot for 2014.  You know the election results.  Our current GDP per capita is $53,429 ($49,811 in 2009 dollars). This is a week when memories of Birmingham or Selma or the Summer of 64 weirdly echo.

We live in a time of profound and rapid change.  This is only a cliché if we fail to fully recognize its reality.  If we engage the reality, then we will also acknowledge that about the best most of us can do is surf the social-technological-economic tsunami on which we find ourselves poised.

There are certainly those who — for good cause — fear the water.  There are some who grandly presume to reverse the waves. Others retreat deep into the interior.  I empathize.  I do not crave the clash of currents and soaring crests that threaten to crush me.  But here I am.  With you.

How can I make the best of my circumstance?  How can we, together if possible, enhance our chances of getting safely to shore?  Even have some fun?

I give thanks.  This is, I am told, an attitude and habit that strengthens.  But whether or not this is true, I am authentically thankful.  I have not yet drowned.  The water is invigorating.  The waves are awe-inspiring.  I am constantly challenged to be better: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I give thanks for prior challenges overcome by others.  I give thanks for the undeniable progress I have seen in a society becoming more diverse, inclusive, wealthier, more knowledgeable, and creative.

I give thanks for seemingly insoluble problems. These have often given me employment.  While the most rigorous waves usually swamp me, on rare occasions after a wild ride they bring me to some sandy shore for rest and recovery.  Occasionally the very worst waves — most fearsome problems — have scooped from the ocean floor or retrieved from a tidal cave priceless treasure.

Very best wishes for your own thanks-giving.

November 25, 2014

The world watches

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 25, 2014

F australian

Australian f


F al jazera


F bbc


F nigeria


F the times

F new zed

F mexico

F itv

F israel

F india

F germany

F france

F china

F canada

November 21, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 21, 2014

As part of my professional triage I will dispense with the natural, accidental and intentional antecedents for each Friday.  Starting next week I will just launch the post.

Bill Cumming — the originator of the Friday Free Forum — has suggested making some regular place for homeland security book reviews.   It seems to me Friday comments would be a good place.  A three sentence introduction, a positive or negative personal judgment, and a link to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or the publisher would be great.

Over the last ten days I have had several meetings where regular readers of HLSWatch have introduced themselves.  All claimed to value the blog.  Even more impressive, each quoted from memory the principal themes of recent posts by Chris, Arnold or me.

Even for our less-than-mass-market readership, I did not hear from a statistically significant sample.  But I noticed when roughly four out of five also referenced a real regret that conversations were so seldom able to get going.

The whole field of homeland security missed an opportunity when earlier this year an effort here to host a meaningful discussion of the QHSR failed.  People were listening.  We did not advance the conversation.

So as I prepare to recede a bit over the next few weeks, I will offer:

  • Every post benefits from thoughtful questions
  • Every post benefits from real-world stories that confirm or challenge the post
  • Most comments benefit from being read and questioned or challenged or reconfirmed
  • Self-restraint, as in staying on topic and hoping for the good faith of another, is an attractive and constructive habit
  • Conversations unfold when a thought is heard, meaning is confirmed (not yet challenged), alternatives are politely offered, alternatives are heard and confirmed… you know the method.

In my experience real conversation requires real vulnerability.  To further explicate, below is a poem.

The backstory for this poem is relevant.  Last March I facilitated a multi-jurisdictional, private-public homeland security exercise. This was the culminating event for a process that had been underway for over a year. One of the public sector participants was inserted at the last minute. For almost everyone else this was the third (or more) event in a series.  We had already dispensed with a lot of dogma.  She arrived still believing in some federal processes that the private sector had previously persuaded the public sector participants were time-sinking dysfunctions.  I shut her down much too quickly and with a tone that was much too harsh.

Writing this poem was part penitence, part personal AAR.

Words rush forth untethered
Inflating this space between us
Where quiet might have

condensed our difference

Remaining asymmetrical
But also fully tangible
Undeniably actual
A warm body
Liquid eyes

Hearts contracting
Next expanding
Two independent
Yet syncopated rhythms
Rising to the same coda

Words can distance with
Anger disgust or fear
Disinterest irrelevance
Self-involved tedium
Pretentious posturing

Before I say anything
May I hear see touch
Taste feel the reality
Of you, the adventure
Of being here with you

Then may I choose
Words you will hear
As sure evidence
You have been heard

Words that even in
Listen with love

November 19, 2014

Origins of ISIS: a short cartoon

Filed under: Border Security,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on November 19, 2014

Via the Lawfare Blog, here is a short animated video narrated by terrorism expert Bruce Riedel explaining the history of what has become known as ISIS, ISIL, and/or the Islamic State.


November 14, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2014


According to my usual sources, November 14 seems to be less disastrous than most other days.  But above is a picture of the Caffe Chioggia in Venice on this day in 2012.

High water is not uncommon in Venice this time of year. There was flooding just last week. Venetian infrastructure and its people’s habits in many ways accommodate — and mitigate — the risk.  But  floods are recurring more often and tides seem to rising higher.   Will resilience be enough?

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

November 11, 2014

Remembering one veteran on Veteran’s Day.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 11, 2014

My father joined the Army on May 18, 1942. A little more than 5 months after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was a private.

His terms of enlistment still make an interesting read:

Enlistment For The Duration Of The War Or Other Emergency, Plus Six Months, Subject To The Discretion Of The President Or Otherwise According To Law

My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Both his parents were born in Italy.


Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. There were millions of Italians and Italian-Americans in the USA in those days. Italians were the enemy. But they also were America’s largest ethnic group. So it was unclear what to do with millions of Italians.

By the end of the war, US government officials from approved ethnic backgrounds put a few thousand Italians (citizens and non-citizens) into American internment camps. Compare that with 11,000 Germans and 110,000 Japanese who were also interned.

Yes, people in the future. It can happen here. It already has.


I have two pictures of my father.  In one picture he’s in his Army uniform standing against a white background. In the other picture he’s sitting at a kitchen table. His head is sunburned from the radiation treatments that tried, unsuccessfully, to erase the cancer that eventually killed him. In the picture he’s smiling at the woman I would marry.


My father enlisted on a Monday. I never learned what he did the weekend before he signed up to fight the Germans and Italians and Japanese. I’d like to think he enjoyed himself the same way any 24 year old American male would before going off to war.

But also he was a Catholic, so I suspect church was a part of that last weekend. Don’t want to take any unnecessary chances with one’s immortal soul before going off to war.

I never learned what he experienced during the Second World War. I hear there are people who talk about what they did in a war. I can’t recall meeting many.


My father met my mother in England. She was in the women’s branch of the Royal Navy, called the Wrens. They were married in 1943, on Armistice Day. It’s called Veteran’s Day now.

I was born 9 months and 8 days after they were married. My mother might have been in the Navy, but she also was a proper English girl.

The marriage ended 11 or 12 years later. Being married to a career military spouse is hard on a family. Too many moves. Too many wars. Too many deployments. Too much time away.


My father left the Army shortly after Japan surrendered. He got a job driving a truck in New York City. But he missed the Army. So he re-enlisted.

He was patriotic without being loud about it. He valued serving his country. He stayed in the Army for 30 years and left as a Sergeant Major. He fought two years in the Korean War, four years in the Vietnam War, and wherever the Army sent him. He rarely spoke about any of those experiences.


A few weeks after I joined the Air Force, my father visited me at Lackland Air Force Base. For a few hours on that sun filled December Sunday in Texas we mostly just walked around the base, talking.

He had his Sergeant Major Army uniform on, I wore my slick sleeve Air Force blues. It was a good day. I don’t remember anything we talked about. I do remember people smiling at us. I remember being proud to be with him.


He left the Army in the early 1970s. He died in 1984. In his time most everyone smoked. Cigarettes were cheap in the military. When he retired, he had a physical and chest xrays taken at the VA at least once a year, just to be on the safe side.

The Veteran’s Administration found something on one of his lungs, but for some reason it took 9 months for the VA to notify him. By then the cancer had grown into his brain.

He tried radiation. He even quit smoking. But he died anyway.


I went to a Michael Moore movie with my brother in 2002, called Bowling for Columbine. Two thirds of the way into the movie, my 56 year old brother started to cry.

After the movie I asked him why he was crying. He said the movie reminded him that Gabriel – our dad – fought in three wars so his sons would not have to fight in any.


Gabriel Bellavita circa 1970

November 7, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 7, 2014

On this day in 1913 the Great Lakes Storm begins, by the time the blizzard ends over 200 have been killed.

On this day in 1940 the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (AKA Galloping Gertie) collapses. Video here, collapse sequence starts about 2:25.

On this day in 1919 the first Palmer Raid is conducted.  Over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists are arrested in over twenty US cities.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?


November 5, 2014

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Humor — by Arnold Bogis on November 5, 2014



Thanks to Benjamin Wittes of the Lawfare Blog for both reminding that blog’s readers that today is Guy Fawkes Day and for sharing the video below explaining the history of this holiday.

Many of you will recognize the picture of the Guy Fawkes mask above as worn by the group Anonymous and other protesters around the world.  I am not really sure how it came to be co-opted by these groups.

The title of this post comes from often repeated rhymes having to do with the holiday.  According to Wikipedia, the earliest recorded version from 1742 read:

Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.

The story has to do with a plot to blow up Parliament with barrels of gunpowder hidden in the basement, with the aim to kill the King and Prince of Wales along with a large number of members.  The plotters were Catholics aggrieved by the anti-Catholic policies of the government.  Soooooo…..terrorists can be Christians?  Well how about that….

A day dedicated to a failed terrorist plot should merit some mention on this blog, no?

November 4, 2014

And the Band Played On…

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jeff Kaliner on November 4, 2014

The other night I went to a high school football game.  Around me were many of the mothers and fathers of the boys who played on the field.  The parents watched as their young warriors relentlessly collided into one another. Occasionally they would cheer as bodies and heads were repeatedly smashed, banged, bruised and bashed.

It occurred to me that these children were being actively encouraged by their parents to engage in this violent and injury prone sport. The fierce and brutal actions taking place on the field were not just being condoned by their caretakers, they were being rewarded by hand claps and ovations.

As I watched these parents, I wondered how many of them would let these same children get anywhere near a returned Ebola health care worker who had tested negative for the disease and had shown no sign of the illness.


Several weeks ago a few headlines were made by the fact that three high school football players had died within days of each other.  Many of these articles cite a 2013 study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine that found football related fatalities in college and high school averaged 12.2 per year.  That averages out to about 1 per every 100,000 participants.

If we drill down a little further we find another 2013 study from the Institute of Medicine shows that high school football players suffer 11.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures (games or practices). Obviously these statistics do not include the thousands of high school football players who end up in the emergency department every year with dislocated shoulders and hips; broken bones; blown out knees and various other serious injuries.

Certainly Ebola has a much higher fatality rate than playing high school football. However, as it stands, the risk of contracting Ebola in this country is minuscule.  On the other hand, evidence with regards to the risks of high school football is increasing and yet only a muted outcry has reached the public through our media megaphone.  In other words, we know that putting our children on a football field is full of potential risk, both in the short and long term, and yet the band plays on.


At this point, evidence is suggesting that highly conservative quarantine measures for returning Ebola health care workers are unwarranted if proper protocol is exercised and actual cases are successfully isolated. Overly conservative quarantine measures may not only be medically unnecessary, they also have other possible unintended consequences: a threat to our constitutional liberties, economic disruption and the potential to limit the effort and ability of health care specialists to treat the outbreak where it is actually located.

Bumping up the incredibly small risk of contracting Ebola against the increasing risks of intentionally placing adolescents into a dangerous and violent contact sport is a fascinating riddle ripe with many of the problems that confront our current zeitgeist. For example, ignoring research findings that don’t agree with prevailing political ideology or concerns. Or, a cultural belief system that still places football in the same innocuous category as apple pie and Chevrolet. It also speaks to an ethical dilemma that puts profit over people.

On a hopeful note, the numbers seem to be shifting. There appears to be a downward trend in the amount of children participating in formal football programs.  Like the cigarette wars of decades past, the real threat posed by football to the masses will probably take many years to seep into our collective conscious. However, unlike the more hidden damage of threats like smoke and other inhaled pollutants on the body, the visceral effects of football are immediately discernible, real and deadly in both the short and long term.

So what’s the problem?


Donald Michael, in one of his many fascinating essays on meeting an increasingly complex future, posits that:

Arguably, the most profound threat to the development of a planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal that cannot be acknowledged. In part this is because to do so would require confessing that, as of now, we do not know how to deal with them. What is more, this inability to acknowledge this mute state of affairs is also part of the situation that cannot be acknowledged. (Leadership’s Shadow: The Dilemma of Denial)

To be clear, I don’t necessarily believe the issue of high school football falls into this category. President Obama recently had the temerity to state that he would not let a hypothetical son play the game. However, he seemingly doesn’t know how to deal with the larger problem. Regardless, it’s far simpler to ring our collective hands about a scary and infotainment ready threat like Ebola than to deal with the complex machinations of the football industrial complex.

Ultimately, there is one given in my Ebola vs. high school football question.  Although parents cannot protect their children from the possibility of contracting the disease (however slight the risk) they can powerfully deal with the real short and long term ravages of the game.  They can simply “just say no”.


Jeff Kaliner is a public health emergency preparedness professional with twelve years in the field. As a child and adolescent he spent an unreasonable amount of time thinking about and playing sandlot and high school football. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University.



October 31, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2014

On this day in prior years there have been horrifically deadly cyclones, propane tanks have exploded in the midst of a crowded fairground, and of course we have killed each other for various reasons and in a variety of ways.

It is also Halloween which is a curious — and an increasingly commercial — custom organized around otherness and fear and death.  In my tradition it is also known as All Hallows Eve when the community honors its dead.

Three years ago Chris Bellavita suggested I read Mary Ruefle’s essay on fear.  I did not entirely agree with her, but being in conversation with Ruefle may well have changed my life.  I have only realized the full impact rather recently.  You can also read her essay courtesy of the Poetry magazine website.

Ruefle ends her piece with a paragraph that strikes me as especially appropriate for those of us involved in homeland security:

What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth—of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked. I am more or less the same age Emily Dickinson was when she died. Here is what she thought: “Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be Lunatics!” The calm lunatic—now that is something to aspire to.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

October 30, 2014

Follow the money

Filed under: Border Security,Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2014


The graphic shows the rough 2014 budget proportions for the Department of Homeland Security.  The $45 billion figure for the DHS budget is based on an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Late last week I was showing this pie chart to some graduate students who are exploring homeland security. They are on the edge of completing their law degrees, PhDs, or graduate studies in other fields. But they are interested enough in homeland security to have competed for and been selected for a Graduate Fellowship program at Rutgers University.

I asked, “What do you see?”

“It’s mostly about the border,” said one.

“Excluding the other,” said another

“Fear of the other.”

“Fear of each other.”

A young lawyer suggested this was a narrative theme — an analytical predisposition — that frames how we experience and make sense of reality. He and most of his peers agreed there was some evidence to support the  narrative. But we allow it to shape our orientation well beyond the evidence.

This is not where I was planning to take the discussion.  I was better prepared for a wonky consideration of incremental budgeting, legacy missions, Congressional oversight, etc., etc…

But I did not try to redirect.  We went with “otherness” as a homeland security problem.  Look again, you will see what they saw. Even if you can see other things and offer other explanations, I suggest their fresh eyes are not inaccurate.

It’s an interesting angle on reality, especially coincident with enhanced security being announced — despite the lack of specific threat intelligence.

Toward the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit”, a character proclaims, “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE! (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”)

Most of us have experienced this unhappy truth. But many of us have also experienced, “without a you and an I, there is no love, and with mine and yours there is no love but “mine” and “yours”… This is indeed the case everywhere, but not in love, which is a revolution from the ground up. The more profound the revolution, the more complete the distinction…” (Søren Kierkegaard). Without the other we are profoundly diminished.

Two antithetical intuitions equally true, depending on our attitude and the situation. A wicked problem? If so, extending well beyond homeland security.

How can we reason together through this paradox? Without the skill, discipline, and ethic of social reasoning we must defer to the mercy of randomness. I have often found randomness quite generous. But I aspire to — and have experienced — much more.  I know something about social reasoning in small groups.  Elinor Ostrom and others have told me interesting things about social reasoning in larger groups.  Is facilitation of social reasoning an appropriate tool of homeland security?

October 28, 2014

Shooting ebola

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 28, 2014

“The worship of reason is… an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute….”

Jonathan Haidt wrote those words in his book, The Righteous Mind.

…we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.  We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron.  A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon.  A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way, you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons…. But if you put individuals together in the right way…, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.

I don’t believe that emergence is happening yet.

Assuming ebola does not turn out to be the 21st century version of the Black Death, people are going to be studying the transmission of ebola fear, misinformation and ignorance for decades. (On that point, check out Irwin Sherman’s engagingly flat recitation of “Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World.”).

Some preliminary data points, from a pool too wide to sample, even superficially.

– What is the DHS Secretary’s “real motive in refusing to restrict travel from West Africa?”  A writer on a website that boasts it has been thinking for ten years discovers “a link” between DHS Secretary Jey Johnson and black power politics. The argument is painful to unpack (you can read it here ), but the conclusion is “…the long-dead communist [Stokely] Carmichael’s dream of sticking it to ‘whitey’ via the White House and its apparatchiks is coming true.”   Michelle Obama is also partially to blame; but I could not quite figure out how or why.

– From Harpers – Giant Microbes, a web retailer, reported that its $9.95 Ebola plush toy, whose product tag describes the virus as “the T. Rex of microbes,” had sold out worldwide. I checked.  It’s true.  Giant Microbes can’t start shipping  ebola plush toys until mid-November.

– And hold those holiday travel plans. North Korea – wanting to upstage the United States again -  plans to ban foreign tourists because they might spread ebola.

– The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt looks to save readers from researching who’s to blame for… well, ebola in America. Here’s what he’s gathered:

• President Obama, for caring about Africans more than he cares about us.
• Republicans, for starving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of funds so it could not prepare for Ebola.
• Michelle Obama, for tricking the CDC into promoting exercise and healthy eating instead of preparing for Ebola.
• Liberians.
• Republicans, for starving the National Institutes of Health of funds so that it could not discover a cure for Ebola.
• The NIH, for squandering the ample funds generously appropriated by Republicans on lazy bureaucrats and self-indulgent research.
• Democrats and Republicans, for forcing the NIH to spend money on illnesses with well-organized constituencies (e.g., cancer) and not in areas with the most potential return on investment.
• Sierra Leoneans.
• Republicans, for denigrating Washington so regularly that good people don’t want to serve in government.
• Democrats, for coddling government unions that drive good people out of government with mindless anti-meritocracy.
• President Obama, for not standing taller against denigration of government service or coddling of government unions.
• The World Health Organization, for missing the ball as the epidemic bloomed.
• Obama, for not listening to the World Health Organization’s warnings on Ebola.
• Anti-smoking activists, for pressuring the World Health Organization to detour from its core mission.
• Guineans.
• The National Rifle Association, for opposing a nominee for surgeon general because he wanted to reduce gun violence.
• Congress, for taking orders from the NRA.
• CDC Director Thomas Frieden, for not keeping that nurse off the airplane.
• NIH official Anthony Fauci, for not telling Frieden to keep the nurse off the plane.
• Obama, for not at least banning dogs with Ebola from airplanes ….
• Ron Klain. He was appointed Ebola czar …. Why hasn’t he solved the problem yet?
• Africans.

– Tara Haelle adds to the collection:

In one corner of the Internet, we learn that President Obama created the Ebola virus—or Obama-Ebola—to “infect the DNA of Christians and to destroy Jesus so that a New Age of Liberal Darkness can rise in America.” Obamacare, we are told, is the cover organization to find the cure, and the virus will infect all Americans in the next month.

In another corner, we learn that Ebola doesn’t actually exist at all. The disease currently raging through West Africa was brought there by the Red Cross, who injected people with an illness so that American troops could be sent to steal Nigeria’s oil and Sierra Leone’s diamonds. Another explanation is simple: All the negativity and selfishness in the universe caused Ebola. Yet another tells us that two women who died from Ebola have risen from the dead and that the zombie apocalypse is beginning….

Haelle claims the last rumor is not true.

– Andy Borowitz may have the most accurate reports.  Some of the headlines over his recent stories:

Man Infected with Ebola Misinformation Through Casual Contact With Cable News

Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Quarantining Wolf Blitzer 

Study: Fear of Ebola Highest Among People Who Did Not Pay Attention During Math and Science Classes

Christie Sworn in as Doctor  (Saying that he was “sick and tired of having my medical credentials questioned,” Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.) had himself sworn in as a medical doctor on Sunday night.)

– Here’s something not as amusing. It’s from Mark Thiessen in the Washington Post:

Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come here with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids….  Or, the virus could also be released more subtly. Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.

There’s lots more of this “fearbola”.  But that’s enough for now.


We will all die.  Something’s going to get us at some point.  But what are the odds?

Justin Schumacher summarizes data from the National Safety Council on the odds of people in this country dying from a variety of causes.  His full list is here.    Some excerpts:

  • 1 in 5 [deaths]—Heart disease
  • 1 in 7 —Cancer
  • 1 in 23 — Stroke
  • 1 in 67 — Influenza, i.e. the flu
  • 1 in 112 — Car accident
  • 1 in 2,000,000 — Ebola (worldwide odds, so far)
  • 1 in 3,700,000 — Bitten by a shark
  • 1 in 10,000,000 — Hit by falling airplane parts
  • 1 in 20,000,000 — Killed by a terrorist

Not that data means that much to anyone whose mind is made up.


Three more children died in a school shooting on Friday.

It’s the 50th shooting this year and the 87th since the December 12, 2012 killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Also on Friday, two California sheriff’s deputies were murdered.

In 2011, 32,351 people died from firearms, that’s roughly 88 people a day.

… Gun violence — in schools, in workplaces and across our communities — has become virtually normal in America,” writes Eric Liu

It should not be. It cannot be. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to have over 30,000 gun deaths a year. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to expect educators and parents and first responders to have plans at the ready for a shooting at their school. It is not normal, in a civilized nation, to assert that the best solution to gun violence is for more people to have more access to more guns.


I know a guy whose 13 year old son, in passing, mentioned something about another boy in his class.

“Stacy said ‘It would be really easy to kill someone.  All you’d have to do is take a gun, pull the trigger, and there’s a bullet in their head’.”

Not a big deal.  My friend’s son didn’t feel threatened.

“He’s always saying stuff like that.  He likes to shock people. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”


So, what is a delusion?  Haidt again:

…a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.




October 24, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2014

On this day in 2008 several leading stock exchanges experienced sharp declines that continued for a period of several months.  Was this a Black Swan?  Was this a Lévy flight?  Was this an expression of Self Organized Criticality?  Are catastrophic cascades the inevitable outcome of dense interdependencies in any system?  Electrical grids… supply chains… watersheds… fisheries… human populations?

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

October 22, 2014

Terror comes to Ottawa

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on October 22, 2014

The terrible tragedy that unfolded today in Canada’s capital has yet to be fully resolved.  The identified gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was killed at the scene, reportedly by the Sergeant-at-arms of the Canadian parliament Kevin Vickers. Preliminary reports suggested there were additional shooters, though by the close of the day the idea that it was only the one was gaining traction.

Most tragically, that one terrorist killed a Canadian Forces member on duty as an honor guard at the National War Memorial close to the parliament complex.  That member, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a reservist from Hamilton, Ontario was only 24 years old. He leaves behind a son.

This story is still developing.  It will take time to learn the motive and motivation for this attack, the existence of connections foreign or Canadian, and the impact on Canadian (and American) security policies. For the best coverage, I would suggest following Canadian news sources:

A few initial, and random, thoughts not directly related to the Canadian security situation:

  •  As I watched the initial news coverage, I was dismayed to listen to several anchors across different networks speculate that this attack was terrorism.  Of course it was – an armed attack on the symbols of a nation’s government.  My displeasure came from the overtly implied definition of terrorism – that it must involve a nexus with Islamic fundamentalism.  In this case assumed to be ISIS.  Indeed, by the end of the day that connection became a little more concrete.  However, at the start of events it was described as the act of a gunman or gunmen either crazy or motivated by unknown drivers OR it had a connection to ISIS/Al Qaeda/Islamic fundamentalism and such considered terrorism.  I genuinely fear that in the popular conception, terrorism is no longer an act used to achieve political ends (intimidate or terrorize a population or coerce government policy) but intrinsically tied to Islam. So all violent, criminal acts carried out by Muslims is terrorism (e.g. the recent beheading in Oklahoma) while any violent act that is directed toward government agencies by non-Muslims is just a criminal act (e.g. flying a small plane into an IRS station or ambushing state patrol officers).


  • During the first press conference of the various security agencies I found it interesting that the official advice to the population of Ottawa was something along the lines of (paraphrasing here): “if you are not already downtown, stay away; for those in downtown, listen to your building managers as to what to do.” There was no direct order to shelter-in-place.  Instead, a seeming trust in the actions and advice of civilian liaisons was assumed.  I’ve heard of a similar relationship in the City of London, where the police have a close relationship with the businesses that make up London’s financial district in which they are considered partners in security preparedness.  But I was a little surprised, and impressed, by the example shown in Ottawa this afternoon.


  • The founder of this blog (is it appropriate to refer to him as the Blog Father?), Christian Beckner, presciently posted last night at the Homeland Security Policy Institute Blog on “Fear Canada? Examining the Border-Counterterroism nexus.” While it did not directly address the events of today, it certainly reminded readers that terrorist threats have arisen before in Canada and can pose a threat to the United States.


  • Finally, the video posted below of the reaction of security forces inside Canada’s parliament to the first sounds of gunfire has been played countless times on cable news.  It still never ceases to amaze me how brave first responders all around the world run toward danger instead of away from it.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2014

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear… Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

Marilynne Robinson

Quoted in the New York Times Magazine, October 1, 2014

October 17, 2014

The Ebola Czar and the missing Homeland Security Council

Filed under: Biosecurity,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on October 17, 2014

The President has announced the appointment of Ron Klain as his new “Ebola czar”, as numerous news outlets have reported this morning. From the New York Times:

President Obama will appoint Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joseph R. Biden Jr., to manage the government’s response to the deadly virus as anxiety grows over its possible spread, a White House official said on Friday.


Mr. Klain will report to Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, and Susan E. Rice, his national security adviser, the official said. His appointment was first reported by CNN.

The official praised the work already done by Ms. Rice and Ms. Monaco, but said that Mr. Klain would provide “additional bandwidth” in the fight against Ebola, which is important because the two women have to manage other national and homeland security issues.

I view this appointment of an “Ebola czar” and the need for such “additional bandwidth” as a symptom of a broader problem within the policy-making apparatus at the White House, due in part to the decision in 2009 to merge the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council staffs into a single integrated “National Security Staff” (since renamed the “National Security Council staff”).

Prior to the integration of the HSC and NSC staffs, the Homeland Security Council played a very active role on pandemic planning and response issues. It issued the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza in November 2005, and the subsequent Implementation Plan for that strategy in May 2006, and a progress report on implementation in 2007. During the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, the Homeland Security Council was utilized as a primary convening mechanism by the White House.

But since the end of the H1N1 crisis in late 2009, the Homeland Security Council (which was retained as a policy-making entity, in part because it was mandated in law in Title IX of the Homeland Security Act) has almost entirely disappeared from view. From January 2010 to the present, I can find only one public record of the Homeland Security Council being convened: a meeting in July 2014 to address the unaccompanied minor issue on the southern border. (It is possible that there have been additional meetings of the HSC during the last five years, but there is no public record of it).

These concerns about homeland security issues being downgraded were predicted by opponents of HSC-NSC integration at the time. In February 2009, I helped to staff a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing where we heard a variety of opinions on the potential HSC-NSC merger, including from former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who was critical of a potential merger. His prepared remarks highlighted biosecurity as a particular area of concern, and are prescient in light of today’s decision to appoint an Ebola czar (emphasis added):

From HHS to Energy to DOD to the FDA and elsewhere – more than 30 departments and agencies have homeland security functions. Take biosecurity, for example. What the United States needs to do to improve our biosecurity against major biological threats is complex. Biosecurity depends on different programs managed by different agencies – there is no way to simplify it. DHS is in charge of the biological risk assessment that analyzes biological threats. HHS is responsible for the research and development of medicines and vaccines. DOD does its own R&D. The Food and Drug Administration has its role. Let’s not forget NIH. CDC is responsible for our national stockpiles and for coordinating the grant program and technical assistance to state and locals. The intel community is responsible for assessing the biological threats posed by our adversaries. Without close White House coordination, our bio programs will move in different directions to different goals and different timelines. Putting this and other challenges under the NSC’s purview would only complicate the NSC mission and the HSC’s ability to receive adequate attention from a Council that already has Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan-India, the Mideast and other matters in its inbox.

There have been some benefits as a result of integrating the HSC and NSC staffs, in terms of breaking down domestic vs. international policy stovepipes and allowing for integrated decision-making on transnational issues such as cybersecurity. But I have become increasingly concerned over the past few years that the downsides of HSC-NSC integration are outweighing its benefits, largely due to the “bandwidth” issue highlighted in this post, but also because of the decreased public visibility into homeland security decision-making at the White House due to the adoption of NSC protocols, as I discussed in a blog post last year.

In the near-term, the focus needs to be on dealing with the Ebola pandemic, but these broader structural issues also deserve to be reviewed during the last two years of this Administration and/or by the next Administration, whomever is elected President in 2016. And in light of the Homeland Security Council’s statutory role, this is an issue that Congress should also take a fresh look at, including by convening hearings and requesting information on the activities of the Homeland Security Council since 2009.

(Note: this commentary is cross-posted by the author from the site HSPI.org)

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