Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 12, 2014

Obesity, Homeland Security, and the National Preparedness Goal

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 12, 2014

Here’s the national preparedness goal:

“A secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.” 

Some people (e.g., several hundred retired admirals and generals) argue obesity threatens both the security and resilience of the nation.

A few years ago, in a document titled Too Fat to Fight, they claimed

Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service. Today, otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight….

[At] least nine million 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are too fat to serve in the military. That is 27 percent of all young adults. Obesity rates among children and young adults have increased so dramatically that they threaten not only the overall health of America but also the future strength of our military. 

Obesity threatens more than the nation’s ability to staff its armed forces. It’s an economic threat. And, as the 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review report points out (p. 31), “homeland security is inseparable from economic security.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (still acronymized as CDC):

• More than one-third (or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese.

• Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.

• The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

What can be done to “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover” from obesity?

Among the hundreds of answers offered to that question, here a suggestion from a 1:41 youtube video I saw a few weeks ago.

Homeland security starts at home.


August 8, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 8, 2014

On this day in 2007 an EF2 tornado struck Brooklyn, New York. (Swiss Re recently published a study of the tornado threat to US urban areas.)

On this day in 2009 a small plane and a tour helicopter collided over the Hudson River between Hoboken and Manhattan.  Nine died.

On this day in 2013 a suicide bombing at a funeral in Quetta, Pakistan kills over thirty.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

August 5, 2014

65 years ago today: the Mann Gulch Fire

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 5, 2014

A man named Robert Sallee died on May 26th of this year. He was the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire. 

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Montana wildfire that killed 13 firefighters.

Here’s the story of what happened, based on Karl Weick’s summary of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire.  You can find Weick’s analysis of the fire in his Administrative Science Quarterly article titled “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.”

… at its heart, the Mann Gulch disaster is a story of a race. The smokejumpers in the race (excluding foreman “Wag” Wagner Dodge and ranger Jim Harrison) were ages 17-28, unmarried, seven of them were forestry students, and 12 of them had seen military service. They were a highly select group and often described themselves as professional adventurers.

A lightning storm passed over the Mann Gulch area at 4 p.m. on August 4, 1949 and is believed to have set a small fire in a dead tree. The next day, August 5, 1949, the temperature was 97 degrees and the fire danger rating was 74 out of a possible 100, which means “explosive potential”.

When the fire was spotted by a forest ranger, the smokejumpers were dispatched to fight it. Sixteen of them flew out of Missoula, Montana at 2:30 p.m. in a C-47 transport. Wind conditions that day were turbulent, and one smokejumper got sick on the airplane, didn’t jump, returned to the base with the plane, and resigned from the smokejumpers as soon as he landed.

The smokejumpers and their cargo were dropped on the south side of Mann Gulch at 4:10 p.m. from 2000 feet rather than the normal 1200 feet, due to the turbulence. The parachute that was connected to their radio failed to open, and the radio was pulverized when it hit the ground.

The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours, collected their supplies, and ate supper. About 5:10 p.m. they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire. Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a “death trap”. They told the second in command, William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. While Hellman did this, Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal.

Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40 p.m. and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river. He could see flames flapping back and forth on the south slope as he looked to his left. At this point the reader [of Young Men and Fire] hits the most chilling sentence in the entire book: “Then Dodge saw it!”.

What he saw was that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them. Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top. They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30- foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute.

Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge.

Two people, Sallee and Rumsey, made it through a crevice in the ridge unburned, Hellman made it over the ridge burned horribly and died at noon the next day, Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire, and one other person, Joseph Sylvia, lived for a short while and then died.

The hands on Harrison’s watch melted at 5:56, which has been treated officially as the time the 13 people died.

After the fire passed, Dodge found Sallee and Rumsey, and Rumsey stayed to care for Hellman while Sallee and Dodge hiked out for help. They walked into the Meriwether ranger station at 8:50 p.m., and rescue parties immediately set out to recover the dead and dying. All the dead were found in an area of 100 yards by 300 yards.

It took 450 men five more days to get the 4,500-acre Mann Gulch fire under control. At the time the crew jumped on the fire, it was classified as a Class C fire, meaning its scope was between 10 and 99 acres.

The Forest Service inquiry held after the fire, judged by many to be inadequate, concluded that “there is no evidence of disregard by those responsible for the jumper crew of the elements of risk which they are expected to take into account in placing jumper crews on fires.” The board also felt that the men would have been saved had they “heeded Dodge’s efforts to get them to go into the escape fire area with him”.

Dodge apparently invented the escape option on the spot. As Weick notes, the crew refused “to escape one fire by walking into another one that was intentionally set.”  It simply went against all their training and all their commonsense. They died, by following their training and by doing what their commonsense told them to do.

The Weick article about Mann Gulch introduced me to the idea of sensemaking, the notion that reality is not always something that exists outside the observer.  Reality can be constructed — i.e, made sense of — in ways that help and hinder effective action.

Weick notes two lessons learned from Mann Gulch I believe retain their usefulness for homeland security leaders trying to make sense of what they are asked to do every day.

1. Improvisation and bricolage — Creativity is “figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you currently think.” Dodge was able to improvise a way to survive the fire because “he was what we now would call a bricoleur, someone able to create order out of whatever materials were at hand.”

2. The attitude of wisdom – “To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. … Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before.”


August 1, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 1, 2014

On this day the Great Flood of 1993 is thought to have peaked along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  Thirty-two died.  Over $15 billion in damages.

On this day in 2007 the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing thirteen and injuring over 140.

On this day in 2013 the Department of State closed several US diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa.  The official announcement noted, “Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August.”

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

July 29, 2014

“Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report” – a disappointing sequel

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 29, 2014

“Nobody pays any attention to these reports. But you still keep printing them.”

The quote is from a prominent (former) intelligence official. He was talking about the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. But he could have been referring to the “Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report” released last week (available at this link: http://bipartisanpolicy.org/library/report/rising-terrorist-threat-9-11-commission)

One wishes to be fair to the people who wrote the Reflections. No doubt it was as well intentioned as any sequel. But in my opinion it doesn’t come anywhere close to being a worthwhile read. The assertions and arguments in Reflections are as fatigued as the authors claim the America people are.

And that’s unfortunate.

The Commission missed an opportunity to help reinvigorate the homeland security project they were instrumental in shaping.


The 9/11 Commission Report (available here: http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/) starts with the most memorable sentence of any government report I’ve ever read:

“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the Eastern United States.”

Here’s the opening sentence in Reflections:

“With temperatures in the low 50s, April 15, 2013, promised to be an almost ideal day for the 23,000 runners competing in the 117th Boston Marathon.”

This artless effort to draw a parallel between the Boston Marathon and the September 11 2001 attacks comes off sounding, at best, tone deaf. At worse, offensive.

But it’s only the start.

Instead of the thoughtfulness, balance, and bipartisanship of the original 9/11 Commission Report, we get a repetitive rehash of banal assertions: The terrorists are coming and they are really dangerous. Cyber threats are growing and they also are really dangerous. Congress is dangerous too. Their refusal to reduce the number of homeland security oversight committees is making the country less safe.

And by the way, the Director of National Intelligence (not dangerous) should control the budget of the Intelligence Community.


Unlike the hundreds of thorough and informative endnotes supporting the claims in the 9/11 Commission Report, Reflections backs up its assertions with a handful of anecdotes, a few charts, some quotes from unnamed experts and eight seemingly haphazardous endnotes.

The 9/11 Commission Report did not shy away from discussing at length alternative interpretations of “facts” they uncovered. See, for example, the extensive discussion of the intelligence wall.

That balance and realism is missing in Reflections on every significant issue discussed.

Is there no credible argument that the nation continues to overblow the terrorist threat? How about this one: http://www.amazon.com/Terror-Security-Money-Balancing-Benefits/dp/0199795762

Assuming the nation will not take the cyber threat seriously until we have a cyber version of the 9/11/01 attack, what can we do now to mitigate that attack?

Is there a case for having 92 congressional committees looking at homeland security issues? Are all those committees unnecessary?  Did Reflections speak with anyone who defends the current congressional oversight structure? Could it be an example of the messiness that is republican democracy? Is DoD really the efficiency model to be emulated by homeland security?  Are there no substantial downsides to having only a handful of committees looking at Defense matters?


I appreciate this was not supposed to be another 9/11 Commission Report. But I’m guessing – hoping? – it was supposed to be a serious analysis.

The commission members were “struck by how dramatically the world has changed” in a decade.

Struck? When was the last time a decade went by without dramatic world changes?

What about the current terrorist threat? It’s evolving, says Reflections.

“The forces of Islamist extremism in the Middle East are stronger than in the last decade…. The absence of another 9/11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone: As 9/11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack.”

Reflections continues to press the importance of connecting dots, even if one has to wait years. They ask,

Is the April 2013 rifle attack on an electrical substation in Metcalf, California, a harbinger of a more concerted assault on the national electrical grid or another component of critical infrastructure? What might we be missing today that, three years from now, will prove to have been a signal, a piece of a larger mosaic?

What if it’s not? Or is this report only reflecting things to be afraid of?


If you stop reading after the first two dozen pages of Reflections you’d think the nation is hanging by an existential thread, worse off now then it was ten years ago.

You have to get to page 25 of the 44 page report before learning:

There is no doubt that the country is better equipped to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks than in 2001. …The mass-casualty attacks many feared in the wake of 9/11 did not materialize. Today, in large part because of … many [security-related] reforms, the United States is a much harder target.

Senior leaders agree that America’s layered approach to homeland defense, which recognizes that no single security measure is foolproof, has improved our security….  At its best, a layered system integrates the capabilities of federal, state, and local government agencies. America’s resilience has improved as well. Federal, state, and local authorities have absorbed and applied the lessons of 9/11 over the last decade…. The country must continue to prepare for the unforeseen, but it appears to be moving in the right direction….

I think that’s called “burying the lede.”


There is a consensus among the senior officials with whom we spoke that information-sharing has improved significantly since 9/11.

And right before Reflections concludes (page 37):

As we reflect on the last ten years, we believe the government’s record in counterterrorism is good. Our capabilities are much improved, while institutional vigilance and imagination are both far better than before 9/11. Good people in government have absorbed the lessons of the 9/11 attacks, are tracking the evolving threat, and are thinking one step ahead in order to prevent the next attack.

Lest one think that gives us permission to be complacent, Reflections ends with this less-than-upbeat anecdote:

One former senior national security leader told us recently that he expects that his children and grandchildren will be carrying on this fight.

I wonder if there is another former senior national security leader, somewhere, who thinks about his children and grandchildren the way John Adams did:

I must study … war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

If there are any such national security leaders, they were not interviewed for Reflections.

Young Americans need to know that terrorism is not going away. And they need to know that many of our military personnel, intelligence officers, and diplomats on the front lines in the most dangerous parts of the world are like them—young people with dreams of bright futures.


In addition to the full court press strategy (that includes a congratulations-9/11-Commission youtube video from tired-looking President Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIA2iiWkvKY), how are young Americans and the rest of the nation to learn “how dramatically the word has changed?”

It’s simple, says Reflections.

Senior leaders, including the President, have to make the case about terrorism and cyber threats and all the myriad things that go (or might go) bump in the night “in specific terms, not generalities.”  

One hoped Reflections would model some of the transparent specificity they want others to provide. Instead, what we get are statements like this one:

“If the American people hear what we have heard in recent months, about the urgent [cyber] threat and the ways in which data collection is used to counter it, we believe that they will be supportive.”


Don Marquis wrote that “a sequel is an admission that you’ve been reduced to imitating yourself.”

I found Reflections to be a disappointing sequel.

July 25, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 25, 2014

Since we opened the Friday Free Forum it has been my practice to tee-up the discussion with brief historical references to natural, accidental, and intentional events that happened on the same date.  The cumulative effect on me has been reassuring.  Bad — very bad — stuff happens, always has.  Despite my cognitive inclination to catastrophize the present, it is not necessarily worse than it has ever been.

This week my scan for July 25 has not quickly turned up the typical collection of calamities. (Deeper digging might find them.)  But right now we are dealing with:

A deadly intersection of drought and wildfire across the Western United States.

The unfolding consequences — human, political, and much more — of the downing of MH17. Beyond the debris field in Ukraine it has been a very bad week for commercial aviation.

Serious challenges to several nation-states by non-state and pseudo-state actors and the sustained use of state violence against several civilian populations, religious communities, and targeted ethnic groups.  A spillover to the US domestic context is already happening and is likely to increase over-time.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

July 23, 2014

See something say something goes awry?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Infrastructure Protection — by Arnold Bogis on July 23, 2014


["Boston gas tank" by Lasart75 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston_gas_tank.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Boston_gas_tank.JPG]

It’s rare that a big, albeit colorful, gas tank becomes a local landmark. But that is the case in Boston, where the tank pictured above sits just off of Interstate 93 on the southern approach to the city. Lots of people take lots of photos of this particular piece of critical infrastructure.  Apparently, one got in a lot of trouble for it. Boston.com reporter Roberto Scalese has the story:

We’re not sure what professional photographer James Prigoff called the tank in 2004, when he decided to photograph it from public property. In a post on the ACLU’s website, Prigoff recalled the security guards who demanded he stop taking the photos, saying the tank was on private property. After that encounter, he went home to California and found a Joint Terrorism Task Force agent’s business card on his front door.

There is some simple beauty to the “see something, say something” message, however there are inadvertent negative consequences as well. What some may deem suspicious, the photographing of critical infrastructure for example, others deem art.  In fact, I would argue that for every terrorist plot alleged to have been uncovered since 9/11, I could find you two artists within the Greater Boston area alone who photograph, draw, paint, sketch, or otherwise utilize images of what is considered critical infrastructure in their work. Should they all be registered with the government?

If this was simply the case of some over zealous security officers, I could understand.  But according to the ACLU, this type of thing stays on your permanent record:

SARs can haunt people for decades, as they remain in federal databases for up to 30 years. An individual who is the subject of a SAR is automatically subjected to law enforcement scrutiny.

Somewhat disturbing, right?

July 22, 2014

“Terrorism has entered a new and dangerous phase,” says the 9/11 Commission

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 22, 2014

From their press release:

This morning, the members of the 9/11 Commission, led by Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, released a new report reflecting the evolving and dangerous terrorist threat facing the nation. Ten years after the release of the commission’s original report, with mounting threats from the resurgence and transformation of al Qaeda, the situation in Syria and a rapidly changing cyber landscape, the commission’s new report calls for a vigorous and proactive counterterrorism effort. The report comes from the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which reconvened the 9/11 Commissioners to develop their updated recommendations.

A copy of the report is here:  http://bipartisanpolicy.org/sites/default/files/%20BPC%209-11%20Commission.pdf


July 18, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 18, 2014

On this day in 1995 the Soufrière Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat erupted.  It has continued volcanic activity ever since leaving more than half of Montserrat uninhabitable, destroying the capital city, and causing about two thirds of the population to evacuate the Caribbean island.

On this day in 1945 the Bedford Magazine fire and explosions began causing widespread damage in the Nova Scotia communities of Bedford, Halifax, and Dartmouth.

On this day in 1994 the Argentine Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires was bombed killing 85 and injuring 300.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?


July 15, 2014

Why DHS is cleaner than DoD

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 15, 2014

I think I understood most of the 2014 QHSR.  But there’s one piece I did not get.

Today’s post is about my effort to discover what a “clean audit opinion” means.  In 2013, DHS received a clean audit.  The Department of Defense has never had a clean audit.  Never.  But I believe it hopes to have a clean audit in 2017, when it turns 70 years old.

That’s basically what I have to say today.  The details follow.


“It is also worth noting that, in late 2013, DHS received its first unqualified or ‘clean’ audit opinion; this occurred just 10 years after the Department’s formation, which was the largest realignment and consolidation of Federal Government agencies and functions since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947.”

This 49 word sentence appears twice in the 2014 QHSR.

It sounded like accounting language. I had no idea what it meant. But it seemed like a big deal. So I tried to find out.

The QHSR says DHS got the clean opinion in late 2013. I searched and found a GAO report published on November 15, 2013. That counts as “late 2013″ to me.

The report did not appear to confirm the “DHS is Clean” claim: [my emphasis]

GAO reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had made considerable progress toward obtaining a clean opinion on its financial statements…. DHS has a goal of achieving a clean opinion for fiscal year 2013. However, the DHS auditors’ report for fiscal year 2012, the most recently completed audit, indicated that DHS continues to rely on compensating controls and complex manual work-arounds to support its financial reporting, rather than sound internal control and effective financial management systems.

…GAO also reported that DHS had made limited progress in establishing effective controls to obtain a clean opinion on its internal control over financial reporting.

…DHS has plans to resolve the remaining five material internal control weaknesses, with a goal of achieving a clean opinion on internal control over financial reporting for fiscal year 2016. DHS will continue to face challenges in attaining a clean opinion on its internal control over financial reporting, as well as obtaining and sustaining a clean opinion on its financial statements, until serious internal control and financial management systems deficiencies are resolved.

The GAO report seemed so antithetical to the DHS is Clean assertion that I had to be missing something.

I kept searching and found a DHS press release  that proclaimed “DHS Financial Statements Earn a Clean Audit.”

The release was dated December 12, 2013. You could not get much deeper into “late 2013″ than that. So this is probably what the QHSR statement meant.

The press release said [my emphasis]:

This year, the Department of Homeland Security reached a major goal by achieving a clean audit opinion of the Department’s financial statements by an independent auditor. Simply put, the clean audit is in line with our ultimate goal to increase transparency and accountability for the taxpayer resources entrusted to the Department. …

In order to achieve a clean audit opinion, DHS worked across the entire Department to complete a comprehensive inventory process of its property for the financial statements…. This enterprise-wide approach made it possible for the Department to account for an additional $8 billion in property, which was the last factor we needed to earn a clean audit.

In less than a month, DHS apparently went from not having a chance of getting clean “until serious internal control and financial management systems deficiencies are resolved” to receiving “a clean audit opinion of the Department’s financial statements.”

That is a remarkable achievement.

So remarkable that I must still be seriously not understanding what any of this means.

I located a December 11, 2013 DHS Office of Inspector General report that contained the “independent audit” referred to in the DHS press release.

The IG document did confirm the cleanliness of the audit.

Sort of.

The Department continued to improve financial management in FY 2013 and has achieved a significant milestone. This is the first year the Department has received an unmodified (clean) opinion on all financial statements.

OK, so “unmodified” is a synonym for “clean.” It was starting to become clear to me. I continued reading the IG summary: [my emphasis again]

 However, KPMG [the independent auditor] issued an adverse opinion on DHS’ internal control over financial reporting of the FY 2013 financial statements. Further, as stated in the Secretary’s Assurance Statement, the Department has material weaknesses in internal control over financial reporting. In order to sustain the unmodified opinion, the Department must continue remediating the remaining control deficiencies. 

More accounting speak, I assume. Unmodified means clean. And while phrases like “adverse opinion on DHS’ internal control over financial reporting,” and “material weaknesses in internal control” may appear to my untrained eye to modify “unmodified opinion,” they apparently don’t.

So it’s all still clean. I guess.  And probably transparent. And definitely accountable.

Here’s more confusion on my part: I don’t quite get the “independent auditor” business.

The November 2013 report came from GAO.  Does that mean GAO is not independent because it is an arm of Congress?

Why are we supposed to believe the firm that conducted the audit reported in December 2013 is independent? Because it doesn’t report to Congress?

Who does it report to?

The company, KPMG, received its auditing contract from the DHS.

That’s what the DHS Office of Inspector General wrote when the auditor’s  report was released in December 2013: “We contracted with the independent public accounting firm KPMG LLP (KPMG) to perform the integrated audit.” 

The KPMG tagline is “cutting through complexity.”  Maybe creating unmodified opinions that are modified by other opinions is one way of cutting through complexity.

I know these are all cheap shots on my part. My confusion is undoubtably caused by not speaking Accountantese.

I found a source that did speak like an accountant, or an accountant who was good at translating accounting speak into English. I conducted what in this context might be called an “unmodified interview” [the unmodified emphasis is mine]:

Q: First, what’s an “unmodified opinion?”

A: An unmodified auditor’s report effectively states the auditor believes the financial statements present a true and fair view, and are in accordance with accounting standards and relevant legislation. This is sometimes also called an “unqualified” or a “clean” audit opinion.

Q: Great. Does a clean auditor’s report mean a clean bill of health…?

A: Auditor’s reports are intended to increase the degree of confidence users have in the information in financial statements – not about the state of the [organization] itself …. An unmodified auditor’s report means … stakeholders can make an assessment of the [organization] based on its financial statements, with a higher degree of confidence that the information is materially correct and unbiased.

If I’m understanding this correctly, then, a “clean opinion” does not say anything about efficiency, effectiveness, or  other significant output or outcome measures. It basically means what you see in the financial statements accurately represents financial reality.  [Correction, suggested by Phil Palin: "It basically means what you see in the financial statements is coherent and consistent with widely accepted standards of accounting."

[Where does one go to find these widely accepted standards of accounting? "The most authoritative source of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) developed by FASAB {Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board} for federal entities is contained in The FASAB Handbook of Accounting Standards and Other Pronouncements, As Amended...."  Here's a link to that Handbook:  http://www.fasab.gov/pdffiles/2013_fasab_handbook.pdf.  It is 2,129 pages. The phrase "clean opinion" appears once, describing how to issue a clean opinion even if there are problems.  I am way out of my depth here.]

The 2014 QHSR believes it is worth noting that for the first time in DHS history, its books are in order.

Is that really a big deal?

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman, Tom Carper, thinks it is a big deal.

“Given the size of the Department, the fact that it encompasses 22 separate agencies, and the scope and importance of its mission, producing a clean financial audit is no small task. I credit the Department’s past and current leadership for making financial management a priority and taking the steps necessary to realize this important goal.”

So – returning to the title of this post – how does all this circuitousness make DHS cleaner than DoD?

Senator Carper again [with my emphasis],

“By earning this clean bill of health from an independent auditor, DHS is now in compliance with this law and is on track to continue to do so. The Department of Defense is now the only large federal department that is unable to conduct a financial audit.”

It only took 10 years for DHS to figure out what’s on its books. The Department of Defense has been around for close to 70 years and it still can’t figure out what is on its books.

Maybe DoD can learn something from DHS for a change.

July 11, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 11, 2014

Today Typhoon Neoguri is expected to continue on a northeasterly path following the Japanese coast.  It is no longer a so-called “super typhoon”, but heavy rains are forecast.

On this day in 1978 a truck carrying liquid gas crashes and explodes in Tarragona, Spain killing more than 200.

On this day in 2006 more than 200 are killed in the Mumbai training bombings.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

July 10, 2014

Dismiss, distort, destroy: Adventures in self-delusion

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 10, 2014

The 9/11 Commission famously found a “failure of imagination” among the principal vulnerabilities that facilitated the terrorist threat.

We had accurately observed the predicates — USS Cole breaching, East African embassy bombings, vicious sermons, declarations of war, and more — that put a few on high alert.

After the attack other clues were nearly as obvious, tantalizing offers of operational warning and even tactical preemption. But we were mostly distracted and failed to imagine the possibilities that were percolating.

So on September 11, 2001 most of us were surprised and, it has seemed to me, many over-reacted. Both at home and overseas — especially in regard to Iraq — we unintentionally delivered strategic advantages to our adversaries.

In our response to 9/11 we hurt ourselves much worse than the initial horrific blow.  We also planted seeds of further vulnerability and, even perhaps, self-destruction.

These are claims that over the years I have referenced here.  I will understand if you insist I defend them again today, but my present purpose is prospective rather than retrospective.

I am concerned we’re doing it again:  Being distracted and self-indulgent and dismissive of others and distorting unwelcome truths.

Some of this is innate to our human condition.  As both a species and as individuals we are limited.  We are especially constrained by the story-engine in our brains. Too often trapped in the same old story, indignant if any one seeks to shift our recurring narrative.

But reality is seldom satisfied with mere repetition, despite how much we prefer a familiar rhythm.

If there remains any “we” worth the term, we have mostly dismissed the suffering of tens-of-thousands in Syria.  Public opinion surveys, political non-action, media reporting, and more all supply evidence that we have usually averted our eyes when confronted with the reality on the ground.  It has been an especially messy and brutal reality.  Confusion, hesitation, mistakes are entirely justifiable.  But neglect and denial are not.  We ought not have been so surprised by what has spilled-over from Syria into Iraq.

Our surprise is evidence of a failure to accurately observe and reasonably imagine.

I have been complicit in this dismissal of reality; more accurately, distorting of reality. After a few attempts to call-attention to the Syrian implications for homeland security, I retreated into the boundaries of a primarily domestic discipline.  Yet this week we are attempting to address a Syrian-based strategic threat with TSA tactics and urging Norwegians to spy more on each other. Looking for symptoms, ignoring their source?

The same tactical myopia afflicts our surprised response to the Children’s Crusade marching toward and across our southern border.  Both the anti-illegal right and the anti-xenophobic left are mostly preoccupied with what they perceive as urgent.  Meanwhile the source of our problem is a cauldron of cartels and coyotaje combined with chronic poverty and violence that requires a long-term strategy creatively and cogently applied.

Whatever else, we face a reality where thousands of children are taking an extraordinary risk to come to us. I understand we ought not encourage such risk-taking.  But dare we ignore the compelling threats that have driven these children into taking this risk?  Do we seek to “secure the border” so that we can pretend these other threats do not exist?  What are we prepared to do to address source as well as symptom?

Then Tuesday Chris Bellavita reported on the dismissive comments of some regarding the QHSR. This is a much smaller matter.  But it is another example of the same intellectual reflexes: dismiss, distort, destroy.  It is as if the — sometimes heated — discussions begun in late 18th Century Philadelphia have devolved into something much more similar to a junior varsity debating club.  We self-validate by running up the score with reckless accusations, banal set-phrases, and an abject refusal to listen.

Ignore and ignorance share the same source.  Imagination is spurred by authentic encounter with the unknown.

July 8, 2014

The Schneierites on the 2014 QHSR

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 8, 2014

Bruce Schneier writes what I consider one of best security-related blogs on the web, “Schneier on Security.”

Over the years, I’ve found most of the people who comment on his blog are serious, generally knowledgeable, and suspicious of unsupported assertions.

A few weeks ago, Schneier told his readers

“The second Quadrennial Homeland Security Review has been published by the Department of Homeland Security. At 100+ pages, I’m not going to be reading it, but I am curious if there’s anything interesting in it.

I’ve been gushing about the QHSR for the last few weeks.  Schneier’s readers are significantly less impressed. Here are some of their comments (italics are intended only to separate the comments):

  • “We have reviewed ourselves and found ourselves to be in compliance.”
  • Nothing of value in most sections I read. It reads like an incredibly long Homeland Security brochure you pick up in their lobby.
  • It says nothing. It reads like an annual report for the Girl Scouts. “We are protecting you… all 1000 federal agencies.” But I especially liked the part about the commitment to human rights… even as the administration justifies drone attacks on civilians.
  • I don’t think I’ll bother trying to read it. Internal reviews are always going to try and put the agency in a positive light, since if they say “This agency is completely useless” then they are all out of a job. Half of their job seems to be to recommend products that various lobbyists promote, the other half is to give an appearance of “We are doing something to combat terrorism” – in reality, I think all we have managed to do is label more and more of the population as potential terrorists, probably making it even more difficult to track real threats.
  • Maybe what’s left out is most interesting. Only a single mention of the “Constitution of the U.S.”
  • Tried to read it, but got bored very quickly. Maybe that’s part of the strategy! Reminds me of a quote from Wittgenstein:”If a lion were able to speak, we would not understand him.”
  • I know that ‘boring your enemy’ is a legitimate tactic. Hell, lawyers have been doing this by handing over large amounts of irrelevant material for the other side to trawl through.
  • They might as well use one of those automatic paper generators (like mathgen [http://thatsmathematics.com/mathgen/] or scigen [http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/]). [One] wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

I tried the automatic paper generator suggestion in the last comment.  The results were disappointing. One can easily tell the difference between the automatically generated essay and the 2014 QHSR.  There were fewer pictures.

I tried a different generator, found here.  That program produced a 530 word report, also without pictures, but disturbingly connected – in more than a few instances — to homeland security.  Here is a link to that randomly generated homeland security report.

But don’t waste your time.  It’s nowhere near as interesting as the 2014 QHSR.

I’m going back to my echo chamber now.

July 4, 2014

The music of Independence: six short videos for July 4th

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 4, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 4, 2014

On this day in 1776 fifty-six insurgents meeting in Philadelphia declare rebellion against their lawfully established government.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

July 2, 2014

QHSR: tension between HS and hs

Filed under: Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on July 2, 2014

I’m a week late to the QHSR discussion and while I don’t have any big thoughts, I do have a few small ones.

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There are some problems at the foundation of the QHSR. Issues that point to underlying confusion of what homeland security is, or at least an unclear characterization of what it should be, at the federal level. However, this isn’t the fault of the DHS staff who put together the review, but rather the direction of Congress. As readers are reminded of in the report itself, the scope of the QHSR is:

Each quadrennial homeland security review shall be a comprehensive examination of the homeland security strategy of the Nation, including recommendations regarding the long-term strategy and priorities of the Nation for homeland security and guidance on the programs, assets, capabilities,budget, policies and authorities of the Department.

Soooooo…the Department of Homeland Security (let’s call it capital HS) is mandated by Congress to review the current Administration’s homeland security strategy that includes the work of other agencies (counter-intuitively, I’m going to refer to the whole enchilada encompassing what anyone might wish to include in homeland security as lowercase hs), while at the same time providing DHS-specific recommendations on force structure, authorities, budget, etc. I haven’t checked the authorizing language, but on a quick review of the last DOD QDR (which is supposedly the model for the QHSR) , it pretty much focused entirely on the last half of that charge.  There was little to no language that pointed to the concerns of their national security “partners” or the military’s analysis of the National Security Strategy. Instead it focused on questions of force structure and the impact of sequestration on the military.

In this matter, the important difference between DOD and DHS is that DOD has a long tradition, and specifically, a mature relationship with Congress.  DHS, on the other hand, seems to be generally regarded by many (if not most) lawmakers as the sole actor in the hs sphere.  The consequence being that anything that is considered a hs issue by Congress often becomes a HS issue by default.  A dumping agency.  Even if it is a topic long worked by experienced professionals elsewhere in the government.

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Contrasting examples of this can be seen in the chapters on bio and nuclear threats. At it’s creation, I do not believe any of the agencies or offices brought to DHS a primary role in either arena (outside of FEMA’s responsibility post nuclear attack).  But in the wisdom of a few, since that time the agency has grown both an Office of Health Affairs (OHA) and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

I can see the utility of a health office for the protection of the DHS workforce, not unlike the equivalent in DOD.  Perhaps over time they develop particular expertise to contribute to the larger efforts of the government as a whole.  Instead, projects such as the never-quite-right Biowatch placed them in a bureaucratic competition with agencies with long-standing expertise in public health, such as the CDC (the center of biosurveillance), and those newer offices with a concentration of expertise and responsibility, like ASPR (ESF-8 lead, partner in the National Disaster Medical System, and the government developers of new medical countermeasures through BARDA). The QHSR seems to acknowledge this, as it stresses a whole of government approach to public health and bioterrorist threats. DHS went hs rather than HS in addressing biological threats.

The reverse is true for nuclear terrorism. After identifying the issue and stressing the importance due to the possible consequence of such an attack (if this is so important to HS you’d think FEMA would have gotten it’s act together by now regarding planning for such an event…but I digress), the QHSR takes an entirely parochial view of the subject.

We prioritize a sustained, long-term focus on preventing nuclear terrorism through two foundational capabilities: (1) nuclear detection and (2) nuclear forensics. These capabilities are aimed at preventing our adversaries from developing, possessing, importing, storing, transporting, or using nuclear materials.

In stark contrast to bio-events, nuclear terrorism can and must be prevented.  And that prevention is likely not to occur along the pathways of the “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” or due to forensic capabilities. It happens because while large, the amount of special materials required for a nuclear terrorist attack are finite, thus possible to secure or eliminate at the source.  Hoping that THE major plank in preventing such an attack is detection of very hard to detect materials with the cooperation of others sitting along a spectrum of competence, corruption, and cooperation would be unwise.

I am not suggesting detection and forensics are unimportant, only that they are secondary to securing and eliminating fissile material.  Yet the QHSR focuses on these capabilities because that is what the DNDO does.  So DHS went HS for addressing the nuclear terrorism threat.

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One last small quibble with the Review: why did they have to include a “Black Swans” section?  I don’t mean addressing potential future events that could have a significant impact on homeland security.  Rather, why did they have to attempt to co-opt the term itself?  Hasn’t the mess everyone has made with “resilience” taught us anything?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book “The Black Swan” that popularized the term, summarizes the attributes of these events: “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” The QHSR has already violated the third attribute, and their list of four potential Swans have been previously suggested and analyzed elsewhere.  They are neither unforeseen or unexpected.

Personally, I’d prefer to think of Natalie Portman when considering Black Swans.

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