Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 26, 2015

Dispensing with reason

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 26, 2015

Critique of Reason Poster

This week our recent discussion of reason (and its relevance, or not, to homeland security) is on hiatus.  We will see what next week may bring.  In the meantime, if you are traveling to New Haven or want to visit online, you may find this current exhibit of interest.

March 23, 2015

Leaning Towards Stafford 2.0: The FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 1471)

Filed under: Disaster,General Homeland Security — by Quin Lucie on March 23, 2015

On March 19th, the Committee leaders for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management introduced a bill that might set the stage for significant changes to the Stafford Act, the primary source of legislation to provide federal disaster assistance.

The proposed law seeks to make important changes to specific federal disaster programs. These include providing protections and benefits to members of the Urban Search and Rescue System, making places of worship that provide essential services to the general public eligible for disaster assistance, providing eligibility for hazard mitigation funds to States receiving fire management assistance, and changing the threshold for utilizing simplified procedures for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.

HR 1471 would also provide relief to individuals and States that were incorrectly awarded disaster assistance funds by FEMA, through no fault of their own, and prevent FEMA from seeking to recoup those funds after a period of time had elapsed, forcing the agency to “step up its game” even further to get awarding disaster assistance right the first time.

However, it is the reports and studies required by this proposed legislation that might result in the most significant impact. The reports seek to explore not just the way federal disaster assistance is delivered, but who is in fact responsible to deliver such assistance in the first place.

The first set of reports aims to improve the delivery of federal disaster assistance. FEMA would be required to report how it seeks to improve the transition of case files between rotating reservists, a longstanding issue for the agency. Another provision would require FEMA to report on the assistance available to commercial and governmental housing COOPS and condominiums. A third report would explore the different standards for electric utility facilities between FEMA and the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture.

A fourth report  might set the stage for fundamental changes to the Stafford Act.

Within 120 days of the passage of HR1471, FEMA, through its National Advisory Council (NAC), would be required to identify trends in disaster costs and contributing factors to these changes such as “shifting demographics and aging infrastructure.” It would also focus on those factors specifically contributing to federal disaster declarations. The NAC would  be tasked to identify all available forms of federal disaster assistance, how quickly these funds were used, and how they were coordinated, while also identifying what disaster costs are borne by the private sector and individuals. The NAC would also be required to look more generally at “mechanisms and incentives to promote disaster cost reduction and mitigation” and to “identify fundamental legal, societal, geographic and technological challenges to implementation.”

The data to be collected sets the stage for what would be the most important part of the NAC’s work: reporting on the “fundamental principles that should drive national disaster assistance decision making, including the appropriate roles for each level of government, the private sector and individuals.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since Congress last looked at these roles. This would be no easy task given the entrenched interests across the spectrum of disaster assistance. Moreover, any serious report would have to confront the difficult issue of whether certain forms of disaster assistance, such as flood insurance, over time, provide adverse incentives to reducing disaster costs.

But just because these questions might be hard to ask, and their answers difficult to hear, it could launch a long overdue, but sorely needed, debate about who is responsible for disaster assistance, who should bear and regulate the risks, and ultimately, who should pay.


Quin Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.

March 20, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

March 19, 2015

Uncertainty is our friend

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 19, 2015

Homeland security is a phrase widely used as a linguistic signal for a wide array of perceptions and problems… and programs emerging from those perceptions and problems.

Most of these problems pre-date September 11, 2001. Our perception of the problems, however, tends to be heavily influenced by experiences since 9/11… and since Katrina… and since our most recent significant personal experience that we label as related to homeland security.  Perhaps Sandy for you.  Haiyan for me.  Et cetera.

Human linguistics is, among other things, an expression of our cognitive tendency to categorize.  Using notional buckets we draw water from the roaring stream of experience, set aside various buckets, and give them labels.  This can often be helpful. A similar problem previously encountered becomes a possible short-cut to understanding and potentially solving a new problem.  Or a heuristic trap.

Some of us are inclined to closely observe and interact with selected buckets. We may even be motivated to separate each bucket into individual vials for more detailed consideration. We specialize. Well, I don’t. Not really. But maybe you do.

While the full stream of experience — including its rapids and cataracts — is very difficult to comprehend, it is often possible to observe interesting patterns within individual vials or buckets.  Patterns exposed outside the stream, may be more easily recognized within the stream.  In some cases we can explain and predict the emergence of such patterns. This can be very helpful.

There are, however, also instances where findings for one bucket or vial seem to be quite different from those for other buckets or vials.  Choosing which evidence to apply from one to another bucket or some aspect of the stream can require considerable time-and-effort, even trial-and-error.

It can be difficult to find the time to explore these possible patterns.  It can be challenging to invest the energy, especially when some of the findings — no matter how strong the evidence — seem speculative or even counter-intuitive. Patterns that threaten a preexisting understanding of ourselves are particularly troublesome.

I am more likely to make the investment in such exploration if, in addition to the evidence presented, there is a complementary social context.  Perhaps there is a preexisting friendship. Perhaps others involved are interesting to me for reasons that have little to do with the issue or evidence.  It makes sense to me that several studies have found peer-approval is often more important to what is learned than the teacher’s approval. (Also see Vygotsky.)

My personal readiness to be open to a novel finding is clearly related to the nature of my pre-existing relationship with the source of the report.  If my pre-existing relationship is fraught, I will be more skeptical.  If my relationship is positive, my attitude toward the novelty will also be more positive. This is not reasonable.  It is an impediment to reasoning together.  But it may be rational: prior direct experience has demonstrated the comparative utility of various sources of indirect experience. It is important to be careful regarding indirect experience.

Reason has a complicated ancestry. It has emerged in many forms.  If I have accurately understood Chris Bellavita and Jonathan Haidt they have, for much of their lives,  understood reason to be a matter of disciplined objectivity and careful weighing of evidence.

With sufficient objectivity and evidence there is (once was?) considerable confidence in finding the correct answer, correct as in how a mathematical formula might be correct (or incorrect). As Chris recently sighed… mumbled… prayed, perhaps “Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear…”

I am all in favor of objectivity and evidence.  More of each is usually helpful.  There is nothing inescapably delusional in either of these inputs.  But the supposed outcome?  That’s where the delusion begins to emerge… it seems to me.

Better and worse I will accept. More or less likely, okay.  Correct and incorrect are, however, beyond my expectation, especially for most aspects of homeland security.

If — instead of evidence — reason begins with the relational (human and conceptual) and then becomes conversational, I have found there is much more receptivity to whatever evidence is presented and less defensive posturing regarding any questions aimed at the evidence.

But if a stranger arrives on a mission to persuade me, I am predisposed to ignore, dismiss, or worse.  On a good day, I may self-correct this predisposition.  But most days I am not nearly that good.


A step back or shuffle aside: I have spent my life as an entrepreneur.  Initially by accident and then increasingly from habit, I have lived on the edge of what is known and operated mostly in the opacity of the not-yet-known.

My expectations of reason emerge from this context.

Entrepreneurship is usually collaborative.  Clients, colleagues, investors, suppliers and others are needed if the unknown is to be explored, even more if the unknown is to be made known.

There is absolutely a need to reason together about risks and opportunities, options and prospects, past experience and personal insights.   And at the heart of this process is the probability of failure.

I have failed much more than succeeded.  So has every innovator I know.  Most of us are eccentric, some are certifiably crazy, but I have never met an unreasonable entrepreneur who has been outfitted for more than one ride down the rapids.

Entrepreneurs depend on others — typically much more dependable sorts — to go along, even better: to share our enthusiasm.

Evidence is important to involving the less adventuresome.  Credible data — encouraging or not — is golden.  Self-deluding behavior is deadly.

In my experience the most dangerous participants in exploring the unknown are those who insist on living inside a bubble of their own unexamined beliefs.  The leader or flank support I crave combines courage, self-criticism, communication of where we are trying to go and reminding me why… without any temptation to certainty.

Certainty is not a friend of reason.

March 17, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 2

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 17, 2015

I was in a room with two dozen people who think for a living. The meeting was called to discuss potential changes in a largely successful homeland security program. The person leading the meeting made it clear that we were just looking for ideas. No decisions had been made, or would be made. It was just about ideas.

No one in the room believed any of that.

I didn’t speak to everyone who attended, but I did talk to a lot of them. Every one of them thought about what impact any program change would have on their job.

But you could not tell that from the conversation. Everyone was polite, creative, and very cautious.

“If it’s brainstorming you want, then it’s brainstorming you’ll get. But we’ll put some reins on the brain part, and we’ll make sure no one gets wiped away by the storm part.”

I would like to pretend I was immune from the rationalist delusion. But – even though I knew the words and the theory – I got sucked into it as much as anyone else in the room.

As best as I could tell we were all being eminently reasonable. Making claims, providing supporting evidence, listening to counterclaims and evidence – behaving the way people who think for a living are supposed to behave.

I even had a 3 x 5 card to remind me about Haidt’s conjecture:

Our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasions, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people…. Skilled arguers… are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.”

The 3 x 5 card did not help me much.

On this blog last week, Christian Beckner countered Michael Tanner’s proposal to break up the Department of Homeland Security. Both Tanner and Beckner offered enough material to test the hypothesis that “First comes the conclusion, then the reason for reaching the conclusion.”

“Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something. “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe it.

Arnold Bogis reasoned about Iranian nuclear negotiations. Can I believe his argument that what we’re really talking about is “straightforward risk management?” Must I believe him when he writes the political “climate has shifted to a never never land where… the inability to control events on the other side of the world… is a sign of weakness?”

Phil Palin is such an amazing writer, a poet, that I can’t completely trust his arguments. And I can’t really tell if he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me.

He started his March 12 post  with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“Men have lost their reason!” Mark Antony cries out.

I have read enough of Phil’s writing to know he is a fan of reason, a diehard optimist about reason, a “creature of reason” – as he writes.

I knew from the title of his post (Reason resurrected from reductionism) he would use the flower of his language to defend reason – even if that meant coming up with his own definition.

“Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.” 

Maybe we’re not there yet, he argues. But don’t give up on it.

Must I believe him? Can I believe him?

Palin ends Mark Anthony’s quote with an explanation mark. But the citation Palin provided shows Antony’s words ending with a period.

A small, overly pedantic observation on my part. But I’m suspicious.  Is Palin using the explanation point to try to supplant reason with emotion?

When you don’t have evidence, raise your voice?

And why use Shakespeare, Plato, Aquinas and the Old Testament to support your assertions? Why not show how reason works in homeland security?

When you don’t have evidence, cite something from the Western canon?

Last week in homeland security I heard debates about StingRay cellphone tracking, read Martha Crenshaw’s argument that there is no global jihadist movement, heard the 14 to 1 results of a secret Senate intelligence committee vote on the cybersecurity information sharing act, learned about a lawsuit to get NSA to stop spying on Wikipedia users, read an essay about the almost complete absence of empirical studies on the effectiveness of antiterrorism strategies, learned that the great ice sheet of West Antarctic may have become irreversibly destabilized, and saw a study that concluded parental attitudes about vaccines are impervious to evidence.

I read, saw or heard nothing in those issues to reignite a faith that Reason is a winning strategy to advance the security of the homeland. What I did hear echoes what Brutus said, before he turned the stage over to the silver tongued Mark Antony:

Public reasons shall be rendered.

What Brutus did not say out loud is:

“We can’t revel our private reasons; as people will argue for the next 500 years, we don’t even know ourselves why we do this stuff.”

(A belated Happy Ides of March, by the way.)

My central observation last week remains the same this week: when it comes to homeland security policy, politics, or strategy, reason at best is a delusion, at worse it is a siren call to keep staring into the sun.

The social intuitionist perspective – the circle and arrows chart Palin featured in his March 12th post – is (in my opinion) an accurate depiction of homeland security’s dominant mode of inquiry: First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason.

Must I believe that?  Can I believe that? Or do I hold on to a delusion that any day now Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear?

Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about how to thrive amid the cacophony of delusion and intuition. I think we can do better.

And I think Palin may be on to something with this relationship business.

But this post has gone on much too long, so I’ll postpone the optimism for next week.

March 13, 2015

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

March 12, 2015

Reason resurrected from reductionism

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 12, 2015

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,–not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?–
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!

Mark Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

Jonathan Haidt, an honorable man, has caused Chris Bellavita, they are all honorable men, to doubt his long-held affection for — even worship of — Reason.  According to some readings of Haidt, the scripture, liturgy and authority of Reason is unveiled as deadly delusion.

I disagree. Rather, in the apparent death of their god they can find Reason resurrected, clarified, and even more capable.

I am not sure how Chris has viewed Reason.  But Jonathan has been prolific on the topic.  Haidt was apparently raised to understand reason as highly individualized and, if its liturgy was accurately observed, producing demonstrably dogmatic outcomes.

Consider Plato’s allegory of the cave: detach it from all the rest of the Dialogues and the whole pre-Socratic context. Haidt’s highly reductionist reason is achieved through the individual’s painful  ascent to the light and direct encounter with reality; which among other gifts, brings the enlightened to a state of patronizing disdain:

He would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?… Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? (The Republic, Book VII, Socrates to Glaucon)

Haidt has found this reason, which he long studied, attempted to master and live-out, to be a profound hypocrisy.  He has rejected it.

Haidt_social intuition model

Above is a visualization of Haidt’s alternative to reason, the Social Intuitionist Model, from a 2001 journal article entitled The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  Please envision many other participants in the social process (B, C, D, etc.) and step through all six steps as outlined. Imagine a maze (or, I would argue, labyrinth) of interconnections.

Don’t miss Haidt’s comments in the fine print, “Two additional links are hypothesized to occur less frequently: (5) the reasoned judgment link and (6) the private reflection link.”  Less frequent, perhaps, but in these links reason has been reclaimed from calcified post-Enlightenment reductionism.  This is the crucial opportunity for self-critique, critical thinking, and creativity.

For too long, too many have presumed that our social reality could be functionally framed as some Newtonian system of cause-and-effect.  This has always been a mechanistic fallacy that fails to embrace the fundamentally affective character of human experience and relationships.  It mistakes sense-making as meaning-making.  There are overlaps, but meaning requires much more than “fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data.”  Meaning may be data-informed, it is almost never data-driven.

In links 5 and 6 Haidt restores the potential of reason inasmuch as reason is anchored in community, in relationships, and in beliefs, intuitions, heuristics and prejudices. Links 5 and 6 will often be subversive to all these predispositions. Greater objectivity is possible.  But it is absolutely delusional to perceive reason can exclude the subjective. Meaning is — finally — humanistic, not algorithmic. Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.  Reason is to discern a possible path, a working hypothesis for how we can — together — engage our common context.

Reason does not reject the possibility of individual enlightenment or personal expertise.  But neither does reason grant any innate privilege to such possibilities. Aquinas wrote, “Reason in man is rather as God in the world.”  Must I be so explicit as to emphasize both reason and God are encountered in love and relationship?

If you know Shakespeare, who is the more reasonable: Brutus or Mark Antony?  I strongly perceive it is the latter.  Brutus depends too much on his own logic, his own analysis, his own strength. He becomes trapped in isolated self-contradiction.  Mark Antony engages the crowd.  He begins by acknowledging vulnerability.  He argues from feeling.  It is through this feeling that he reasons.  We see — even better, we feel — him thinking aloud with us. (First Plebeian: “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.”)

The famous eulogy is often played as cynical manipulation.  This is not the only, nor best option. Read it again and imagine Mark Antony afraid, uncertain, but finding just enough courage to give voice to his intuition, to his judgment, and as the crowd listens and responds positively to this reasoning with them, to press further than he imagined when first he began.

Worship of fallaciously reductionist reason has seriously complicated homeland security.  The national security priestly class has assumed ecclesiastical authority.  A temple-centric policy and strategy apparatus has sometimes presumed to know and impose dogma.  Acknowledging uncertainty and vulnerability can be branded as weakness or heresy.  Projecting competence and confidence, regardless of inner doubts, has become a too often unexamined habit.  Like Brutus we have trapped ourselves, even betrayed ourselves.

If the prior 844 words have fairly heard Chris Bellavita (and Jonathan Haidt) and if my response, especially where I disagree, honors the dignity of my antagonists and acknowledges the possibility I may be wrong, then I have exercised reason.  If by starting with a Shakespeare quote and continuing with Plato and Aquinas, as well as Haidt, I have effectively dissuaded others from engaging with me, then I have acted unreasonably.  To the extent I invite and involve others, I am a creature of reason.  To the extent my rhetoric or actions reject a relationship with others, I am being unreasonable.

I look forward to Part 2.

March 11, 2015

Do we need DHS? Yes.

Filed under: DHS News,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on March 11, 2015

(Note: this piece is cross-posted from the GW Center for Cyber & Homeland Security’s blog, Security Insights.)

The CATO Institute released a short opinion piece today by one of its senior fellows, Michael Tanner, entitled “Do we need the DHS?” This story follows on a long legacy of similar opinion pieces in the news media, such as this piece from 2013. The new piece from CATO raises the question, following the recent resolution of the DHS funding debate, as to whether the Department of Homeland Security is needed. The piece lists off a number of the Department’s weaknesses and challenges, such as diffuse Congressional oversight, challenges with grants management, and morale issues – all of which are legitimate issues. But the piece then makes a gargantuan logical jump to assert that the Department of Homeland Security should be broken up in light of these problems and challenges. This proposal, if implemented, would be disastrous in terms of DHS’s performance of its key missions and would be contrary to the principles of effective government management.

I don’t think that there is a strong likelihood of proposals such as this being seriously considered by Congress, but I still think that it is important to push back against arguments such as this, and make the case for the ongoing value and necessity of the Department of Homeland Security. There is a long list of arguments that I could make here, but I’ll summarize my case with these four:

First, and most importantly, the Department in many respects has become much more than the sum of its parts in the last decade, with respect to its operational mission performance. CBP, ICE, USCIS and the Coast Guard all work together to carry out the Department’s border security and immigration missions. CBP, TSA and ICE all work together to prevent terrorist and other illicit travel (e.g. human trafficking) to the United States. FEMA and the Coast Guard have become closer since DHS was created in terms of their disaster response roles, and other operational components have been called on to support major disaster response efforts. ICE, the Secret Service, and NPPD all have significant cybersecurity responsibilities, and are working more closely together in support of their respective cyber activities. And all of the operational entities of DHS have some role (although admittedly not the lead federal role) in counterterrorism, and DHS information has played a critical role in disrupting several of the higher-profile terrorist plots targeting the United States over the past 7-8 years.

Second, the Department has played the critical federal role since its inception in integrating state and local law enforcement and first responders into supporting its missions. This is true not only with respect to FEMA and disaster response, but equally importantly with respect to counterterrorism, and increasingly in the last few years with respect to cybersecurity. (Of note on this issue, contrary to the CATO piece, fusion centers are not “operated by the DHS” – they are entities owned and operated by state and local governments, each with a small number of federal employees detailed by DHS and DOJ.)

Third, stories such as this promote a distorted perspective on the growth of DHS over the past thirteen years. The story says that “spending has skyrocketed, tripling from $18 billion per year in 2002 to more than $54 billion last year.” This statistic likely refers to the OMB’s government-wide crosscut of homeland security spending, but that annual analysis is not solely about DHS; OMB’s numbers include items such as domestic force protection at the Department of Defense and biosecurity programs at HHS. In reality, the DHS budget has grown since its inception from $36 billion in FY 2002 to $55 billion in FY 2011 – but this growth rate is far from a “tripling” of the budget. (Budget numbers taken from DHS’s response to a Question for the Record by Sen. Ron Johnson from a 2011 Senate hearing. See numbered pages 1029-1031 of this very large PDF.)

It’s also worth noting that most of this growth was not due to sprawling bureaucracy but due to increases to frontline operational capacity, in terms of personnel (notably the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol), technology and infrastructure. The reality is that the parts of DHS that I would consider to be “headquarters” – the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management (OSEM), the Office of the Undersecretary of Management, the Offices of Operations Coordination and Intelligence Analysis, and the Science and Technology Directorate – account for only 1.7% of the DHS workforce, a large share of whom are carrying out government-wide Congressional mandates in areas such as IT management and financial oversight.

Fourth, anyone who proposes dismantling DHS should have the burden of proposing what they would do with its constituent parts, and how such an initiative would improve the performance of the Department’s current missions. The five entities that have responsibility for immigration, border security and travel security (CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, TSA), where the rationale for operational integration is strongest, account for 195,000 of the Department’s 225,000 employees – around 87%. Is the author proposing that these five entities should not be within the same Cabinet department? If he is, he’s making a proposal that will have a serious negative impact on the government’s performance of these missions. If he is not, then he’s not really proposing to break up DHS, but instead proposing a more moderate tinkering, perhaps by returning the Secret Service to the Treasury or making FEMA an independent agency again. I wouldn’t recommend either of these; in particular, I think FEMA is now critically interlinked with many other parts of DHS. The reality is that there is no realistic option for a major overhaul of DHS that does not have significant operational impacts.

My bottom line: is the Department of Homeland Security today everything that Congress envisioned it to be when it created it in 2002? No, not yet. (And this is in part due to external factors beyond the Department’s control, such as (a) the decisions in 2002-2003 to hobble its intelligence-related mandate from the start by creating TTIC and the Terrorist Screening Center outside of DHS (b) and the ongoing dysfunctional structure of Congressional oversight). But has it made substantial progress toward realizing this vision? Yes. Would additional major organizational changes improve the performance of DHS’s current missions? No, and they would more likely backfire, and introduce substantial new operational and management-related risks.

For all of these reasons, and others, we still need DHS. And we’re better served as a nation by an ongoing policy discussion focused on how it can be improved and made more efficient, rather than a debate about breaking it up.

March 10, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 1

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 10, 2015

Last Thursday Phil Palin argued optimistically that the resolution of the DHS budget problem was a “triumph of reason.”  As usual, he gave several elegant, and if one did not look too carefully, compelling justifications for his conclusion.

I think Phil was fundamentally wrong.  In my opinion what we saw in the budget dance was the triumph of power. The forces that wanted to reverse Obama’s immigration policy were too weak to overcome the Congressional forces that wanted to move on to something else.

I saw no evidence to suggest Reason (yes, I know it’s capitalized) had anything to do with it.

Unless you want to say that Power creates its own reason, its own truth.

I don’t think that’s where Palin was going.

The problem I have with Reason is its unquestioned normative dominance.

I know I’m being unreasonable when I complain about Palin’s triumph of reason simply by asserting another reason.

I know, however, if I acknowledge I’m being unreasonable, I can be forgiven – because I’m being reasonable again.

That’s the game.

“We are still living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest,” wrote Andre Breton in 1924.  But he was being surrealistically silly, and therefore easy to ignore.

I don’t think reason has much to do with homeland security – at least not the interesting bits of homeland security.

Yes, it plays a role in many aspects of the scientific and administrative parts of security.

But when it comes to policy, politics, or strategy, not so much.

I run the risk here of trying to use reason to construct an argument about the limits of reason in homeland security. That path leads to a Kafkaesque madness that I’ll pretend — for now —is not attractive.

I’ll defer for the time being to the general argument about the “rationalist delusion” developed by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. (The excerpts come from pages 103-108.)

A delusion is “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”

Reason gets to decide what’s a delusion and what isn’t.  How cool is that?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Haidt writes

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself 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, one that makes us like the gods…, or [for the new atheists] that brings us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods…. [It is] a claim that the rational caste (philosophers and scientists [and people who write on blogs]) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.”

Where did we in the west learn about the pre-eminent value of being reasonable? Look to the philosophers, scientists and educators for that.

Thanks, Socrates.

But Reason gave us the internet and the iWatch and pharmaceuticals and abundant food and airplanes and so on — say the philosophers and scientists and educators. So reason’s got to be a good thing.

These Reason Advocates “believe reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

So reason not only makes the trains run on time (if that still happens), it’s also the cause of good behavior.

Haidt reports, tangentially, on one experiment designed to test the assumption that moral philosophers – people who spend a lot of time reasoning about doing the right thing – might behave better than other people.

Turned out they do not.

One conclusion from the study Haidt describes: “[Academic] books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.”

The argument is a longer one than I am summarizing here. But Haidt’s conclusion is succinct:

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.”

In at least the social and political domains, we tend not to use reason to search for the truth. Instead, says the evidence Haidt offers, our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… ‘skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views’.”

Reasoning, says Haidt, is “more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason for reaching the conclusion.

“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”

Test the claim for yourself.  In the following story by Peter Baker, which comes first your conclusion or your reasoning?

The fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.

In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”…

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”

As someone whose religion was — and may still be — Reason, I was not easily convinced by the arguments summarized by Haidt (and other behavioral economists and psychologists). Eventually, however, his reasons and evidence have become increasingly persuasive to me. (Yes, I see Kafka’s irony again.)   I believe Haidt is correct asserting the worship of Reason blinds as much as it enlightens.

What to do about this, especially in homeland security?

Haidt – and others – have ideas about how to manage the delusion enabled by Reason.

I’ll save that for another post.



March 6, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

February 27, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 27, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

February 26, 2015

Good News

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 26, 2015

As we watch in awe and anticipation the murmuration of the DHS appropriation process; wonder over weather patterns emerging in the mid-Pacific heading toward Birmingham, Nashville, and Boston; consider the fractalizing of Salafist jihadism and complex adaptation of global climate; attempt to calculate the spectral radius of water systems, supply chains, telecommunications and the grid; and worry — at least a bit — about all the hidden interdependencies social, technical, and ecological that seem increasingly predisposed to rear their ugly heads… I offer for your late February consideration (consolation) three threads of good news.

Back to School in Liberia

Libera_back to school_UN Photo: United Nations

Thousands of Liberian school children returned to school last week, as several measures designed to facilitate “social distancing” were curtailed.  During the second week in February only two new cases of Ebola were reported in Liberia. (During the same period there were a total of 126 new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea.)  Risks continue.  Secondary and tertiary effects have been (will be) considerable.  Liberia experienced over 3900 deaths from the disease.  But outside help combined with amazing courage and community engagement by the local population has turned a corner in Liberia.

No Deaths in West Virginia

Train Derailment_Mt CarbonPhoto: Marcus Constantino, Reuters

Despite what is shown above and what most of us have seen on television, no one died and damage appears to have been modest (given the energy expended) as a result of the amazing CSX train derailment near Mt. Carbon, West Virginia.

Some of this is just random… fractal… luck.  Thirty minutes before the derailment, the oil tankers were rolling along the streets and neighborhoods of West Virginia’s largest city. Ice in the Kanawha and nearby streams helped contain the spillage. Time and space can be helpful friends.

But a colleague in West Virginia also reports that CSX, state, local and Coast Guard responders were competent and mostly well-organized.  The incident command system actually worked.  The McClatchy News Service reports that many of those responding had attended a railway accident training function in October and applied important lessons-learned.

Policy and strategy concerns are abundant, but some specific mitigation and preparedness measures paid off just a bit south of Charleston.

Circle of Peace around Synagogue

Circle_of_PeacePhoto: Reuters

According to a Norwegian newspaper:

Over 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue on Saturday, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community and condemning an attack on a synagogue in neighboring Denmark last weekend.

The entire area resonated with chants of  “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” Norway’s Muslims formed what they called a ring of peace a week after Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, a Danish-born son of Palestinian immigrants, killed two people at a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen last weekend.

According to an organizer, Zeeshan Abdullah, the event was organised to show that there are more peace loving people than warmongers. “Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that, he said in front of a crowd of Muslim immigrants and ethnic Norwegians who filled the small street around Oslo’s only functioning synagogue.

The challenges we face — natural, accidental or intentional — are real.  Even our good news can be plenty ambiguous.  But to neglect or dismiss the possibility of good is no better risk management than to deny an emerging threat.

February 20, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 20, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

February 16, 2015

Update on the course “Central Challenges of American National Security”

Filed under: Education,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on February 16, 2015

Roughly a month ago I posted on the opportunity to participate in a Massive Open Online Course offered by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “Central Challenges of American National Security.”

A couple of updates and an opportunity. According to the instructor, Professor Graham Allison, the course will cover: “ In a six-week segment, we introduce the basic concepts from the course (Strategic Options Memos; strategy; the press as a serious complicating factor) and present four cases: Iran’s nuclear challenge (from the perspectives of the US, Iran, and Israel); the rise of China; ISIL/Syria; and NSA/Snowden/WikiLeaks.” So several intersections with homeland security-related topics.

A new instructor has joined Allison and New York Times National Security Correspondent David Sanger. They will be assisted by Professor Derek Reveron, who is on faculty at the U.S. Naval War College.  He specializes in “strategy development, non-state security challenges, intelligence, and U.S. defense policy.”

Finally, an opportunity to take an intensive, Limited Enrollment version of this course. That means “admitted participants will read approximately 75 pages per week, complete assignments including four short policy memos, participate in sections led by the course Teaching Fellows, and engage with fellow learners in moderated discussion forums.” To gain admittance, one has to fill out an online application and submit “a one-page Outline of a Strategic Options Memo responding to the course’s first assignment: “What should the U.S. government do to meet the Iranian nuclear challenge?”” Instructions for completing the Outline are provided on the application page.

If you are interested, the deadline to submit both the application and assignment is 9am EST on Wednesday, February 18. For more information and the application itself, go to: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/HarvardXApp.html


February 13, 2015

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

February 11, 2015

Boston snowstorms an emergent crisis



Claire Rubin, the Recovery Diva herself, made a very insightful observation regarding the string of snowstorms that have hit the Boston area:

I guess you could consider three major snowstorms in three weeks a slow onset disaster for Boston at the present time.

I must have been too busy shoveling snow and catching up on “House of Cards” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes (no, seriously…that show had very good writing) not to have seen this myself.

Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.

This is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.”  They explain:

But some forms of crisis do not arrive suddenly. They fester and grow, arising from more ordinary circumstances that often mask their appearance. We term such situations emergent crises – a special and especially difficult category.

What makes emergent crises problematic? First, they arise from normally variable operating conditions, making emerging problems difficult to spot as a break from typical operating and response patterns.

When and if the problem is spotted, an individual or group with technical expertise in the issue (as it is understood at the time) is generally assigned to address it.

But what if the diagnosis is not entirely correct? If the standard approach doesn’t work? If the response is too small or too late? A second major challenge of coping with emerging crisis situations is that the initial responder(s), if not immediately successful, either fail to diagnose their inadequacies or resist calling for additional help. Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation. Moreover, they may resist seeking help.

The third reason that emergent crises are challenging is that they present crisis managers with all of the standard challenges of managing true crisis emergencies—the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress, the painful realities of the errors and rough edges that arise when executing new and untested  routines. But these standard challenges now arise in the context of organizations and teams that are already deployed and working on the situation

It sounds like this is what is happening, at least in part, in Boston due to the almost unprecedented buildup of snow.  Specifically in regards to the transportation infrastructure, both for cars and all forms of public transportation.

Confronted with at first just one large storm, city and Commonwealth agencies followed SOP to clear roads and train tracks of snow.  Normally, this is more than adequate to return some semblance of normal life back to the area. Unfortunately, one big storm was followed by another and another (and potentially another again this weekend). Standard plowing and snow removal procedures could not keep up with the amounts, streets became clogged with snow piles, and the aging and underfunded public transportation system (locals refer to it as the “T”) began to break down under the combination of snow and cold.

Five hundred members of the Massachusetts National Guard were activated Tuesday to help with snow removal.

“These men and women will deploy across Eastern Massachusetts today,” Gov. Charlie Baker said, adding MEMA will determine which towns help is most needed.

Baker said the state has purchased two additional snow melters that can process about 25 truckloads of snow every hour.

“We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances here,” Baker said.

Boston-area subways, trolleys and commuter rail trains shut down remained idle Tuesday, with only limited bus service running. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it needed the break to clear snow and ice from tracks and to assess equipment damaged by the spate of storms.

“The accumulating snow is making it virtually impossible to keep rail lines operational,” the transit agency said.

Boston’s transit system, the nation’s oldest, has been particularly hard hit this winter. The buildup of snow and ice on trolley tracks combined with aging equipment has stalled trains, delaying and angering commuters.

That would be 78.5 inches of snow, so far, in Boston itself.

Buffalo got more than that in just a few days this past November.  Issues of snow removal were more difficult at first, but the impact was very localized and the area benefited from a lot more space where to put the snow.  Once cars were unburied and major roads cleared, a region where almost everyone is dependent on cars for travel began to get back to normal.

Boston is an urban area, densely populated and highly dependent on the public transportation system. There are few places to put snow, and when the T isn’t running it is hard for a large portion of the Boston area workforce to actually get to work.  People don’t get to work, work doesn’t happen.  Work doesn’t happen, the customers of those businesses face difficulties.  When the customers of those businesses are healthcare organizations, than a large part of the population faces difficulties. As the Boston Globe reports:

One Boston hospital administrator called it a crisis: Surgeries canceled because there weren’t enough beds, taxis hired to ferry patients who had no other way home.

At another hospital, stockpiles of linens were running so perilously low that staff began rationing them.

Meanwhile, still other hospitals were forced to rely on the generosity of Boston police officers to deliver essential staff members to work.

With snow piled up to historic levels, and the region’s subways and commuter rail systems halted Tuesday, administrators labored to keep their hospital doors open, hobbled by a stranded workforce and patients unable to get home.

“This has put us in a capacity crisis situation,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General Hospital’s medical director for preparedness.

The commuting concerns at South Shore Hospital were not as much about hospital staff members — most don’t rely on trains — but on the workers at a Somerville company that cleans the facility’s linens. So many of the linen company’s employees didn’t make it to work that South Shore was worried about running out of clean sheets and towels.

“We have had to conserve linen,” Darcy said. That doesn’t mean the hospital is reusing linens, she was quick to add, but rather that it was keeping a “close eye on the supplies.”

Back in Boston, hospitals in the cramped Longwood Medical Area grappled with a cornucopia of issues.

Several surgical practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center canceled sessions for patients who need to be evaluated before and after surgery because staff members simply couldn’t get in. Other employees at Beth Israel Deaconess who had to get to work arrived via sport utility vehicles rented by the hospital, while some others relied on the Boston Police Department to drive them, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said.

With even more snow on the way, I’m hoping that the experts have realized their standard operating procedures haven’t been up to the task.

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