Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 3, 2015

Learning from Trump

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on December 3, 2015

Today three things converged in a way that is pushing a new — for me — perspective.  This is mostly a personal post, so you are warned and welcomed to click away.  It is also a new perspective that will, I expect, have an influence on how I contribute to Homeland Security Watch.  I am wanting to be transparent.

I expect today’s “injects” had amplified influence given the context of the San Bernardino bloodbath. Then in recent weeks I have also been considerably involved in both Central American and Syrian refugee issues.  The ongoing engagement with such extreme violence and its consequences has, undoubtedly, caused me to listen — to hear and to feel — differently than before.


Until this morning I had not heard what Donald Trump said yesterday, speaking to Fox and Friends.  This is the video at the top.  It is both what he said and how he said it that literally sickened me. It has long been clear that Mr. Trump is vulgar.  Prior comments have confirmed his ignorance, bigotry, and predisposition to violence.  In this Fox telephone interview he announces, “And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.” (The entire interview is disturbing, but it was about the 4:45 mark when I was physically repulsed.)


While on the train to Philadelphia I started getting emails from friends about Senator Lindsey Graham’s Thursday morning remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition.  The South Carolina Presidential candidate immediately followed Ted Cruz and had heard some of Donald Trump’s earlier remarks to the RJC.  Mr. Graham was apparently inspired to depart from his planned text.  Following is what my friends quoted to me (I have not fact-checked).

“ISIL loves Donald Trump” (responding to yesterday’s kill their families tactic). “He (Trump) knows how to empower their base.”

“Why we lose has nothing to do with not being hard ass enough on immigration.”

“Winning this election is about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric driving a wall between us and the fastest growing demographic in America,”

“I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party’s chance at winning an election we cannot afford to lose.”

Apparently Cruz was also hit hard on other issues.  One of my friends commented, “Finally authenticity attached to a functioning brain.”  What I took away from multiple reports is that Mr. Graham was arguing that fear, exclusion, and self-righteousness are traps used by tyrants and those who want to be tyrants.  I still haven’t found a full version of the speech.  But this seems to coincide with news coverage.


I was still considering the contrast between the murderous vulgarity of Mr. Trump and Senator Graham’s experiment in spontaneity as I walked to my hotel.  That’s when the most important realization of the day hit me.

This morning, before catching the train, I was a panelist at a Washington DC policy discussion.  A woman for whom I have enormous respect was one of the principal organizers.  The speakers and other panelists were, like me, mostly the usual suspects: White House, DHS, FEMA, National Labs, academics, retired military, a few active, private sector.  A very large room was crowded.

The panelist who was at the other end of the table from me spoke second. I was fourth. His rhetoric and content was clearly not typical of Massachusetts Avenue panelists.  But I try to be atypical too.  It soon became clear that he perceives a catastrophic event is an issue of when not if.  He self-defined himself as a “prepper.”  Especially because all of this is not-typical (for DC), I was rather pleased he had been given a seat at the table.

But then he shared having had prior experience with a leading US bank where “at least a third of the executives were of Middle Eastern descent.” This was in the context of preconditions that he was setting out for catastrophic risk.  It quickly became clear that this is a man consumed by fear.

I was mostly embarrassed for my friend.  I wondered who had recommended this guy.

But no one challenged him. In particular, I failed to challenge him. Just as no one on Fox and Friends challenged Donald Trump on his readiness to purposefully kill women and children and others not known to be specific risks.

Where and when I was raised there was a well-known cohort of those in some way crazy.  Given that it was a very small town, in most cases the rest of us had an idea of what had driven them crazy. At some level — depending on the situation, more or less — we empathized.  In this context I was taught (perhaps learned too-well) to not respond directly to crazy talk.

In the case of this morning’s racist accusation I did not explicitly consider the option of challenging the comment until nearly three hours later, probably thanks to the bad example of Donald Trump and the good example of Lindsey Graham.  To notice the outrageous comment and not even consider responding is a complete ethical failure.

When and where I grew up public silence was combined with private engagement. This was a matter of dignity and diagnosis and social control. I’m sure it was sometimes abused.  But in my experience it mostly worked back then, back there.

Washington DC in 2015 is a very different place.

This is a time and place when fear, exclusion, and self-righteousness are being very widely deployed.  There is a need for courage and inclusion, without self-righteousness.  I’m guessing the third characteristic could actually be the most challenging.

So here’s the deal: for at least five months I have been on the edge of walking away from Homeland Security Watch.  I don’t really have the time.  It is good discipline.  But it’s been a very long time since I enjoyed it.

Maybe today’s epiphany gives me good cause to continue.

I have always thought the blog should be mostly about amplification, aggregation and a bit of analysis.  I have mostly wanted to avoid specific advocacy.  I am still not interested in partisan advocacy.  But it seems as if courage and inclusion need more advocates, especially in the context of homeland security.


November 27, 2015

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving 1863

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

The year opened with President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Early in the Spring fighting season three days of battle at Chancellorsville killed more than 3000. In late April General Grant initiated the campaign that eventually captured Vicksburg. Over the first days of July the Union prevailed at Gettysburg, but like most great battles it might easily have gone the other way.

In mid-July several days of draft riots and racial attacks rocked New York City. Some historians claim 2000 were killed. Order was restored using artillery and fixed bayonets. In late August irregulars massacred 183 civilian men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas. Americans would continue to kill Americans for two more years. More than 600,000 died on the battlefield or a bit later of wounds. The total population — North and South — was 34.4 million.

In the midst of this relentless bloody struggle of brother against brother, Lincoln called for giving thanks. Even as the very existence of the United States was reasonably in doubt, the President pointed to progress. While our great-grandfathers on each side were often consumed by self-righteous anger, Lincoln invited the whole people to acknowledge our national perverseness and pray for peace, harmony, tranquility and union.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.  And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.


November 20, 2015

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

November 13, 2015

Open Thread on the Paris Terrorist Attacks

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on November 13, 2015

Obviously, the facts regarding the multi-site attacks tonight in Paris tonight are fluid and it will take days to definitively understand and describe what has occurred.

I am not going to make an effort to replicate news outlets efforts at updating information.  Instead, I thought it might be useful to open a thread on this attack, specifically, or this type of threat, in general, to allow any interested parties to share their expertise, opinions, or general thoughts.

Update: For those looking for information online, the New York Times is providing free digital access to all of their coverage online.

Update 2: For news closer to the source see France 24, an English language French TV station. You can watch their live feed here: http://www.france24.com/

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

November 6, 2015

Friday Free Forum

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

William R. Cumming Forum

October 30, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

October 23, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 23, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

October 19, 2015

Homeland times (more than) two

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

Johnson_Dane_Hilary Swift_NYTPhotograph by Hilary Swift for the New York Times

Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, had lunch recently with Claire Danes, star of “Homeland”.  Philip Galanes brought them together (above) for a piece printed in the Style section of the Sunday Times.

It strikes me as an odd invitation for the Secretary to accept.  But he is evidently a fan and, as explained in the feature, Mr. Johnson perceives that popular culture can do a great deal to shape the political context.

No breaking news that I recognized.  But it did cause me to look more carefully at yesterday’s edition of our “newspaper of record” for other homeland security related stories.

The magazine’s cover story is an exposé on the death of Osama bin Laden.  While a bit of a stretch, doesn’t anything dealing with bin Laden somehow touch homeland security?  That story is immediately followed by a two-page photo spread on confederate memorials in Richmond, Virginia.  What do you think?

The first section of Sunday’s paper has plenty on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Hindu nationalism, the war in Syria, refugees in Europe, and a Mexican drug lord.  In their current form none of these reports quite strike me as speaking to the homeland.  But there is a follow-up on the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.  That counts, wouldn’t you agree?

The business section’s big lead is on the head of the International Association of Fire Fighters.  Recently I have argued here for greater involvement by homeland security professionals in policy/strategy development.  The IAFF does so.  The NYT tells how.

Racial discrimination in housing is the topic of Sunday’s lead editorial.  The Sunday Review also includes an essay on how recent scientific studies show (again) “how easily we can be fooled by our belief in patterns.” Then there’s a piece on how Americans no longer learn to actively listen.  These issues strike me as having profound implications for what I frame as homeland security. But I expect many of you would disagree.

The sports section confirms we are closing in on the World Series (a National Special Security Event).

Scanning the travel section my synapses fired on several terrorism or counterterrorism possibilities.  Did you see the recent article claiming paranoia is good?

In an interview with Steven Spielberg we read:

So many things were in my mind in the contemporary world. Drone missions. Guantanamo Bay. Cyberhacking, because cyberhacking is a form of spying…  And yet today, there is much more dread and fear of who’s looking over our shoulders.  There was a specific enemy, the Soviet Union, in the the 1950s and ’60s. Today we don’t know our enemy.  The enemy doesn’t have a specific face.

The Book Review tells us about a post-catastrophe novel, a non-fiction “biography” of weather, a couple of thrillers involving “China is ascendant, Russia is on a real estate acquisition binge, the Middle East is aflame…”  There are also two new texts on “how we make sense of a complex world and try to predict its future.”

Any of the above strike you as homeland security stories?  Sorry, nothing that I saw on floods, droughts, grid-failures, earthquakes, cyclones, current epidemics, or even supply chains. Maybe I missed something, will look more carefully on the plane tomorrow.

I’ve been invited to write a chapter for a new text on national security. Saturday I was reading complaints by several scholars regarding how there is no consistent definition of national security.  If so, maybe the President is right when he insists, “Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security…”

But isn’t the Claire Danes character a CIA agent?  She should be having lunch with John Brennan not Jeh.

October 16, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 16, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

October 13, 2015

Goaltending: National Preparedness

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

Last week a second edition of the National Preparedness Goal was released.

The Goal itself has not changed since the 2011 original:

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.

There is also considerable continuity between the original details and the new details.  According to a FEMA Information Sheet on “What’s New”:

The refresh of the National Preparedness Goal centered on discrete, critical content updates based on lessons learned, real world events and the results of the National Preparedness Report. In working towards development of the second edition of the Goal, FEMA and its whole community partners focused on assessing the existing core capabilities. Resulting updates to the core capabilities include changes to select titles and definitions and the addition of one new core capability – Fire Management and Suppression.

The National Preparedness Goal is part of the policy/strategy apparatus emerging from Presidential Policy Directive 8 released in late March 2011.  In the PPD the President directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to coordinate federal — even “all-of-nation” — implementation.  For richer or poorer, the Goal is widely perceived as FEMA-centric. (As noted below, I don’t think this is healthy or necessary.)

Thursday I intend to give particular attention to one change from the 2011 edition that I consider a potentially important positive.

But first a comment on the context and limitations of this sort of document: In my experience the homeland security professions — federal, state, or local — tend to receive the vast majority of “national” policy and strategy statements with skepticism at best and more often with disdain.

The story is told of a First Responder delegation meeting with a President’s Homeland Security Adviser.  After an hour-long discussion of policy, strategy, operations and tactics, the Senior Official encouraged one of those who had not contributed to share his thoughts.  The Big City professional responded, “With all due respect sir, just tell us what we have to say to get the money.”

The defense, foreign policy, and intelligence communities are also interested in money.  But they self-consciously engage in making and critiquing policy/strategy in order to shape their budget and spending context.  This can sometimes be cynical.  In some cases, even corrupt. But by-and-large the nexus of policy, strategy, and money is a crucial arena for thinking through and refining where resources will be spent and why.

It is an entirely fallible process, but in the traditional national security space the active participation of a wide array of professional, academic, political, commercial and other interests can generate substantive benefits across the strategy-to-tactics continuum.

President Obama has been very clear from the beginning, “I believe that Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security — conceptually and functionally, they should be thought of together rather than separately.”  As some readers may recall, I disagreed with the President on this matter.  But in any case, for this policy formulation to be effective, the homeland security professions are required to engage the policy-strategy-budget process with a skill and resolve equal to national security veterans.

This “refresh” of the National Preparedness Goal offers another opportunity to do so.

October 9, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 9, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

October 8, 2015

Cry me a river

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 8, 2015

The radar loop above starts on Thursday evening, October 1 and runs through Sunday evening (thanks to Matt Daniel at WMAZ in Macon, Georgia).

A similar video — showing a narrow band of intense moisture — could be shown for the 2010 mid-Atlantic “Snowmageddon”.

Some have suggested that Japan’s extraordinary flooding in early September reflected meteorological conditions similar to what we saw last week over the Carolinas.

Detailed data does not exist to show the unfolding of the 1861 California megaflood. According to Scientific American, this 43-day storm, “turned enormous regions of the state into inland seas for months, and took thousands of human lives. The costs were devastating: one quarter of California’s economy was destroyed, forcing the state into bankruptcy.”

“Geologic evidence shows that truly massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California every 100 to 200 years. Such floods are likely caused by atmospheric rivers: narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of kilometers.”

The emergence of so-called atmospheric rivers is well-established, but not widely understood. NOAA explains, “Atmospheric Rivers (AR) are relatively narrow regions in the atmosphere that are responsible for most of the horizontal transport of water vapor outside of the tropics. While ARs come in many shapes and sizes, those that contain the largest amounts of water vapor, the strongest winds, and stall over watersheds vulnerable to flooding, can create extreme rainfall and floods.”

In 2011 USGS, FEMA, CalEMA, and others collaborated in the ARkStorm exercise focusing on a recurrence of the historic pattern in California.  Scenario elements include, “The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour.”

What is important to recognize is that this is not worst-case thinking, but historically demonstrated risk.  It is not so much a matter of if, but where and when.

And by the way, this winter’s El Nino is predicted to be strong, especially in Southern California.

October 2, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

October 1, 2015

Security versus Liberty and a third option

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 1, 2015

Johnson-at-Podium_Westminister College

Above, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security speaking on September 16

A couple of days after I began this most recent hiatus, Secretary Johnson spoke at Westminster College in Missouri.  An old friend happened to be in the audience.  I have not seen any media coverage.  I’ve since found a transcript.

In his speech the Secretary tells a personal story that I had not previously heard.  For me it is compelling because the story is–at least as the Secretary renders it–a parable of a compromised hero, principles long-defended but ultimately forsaken, and an early death.  This is an interesting parable for a Secretary of Homeland Security to choose to tell.  I hope you will read his story and the entire speech.

Here are a few lines from toward the end, well after the personal story was concluded.

I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will amount to a prison. 

I can guarantee you a commercial air flight perfectly free from the risk of terrorist attack, but all the passengers will be forced to wear nothing but hospital-like paper smocks, and not be allowed any luggage, food, or the ability to get up from their seats. 

I can do the same thing on buses and subways, but a 20 minute commute to work would turn into a daily, invasive two-hour ordeal. You’d rather quit your job and stay home.

I can guarantee you an email system perfectly free from the risk of cyber attack, but it will be an isolated, walled-off system of about 10 people, with no link to the larger, interconnected world of the Internet. 

I can profile people in this country based on their religion, but that would be unlawful and un-American.    

We can erect more walls, install more screening devices, and make everybody suspicious of each other, but we should not do so at the cost of who we are as a Nation of people who cherish our privacy, our religions, our freedom to speak, travel and associate, and who celebrate our diversity and our immigrant heritage.

In the final analysis, these are the things that constitute our greatest strengths as a Nation.

More and more I perceive that true security — like happiness? — is most likely to be achieved as the result of effort primarily focused elsewhere. Viktor Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

There are interesting lacunae in the Secretary’s speech, especially interesting for a lawyer with a reputation for detail.  It goes beyond what the Secretary actually says, but in those pregnant spaces I hear something similar to, “Security cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so mostly as the side effect of a peoples’ dedication to a cause greater than their own safety.”

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