Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 16, 2014

Adjusting our signal to noise ratio

I am currently involved in planning three different tabletop exercises.  Each are efforts to enhance “whole community” involvement.  My particular role is to enhance private sector involvement.  Currently the news media is not targeted for participation in any of these exercises.  In my several years of being involved with various homeland security training and exercises I can only recall two occasions when news media have been involved as participants.

There are several impediments to involving news media in these sort of activities, including:

  • Effective exercises are designed to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to improve preparedness.  News media are inclined to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to increase readership/listeners/viewers.
  • Many public sector participants tend to be “authoritative” or “officious” or “control-freaks”.  This is troublesome enough with other private sector participants.  With members of the media it can be explosive.
  • News media participation can discourage the involvement of other private sector parties due to fear of exposure (see first bullet).

But it seems to me increasingly clear we must find a way to involve news media in preparedness activities or continue — and deepen — the risk of serious mis-communication and public mistrust on the very worst days.  While major media are no longer the only or even primary sources of information, they are a significant source of amplification and confirmation.  Too often they are amplifying and confirming misleading information.  An ongoing example:

The media’s attention to symptoms can obscure attention to the source of problems.  I am astonished by the extraordinary attention given to a few instances of Ebola in the United States in contrast with lack of attention to sources of the problem in West Africa… despite clear and consistent and, at least to me, very reasonable analysis that until the source of the problem is better managed the risk to the United States will only grow.

On Tuesday afternoon the United Nations coordinator for Ebola response told the Security Council that the world basically has sixty days to contain the virus or face a serious risk of pandemic.  In much of the world, this was the Wednesday morning headline.  Not in the United States.

Below are two screenshots.  The first is for the Google News US edition.  The second is for the UK edition.  According to Google, “articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online.”  The source stories can be found in US media, but too often buried beneath the symptoms.

Google US edition

UK edition

In my judgment a similar symptom vs. source issue is endemic to most US media coverage of terrorism, urban wildfire, flooding, and many aspects of border security.  It even erupts in how longer-term electrical outages are reported.

I am not arguing against news coverage of symptoms.  The attention given to the series of false steps in Dallas has clearly facilitated enhanced readiness across the US health System. But these are tactical –symptomatic — issues, not strategic issues addressing the problem at its source.

When novel and especially deadly threats emerge, the failure to distinguish between symptom and source is at least distracting and too often misleading… in a manner that can undermine public health and safety and, certainly, competence.  Sources can be even more complicated to understand than symptoms, but this further underlines the need for insightful media coverage.

There are very few editors, producers, or reporters who can afford to specialize in any of the so-called “low-probability, high-consequence” risks that confront us.  That’s a problem for most of the private sector and across the public sector as well.  We all need help adjusting our standard-operating-procedures to these non-standard events.  We should start to do so in workshops and exercises before the symptoms explode.

Some possible discussion topics and exercise issues:

In dealing with “high-intensity-risk-environments” (HIRE), do not mistake ambiguity for inattention.  Recognizing ambiguity may be evidence of close attention.

In engaging a HIRE, do not confuse uncertainty with incompetence. The compulsion to sound certain in the midst of complexity is, in my opinion, a principal cause of incompetence.

In the midst of a HIRE, complexity and lack of control does not necessarily signal lack of organization or progress.  Efforts to control can escalate complexity and suppress resilient self-organization.

In a few months I should be able to let you know if I am successful in involving media in any of the exercises currently being planned.

–+–

And since I’m writing about attention to sources as well as symptoms, in regard to Ebola here are some potentially helpful sources on sources:

FrontPageAfrica – A Liberia based newspaper. (BTW, this is not the largest circulation Liberian newspaper, but some of its competitors have, in my opinion, their own serious noise-vs-signal problems.)

The Concord Times – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

The Telegraph – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

Doctors Without Borders Guinea News

Guinea (Conakry) Guinee Focus (French)

World Health Organization Africa Regional Office

US Department of Defense Africa Command

CDC Ebola Hub

Resources from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine here and here and here  (and it’s worth looking for more)

FRIDAY UPDATE:

Thursday evening NPR broadcast an interview with Dr. Lewis Rubinson.  An intensive care physician with the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Rubinson spent three weeks in September serving Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.  The full interview (with transcript) is, I suggest, a good example of well-informed, realistic thinking about dealing with symptoms.  Following is an excerpt:

RUBINSON: There are nearly 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. It wouldn’t have made sense to me that every single facility would have the ability to be honestly prepared. It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t need to be an appropriate level of the ability to identify patients and provide early treatment and keep staff safe. I think that’s really on every institution because we can’t control where patients present. But I think out in West Africa, we got very, very good at being 100 percent all of the time. You had to. In the U.S. there’s no technological fix for this. We can’t buy a widget and just solve it and give it to the hospital and say, you’re prepared right now. Most of this is about diligence, it’s about discipline and it’s about 100 percent adherence. And I think, again, that’s very hard to imagine that every facility could do that. Not because they aren’t good facilities, it’s just there are other priorities that they need to be taking on at the same time. Again, every facility needs to be able to identify the patient, take care of the patient early, keep the staff safe, but I think it’s very hard to imagine that every facility would be good at managing a patient throughout their course of the disease, especially if they get very sick, like had happened in Dallas.

MORE

SECOND UPDATE:

In regard to sources rather than symptoms, here’s “top of the fold” attention being given British operations in West Africa.  According to Friday’s Telegraph,

Ebola is the “biggest health problem facing our world in a generation”, David Cameron has said, as he urged foreign leaders to “step forward” with more resources to fight the crisis.

The Prime Minister urged other leaders to “look to their responsibilities” to help tackle the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa… 

He said: “Britain, in my view, has been leading the way. The action we are taking in Sierra Leone where we are committing well over £100 million, 750 troops, training 800 members of health staff, providing 700 beds; we are doing a huge amount.

“I think it is time for other countries to look at their responsibilities and their resources and act in a similar way to what Britain is doing in Sierra Leone, America is doing in Liberia, France is doing in Guinea.

“Other countries now need to step forward with resources and action because taking action at source in West Africa is the best way to protect all of us here in Europe.”

MORE

June 12, 2014

Foxes, hedgehogs and homeland security

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

                                                                                         Archilochous

PART I: COUNTERTERRORISM

On May 21 the Secretary of Homeland Security affirmed that counterterrorism is the primary mission of the Department.  But speaking to a large crowd of mostly state and local officials, Mr. Johnson evidently felt compelled to — or did not have the energy to do more than — review the many activities of the Department and, at least to my ears, focused particular attention on the challenge of illegal immigration (See Part II below).  The DHS website does not provide a transcript.  I wonder if whoever prepared the read-out was actually there.

On May 28 the President told West Point graduates:

For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.  But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.  I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy…  So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat — one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.  We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.  And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. 

The domestic analog of this strategy also needs to empower its partners.  Our homeland security framework should be especially attentive to vulnerabilities and creative regarding strengths. This is certainly important in terms of counterterrorism, but applies across most other hazards as well… if we will take the opportunity to notice.

Neither this White House nor its predecessor has given anything close to the same quality of attention to partnering with the private sector or the states or other crucial domestic players that is given to collaborating with NATO or the G-7 or key individual allies. The diplomatic-military-intelligence triad enjoys an advantage of clout, connections, and intellectual capital that far exceeds what we call homeland security.  Counterterrorism and cybersecurity are just about the only aspects of HS that earn any sustained attention by policy elites.

And this is no longer the elite of yore: foxes ala Isaiah Berlin moving from investment banking to the OSS to the Herald-Tribune to an embassy or two and then decamping for a few years at the Ford Foundation.  More and more our modern masters are process managers, mathematicians, and other rather wonky hedgehogs “who know one big thing”.  And they are inclined to leave other big things — if any might emerge — to someone else.  They notice what they know.

Since mid-May I have had two separate conversations with recently retired senior counterterrorism guys.  One has been out for about a year.  The other just retired last month.  They sounded alot alike.  Most of what they said you already know.  What struck me was what they did not say — seemed unwilling to seriously address — even in an informal setting and with their official duties behind them.  (But then again, look what I am doing with the conversations.)

The potentially meaningful silence I observed related to terrorist motivation. Americans currently fighting in Syria were mentioned by both.  Domestic terrorist trends were discussed. Recent events in the Sahel were reviewed.  In each exchange there were similar references to “behavioral indicators” and “spatial analysis” and “antecedent conduct” and “heuristics” and “covariance” and “probability”.   There was considerable reluctance to engage any questions related to ideology, religion, tribal-identity, grievance, or social, economic, and political “co-indicators”.  When these questions were asked both experts bridged-back to statistics as quickly as possible.

Speaking of statistics, an N of 2 is seldom significant.  But still the similarity was striking.  Rather than discussing fleshy and potentially very bloody human beings, my conversation partners might have been describing Brownian physics: The random motion of particles suspended in flux.

PART II: IMMIGRATION

I considered Secretary Johnson’s May 21 remarks misaligned with his audience.  He had a crowd with rather specific priorities.  He gave a generic speech.  Lost opportunity.

The somewhat greater focus I heard him give immigration may have been more the result of narrative punch than proportion or intention.  The Secretary mentioned that on Mother’s Day his wife joined him to visit a hosting center in Texas for detained unaccompanied minors (UAMs in trade-talk).  I was not taking notes, but his brief description was sufficient to imagine the kind of purgatorial scenes widely reported this week.

Immigration Center

Holding area for unaccompanied minors in Nogales, Arizona (USAToday).  Please note portable toilets in the far ground. Those are cots in the fore ground.

Mr. Johnson shared being profoundly affected and having since taken several steps to mitigate the troubling situation. This was more than three weeks ago.  I have wondered how much the Secretary’s action might be cause of (or only coincident with) this week’s media blitz.  I also wonder if our attention to this issue will be any more long-lasting or effectual than that given the kidnapped Nigerian school girls.  The crucial difference may be that Secretary Johnson is paying attention and has the authority to ensure others notice and act as well.

In the case of both Nigeria and Nogales a “policy problem” has been personalized.  In each case the “others” — even the “its” — who are victims have reclaimed their humanity. Or more accurately many of us have acknowledged what was always the case, but we had neglected to notice.

We are usually as effective depersonalizing victims as we are dehumanizing terrorists.

III. (IN)ATTENTION, INTENTION, AND INFLUENCE

Behavioral indicators and other more objective analytic techniques have emerged, in part, to discourage unthinking, unhelpful, misleading, gross profiling of potential terrorists; such as most Muslims or at least those with beards… or Sikhs who wear beards and turbans (but are not Muslim and at least in the United States have only been the target — not the source — of terrorism).

I am in favor of science, social science and statistics. I very much depend on hedgehogs and have tried to be better at burrowing into a hedge myself.

But this need not — ought not — exclude the knowledgeable, mindful, insightful application of the humanities (e.g. languages, literature. art, philosophy, religion, history).  We should especially avoid excluding our humanity.

In dealing with homeland security problems we need to recognize cause and effect.  This can often be done with a decidedly disinterested stance.  But there are other contexts when subjective human insight can play an important role. There is a place for empathy even in counterterrorism.

At West Point the President also said, “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”  We might begin by recognizing that many of our most precious values are disruptive to more traditional societies… as well as some neighbors down the street.  Being disruptive is often — even accurately — perceived as threatening.  Living our values with integrity while defusing the unintended threat to others is a task requiring both fox and hedgehog, as many as we can get with eyes and ears wide open to the unexpected.

In Philadelphia Secretary Johnson saw a thousand state and local leaders and he didn’t seem to fully recognize their potential.  In the particular moment he was unable to differentiate this crowd from other crowds. He only saw what he was prepared to see. But fortunately when Secretary Johnson saw a thousand illegal immigrants crowded into a detention center in McAllen, Texas he recognized: these are children.  Not just UAMs. His observations and  actions were informed by being a father as well as a cabinet secretary.  Solutions will remain elusive, but much more likely when the problem is engaged as a whole.

May 28, 2014

President Obama’s West Point Commencement Address

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2014

Earlier today President Obama gave the commencement address at West Point, describing his vision for U.S. foreign policy. Here are some of the homeland security-related points.

But the world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm.

 

It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.

As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.

 

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

 

This leads to my second point. For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.

We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al-Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.

But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job. And that’s why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces — those Afghan forces — secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this year, a new Afghan president will be in office, and America’s combat mission will be over.

Now that was an enormous achievement made because of America’s armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So earlier this year I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel.

Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaida, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and facilitating French operations in Mali.

A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers there, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.

So with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism. The partnerships I’ve described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do, through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, like those we’ve carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

 

Keep in mind, not all international norms relate directly to armed conflict. We have a serious problem with cyberattacks, which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens. In the Asia Pacific, we’re supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and we’re working to resolve these disputes through international law.

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food, which is why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

 

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.

 

The full transcript of the speech can be found here.

The video of his remarks, courtesy of PBS NewsHour:

 

April 30, 2014

Renewed use of chemical weapons in Syria challenges inaction

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 30, 2014

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE:  Today the U.S. Department of State submitted its annual Country Reports on Terrorism to Congress.  The Strategic Assessment includes:

Some of the thousands of fighters from around the world who are traveling to Syria to do battle against the Asad regime – particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe – are joining violent extremist groups, including al-Nusrah Front and ISIL. A number of key partner governments are becoming increasingly concerned that individuals with violent extremist ties and battlefield experience will return to their home countries or elsewhere to commit terrorist acts. The scale of this problem has raised a concern about the creation of a new generation of globally-committed terrorists, similar to what resulted from the influx of violent extremists to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

– +–

ORIGINAL POST:

Late Tuesday evening Greenwich Mean Time, The Telegraph, a leading British newspaper, published an exclusive story claiming to prove Syria has continued to use chemical weapons.

According to The Telegraph’s report,”…soil samples from the scene of three recent attacks in the country were collected by trained individuals known to this news organisation and analysed by a chemical warfare expert. Our results show sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia present at the site of all three attacks.”

Just last week President Obama said, “Eighty-seven percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have already been removed.”  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been working under an international agreement to relocate and destroy the Syrian stockpile.

The chlorine and ammonia assets allegedly used in recent weeks were not part of the chemical weapons inventory which the OPCW has been working to remove.  There is informed speculation that industrial chemicals have been crudely repurposed to replace the more sophisticated chemicals (including sarin and mustard) that have been removed.

Late last summer and into the autumn, the United States was dissuaded from military operations against Syrian chemical stockpiles when Russia brokered a “last-minute” deal to remove the weapons from Syria.  The decision by the US to not undertake military action disappointed the Saudis, surprised the French (who were prepared to join in the action), and precipitated a months-long reversal of progress achieved by the Syrian opposition.

As evidence accumulates of recent use of chemical weapons, there will be renewed pressure for US military intervention against the Assad regime.  For example, The Telegraph’s Defense Editor comments the new findings, “must serve as a wake up call to the West that it can no longer ignore a brutal conflict that has so far cost an estimated 150,000 lives.”

The Syrian Civil War is also a violent flash-point in Sunni-Shia antipathy, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a training ground for a new generation of international terrorists.

Whatever we do — or decide not to do — will have homeland security consequences.

March 20, 2014

Syria’s suffering as precursor

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Since 2011 at least 100,000 Syrians have been killed, probably closer to 150,000.  At least one-third have been non-combatants.

More than 2.5 million Syrians have sought refuge outside Syria.  The number of internal displacements is estimated at over 6 million.

The conflict between Sunni and non-Sunni has been amplified and often personalized, each side demonizing the other.

An already volatile region has been further destabilized.  Turkey — a NATO ally — Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq have been especially impacted.

Approximately 12 million Syrians who emigrated over the last century, and their first and second generation descendants, view the continuing slaughter with increasing frustration and despair.

The barbarity of the battle — barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods, mass execution of men, women, and children, starvation used as a military tactic — has inured many participants to brutality.

Just this week a Sydney man killed in January fighting in Syria’s civil war was identified as a former Australian soldier who went absent without leave from the army in 2010.

On Monday a California National Guard enlistee was arrested at the Canadian border. Prosecutors claim he was on his way to fight in Syria. He has also been accused of planning to attack the Los Angeles mass transit system.

British security officials say at least 200 veterans of the civil war in Syria have returned to the United Kingdom.

Osama bin-Laden and many of his peers were, in part, radicalized by the mass murder of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya, horrified by how the world seemed ready to look-on and do nothing.

And again?

November 11, 2013

Yolanda hits hard (again)

Filed under: Catastrophes,International HLS — by Philip J. Palin on November 11, 2013

Yolanda track

Haiyan — called Yolanda in the Philippines — may have been the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall.

We are now passing the 72 hour inflection point since the initial event.  The President of the Philippines Red Cross has described the situation in the hardest-hit central islands as “absolute bedlam”.

I know several readers are already engaged in helping or preparing to help the survivors.  Godspeed.

For the rest of us there are some potential implications for domestic preparedness and response in the United States:

Water, food, pharmaceuticals, and medical goods are all in short supply. The contamination of local water sources is creating an especially significant health risk.

A US State Department official has told me, “The most crucial need is local logistics. We can get what’s needed into the area. But we’re not able to effectively redistribute from the depots.”

The World Food Program told a CNN reporter, “The main challenges right now are related to logistics. Roads are blocked, airports are destroyed.”  Damaged — or entirely destroyed — port facilities mean freighters with resources can get close but are very slow to disperse cargo.

A national legislator from one hard-hit provincial capital told a Manila television station that fuel shortages are now further complicating the ongoing response and recovery.

Red Cross supplies that were being pre-positioned last week have not been able to secure passage from one island to another.

Power is not expected to be restored to many areas for months. Telecommunications networks are down.

A rather weird coincidence: In late October I participated in a regional exercise that included a CAT-5 Hurricane Yolanda hitting the metro Miami area with catastrophic consequences, reforming in the Gulf and then slamming into the Texas-Louisiana coast taking out several refineries.  Just the secondary and tertiary effects on mid-Atlantic supply chains were similar to what we are seeing now in the Philippines.

For most critical commodities there is significant strategic capacity and resilience in most (not all) supply chains.  As noted above, options exist to ensure sourcing sufficient for survivors.  Connecting this capacity to local tactical capability — especially fuel, trucking, and street-level distribution — becomes a very complex problem-to-be-solved.

In my judgment, our understanding of how to even begin to engage this problem in a catastrophic context is just barely beginning to emerge.

The Philippines rough equivalent to FEMA is providing REGULAR UPDATES HERE.

Yolanda population

Map showing proximity and density of population to hurricane path.  More detailed look available at ReliefWeb.

 

February 28, 2013

Connecting dots in Africa

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 28, 2013

Last Friday the President informed Congress that:

Forty additional U.S. military personnel entered Niger with the consent of the Government of Niger. This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region. The total number of U.S. military personnel deployed to Niger is approximately 100. The recently deployed forces have deployed with weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security.

The deployment is widely reported as supporting expanded operations from a US drone base near Niamey, Niger’s capital city.

Earlier this week the Strauss Center at the University of Texas published a research brief that concludes:

The analysis shows that the levels of violent Islamist activity in Africa have risen sharply in recent years, both in absolute and proportional terms. While much of this increase has been driven by the intensification of conflict in a small number of key countries,there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and eastward on the continent. Differences within and across violent Islamist groups reveal differential objectives, strategies, and modalities of violence across Africa. With ongoing conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali among the most violent in Africa – and evidence of the spread of violent Islamist activity across Africa – violent Islamist groups, their activities, and objectives are likely to remain extremely influential both nationally and internationally.

The research was finished prior to recent clashes with French and other forces in Mali.

On February 20, the same day that US Africa Command opened a major exercise with Cameroon’s military, Salafist fighters from neighboring Nigeria crossed the border and abducted a family of French tourists, now being held in an effort to influence the French intervention in Mali.  There are now 15 French hostages being held in North Africa.

The Hollande government has insisted it will not negotiate with the hostage takers.   In January a French hostage in Somalia was killed during an attempted rescue.

Yesterday the French Foreign Minister welcomed the new US Secretary of State by saying,

And it can be said that when France and the United States commit together, they can change things. It is the case in the Sahel, which we discussed, in Mali, where France committed and is determined to restore Mali’s integrity and stop the push of the terrorists. We benefitted from the full support of our American friends both politically and on the field. And I would like to thank the United States of America as well as John Kerry for the support granted to the intervention by France as well as the American forces against the terrorists.

Yesterday Nigeria completed its deployment of 1200 troops to Mali.    Tuesday the Wall Street Journal reported,

In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America’s strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter.

In the immediate aftermath of the hostage taking at the Algerian gas facility, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized:

This is a stark reminder, once again, of the threat we face from terrorism the world over. We have had successes in recent years in reducing the threat from some parts of the world, but the threat has grown particularly in north Africa. This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.

December 11, 2012

Why are Americans so scared?

Filed under: International HLS — by Dan OConnor on December 11, 2012

Recently my wife and daughter went on a school/church trip to Kampala, Uganda.  They spent two weeks working in and around an AIDS orphanage and a small village.

The trip is part of a recurring program that has a variety of humanitarian, educational, and spiritual missions. It often shocks the team, typically a dozen or so 16-18 year olds, into stark awareness of how life is lived elsewhere, and what it looks like.

On this particular trip, they worked in a village than had never seen Caucasians, ever.  The kids on the team, almost all girls, were mauled — not in a malicious way, but purely a curious one as the children from the village wanted to touch their hair and pink cheeks.

One day the kids went to visit an older woman.

She was taken aback, thinking they were… well, ghostly.

 

It was after this visit that some real learning took place.

The woman had no income and lived by selling goat milk.  She was upset on the day of the visit because someone had stolen her goats.

Nevertheless, she felt compelled to give a gift to the visitors, as is their custom.

She did not want the kids to enter her home for a variety of reasons, but she returned from her shelter with a small sandwich style bag full of peanuts.  This was her food and she felt compelled to share it.

 

In Kampala, girls are relatively worthless.  Girls are considered trade bait and commodities.   A 12 year old girl has generally only two outcomes in Uganda: traded for a cow or sold for sex.   Mothers purposely distance themselves from affection because this is the course life takes.

The orphanage where my wife and daughter worked was overwhelmingly filled with girls who were discarded…no longer useful for trade or sex.  Imagine having no value at 13 years of age.

Towards the end of the second week, there was a question and answer panel set up by a seminary in Uganda.  The seminary students were African and had what I would call a binary understanding of the world and a qualified “if, then” thinking.

Here are some of the questions they asked the American visitors:

“Why did the Americans help Muslims in Yugoslavia and not Syria?”

“Why does your President say he is a Christian but allows Cops (Coptic Christians in Egypt) to be persecuted?

“You are a superpower, why do you pick and choose who you provide humanitarian aid to?”

“How can you be the richest nation in the world and have so much debt?”

“You are America, why are you so scared?”

My wife said they expected simply questions about America but not questions like this, in a place where electricity is on 4 hours a day and poverty and death are universal.

They did their best to answer the questions and while not contentious, the discussion did create tension.  The questions spurned a secondary discussion amongst the American kids.

They felt like there was a purposeful hypocrisy in our politics and felt like our affluence had less influence than our character.

Bright, wide eyed American kids, conducting foreign policy.  Perhaps this is our real responsibility in the world.  Not necessarily being so quick to drop money or food but being more consistent in our portrayal of character and consistency.

This being a homeland security blog, these people who live in mud huts and metal sheds, and who live simple, simple lives want to know why America does what it does.

Homeland security is monumentally bigger than money, policy, and security.  It is as much an idea as it is a function.  Our security and place in this world are directly affected by what we present, how we present it, and whether it’s authentic.

The world is full, literally and figuratively, of places like this that pose the question: why does America do what it does?

Perhaps if we were to become more attuned to our reputation and more consistent in our behavior, our kids and our citizens won’t struggle the next time they find themselves in a conversation that starts, “We love America and thank you, but why do you….”

 

 

October 25, 2012

The Presidential Debates: Substantial agreement on homeland security

The word “homeland” was used once,  the term “homeland security” not at all  in the three presidential debates.  But a close-reading of the transcripts does expose HS-related discussion.

Below are direct excerpts from the debate transcripts.  I have purposefully not identified who said what.  Where the candidates seem to mostly agree, I have only quoted one of them.  Occasionally a candidate asserted a difference that — at least to me — seemed either non-substantive or illusory.  I have not included these assertions.  There are subtle distinctions.  I have chosen excerpts that I hope bring these forward.

To me the distinctions — on these issues —  often run counter to each candidate’s stereotype. President Obama comes off tougher than the other side wants to admit, Governor Romney more reasonable than he is portrayed.  Debate posturing?  Meaningful insight?  My own eccentric tendency to see what is shared more than what divides?

FIRST DEBATE: THE FUNDAMENTALS

The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That’s its most basic function…

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people…

SECOND DEBATE: IMMIGRATION, DOMESTIC COUNTER-TERRORISM, AND RESILIENCE

Immigration

First of all, this is a nation of immigrants. We welcome people coming to this country as immigrants… I want our legal system to work better. I want it to be streamlined. I want it to be clearer. I don’t think you have to — shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally. I also think that we should give visas to people — green cards, rather — to  people who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A. We should make sure our legal system works.

Number two, we’re going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who’ve come here illegally take their place… What I will do is I’ll put in place an employment verification system and make sure that employers that hire people who have come here illegally are sanctioned for doing so. I won’t put in place magnets for people coming here illegally. The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident…

If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done. And what I’ve also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship…

Domestic Counterterrorism (or Whole Community or gun control)

So my belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement…

Weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally… Part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence… And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity; that our schools are working; that if there’s violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control…

And so what I want is a — is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.

Resilience (?)

I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded.

THIRD DEBATE: COUNTERTERRORISM, CYBER, AND DRONES

International Counterterrorism

But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism…

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies…

The other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need…

We make decisions today… that will confront challenges we can’t imagine. In the 2000 debates, there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So, we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty…

Cybersecurity

We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space…

International Counterterrorism (Again)

Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the — in the relatively near future. They also have the Haqqani Network and the Taliban existent within their country. And so a Pakistan that falls apart, becomes a failed state, would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and to us. And so we’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met…

Drones

We should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.

International Counterterrorism (Again)

There’s no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed. But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States. And we want to shrink those groups and those networks and we can do that.  But we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that Al Qaeda is much weaker than it was…and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

I expect partisans of each candidate will complain I have obscured important differences.   In my judgment a narcissism of small differences is epidemic.   I have no interest in abetting the fever.  More interesting to me is — for good or bad — the considerable consensus that is articulated.

September 27, 2012

Remembering our mission

Filed under: International HLS,Legal Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 27, 2012

I am in New York for a few days.  I arrived Wednesday for private sector meetings on supply chain resilience, catastrophe preparedness, and related. The city is packed for the opening of the United Nations.

When I checked in the guy in front of me asked the desk clerk, “How many Presidents do you have staying here?”  ”Too many,” she replied.

My President’s speech on Tuesday received considerable media attention, but most of  the coverage I saw, heard, or read focused on either the Iranian nuclear issue or domestic political implications.  Following are a few consecutive paragraphs that have — at least for me — important homeland security implications.

Before these remarks the President held up Ambassador Chris Stevens as an example, condemned the attacks on US diplomatic facilities,  and called the video that catalyzed — or justified or created cover for — the violence “crude and disgusting.”  Then he offered an explanation of the American right of free speech blending principle with pragmatism:

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video.  And the answer is enshrined in our laws:  Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense.  Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.  As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day and I will always defend their right to do so.

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with.  We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.  We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech.  We recognize that.  But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.  The question, then, is how do we respond?

It’s a question that is very much alive in the United States.   When more control of information is advocated, the justification usually involves some aspect of homeland security.  As Chris Bellavita recently reminded us, “the Preamble to the Constitution is especially relevant to homeland security.  It offers – in 29 words – a majestic vision of the homeland security mission.”   There can be trade-offs between security and liberty.   But the homeland that matters most is secured by preserving liberty.

September 15, 2012

Key questions and some early answers

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 15, 2012

Friday morning just as mid-day prayer was beginning across the heart of the Muslim world Mike Hayden, retired Air Force General, former Director of the National Security Agency and former Director of the CIA, appeared on CBS This Morning.

At the top of the interview he set out a helpful framework for observing what would unfold.  Hayden offered,

“How many people demonstrate in how many cities?”

“How close to American installations are they allowed to get?”

“How violent are they?”

“What do these governments… do to protect Americans and American installations?”

“We are going to learn an awfully lot about how much power, how many legs this movement has.”

I might want to edit Mr. Hayden’s comment to reference “these movements have”, but otherwise let’s look at how his questions were answered.

How many people demonstrate in how many cities?

The  Friday demonstrations were quite wide-spread, ranging from Morocco to Indonesia.   There were related protests in Australia and elsewhere on Saturday morning.  Precise numbers are difficult.  But media reports most often estimated hundreds rather than thousands.  In Cairo Bloomberg News report “more than 1000 people” joined the protests. By Saturday morning Egyptian police out-numbered protesters in Tahrir Square.

How close to American installations are they allowed to get?

In Tunis and Khartoum the embassy perimeters were temporarily penetrated during clashes with security forces.   But even in these two cases host governments demonstrated considerable commitment to containing the demonstrations (more below).

How violent are they?

The “protests” ranged from signs and shouts, to throwing rocks, to petrol bombs, to looting a school, to a sustained attack by the Taliban on Camp Bastion in Southern Afghanistan.   Other than the Taliban attack and raids on Sinai peacekeepers, there was apparently no repeat of the para-military operations that seems to have characterized the capture of the US Consulate in Benghazi and the death of diplomats there. (I heard rumors of an organized after-sundown attack in Sana, but cannot find it confirmed.)

Below is a map developed by Max Fisher at The Atlantic.  He explains, “I’ve charted the violent protests in red and the protests that did not produce violence in yellow. It’s an imperfect distinction; I’ve counted the stone-throwers in Jerusalem as a violent protest but the flag-burners in Lahore as non-violent. But it gives you a somewhat more nuanced view into who is expressing anger and how they’re doing it…”

 

What did the (host) governments do?

Police and security forces were effectively deployed.  Attacks were condemned.  Arrests were made.   In Egypt — allegedly after a push by the White House — significant steps were successfully taken by both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood to dampen demonstrations.  Despite the domestic political risk from Salafists, the current Islamist government decided to deploy its political and religious legitimacy to fulfill international — and some would say, religious — obligations.  They have also been proactive in framing the issue by having State media highlight condemnations of the offending video by Secretary Clinton and others.

What did we learn?

Well… you tell me.

September 12, 2012

Four are killed in Libya: An epidemic of idiots, an etymology of idiocy

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 12, 2012

Sam Bacile is very sure of himself (and smart enough to use a pseudonym).  He is sure that the Prophet Mohammed was a fraud and worse.   Mr. Bacile is sure “Islam is a cancer” that threatens the world.  He has made a (bad) film to share his certainties.

Toward the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor. (Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:34)

In recent days the film became available in an Arabic translation.  Some who have now seen the film’s trailer — or heard rumors of it — are sure the film reflects official American disdain for Islam.   In response they have protested, rioted, and murdered.

When the suffering reached them from Us, why then did they not call Allah in humility? On the contrary, their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their sinful acts seem alluring to them. (Quran, Al-Anaam 6:42-43)

An idiot in Los Angeles shares his idiosyncratic notions.  Once only a few neighbors would have been annoyed.  Today his ravings or their echoes are heard 7000 miles away.  Most appropriately ignore the ignorance.  But some other idiots take offence and respond with violence.

On a day dedicated to the memory of murdered innocents,  my representatives — the representatives of my nation and my values — are killed.  I am offended.  I am angry.  I hunger for  retaliation (literally “return like for like”, especially evil for evil).  The President promises, “Make no mistake, justice will be done.”

But with each permutation this idiocy threatens to make idiots — violent idiots — of more and more.

For the ancient Greeks an idiot (idiotes) was — among other things — a man who neglected civic obligations to focus on private affairs.   The term could also be applied to those who were patently self-interested in how they engaged civic life.

Aristotle argued, “The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office.” (Politics, Book III, 1275a22) An idiot does not know how to share. An idiot does not know how to ask an authentic question. An idiot does not know how to listen sympathetically to an answer with which s/he disagrees. An idiot does not know how to frame, shape, and make a decision that will be shared by others. The idiot is blinded by and bound to the limits of self.

Idiots are sure of themselves in a way that is possible only for those lost inside themselves.

Timothy McVeigh was an idiot.  Anders Breivik is an idiot.  Mohamed Atta was an idiot.  James Holmes is an idiot.   Last night a gang of idiots committed murder in Benghazi.  These are each extreme examples of a global epidemic of self-absorbed, self-justifying, self-referential, self-assertive idiocy.

I am not immune.  I too can be an idiot.  Too often I mistake my own belief as the Truth.   I am strongly inclined to assume my personal experience as universal.  I conflate and confuse private and public realities.   I am unable or unwilling to honestly engage the different reality of another… and for this failure I often blame the other.  Regular readers have seen me make all these mistakes.  In my obsession with etymology I am probably being an idiot here and now.

There is disagreement on effective therapy. But many agree the typical rhetoric of  policymaking, strategizing, and analyzing  feeds the disease with self-assertion (and talking points).  Especially in matters of life and death a purposeful stepping out of  our selves is an essential discipline.  Take a walk, get a coffee, bum a smoke, tell a joke…

I read poetry. Reading poetry requires a patience and attention outside-the-self. I am not advocating poetry instead of policy.  I’m advocating the poetic as a complement to the political, practical, and policy-oriented thinking that dominates our professional lives.   Intentionally step outside the box before you decide.

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.
O Who is trying to shield Whom?
Who left a hairpin in the room?
Who was the distant figure seen
Behaving oddly on the green?

… Delayed in the democracies
By departmental vanities,
The rival sergeants run about
But more to squabble than to find out,
Yet where the Force has been cut down
To one inspector dressed in brown,
He makes the murderer whom he pleases
And all investigation ceases.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere,
And more and more we are aware,
However miserable may be
Our parish of immediacy,
How small it is, how far beyond,
Ubiquitous within the bond,
Of one impoverishing sky,
Vast spiritual disorders lie.
Who thinking of the last ten years,
Does not hear howling in his ears…

There are two atlases: the one
The public space where acts are done,
In theory common to us all,
Where we are needed and feel small,
The agora of work and news
Where each one has the right to choose
His trade, his corner, and his way,
And can, again in theory, say
For whose protection he will pay,
And loyalty is help we give
The place where we prefer to live;
The other is the inner space
Of private ownership, the place
That each of us is forced to own
Like his own life from which it’s grown,
The landscape of his will and need
Where he is sovereign indeed,
The state created by his acts
Where he patrols the forest tracts
Planted in childhood, farms the belt
Of doings memorised and felt,
And even if he find it hell
May neither leave it nor rebel.
Two worlds describing their rewards,
That one in tangents, this in chords;
Each lives in one, all in the other,
Here all are kings, there each a brother…

Our news is seldom good: the heart,
As ZOLA said, must always start
The day by swallowing its toad
Of failure and disgust. Our road
Gets worse and we seem altogether
Lost as our theories, like the weather,
Veer round completely every day,
And all that we can always say
Is: true democracy begins
With free confession of our sins.

Excerpts from New Year Letter (January 1, 1940) by W.H. Auden

Auden dedicated this poem to Elizabeth Mayer.   I dedicate these thoughts to two men and a woman who I know did not sleep last night and may not sleep again this night.  To you and your colleagues, best wishes dealing with the idiots.

March 27, 2012

Fixated by “Nuclear Terror” or Just Paranoia?

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Alan Wolfe on March 27, 2012

President Obama visited Seoul, South Korea, for a three-day nuclear security summit that involved discussions with officials from 53 countries and four international organizations, following up on actions initiated at the 2010 nuclear security summit hosted in Washington DC.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has this fact sheet that describes the event and its agenda.

  • Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
  • Protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
  • Prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

These are all worthy goals, although I might quibble with the idea of “combating the threat of nuclear terrorism” since many other people have pointed out the foolishness of trying to conduct a “war on terror.” It doesn’t really work any better for liberal internationalists who want to fight their own “war on terror” than it does for the neoconservatives who created the slogan. But I digress.

What I dislike about these summits is the inevitable rhetoric that flows out of the politicians and is dutifully repeated by journalists who understand how to sensationalize a story with just a few quotes.

Stephen Collinson of Agence France-Presse (AFP) has this article online with the racy headline, “US still fixated by nuclear terror.”

“What we have seen is increasing evidence of intentions… it is not just Al-Qaeda, it is other organisations as well,” said Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is pretty shocking how much material is out there. 1440 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, 500 tonnes of separated plutonium (which is) weapons ready.”…

You have dozens of nations coming together behind the shared goal of securing nuclear materials around the world, so that they can never fall into the hands of terrorists,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.

Failure, he said, would result in “frankly, … the gravest national security threat that the American people could face.”

Now it is an election year, and there is bound to be the usual ridiculous rhetoric coming from the offices of those who are intent on becoming a political leader. That’s to be expected. But the fixation isn’t on the actual capability of terrorists to cause a nuclear incident; rather, the fixation is on the possibility that it could someday happen.

This is the difference between fact-based risk management on existing hazards and paranoid overreaction to perceived threats.

If one were to read the most recent unclassified report to Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions, it does have a section on CBRN terrorism (note, not WMD terrorism).  The intelligence community has a very toned down statement that says “several terrorist groups … probably remain interested in [CBRN] capabilities, but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities. … mostly focusing on low-level chemicals and toxins.”

They’re talking about terrorists getting industrial chemicals and making ricin toxin, not nuclear weapons. And yes, Ms. Squassoni, it is primarily al Qaeda that the U.S. government worries about, no one else.

The trend of worldwide terrorism continues to remain in the realm of conventional attacks. In 2010, there were more than 11,500 terrorist attacks, affecting about 50,000 victims including almost 13,200 deaths. None of them were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,000 terrorist attacks in 2009, none were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,800 terrorist attacks in 2008, none were caused by CBRN hazards.

And yet, somehow, the United Kingdom’s government now believes that there is a significant likelihood that “some day,” terrorists will acquire CBRN weapons.

“Al Qaeda has a long-held desire to obtain and use CBRN devices. Without continued global efforts to reduce vulnerabilities in the security of material and information, there is a significant likelihood that terrorists will at some point acquire CBRN capability,” the document, approved by Britain’s National Security Council, said.

“Nuclear terrorism is now a real and global threat,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who will lead Britain’s delegation in Seoul, said in a statement.

No, Mr. Clegg, it is not a “real and global threat.”

Yes, nuclear terrorism could happen, and certainly there are logical steps that responsible governments need to take in order to reduce that possibility. But it’s disingenuous to say that nuclear terrorism is the “gravest national security threat” or a “real and global threat” when there are zero indications that terrorist groups are succeeding in obtaining any fissile material or in building an improvised nuclear device.

It’s just not that great a threat, when one considers the very real threat of nuclear weapon states that have actively developed and deployed weapon systems that could be used against United States or United Kingdom security interests.

I’m all in favor of securing nuclear material and cooperating with other nations on the issue of terrorism in general. It’s a responsible thing to do. But I suggest that it can be done without overly hyping the threat to be a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

It just isn’t that significant a threat as compared to public health threats or the dangers of conventional warfare and terrorism.

And if President Obama is serious about securing nuclear materials, I would love to see him start at home – by opening up the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and securing the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that currently exists at more than a hundred nuclear power plants within the United States.

March 12, 2012

Remembering the Madrid Bombings

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on March 12, 2012

The focus, of both the homeland security community and general news media, over the last week has been on the anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-radiation disaster that struck Japan one year ago.  Numerous reports timed to this remembrance have been released. Pre-and-post photo galleries abound on the web.  All for good reason.  A terrible event with horrible consequences that serves as an almost perfect example of a Maximum of Maximums (MOM to you EMA folks) event or “Complex Catastrophe” to those more DOD inclined.

Before this terrible tragedy, this past weekend would have marked yet another anniversary: the Madrid train bombings.  I thought it important to at least bring that particular event up again and ask a few questions (that in all honesty I don’t expect answers to…):

  • I’m guessing that the whole “see something, say something” campaign was inspired by this event.  Bombs were left by terrorists who exited the targets in question.  Yet the London Tube/Bus bombings should have reminded officials that not every terrorist aims to survive the event.  Seeing something and saying something may (or may not) have saved people in Spain, but the situation would not have been altered in London.
  • Talking about Mass Transit security, many ideas have been put forth.  In particular, the idea of randomness appeals to many.  Most likely because it allows a small group of mission dedicated individuals to be seen as doing something about the threat.  Yet I can’t help but think that every time I’ve encountered the heavily armed police at stations randomly checking bags, I could have turned around and left.  Perhaps walking to the next station.  Perhaps altering the attack pattern.  Yet not really preventing the attack itself.
  • Since we haven’t seen an attack on mass transit in the United States, should we assume that our counter-terrorism efforts are to credit?  Is it not as soft a target as we thought?  Or perhaps we shouldn’t worry at all?

I can’t say where I think the security/prevention implications of the 3/11 (and London Tube) bombings will eventually come out.  Just because I can’t fathom a guess.  However, this terrible incident did at least provide the impetus for a serious review of U.S. medical surge plans in the event of a similar incident.

A small example of relevant documents:

A collection of BBC articles on the Madrid bombings:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/europe/2004/madrid_train_attacks/

An “on the ground” perspective of the response:

http://www.taleofourcities-houston.com/presentations/Fernando%20Turegano_Madrid-November-2011.pdf

And the U.S. government review of the incident:

http://emergency.cdc.gov/masscasualties/pdf/surgecapacity.pdf

March 5, 2012

Increased chances of Iranian conflict does not equal increased radiation threat

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Arnold Bogis on March 5, 2012

Normally I would welcome any reason to extol the virtues of brushing up on your nuclear and radiological-related preparedness planning. However, I strangely find myself wanting to push back on some nuclear-alarmism that I’ve come across lately from usually professional and restrained quarters.

To be clear before I begin: I believe nuclear terrorism has been and remains a real threat; that a dirty bomb is a question of when and not if; and that the two are entirely different animals that look similar in the same manner that one’s house cat may occasionally remind you of a lion in the wild…but not really.

The meme I suspect is emerging is that heightened tensions in the Middle East, in particular the increased threat of conflict with Iran over it’s nuclear program, is increasing the chances that the U.S. will either be the victim of a nuclear or radiological attack or that we may be involved in treating radiation-related casualties originating from hostilities in the Middle East. The mistaken perceptions involve current Iranian capabilities and the results of any possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, particularly by Israeli forces.

First capabilities: no evidence has been made public that Iran has enriched uranium beyond 20%.  While that gets them a lot closer to having the material for nuclear weapons (it is a strange fact, but enriching uranium up to 20% is more difficult than taking it from 20% to 90% and above, which is generally considered weapons grade; as Harvard’s Graham Allison has put it: “In effect, having uranium enriched at 20 percent takes Iran 90 yards along the football field to bomb-grade material.”), it does not give them a nuclear capability at this moment.  Barring work at a secret enrichment facility, this means that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon to use (whether directly or through allied terrorist groups) against any potential attacker.

Yes, this could change in the future through any number of potential scenarios.  Yes, there are serious concerns for U.S. national security if Iran was to become a nuclear state.  The most likely of these would not involve Iran directly attacking the U.S with a nuclear weapon.  Many others have sunk their teeth into this topic and debated various outcomes.

A dirty bomb could be a possibility, but in taking stock of that particular threat the pieces don’t point toward any special Iranian capability. Neither the low-enriched or high-enriched uranium that Iran is producing, or any of the stages of pre-enriched material, would make particularly effective dirty bomb material.  Uranium is not highly radioactive, in fact one can handle highly enriched uranium with nothing more than a simple gloved hand. In other words, the Iranian nuclear program does not add to their capability to carry out or assist others in carrying out a dirty bomb attack.

An Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could potentially embolden, radicalize, or otherwise incentivize terrorists to carry out a dirty bomb attack.  One can imagine a desire to carry out some sort of event involving radiation in retaliation.  Yet the particulars of Iran’s nuclear program do not affect the odds of this occurring, nor would the products be particularly helpful.

If homeland security officials at all levels want to prevent a dirty bomb attack, in addition to planning and exercising to respond and recover from any such incident (deterrence through denial of goals), they can take stock of the radioactive sources in their own jurisdictions and connect with the owners and licensees about security and safety. Every big city has potential dirty bomb ingredients without the necessity of terrorists attempting to smuggle in Iranian radioactive sources.

The second layer of concern seems to center on the possibility that hostilities between Iran and Israel, and maybe the U.S., would involve populations being exposed to high levels of radioactivity.  However, at this point in Iran’s nuclear development that is also unlikely.

Despite the bluster out of some corners, Israel is not going to use nuclear weapons it does not officially acknowledge having to destroy a nascent nuclear capability the goal of which is contested by various world powers.  Nuclear weapons are political weapons that are best used to deter nuclear attack and invasion.  It is often pointed out that a reason Iran might want to either develop a breakout capability or the weapons themselves is that they witnessed what happened to Iraq and Libya and what has not happened to North Korea.

An Israeli nuclear strike on Iran without direct nuclear provocation would likely result in their achieving North Korean-like pariah status.  Instead, if they decided it was in their national security interest to strike the Iranian nuclear program it would involve conventional weapons.  These bombs may cause dispersion of nuclear material, but as I mentioned before the uranium involved would not be highly radioactive and the effects would be more toxic and less radioactive.

Would there be detectable raised levels of radiation in the surrounding areas  following such an attack?  Likely. Are we talking about an Iranian Fukushima?  Probably not.

Israel could decide to bomb the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, but this would do little to stop any weapons program as light water power reactors are poorly suited for the production of plutonium for bombs and this particular one is under stringent IAEA safeguards.  In addition, it would earn the ire of potentially sympathetic Gulf nations who may bear the brunt of the radiation released.

Following any strike by Israel on its nuclear program, Iran is judged likely to attack Israel with missiles.  Whether launched from Iranian territory or by allied groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, some of these weapons may be targeted at the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona.  It is possible that the reactor would sustain enough damage to release radiation, but these facilities are not soft nor large targets.  The relatively unsophisticated missiles involved would have to be lucky in both hitting the target and achieving enough damage to release any radiation.  Only in the worst case might there be a call to evacuate any casualties to the United States due to radiation injury.

So to end this already too long foray into predicting the results of events that may never occur, let me just reiterate:

  • homeland security officials at all levels should worry about the security of radioactive sources within their jurisidcitions and make sure that they are prepared to respond and recover from any dirty bomb attack;
  • yes Dorothy, a nuclear terrorist attack is possible, if not likely, and should be regarded as a national catastrophic event planned for on a regional basis including non-traditional partners (in FEMA-speak this is a MOM event requiring a WOC response);
  • in the short-to-medium term, events regarding Iran’s nuclear program will not directly impact the risks of a radiological or nuclear attack upon the U.S.

March 2, 2012

Cuban oil drilling: preparedness with both hand tied behind our backs

Filed under: Catastrophes,International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on March 2, 2012

Have you ever done something in a particular way for so long that you just can’t imagine changing your habits?  Even if new developments in your life suggest that maybe it’s time for a change?

Well….Cuba is opening up it’s waters for oil drilling, we don’t talk or do business with Cuba, and in light of the BP oil spill some people are rightly getting pretty nervous.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday:

As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.

Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island. The embargo, now entering its 50th year, also limits direct government-to-government talks.

As one oil industry executive put it:

“This is a case of Cold War ideology colliding with 21st-century environmental policy, and it is the environment that is at risk,” said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

To put it in a bit of monetary perspective:

The Deepwater Horizon liabilities could exceed $43 billion. Containing the oil in Louisiana employed 5,000 vessels. Cuba’s total gross domestic product is $50 billion. Pinon said that Cuba, with a tiny navy and a thin coast guard, has only 5 percent of the resources needed to contain a spill approaching the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is terrified,” he said.

The company first on (in?) the ground is Repsol, an apparently well respected Spanish firm. As former DHS Assistant Secretary Juliette Kayyem puts it (who, by the way, was all over this story last October):

Hopefully, the 2010 BP oil spill has terrified the industry enough that sheer self-preservation will make oil drillers ultra-cautious. Repsol, for its part, is a publicly traded powerhouse, with operations in 29 countries. But so, of course, was BP.

Other than the Coast Guard, Juliette sees others “worried” about these developments:

The real story here is how little these developments seem to matter to our lawmakers. The usual anti-Cuba congressional contingent, many from Florida, wrote a letter to the president of Repsol, expressing their serious concern with Repsol’s plans to “partner’’ with the “Castro regime.’’ The operations will provide “direct financial benefit to the Castro dictatorship.’’

Surely, that can’t be right?  A sovereign country has the right to drill for oil in waters internationally recognized to be it’s own, correct?  The important thing in this case would be to ensure that the best companies are unimpeded in their work and that contingencies are worked out in advance?  Back to the Post:

“This is a disaster waiting to happen, and the Obama administration has abdicated its role in protecting our environment and national security by allowing this plan to move forward,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues sponsored legislation to deny visas to anyone who helps the Cubans advance their oil drilling plans. They have also sought to punish Repsol.

“We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast,” Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) told in January a congressional subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

Well so much for that reasoning. Thankfully, overcoming obstacles through creative diplomacy, some preparedness work is being accomplished:

Because of the embargo, the talks between Cubans, Repsol and the Coast Guard are taking place in the Bahamas and Curacao — not Havana or Miami — under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, paid for by charitable donations from environmental groups and oil industry associations.

It seems to me that the U.S. has been trying to get rid of the Castros since President Eisenhower.  How has that worked out?  Perhaps it is time to let bygones be bygones and concentrate on the real threats to our safety and security.

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