Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 17, 2015

Terrorism and the global war against indefinite pronouns

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 17, 2015


The word-cloud was generated from a transcript of Saturday’s debate in Des Moines.

The “debate” was originally intended to focus on the economy. Given Friday night’s attack in Paris, the first twenty-five minutes were focused on the implications of that attack. The word-cloud pulled only from this initial portion. I also excised participant names and prepositions to highlight substance.

A contemporary political debate is not a graduate seminar.  It is not even a blog that can, if it decides, allow a couple of days for review, reflection, and revision.

But given the importance of this issue, with barely 24 hours elapsed between attacking and talking, the experience and aspirations of the three candidates, and the chance for an authentic exchange of views among them, Saturday night may be the best we get to assess how a large slice of the American political class frames the challenge.

What issue?  What challenge?  This remains unclear.

ISIS (not ISIL, btw) was the specific concern on Saturday.  Secretary Clinton said, “we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network.” Senator Sanders said, “Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of… ISIS.”

Governor O’Malley did not disagree and emphasized, “ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.”   Mrs. Clinton was a bit more programmatic in her characterization, referring to “radical jihadist ideology.” Mr. Sanders offered, “I agree with much of what the secretary and the governor have said.”  He added (and then Mr. O’Malley piled on) that ISIS is the bastard child of the US invasion of Iraq.  Well, actually he said, “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.”

I’m not sure that Mrs. Clinton disagrees, but she was keen to point to other contributing factors: “The Shia– Sunni split, the dictatorships that have suppressed people’s aspirations, the increasing globalization without any real safety valve for people to have a better life. We saw that in Egypt. We saw a dictator overthrown, we saw Muslim Brotherhood president installed and then we saw him ousted and the army back. So I think we’ve got to understand the complexity of the world that we are facing and no places more so than in the Middle East.”  There was even a point where the former Secretary of State may have been about to diagnose the origins of “jihadi extreme terrorism”, but I perceive she thought better of it and rather awkwardly turned another way.

This admittedly apophatic analysis is reinforced by a question the moderator, John Dickerson, posed to Mrs. Clinton a few minutes later: “You gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said that it was important to show– quote– respect even for one’s enemy. Trying to understand and in so far as psychologically possible empathize with their perspective and point of view. Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?”

Given the context, I do not blame the candidate for choosing to emphasize, “… it’s very difficult when you deal with– ISIS and organizations like that whose–whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious–that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power.”  Indeed, given the context, I have some reluctant respect for her use of lawyerly qualifiers.


I could continue.  Linguistic analysis is a weird personal pleasure.  But if you did not inherit the gene, I recognize it soon becomes tedious. So some resulting judgments:

  • My initial impression of the Saturday performance was deep disappointment, almost disgust.
  • But careful sifting and reading exposed more coherence than a first hearing found.
  • In reading what was said it is possible to conceive — though seldom to confirm — presuppositions and predispositions that enlarge what was said.   In these between-the-line harmonies I encountered something much more complicated than the bombastic melody.
  • Nonetheless it remains a war march.  Whether the United States is leading or supporting and how differs with the specific composer.  But — as we see in the word-cloud — the consistent theme is: The World is at War with ISIS.
  • Moreover, this is — it seems to me — a rather old-fashioned composition:  Good versus Evil, us versus them, unconditional surrender, total victory, the score reaching a satisfying C major climax.  As Senator Sanders said, “they are a danger to modern society. And that this world with American leadership can and must come together to destroy them.”

I perceive this statement — which many other candidates Republican and Democrat echo — demonstrates a dangerous lack of understanding regarding the plural pronoun; something I have found treacherous in every language I have ever attempted. On Thursday I will try to make better sense of this indefinite.


On Monday at Versailles President Hollande sang a song very similar to Senator Sanders’.  After which the French Parliamentarians also sang. A less than stirring chorus, to my ear.

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/

September 14, 2015

Self-interest and self-subversion

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 14, 2015

This morning the hotel left a USA Today outside my door. On the opinion page the editors call for  the US to accept more Syrian refugees.  I perceive the editors’ position is prompted primarily by ethical concerns, but they feel compelled to make a strategic argument.  They fail, in my judgment, to make a strong argument.

The newspaper has, as usual, recruited an opposing view.  Today Congressman Peter King has authored what is pasted below in-full.  The Congressman is being reasonable.  If security is your top priority, his is a persuasive argument.

From an ethical perspective it is a deeply mistaken argument.  It tells us we are allowed to dismiss the present pain of another because of a possible risk to ourselves.

Most ethical systems: Stoic, Judeo-Christian, Confucian, Islamic, even Epicurean are skeptical of narrowly self-interested choices.  We are in relationship with each other and when — by commission or omission — we do harm to another, we do harm to ourselves (this is, I suppose, the nub of the strategic argument the newspaper editors are circling about).  Plato has his Socrates say, “Of these two then, inflicting and suffering wrong,  we say it is a greater evil to inflict it, a lesser to suffer it.” (Gorgias)

In most situations where others are in desperate need, we cannot be of assistance without assuming some risk to ourselves.  This is true for individuals — lifeguards, firefighters, or bystanders — and for societies.

Too often in an attempt to avoid suffering, we inflict it on others.  When we do, it ought not be a surprise that others view us as hypocritical or much worse.


The following was published on the Opinion Page of USA Today on September 14, 2015.  The author is Peter King.

We have seen the tragic footage of Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime and ISIL.

While the United States and international community must respond, I have very serious concerns about how refugees coming here will be vetted, since we know that ISIL will attempt to infiltrate its members into the United States with these refugees. It is vital that we measure our humanitarian beliefs against the security risks of bringing in thousands of unknown individuals. Since the beginning of the year, the FBI has arrested more than 50 individuals connected with ISIL and plotting attacks in the homeland; we cannot afford to compound this threat.

With the lack of stable foreign governments and on-the-ground intelligence in Syria, our ability to vet refugees is significantly degraded. The White House announcement that 10,000 additional Syrian refugees will be admitted next year is contrary to the advice of law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

The United States has already experienced the danger of flawed refugee vetting, as well as the potential for refugees to be radicalized once they are here. In 2011, two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad in support of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIL. Other cases include “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman; 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef; Mir Aimal Kasi, the 1993 CIA headquarters shooter; the Tsarnaev brothers; and the 20-plus cases of Somali Americans who left the U.S. to join al-Shabaab; and the dozen or so who have joined ISIL.

None of us wants any more of these threats or attacks.

To start, we need to do more to work with Jordan, where we have a good intelligence-sharing relationship. Additionally, we need to review U.S. laws regarding what data are collected from refugees and how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies can use and retain that data. Above all, the United States needs to have a clear policy on the need to remove the Assad regime and defeat ISIL.

America has a long and proud history of providing safe harbor for refugees. We must continue to do so, but in a way that keeps America safe.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairs the counterterrorism and intellegence subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.


Recently my non-blogging life has become more complicated.  I need to give it fuller attention.  I will as a result be taking another indefinite hiatus beginning when I push the publish button for this post.

September 6, 2015

Preconditions as precursors

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,International HLS — by Philip J. Palin on September 6, 2015


According to Deutsche Welle, on Saturday about 6600 refugees crossed the border between Hungary and Austria.  Of this number more than 2000 are expected to continue on to Germany.  (Different estimates of the numbers involved are reported by other news outlets.)

Germany plans to process at least 450,000 asylum applications this year.  Some are predicting 800,000.

Also on Saturday another thousand refugees arrived in Sicily by boat. In both Austria and Italy, most of the current refugees are from Iraq and Syria.  Kurds from along the Syrian-Turkish border have been prominent in this most recent wave of migrants.

Fighting this weekend in Marea, Syria killed at least forty-seven, according to the BBC.  Located between Aleppo and Turkey, mostly Kurdish and FSA rebels are contending with ISIS forces for control of an area the government of Turkey has identified as a potential “safe-zone” for those displaced by the Syrian wars.

Friday several news reports noted that due to budget shortfalls, food vouchers distributed to over 4 million registered refugees currently in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey will be reduced by roughly one-third. In an effort to raise additional funds, these drastic measures were originally announced by the World Food Program in July.  The United States responded with an additional $65 million. But very few west of Ankara noticed.

Thursday at least thirty died when a boat carrying mostly Somali, Sudanese, and Nigerian migrants sank off Libya as it was attempting to cross into EU waters.

Early today (Sunday) the Irish patrol ship LÉ Niamh arrived at the port of Pozzallo in Sicily with 329 refugees and migrants on board after carrying out a rescue operation about 58km north of Tripoli, Libya on Saturday.  A photo feature in today’s New York Times Magazine focuses on the perilous journey thousands are risking between North Africa and Southern Europe.

Television images of the stand-off in Budapest and a dead three-year-old in the Aegean are new and personalize the issues. But the issues are not new.  Given violence, climate change, demographic patterns, stark economic differences, and socio-political turmoil the issues will grow old with all of us.

The map above was developed using 2010 data. But the general proportions have not changed much and are unlikely to shift appreciably in the next few years no matter what.  Rather we are now experiencing — or at least seeing on a screen — the outcome of choices made at the turn of the century.  Credible arguments can find reasonable cause well prior.  Today’s crisis might have been mitigated — potentially avoided — by different decisions over the last three to fifteen years.  This does not suppose alternate decisions would not have created other problems, but it is constructive to recognize how these problems did unfold.

Putting our North American situation in this global context might — though probably won’t — cool some incendiary attitudes regarding migration issues in this hemisphere.

We ought not, however, feel too cool and collected. There are burgeoning problems close to home.  According to the United States Border Patrol, during FY2014 three-hundred-seven people died attempting to cross the Southwestern border of the United States.  This was the lowest number of confirmed deaths since 2000.  But the accumulating totals are certainly incomplete.  The deserts of Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas may be even less forgiving than the Mediterranean.  Television cameras are seldom nearby.

And while many have — quite appropriately — been moved to sympathy and action by the plight of those fleeing toward Europe, how many noticed that in August there were 911 murders in El Salvador (population 6.34 million) for a total of over 4200 since January? This even exceeds the violence of next-door Honduras, until recently the planet’s murder capital.

This late-summer the United States has — quite appropriately — been concerned by a spike in urban homicides.  To clarify the Central American context (and ours): Since the beginning of 2015 there have been 791 murders in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (combined population: about 15 million). Less than the August total for El Salvador alone.

Given the context I am amazed we have not — yet — seen more outward migration.

It is an awkward moniker, but the core concept of Homeland Security that unfolded from September 11, 2001 was to not be so surprised again; to not allow our imagination to so fail again; to not be so stubbornly blind and self-involved again.

We’re evidently dealing with a chronic condition… and mostly failing to develop the better habits that could contribute to better health.

[To be self-critical: In 2011 and early 2012 here at HLSWatch I gave continuing attention to Syria.  But then I chose to pull-back.  This was an intellectual, ethical, and professional error. I struggle with my own bad habits.]

TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE: DW reports: “The dam set up by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been broken, and every two hours or so a train leaves Keleti station headed for Munich – each with a couple of hundred refugees.”  Other refugees are on the move from Serbia toward Budapest.  New arrivals continue to be reported at Kos, Lesbos and other Ionian cities.

August 6, 2015

Danger: It is clear. Is it present?

Filed under: Immigration,International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2015

Manu_Brabo_San Salvador Arrest

Above: Photograph by Manu Brabo (AP) of an arrest in San Salvador from the Executioners of El Salvador in The New Yorker.

Until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States did not attempt to control immigration as a matter of policy. Other late 19th Century restrictions attempted to limit entry by Japanese, lunatics, anarchists, and carriers of infectious diseases.  From 1921 to 1965 various laws and Executive actions served to set an upper limit on total immigration and set quotas for the national origin of immigrants.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the 1990 Immigration Act put in place the basic architecture of contemporary immigration policy. Since 9/11 there have been several attempts to significantly revise immigration laws, most of these efforts have failed.

Each year roughly 700,000 legal immigrants enter the United States.  Illegal immigration is tough to track, but net inflows — number entering minus number returning — are credibly estimated to have plunged below 100,000 since the Great Recession (2007).   According to the Pew Research Center, since 2012 it is possible that more Mexicans living in the United States have returned to Mexico than have crossed north.

If so, this would restore a long-time pattern of Mexican and Central American migration.  According to Madeline Zavodny with the American Enterprise Institute:

It is worth noting that historically many unauthorized immigrants did not settle permanently in the United States. Instead, they worked here temporarily, saved some money and returned home; many repeated this on a seasonal basis for years but ultimately retired at home, where their family members had remained. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a gradual shift toward unauthorized immigrants settling in the United States and reuniting with family members here. One reason for this was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalization program, which enabled some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants to receive permanent legal status. Another reason is the increased difficulty in crossing the U.S.-Mexico border due to tighter border security. As it has become harder to re-enter the United States, unauthorized immigrants have increased their length of stay here.

Increased economic opportunity in Mexico — strongly tied to a declining birth-rate — is one of several factors that have shifted migration patterns. “The immigration debate seems to be stuck around the year 2006, and before then,” says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Japan or New Zealand can conceivably manage their immigration policy with a border strategy.  Most large, affluent, culturally diverse nations (or regions, ala the European Union) will find a border strategy to be about as effective as the Maginot Line.  To be effective much more attention is required to shape the strategic context for migration… as distant from the border as possible.

For example, last week Refugees International released a new report on violence in El Salvador.  In the last six months, there have been over 3000 murders in this nation of 6 million.   According to the report:

More children are killed in El Salvador per capita than in any other country. Two gangs are largely responsible for this increasing violence. These gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street) originated in Los Angeles, but after 1996, thousands were deported to El Salvador in a process that has been described as “unintentional state-sponsored gang migration.” By 2005, El Salvador had 10,000 active gang members, and this number has only grown in the intervening years. Currently, there are 70,000 members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs operating in El Salvador…

Does this situation present a potential immigration challenge to the United States? Last summer we had a dramatic example of the possibility.  Since then the situation in Central America has only gotten worse. Does the strength of Central American gangs and their contacts with US and international criminal/terrorist organizations present a potential threat beyond immigration?  Is the US national interest our only concern in this context?  Should it be?

Where would you prefer to engage the potential threat?  How would you prefer to reduce the potential threat? When is the right time to engage?  The Refugees International Report offers some answers.

July 1, 2015

Happy Canada Day!

Filed under: International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on July 1, 2015

I don’t have any one specific Canada-related homeland security topic to discuss or highlight. In fact, this post will go up near the end of the day. However, I felt it important to wish all our Canadian colleagues, friends, and family a Happy Canada Day!

It should be obvious the important role that Canada plays in our own security.  We share a long border.  They are one of our, if not the most, important trading partners.  Canada has been an integral part of our air defense system, epitomized by NORAD, for decades.

Despite the old backpacking idea that Americans should sew a Canadian flag on their gear for extra protection overseas, Canada faces the same terrorist threat that the U.S. is dealing with today.  In case it has already been forgotten, the Canadian Parliament was attacked by a terrorist after he killed a soldier standing guard at their national war memorial.  In a scene that should be familiar to all Americans, Canada came together in solidarity following this tragedy.

Not unlike the Patriot Act, the Canadian parliament has passed legislation aimed at responding to this evolving threat.

“Canadians know that Canada is unfortunately not immune to the ever-evolving threat of terrorism,” jointly stated Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Steven Blaney, and Minister of Justice and Attorney General Peter MacKay.

This legislation “will directly address the threat of terrorism by enhancing our government’s ability to share information between relevant government departments and agencies for national security purposes; criminalizing the advocacy and promotion of the commission of terrorism offences; preventing terrorists from travelling and recruiting others; and providing our police forces with the additional tools they need to prevent, detect, deny and respond to the threat of terrorism.”

Every year one of the preeminent conferences focused on disasters is held in Toronto: The World Conference on Disaster Management.

Last, but not least, it should be pointed out that one of the most intelligent and insightful homeland security analysts working today comes from the Land of Gretzky.  Sharon Cardash, Associate Director at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, previously served as Security Policy Advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. She has authored and co-authored many perceptive and thoughtful pieces on homeland security topics.  About the only reason to question her analytical rigor is her insistence that Tim Hortons is better than Dunkin’ Donuts…

And, following the Iraq war and the missing WMD, in case you may have forgotten how misguided our intelligence services can sometimes be, the following evidence provided by the Canadian Desk at the CIA should give us all pause…

April 1, 2015

Buhari elected in Nigeria

Filed under: International HLS — by Philip J. Palin on April 1, 2015

The election of the opposition candidate in Nigeria is a positive signal regarding prospects for democracy in Africa’s most populace nation.  The election of a retired army general with a predisposition to action promises to contrast sharply with the sometimes bizarre passivity of the current Nigerian president.  The election of a Muslim in a nation closely divided between Christians and Muslims,  plagued by Salafist violence, opens important opportunities for the entire region.

It is significant — and encouraging — that Buhari won in several states with a Christian majority.  (See map)

Less positive assessments could be offered of equal credence.  But as our friend Hegel has argued, “These do not contradict one another, one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes the life of the whole.”

Given the place of Africa in previous and prospective terrorist threats to the United States, the follow-on to this election is likely to have significant homeland security implications.

Lots of news coverage.  Vanguard, one of the leading Nigerian newspapers, is a reasonable place to start.  The Guardian is another respected outlet. Punch claims to have the most readers.

March 26, 2015

Yemen: Some fundamentals

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on March 26, 2015

This week the disintegration of Yemen appears nearly complete.

Long-time home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen has been an important area of operations for US, Saudi, and other counter-terrorist services.  Earlier this week both US and British military advisers were withdrawn in the face of escalating violence.

Many in the CT community consider AQAP the most direct threat to the US homeland. Since 9/11 AQAP has been implicated in several successful and unsuccessful attacks against the United States.

The collapse of the Yemeni central government, which has cooperated in operations against AQAP, will — at least in the near-term — likely enhance the terror group’s freedom of operation.  But AQAP may also be distracted by adversaries closer-at-home.

The current situation is fast-moving.  Following is some background information that may be helpful to your consideration of how the emerging outcomes could impact US homeland security.



The maps above were developed by The Fanack Foundation of the Netherlands.  Other information on Yemen is available from the Fanack Chronicle.

March 11, 2015

Some reasonable thoughts on the Iranian nuclear negotiations

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2015

Reason has recently been a topic of discussion here at HLSWatch.  I lack the philosophical chops to get involved, so instead will go in an entirely unrelated direction and point to what I consider some well reasoned thoughts on the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran. This is generally considered a national and not homeland security issue, however the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran or military strikes intended to delay its nuclear program will surely be felt here in the U.S.

First up is Graham Allison, predicting in a Foreign Policy op-ed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would present a “false dichotomy” in his speech to Congress last week (and he was right):

In nuclear negotiations with Iran, he will argue that the United States faces a choice between a “good deal” and a “bad deal.” He will urge Congress to stop President Barack Obama from accepting the latter which, he will say, “endangers the existence of the state of Israel.”

Buyer beware. Every serious analyst of this issue — including the prime minister — knows that this is a false dichotomy. In negotiations, a bad deal is by definition unacceptable. The same is true for one’s opponent: in an either-or world, a good deal for one would have to be a bad deal for the other. Thus, negotiated agreements require compromises, in which neither party achieves all of its demands.

In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu will caricature any compromise as capitulation. To the untutored, his arguments may sound persuasive. No nation, he will say, would tolerate its archenemy acquiring nuclear weapons. Therefore, Israel has to demand that any agreement eliminate every aspect of Iran’s capability to ever produce nuclear weapons. Anything short of this, according to Netanyahu’s construction, is a “bad deal.”

Yet, this argument ignores what has happened on the ground over the past decade as successive U.S. and Israeli administrations have held to this view. By insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.

He goes on to speak uncomfortable truths:

The consequences of this failed strategy are two ugly but irreversible facts. First, Iran has advanced to the point that we now have to consider something called “breakout time,” the number of months it would take to produce a bomb’s-worth of enriched uranium. The second, even uglier, truth is that Iran has developed the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and this capability cannot be erased.

The critical tipping point on this path occurred in 2008 when Iran mastered the technical know-how to build centrifuges and operate them to enrich uranium to levels required for the core of a nuclear bomb. As I wrote at that time, “Iran has crossed a threshold that is painful to acknowledge but impossible to ignore: it has lost its nuclear virginity.”

Going one more level down:

There is no way to erase from the minds of thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers the knowledge and skills to produce weapons-grade uranium. There is no way to eliminate Iran’s indigenous capacity to mine uranium, manufacture centrifuges, or operate them. Thus, there is no conceivable end to this story in which Iran will not retain the capability to build nuclear weapons.

This is a truth that many in Congress simply refuse to accept, since like the prime minister they have repeatedly declared this would never be allowed to happen.

Fareed Zakaria, in his most recent weekly Washington Post column, thinks Netanyahu is the boy who never grew up:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was eloquent, moving and intelligent in identifying the problems with the potential nuclear deal with Iran. But when describing the alternative to it, Netanyahu entered never-never land, painting a scenario utterly divorced from reality. Congress joined him on his fantasy ride, rapturously applauding as he spun out one unattainable demand after another.

Netanyahu declared that Washington should reject the current deal, demand that Tehran dismantle almost its entire nuclear program and commit never to restart it. In the world according to Bibi, the Chinese, Russians and Europeans will cheer, tighten sanctions, and increase pressure — which would then lead Iran to capitulate. “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough,” said Peter Pan.

He also points out some inconvenient facts to those in what I guess we can now call the “Club of 47:”

The theory that Iran would buckle under continued pressure ignores certain basic facts. Iran is a proud, nationalistic country. It has survived 36 years of Western sanctions through low oil prices and high oil prices. It endured an eight-year war with Iraq in which it lost an estimated half a million fighters. The nuclear program is popular, even with leaders of the pro-democratic Green Movement.

Michael Cohen echos much of these same concerns in a Boston Globe piece:

SOMETIME IN the next three weeks, the United States and its allies in the international community could sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. If they do, the deal will be unsatisfying. Iran will still likely be able to maintain its nuclear infrastructure; a sunset clause of 10 to 15 years would make it possible for Iran to reignite its nuclear ambitions; the lever of international sanctions would be lifted; and the success of the agreement would depend on adherence to it by a country that has been caught lying about its nuclear aspirations in the past.

Welcome to the fun-filled world of international diplomacy, where the choices facing policy makers are almost never between the best or worst possible deal, but rather a set of least worst options. That’s the choice facing President Obama, and it’s a lesson that critics of his approach to Iran have consistently missed.

He identifies what many expect is the desired endgame by most of the critics of the current talks, and hints at why that might not be such a desirable outcome:

Others argue that military force should be used to destroy Iran’s program, but it’s hard to see how the unforeseen consequences of war (which may or may not be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure) would be better than even an imperfect deal.

To me this all seems like straightforward risk management.  The P5+1 negotiators are presumably during their best to mitigate future risk considering the facts on the ground.  This is a concept often hailed as a foundation for homeland security.  We can’t eliminate all the risk so we should try to prevent what we can, mitigate against the impact of what we can’t, properly prepare and respond to events, and recover as a nation.  Unfortunately I believe we are straying far off that path.

Once upon a time, President Bush and many in his administration could unequivocally say that despite the government’s best efforts the U.S. will be hit by terrorists again.  Obviously he was and remains correct.  And at the time, no political party or other entities made much of that common sense statement (except some fringe elements). Fast forward to this President pointing out the obvious that terrorism does not represent an existential threat to our nation and he is painted as naive.  Both men were right, yet it seems the climate has shifted to a never never land where any terrorist attack is a sign of failure, where the inability to control events on the other side of the world in countries and cultures we don’t fully understand is a sign of weakness, and where all we have to do is point and shout loud enough and the rest of the world will come to see that our national interests and priorities and norms of behavior obviously should be theirs.

Here’s hoping that a little reason, and a lot of risk management principles, returns to our public discourse.

February 5, 2015

Immigration physics

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,International HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on February 5, 2015

The continuing resolution under which the Department of Homeland Security is being funded will end on February 27. The House has passed a new DHS appropriations bill. This week Senate Democrats have used procedural votes to block further progress by the House bill.

Riders on the House appropriations measure would constrain Presidential discretion on immigration enforcement.  Many Republicans perceive this is needed to deter illegal immigration and to reassert what they understand to be appropriate constitutional boundaries. The President is “making” rather than enforcing the law, they complain.  Many Democrats, including the President, perceive the House bill to be constitutionally myopic or naive, operationally impractical, and deeply inhumane.

The constitutional issues strike me as murky, but not entirely outside reasonable consideration. Deterrence is often inhumane, in a way that’s the point of many negative actions intended to deter. The core issue — ethically and politically — is mostly about what ought be done with an estimated eleven million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States.  We are divided between arguments of principle and pragmatism, accountability and mercy.  These divisions are sufficiently deep that, so far, we do little more than question the intentions of those with a different opinion. Progress on this core seems so unlikely that each side is tempted to various end-runs and special plays.

Caught in the middle of this skirmish is the DHS budget. In the last week there has been more and more talk of letting the CR expire and holding the Department hostage. Why talk about it when playing chicken is so much more fun?

Last week Politico reported,

Top Republicans are increasingly unworried about missing the Department of Homeland Security’s funding deadline… Lessening the urgency, in some minds, of passing a Homeland Security funding bill is the fact that DHS’s operations wouldn’t necessarily shut down if funding expires after Feb. 27. In the October 2013 federal government shutdown, roughly 85 percent of DHS employees continued to work because their jobs were considered essential. However, their paychecks were withheld until the shutdown was over.

“In other words, it’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop — whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said, though he stressed that Congress shouldn’t ignore that deadline. “Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”

The Congressman’s first sentence, above, has gotten more attention than his second. This includes a White House website headline posted above remarks the President made on Monday at the Nebraska Avenue offices of the Department.

 If Republicans let Homeland Security funding expire, it’s the end to any new initiatives in the event that a new threat emerges. It’s the end of grants to states and cities that improve local law enforcement and keep our communities safe. The men and women of America’s homeland security apparatus do important work to protect us, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics with that.

So, once again, the kids at each end of the country road are revving their engines and threatening to race down the tunnel of tall corn toward each other.

Homeland Security Watch typically works to avoid the starkly political.  In this case, I felt the need to at least acknowledge the current context, which seems to be hurtling toward collision.

In my judgment both Democrats and Republicans and both Legislative and Executive branches have trapped themselves in an analysis of symptoms.  The underlying condition is not unknown.  Last week Secretary Johnson mentioned it briefly,

Much of illegal migration is seasonal. The poverty and violence that are the “push factors” in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador still exist. The economy in this country – a “pull factor” — is getting better. There is still more we can and should do.

Push and pull are the essential elements of immigration physics. Presumably we do not want to reduce the pull.  That leaves dealing with push. How can we influence the force, reduce the speed, or change the direction of what’s pushing toward us?

Current approaches mostly wait to treat the issue until contact is made or imminent.  So we increase our investment in border protection and argue over deportation. Physics also allows action-at-a-distance.  Indeed in most cases, a small change in velocity introduced at a great distance has a much more profound effect than enormous force introduced at contact.

Last Spring and early Summer we saw a huge push of very young people toward our Southern border.  The push originated largely in three Central American states.  The force of the push related — and will relate — to poverty and especially violence.

In 2012 the Council on Foreign Relations published a special report that found:

Violent crime in Central America—particularly in the “northern triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—is reaching breathtaking levels. Murder rates in the region are among the highest in the world. To a certain extent, Central America’s predicament is one of geography—it is sandwiched between some of the world’s largest drug producers in South America and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States. The region is awash in weapons and gunmen, and high rates of poverty ensure substantial numbers of willing recruits for organized crime syndicates. Weak, underfunded, and sometimes corrupt governments struggle to keep up with the challenge. 

The CFR report goes on to recommend a series of steps designed to bend the velocity and reduce the force behind the push factor.  Many of its recommendations are reflected in the high level plan that Vice President Biden recently outlined.  The President’s budget references $1 billion to address “root causes” in Central America.

But reading between the lines, I’m not sure I see much there.  The what is thin and the how a mere mist quickly evaporating.

In late December Eric Olson and others at the Woodrow Wilson Center produced a detailed report on the situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and recent US policy engagement with each.  It is a resource that should help all of us understand the complexity of the issues and why previous US policy engagement has not been successful.  They also outline several key recommendations to do better.  To summarize here would be a disservice to their careful analysis. Please read the original: Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.

Many ancient physicists, including Democritus and Epicurus, perceived reciprocal collisions to be the source of both creation and destruction.  Newton helped us understand the possibilities of mutual attraction and action-at-a-distance.  The collision that now seems likely on February 27 strikes me as mostly distracting from creative opportunities that could advance much more humane and effective security.

February 2, 2015

Which is harder to defeat – Ebola or ISIS?

Filed under: Biosecurity,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on February 2, 2015

That is the question that Graham Allison, Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, tackled in a short opinion piece for Time magazine. It was originally published last December when attention on Ebola was high due to the presence of a few cases cases inside the U.S. (in contrast to the thousands in West Africa), but Phil’s post this past Thursday on “Epidemiology of Violence” reminded me of Allison’s take on the same general concept.

His conclusion:

About Ebola, the world knows a lot and is doing relatively little. About ISIS, we know relatively little but are doing a lot.

But that doesn’t answer which is the harder to defeat.  His analysis:

Finally, we should acknowledge the fact that for the foreseeable future, there may be no permanent cure for Islamic extremism. Against Ebola, researchers are racing toward a vaccine that could decisively prevent future epidemics. But the past decade has taught us that despite our best efforts, if and when the ISIS outbreak is controlled, another strain of the virus is likely to emerge. In this sense, violent Islamic extremism may be more like the flu than Ebola: a virus for which we have no cure, but for which we can develop a coherent management strategy to minimize the number of annual infections and deaths.

Not to give too much more away from the article, but it is interesting that a political scientist looks at ISIS through the lens of public health:

Over recent centuries, medicine has made more progress than statecraft. It can be useful therefore to examine ISIS through a public-health lens. When confronting a disease, modern medicine begins by asking: What is the pathogen? How does it spread? Who is at risk? And, informed by this understanding, how can it be treated and possibly prevented?

About Ebola, we know the answers to each. But what about ISIS?

I haven’t given away all the good stuff here, so if you’re interested you can read the entire article at: http://time.com/3618049/viral-threats/

January 22, 2015

“Countering violent extremism”

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,State and Local HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 22, 2015

Wednesday the French Prime Minister and other ministers announced several “exceptional” counter-terrorism measures. (Complete remarks in French) (Summary in English) (Reporting by The Guardian)

  • Increased protective services, especially of Jewish and Muslim places of worship.
  • Increased staffing of intelligence functions and a new legal framework for domestic intelligence operations.
  • Increased investments to counter radicalization, especially in prisons, via the Internet and in the community.
  • Increased measures to target and track specific individuals convicted or “accused” of terrorism.
  • Increased efforts, in coordination with the European Union and its member states, to implement effective border controls for the Schengen area.

The summary of the ministerial briefing provided by the French embassy in Washington DC notes, “a file containing the names of all individuals convicted or accused of terrorist acts will be created. These individuals must provide proof of their address at regular intervals and provide notification of any change of address or trips abroad. Failure to comply with these provisions will constitute an offence.” Please note convicted or accused.

Also highlighted at the ministerial briefing — though not actually discussed in any detail — was a government report released on Monday: “Une école qui porte haut les valeurs de la République” (A school that promotes the values of the Republic).

This begins to suggest “soft power” tools the French government will attempt to strengthen to counter radicalization.  The “School of the Republic” concept goes back to the 1789 Revolution and is especially associated with the Third Republic (1870-1940).  The focus has always been on unifying France around core Republican values.

According to the report, included in the priorities for a school that “carries the banner” for the Republic are (my translation):

  • First, secularism with new content related to moral and civic education, but also lay teaching about religions; with a massive effort of continuing education for teachers and operational support to teams in difficulty.
  • Second, reducing educational inequalities: to strengthen the sense of belonging to the Republic by all students, this will require new measures in favor of diversity and social mobility.
  • Finally, the mobilization of all national education partners, and primarily the parents of students: measures to develop school democracy, learning a culture of commitment…

Neither the process nor the principles articulated in the report are exportable to the United States.  But it is interesting to see the explicit connection made between counter-terrorism  — or more accurately, anti-terrorism — and public education.


Related — at least in my fevered brain — is the rather extraordinary dust-up emerging over the “summit” to be hosted by the White House on February 18.  This is part of the ongoing Countering Violent Extremism effort by DHS, State, and “The Interagency”.

In the White House statement on the upcoming session (almost the only detail available so far), it is explained:

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts rely heavily on well-informed and resilient local communities.  Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have taken the lead in building pilot frameworks integrating a range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention.  The summit will highlight best practices and emerging efforts from these communities. At the same time, our partners around the world are actively implementing programs to prevent violent extremism and foreign terrorist fighter recruitment.  The summit will include representatives from a number of partner nations, focusing on the themes of community engagement, religious leader engagement, and the role of the private sector and tech community. 

The too often contorted  lingo — and bureaucratic behavior — around CVE has been a fair target from the beginning.  It was not surprising when Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review took aim at the summit.  Or when his NR colleague Rich Lowry did so in Politico’s magazine (I can’t quickly find an online link).  But in yesterday’s  New York Times, Thomas Friedman piled on big time.

Some of the critiques are constructive.  Failing to differentiate between nearer-term counter-terrorism and longer-term anti-terrorism is not constructive.  Both are needed.  Well-conceived, the measures of each are complementary.  But in conception and practice they are two very different undertakings.

October 22, 2014

Terror comes to Ottawa

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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)


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.



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.”


June 12, 2014

Foxes, hedgehogs and homeland security

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



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.


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.


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:


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