Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 25, 2015

Security Mom Podcasts: Michael Chertoff on risk communication and Jessica Stern on radicalization

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Media,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on June 25, 2015

These are a little bit old, but interesting enough to share nonetheless.

Juliette Kayyem’s podcast “Security Mom” in the not-so-distant-past (a few weeks ago), focused on crisis communication with former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and radicalization/ISIS recruitment with terrorism expert Jessica Stern.

The Chertoff conversation I found especially interesting.  It took what seems like an old issue, the color coded homeland security threat level system, and turns it into a serious discussion of risk communication.  You can find it here:


From the show’s website, here is a bit of the transcript with Chertoff explaining his issues with the color scheme:

Green was a theoretical baseline of world in which there’s no terrorism. That’s not gonna happen. So then you had yellow and orange. Yellow being kind of some level of threat, orange being a heightened threat. And then you had red. And the problem is it was very difficult to define to define what red was. Did red mean an attack is literally gonna happen like tomorrow? Did it mean an attack already happened? Once you’re at red, how do you come down from red? So, we realized pretty quickly that essentially you’re really dealing with two states. Yellow is your base. And orange is your elevated. And then we tried to be focused on, again, particular regions or particular types of threats.

In an other episode, Juliette talks with Jessica Stern about radicalization, in general, and ISIS in particular. It is a wide ranging conversation, but I’ll share one of her conclusions regarding the threat that ISIS poses to Americans here at home that gets back to risk communication from the Chertoff discussion:

For a police officer, for the FBI, for the president, for people working in government — this should be keeping them up at night. But for a person sitting at home in Brighton or Cambridge —  for any given individual, you’re more likely to die from a beesting than you are in a terror strike. You’re probably more likely to die in your bathtub.

You can listen to it herehttp://wgbhnews.org/post/inside-minds-isis-members

Or by clicking on this link:

Stern ISIS MIX 1

December 17, 2014

A new homeland security-related blog: The Bifurcated Needle

Filed under: Biosecurity,Media,Public Health & Medical Care — by Arnold Bogis on December 17, 2014

I fell behind on some work this week and am not likely to post anything substantial today, so unfortunately I cannot personally provide Phil reading material to go along with his (really early) morning coffee.

However, for his and everyone else’s reading pleasure I’d like to point out a new homeland security blog that has recently come to my attention: The Bifurcated Needle. Named for the needle used to administer smallpox vaccinations, technically it is a health security blog. Since it seems no one can agree on what means “homeland security” I’m eagerly dragging the “Needle” down to HLS Watch’s level.

It is published by the good, and very smart, folks at the UPMC Center for Health Security. Health security is not unlike homeland security in that it covers a vast intellectual space. They already have posts up covering topics such as measuring preparedness, the security risks involved in virus research, collateral benefits of nuclear power plant preparedness, and the difficulties of biological decontamination.

Very likely worth your time to check it out: http://www.bifurcatedneedle.com/



November 16, 2014

Not in my name

Filed under: Media,Radicalization,Social Media,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 16, 2014

Early Sunday morning a web-based video claimed to show the dead body of Peter Kassig, age 26, a US citizen. The army veteran had started a small humanitarian not-for-profit operating in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey providing basic medical services and supplies to refugees. In 2013 he was captured by Syrian insurgents. The group claiming responsibility for his execution is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

If confirmed, this would be the fifth beheading of a Western captive by the group.  The Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS or Da’ish) has become notorious for using an extensive toolkit of organized violence: beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.  Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed using means clearly designed to engender fear and compliance.

The Kessig video is the longest IS production yet.  While it includes a warning to Western — especially US and British — leaders, the propaganda is designed mostly to advance the IS brand-strategy and to recruit young men. The beheadings are a hook to ensure Western media attention that will prompt the target audiences to seek out the videos (they are not that difficult to find) where the rest-of-the-story is persuasively pitched as an answer to their search for adventure and meaning.

It seems to be working.   Most recent intelligence estimates find at least 15,000 foreign fighters from up to 80 nations are currently attached to a variety of insurgent groups — not just IS — in the Syrian civil war and its overflow into Iraq. (Potentially an interesting comparison:  During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 the total number of international volunteers serving with Republican forces is estimated have totaled 35,000.)

But it may also be emerging that even as IS is achieving some tactical success among a very small slice of disaffected — mostly — young people, it is prompting a blow-back by many others that could have significant strategic implications.

As was the case with David Haines and Alan Henning, British aid workers previously beheaded, the evidence seems overwhelming that Kessig was only involved in delivering compassionate care to those displaced by the Syrian civil war.  There is also no evidence that the two journalists who have been dramatically beheaded had any particular animus toward the Syrian insurgency.  The killings have not only been brutal.  They have, to most minds, been innately unjust.  For most Muslims this is a perversion of their faith.

The video above was developed — apparently independently — by a group of mostly young British Muslims following the execution of David Haines.  It crystalizes a movement that has spontaneously emerged  and is growing online very much contrary to the purposes of IS.

See more at  https://twitter.com/hashtag/notinmyname. Social media — not so much YouTube — is where most of the activity is taking place.

A shared revulsion to IS is also prompting others to perceive, conceive, and act in ways previously unseen.  On Friday, probably while the terrorists were putting finishing touches on their snuff video, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others were gathering for an unprecedented Muslim prayer service hosted by the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC. The sermon by Ebrahim Rasool included, “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility but keenly aware that it is not a time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The challenge for us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people… whose very existence threatens extremism.”

As the American experience with war has too often  demonstrated, tactical skill can seldom overcome a strategic deficit.  How ought our anti-IS strategy reflect the strategic vulnerability of our adversary?

November 13, 2014

Victimizing survivors (including us)

Filed under: Media — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

In last Saturday’s post I previewed a 60 Minutes report on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.  The report ran on Sunday.  Over 12 million Americans watched.

In many ways it was an excellent primer on the nature of the disease and the need — practically and ethically — to address the disease at its source. Those watching met competent and committed Americans bravely serving on this very important front.

But unless I zoned out, there was not a single interview with a Liberian.  Frankly this only occurred to me toward the close of the report.  If my memory has failed, please correct me.   In any case, I am sure Liberians were mostly presented as victims.

There are several problems with this image, but to start: it is simply not accurate. Liberians have been courageous, creative, and self-sacrificing to a degree that has to inspire anyone who takes notice.  If the transmission curve has indeed been bent in Liberia, it has mostly been the achievement of Liberians.

Given an American audience, the interviews with American health care providers in Liberia makes some sense.   There is a tribal aspect to most of our narrative realities that any story-teller does well to acknowledge.

But the 60 Minutes report — in what it omitted —  patronizes our tribal tendencies to a point that distorts reality.   The omission is even more treacherous because I expect it was unintentional.

I raise this issue because if the producers, directors, and reporters at 60 Minutes can fall into this very narrow trap, it suggests the challenges homeland security faces on a wide range of issues.

Terrorism is deeply rooted in human tribalism.  Introducing a new flood map into many communities makes introducing a new religion look easy.  You want to enhance private-public relationships?  It helps to be familiar with anthropological literature on tribal conflict.

We usually see, hear, perceive what we are prepared to believe.   Our self-identity is the principal determinant of what constitutes the other… and therefore the threatening.  We can escape these blinders.  But it is not easy. These are deeply wired predispositions.

I am concerned that media is, as Sunday’s report gives evidence, serving — both intentionally and unintentionally — to divide us into more and more distinct market segments (tribes).

More than a half-century ago Marshall McLuhan suggested the rise of television and other electronic media would reverse the objective stance encouraged by the written word and retrieve the subjectivity of the visual. This process would also, he argued, result in “retribalizing” humanity.

In a 1969 interview McLuhan commented,

The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences… All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

It’s been more than forty years, the prediction seems more true everyday.  Does this confirm his hypothesis?


The WHO released a new Ebola update on November 12.   The death toll is now over  5000. Sierra Leone’s transmission rate is not — yet – bending. Several new cases are threatening an outbreak in Mali.

Yesterday the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the Administration’s Ebola funding request.  Lots of testimony and such at the website.  Good reporting on the hearing at Politico.

More detailed analysis this weekend.

November 6, 2014

Harvard Public Health School and Reuters: Ebola fear, not science, driving policies

Filed under: Biosecurity,Media,Public Health & Medical Care,Risk Assessment — by Arnold Bogis on November 6, 2014

The news agency Reuters and the Harvard School of Public Health have a partnership to produce “Health Watch,” which according to the School’s website is: “a web series featuring expert analyses and comments about the latest developments in health news. This series is presented by The Forum at HSPH and the Harvard School of Public Health in collaboration with Reuters.”

In this episode, “Dr. Paul Biddinger, Associate Director of the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Public Health Preparedness, tells Reuters that fear is driving certain non-science based policies like the involuntary quarantine of health workers.” Dr. Biddinger also directs the School’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Exercise Program.


October 17, 2014

Less czar than troika

Filed under: Biosecurity,Media,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2014

CNN, the New York Times, and others are reporting the imminent announcement of a White House “Ebola Czar”. The man-of-the-hour is Ron Klain.  The former chief-of-staff to Vice President Biden (and Vice President Gore) has been in the private sector since January 2011.

The appointment responds to a burgeoning cry of “who’s in charge?” from the news media and others.

It’s a very primitive question, not well-suited to an infectious disease emerging into a highly-networked global system.  Mr. Klain will, I perceive, actually be part of a troika involving Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice.  He is very experienced riding the back of both the “interagency” and the media. Despite rough rides in the past, the tigers have not yet eaten him up.

Hold on and best wishes.

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.”


September 12, 2014

Counterterrorism capitulates to war

Filed under: Media,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 12, 2014

As you have probably already seen/heard unfold over the day, the Administration has decided not to argue terms-of-reference related to its current and anticipated action against the so-called Islamic State.

Here’s how the Daily News framed the fast-moving rhetorical controversy:

The U.S. is at war with ISIS, the White House and Pentagon said Friday, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry stubbornly declined to use the ‘W’ word.

“In the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, using another acronym for ISIS, also known as the Islamic State.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby offered a similar reaction Friday.

“Make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at al Qaeda and its affiliates,” Kirby said.

In a Thursday evening (US time) interview with CNN the Secretary of State said: “We’re engaged in a counterterrorism operation of a significant order. I think ‘war’ is the wrong reference term with respect to that, but obviously it involves kinetic military action.”

Secretary Kerry could have more effectively advanced understanding of CT by being just a bit more diplomatic. But his fussy language does reflect consistent Administration policy.

If I was in the West Wing I too would have sacrificed the high ground of maintaining the meaningful distinction.  It was high ground totally exposed to the worst sort of ideological artillery.  Given today’s reality the hill would have been over-run no matter what was done to defend it.

But the distinction is meaningful.  Since the mid-Nineteenth Century Americans have come to  expect wars to end in victory and the unconditional surrender of our enemies.  This has not always been the case, but our expectations persist.

This expectation is wildly inappropriate — entirely unrealistic — regarding the sort of adversary that has emerged (again) along the Euphrates.  We can degrade it.  We can even, in many meanings of the word, destroy it.  We will not receive a surrender.  We would be foolish to declare victory.

Americans would benefit from better understanding the difference between “war” as we typically choose to understand it and the counterterrorism operations we are actually executing.  Two very different activities.  Confusion regarding them may generate all sorts of mischief.

April 10, 2014

Mass aggregation and analysis of data: Debate, discussion, desiderata

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Legal Issues,Media,Privacy and Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 10, 2014

On Monday the Supreme Court declined a petition to expedite consideration of Klayman v. Obama.   The plantiffs had sought to by-pass appellate review given the government’s “outrageous intrusion of privacy” confirmed by a Federal District Court’s finding.

Klayman is one of several cases focused on the government’s aggregation and analysis of metadata, as exposed by the Edward Snowden document releases.  (Prior consideration by HLSWatch is available here.)

Since the December decision in Klayman at least one other Federal District Court has affirmed the constitutionality of actions that the judge in Klayman suggested would cause Madison to spin in his grave.  A variety of related cases — and contending judgments — are working their way through the courts.

It would have been unusual for the Supreme Court to abbreviate the process.  On this issue a fulsome set of legal engagements should serve to clarify key issues.

The political process around mass surveillance is also advancing.  On March 25 the President outlined several reforms to how metadata is collected and accessed.  The Republican Chair and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee have proposed their own reforms. There is also an effort underway to frame-up policy directions for the digital domain that go beyond a privacy-v-security binary.

The political context features several advocacy groups, such as the ACLU and EFF, pressing for privacy rights; several commercial organizations including AT&T, Verizon, Google and Facebook reluctant to be identified  as co-conspirators in invading consumer privacy; and a mainstream media keen to cover any source of conflict.

At least in the United States there is deeply divided public opinion.  For example one January poll found that 48 percent of respondents approved and 47 percent did not approve of tracking phone calls for potential terrorist links. Roughly twenty-percent of those who approved of the phone tracking also agreed the program is “too much intrusion into Americans’ private life”.   This tracks with what seems to be increasing concern that “anti-terrorism policies” threaten civil liberty, even as support for specific anti-terrorism activities remains strong.

TREND: What concerns you more about the government’s anti-terrorism policies, that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties, or that they have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country?
                     Jan 09  Oct 01  Aug 02  Jul 10  Jan 14
                     2014    2013    2013    2013    2010

Gone too far         51      43      46      45      25
Not gone far enough  33      40      39      40      63
DK/NA                16      17      15      15      12

Are these public attitudes contradictory… ambivalent… paradoxical?  Are these the ill-considered judgments of a poorly informed mass or a signal of profound crowd-wisdom?

Our intellectual culture is (mostly unconsciously) influenced by Hegel (abstract, negative, concrete or sometimes thesis, antithesis, synthesis and more).  The law is especially Hegelian in its dependence on the adversarial process.  Well beyond the law we are inclined to engage contending perspectives in search for ideal solutions.  For some this ideal emerges from historical (empirical) context.  For others there is an ideal that transcends history and experience.  In either case there can be a tendency to exclude or negate one option in order to achieve an other.

It is worth noting this is Hegelianism without Hegel who wrote, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.”  But much of our current discontent with so many aspects of politics, law, and governance may very well emerge from an intellectual conceit that seeks the best and disdains the rest.

If you characterize an issue as privacy versus security, I will probably lean toward privacy.  To acknowledge this predisposition can be helpful. It ought not be confused with thought. First principles inform but very seldom resolve our problem-solving.  Thinking requires an examination of context and contingencies and potential consequences.

Privacy and security are not necessarily in conflict, as for example in the language of the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

When privacy and security are perceived to be in conflict, what is the source of conflict? What are the contingent Goods that an active instance of privacy or security seems to threaten?  For surely neither privacy nor security are ends-in-themselves.  Rather each are aspects of a more comprehensive Good or Goods.  Can we articulate our valuations to each other so that we might resolve the perceived conflict by directly addressing the goals which privacy and security are thought to advance (or retard)?  Are we disagreeing over first principles or tertiary techniques?

Issues of privacy and security are clearly being considered as matters of law.  In these legal considerations ancient ethical concerns are referenced and there will clearly be contemporary ethical implications whatever the legal outcomes.

The current political arguments strike me as mostly rhetorical rather than ethical.   Typically absolute rights or obvious needs are assumed much more than demonstrated. Strawmen are set forth by every side.

In both the legal and political domains the consideration tends to be adversarial — pseudo-Hegelian — in method.   I have no objection to this as one of several methods by which a shared understanding can emerge.  I am concerned if it is the predominant method.

Where do you participate in serious and sustained consideration of important ethical issues?   Especially civic issues such as the matter of privacy v. security?  Where and how have you seen non-adversarial methods generate practical solutions?

I hope your answers are more fruitful than my own.  If not, I wonder how much the paucity of such approaches suggest a social-civic anemia for which our current political confrontations are but a symptom?

January 29, 2014

Atlanta: a little bit of snow and ice, a whole lot of cars

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Media,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on January 29, 2014

Georgia is closed


Now that the political Oscars are over, CNN decided to spend much of their coverage today on the situation in Atlanta (Fox News noticeably less).  It mostly focused on individual stories of hardship: 12 hours or more spent in cars stuck on highways, sleeping in gas stations and convenience stores, children kept at school overnight, etc.

Significant airtime was also given to the Atlanta metro region’s lack of snow removal and salting equipment and inexperienced drivers. There also seems to be a developing political story, as the mayor is under fire while some point to the decentralized nature of governance in the greater Atlanta region.  For example, the mayor has no say as to whether the schools are closed due to inclement weather.

I was heartened to see that a little attention was given to the fact that the entire region’s commuters were dumped on the roads at the same time.  It is likely this fact, more than the road conditions or experience driving in winter weather, that contributed to the horrific traffic conditions.  It happened in Washington, DC a couple of years ago (the decisions made or not made analyzed by Phil here) and in Boston a few years earlier.

In each case snow and ice make driving difficult, but the larger impact is the entire commuting population being told to essentially evacuate the urban core all at the same time.  This in cities that have traffic issues during rush hour even on the best of days, with a normal staggered exit. This was (eventually) learned in the case of hurricanes.  It seems to have penetrated into the city leadership in Atlanta, where they are talking about a wave approach to closings in the future: first the schools, then private business, then government offices (though I wonder if all the working parents will sit on their hands while their children are headed toward empty homes).  Hopefully other metro regions will take note.

I suspect the professionals understand the issues involved: closing before the day begins, shelter-in-place, or closing late (essentially evacuation).  Is it too much to ask for the media to pay more attention?

June 10, 2013

I am, after all, a republican

Filed under: Legal Issues,Media,Privacy and Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 10, 2013

Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues at The Guardian continue to demonstrate the power of  the old school “mainstream media” to set an agenda.   Now we are hearing from Greenwald’s NSA source who explains, “I’m willing to sacrifice all… because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

And so, perhaps inevitably, a complicated issue of ethics and politics of the highest order will be personalized and reduced to melodrama.  Which, at least, gives me permission to tell my story.

The only claim I have on anything truly scholarly is a sort of silver-age knowledge of the constitution of late-republican Rome.  This involves the period from about 133 BC to the rise of Augustus (27 BC) when constitutional structures imploded and produced the Empire.  As a young man I read entirely too much Cicero and have carried the burden into old age.  It is a story of freedom thoughtlessly and selfishly sacrificed.

As a result the claims of a “unitary executive” by various players in the George W. Bush administration caused me considerable concern.  A life-long Republican (capital R) I had supported John McCain in 2000 and expected to do so again in 2008.  But in conversation with his national security team (in which homeland security was entirely subsumed) I became increasingly alarmed.

It was not so much what they intended to do.  It was how and why they were going to do it.   The world had, it seemed to them, become too dangerous for due process.  It depended on a few good men (mostly good, mostly men) to do what was needed to defend the nation against attack.   Further, the nation they sought to defend was an abstraction of power and interests that did not, listening carefully, seem to have much at all to do with the Constitution.

So in early 2008 I decided to work for the once-upon-a-time lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, who — it seemed to me at the time — combined a kind of tough Niebuhrian realism with a disciplined self-restraint that reflected both the Founders and a good slice of Cicero.

Like our NSA contractor/whistleblower/hero/traitor — Mr. Snowden — I suffered the consequences of my choice.  My wife has made the point that if we had given the campaign what we lost because we joined the campaign I might have at least been made ambassador to some obscure corner of the world.  More to the point, a lifetime of personal relationships and professional networks was largely sacrificed.  Even my Dad was disappointed.

Since his election President Obama has been very tough on terrorism or, as he prefers, “violent extremism”.  Several times he has exceeded what I perceive to be his appropriate constitutional role.  Especially in these cases the President has tended to argue that the controversial decision is an exception-that-proves-the-rule.  It may be little more than a fig leaf, but I have appreciated the nod to constitutional decorum even as I recall Augustus was a master of the technique.

Potentially more substantive, the President’s May 23 National Defense University speech called for a more extensive legal framework  that would explicitly limit his own authority and that of future executives.  But other than the classified PPD and other gracious acts of executive self-restraint will anything really change? Right now the speech is as likely to become a footnote — another fig leaf — in future explanations of the eventual collapse of our Constitution under conditions of perpetual war.

In this context I have found the revelations of NSA spying on you and me to be cause for considerable celebration.

Based on what can be known today it would seem that:

  • The spying has been undertaken in accordance with the laws and Congressional oversight — such as it is — has been consistently facilitated.
  • The spying has been undertaken only after judicial review and authorization of narrowly written warrants.
  • The spying has been structured and organized specifically to limit when and how the information is used consistent with the judicial warrants and is extended only with further judicial review.
  • The spying has been exposed by the unofficial fourth branch for public consideration.
  • The spying has caused political enemies who sometimes seem to personally despise each other to share the same or proximate podiums to not only explain the due process exercised in this case but the mysteries of meta-data as well.

What a world!

I regret living in an age when so much of what I do is tracked — and even more is trackable — by a whole host of players.  This is an issue Cicero did not need to consider. It is a temptation to which neither Julius nor Augustus Caesar could succumb.   But this is our reality.  It is not a question of being tracked.  It is an issue of how and why… and what will be done with the results.

And in dealing with the wicked problem of terrorism and the temptation of digital tracking, what we are seeing unfold is the way our Constitution — formal and informal — is supposed to work.  We have elected agents to make judgments on our behalf.  Thanks to Madison and others we have structured our Constitution so that these agents compete with each other.  Through this competition of branches and parties and people a self-restraining, privacy- protecting, freedom-preserving process is cobbled together. Thanks to the First Amendment to our Constitution we have empowered informal agents to hold our elected agents accountable.

As a result, we are given the opportunity to consider difficult issues and to decide how our agents are behaving regarding these issues and whether or not we are prepared to allow them to continue to be our agents.  For me this is the nation.  This is what is worth defending.

January 20, 2013

Attention must be paid

Filed under: Media,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 20, 2013

Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be. (W. H. Auden)


Saturday I wanted to pay close attention to the situation in Algeria, Mali, and related, but had other commitments both paid and personal. As a result, I had to depend on broadcast media, mostly car radio, and what I could quickly call-up on my hand-held.

As a result, I learned that for most Americans the hostage-taking, final assault, and casualties at the In Amenas gas plant was a sort of vague echo over the horizon. Much to my wife’s surprise,  I actually cursed at NPR’s All Things Considered for their insufficient coverage.  This is, no doubt, one of the consequences to which Auden is referring.

Once I was able to sit down with a computer-on-the-Internet I found the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and French media were all rich sources of information. The BBC was, for my taste (and language skills), the best source.

But even among the best sources, there was — at least on Saturday night — a paucity of strategic context. There was little attention to the rapidly developing situation in Mali or details, for example, such as the permission given for French air assets to transit Algerian air space or the multinational character of the terrorist gang.

Sunday morning broadcast news, at least at 0730 Eastern, was even worse than Saturday night.  Inauguration preparations, AFC/NFC championship pre-game analysis,  Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, a complicated murder trial in Phoenix and the weather just did not leave time, apparently, for anything as lame as a four day terrorist assault on a major natural gas production facility.

Those on the US East and Gulf Coasts have learned to pay attention to weather patterns over the Sahara to provide early warning of hurricanes heading our way. Given what else is happening across West Africa — from Nigeria to Mali to Algeria to Libya and more — low pressure pulses are not the only threats to which we might usefully attend.

July 5, 2012

Derecho decouples dependencies: Who or what is responsible for the results?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 5, 2012

Derecho forming in Midwest and barreling to the Mid-Atlantic

The implications of last week’s derecho are a matter of some debate. Please contribute to the debate through the comment function at the close of this post.

TIME: Friday. June 29, 2012.  Minimal notice.  Emerged in Southern Great Lakes during  mid-afternoon, hit National Capital Region between 10:30PM to 11:30PM.  (By statute the National Capital Region consists of the District of Columbia, 2 Maryland counties, 4 Virginia counties, and the City of Alexandria.)

SPACE: 650 miles deep (Northern Indiana to Atlantic seaboard), 270 miles wide (roughly Norfolk VA to Philadelphia PA).

CHARACTERISTICS: Fast-moving, averaging 60 miles per hour.  Hard hitting with sustained winds ranging between 60 to 90 miles-per-hour, very strong downbursts (and even stronger microbursts, producing tornado-like outcomes), widespread lightning strikes, and hail.  Wind-gusts of over 80 miles per hour were reported along an arc extending from Baltimore (MD) in the north to Richmond (VA) in the south.

Derecho’s are difficult to predict.  Most meteorologists are surprised the June 29 squall line survived its transit of the Appalachians.   Descending toward the coastal plain the derecho was quickly strengthened by the hot, humid atmospheric instability spawned by a record-breaking hot day.  The June 29 temperature in Washington DC had reached 104 degrees.

Again and again the June 29 derecho has been described as a “no-notice hurricane.”

FREQUENCY: Uncommon.  Usually less than one per year anywhere in North America.  Typically no more than one every four years in the mid-Atlantic.

CONSEQUENCES: Twenty-six deaths,  over 5 million without electricity for up to one week, widespread telecommunications outages (including 911 system failures), water quality concerns in West Virginia, suburban Maryland and other locations, transportation system stress due to reduced fuel pumping capabilities, traffic signal failures, and increased traffic, as a result of both the storm and Independence Day holiday.  Economic impact — from both physical destruction and loss-of-trade — not yet calculable.

ANALYSIS: Following is a Washington Post editorial that was written about 72 hours after the event.  It is, I suppose, a kind of consensus analysis.  I am concerned this consensus gives insufficient attention to several strategic realities.  The Post editorial board’s original analysis is in italics.  My counter-argument is indented non-italic.

Powerful storm exposes lack of disaster preparedness

THE FREAK SUMMER STORM that laid waste to much of the mid-Atlantic on Friday night left chaos in its howling wake — and a mess of questions about the region’s capacity to cope with the unexpected.

The issue is framed as the “capacity to cope”.  In this framing and throughout the editorial’s  analysis there is a predisposition to an effective response that will quickly and fully restore the prior condition.  This response-orientation is too narrow.

In Northern Virginia, where Verizon handles most 911 calls, emergency phone service simply did not exist for much of the weekend, even as residents scrambled to absorb a surge of bona fide emergencies. Suburban Maryland’s main power provider, Pepco, once again scrambled to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers who have come almost to expect wildly inconvenient outages in extreme temperatures.

What these — and many other — examples point to is the increasingly interdependent character of the technological webs on which we have built our daily lives.  On most days these interdependencies generate substantial benefits.  But on bad days the same connections can be a collection of cascading vulnerabilities.   The rush-to-blame service providers is too easy and — more importantly — obscures fundamental issues of real risk readiness.

In both cases, residents of the national capital region could only wince as they imagined what might befall them in more cataclysmic circumstances — a terrorist attack targeting not just population centers but critical infrastructure, for instance — and pondered the painfully evident lack of disaster preparedness.

I agree this was not a cataclysm.  As bad as it was (still is for many), this was far short of a catastrophe.  I agree there is good cause for the National Capital Region to anticipate a real catastrophe.

But what sort of “preparedness” is  envisioned?  Is it preparedness to put Humpty-Dumpty together again?  The nursery rhyme  has already warned us in this regard.

Malicious intent — criminal, terrorist or otherwise — brings with it a psycho-social multiplier effect that deserves our attention.  But intentional threats often pale beside natural and accidental threats.  Consider the potential implications of a New Madrid seismic event or an accidental collapse of the regional grid.

“We have emergencies,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. “Especially in the national capital region, we are susceptible to things happening, having public safety compromised.”

How, then, can the region be so ill-prepared?

I don’t expect to convince anyone who has been sweating out the power outage since Friday night, but the pace of restoration has seemed to me reasonably rapid.

When a hurricane or blizzard is forecast, the owners/operators of critical infrastructure have a day or more to prepare.  This event-specific preparation often involves pre-deploying and enhancing response assets.  If at all possible, additional electrical and telecommunications repair crews will be brought in from other regions outside the cone-of-uncertainty. The general population, famously, stocks up in advance and — in the case of hurricanes — may move out of the way.

On June 29, even if someone had gone to red alert as the derecho crossed the Ohio River, the realities of time and space eliminated this kind of preparation.  That’s why no-notice — or minimum notice — events are so fundamentally different than hurricanes or blizzards or — with recent advances in weather prediction — even tornadoes.

That’s the question for leaders to contemplate as the cleanup continues. And not just elected leaders, but corporate ones too: Verizon and Pepco both owe the public a much more thorough accounting and, more to the point, explanation of why it is taking so long to set things right again.

It will always take “so long to set things right again” if we persist in the illusion that we can wait to respond or that our preparedness is mostly a matter of being ready to respond.  Given the nature of our interdependent systems and their shared vulnerability to non-typical events, we are much better served to focus on prevention, mitigation, and resilience.  We also ought to be more creative in conceiving and executing recovery operations.  Failures will recur.  Catastrophic failures of distributed interdependent engineered systems are  infrequent… but practically inevitable.

Verizon, for its part, has been opaque about the 911 service crash in Northern Virginia, furnishing only vague answers to questions about why its primary and backup power sources were vulnerable and what can be done to avoid a repetition.

Then there’s Pepco. In the annals of corporate spin control, the company’s unabashed announcement Monday that it planned to restore electricity to 90 percent of its Maryland and District customers by late in the evening of July 6 — seven days after the storm — must qualify for a special mention in the Lowered Bar Category.

Or are these examples of honest uncertainty and worst-case realism? One self-described  weather nerd told me, “A derecho is a 240-plus mile front of 80-plus simultaneous F-1 tornadoes.”   Yet by Tuesday midnight telecommunications systems were — if still a bit unstable — mostly working.  Electric utilities were reporting restoration of the network’s backbone and were turning to the very time  consuming process of reconnecting individual customers.  The number of National Capital Region outages had been reduced from about 1.5 million to less than 110,000 in less than four days for an uncommon, no-notice, very hard-hitting event.  Despite extraordinary heat the public health consequences have been modest.  The celebration of Independence Day on the National Mall proceeded.  (Contrast this with the situation in West Virginia where late Wednesday 280,000 remained without power, down roughly 50 percent from the peak on Friday night.)

Should customers for whom power comes back midweek really be impressed that they suffered for just four or five days instead of for seven? And what of the 10 percent of customers whose service will still not be back by Friday night? Are they condemned to a second weekend with no air conditioning or refrigeration?

All of us might take a few moments to consider the connections — technological and human — on which we depend.  What is the nature of these dependencies?  What is the consequence of — unexpectedly — losing these connections?  Is there anything we can do — now, today — to mitigate these consequences?

Consciously or not we typically make one of four choices regarding risk: 1) we transfer the risk to someone else, 2) we accept the risk, 3) we reduce the risk, or 4) we avoid the risk.  The Washington Post editors seem to be trying to transfer all the risk responsibility to Verizon, Pepco, and other providers.  Certainly these owners/operators should be held to high standards.

But any attempt to transfer all risk will only hide a high level of accepted risk.  The level of risk accepted will be even higher because it is hidden.

It is delusional and dangerous if we — each and all of us — do not accept at least equal responsibility for the kinds of risk outlined above.  What can each of us do to reduce the risk associated with the consequences of the most hard-hitting events?

It’s little consolation to imagine that some things might have been worse. Pepco, despite leaving hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses in the lurch, did manage to prioritize restoration of service to hospitals, nursing homes and, critically, Metro. Dominion Virginia Power was also able to restore electricity relatively quickly to hospitals in Northern Virginia as well as to the main jail in Fairfax County.

Damn with faint praise?  Might this just be an indication of planning, preparedness, and a mitigation strategy in action?

The storm gave rise to massive inconveniences and discomforts across the Washington area. Usefully, it also exposed the region’s absence of reliable fail-safes, spotty preparedness and sluggish response times in the face of emergencies. Now it’s up to leaders to identify and act on those shortcomings.

Yes.  We should treat this as a near-miss and learn every lesson possible.

But inconvenience and discomfort are the least of my concerns.  Someday a no-notice, potentially catastrophic disaster will keep power off for more than a week. Telecommunications will be similarly disrupted.  Fuel will be in short-supply.  Delivery of water, food, and pharma will be uncertain.  Our response may be further complicated by concern over biological, radiological, or some other potential contamination: natural, accidental, or intentional.

Leaders do have an important role to play.  Part of that role is attending carefully to improving response capabilities.  But even more important — and too often ignored — is identifying opportunities to prevent, mitigate, and improve resilience.

And it is not only a matter for political and corporate leaders.   Organizing our economy and much of our lives around various interdependent distributed networks involves both risks and rewards.  We tend to take the rewards for granted and deny the risks.  This is irresponsible.  It is unrealistic.  It is a recipe for catastrophe.

March 30, 2012

Need to know, duty to share, and — Hey, is anyone paying attention?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on March 30, 2012

Over the last couple of years a FEMA grant supported a locally driven process to anticipate a possible nuclear detonation in the nation’s capital.  I was peripherally involved in the local process.

On March 14 the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists posted a principal document emerging from this local effort. (See: http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf)

I commend the report to you.  In my judgment it’s a fine piece of policy-and-strategy oriented science.

Since the document was posted by the FAS it has been the focus of an Associated Press piece and several other media mentions.

“Have you seen the leak?” was the first line of several emails I received after the AP story appeared. As a “leak” the document suddenly had a previously unrecognized appeal.

When the document was initially completed in autumn 2011 it was simply a technical report — generated by a National Laboratory under a FEMA grant — but otherwise unofficial.    It was conceived by local leadership to provide an empirical and expert-informed basis for a process of  whole community engagement.  Public information and education regarding the IND issue had been a priority from very early in the process.  This original version of the report was distributed to the National Capital Region planning community, including me.

Sometime in December a decision emerged from FEMA to create an official version of the  document designated as For Official Use Only (FOUO).  This new version superseded the original document.  If DHS guidance on application of FOUO exists, I have not seen it.  In my experience FOUO means to know who’s getting the document and be sure there’s some good cause for that person to get the document.

While this is a very low level of “security”, there was still push-back to the designation from the response planning community. Local leaders argued they spent grant money on the report with an explicit expectation it would not be classified.  My favorite push-back quoted at length from a December 2 speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute:

In national security there is a culture of confidentiality, the need to protect the nation’s most sensitive information.  In homeland security there’s an expectation of transparency:  it’s not a need to know, it’s a duty to share, it’s an expectation to share. In national security there’s unity of command.  In homeland security, it’s a unity of effort.  It’s a different model.  It’s a different model.  And we need to understand the things that we deal with from the differences that that model represents. (The underline appeared in the original push-back.)

Despite local requests — and appeals to higher authority — the FOUO revision stuck.

Several weeks before there was even a rumor of FOUO, I was using the original technical report and other materials in an effort to entice some long-form journalism focusing on the issues involved.  There was not even a nibble.

Maybe it was my angle.   For me one of  the most interesting issues exposed by the report is how public preparedness is fundamental to surviving any really bad day.  Whether the cause is earthquake, hurricane, nuclear detonation or whatever, our best science is finding public readiness and resilience before an event largely determines the success (or not) of response and recovery afterwards.

In the particular case of an IND in DC, tens-of-thousands will survive and potentially thrive if they don’t immediately try (and probably fail) to evacuate and instead shelter-in-place.  The technical report made this clear.  So does the original AP report.

Most of the headlines and much of the commentary since have neglected this aspect of the report.  But at least one media outlet led with this angle.  The headline in the Arlington (VA) Sun-Gazette was: Local Officials: Report Confirms Nuclear Attack Survivable If Right Steps Are Taken.

A new federal report looking at a low-grade nuclear explosion’s impact across the metropolitan area provides better insight on how to react and survive such an incident, county officials said.

For the most part, the mantra of public-safety officials boils down to: Shelter in place until the danger passes.

“If you’re outdoors, get indoors. If you’re indoors, stay indoors,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management. “The public needs to resist the urge to go outside, get in their cars and get on the roads – the last thing we want the public to do is to be outside. Buildings do provide a lot of buffer.”

Seems to me a helpful message.  Glad it’s gotten a bit more attention because of reports on the report.

Here’s a guess, the report was news-worthy — it appeared in dozens of the nation’s principal news outlets —  for two reasons: 1) it was a government report about something very bad and 2) there was a slight suggestion the government was trying to keep the report secret.  As such the report fit two of the core narratives of journalism: “the king has announced” and “the king is corrupt.”   These two story-lines have been the top of the news for about two centuries.

Thank goodness for the FOUO designation.   Without that, no one may have noticed at all.

March 3, 2012

Fukushima on PBS Frontline

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2012

This past week, PBS’ acclaimed show Frontline put a spotlight on the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown.  You can watch the entire episode, as well read the supplemental materials, here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/japans-nuclear-meltdown/

It is a moving story and I highly recommend watching the episode.  It made me think about how we rate or judge performance in catastrophic incidents.  It is often easy to look back and critique, but for those working in the midst of crises who operate on limited data and without the benefit of a strategic vantage point the decisions are not so clear. In this case it seems that the process resulted in (eventually) the correct calls being made.  A different decision at any of various points may have resulted in the evacuation of almost 30 million people in and around Tokyo.

What has the U.S. faced recently that comes close?  Are responsible organizations, in and out of government as well as at every level, ready to face such a challenge?

I hope so.  But I wouldn’t bet my own money on it.

December 28, 2011

Accountability in the Information Age

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Media,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on December 28, 2011

Yesterday, our friends and fellow bloggers at Wired magazine’s Threat Level recapped the debate between New Yorker writer and prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and NYU academic and social media evangelist Clay Shirky regarding the role of social media in mobilizing and promoting street protests in support of democratic movements around the world. Shirky, predictably, suggests the movements would not have achieved critical mass without social media. Gladwell takes a far more skeptical view, preferring to see in these movements evidence of the democratic impulse as the message of freedom rather than just another medium for it.

Bill Wasik argues that both perspectives have considerable merit. It’s hard to argue that social media had no influence over the scope or scale of the protests, especially their rapid extension across international borders. At the same time, suggesting that social media should receive at least some of the credit for inspiring democratic uprisings overstates their capacity to encourage virtuous behavior. In the end, Wasik seems to side with Gladwell, arguing that social media enable rather than inspire mass movements.

Given the growing zeal among emergency managers to adopt social media this argument is worth noting. Social media have changed the way emergency managers do their jobs. But the way the public responds to disasters has not changed nearly as much despite social media’s widespread use.

Too many emergency managers think of the public as apathetic and uniformed about disasters. This assumption about the public extends to nearly every aspect of their behavior before, during and after disasters. Social media have helped put paid to such notions largely because they make much more readily apparent the actions of people before, during and after disasters.

For starters, social media have made it clear that people in general crave attention and attraction. We need to be known for what we know and what we can do, and we want to share our time and talents with others whose interests affirm or complement our own. We all possess an atavistic, if not innate, need to connect with others that only becomes more acute as the ways we define ourselves becomes ever more specialized and atomized.

Ambiguity makes us anxious. Seeking and sharing information even with those we do not know helps us alleviate stress. This is true even when such sharing does little to improve our circumstances or clarify a desired course of action.

In the absence of altruism, the introduction of social media into this mix should be expected to do little more than provide people with a platform for talking about disasters. But that’s not what we have seen happening. People inevitably do things when confronted with disaster. Being right takes a backseat to doing right.

Social media have changed the emergency management landscape in large part because they enable people far removed from the direct effects of the disaster to affect its outcome. They do this by giving people immersed in an event the instant ability to connect with the resources of a global audience and share more than just their stories.

Social media have made this process easier and faster. But they are not alone responsible for its emergence.

The one thing that may have changed most with the emergence of social media is the balance between the three competing priorities in emergency management: speed, relevance and accuracy.

In the past, emergency managers carefully parsed the flow of information out of fear that incorrect or conflicting information would undermine their credibility, which in turn would compromise efforts to advance response and recovery. Social media have made it much more apparent that people require very little direction from us when it comes to helping each other cope with the after-effects of disaster. Similarly, they are much more forgiving of errors and helpful about correcting them than we tend to imagine in advance.

People clearly see an important place for emergency managers and government officials as honest brokers, which demands of them an authentic voice characterized by empathy, ethics and equity. These three attributes define accountability in the Information Age, and highlight the importance of social media in emergency management.

Waiting to get the message right is no longer an option. Responding quickly is about riding the wave not generating its momentum. And errors of commission are less likely to be judged harshly than errors of omission, especially when they display relevance, which is to say they reflect a reasonable effort to mobilize or manage collective action to make things better.

Like the street protests and insurgent democracy movements around the world, the past year’s disasters and emergencies have demonstrated the important but not central role of social media in enabling humane action. This impulse arises not from the media but rather from the message. Any fears that social media would combine with Americans’ couch-potato culture to render public responses ever more passive have proven unfounded.

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