Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

May 26, 2011

Zombie Preparedness…No, Really….

Filed under: Humor,Media,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on May 26, 2011

Yesterday, Mark provocatively asked if preparedness even mattered in the face of catastrophic incidents.

Not only do I say yes, but I’m doubling down on cases of the impossible.  By that I refer to recent CDC guidance on preparing for a zombie outbreak.

Yes.  A zombie outbreak.

At the surface, this example of public outreach can appear quite frivolous.  At the core, it is a fantastic example of simple innovation with the potential for significant reward.

The story:

“Zombie apocalypse.” That blog posting headline is all it took for a behind-the-scenes public health doctor to set off an Internet frenzy over tired old advice about keeping water and flashlights on hand in case of a hurricane.

“You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency,” wrote Dr. Ali Khan on the emergency preparedness blog of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Note the reporter’s characterization of “tired old advice.”

The blog post in question basically summarizes some pop culture consideration of the zombie threat and offers basic preparedness advice.  However, that same information does not often penetrate into the consciousness of a younger audience when presented in phone books or as bus stop advertisements.

More important, CDC officials said, it is drawing interest from teens and young adults who otherwise would not have read a federal agency’s guidance on the importance of planning an evacuation route or how much water and what tools to store in case a major storm rolls in.

What do the kids pay attention to/what’s the reward?

Khan’s postings usually draw 1,000 to 3,000 hits in a week. This one — posted Monday — got 30,000 within a day. By Friday, it had gotten 963,000 page views and was the top item viewed on the agency’s Web site, thanks in part to media coverage that began mid-week.

Obviously, this is not a paradigm shift in public outreach that essentially solves existing problems in promoting personal preparedness.  However, it is a great example of one influential official listening to advice and acting:

The idea evolved from a CDC Twitter session with the public earlier this year about planning for disasters. Activity spiked when dozens of tweets came in from people saying they were concerned about zombies.

Dave Daigle, a veteran communications specialist, proposed the idea of using a zombie hook to spice up the hurricane message. Khan, director of emergency preparedness, approved it immediately and wrote it himself.

There will be of course those doubtful about such efforts:

There have been few comments asking whether this is the best way for the government to spend tax dollars. The agency is under a tight budget review at the moment and facing potentially serious budget cuts. But the zombie post involved no extra time or expenditure, CDC officials said.

“We have a critical message to get out and that is CDC saves lives while saving money. If it takes zombies to help us get that message out, then so be it,” said agency spokesman Tom Skinner.

What I find particularly interesting, and gratifying, about this exercise is the fact that it is not simply a one-off attempt at injecting a little humor into the standard preparedness message.  Apparently, there will be follow up:

Whether the message sticks still has to be determined. The agency is planning a follow-up survey to see if people actually did prepare emergency kits or follow Khan’s other advice.

Picking up on current trends in pop culture seems like an easy route to travel for those charged with promoting a preparedness message with the public.  Yet, given bureaucratic inertia that exists in most agencies and a reluctance to independently try new things, this relatively small experiment is hopefully an indicator of additional such efforts to come instead of the imaginative work of one individual.

While I do not disagree with other authors on this blog about the need to engage the public about risks and consequences, I feel strongly that a basic preparedness message continues to represent a fundamental building block of this amorphous thing that is popularly known as resilience.  If zombies can help getting there from here, then I say why not?

[H/t to Eric Holdeman at Disaster Zone, though I have to question his self-proclaimed zombie expertise if he advises "Conserve your ammo, one shot seems to work fine!"  Does he not know about the "double tap rule" of Zombieland?]

May 17, 2011

Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military

Filed under: Media — by Christopher Bellavita on May 17, 2011

I saw this post initially on TomDispatch.com.  It was written by Peter Van Buren, an American foreign service officer who spent a year leading a reconstruction team in Iraq.  His argument is “we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public” when reporting about war and the people who fight them.  It is also his “warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.”

Van Buren is the author of  ”We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” scheduled to be published later this year.  His blog of the same name, We Meant Well, can be found at this link.

According to the publisher’s description, Van Buren’s book “is his eyewitness account of the civilian side of the surge—that surreal and bollixed attempt to defeat terrorism and win over Iraqis by reconstructing the world we had just destroyed. Leading a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team on its quixotic mission, Van Buren details, with laser-like irony, his yearlong encounter with pointless projects, bureaucratic fumbling, overwhelmed soldiers, and oblivious administrators secluded in the world’s largest embassy, who fail to realize that you can’t rebuild a country without first picking up the trash.”

Van Buren notes the views in the essay that follows “are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. The Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.”

 

The War Lovers

Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military
By Peter Van Buren

Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone — the SEALs’ phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free…

You get the point. Towel off and read on.

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I’m a diplomat, just back from 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.

In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.

One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was now back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”

 

Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media

Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.

I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.

The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.

Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. “Don’t end up on the front page of the Washington Post,” was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to “re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it.” And that’s when we’re deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.

When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen.  Now, it’s Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid “unscripted interactions” with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building,  Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.

So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a“runaway general.”

We were, however, dead wrong.  As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who has since been redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?

I’m waiting.

I saw it myself in Iraq.  General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow.  I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.

Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert.  When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.

Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies like DADT.  (Do I have to freaking spell it out for you? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.) The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.

 

Fear Not: The Force Is With You

But the military wasn’t worried.  Why?  Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.

Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them

You arrived a stranger and a geek.  Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them.  Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.

One time I got so sick that I spent half a day inside a latrine stall. What got me out was some anonymous soldier tossing a packet of anti-diarrheal medicine in. He never said a word, just gave it to me and left. He’d likely do the same if called upon to protect me, help move my gear, or any of a thousand other small gestures.

So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.

And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military.  War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.

I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.

Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.

 

Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren