Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 9, 2014

House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning? Grading the Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy”

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on April 9, 2014

Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning?”

I’m going to say no.  No, they are not.

It seemed more an opportunity to critique the Administration on the concept of a “pivot toward Asia” and keeping us (too?) engaged in the Middle East rather than a honest attempt at assessing this difficult question.

However, the participants are well qualified to address this issue:

Panel I

The Honorable Joseph Lieberman
(Former United States Senator)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

The Honorable Jane Harman
Director, President, and Chief Executive Officer
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
(Former Member of Congress)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Panel II

Seth Jones, Ph.D.
Associate Director
International Security and Defense Policy Center
RAND Corporation
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Frederick W. Kagan, Ph.D.
Christopher DeMuth Chair and Director
Critical Threats Project
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Mr. Benjamin Wittes
Senior Fellow
Governance Studies
The Brookings Institution
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

One would think this would be a well attended hearing, but notice the empty seats around the 2:00 minute mark in this video (unfortunately I couldn’t find a video of the entire hearing that I could post):

For the full hearing, go here.

 

March 27, 2014

Dignity in Disaster

Filed under: Catastrophes,Disaster,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on March 27, 2014

Shigeru Ban has been awarded the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The Japanese architect’s practice is comprehensive, but he has given particular attention to innovative design, materials, and construction techniques for post-disaster settings.

He was one of the first to use — and creatively adapt — cargo containers for use as human shelter. (See here application in Northeast Japan following 3/11.)

No one else has so beautifully and effectively deployed cardboard.  Originally conceived as a quick and inexpensive means of providing temporary post-disaster housing in Rwanda, Kobe, Haiti and elsewhere, the material is now recognized as a sustainable, resilient, and flexible resource for an extraordinary range of form and function.

Cardboard Cabin_shigeru

Cardboard Cabins (Kobe, Japan) photo found here.

Below is the “Cardboard Cathedral” replacing the much-mourned earthquake pummeled Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand.   It has been found that with regular maintenance — mostly painting — these temporary structures can be long-living.

In response and recovery we often begin at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: water, food, and basic shelter.  Too often we are inclined to ignore the higher reaches of beauty, inspiration, and hope.  Shigeru Ban’s architecture demonstrates attending to biological fundamentals need not exclude engaging the psychological and spiritual.

Cardbaord Cathedral_Stephen Goodenough Photo

Cardboard Cathedral (Christchurch, New Zealand) photo by Stephen Goodenough

February 18, 2014

Something thoughtful about risk and homeland security

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on February 18, 2014

Would you like to brush up on your understanding of risk models and methods as they apply to homeland security? Maybe get some new ideas?

Ted Lewis recently published a web tutorial about risk — called “Risk Methods and Models” — in the online journal, Homeland Security Affairs.

You can find the tutorial at this link.

The tutorial is a muli-media presentation that begins with a brief history of probability, chance, and risk.  Lewis describes many of the ideas used to think about risk in the homeland security enterprise.  The tutorial surveys a variety of risk models and assessment methods, such as a priori, a posteriori, and conditional probability; expected utility theory using probabilistic risk analysis; long-tailed exceedence, and Bayesian models; and network risk in complex systems.

I vaguely knew what some of those words meant before I went through the tutorial.  I can’t say I can now explain all those ideas to someone else.  I found most of the presentation clear to a fault, but it is not a tutorial you go through once.  At least I couldn’t.

Maybe the most controversial part of the tutorial is the discussion of modern thinking about risk as it applies to networked systems like power grids, the Internet, and other critical infrastructures. I say “controversial” because I know of at least one knowledgable expert who’s said the information Lewis present is not accepted by the field at large.

He may be right.  But when I first heard the criticism, I thought about what Buckminster Fuller said about how to change ideas:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Homeland security has been trying to get consensus about risk for as long as I can remember.  I think Lewis wants to make mainstream homeland security ideas about risk obsolete.

According to Lewis, people who go through his 5 page tutorial (OK, 5 Internet pages, so don’t be thinking 8 by 10) “will be able to assess risk methods, understand limitations and applicability of those methods, and implement programs in risk assessment.”

If risk is something you think about, give the tutorial a try.  Check out the introductory video here:

 

 

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

January 13, 2014

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

MONDAY EVENING UPDATE:

Several media outlets — and some private emails — indicate some areas of the Kanawha Valley are being told their tap water is again safe to consume.  Different areas are being “cleared” in a step-by-step process of flushing and multiple-testing.

–+–

Last week an unknown amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (one estimate referenced 5000 gallons, another estimate is 7500 gallons). About one mile downstream from the discharge is the intake for a water system serving most of nine counties and up to 300,000 persons.

By Thursday evening a “Do Not Use” order was announced. Water customers were instructed to avoid bodily contact with tap water. Water has continued to flow for sanitation and firefighting (and to flush the system).

Even 24 hours after the spill the contamination risk was not well-understood. While not thought to be toxic, the chemical can cause irritation of the eyes and skin. Ingestion could cause nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and liver damage.

The chemical is known to be harmful in concentrations of 500 parts per million. By Friday evening levels of the chemical’s concentration in the Elk River near the water intakes had dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million.  On Saturday it was announced the “Do Not Use” order would not be lifted until a comprehensive testing process found concentrations of less than 1 ppm throughout the Kanawha Valley water network.  On Monday morning several spot-checks are reporting levels below 1 ppm.

The water network involves over 100 storage tanks and 1700 miles of pipeline.  On Saturday the water company explained, “Concentric flushing beginning at a central location and moving out to the far ends of the distribution system is expected to take several days but will not be simultaneous based upon the construction of the system. The timeline may vary based on geographic location, customer demand and other factors that impact water usage and availability.”

Retail supplies of bottled water quickly sold out on Thursday night and Friday.  But by Saturday most stores had been resupplied and some major retailers were providing customers water at no charge.  Several public distribution locations had also been established.  FEMA has shipped over 1.5 million liters into West Virginia.  Proactive efforts are being made to ensure drinking water distribution to the elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable populations.  Both private and public supply chains will continue to surge water into the greater Charleston area.

This is a still developing situation.  Lots of lessons — and pseudo-lessons — are likely to emerge.  With appropriate trepidation, let’s begin to gather some observations and hypotheses.

Prevention and Mitigation

In my personal experience secondary-effects on water systems are especially consequential. I have seen urban areas emerge from a detailed analysis of a nuclear detonation in what seemed a survivable condition only to have the water system fail and unwind an entire region.

As with many — most — modern systems of supply urban water systems are nodal networks.   These networks are innately more efficient on good days and innately predisposed to catastrophic cascades on bad days.  Trouble at any node is likely to propagate to other nodes.   The nodes — electrical, logistical, water, whatever — are especially susceptible to no-notice concentration stresses.   (This is what is currently speculated to have happened at the UPS Worldport on the weekend before Christmas causing one of the best supply chains in the world to nearly collapse.)

A significant aspect of the problem in West Virginia is that the — largely unknown — chemical was released in considerable quantity so close to the node.  There was not sufficient time-and-space for dilution to do its magic before the whole system was contaminated.  Electrical, computing, fuel, and other networks are vulnerable to analogous risk.

Response

West Virginia is on the edge of four regional supply chain networks.  This is so rough to be at least a bit misleading, but think of large circles radiating out from Washington-Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Charlotte/Roanoke.  Depending on the commodity or sector, these circles overlap in West Virginia.

I expect — but it is only an informed guess — that the spike in demand signals began emerging after Thursday orders and Friday morning deliveries were processed.  So it took until Friday morning to seriously engage the unexpected explosion in demand.  Then it was late Friday or early Saturday before sufficient commercial stocks of bottled water could be redirected into the network.

Again just an informed guess, but Kroger, Walmart, Sysco, and  McLane are probably the principal distributors of bottled water in West Virginia.  They will also be the principal sources for sanitizers, baby wipes, paper plates, and related products  For players this size, there is an existing strategic capacity to surge supply.  While 300,000 with a no-notice loss of drinking water is non-trivial it does not exhaust capacity… especially because this is on the edge of four regional supply networks, each with very deep resources. The challenge is more an issue of transport than supply.  So… by Saturday the commercial supply chain was aware of the problem, reorganizing to supply the problem, and largely successful doing so.

Provision of water by local fire departments, state emergency resources, and FEMA is a crucially important complement to the commercial supply chains.  Red Cross, churches and similar organizations are especially important to filling the demand-and-supply gap for non-mobile populations.

My off-the-cuff analysis would not be nearly so benign if a similar event hit a much more densely populated area that was served by a less diverse supply chain.

Recovery

Contamination events are especially challenging.  How do you prove a negative?  Rumors will fly faster than facts.  Bottled water is going to be more popular in the Kanawha Valley than ever before, enjoying sustained demand long after chemical concentrations fall below 1 part per million.

Nodes are important here too.  What and who are the psycho-social nodes in this (these) communities?  What relationships have already been established?  How can those relationships be energized in this instance to deal with this issue?  Will these communities respond as victims, as survivors, as heroes? And what, in retrospect, will they decide to learn?

One of my West Virginia friends who contributed to this report offered,  ”Tell your readers that if they want to help they need to plan their next vacation or convention for Charleston.” Basic human needs are being addressed, but the long-term economic consequences will be very troubling.

Much more to come.  This crisis continues. But in any case, Coleridge was right:

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink….

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

Today’s guest blogger is “Donald Quixote”  Don comments frequently on Homeland Security Watch.  He writes under what he likes to call his nom de guerre because his agency frowns on its employees posting material without agency approval. 

————-

The House Committee on Homeland Security recently passed the Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act (HR 5997)/ (HR 1791) authorizing the expansion of the use of existing grant programs for enhancing medical preparedness, medical surge capacity and mass prophylaxis capabilities during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Reportedly, it does not furnish any additional funding, but provides the ability to leverage the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The pending bill can be viewed from several different perspectives.  The optimist may view this initial accomplishment as Congress finally addressing a very serious threat of a chemical or biological attack that may be looming, or  – rather more likely — the threat of a serious novel pandemic illness.  The pessimist may view it as the continued, wider distribution of limited resources between numerous partners in the ever-vague world of homeland security (whatever that entails, but that is another conversation).  I tend to believe it is both.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the 2009 H1N1  influenza virus killed 10 times more than previously estimated by the World Health Organization.  A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine estimated the number that died was 203,000.  Although the number appears quite small when compared to the current world population and the momentous number that perished during the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it remains a relevant number, if accurate, as a warning indicator.

However, how many of us truly appreciate the conceivably massive cascading consequences of a serious novel pandemic threat?

Are MERS, SARS, H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 warning shots over the bow or just natural occurrences that come and go over time without serious implications?

The topic of biosecurity is not new to this blog.  Mr. Bogis and Mr. Wolfe have identified numerous areas of interest regarding the funding and resources already appropriated for biosecurity and biodefense.  There have been valuable discussions and debates regarding the perceived and actual risks and returns on investment.  The practical value of the previous investments and effectiveness of the many programs shall remain the subject of debate until they are partially or fully tested by an incident or event.

In the realm of a serious novel pandemic illness, I controversially continue to argue that it could easily outrank a conventional terrorist attack as a current threat due to the possibly catastrophic consequences to our citizens, critical infrastructure and civil stability on a broader scale.

We can only ignore the low-probability\high-consequence biological attack or serious novel pandemic illness threat until it happens.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of ignoring this threat because of limited resources and impaired strategic vision.

The Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act, if ultimately enacted, may affect some change in this area or at least spark interest in expanded medical preparedness.


 

 

 

November 9, 2013

Wednesday + Thursday = Saturday

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2013

Did anyone else notice the potential continuity between Chris Bellavita’s Wednesday post and my Thursday post?

It was entirely coincidental.

But — at least for me — my critique of catastrophe “plans” is creatively answered by Patrick Lagadec’s Navigating the Unknown (linked to by Chris)The strategic stance and organizational capacity advocated by Lagadec is a big part of what I perceive is most helpful in preparing for a catastrophe.

If you haven’t already, download and read and think about and talk about Lagadec’s free booklet. Writing about your impressions/reactions here might be an effective way to advance some shared thinking.

A couple of dozen readers, some I know well and some I have never met, have sent me private emails regarding my Thursday critique. Many seem to be in various states of distress.

I will not have the opportunity this weekend to respond personally to each of you.  In an attempt to be generically responsive: I am not trying to eliminate the planning profession in emergency management.   In specific regard to catastrophe planning, I hope you will read Lagadec, review your current plans and assess to what extent your current plans advance what Lagadec is advocating.

If not, why not?

October 24, 2013

An Open Letter to Jeh Johnson

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2013

October 24, 2013

Mr. Jeh Johnson, Esq.
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
1285 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Johnson:

There are some professional advancements that prompt more sympathy than celebration. I will not congratulate you on your recent nomination as secretary of homeland security. But I certainly wish you well.

Your nomination prompted reading again your remarks of last November before the Oxford Union. I had forgotten your closing reference to Martin Luther King’s November, 1957 sermon on “Loving your enemies.”   It is a great sermon with profound implications for counter-terrorism.

Dr. King’s comments are equally well-suited for aspects of the homeland security mission at some remove from counter-terrorism. Early in the sermon, he asked and answered, “How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.”

It is this aspect of love that best differentiates your new homeland security role from your long-time role in national security.

You have considerable experience in the Department of Defense. It is entirely appropriate that the Pentagon and military services be primarily concerned with external threats.  Your Oxford Union address communicates this threat-focus quite effectively. Homeland security certainly needs to be aware of external threats, but this is not its primary domain.

There are also internal threats. I would argue these are primarily the object of local, state, tribal, and federal systems of justice.  Homeland security has a collaborative and constructive role to contribute here, but — once again — this is not its primary domain.

The differentiated role of homeland security is to systematically and thoughtfully engage our vulnerabilities. Just as Dr. King advocated, homeland security begins by analyzing self, as expressed in neighborhoods and networks spanning the nation. There are threats. There are enemies. But that is not where we should begin.

We best begin by acknowledging our failures, short-comings, and weakness. We begin by carefully examining our most important relationships.  We even take a critical look at our greatest strengths, considering how and where they might lead us astray. We begin by uplifting ourselves, especially our ability to love.

Because you are familiar with Dr. King’s rigorous definition of love more explanation is not needed. But clearly it is difficult for a speech, strategy, or testimony to give priority to love.  Too many will not take you seriously. Fortunately the wonk’s code-word for the kind of love advocated by Dr. King is resilience: much easier to reference than love (but just about as complicated).

At Oxford you mentioned the moral conundrum a career in national security had presented you.  I hope your time in homeland security may offer creative resolution… for all of us.

Yours in resilience,

Philip J. Palin

September 19, 2013

Homeland security: Policy in Context

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on September 19, 2013

Recently I came into near simultaneous possession of two books.  If not for the coincidence of each being in my bag at the same time, the contrast between them would probably not have been noticed.

They are superficially similar.  Each has “Disaster” in the title.  Each measures  5 1/2 x 8 1/2.  One has 193 pages, the other 244 (with an appendix).  Both are particularly intended to inform and influence public administration of disasters.

But substantively they are profoundly different and, it occurs to me, reflect deep differences in homeland security (and probably beyond).

One is written by an individual, the other by a committee.  One draws heavily on history, as far back as Gilgamesh.  The second is aggressively contemporary, including a few statistics from the mid-20th Century but is otherwise very much a product of the last decade.  One is global in scope, the other almost entirely focused on the United States.

Given their public administration purposes it is not surprising that both give significant attention to institutional frameworks.

One book offers four key approaches: 1) enhancing institutional flexibility, 2) building an appreciation of risk, 3) understanding disasters and crises as part of our reality, and 4) identifying means to continually invest in infrastructure.

The other book sets out six more detailed — narrow, actionable, prescriptive, presumptuous, [insert your preference here] — recommendations:

  1. Federal agencies should incorporate national resilience as an organizing principle to inform and guide the mission and actions of the federal government and the programs it supports at all levels.
  2. The public and private sectors in each community should work cooperatively to encourage commitment to and investment in a risk management strategy that includes complementary structural and nonstructural risk-reduction and risk-spreading measures or tools.
  3. A national resource of disaster-related data should be established that documents injuries, loss of life, property loss, and impacts on economic activity.
  4. The Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with other federal agencies, state and local partners, and professional groups, should develop a National Resilience Scorecard.
  5. Federal, state, and local governments should support the creation and maintenance of broad-based community resilience coalitions at the local and regional levels.
  6. All federal agencies should promote and coordinate national resilience in their programs and policies. A resilience policy review and self-assessment within agencies, and the establishment of a strong community among agencies, are keys to achieving this kind of coordination.

The contrasting proposals are good clues to the conceptual origins of each book.

It will not surprise any regular reader that I am more personally predisposed to the historically and globally framed text.  But even when I disagree, I admire the other effort to move from conceiving possibilities to actual action.

These two efforts could have been complementary.  One might have placed our contemporary challenges in context.  Serious engagement with deeper context would likely have produced action recommendations more likely to see action.  The tactical tendencies of the group-effort would have put more meat on the individual’s frame.

But my purpose is not to critique either book.  Each is informative and helpful on its own terms.

It is those terms of self-reference that, perhaps, concern me most.  One is mechanistic — at least Newtonian — in its expectations.  The other is philosophical.  (A colleague recently commented that a publication of mine was “very philosophical”.  He was not being complimentary.)

But whether we love wisdom or just lust after its consequence, we need — especially homeland security needs — to somehow better blend policy levers (mechanisms) with social insight (philosophy).  Yes, it is possible and often helpful to conceive of individuals and neighborhoods and diverse populations as mathematical objects.  But it can also be dangerously reductionist.

I am — perhaps fatally — biased toward the historical and philosophical because of the respect these disciplines have for human failure while (usually) avoiding cynicism regarding human potential.  So much of positivist policy development is either Pollyannish or despairing.  There is a middle way.

A former Speaker of the House once told me Washington DC is the last refuge of Medieval Nominalists; by which he meant it is a city preoccupied with finding precisely the right words to successfully legislate, regulate, adjudicate, and rule. Words matter.  But no set of words, alone, are ever sufficient. Relationships matter more. Working together toward a shared vision even more.

I commend both books to you:

Crisis, Disaster and Risk: Institutional Response and Emergence by Kyle Fambry

Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative by the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters, National Academy of Sciences.

August 8, 2013

An abundance of caution

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 8, 2013

Diplomatic Posts ClosedOn Monday the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, explained several U.S. diplomatic posts would remain closed for up to a week out of an “abundance of caution” prompted by a potential terrorist attack.

As the Tsarnaev brothers fled, flinging explosives from their stolen car, residents of Boston and many close-in suburbs were told to stay inside behind locked doors.  The unprecedented, rather amazing, shut-down of a huge urban area was justified by an abundance of caution emerging from a proven murderous capacity and a continued proximate capability demonstrated just hours before.

As Hurricane Sandy churned north, Mayor Bloomberg announced mandatory evacuations and scheduled suspension of the transit system as warranted by an abundance of caution. Soon enough — and well before landfall — he was warning of a clear and present danger.

Congressional leaders who have been briefed on the intelligence “stream” are unified in endorsing the abundance of caution undertaken in recent days.  It is reassuring that our feuding representatives can find anything on which to agree.  Especially when such vociferous political adversaries make common-cause, I am inclined to defer to their assessment of the current context.  The evidence has, apparently, pointed to a fast-approaching threat.

But I will raise an issue of strategy or perhaps policy beyond the current circumstance: With Hurricane Sandy the threat velocity was known and New York was absolutely in the target zone.  In the case of Boston, Watertown, and near-by, bombing, murder and mayhem were undeniably clear and present.

What seems to be the situation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and AQ-Core is a communications intercept involving a vague instruction to do something big.  I will admit this strikes me — so early in the post-Snowden period — as a suspicious choice by Messrs. Zawahiri and Wuhayshi. (Or… in our Kafkaesque counterterrorism context is the intercept report a false-flag to distract AQ et al from the actual tradecraft involved?) When or where or precisely who might carry out the attack is not known.  So… we evacuate or shelter-in-place across roughly the same expansive space as the Umayyad Caliphate.

But… taking the reported intercept on face value, AQAP has a significant capacity in Yemen.  Given demonstrated AQAP capabilities, the shuttering of our Sana’a facility and evacuation of most personnel is probably a prudent measure.  (The government of Yemen disagrees and claims to have foiled a local plot.)

We have seen that other AQ franchises across North Africa, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere also have existing capacity.  I don’t have the resources to assess threat capabilities in each nation where our official outpost has closed its doors.  No doubt if the decision-criterion is an “abundance of caution” a sufficient argument can be made for each.

–+–

Last week I was given a boilerplate contract to sign.  It included a clause that could have been used by the other party to claim 125 percent of any revenue I generated from a set of long-time clients.  This was not the original intent of the clause, but was a possible application.  Such action by the other party is very unlikely, but out of an abundance of caution I arranged for an amendment to the agreement.

This is an example of the origins of the phrase.  In Latin it is “ex abundanti cautela”.  In Roman law the tendency to explicitly engage and counter very unlikely possibilities is prompted by an an abundance of caution.  Such action is certainly prudent. It is also — at least in the context of ancient Roman law — tedious, pedantic, and often so ridiculous as to become absurd.

Today the phrase is usually unveiled with a kind of magisterial flourish that suggests no reasonable person could possibly contest the good sense of behaving with an abundance of caution.

Is over-abundance possible?

New York could — out of an abundance of caution — announce voluntary evacuations every time one of those individual tracks in the hurricane cone-of-probability crosses between Atlantic City and the Hamptons.

The Boston area shelter-in-place order was lifted about 6:15 PM.  After nearly eleven hours behind locked doors, caution seemed a bit over-ripe. The surviving suspect was located in the boat about a half-hour later.  What would have been our assessment of the Boston shut-down if the second suspect had not been located that evening?

 –+–

Most of our risks are no-notice. But with hurricanes — and to a lesser extent tornadoes and blizzards — there is an emerging ability to take action to avert harm.  The reason we spend billions on  the intelligence community and offer the first fruits of liberty on the altar of security is to give us similar warning for evil intention.

What we have learned from weather-related warning is that preventive action not followed by a confirming event increases the tendency of the population to take unnecessary risks next time.  Over-zealous — or unlucky — efforts to prevent harm can perversely cause greater harm.

While we are certainly dealing with probabilities, this is not — yet — a matter of contending mathematical models.  We are left with concepts… judgments… words.  Always fallible, but fully worth our careful thought.

An abundance of caution is an ancient legal principle supportive of taking preventive action. So is the common law’s “bad tendency” which was succeeded by “clear and present danger” which has evolved into justifying preventive action by the State only where the threat of violence is both imminent and likely.

Is the threat proximate in time and space and probable?  We will still disagree, but these are the right questions to ask.  These are the right questions to answer in justifying dramatic preventive or preemptive action.

July 25, 2013

A missing link in strategy?

Earlier this week I was re-reading the DHS Strategic Plan (2012-2016).  I perceived something — actually its absence —  I had not noticed before.

Community involvement is, of course, a recurring mantra in the Strategic Plan and many other DHS policy, strategy, and operational documents. “Whole Community” is prominent in Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disaster.  Other missions include similar language.  For example Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security has a goal to “Increase community participation in efforts to deter terrorists and other malicious actors and mitigate radicalization toward violence.”

A close reading of the Strategic Plan suggests the whole is made up of the following parts:

Individual
Family
Household
Neighborhood
Community
Private and Non-Profit Sectors
Faith Based organizations
Localities
States
Tribes
Federal Partners
Nation
All Segments of Society

Especially with those catch-all terms it’s not that my “absence” is excluded.  But it is not given explicit attention.  Certainly not priority.

What prominent place in the life of most Americans is not referenced?

The workplace.

Indirectly this is part of the private sector or non-profit-sector or local and state government or whatever other sector in which you work. But these “sectors” are abstractions. The workplace is a concrete — often literally glass, steel, and concrete — place. Yet the only time “workplace” is referenced in the Strategic Plan is with workplace standards for protecting intellectual property and “workplace wellness” programs for DHS employees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans age 25-to-54 spend an average of 8.8 hours per day at work. This is a larger block than any other activity, much larger than any other non-sleeping activity surveyed.

Yet the places where we work are not regularly conceived or engaged as venues where homeland security priorities can be pursued.

There are exceptions. I am aware of a few.  I welcome you highlighting successful exceptions in the comments.

The absence of the workplace from the DHS Strategy reveals a strategic perspective.  It is another example of the disconnect between private and public domains.  Clearly government is a place where homeland security is to be practiced.  There is considerable effort to engage neighborhoods and sometimes schools. These are real places too, but much more public than private in their character.

Is a “community” — whole or not — a real place?  It depends, in my experience, on the community and how an outsider approaches the putative community.

There are offices, distribution centers, power plants, factories and refineries, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and many more real places where each day the vast majority of Americans spend the majority of their waking hours.  Most of these places feature a task-oriented culture with management processes already in place.  Most of these places are self-interested in a reasonable level of safety, continuity, and resilience.

In my personal experience most of these places are wonderful contexts for the practical practice of homeland security.

There is a tendency for modern strategic thinking to be more comfortable with space than place.  See battlespace and cyberspace, even Space Command.  I am often an advocate for differentiating between Theater Command and Incident Command and perceive we give too little attention to the Big Picture.  But it is not, of course, one or the other: it is a continuum.

Real risks, threats, vulnerabilities and consequences usually unfold in real places where people come and go everyday.

Interesting what you can miss even when it’s right in front of you.  I’ve read that strategy a half-dozen times.  Wonder what else is hiding in plain sight?

June 13, 2013

Public and Private Cultures: Context, concepts, communication, action (Part II)

Filed under: Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 13, 2013

Last week I launched an analysis of private-public tensions in homeland security.  I argued — very broadly (perhaps too broadly to be meaningful) — that the private and public sectors experience two very different contexts.  

The private sector context is perceived as  having significant opportunities for growth, where failure — especially when recognized and jettisoned — can be a key contributor to ultimate success.  The public sector context is perceived as (and often is) resource static or declining and failure is seen as wasteful and/or a source of personal humiliation.

With the exception of an exception by Bill Cumming, this analysis did not prompt comment.  In some cultures silence is a signal of disagreement.  In the United States silence is more often a matter of tacit agreement or apathetic disengagement.  In this instance, I assume the latter but would value your input to challenge or refine these reflections.

–+–

Different Contexts produce Different Concepts of Operation

If reality is static then planning (derived from the Latin for flat or plain or easy to be seen) is not only logical but is reasonably likely to work well.

Moreover if reality is static and failure is “not an option” then planning needs to be — and can be — very detailed.  It becomes the operational analogy of a symphony score.

In the military, emergency management and related public sector domains the score (plan) will often seem similar to an early 20th Century orchestral composition by Schoenberg or Berg or Eisler where excruciating detail unfolds from many pages of careful notation.  It is almost impossible to perform, but  with enough practice serious professionals can pull it off.  Audience reaction varies from wild applause to rioting in the aisle.

Planners are certainly aware they are planning for a non-static situation.  But their current reality — in terms of budget, assignment, measures, and more — is mostly static.  Their own success or failure is much more likely to emerge from the ongoing stasis than the anticipated non-stasis for which they are planning.

(Which reminds me of a Niels Bohr aphorism: “You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.”)

Meanwhile the private sector — because it perceives expansive opportunity — is inclined to much looser plans, much more jazz than symphony.  This does not mean it is undisciplined, but it is a very different kind of discipline. “To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is that it’s very ordered,” according to Deniz Ucbasaran. “Underpinning the structure is a long tradition of education and practice.”

In the public sector a great deal of perceived value is embedded in the plan itself.  Developing explicit guidance for future execution is the goal. The private sector tends to focus more on the planning process.  Private value is generated by bringing together individuals and teams from across the enterprise with customers and suppliers and other stakeholders for problem-seeking discussions that emphasize choosing strategic predispositions.  Developing implicit understanding is a frequent goal.

Because private sector context is perceived to be ever-changing it is assumed most tactical decisions cannot be made until real-time is unfolding.  But strategic advantages can be recognized and claimed to better support tactical choices.

Both private and public planning is focused on an anticipated future.  Both private and public recognize the future is not precisely predictable.  But there is a tendency for the public sector to perceive that unpredictability is best engaged through systematically conceived pre-decisions, while the private sector is more inclined to identify present action and shared strategic objectives.

(In a future post I will try to describe what is actually done by the two sectors when the anticipated future unfolds.  It often seems to me counter-intuitive given these predispositions.)

Recently I was involved in a mostly public sector planning process for an unlikely but very consequential event.  There was a private sector guy having his baptismal experience in public-private joint planning.  It was a much better-than-average  public sector planning activity.  There was a substantive discussion of risks. It focused helpfully on meaningful objectives and how the plan should be amended before the next meeting of the inter-jurisdictional, inter-agency, (sort of ) private-public group.

But after the session the newbie private sector participant shared his frustration with the lack of immediate operational/functional action.  He was not referencing planning actions.  He wanted to know when actual changes in personnel, financial or operational commitments would be made to reflect the substantive discussion.  Of course such actions are almost never within the purview of public sector planners.

In a static — or receding — universe, planning relates to what should be done in the future.  In an expanding universe planning is mostly about what will be done now to shape the future.

–+–

Another Niels Bohr quote (can you guess who I am reading?): “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”  While the rhetoric above may sound confident, I am not. This is written out as a kind of discovery learning.  I hope you have some corrections or, at least, alternatives.

June 6, 2013

Public and Private Cultures: Context, concepts, communication, action

Filed under: Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 6, 2013

I recently completed a homeland security project with a significant private-public element.  I have begun the assessment process and intend to include a personal note on the issue of “cultural tensions” between the private and public sector.

Following is the first of an expected three or fours posts where I am trying to think through my impressions.  There are empirical findings, but the data can reasonably be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We are left with analysis or interpretation or persuasion.  I would very much value your feedback.  What seems sound and what sounds wrong?  Given your own experience of private-public engagements, what are your questions or alternative answers?

Clearly this is radically reductionist.  At best this is an effort to identify some helpful heuristics.  At worst — well, heuristics are always double-edged.

–+–

Perceived Context as a Source of Cultural Differentiation

I am the son and grandson of grocers.  Over the last three decades I have not been employed by an organization I did not create or co-create.  I have worked with various public sector entities and have been compensated for this work, but I have never been employed by the public sector.

I have never been employed by a large organization of any sort.  I have been a consultant to large organizations, but my professional home has typically been an enterprise of 10-to-40 persons.  Very early in my career I was part of a  global consulting firm of a few thousand, but we were organized in mostly independent small offices and teams.  It was a much looser arrangement than I encountered among our Fortune-100 client-base.

I share this personal background because it no doubt influences the following findings.  As my Dad often says, “We are who we are because of where we were when.”  Our understanding of context influences every other understanding.

Fundamental to private sector context is failure: competitors fail, customers fail, colleagues fail.  Start-ups fail.  Market-dominating firms are killed off in a couple of CEO-cycles.  I have mostly failed.  Even when the organizations I have created have continued they have never achieved what those present at the beginning envisioned.

Private sector culture anticipates failure.  Hitting 300 is very good, especially if you are regularly up to bat, even more if you can hit when the bases are loaded.   Knowing that failure is likely you look for back-up opportunities, maintain exit plans, and cultivate an ecology of opportunity.  Many private sector enterprises use failure much as an organic farmer uses waste to fertilize the next generation of crops.

This is because the U.S. private sector is heavily oriented toward growth.  Good growth from a minority of successful initiatives will more than cover the losses generated by failures… especially failures that are brought to an early demise.  Know when to hold them and when to fold them.  Walking away from failure at the right time — and learning from the failure — is a key characteristic of the most resilient private sector enterprises.

As an outsider looking in on the public sector I do not perceive this creative anticipation of failure plays a similar role.  Rather, avoiding failure seems a regular characteristic of public sector clients and colleagues.

This may be related to a lack of growth opportunities within the public sector.   In an essentially static resource context failure is seen as waste rather than exploration or innovation or investment.

There is at least as much diversity within the private sector and public sector as between them.  The US Coast Guard and the Navy Chaplain Corps are among the most entrepreneurial of organizations I have had the pleasure to encounter.  Education and training organizations are — weirdly — often the most bureaucratic regardless of their private or public status.  I have watched up-close as proud private sector brands have stubbornly avoided taking reasonable — much less market bending — risks.

But as a general rule, public sector organizations are loathe to fail.  In some cases it is precisely the prospect of imminent failure that generates “growth” opportunities for the public sector.  Just when the private sector would probably be walking away is when the public sector is tempted to double-down to ensure success — or at least avoid failure.  The public sector too often succumbs to this temptation.

The temptation to avoid-failure-at-all-cost is reinforced by the way public sector failure is framed (in a couple of meanings of the word) by the media and elected officials.  There is a cult of personal accountability that practices a cruel liturgy of public humiliation.

For the private sector failure can also come with considerable personal costs, but it is balanced with upside possibilities.  In the public sector the outcomes of failure are heavily weighted toward all-costs and almost no incentive. Culturally the private sector has mythologized reality as a space/time where possibilities abound, failure is temporary, and the universe is expanding.  The mythology of the public sector is much more a matter of light and dark, success or failure, and the universe is static.

–+–

Next week — maybe — the operational concepts that emerge from these alternative contexts.

June 1, 2013

Unthinking habit is among our top threats

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 1, 2013

On Friday evening another series of tornadoes touched down near Oklahoma City.  They descended on the metropolitan area during the rush hour in the midst of heavy rains that complicated tornado identification and caused significant flooding.

The worst threat emerged between about 6:30 and 7:00PM Central Time.  According to CNN:

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol says a mother and child were killed as tornadoes moved through Oklahoma City. Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph says troopers found the bodies near a vehicle along Interstate 40 west of the city.
 
Parts of Interstates 35 and 40, which cut through Oklahoma City and Moore, were “a parking lot,” the weather service said, warning that those caught in the heavy rush hour traffic “are in danger.”

“We’ve got a nightmare situation going on right now,” Betsy Randolph, a state Highway Patrol spokeswoman, told CNN.

“They are essentially sitting ducks on the interstate.”

Overturned big rigs and cars littered portions of the roadway, and thousands more were believed to be stuck in the traffic.

“My biggest concern right now is the traffic that is out on the highway right now,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.

She said she has called out the National Guard, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the state Office of Emergency Management to “try to get the traffic moving” and get people to shelter.

As of Saturday morning I am mostly reading and hearing echoes of this Friday evening report.  More details are needed.  But there is a strong suggestion that even among the storm-sophisticated citizens of central Oklahoma there was a readiness to risk a “regular commute” in the midst of a tornado watch/warning and observable heavy rain.

The decision to stay or go is at the core of an effective emergency response.  For the vast majority of threats the better decision is to stay.  But a wide range of habits — from fire drills, to hurricane evacuations, to the daily commute — push us to go… sometimes directly into harms way.

LATE BREAKING: Please access the comments and many thanks to Mr. Rob Dale for very helpful additional information.

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.

–+–

And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

April 4, 2013

Industry Consolidation: Implications for deadly violence in the United States

Filed under: Border Security,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on April 4, 2013

Monday the Associated Press released an investigative piece on the role of Mexican drug cartels in the United states.   According to this report,

Mexican drug cartels whose operatives once rarely ventured beyond the U.S. border are dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States — an emboldened presence that experts believe is meant to tighten their grip on the world’s most lucrative narcotics market and maximize profits.

If left unchecked, authorities say, the cartels’ move into the American interior could render the syndicates harder than ever to dislodge and pave the way for them to expand into other criminal enterprises such as prostitution, kidnapping-and-extortion rackets and money laundering…

“It’s probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime,” said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago office.  MORE

(For much more detail on the Mexican drug cartels please see a March report by the International Crisis Group: Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico.)

One way to view Mexican drug operations in the United States is as an increasingly concentrated source of supply for a popular and high margin consumer product. In most major US cities — and increasingly in suburban and rural areas too — the Sinaloa Cartel is the primary source while a range of street/prison gangs handle wholesale and retail sales.

According to the 2011 FBI National Gang Threat Assessment,

There are approximately 1.4 million active street, prison, and Outlaw Motorcycle Gang (OMG) gang members comprising more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. Gang membership increased most significantly in the Northeast and Southeast regions, although the West and Great Lakes regions boast the highest number of gang members. Neighborhood-based gangs, hybrid gang members, and national-level gangs such as the Sureños are rapidly expanding in many jurisdictions. Many communities are also experiencing an increase in ethnic-based gangs such as African, Asian, Caribbean, and Eurasian gangs. Gangs are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions and up to 90 percent in several others, according to NGIC analysis.

The financial returns of the drug trade — and increased concentration of supply — is reflected in a more streamlined retail network.  This rationalization of major US regional markets is, among other results, producing what can be seen as significant Merger & Acquisition activities across the retail environment.  According to the National Gang Threat Assessment:

Mexican Drug Trading Organizations (MDTOs) are among the most prominent Drug Trading Organizations (DTOs) largely because of their control over the production of most drugs consumed in the United States. They are known to regularly collaborate with US-based street and prison gang members and occasionally work with select OMG and White Supremacist groups, purely for financial gain… The prospect of financial gain is resulting in the suspension of traditional racial and ideological division among US prison gangs, providing MDTOs the means to further expand their influence over drug trafficking in the United States… Gangs’ increased collaboration with MDTOs has altered the dynamics of the drug trade at the wholesale level. US gangs, which traditionally served as the primary organized retail or mid-level distributor of drugs in most major US cities, are now purchasing drugs directly from the cartels, thereby eliminating the mid-level wholesale dealer. Furthermore, advanced technology, such as wireless Internet and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capabilities, has made the recruitment, collaboration, and coordination of criminal activity more efficient and lucrative, and allows direct contact between the gangs and DTOs.

One outcome of this radical shift in the supply chain for illicit drugs is the emergence of ongoing collaboration between Mexican sources, long-time African-American regional wholesalers, and several white Aryan retail networks (with lots of others in the mix).  But some suggest intense local violence — such as that experienced over recent years in Chicago — can also be understood as competition over market share.

For the most radical White Supremacist organizations this collaboration with the “lesser races” is a case of the ends justifying the means.  Drug profits are a lucrative way to fund the coming revolution… as well as the current lifestyle.  In the annual estimate of the Texas gang threat released earlier this week, the state Department of Public Safety provides this quick overview of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas:

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) was formed as a prison gang and places its racist ideology secondary to its everyday criminal activities. ABT is not considered a significant threat to the border areas of Texas but is considered a prevailing gang that threatens Texas internally because of its involvement in violent crimes, the methamphetamine business, and frequent property crimes.

For what it’s worth, most of my personal contacts in Federal and Texas law enforcement do not believe the recent assassination of Kaufman County, Texas prosecutors will actually be traced to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas — as frequently mentioned in recent days – much less the killing of the Colorado prisons director.  The assassination yesterday of a West Virginia sheriff has, however, spurred concerns related to copy-cat killings.

“While I don’t think they were involved this time, I’m sure,” said one long-time DEA official, “the drug-lords are watching very carefully how this all plays out. “

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