Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 11, 2014

Resilience by Design

On Monday the Mayor of Los Angeles released a report entitled Resilience by Design.  It gives particular attention to how Los Angeles can take steps now to mitigate the consequences of major risks, especially an earthquake.

This is the kind of document that — too often — only appears after a major event.  It is significant that one of the first steps Mayor Garcetti took upon his election was appointment of a Science Advisor for Seismic Safety and tasking her to undertake this analysis.

The report gives particular attention to:

  • Resilience of building stock — It is interesting that this is treated as a matter of economic resilience as well as public safety.
  • Resilience of the water system — This is what worries me most regarding the vulnerability of the Los Angeles basin.
  • Resilience of the telecommunications systems — This is a key interdependency that can divide or multiply every other response and recovery capability.

There are, obviously, other crucial problems.  But too many of these kind of studies try to take-on too much.  If everything is a priority, really nothing is a priority.

These are three strategic elements within the ability of city government to seriously engage.  Enhancing the resilience of these three elements will improve the ability of the city and the whole community to address other challenges.

See the full report here.

December 4, 2014

100,000 Doors

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 4, 2014

Recently my non-blogging life has experienced a set of interesting, but time-consuming convergences.  As a result my engagement at HLSWatch will be constrained for several weeks, potentially a few months.  

In my judgment the task of this blog is to amplify, aggregate, analyze and occasionally advocate.  Until more time emerges from the convergence, I will mostly use this Thursday post to amplify a situation someone else has written about, but that has not gotten much mainstream attention.

The Ebola threat continues to be deadly in West Africa and despite considerable progress still presents a potential threat to global health.  Here is the December 3 WHO Situation Update.

Local (whether Dallas or Monrovia) and global engagement of this threat has also been an interesting case-study in prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and — we hope — recovery.  It has been fascinating, at least to me, how crucial “whole community” engagement has been to bending the transmission curve.  

For reasons that are not yet entirely clear, Liberia and Guinea have made much more progress on changing population behaviors than has Sierra Leone.  This is despite considerable efforts by the Freetown government for a period of several months.  On Black Friday the New York Times ran a related story on its front page.  The following is from Tuesday’s Concord Times, a leading newspaper in Sierra Leone. It was written by Mohamed Massaquoi.

–+–

The Disaster Management Department in the Office of National Security, with support from UNDP, will be embarking on a door-to-door campaign in new Ebola epicentres across the country, targeting 100,000 households in the next two weeks in Waterloo, Port Loko and Moyamba with specific life-saving information.

The campaign, which is expected to reach one million people, has commenced following the recruitment and training of 300 community disaster management volunteers in Moyamba last week.

The volunteers, drawn from localities in new Ebola epicentres, will disseminate information ranging from the importance of early treatment, keeping families safe from infection while waiting for help, to welcoming survivors back into the community as a way of reducing stigma associated with Ebola.

The UNDP-supported campaign is part of national efforts to engender behaviour change in order to stem the spread of the Ebola virus disease in Sierra Leone.

In the past 21 days, Sierra Leone has recorded an exponential rise in the number of Ebola infections. Latest WHO figures show that while reported case incidence is stable in Guinea with 148 confirmed cases reported in the week to 23 November, stable or declining in Liberia – 67 new confirmed cases in the week to 23 November, Sierra Leone recorded 385 new confirmed cases in the week to 23 November.

In addition to the continued rise of cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the epicentre of the outbreak has shifted from the east of the country (Kailahun and Kenema) to the north-west, including Bombali, iron ore mining district of Port Loko and the Western Area, especially Waterloo and Freetown.

The Western Area continues to have the highest rate of infection, with 280 cumulative cases in the past week. Port Loko is also a major area of concern, with 120 cases in the past 7 days, according to WHO figures.

Chief Alimamy Bethembeng II of Waterloo, himself a volunteer in the door-to-door campaign in his community, enthused that with the right information, using face-to-face methods and using people who are part of the community, things would hopefully change. “We have to defend our communities from Ebola,” he said as he moved from house-to-house in the Faya-Mambo neighbourhood in Waterloo, one of the worst hit areas in the Western Area.

During one of the training sessions in Port Loko, Director of Disaster Management Department, Mary Mye-Kamara, said that the face-to-face campaign has proved very successful in slums across Freetown, and that it is the preferred method for effective awareness-raising on Ebola.

She said: “People in some of these communities are still suspicious of outsiders coming into their neighbourhoods and villages telling them about Ebola. Some of them think that these outsiders are the ones spreading the virus. This is why we are engaging the local people, training them so that they will do the awareness raising themselves. That is the only way forward now.”

She added: “Without community ownership this is difficult, even impossible to make any meaningful headway. The imams need to understand and accept that they cannot be doing the same burial rites like before…otherwise the virus will spread.”

Mye-Kamara noted further that denial is still very high, as is distrust and reticence in communities, thus urging everyone to get involved in the campaign.

“People said to us why should they be bothered to take their sick relatives to the hospital and treatment centres when the ones who had been taken before did not return? ‘They are going to die anyway’. But now we are saying to our compatriots that, with early treatment, there is a huge chance of survival. We are showing them evidence of people who have recovered from the virus. They are seeing it and we continue to hope things will change. Ebola will go,” she said.

Denial, suspicion about the spread of the disease, low level of knowledge and information are still very much prevalent especially among the poor in urban and rural areas. The face-to-face campaign hopes to target the hard-to-reach villages and communities with the right information in Port Loko, Moyamba and Waterloo in particularly, where the virus is spreading.

UNDP Programme Manager Saskia Marijnissen says, “Stopping the Ebola outbreak will not only depend on improved knowledge, but also on a change in attitude and practices. Our approach actively engages community members in a dialogue to motivate behaviour change.”

November 16, 2014

Not in my name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 5

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 15, 2014

The number of deaths traced to the current Ebola outbreak now exceeds 5000.  The rate of transmission has not increased in Guinea and has slowed in Liberia. But the situation in Sierra Leone is continuing to worsen.  A new network of Ebola cases has emerged in Mali among health workers who were exposed while caring for a man with kidney failure.  The patient was also suffering from a non-diagnosed Ebola infection.

Ebola_November 14

The fatality rate among those exposed to the Ebola virus is falling. In June the fatality rate for this West African outbreak was estimated at 90 percent.  In September the fatality rate was still at least seventy percent.  In prior Ebola outbreaks — much smaller in scope — the fatality rate has averaged 50 percent of those infected.   There are some studies that suggest with early intervention the fatality rate is now as low as 25 percent.

These are small and still unconfirmed studies.  But on a preliminary basis it is reasonable to observe:

  • The amount of circulating viral load was higher in those who died than in survivors; those patients with the highest levels of virus were most likely to die.
  • One of the strongest determinants of survival appears to be patient age. Patients older than 40 years were nearly 3.5 times more likely to die than those aged less than 40. The association between an older age and a higher risk of death was found regardless of whether the patient had co-morbidities or not.
  • Evidence of substantial fluid loss and profound electrolyte derangement associated with severe diarrhoea appears to increase the risk of a fatal outcome. More aggressive supportive care, especially intravenous rehydration, is thought to improve the prospects of survival.

Seriously compromising the ability to provide early diagnosis and care is a public health infrastructure insufficient to conduct the necessary contact-tracing. According to the November 12 WHO update:

Between 3 and 8 November, 5301 new contacts were identified in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, compared with 4067 new contacts traced in the previouwoulds week. A total of 95% (124,214 of 130,140) of required daily contact visits were conducted. However, the proportion of contacts reached was lower in many districts. Each district is reported to have at least one contact-tracing team in place. On average, only 10 contacts were listed per case in the three countries in the past week. The low average number of contacts listed per case suggests that the estimate of 95% gives an unduly favourable view of the success of contact tracing. Active case finding teams are being mobilized as a complementary case detection strategy.

The situation in West Africa remains very bad, but it is not — yet? — as bad as some projected in September or even early October. The predictions have, in part, been disrupted by increased public health interventions, improved clinical care, and — especially — altered population behavior.  While the threat of the virus was too long underplayed, since August a creative and committed response has paid-off.

In recognition of the continuing high risks, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an NGO with deep experience in the region, has recommended a new strategic approach, “Agile and well-equipped rapid response teams should be deployed quickly to actively investigate hotspots wherever they occur, and mount a comprehensive response.” This approach would depend much less on the construction and operation of isolation-and-treatment centers.

The rainy season is coming to an end in West Africa.  Typically the dry season sees a substantial increase in population movements.  This increased mobility will threaten the fragile progress that has been made.  The current ten-day forecast for Monrovia predicts almost daily rain and thunderstorms.  But early December is predicted to be bright and sunny.

Meeting early today in Brisbane the G20 affirmed and expanded commitments to fight Ebola in West Africa.  The world’s leading economies also signaled that more needs to be done to prevent and mitigate infectious threats much worse than Ebola: “This outbreak illustrates the urgency of addressing longer-term systemic issues and gaps in capability, preparedness and response capacity that expose the global economy to the impacts of infectious disease.”

November 13, 2014

Immigration: Prepping the bowl game

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS,Immigration,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

It appears our end-of-year celebrations and contests will include a sustained play-by-play on immigration policy.  USA Today warns of “political war” on the issue.  We will probably see the gaming continue deep into basketball season.  Baseball? The 2016 World Series?

Despite the clear importance of immigration policy and practice to the Department of Homeland Security (where it can be seen as consuming the majority of resources), I have not given much space to immigration in my own working concept of homeland security.

Given the perpetrators of 9/11 it makes some narrative sense why immigration, border, and related agencies were brought together in the new DHS.  I will not resist that how we facilitate flows of goods and people into the nation has some sort of security implication. (Though Prohibition and the drug trade and human trafficking and mass migrations across all of human history suggest how tough it is for a big place to be anything close to impermeable.)

In terms of a terrorist threat, while we can make it more complicated and — with unusually good intelligence or vigilance or luck — actually stop some threats at the border, I have never met a professional who thought any of our immigration and border apparatus to be equal to a well-planned terrorist operation.  Much more effective is to disrupt the planning in Yemen or Af-Pak or Raqqa or wherever.  Border protection is like football’s free safety.  If that is what’s left, it’s already been a very tough play. You really want to stop them at the line of scrimmage or farther back.

When it comes to other aspects of homeland security: preparedness, mitigation, resilience, response, recovery, etc., etc….  immigration has seemed to me tangential.  There are issues of communicating in languages other than English.  Some immigrant communities — or areas where they tend to live — are considered more vulnerable.  But there are also studies that find the tight social connections of recent immigrants to generate a resilience-advantage compared to wealthier but more isolated neighbors.

There are a few cases where immigrant communities have become flash-points for radicalizing clusters of (mostly) alienated second-generation young men.  But to view this as an immigration or border issue strikes me as, again, giving too much attention to the free safety and not enough attention to the front line. (If you can’t tell, more than forty years and thirty pounds ago I was a defensive tackle.)

But whatever the actual homeland security implications, Secretary Johnson and his senior staff are going to be plenty focused on immigration in the weeks ahead.

So… an attempt to frame the issue for our future dialogue:

I have already acknowledged a personal prejudice on this topic.  But I will attempt to listen and learn from those with alternative points-of-view.

There is a plethora of expert — and advocacy — resources available.  Just a few:

Migration Policy Institute

Bipartisan Policy Center: Immigration Task Force

Cato Institute: Immigration Studies and Commentary

American Immigration Council

Texans for Sensible Immigration Reform

Brookings Institution: Immigration Workstream

Immigration Reform Law Institute

Federation for American Immigration Reform

Heritage Foundation: Immigration Workstream

US Chamber of Commerce: Immigration Resource Collection

If you have other sources of information, please include them in your comments.  At some point I will try to develop an annotated list of sources.

Trying the football analogy again, the two teams that are coming onto the field this season strike me as having very different strategies and styles of play:

Pragmatists versus legalists

Economic offense versus economic defense

Passing strategy versus ground strategy

Maybe Oregon versus Alabama?  Perhaps suggesting comparisons that go well beyond the gridiron.

The differences between the contestants are, in any case, so profound that I expect it may not be much of a game to watch.  The ducks may just sort of ride the tide.

I’ve never been a big fan of purist approaches to just about anything.

FRIDAY UPDATE: LOCKER-ROOM TALK

After I posted on Thursday the two teams started sending pre-game signals to each other.  Actually it sounded more like set-ups for a boxing match than most football games.  Anyway…

The Washington Post gives Capitol Hill trash talk top-of-the-fold prominence: Before immigration action, sides dig in.

Politico leads with Defiant Obama: I will use my power.

The Hill also calls the President defiant.

Roll Call quotes Senator Cornyn warning Presidential action on immigration could lead to a failure to fund the government.

Defiance abounds.

Our English word “defy” has its origin in a vulgar Latin term fidere meaning to trust, to have fidelity. That de on the front reverses the meaning.  Defiance emerges from mistrust.

November 8, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 4

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 8, 2014

This series of sitreps was initiated in midst of a media frenzy over the mishandling of an Ebola patient in Dallas. Yesterday Dallas was officially declared Ebola free.

In mid-October the nation seemed transfixed by symptoms and almost entirely distracted from their source.

In the intervening weeks there has been distinguished original reporting of the Ebola crisis by the New York Times and National Public Radio.  I have been less impressed with television news coverage.  But this Sunday, Sixty Minutes, the CBS news program, has scheduled a special report on The Ebola Hot Zone (2 minute video preview). Check your local listings.

As reported last week, the transmission growth rate in West Africa has slowed for hardest-hit Liberia.  It is increasing in Sierra Leone and Guinea.  There has — apparently — been successful containment elsewhere.  According to Friday’s special update by the World Health Organization the total numbers for Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are 13,241 confirmed cases and 4950 deaths.

Ebola Comparison

Click to open larger image.  Source: WHO November 5 Update

I have not seen a credible explanation for the recent divergence between Sierra Leona’s and Liberia’s transmission rates.  Guinea’s so far less virulent outbreak is probably a matter of geography, population density, and transportation networks.

As noted below, progress is being made on several aspects of the Ebola response strategy.

Ebola Mesures

Later today the USAID-US Army mission in Liberia will open its first Ebola Treatment Unit.

But clearly there remains much to be done.  The European Union has pledged over 1 billion Euros, but other than the Brits in Sierra Leone and the French in Guinea, actual engagement has been slow. On Thursday a Dutch ship departed Rotterdam loaded with ambulances, mobile hospitals, laboratories and other equipment. The cargo has been provided by nine EU Member States and UNICEF.

On Wednesday President Obama requested a special appropriation of $6.1 billion to address both domestic and international response to Ebola.  The Senate Appropriations Committee will begin hearings on the request on November 12.  The House Appropriations Committee is expected to follow suit before the end of the month.

November 6, 2014

Local conditions, globalized consequences

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 6, 2014

The following appeared in the November 3 edition of FrontPageAfrica, a leading Liberian news outlet.  The story was reported by Stephen D. Kollie.

As previously noted in Ebola Source Sitrep 3, there seems to have been an unexpected slowing of the Liberian rate of transmission. There are new reports this week, however, of increased transmission rates in neighboring Sierra Leone.  Here is the most recent WHO update.

There has been a remarkable absence of US broadcast media attention to Ebola as most of those treated for the disease in the United States have survived.  The “press” — digital and paper — has been much more attentive.

Late yesterday, President Obama requested a $6.18 billion special appropriation to combat Ebola.  According to the White House website, the funds will be used to

  • Fortify domestic public health and health care systems
  • Contain and mitigate the epidemic in West Africa
  • Speed the development and testing of vaccines and therapeutics
  • Establishing the capacity of vulnerable countries to prevent, detect, and respond to disease outbreaks before they become epidemics that threaten the American people.

–+–

Vahun, Lofa County - Barely seven months after the deadly Ebola Virus hit Lofa County, Liberia’s fourth most populated county (2008 national census) life seems to be returning to normal, but fear that the disease will resurface, exists among residents of the county. Schools remain closed, nonessential staffs working for the government; continue to remain home, while the culture of handshake, hugging and all forms of bodily contact is still prohibited.

At the crossing point, which connects Lofa and Bong counties, travelers are compelled by security officers to get of vehicles, wash their hands and undergo temperature screening. Those with high temperature levels are prevented from entering the Lofa County and refer to the local health authority for additional medical checks.

In Voinjama, the provincial capital of the county, posters of Ebola awareness messages are prevalent. Community radio stations still boom with anti-Ebola songs and messages. This, they say, is to remind residents that Ebola epidemic is not over yet. Many, including non-government agencies believe the disease spread because people did not believe in the existence of the virus.

“No one could listen when it was announced that Ebola is in town,” said Isaac Ballah, a local NGO worker in Voinjama City. Ballah told FrontPage Africa that nearly everyone in the city came to terms with the disease when a man showing signs and symptoms of the virus was seen lying at the entrance of the Lofa County Community college.

Ballah narrates that the suspected Ebola patient was lying helpless, vomiting and openly defecating as locals went to take a glimpse at the first apparent case, which signaled the coming of dark days. “After that morning, we all went home silently, with so much worried. The next day everyone picked up their clorax bottles and we stopped shaking hands and touching each other,” he said. “Few weeks later you could only hear the sound of ambulances everywhere and at the same time, see two to three pickups filled with dead bodies.”

All this epitomized the agony the people of the county were subjected to for months said Ballah. But for several weeks now, not many cases relating to the Ebola virus have been reported in the county. But residents are still taking safety seriously to prevent any widespread occurrence of the disease. They are skeptical in ruling out a new outbreak considering the county’s closeness to neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone with which it shares borders.

Nationwide, the numbers in Ebola cases seems to be declining as has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHOs Bruce Aylward on Wednesday confirmed the decline in the number of Ebola cases in Liberia.

“The actual number of newly reported cases is beginning to decline in Liberia and the government is driving a multi prone investigation, looking at multiple strands of evidence to try and understand, is this real, is this reporting phenomenon or is this care seeking phenomenal that’s changing? So far based on the information received today… it appears that the trend is real in Liberia,” he said.

Despite this good news authorities and citizens of Lofa are taking the good news with a bit of caution. In Voinjama, all general markets remain closed to prevent public gathering. Residents are forced to sell their produce during regular weekdays instead of Fridays, which is recognized as the official market day.

Zangota’s Patient zero

In Zangota, a small town just 45 mins from Voinjama City, where over thirty deaths were reported, the Ebola nightmare began with Krubo Mamaie, who traveled to the town for medication, says 33 year-old Luana Korvah, a mental health supervisor who was actively working with the county’s Ebola task force.

According to Korvah, Mamie had cared for her sick husband in Voinjama who died of Ebola and later left for her town when she also fell ill. She was referred to the Konia Health Center by local officials in Zangota, but died en route to the Foya Ebola Treatment Center because her condition had turned for the worse.

Said Korvah: “She and her husband had burial activities in Guinea, when they went back into the community the husband fell sick.” “She was then caring for the husband and later the man died. They took the man to Letisu for burial and those that took part in the burial ceremony, who did the bathing and all the other traditional things died.”

Korvah said many residents in the area did not believe it was Ebola rather they held the general opinion that their wells were poisoned and thus causing them diarrhea and other illnesses. The residents’ failure to accept the virus existence left nearly 70 persons dead in Zangota and the numbers continued to increase spreading to nearby towns and villages.

Now, after nearly eight months battling the deadly virus, it seems Ebola has taught many lessons in the county. Precautionary measures are the order of the day. Hand washing, no handshake is just a few preventive methods that are still being religiously practiced even though infections have slowed in a County which has lost nearly 200 persons.

Careful barbing

At a local barbing shop in central Voinjama, barbers use hand gloves, bleach and other disinfectant before barbing. Not many people are allowed to sit in the barbing shop to avoid bodily contact. “We are still scared and are doing everything possible to ensure that no one get infected in this shop,” Mohammed Sore, owner of the two brothers barbing shop told FPA.

He says while there has been no case of Ebola reported in the county for the past few weeks, he and his colleagues have not stopped the preventive measures and will continue until the country is declared Ebola free. “We will stop using the gloves and chlorine when we hear that Ebola is not in the country again,” said one of our fears is that we are close to the border and people are still coming in from Guinea,” he said Sow.

At the over 80-bed facility run by the medical charity group Medicines Sans Frontieres in Foya, all patients have been discharged with zero cases reported so far. All schools in the county remain closed as part of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s directive on the prevailing state of emergency in the country.

Non-governmental Organizations such as the Pentecostal Mission Unlimited (PMU Liberia) is moving in to help with preventive materials and support to many health facilities, as residents wait quietly to see a total eradication of the deadly disease. Residents of Lofa have seen hell; Ebola killed and obliterated entire families. Cultural and religious practices helped to rapidly spread the disease among community members who were also in strong denial of the virus according to residents.

Now, the numbers of cases being reported are few and no much news of suspected deaths in Lofa County. Hand washing buckets are still placed in nearly every household and those that cannot afford the bucket travel with a bottle of chlorine water just for protection against the deadly virus, which has killed a total of 2413 persons and infected 6535 individuals in Liberia alone.

November 1, 2014

Ebola source sitrep 3

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 1, 2014

The World Health Organization released a new data summary late on October 29.  A few highlights:

The growth rate of transmission in West Africa seems to have slowed, especially in hardest hit Liberia.  This has surprised most close observers who suggest it is either the result of unrecognized and under reported transmissions or is a temporary trough in what can be a wave-like pattern on the part of the virus.

The region’s anti-Ebola capacity is much stronger now than at the beginning of October.  Several new diagnostic labs and treatment facilities are now in place (see map below).  Clinical personnel are more numerous and better equipped. Some have suggested the reduced transmission rate is the outcome of interventions — educational, clinical, and logistical — put in place over September and October.

Ebola Treatmentt

Despite this good news — or pause in worse news — a new scientific analysis published on Thursday concludes, “Under status quo intervention, our projections indicate that the Ebola outbreak will continue to spread, generating a predicted 224 (95% CI: 134 – 358) cases daily in Liberia alone by December…”  For the week ending October 25 fewer than 50 probable cases were reported in Liberia.

The key factor may be “status quo intervention”; how much effort, targeted where, will have the most effect?  It is widely recognized that the West African outbreak is the result of a failure to intervene early and effectively, before the virus was able to spread in dense urban environments.  The best evidence for this analysis being what has happened with an unrelated, but parallel, cluster of Ebola cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The first Ebola death in the DRC was on August 11.  The role of Ebola was identified before the end of August.  Aggressive public health measures were taken to isolate and treat those with the virus.  (Other factors probably helped.)  There have been a total of sixty-six cases and forty-nine deaths.  It has now been eighteen days since the last new case was identified.  The transmission cycle was contained and has apparently been stopped.

Public education and community involvement are, many emphasize, fundamental to this sort of success.  The same analysis projecting potential exponential growth in the number of West African Ebola victims found that four behavioral adjustments could produce a rapid decline in transmission (see chart below).  Of particular importance is a change in burial practices.  The “status quo” being studied was the situation in mid-September. Several of the practices have been increasingly adopted since.  Already enough to produce the recent declines?

Ebola 4 Interventions

Since the West African Ebola cases first emerged, many at HLSWatch have suggested that for the United States this is mostly an opportunity to “run the traps” for a much more easily transmitted, much less treatable infectious disease.  Important issues have surfaced related to early identification and treatment, clinical protocols, clinical training, and quarantine policy, strategy, and practice.

Some potentially less obvious lessons:

Isolation matters:  The economic isolation of eastern Guinea produced a level of poverty that resulted in hunting bats for food.  When a child and then his family members died of bat-borne Ebola they did not receive medical attention. The virus was given time to multiply.  In urban Monrovia the poverty-stricken West Point slum has been the epicenter of transmission.  The population’s lack of connectedness with wider society has impeded the application of effective public health strategies.

Culture matters:  Washing, caressing and otherwise honoring the body of dead family members has been a particularly virulent vector for transmission of the disease.  Working respectfully within the culture it has been possible — with remarkable speed — to adjust cultural behaviors.

Community matters:  Connecting those who were disconnected and building trust where there was little or none has been a precondition to adjusting population behaviors and bending the transmission curve.  Facilitating and supporting community self-organization has again and again been a big part of the public health approach.

Media matters:  Mass media and social media can significantly influence the velocity of public attitudes for both good and bad.   How to influence the velocity of media attention is, I suggest, quite similar to how we effectively engage the virus itself.  Think about it.

Reasoning matters:  Chris’ Tuesday post – and Haidt’s claim — have clearly been on my mind all week.  For what it’s worth, I perceive Haidt was mostly critiquing a tendency by some to perceive reason as self-evident and to dismiss those too stupid to recognize the obvious.  In this regard I agree with Bellavita and Haidt.  The noun can be pretentious.  But the verb — reasoning — when undertaken in a way that embraces culture, community, and respectful communication is the best tool we’ve got.

Maybe this is an opportunity to run the traps on more than the next infectious disease.

October 26, 2014

Embracing diversity

Filed under: Biosecurity,Border Security,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 26, 2014

obama pham(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

None of us much like what we perceive as mixed messages.  But many of us seek out diverse sources of information.

I am — as regular readers know too well — a big fan of diversity.  It is an intellectual and aesthetic preference, almost certainly a personality predisposition.

Diversity is also a key characteristic of resilience.  The more diverse a system the less prone it is to catastrophic collapse, the more creative combinations that exist the more likely the system (or sub-system) is to resist and, if necessary, rebound from challenges.

I am personally skeptical of most efforts to reduce variance, increase consistency, and especially any tendency to reserve decisions for some centralized authority.  I am aware such approaches can generate benefits.  But there are also trade-offs and I perceive we too often accept the trade-offs without recognizing what we are giving away.

Since Thursday I’ve been in Newark and New York.  The confirmation of Ebola in a physician who returned to New York after treating patients in West Africa has caused concern.  On Friday Governors Christie and Cuomo, acting more on their political instincts for advancing the common good than expert medical advice, announced a strict quarantine requirement for health care workers returning to JFK and Newark International airports.  This exceeds federal requirements. (Illinois soon followed for those arriving from West Africa into O’Hare.)

I was busy, but as I watched the local news a bit and read the reports I was pleased to see this diversity emerge.  I like it when state and local leaders exercise their best judgment and authority.  I respect political judgment, especially when it relates more to how human social systems actually operate and less about the next election.  I found the non-partisan, reasoned rhetoric of the Governors and Mayor de Blasio mostly helpful.  Medical therapies and social therapies can diverge.

At just about the same time, or at least during the same news cycle, President Obama was purposefully — and a bit awkwardly to my eyes — hugging nurse Nina Pham (above) who has recovered from the Ebola she contracted at her hospital in Dallas.  The intended message was, I hope, clear enough.  For the more literal minded, the President followed up explicitly in his weekly media message.

Meanwhile… Kaci Hickox a nurse arriving at Newark from Sierra Leone, asymptomatic, and according to a preliminary test virus-free, is nonetheless being kept in a 21-day quarantine against her will.  She writes in the Saturday Dallas Morning News:

I am a nurse who has just returned to the U.S. after working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone – an Ebola-affected country. I have been quarantined in New Jersey. This is not a situation I would wish on anyone, and I am scared for those who will follow me.

I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine… (The nurse continues with a rather horrific story of her welcome to the United States.  You should read it.)

The epidemic continues to ravage West Africa. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that as many as 15,000 people have died from Ebola. We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa.  The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity.

The ACLU has announced it will take action challenging the New Jersey quarantine order.

Then as if to put into even sharper contrast the different angles on reality alive in Trenton, Albany, and Washington DC, on Sunday morning I read our UN Ambassador Samantha Power is in West Africa.  She has already visited the Ebola wards.  Should she be quarantined in isolation on her return?  Or in deference to separation of powers, will a sanitary cordon of the Ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf be sufficient?

Thursday and Friday I was mostly impressed with how New York local-media was handling the story. Saturday I was too otherwise engaged to notice. Now early on Sunday morning there is a nearly palpable urgency to take sides… or, if one does not feel confident/competent to choose sides, to bitterly complain regarding the incompetence of the “authorities” who should have had this sort of risk fully thought-through.  ”It’s not tight”, the President himself has complained.

In my experience reality is seldom tight. At a certain point working to make it tight strips the threads and even breaks the head.  Can we learn to engage diversity affirmatively, creatively, even systematically, as a potentially positive — in any case, persistent — aspect of reality?  In dealing with complex risks, I have found this to be an especially productive option.

MONDAY UPDATE:

According to several news sources, New York will “loosen” its screening protocols.  Here’s a bit of the AP report:

Gov. Cuomo back peddled Sunday on his insistence that medical workers returning to New York from Ebola-stricken countries would have to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine at a government-regulated facility

The governor, in a joint news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, said health care workers and citizens who have had exposure to Ebola patients in West Africa will be asked to stay in their homes for the 21-day quarantine.

During the 21 days, the quarantined person will be checked on twice a day by health care professionals to take their temperature and evaluate their condition, Cuomo said.

Here’s the official statement from the Governor’s office.

Constant change in response to feedback, adapting to new information (new expressions of reality) is another feature of diverse and resilient systems.  And just to be clear: in the most resilient systems while change is constant a core-coherence persists.  Which highlights the big difference between consistent and coherent, between control and collaboration…

SECOND UPDATE:

According to NJ.com and other news outlets, Nurse Kaci Hickox will now be allowed to quarantine at home in the state of Maine. The New Jersey Governor’s office released a transcript and video to provide context for this shift.

October 19, 2014

Who is my neighbor?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 19, 2014

EBOLA_James harris

I perceive it is prudent — as well as accurate — to make the case that the best way to mitigate Ebola risk in the United States is to significantly degrade the risk in West Africa.

Recently Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, felt it was politically necessary to say, “I am not protecting West Africa. My number one responsibility is to protect Americans from threats.”

Over the last few weeks at HLSWatch we had cause to consider the potentially warping effects of self-interest too narrowly conceived or fatally denied.

Last week The Telegraph (London) offered a gallery of online photographs entitled, “Survivors: Portraits of Liberians who recovered from Ebola“.  Above is James Harris, age 29, who recovered after two weeks at death’s door.  He is now a nurse’s assistant in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Paynesville, Liberia.

October 5, 2014

Deadly serious but not existential

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 2014

Last week the Vice President gave a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  The speech was mostly a quick skim of global issues and US priorities.  Not much new.  But as is Mr. Biden’s tendency, he can with tone or particular emphasis, give an old song new life.

Below are his remarks on counter-terrorism.  I have highlighted some elements with which I agree and, in my judgment, are too seldom emphasized.

The fourth element of our strategy is countering violent extremism.  As you know, we’ve engaged in a relentless campaign against terrorists in Afghanistan, in the so-called FATA, in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.  This campaign against violent extremism predates our administration, and it will outlive our administration.  But we’ve made real progress against al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates since 9/11.  But this threat of violent extremism is something we’re going to have to contend with for a long time. 

Today, we’re confronting the latest iteration of that danger, so-called ISIL; a group that combines al Qaeda’s ideology with territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria and beyond, and the most blatant use of terrorist tactics the world has seen in a long, long time.  But we know how to deal with them.

Our comprehensive strategy to degrade and eventually defeat ISIL reflects the lessons we have learned post-9/11 age about how to use our power wisely.  And degrading them does not depend upon an unsustainable deployment of hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground.  It’s focused on building a coalition with concrete contributions from the countries in the region.  It recognizes outside military intervention alone will not be enough.  Ultimately, societies have to solve their own problems, which is why we’re pouring so much time and effort into supporting a Syrian opposition and Iraqi efforts to re-establish their democracy and defend their territory.  But this is going to require a lot of time and patience.

The truth is we will likely be dealing with these challenges of social upheaval not just in Iraq and Syria, but across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, which will take a generation or more to work itself out. 

We can’t solve each of these problems alone.  We can’t solve them ourselves.  But ultimately — and we can’t ultimately solve them with force, nor should we try.  But we can work to resolve these conflicts.  We can seek to empower the forces of moderation and pluralism and inclusive economic growth.  We can work with our partners to delegitimize ISIL in the Islamic world, and their perverse ideology. 

We can cut off the flow of terrorist finance and foreign fighters, as the President chaired the hearing in the United Nations Security Council on that issue just last week.  We can build the capacity of our partners from the Arab world to Afghanistan to solve their security problems in their own countries with our help and guidance.  The threat posed by violent extremists is real.  And I want to say here on the campus of Harvard University:  Our response must be deadly serious, but we should keep this in perspective.  The United States today faces threats that require attention.  But we face no existential threat to our way of life or our security.  Let me say it again:  We face no existential threat — none — to our way of life or our ultimate security.

You are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as you around to be affected by a terrorist event in the United States.

And while we face an adaptive, resilient enemy, let’s never forget that they’re no match for an even more resilient and adaptive group of people, the American people, who are so much tougher, smarter, realistic and gutsy than their political leadership gives them credit for.

We didn’t crumble after 9/11.  We didn’t falter after the Boston Marathon.  But we’re America.  Americans will never, ever stand down.  We endure.  We overcome.  We own the finish line.  So do not take out of proportion this threat to us.  None of you are being taught to dive under your desks in drills dealing with the possibility of a nuclear attack.  And I argue with all of my colleagues, including in the administration, the American people have already factored in the possibility that there will be another Boston Marathon someday.  But it will not, cannot — has no possibility of breaking our will, our resolve, and/or our ultimate security.

That “And I argue… ” is interesting.  I hope he does and I hope he’s right.  Anticipating more freelance threats would be realistic — and resilient — behavior.

October 2, 2014

Evil as a non-integrated gap

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2014

Pentagon's New Map

The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett (click to open larger version)

This is the fifth — and probably penultimate — post on the use of “evil” in homeland security rhetoric. (Prior posts: as referenced on September 10, as otherwise used by President Obama, as self-assertion, and at the United Nations.)

Six quotations on evil, classical to contemporary:

For no man is voluntarily evil; but the evil become so by reason of an ill disposition of the body and bad education, things which are hateful to every man and happen to him against his will.  (Plato quoting Socrates, Timaeus)

Evil in itself has neither being, goodness, productiveness, nor power of creating things which have being and goodness… thus evil has no being, nor any inherence in things that have being. Evil is nowhere qua evil; and it arises not through any power but through weakness… And, in a word, evil (as we have often said) is weakness, impotence, and deficiency of knowledge (or, at least, of exercised knowledge), or of faith, desire, or activity as touching the Good. (Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology)

I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)

Whence then come my errors? They come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds, but extend it also to things which I do not understand: and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin, and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true. (Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy)

Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life.  In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good (Carl Gustav Jung, The Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy)

Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. . . Upholding a Good-Evil dichotomy also takes ‘good people’ off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror, and violence. (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect)

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Evil as an active and intentional otherness is predominant in many Western language and culture systems.  When  most Americans — perhaps most Westerners — hear a reference to “evil” it implies an aggressive force contending with good.   According to one 2013 survey fifty-seven percent of all Americans believe in the Devil as a personification of evil.

As the quotes above suggest, however, this is not the only perspective. Long-time and respected philosophical, religious, and socio-psychological arguments exist for evil emerging from absence of good or distortion of good.  In this view, rather than aggressively active, evil is a contingent experience of disintegration and disorder.  Other surveys find that up to fifty-nine percent of practicing US Christians perceive that Satan, “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.”

To the extent evil is and continues in the lexicon of homeland security — and especially counter-terrorism — these differences matter.  Clearly it matters in terms of rhetoric.  What does a President or Prime Minister or wanna-be Caliph mean when s/he references “evil”?  What is heard?  Is it possible to better calibrate what is said with what is heard?

It can also matter in terms of long-term strategy.  Absence is arguably non-activity.  Anemia is treated differently from a virus. A deficiency of B12 and an over-abundance of Lewey Bodies can produce the same symptoms, but respond to very different therapies.  Managing a chronic disease is very different than responding to an acute illness.  Executing a war is different than carrying-out a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Thomas P.M. Barnett’s insights regarding the world’s “non-integrated gap” are a contemporary policy approach coherent with Dionysius the Areopagite.  Some of us remember The Pentagon’s New Map.  Barnett wrote that.  In 2005 he also wrote:

We need to end the disconnectedness that defines danger in our world. We need to shrink the gap and all its pain and suffering  – right out of existence.  We need to make globalization truly global in a just manner… This process of economic, political, and social integration among many of the world’s states is the defining characteristic of our age, and as such, it defines conflict in this era…

Barnett describes the dysfunction and eventual conflict that emerges from an absence of connectedness.  Tighten the full suite of connections, he argues with considerable credibility, and the risk is reduced for the worst sorts of conflict.  I am arguing — or really just renewing the classical and orthodox argument — that it is the connections we consciously and creatively cultivate that most effectively and happily connect us to reality.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s observation that “Everything is connected to everything else,” can be threat or opportunity depending on how we engage (or not) the connections.

For nearly three years thousands have been horribly killed in Syria.  The pictures of gassed and bombed and starved children have proliferated.  We have observed the increasing power of the most extreme forces on every side.  As this has unfolded we — the supposed demos of the democratic and prosperous “core” (Barnett’s term) — have neglected, perhaps rejected, any meaningful sense of connection.

Then videos are distributed of two, then three (now more) Americans and Europeans being beheaded.  The balaclava-clad executioner with a British accent emerges as a personification of evil. Suddenly we perceive a clear-and-present connection. Warships are dispatched. Jets are scrambled.  Missiles are launched.  A multinational coalition is assembled.

What might have been achieved with more careful attention at an earlier date?  What if we were able to recognize the evil potential of absence — even our own thoughtlessness — rather than waiting for absence to unravel into disintegration, discord, and the fully demonic?

And if absence-of-connection — the non-integrated gap — is the breeding ground for evil in Syria, something analogous is as possible in Seattle.

The suppression of evil is and will probably continue as a prominent justification for domestic and international counterterrorism. But for many — potentially most English-speakers — evil is not understood as related to absence.  Evil is misunderstood as a sudden irrational eruption of accelerated entropy.  This misunderstanding — or very partial understanding — of evil overly constrains our strategic, operational, and tactical engagement with evil. Our orientation-toward-evil colors our observations which inform our decisions that shape our actions.

Recognizing the crucial role of connectedness — and absence of connectedness — allows for much wider and potentially accurate observation.

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Next Thursday:  Some personal conclusions.

September 25, 2014

Evil at the United Nations

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 25, 2014

Yesterday President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly.  Given the importance of counterterrorism in the homeland security portfolio, the entire speech is worth your consideration.

Given our recent attention to the use of “evil” to characterize our homeland security challenge, I highlight the following few lines:

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: we come together at a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope…

There is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers, and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces. As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.

Each of these problems demands urgent attention. But they are also symptoms of a broader problem – the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe…

As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas.  First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed.

This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death. 

The other three action areas set out by the President are as strategically important and — indirectly — as helpful to hearing what he means by evil.  It is, I perceive, a highly Niebuhrian notion of evil… as I try to explain in the next post, finished about 24 hours before the President’s speech in New York.

Evil as self-assertion of “absolute will”

Filed under: Radicalization,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 25, 2014

… for evil is always the self-assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world.  The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness)

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Over the last few years we have encountered the now self-styled Islamic State.  If we were paying attention, we have seen them murder thousands, abuse many more, and threaten even more. In recent weeks considerable attention  has been given to a series of sweeping attacks and specific beheadings. Videos of these individual atrocities — much more than the mass attacks — have produced a widely shared judgment.

President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and others have communicated their own judgment that this is a manifestation of evil.  Canadian Prime Minister Harper said of the Islamic State, “It is evil, vile, and must be unambiguously opposed.”  The Australian premier has noted, “We have got a murderous, terrorist organisation – a death cult no less, which doesn’t just do evil, (but) exults in doing evil…”(Perhaps reflective of socialist secularism, I cannot find an example of President Hollande using a French equivalent of evil, but he has called the Islamic State odious, base, and cowardly.)

I’m not entirely sure how to hear “evil” in each of these English-speaking voices. But I have decided the choice of this word reflects the authentic judgment of these political leaders.  This is not a cynical manipulation of language to achieve hidden purposes. Rather, to proclaim this “it” as evil is an honest effort by four elected leaders — reflecting a rather broad ideological spectrum and distinct personalities — to communicate the nature of a threat as they understand it.

But while authentic, I’m not sure how accurately their assessment is being heard.  Moreover, whether this particular symbolic summary — evil — is helpful to further thought and thoughtful action is worth consideration.

I am well-acquainted with the evil potential of banality, bureaucracy, and petty pride.  But I have encountered the profoundly wicked on very rare occasions.  No more, perhaps, than many of our Presidents or Prime Ministers or others who have evaded the concentration camps, the killing fields, the warping  brutality of a parent, priest, or other particularly intimate power.

But my brief bouts have been bad enough.  The most compelling aspect of each encounter being the mirroring, echoing, physical resonance of the external with my own sense-of-self.  I perceive evil as insidious: combining both ambush and self-subversion.  Whatever is strong becoming a potential synaptic pathway for evil’s advance.

It has been widely noted that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of President Obama’s favorite thinkers. (More on the Niebuhr/Obama link here.)  Here and in the quote at the start is a summary of Niebuhr’s own angle on evil and how this reality plays out far beyond the individual:

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.  They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will.  They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community.  Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical.  It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man.  It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires  and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor. It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness.  They underestimate this power among themselves.

What I perceive in the most committed terrorists is an expectation of reality that rejects any constraint: no law beyond the self.  Ultimate reality — AKA God — is conceived as unlimited freedom, unfettered self-assertion, absolute willfulness.  George Weigel argues that this is a “defective hypervoluntarist concept of the nature of God.” It rejects the reality of the whole and the varied relationships that constitute the whole.  It is irrational and predisposed to nihilism.

Strains sympathetic to contemporary terrorist thought can be recognized in the primacy of will-to-power found arising in William of Occam and reaching flood-stage in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (“All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified.” Schopenhauer)  In popular form this worldview can be heard in extreme expressions of American individualism. Everything-Is-Possible-With-God and Anything-Is-Possible-With-Grit share a conception of reality without limits, without pattern, without interdependent relationships. Evil is privation of good, Augustine argued.

Many Americans share with many terrorists a confidence that with the right attitude anything is possible.  This is self-interest on steroids.  This is a synaptic pathway wide open to self-delusion. We underestimate our self-interest, allowing it to reject many of the relationships from which the true self emerges.

Last week a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, for the first time since 2008, more Americans disapprove than approve of the President’s handing of terrorism.  One survey participant was quoted in the Times as saying of the President, “He is ambivalent, and I think it shows.”

Ambivalence is a recognition of contending strengths. It is an acknowledgment of complexity. It is to concede something may exist beyond our full understanding or control.

No one becomes President of the United States without stupendous self-will.  No one becomes Prime Minister of Canada, Australia, or the (still) United Kingdom without considerable self-regard and tactically adroit self-interest. In a healthy democratic system such self-interest is grafted onto — or emerges from — some substantial branch of the whole. The greatest leaders become personifications of the whole.  They are important agents of influence — even attractors of meaning — in a complex adaptive system.

They are not Übermensch transforming chaos into reflections of capricious personal preference.

Precisely because of their well-practiced self-interest and will-to-power, our politicians may be more intuitively attuned to evil potential than the rest of us.  They recognize evil from prior encounters in the mirror.  They likewise know — we hope, perhaps pray — the crucial virtue of self-restraint.

So… with considerable trepidation, hesitation — ambivalence — I have decided that evil can be a helpful characterization of what concerns us along the Euphrates (and well-beyond).  But to be of practical help, this assessment must coincide with a fuller recognition our own tendencies toward evil.  This self-knowledge and thereby deeper understanding of the threat is essential to any hope of effective engagement.

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Next Thursday: Evil as absence: Recognizing what is missing.

September 18, 2014

How what was said at CENTCOM could have implications for Chicago

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 18, 2014

As we prepare to intensify our struggle with a prospective threat, it is important to acknowledge the very present threat of drought and fire, flooding, and plague.  There is, though, only so much time in any day.

So here is an extended excerpt from the President’s speech to the women and men at MacDill Air Force Base. (About noon on Wednesday.) Per our recent discussions — and today’s third post below — the President makes no reference to fighting evil in these remarks.

 Because of you, this 9/11 Generation of heroes has done everything asked of you, and met every mission tasked to you.  We are doing what we set out to do.  Because of you, Osama bin Laden is no more.  Because of you, the core al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated.  Because of you, Afghans are reclaiming their communities; Afghan forces have taken the lead for their country’s security.  In three months, because of you, our combat mission will be over in Afghanistan, and our war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.  That’s because of you.

You and our counterterrorism professionals have prevented terrorist attacks.  You’ve saved American lives.  You’ve made our homeland more secure.  But we’ve always known that the end of the war in Afghanistan didn’t mean the end of threats or challenges to America…

In a world where technology provides a small group of killers with the ability to do terrible harm, it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists –- including the group in Syria and Iraq known as ISIL.  Our intelligence community, as I said last week, has not yet detected specific plots from these terrorists against America.  But its leaders have repeatedly threatened America and our allies.  And right now, these terrorists pose a threat to the people of Iraq, the people of Syria, the broader Middle East — including our personnel, our embassies, our consulates, our facilities there.  And if left unchecked, they could pose a growing threat to the United States.

So, last month, I gave the order for our military to begin taking targeted action against ISIL.  And since then, our brave pilot and crews –- with your help -– have conducted more than 160 airstrikes against these terrorists.  Because of your efforts, we’ve been able to protect our personnel and our facilities, and kill ISIL fighters, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory.  They’ve helped our partners on the ground break ISIL sieges, helped rescue civilians cornered on a mountain, helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.  That’s what you’ve done.

Now going forward, as I announced last week, we’re going to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.  And whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn the same thing that the leaders of al Qaeda already know:  We mean what we say; our reach is long; if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.  We will find you eventually.

But — and this is something I want to emphasize — this is not and will not be America’s fight alone.  One of the things we’ve learned over this last decade is, America can make a decisive difference, but I want to be clear:  The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.  They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.

As your Commander-in-Chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.  After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures.  And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term.

We’ll use our air power.  We will train and equip our partners.  We will advise them and we will assist them.  We will lead a broad coalition of countries who have a stake in this fight.  Because this is not simply America versus ISIL — this is the people of the region fighting against ISIL.  It is the world rejecting the brutality of ISIL in favor of a better future for our children, and our children’s children — all of them.

But we’re not going to do this alone.  And the one thing we have learned is, is that when we do things alone and the countries — the people of those countries aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave we start getting into the same problems.

So we’ve got to do things differently.  This is why we’ve spent the past several weeks building a coalition to aid in these efforts.  And because we’re leading in the right way, more nations are joining us.  Overall, more than 40 countries so far have offered assistance to the broad campaign against ISIL.  Some nations will assist from the air — and already France and the United Kingdom are flying with us over Iraq, with others committed to join this effort.

Some nations will help us support the forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.  And already Saudi Arabia has agreed to host our efforts to train and equip Syrian opposition forces.  Australia and Canada will send military advisors to Iraq.  German paratroopers will offer training.  Other nations have helped resupply arms and equipment to forces in Iraq, including the Kurdish Pershmerga.

Arab nations have agreed to strengthen their support for Iraq’s new government and to do their part in all the aspects of the fight against ISIL.  And our partners will help to cut off ISIL funding, and gather intelligence, and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.

And meanwhile, nearly 30 nations have helped us with humanitarian relief to help innocent civilians who’ve been driven from their homes — whether they are Sunni, or Shia, or Christian, or Yazidi, or any other religious minority.  MORE

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Depending on how the issue is framed or the question is asked, the Administration is describing a range of possible contingencies.  When I read the words above and very similar words going back to West Point in May or even the 2013 National Defense University speech,  I hear a consistent strategy being described by the President.  A shortened — politically stupid — version might be something like:

There are several small groups of very bad folks out and about.  Because of modern mobility and technology these small groups can have outsized impact.  They almost certainly do not represent an existential threat to the United States, but they are brutal killers.  They are already doing horrific things where they currently operate.  We need to disrupt and degrade — if we can, destroy — their violent potential before they have a substantial ability to target us.  To do this with any long-term effectiveness we’ve got to mobilize the communities that are already suffering to defend themselves and go after these killers. We can help and others can help in a variety of ways.  But whether we’re talking about Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Libya or Afghanistan or Somalia or Mali or plenty of other places, meaningful security for us and for them will only emerge when people in the immediate neighborhood are vigilant, courageous, consistently engaged and have realistic capabilities to advance their long-term self-interest.  Our self-interest is advanced by advancing the self-interest of those already suffering at the hands of ISIL and other violent extremists.

This is framed as an international counterterrorism strategy.  I perceive that essentially the same argument can be made for domestic counterterrorism and other aspects of homeland security. Key elements:  Community-based, regionally engaged, collaborative, and whenever possible preventive or preemptive.  We can debate whether or not this is wise strategy, but it strikes me as a prima-facie reasonable strategy that is worth a more serious listen than it seems to be receiving.

We have — perhaps, I have — become distracted by issues of labels and tone and style as opposed to examining the action being taken and proposed.

Johnson testimony: Worldwide threats to the homeland

Yesterday — Constitution Day BTW — the Secretary of Homeland Security testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security.  He was joined in giving testimony by FBI Director James Comey and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olson. (Video and transcripts here)

Below is most of Secretary Johnson’s opening statement.  I hear a domestically-focused harmonic to the main counterterrorism melody performed by the President at MacDill (see prior post, immediately above).

Counterterrorism is the cornerstone of the DHS mission. And thirteen years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world. There’s still a terrorist threat to our homeland.

Today the terrorist threat is different from what it was in 2001. It is more decentralized and more complex. Not only is there core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which is still active in its efforts to attack the homeland – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab in Somalia, the al Nusrah Front in Syria, and the newest affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. There are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are not official affiliates of al Qaeda, but share its extremist ideology.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq, is now vying to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world’s stage. At present, we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.

But that is not, by any means, the end of the story.

ISIL is an extremely dangerous organization. It has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. It kills innocent civilians, and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks. It engages in 30-40 attacks per month, has more than 20,000 fighters, and takes in as much as a million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, ransom payments, and other illicit activities. Its public messaging and social media are as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization.

Though we know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present, we know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans – in a public and depraved manner. We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have themselves said they will soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States…

From the homeland security perspective, here is what we are doing:

First, to address the threats generally emanating from terrorist groups overseas, we have in recent weeks enhanced aviation security. Much of the terrorist threat continues to center around aviation security. In early July, I directed enhanced screening at 18 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Several weeks later, we added six more airports to the list. Three weeks ago we added another airport, and additional screening of carry-on luggage. The United Kingdom and other countries have followed with similar enhancements to their aviation security. We continually evaluate whether more is necessary, without unnecessarily burdening the traveling public.

Longer term, as this committee has heard me say before, we are pursuing “pre-clearance” at overseas airports with flights to the U.S. This means inspection by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and enhanced aviation security before a passenger gets on the plane to the U.S. We now have pre-clearance at airports in Ireland, the UAE, Canada and the Caribbean. I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more. To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.

Second, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, NCTC and other intelligence agencies are making enhanced and concerted efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters who come from or seek to enter this country. The reality is that more than 15,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including approximately two thousand Westerners. We estimate that more than 100 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the fight there one way or another. We are concerned that not only may these foreign fighters join ISIL or other violent extremist groups in Syria, they may also be recruited by these violent extremist groups to leave Syria and conduct external attacks. The FBI has arrested a number of individuals who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support terrorist activities there.

Third, we are working with European and other governments to build better information sharing to track Syrian foreign fighters. Whenever I get together with my European counterparts, this topic is almost always item number one on the agenda. The importance of this issue is also reflected by the fact it will be a singular topic of discussion at a U.N. Security Council summit that the President will chair in two weeks. In the history of the U.N., this is only the second time a U.S. President has personally chaired a Security Council summit.

We are increasing efforts to track those who enter and leave Syria, and may later seek to travel to the United States from a country for which the United States does not require a visa from its citizens. There are in fact a number of Visa Waiver Program countries that also have large numbers of citizens who are Syrian foreign fighters. Generally, we have strong information-sharing relationships with these countries. But, with their help, we will enhance this capability. We need to ensure that we are doing all we can to identify those who, by their travel patterns, attempt to hide their association with terrorist groups.

We are encouraging more countries to join the United States in using tools like Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record collection, which will help to identify terrorist travel patterns.

Fourth, within the U.S. government, DHS and our interagency partners in law enforcement and the intelligence community, are enhancing our ability to share information with each other about suspicious individuals.

Fifth, we are continually on guard against the potential domestic-based, home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our own society: the independent actor or “lone wolf” who did not train at a terrorist camp or join the ranks of a terrorist organization overseas, but who is inspired here at home by a group’s social media, literature or violent extremist ideology. In many respects, this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.

To address the domestic “lone wolf” threat, I have directed that DHS build on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement in a way that enhances community relationships. The local police and fire departments are the first responders to any crisis in our homeland. The local police, more than the federal government, have their finger on the pulse of the local community from which a domestic terrorist may come.

To address the home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our midst, we must also emphasize the need for help from the public. “If You See Something, Say Something” is more than a slogan. For example, last week we sent a private sector advisory identifying for retail businesses a long list of materials that could be used as explosive precursors, and the types of suspicious behavior that a retailer should look for from someone who buys a lot of these materials.

Within DHS, we have outreach programs with communities who themselves are engaging youth in violence prevention. I have directed that we step up these programs and I personally participate in them. In June I met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb. Next week I will meet with a Somali community in Columbus, Ohio. In October, the White House will host a summit on domestic efforts to prevent violent extremism, and address the full lifecycle of radicalization to violence posed by foreign fighter threats. The efforts highlighted at this summit are meant to increase the participation of faith-based organizations, mental health providers, social service providers, and youth-affiliated groups in local efforts to counter violent extremism.

Over the last 13 years, we have vastly improved this Nation’s ability to detect and disrupt terrorist plots overseas before they reach the homeland. Here at home, federal law enforcement does an excellent job, time and again, of identifying, investigating, arresting and prosecuting scores of individuals before they commit terrorist acts. But we continue to face real terrorist enemies and real terrorist threats and we must all remain vigilant.

Community-based, regionally — even globally — engaged, collaborative efforts to prevent, protect, prepare, mitigate, and respond.  Recovery and resilience are implied, but — as usual —  given a bit less attention.

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