Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 10, 2015

National Security and the Crusades…, but why would you throw the ball?

Filed under: Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on February 10, 2015

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.

So reads the final sentences of the 2015 National Security Strategy.


Phil Palin already posted the two paragraphs in the Strategy that directly refer to homeland security. They include the unsupported assertion that guarding against terrorism is the core responsibility of homeland security.

A few years ago John Mueller and Mark Stewart demonstrated that “to be deemed cost-effective [homeland security expenditures] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.” I have not seen an analysis that comes close to refuting their conclusion.

But everyone who disagrees with Mueller and Stewart knows they were academics playing with statistics. And everyone understands how statistics can be used to prove just about anything.


When I was an older man, I used to believe that as a nation, data mattered.  I am much younger now and understand what matters more is data filtered through the lens of beliefs.

Last week’s theological and historical discussion sparked by Barack Obama’s National Prayer Day remarks was just one more demonstration that first comes opinion, then comes data.

Thanks Obama.


But those who still believe in what Andre Breton called “the reign of logic” should have been heartened last week by the post-hoc application of game theory to what was effectively the last play of Super Bowl 49.

(In case you forgot, game theory is “the study of strategic decision making, … the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.”)

In an article titled Game Theory Says Pete Carroll’s Call at Goal Line Is Defensible , Justin Wolfers describes the decision context:

26 seconds remain in the Super Bowl, your team is 4 points behind, you have the ball just one yard short of the end zone, it’s second down, and your team has arguably the N.F.L.’s best running back. What’s your call? Run or pass?

Wolfers – who is an economics professor – applies the basics of game theory to the Seattle Seahawks’ decision:

The logic is that if you always choose to run in this situation, then you make the opposing coach’s job too easy, as he will set a defensive formation aimed at stopping your running back. Forget guarding the receivers, Belichick [the Patriot’s coach] would respond by piling players between Marshawn Lynch [the Seattle running star] and the end zone. As great as Lynch is, even he would find it difficult to run over a stacked defense that was waiting for him. Likewise, if the Seahawks would always decide to pass in this situation, there would be little need for the Patriots to guard against the run, and so their defense could double-team the eligible receivers.

Instead, you need to keep your opponents guessing, and the only way to do this is to be unpredictable. The only way to be unpredictable is to be a little bit random.

Get it? It’s sort of like rock, paper, scissors.

But it’s not.

The winning strategy is to be random. Because if you’re predictable, it’s not a winning strategy. (I wonder if our National Security Strategy is predictable?)

Anyway, Seattle threw the ball.  It was intercepted. The Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. But strategic logic says it was a defensible football call.

Game theory points to the possibility that Carroll’s decisive call was actually the result of following the best possible strategy, and that this is a strategy that involves an element of randomness in play-calling…. It may defy common sense, but it makes good strategic sense.

Hang on, says another rationalist author wise in the ways of game theory, “Game Theory Cannot Rationalize Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss.”

Cullen Roche – who runs a financial services company — argues that the Seattle coach wasn’t trying to out strategize or out think the Patriot’s coach.

Carroll explained his call after the game. With 26 seconds left and just 1 timeout the Seahawks did not want to waste a timeout, but also didn’t want to leave the Patriots with any time left and a chance to score. Carroll was emphatic that they would score on 3rd or 4th down with a run play. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind whether they could score. He didn’t need to outguess Bill Belichick.

This had nothing to do with Game Theory or trying to outguess the other coach. Pete Carroll had the New England Patriots dead in the water. He knew that there was virtually no chance that the Pats could stop one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with the best running back in the NFL

… So, what happened here was that Pete Carroll let Tom Brady [the Patriots' quarterback] get into his head. And this resulted in an irrational decision to throw a slant pass into a crowded backfield…. In essence, Carroll did exactly what the Game Theorists wanted – he inserted the probability of a pass play into the minds of the defense. …Inserting the idea of randomness actually increased the odds of the interception because the defenders altered their thinking…. [In] the rush to protect against the improbable, [Carroll] called an improbable pass play.  No amount of theorizing can rationalize it.

This is an ideal dialectical situation. There’s a thesis that the call made sense from a game theoretic perspective. The antithesis is nope.

Where else to go for a synthesis but to the mother country.

The story in the Economist was called “Defending the indefensible: Game theory in American football”

To bring readers among the 98.5% of humanity that did not tune in up to speed (around 115m people watched the game, meaning that some 6.9 billion did not), the final minutes unfolded as follows.

The story unwinds the final two minutes of the game until Seattle is on the five yard line with a first and goal:

On the following play, Mr Carroll had Mr Wilson hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s superb running back. He advanced four yards, putting the Seahawks inside the Patriots’ one-yard line. That put Seattle in the driver’s seat: even though they were still trailing, they had three chances (the second, third and fourth downs) to advance the ball less than 36 inches (91 cm) and gain a three-point lead. Teams in that situation go on to win just under 85% of the time.

This case, however, would be the exception. After letting another 40 seconds burn off the clock, to ensure that New England would not have time to answer with a score of their own [thanks to Mr Brady], Mr Carroll chose to pass instead of run. Mr Wilson took the snap, and saw Ricardo Lockette … appear wide open with a clear path to the end zone. The quarterback fired the ball in his direction. But Mr [Malcom] Butler was about to have his revenge for being beaten by Mr [Jermaine] Kearse two plays earlier. Reading Mr Wilson perfectly … he broke straight for the spot Mr Wilson was targeting and intercepted the pass …, ending the Seahawks’ season.

The Economist offers its description of game theory [my emphasis], and throws in an interesting factoid:

A brief game theory refresher may be in order. There is no play that cannot be stopped if the defence knows it is coming. If the Seahawks were to sign a blood oath promising to have Mr Lynch run the ball, the Patriots could simply throw all 11 defenders at him and stop him in his tracks. In order for a run by Mr Lynch to be effective, the opposing team must believe there is some chance, however small, that the offence will do something else. For such a threat to be credible, Seattle must randomly call a different play every so often ….

In one of the rare demonstrations of mathematically optimal play in the NFL, the league’s coaches as a group have found their way to a textbook equilibrium. During the 2014 season, offences on an opponent’s one-yard line ran two-thirds of the time (there were 212 rushes and 106 passes). The running plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time…and the passing plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time. This is exactly what theory would predict: if either rushing or passing offered a superior success rate, teams would shift their play mix towards the better option until the balance was restored.

The conclusion to all this? According to the Economist,

The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking”, which originated with American football but is now used broadly, was invented for a reason: to heap appropriate scorn on critics who wait for the benefit of hindsight before rendering judgment…. There was nothing wrong with Mr Carroll’s play call. It just didn’t work out.


Facts? Opinions?  Rationality? Emotionalism? Motivated Reasoning?  Failure to use common sense?  Who really knows what play to call when the game’s on the line?

In my uncertainty and confusion I take refuge in the wisdom of the 2015 National Security Strategy.

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.

 

February 5, 2015

Immigration physics

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

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

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

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

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

Last week Politico reported,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 29, 2015

Epidemiology of violence

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 29, 2015

About this time last year I first heard about a few cases of Ebola in the Guinea Highlands.  It was, I thought , a bit strange.  A long way from the Congo River basin, with which Ebola is usually associated.

But I was busy finishing a big project.  Infectious disease is not my specialty. The occasional human contraction of Ebola has typically produced a rapid and effective professional response.  As previously outlined, I also missed some other important connections that could have enhanced my attention.

I was not alone.

Fast-forward to today.  According to the most recent WHO situation update, in mid-January, 148 new cases of Ebola have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Compared to August and September this is good news.  At any other time and at any other place, this level of Ebola transmission would be the epidemiological equivalent of a three alarm fire.

This is not a disease we want to treat as a chronic condition.  We ought not allow it to become endemic.  It is too deadly. The current transmission cycle must be fully, wholly stopped.  Then we must each and all do better with early identification and elimination of future animal-to-human and the first human-to-human transmissions.

This is the way with networks and we are — technically and socially — increasingly a networked world.

It would be easy to move to measles or seasonal influenza.  But I want to try a more audacious analogy.

Last week Secretary Kerry spoke to the World Economic Forum.  The whole speech was better than the sound-bites I had been fed.  Following is the whiff of epidemiology I noticed in his remarks.

We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism, a resupplying on a constant basis. We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge. And that’s why we are committed to enlarging our strategy in ways that respond effectively to the underlying causes, as well as the visible symptoms of violent extremism. That’s why we’re developing an approach that extends far beyond the short term, and which cannot be limited to the Middle East or to any other region.

We need – all of us – to take these steps so that a decade or two in the future, when the economic forum meets and you hear from leaders, they’re not standing up here responding to a new list of acronyms to the same concept, but different players. We cannot have our successors come back here to face the same questions and the same challenge. The terror groups may have those different acronyms in the future and they may be targeting different countries, but if we don’t do what is required now, then I guarantee you the fundamental conflict will either stay the same or get worse.

We were very late, nearly too late, in the West African Ebola outbreak.  Thousands have — potentially will — die needlessly.  My too-simple — but not necessarily inaccurate — analysis:  When the usual professional methods were distracted and delayed, the contagion multiplied reaching an extent beyond the capacity of professionals alone.

Sierra Leone applied significant command-and-control techniques.  In retrospect, these were entirely ineffective.  Liberia — more by accident than intention — came to depend on an extraordinary network of neighbors working with neighbors. Eventually this whole community approach was adopted in Sierra Leone as well. This mostly spontaneous bottom-up engagement became the essential foundation on which current containment was achieved.

Professionals have certainly been needed at every stage.  Coordination, collaboration, communication, and clinical care have been built upon the foundation.  Spontaneous beginnings have been systematically reinforced. But until the community — really multiple communities — mobilized the deadly disease was quickly spreading.

This is the way with networks.

January 22, 2015

“Countering violent extremism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–+–

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2015

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 15, 2015

New York Post cover

The Kouachi brothers’ assassination attack on the editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo killed twelve.

The next day with the Kouachi’s on the run, Amedy Coulibaly assassinated a French policewoman and subsequently took hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris.  Four hostages were killed.

The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were well-acquainted with each other.  Based on statements made by the murderers it would seem the Kouachis self-identified with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while Coulibaly, at least most recently, had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.

The connections between these three men and their relationships with AQAP, IS, or other extremist organizations will take time to carefully trace.  It is not yet clear, for example, if others had any operational control, or even prior knowledge, of the attack.

“Is this a Mumbai or a Boston?” We don’t know yet. (Though some early signals lean toward a more-connected, less free-lance relationship with terrorist nodes.)

All three assailants were well-known to French police and other Western security agencies.  All had criminal records.  All had publicly expressed sympathy with terrorist organizations and ideology. At some point, all had been under surveillance.  So are over 1600 French citizens.  The potential threats far exceed the resources reasonably available to maintain some balance between security and due process.

I am surprised we have not seen more Mumbais and Bostons (or we might say, Bed-Stuys and Utoyas).  These lone-wolf or small wolf-pack attacks are very difficult to prevent. For twisted egos they practically guarantee mass-media validation. Jim Bittermann at CNN commented: Chérif Kouachi was a failed soccer player and a failed rap artist who finally found a way to claim our attention.

As long predicted, one of the blow-backs of the Syrian civil war will almost certainly be some increase in deadly events of this sorts. Several thousand egos are being simultaneously abused and inflamed.  But — none of those killing and finally killed last week were veterans of that conflict. There is even evidence that close encounters with the self-styled Caliphate have disillusioned many Western volunteers.

Intelligence operations, border controls, law enforcement vigilance and prosecutorial attention can help contain these threats.  The mid-December Lindt Cafe hostage taking in Sydney probably could have been prevented under new legislation that took effect on New Years Day.  Coulibaly could have still been in prison for his last offense, but he was released early. There is, however, no full-proof way to prevent these sort of small-scale operations.  Bigger more complicated efforts are much more likely to “leak” in a way we will notice. Even then to recognize the risk we require considerable expertise and just about as much luck.

In calendar year 2002, 1119 people were murdered in France. In 2012 the number had fallen to 665.  Last week was horrific.  Last week’s number was not — sadly — significantly outside historical proportions. On the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attack thirty-seven Yemeni police recruits were killed by what is widely assumed to be an AQAP vehicle bomb.  But this other mass-murder does not surprise us.

Of course it is not just the number of dead that matters.  We are horrified by how the targets were selected and the manner in which they were killed. The French Premier, Manuel Valls, proclaimed, in most English translations, “We are at War.”  But here is the complete quote (and my personal translation).

Nous faisons une guerre, pas une guerre contre une religion, pas une guerre de civilisation, mais pour défendre nos valeurs, qui sont universelles. C’est une guerre contre le terrorisme et l’islamisme radical, contre tout ce qui vise à briser la solidarité, la liberté, la fraternité. 

(We make war, but not a war against a religion, not a war of civilizations, but to defend our values, which are universal. It is a war against terrorism and radical Islam, against everything that aims to shatter solidarity, liberty, fraternity.)

Next month the United States will host a long-planned — but just calendared – international conference on counter-terrorism. The purpose of the February 18 session is to “better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad,’’ the White House said.  Even if we could fully understand the root causes, I’m not persuaded this knowledge would allow us to consistently identify and/or prevent.  Besides, the root causes are complicated, even by-the-textbook complex.

It seems to me that humanity is trying to adapt to a broad-based social revolution that began more or less four centuries ago and has been accelerating, gyrating, imploding and exploding ever since.  Some places and people have adapted reasonably well, others quite badly.

All of the great religions (inherently conserving institutions) have been challenged and changed by this great transformation. Islam has been undergoing its own “reformation” for at least the last century.  The contemporary convulsion in many Muslim states and between strands of Islam can be compared to the collision of a great flood with a great rock.  The flood does not stop.  The rock persists.  The water may swamp the rock or be diverted by the rock or build-up behind the rock until spilling over it.   The rock may even be carried with the flood until it is deposited far downstream.  In any case, big rocks and fast water are a dangerous combination.

We are —  especially if we are weird (western educated industrial rich democratic) — a part of this flooding.   Those less-weird who are threatened by the flooding may view us as the cause of their distress.  There are also some who have attempted to ride the waves of this cascade, nearly drowned, and were barely saved by a last-chance grasp for edges of the rock. These are especially inclined to curse us and attempt to change the course of this flooding. (Shakespeare puts the lines used as today’s title in the mouth of Brutus, friend and assassin of Caesar. A very complicated character.)

Is this war?  Both war and guerre (the French term) are derived from the Old High German werra meaning confusion, perplexing, disarray, strife, and quarrel.  So yes, we all make war.

But I will also share that last Friday a French friend wrote me, “It is just terrorism.”

I thought she might be saying something in English that had a nuanced meaning in French. But when I asked, she wrote, “No, this phrasing has nothing to do with French at all. I said this on purpose but I didn’t have time to explain why. I feel that it is very important to reduce those thugs to what they are, terrorists. This isn’t Islam, this isn’t a cause.  This is nothing. Nothing but sheer terrorism in the name of absolutely nothing. When put in such a context we can make different moral judgments and we can rebound more easily. It doesn’t change the course of anything. It is murder for the sake of murder.”

When the fever breaks

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 15, 2015

According to the most recent WHO update Ebola has caused over 8300 deaths since the outbreak began in late 2013.  New disease transmissions are occurring, but the rate of transmission has been dramatically reduced by rigorous contact tracing, early intervention, and behavioral changes.

There continues to be the risk of transmission spikes and endemic transmission cycles.  There is much still to do.  But the worst projections have been avoided and sufficient capacity now exists to contain and further reduce the risk.

For me the most remarkable aspect of this still emerging story has been the role of informal networks, neighbors, and motivated volunteers in organizing rigorous contact tracing and behavioral interventions.   In the January 19 New Yorker there is a fine piece of long-journalism by Luke Mogelson that focuses in on this “whole community” angle of the epidemic.

A few excerpts, but please read the whole story:

Neighborhoods have mobilized, health-care workers have volunteered, and rural villagers have formed local Ebola task forces. Individuals who survive Ebola are usually immune to infection, and in many places they have become integral to stemming the epidemic. “Communities are doing things on their own, with or without our support,” Joel Montgomery, the C.D.C. team leader in Liberia at the time, told me when I met him in Monrovia…

To build a network of active case-finders who could cover all of West Point, Gbessay recruited three volunteers from each of the slum’s thirty-five blocks. Most of them were young and had a degree of social clout—“credible people,” Gbessay called them. The quarantine had done little to alleviate popular skepticism of the government’s Ebola-containment policies, however, and, for a while, hostility persisted. “At first, the cases were skyrocketing,” Gbessay said. “We used to see seventy, eighty cases a day. But by the middle of September everyone started to think, Look, I better be careful. Today, you talk to your friend—tomorrow, you hear the guy is gone. So they started to pay attention.”

Please read, When the Fever Breaks.  As you read it I wonder if you will, as I did, perceive key principles that are potentially relevant to a wide range of homeland security challenges.

January 8, 2015

Counterterrorism as social judo

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 8, 2015

paris-je suis charlie

(Above: Crowd in Paris expressing solidarity with the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Photograph from The Telegraph (London), photographer not identified)

The post below had been mostly drafted before the attack in Paris. Reading it in the aftermath of that assault, seven-hundred words have seldom seemed so superficial. Yet I also perceive in this atrocity evidence for the essential argument. As a result — and out of time — I have not revised it. But my argument absolutely deserves your critique given the present context. 

–+–

In response to last Thursday’s Happy New Year post a colleague wrote privately that I ought be more worried about ISIS than my brief reference last week implied.

If I lived anywhere west of the Tigris River in what many maps still label Iraq or Syria, I would be more than worried.  The tactical threat is significant and the resilience of this threat suggests a strategic risk that is very much worth our attention.  There will, almost certainly, be ISIS-sponsored or inspired attacks in Europe, the United States, and Australia.

But ISIL, ISIS, Daesh is also a threat that strikes me as self-subverting and susceptible to our mindful action… if we are reasonably self-aware, other-aware, and strategically shrewd.  In regard to dangerous adversaries, I am always ready to celebrate the other’s deficiencies.

Perhaps you read Eric Schmitt’s front-page New York Times story on the current effort to understand “what makes I.S. so magnetic, so inspirational?”

One of those recruited to answer the question is Scott Atran.  In a September essay for The Guardian, Dr. Atran, a French-American anthropologist, summarized part of his answer:

The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.

Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf.

As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. (MORE from Atran)

Especially among twenty-somethings who are cognizant of the empty consumerism, cynical politics, and social isolation that characterizes so much of post-modern culture, it is the West that presents the most heinous threat to our essential humanity.  In confronting global culture’s zealotry for individuality, the next new thing, ironic nonchalance, and disregard for those who seek a different way, there are a visionary, courageous few who offer themselves as guardians.  This is how they see themselves.

The young terrorists’ critique of contemporary culture is acute and often more accurate than we prefer to acknowledge.  The need to resist this sometimes deadly culture and offer a more humane alternative is real and urgent. If Atran’s research and analysis is accurate, those attracted to the Syrian fight are not nihilists but misdirected idealists.  Many searching to make a positive contribution have been tragically tempted into self-righteous violence rather than self-sacrificing resistance.

I suggest that in many cases, the young terrorists’ analysis is right.  But their answer is wrong.  This is the self-subversion.  This is the fundamental delusion that undermines our adversary.  This is a weakness for our strategic exploitation, if we can recognize and embrace it.

We have the positive opportunity to offer a clearly better alternative, both for them and ourselves. How to do this systematically is beyond the scope of this post and today.

But to suggest how the alternative might emerge, here’s a New Year’s resolution to consider: Don’t be bland or banal or a bureaucrat.  Do reach-out to others, listen carefully, ask questions, think-first, speak boldly but kindly, and give some serious thought to what it means to love. To be even more preachy, pretentious, ridiculous: What does it mean to love one’s enemy?  None of this is easy. Really, what could be harder?  But who claimed counter-terrorism would be uncomplicated?

Who said bequeathing a bit better world to the next generation could be anything but a profound moral challenge?

–+–

Emerging information on the Paris attack: Several reports suggest the terrorists may be related to Al Qaeda in Yemen, not the self-styled Islamic State.  The Yemeni beast is very different from its Mesopotamian alter-ego, but in terms of what initially attracts and their fatal flaw, what Atran has found still mostly applies… it seems to me.

Update on Sunday, January 11:  A video has been made available on the Internet that shows Amedy Coulibaly, the hostage-taker at the Paris Kosher grocery, as pledging loyalty to the Islamic State.  Most news outlets continue to report that two other terrorists, tied to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, self-identified with the Yemen-based  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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.

Next Page »