Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 10, 2015

September 10 Thinking

Filed under: Resilience,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2015

When someone is accused of “September 10 thinking” it is usually meant to suggest attitudes that under-estimate the terrorist threat. Before September 11 we understood terrorism mostly as a matter of criminal investigation and prosecution.  After September 11, the critique strongly implies, any clear-thinking person must recognize that terrorism requires waging war to make peace.

On this tenth day of September we have experienced fourteen years of war. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire. Millions have been displaced.  There has been a militarization of domestic governance fraught with unintended consequences. Has there been a coarsening of American culture?  Perpetual war has a reputation for producing this outcome.  But Americans can be proudly rough-hewn.  Perhaps this is an effect with deeper cause.

In any case, I perceive very little prospect for peace.  If anything the terrorist threat to the United States – and many others – seems more pronounced, even more complicated than fourteen years ago.

Since 9-11 there has not been a successful “strategic” attack on the United States. Several attempts have been preempted by a combination of effective intelligence, policing, criminal prosecution, and military operations. Several mostly free-lance terrorist operations have been carried out, but the damage done pales in contrast to US mass-murders perpetrated by non-terrorists.

This is not to deny the continuing – perhaps increasing – terrorist threat.  We have seen in London, Madrid, Paris, and elsewhere what is possible.  Those we call terrorists do not obscure their ambitions.

The cause of current threats is complicated. It is not a straight line from American military operations to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But this is one of several converging lines. Our failure to shape a more inclusive and stable post-occupation in Iraq is another of these lines.  We share with many others the failure to avert Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe. There are even more twists and knots and weird webs, not all of which can be traced to an American source. It is, however, often impossible to distinguish our lines from these others.

It was never a binary: war-fighting or policing. It has always been much more complicated.  Most police officers and military personnel are quick to agree that deadly force is best-used only when better options have proven ineffective.

But we have given the vast majority of our attention and resources to these two counter-terrorism tools.  While we can commend certain CT competencies, our current strategic situation suggests other investments are needed.

If you are expecting a comprehensive answer from me, don’t hold your breath.  But I will highlight three issues beyond fighting and prosecuting which I perceive need sustained attention if we are to be in a better place fourteen years from now.

Demographic density – There are twice as many of us as in 1965. There will be even more of us.  We are coming together closer in cities.  We are interacting more and more through communications, commerce, and culture.  The simple mathematical likelihood of conflict increases as our interactions proliferate.  If predicted shortages of water and food unfold, it could be an especially ugly century.

Proximate diversity – Conflict often arises over real or perceived differences.  What is interesting at a distance may be irritating close at hand.  What seems reasonable to me, strikes you as crazy. Economic inequality, while perpetual, was once less obvious. Until 200 years ago many of our cultural differences were buffered by various sorts of distance. Many physical, temporal, and cultural aspects of distance are experiencing compression (see supra).  This compression can encourage intentional expressions of differentiation. Such expressions escalate proximate differences that might be insignificant at a distance. One person’s creative cosmopolitanism is another’s satanic confusion.

Interdependent networks—I most often use these words to reference the electrical grids, telecommunications networks, and supply chains that facilitate and sustain the two prior issues.  If these fail, preexisting tensions may escalate. But in this context the challenge – and opportunities – of interdependence also extend to social, economic, and political networks.  Separation is increasingly difficult and usually delusional.  Relationships across various divides are real and can be constructive, even affectionate. But whatever the affect, the connections are increasingly fundamental, spreading good and bad with equal alacrity.

These are issues that seem innately to prompt either-or, yes-no, right-wrong reactions. But I worry it is precisely this analytic predisposition that threatens mutual annihilation.

Hegel used a German word that Marx allowed to be translated into English as suggesting the old way is destroyed to make way for the new. But the original word — Aufheben — can, depending on context, mean destroy or transcend or retrieve or renew. The implication, at least for me, is how prior meaning can be constructively adapted to present reality. Or how contending worldviews can be resolved. Or how thesis and antithesis might constructively coexist. Can we develop the interpersonal skills and social systems to deploy contending energies for the common good?


A program that has roots in traditional counter-terrorism, but is trying to stretch into the issues noted above is outlined in a September 9 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

September 3, 2015

Homeland Security: Top Issue or Other?

Filed under: Disaster,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 3, 2015

In a speech last week to note the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast, President Obama said:

Here in New Orleans, a city that embodies a celebration of life, suddenly seemed devoid of life.  A place once defined by color and sound — the second line down the street, the crawfish boils in backyards, the music always in the air — suddenly it was dark and silent.  And the world watched in horror.  We saw those rising waters drown the iconic streets of New Orleans.  Families stranded on rooftops.  Bodies in the streets.  Children crying, crowded in the Superdome.  An American city dark and under water.  

And this was something that was supposed to never happen here — maybe somewhere else.  But not here, not in America.  And we came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.  And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing.  Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty.  And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there was no resources to fall back on.

In the podcast with Thad Allen that Arnold Bogis highlighted on Tuesday, the former Coast Guard Commandant remarked, “The event does not create the preconditions, and to the extent that preconditions exist, that erodes resiliency and your ability to deal with the problem, you’re going have the consequences of greater effect and greater magnitude.”

In addition to the preconditions noted by the President and the Admiral, I would highlight the structure of the electrical grid, fuel distribution systems, supply chains for food, pharmaceuticals, medical goods, and more.  The lower ninth ward did not have a functioning public water system for fourteen months after Katrina. What would be the situation in post-earthquake Los Angeles?  In the New Orleans region, as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and in myriad locations along most major US waterways, dikes, levees, dams and other engineered structures have incrementally accumulated without much attention to potential interdependencies.  Dozens of dams my grandfather was instrumental in building more than sixty years ago have not been maintained and are an increasing hazard.

As the President suggests, many of our most troublesome preconditions are the result of neglect.  But others — even some referenced by Mr. Obama — are as likely to emerge from proactive and purposeful choices intended to enhance efficiency, economic productivity, and other generally perceived positives.

Does the Homeland Security mission include addressing preconditions?

Glance at the screen capture below.  This is from the White House website.  Click on ISSUES and this is what is displayed.  Does the distinction between “Top Issues” and “More” strike you as meaningful?

White House Website_Issues

I suspect the headings were organized by a web-master rather than senior policy staff. But like an innocent (Freudian?) slip of the tongue, it’s interesting to consider.  I may even agree with the distinctions.  The “Top Issues” listed above have the potential to shape the strategic landscape.  Those listed under the first set of “More”, as usually conceived, are much more responses to problems that resist strategic shaping.

Much of my work tries to get Homeland Security more effectively engaged in preconditions.  Presidential Policy Directive 21 indicates:

The Federal Government shall work with critical infrastructure owners and operators and SLTT entities to take proactive steps to manage risk and strengthen the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure, considering all hazards that could have a debilitating impact on national security, economic stability, public health and safety, or any combination thereof. These efforts shall seek to reduce vulnerabilities, minimize consequences, identify and disrupt threats, and hasten response and recovery efforts related to critical infrastructure.

Later in the same PPD, we read:

The Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide strategic guidance, promote a national unity of effort, and coordinate the overall Federal effort to promote the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure. In carrying out the responsibilities assigned in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended, the Secretary of Homeland Security evaluates national capabilities, opportunities, and challenges in protecting critical infrastructure; analyzes threats to, vulnerabilities of, and potential consequences from all hazards on critical infrastructure; identifies security and resilience functions that are necessary for effective public-private engagement with all critical infrastructure sectors; develops a national plan and metrics, in coordination with SSAs and other critical infrastructure partners; integrates and coordinates Federal cross-sector security and resilience activities; identifies and analyzes key interdependencies among critical infrastructure sectors; and reports on the effectiveness of national efforts to strengthen the Nation’s security and resilience posture for critical infrastructure.

Several additional DHS roles are then listed.  Similar proactive language — authorities, as they are called — can be found in other statutes and executive actions. But whatever the authorities and occasional exception, the culture of Homeland Security remains more defensive…threat-oriented…reactive.

Preconditions persist and multiply.

September 1, 2015

“Devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue”

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Climate Change,Futures,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 1, 2015

Thanks to the Alaska Dispatch News, here’s a transcript of the speech President Obama gave Monday evening (9PM Eastern) in Alaska.

The phrase “homeland security” was never uttered.  But I perceive a considerable connection.  One excerpt:

We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue.  That is not deniable.  And we are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because of these trend lines we are not going to be able to stop on a dime.  We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow. 

But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively.  People will suffer.  Economies will suffer.  Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems.  More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict. 

That’s one path we can take.  The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it.  This is within our power.  This is a solvable problem if we start now. 


August 27, 2015

New Orleans and the Gulf at Ten

Above, Weather Channel coverage of Katrina on August 27, 2005

On Saturday, August 27 ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina was a CAT-3 still in the Gulf, but projected to hit along the Mississippi delta. The state of Louisiana requested and received a Stafford Act declaration of a major disaster in anticipation of the hurricane’s impact. Late Saturday afternoon the mayor of New Orleans (finally) encouraged voluntary evacuation of the city.

That weekend I was conducting counter-terrorism training in a windowless, Strangelovian room far from the Gulf. But we had the storm track and continuous news coverage displayed on several giant monitors.

I perceive that over the next week Homeland Security morphed from being mostly threat-oriented toward much more engagement with vulnerability. This very nascent field began shifting from a focus on “stopping bad guys” to assessing risk and cultivating resilience.

Media and scholarly attention to the Tenth Anniversary of Katrina started in early August and has been surprisingly substantive. Here at HLSWatch, Bill Cumming has offered several notes and links on the anniversary, see recent Friday Free Forums. Following are five more links I hope you find worth your time.

  • The Data Center –  Fantastic resources on demographics, economics, and other quantitative measures related to the region’s recovery.
  • Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) – This is an ongoing longitudinal study of several angles on several sub-populations.  Focus is on psycho-social outcomes.
  • Catastrophes are Different from Disasters – The now classic essay by E.L. Quarantelli.  Also check out other excellent essays in this 2006 special report by the Social Science Research Council.
  • Recovery Diva – Claire Rubin has posted at least twenty thoughtful updates with multiple links.
  • REVERB – An exhibition (through November 1) at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans.

Threats continue to challenge and tempt us.  Vulnerabilities can be difficult to acknowledge. Meaningful mitigation often requires sustained collaboration. Resilience is complicated. We continue to learn from Katrina.

August 20, 2015

Conflicting or complementary?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Climate Change,Futures,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 20, 2015

Each month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a review of weather data.  What the accumulating data demonstrates are increasing departures from historic means, much more extreme weather of every sort.

While some continue to argue the cause for this shift, there is more and more consensus that the data confirms an emerging climate much different than that experienced by recent generations. (Monday I received a briefing on the so-called Kankakee Torrent of 14,000 to 19,000 years ago.  This suggests that even extremes are relative).

So far the impact of the extended California drought on agricultural production — and prices — has been modest.  According to a late-June analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service,

The current outlook for 2015 is for slightly lower than average retail food price inflation, with supermarket prices expected to rise 1.75 to 2.75 percent over 2014 levels. Despite drought conditions in California, the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices could have a mitigating effect on fresh fruit and vegetable prices in 2015. As of June, ERS predicts fresh fruit prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0 percent in 2015, close to the 20-year historical average. 

But if the current drought would extend for another several years, and especially if drought in one agricultural region is combined with destructive extreme weather in other agricultural regions (e.g. the 2010 drought in Ukraine, Russia, China, and Argentina), the combined consequence can be dire.

While an understanding of cause is usually crucial to prevention and many kinds of mitigation, it is possible to disagree as to cause and develop plausible projections of consequence. In most of life there is a “cone of uncertainty” of some sort, but even when we cannot precisely predict, we may be able to reasonably anticipate.

Over the last several months a UK-US team has attempted to anticipate the impact of extreme weather on global agricultural capacity.  They recently released a report, concluding:

... the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and… this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances. Action is therefore needed to improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks, to mitigate their impact on people.

I find the binational report especially interesting for reasons that go beyond the explicit factual analysis.  The organization and rhetoric of the report seems a bit bipolar… unable to resolve a persistent tension between two policy/strategy perceptions.  One angle tends toward greater redundancy and centralization.  The other tends toward greater diversity and decentralization.  The authors do not seem self-aware of the tension.  It would be interesting, at least to me, to see a principled strategic process for engaging these two alternatives… or possibly complementary approaches.

August 6, 2015

Danger: It is clear. Is it present?

Filed under: Immigration,International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2015

Manu_Brabo_San Salvador Arrest

Above: Photograph by Manu Brabo (AP) of an arrest in San Salvador from the Executioners of El Salvador in The New Yorker.

Until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States did not attempt to control immigration as a matter of policy. Other late 19th Century restrictions attempted to limit entry by Japanese, lunatics, anarchists, and carriers of infectious diseases.  From 1921 to 1965 various laws and Executive actions served to set an upper limit on total immigration and set quotas for the national origin of immigrants.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the 1990 Immigration Act put in place the basic architecture of contemporary immigration policy. Since 9/11 there have been several attempts to significantly revise immigration laws, most of these efforts have failed.

Each year roughly 700,000 legal immigrants enter the United States.  Illegal immigration is tough to track, but net inflows — number entering minus number returning — are credibly estimated to have plunged below 100,000 since the Great Recession (2007).   According to the Pew Research Center, since 2012 it is possible that more Mexicans living in the United States have returned to Mexico than have crossed north.

If so, this would restore a long-time pattern of Mexican and Central American migration.  According to Madeline Zavodny with the American Enterprise Institute:

It is worth noting that historically many unauthorized immigrants did not settle permanently in the United States. Instead, they worked here temporarily, saved some money and returned home; many repeated this on a seasonal basis for years but ultimately retired at home, where their family members had remained. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a gradual shift toward unauthorized immigrants settling in the United States and reuniting with family members here. One reason for this was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalization program, which enabled some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants to receive permanent legal status. Another reason is the increased difficulty in crossing the U.S.-Mexico border due to tighter border security. As it has become harder to re-enter the United States, unauthorized immigrants have increased their length of stay here.

Increased economic opportunity in Mexico — strongly tied to a declining birth-rate — is one of several factors that have shifted migration patterns. “The immigration debate seems to be stuck around the year 2006, and before then,” says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Japan or New Zealand can conceivably manage their immigration policy with a border strategy.  Most large, affluent, culturally diverse nations (or regions, ala the European Union) will find a border strategy to be about as effective as the Maginot Line.  To be effective much more attention is required to shape the strategic context for migration… as distant from the border as possible.

For example, last week Refugees International released a new report on violence in El Salvador.  In the last six months, there have been over 3000 murders in this nation of 6 million.   According to the report:

More children are killed in El Salvador per capita than in any other country. Two gangs are largely responsible for this increasing violence. These gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street) originated in Los Angeles, but after 1996, thousands were deported to El Salvador in a process that has been described as “unintentional state-sponsored gang migration.” By 2005, El Salvador had 10,000 active gang members, and this number has only grown in the intervening years. Currently, there are 70,000 members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs operating in El Salvador…

Does this situation present a potential immigration challenge to the United States? Last summer we had a dramatic example of the possibility.  Since then the situation in Central America has only gotten worse. Does the strength of Central American gangs and their contacts with US and international criminal/terrorist organizations present a potential threat beyond immigration?  Is the US national interest our only concern in this context?  Should it be?

Where would you prefer to engage the potential threat?  How would you prefer to reduce the potential threat? When is the right time to engage?  The Refugees International Report offers some answers.

June 4, 2015

What do you know and how do you know it?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Legal Issues,Privacy and Security,Radicalization,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 4, 2015

Monday the Supreme Court remanded for further consideration Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.   In 2008 the Company decided not to hire an otherwise well-suited prospective employee because it is her religious practice to wear a hijab (below).

The EEOC sued on behalf of Samantha Elauf under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Act “prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship.”

A Federal District Court jury originally found on behalf of the EEOC and awarded damages to Ms. Elauf, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision finding that Ms. Elauf had not explicitly informed the Company that her head-covering is an act of religious devotion.  Without this “actual knowledge” of a need for religious accommodation the Tenth Circuit found that the Company was within its rights to stand-by a dress-code that does not allow employees to wear “caps”.

The Supreme Court disagrees.

The 8-to-1 decision written by Justice Scalia strikes me as narrowly framed to discern the law’s intent.  The decision is, nonetheless, being hailed as a victory for inclusion, tolerance, and respect for religious practice.  The Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations commented, “We welcome this historic ruling in defense of religious freedom at a time when the American Muslim community is facing increased levels of Islamophobia.”

Samantha Elauf and her mother

Samantha Elauf with her mother

Title VII establishes what Justice Scalia characterizes as “favored treatment” for ” all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to” a “religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  On remand the lower courts will take up whether or not accommodation in this case would cause undue hardship.

Meanwhile, Congress struggles to determine what constitutes an undue hardship on personal privacy, especially in collection of meta-data and other often prosaic but powerful tools of digital tracking.  Can the National Security Agency reasonably accommodate citizens varied expectations of privacy?  Or has any such expectation become an unreasonable delusion?

Meanwhile, a DHS red team encountered barely any hardship at all penetrating TSA security protocols.  ABC News reports, “According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.”  Overly accommodating?

Meanwhile, how well can the US economy reasonably accommodate continued drought in California, recurring floods in Texas and Oklahoma, and the accelerating financial and human costs of natural hazards around the globe?  As the escalating controversy regarding federal flood insurance demonstrates (and Bill Cumming has explained), even measures meant to help accommodate individuals to risk can actually end up causing undue hardship.

In their consideration of EEOC v A&F, I hear the Supremes offering some wisdom that can extend well-beyond the religious significance of our fashion choices.

This wisdom, at least for me, is amplified by the paradoxies — some would say, absurdities — of Samantha Elauf’s situation.   As devout, even pious, as many of her fellow citizens of Oklahoma, Ms. Elauf regularly covers her head to symbolize her obedience to God and as an expression of personal modesty.  As an all-American girl — evidenced by her Instagram account — Ms. Elauf is at ease blending this religious sensibility with the merchandising strategy of Abercrombie and Fitch.  One sample immediately below.

A&F Merry Christmas

For its 2012 calendar A&F kept the Christ in Christmas

This is a profoundly American — some adversaries would insist, satanic — tendency to accommodate what many, perhaps most, of the world could perceive as irreconcilably dueling realities.  We are being challenged again and again to appear on a supposed field of honor to kill or be killed defending this convergence of contradictions.

The brief Supreme Court opinions — Scalia for the majority: 7 pages, Alito concurring: 6 pages, Thomas dissenting: 10 pages — are examinations of applied epistemology.  What do we know and how do we know it?  And applied ethics: what is our obligation to act in accordance with what we know?

According to our magistrates, knowledge is often implicit, typically contingent on context, and, when involving humans, requires a careful assessment of intention. Knowledge is applied rightly and wisely when it recognizes contending values, honors diversity, and is especially solicitous regarding the role of individuals as moral agents.

This is a radical view of the world and our place in it that is considered naive and/or heretical and/or threatening by many millions.  It is also the great attraction of the American experience for millions more.

When we look to our most contentious homeland security issues — for example, privacy v. intelligence-operations, liberty v. security, individual v. community  — are the epistemological principles articulated in EEOC v A&F the rule or the exception?  Are we predisposed to accommodate or insist?  Are we exclusive or inclusive? How much are we tempted to the dogmatism of our critics?

When challenged to a duel do we have sufficient knowledge of self and other to select the most appropriate weapon: sword, plowshare, or pie shell (whipped cream or lemon custard)?

Non sequitur_Messing with Absolutists

Is this heresy, comedy, or serious commentary? (Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller)

May 28, 2015

Exploring a possible strategic analogy: Density = Mass/Volume

Over the last many days an extraordinary volume of water has encountered the structural and human density of the fourth largest city in the United States.  The Greater Houston metropolitan region has a population of 6.22 million and a population density of 630.3 persons per square mile.

During the month of May over twenty inches of rain has fallen across much of East Texas.  In the Houston area on Monday night over ten inches fell in a period of only six hours. Rain continued to fall on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This quantity of rain in a comparatively contained space over such a short period of time would profoundly challenge the equilibrium of most natural environments.  The built environment on which humans depend is seldom as resilient. Pack millions of humans into a dense urban environment and whatever our individual resilience, there will be a range of interdependencies that increase everyone’s risk. We can be surprised.

Extraordinary external volume can seldom be entirely avoided.   This is true for potential threats  beyond precipitation. Denial of service attacks, mass suicide bombings, and uncontrolled oil spills are other examples. Unusual volume, concentrated in time and/or repeating time after time, disrupts and destroys.

Urban population density is a choice, but for the last two centuries it has also been a persistent — and accelerating — choice.  There are real benefits.  Density is likely to increase in the years ahead.

Given the loss of life, destruction of property, and the extent of human misery caused, I am sure some will be appalled at my lack of apparent empathy, but the floods in Texas and Oklahoma have — among other things — reminded me of some junior high physics problems.

Density Volume Mass

If density and volume are each highly elastic and mostly beyond our control, we seem to be left with mass as the input with which we might still hope to influence outcomes.

In seventh grade I was taught that mass is the property of a body which determines the strength of its mutual gravitational attraction to other bodies and its resistance to being accelerated by a force, such as a volume of water. Generally we protect populations and the built environment by increasing the size and weight of dams, walls, and other “resistance” structures that retain, divert, disperse or otherwise reduce the force of any threatening volume.

At least here on earth, we don’t always give much attention to gravity because there’s not much we can do about it.

Mrs. Holman taught me that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature, the others being electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear.  Yet despite its comparative weakness, gravity is absolutely necessary to the universe as we know it.  Both gravitation and electromagnetism act over infinite distance to mediate diverse actions.

Both as a matter of physics and as a metaphor for broader application, gravity determines mass through interactions and relationships among multiple bodies.  In addition to adding size and weight to strengthen the built environment, what ought we do in regard to interactions and relationships to reduce the risk of volume and density converging?

In the midst of the flooding in Oklahoma and Texas, as in the recent earthquake in Nepal, as in the aftermath of Sandy and Katrina, and in the ongoing recovery from the Triple Disaster in Japan, there has been a tendency to emphasize “weighty” engineering solutions. Good. Great.

But interactions and relationships are also an important part of the formula.

April 30, 2015

Homeland security: YES or NO?

On Monday night someone torched the Youth Empowered Society (YES) drop-in center in a tough section of Baltimore.  According to Kevin Rector, writing in the Baltimore Sun,

The clashes that left at least 144 vehicles and 15 structures on fire also claimed much of the center’s space, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the 2300 block of North Charles, Law said. Video surveillance showed no one entering the building, so Law believes someone “threw something burning through the front windows.” Firefighters who responded had to hack down the front door with an ax to gain entry. On Tuesday, the drop-in center – a safe space for homeless youth during the day and a hub of information for them to connect with other service providers – was a sad sight. It’s front office space had a layer of thick black sludge from ash and water to smother the flames.

YES is a youth-led, organization being incubated by the not-for-profit Fusion Partnership.  YES describes itself as follows:

YES Drop-In Center is Baltimore City’s first and only drop-in center for homeless youth. YES Drop-In Center is a safe space for youth who are homeless and between the ages of 14-25, to get basic needs met and establish supportive relationships with peer staff  and allies that help them make and sustain connections to long-term resources and opportunities… YES develops the leadership and workforce skills of homeless and formerly homeless youth through our peer-to-peer model: providing training, coaching, and employment so youth staff can effectively serve their peers and achieve meaningful, livable-wage employment after their time with YES. YES employs seven homeless and formerly homeless youth (three who serve full-time, and four part-time) and four staff who are allies…

Statistics on homelessness are unreliable, but on any single day it is estimated at least 600 Baltimore youth are homeless.  In any one year more than 2000 students enrolled in Baltimore City schools experience some period of homelessness.  Last year YES claimed to have served about one-third of this population.

Is any of this a homeland security issue?

If an emergency management agency was trying to serve “vulnerable populations” or enhance the resilience of the “whole community”, I expect YES would be a meaningful organization to engage.

If YES was serving a mostly Somali, Yemeni, or several other immigrant communities, would it be on some sort of intelligence scan?  If it was serving the educational and employment needs of undocumented immigrants to the United States, would a couple of DHS components be interested in YES?

I think reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the issue of youth homelessness is a homeland security issue.  There is an even stronger case, at least in my mind, for it not being a Homeland Security issue.

But I also suggest that what we have seen happen in Baltimore — and in Minneapolis, Paris, Birmingham (UK and US), Hamburg, and elsewhere — provides plenty of evidence that these social issues are not unrelated to Homeland Security.

This evidence also points to the role that civic enterprises — such as YES — can perform at the seams between individuals, communities, and the public sector. Boundaries are important in the public sector.  Carefully observed — and enforced — limits are especially important in a field like counter-terrorism.  For a whole host of reasons from fiscal to constitutional, we don’t want public sector agencies blithely stepping outside their statutory roles.

But there are also profound problems that messily spill over these important boundaries.

For too long, it seems to me, we have viewed smaller civic enterprises as peripheral, charitable, one-offs.  The evidence is accumulating that they are, instead, crucially important contributors to any systemic and sustainable strategy for engaging a wide-range of social challenges… including several regularly featured at this blog.

April 23, 2015

Gulf oil spill: Lessons still to be learned

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 23, 2015

It has been five years since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven and initiated several weeks of an uncontrolled release of oil from the well-head.  Over 200 million gallons of oil are thought to have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.

I perceive the lessons-learned — or what might still be learned — from responding to the Gulf oil spill are at least as important as those we have tried to learn from 9/11 and Katrina.

What can and should be done, and sometimes not done, when dealing with big footprint, multi-consequence disasters that unfold over an extended period of time?  How is such an event to be engaged when the technical, experiential, and even intellectual resources needed are in short supply?  How does leadership and management operate when authority and competence and capability are scattered across various public and private entities? What can the lessons-learned from five years ago tell us regarding drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, and other disasters that are as much cumulative as acute?

Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard Commandant who was pulled out of retirement to serve as the National Incident Commander for the Gulf oil spill has tried to help us learn these lessons.  Here is some of what he said back in September 2010.

When I was designated as the national incident commander, I sat down with a small group of folks who became my cadre and senior staff. I wanted to focus on what needed to be done about the universe — above the unified level that had been established. I wanted to focus on those things that were distracting unified area command from doing their job: working inter agency issues in Washington and dealing with the governmental structures, Congress and so forth…

I was a 39-year veteran of the coast guard. The last thing we want is the 3,000 mile screwdriver. We would leave tactical control as close to the problem as we could… I would like to characterize the national incident command as a thin client. To use a software term. Necessary to integrate but no more than what is necessary and without adding layers of bureaucracy.

The Incident Command System that was established in New Orleans was the basis for… the coordination of command. That is a sound system. Incident command is one of the ways to approach these spills…

If we look at what transpired, we need to know what the basic doctrine says against the reality of what we found on the ground… We did not have a large, monolithic oil spill. We had hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over time that moved beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan, putting the entire coast at risk. That required resources above the plan. It required coordination across state boundaries and federal regional boundaries for the team…

We have worked on smaller spills with state and local governments with smaller responsible parties. Some of the anomalies associated with this spill that challenged the doctrine need to be looked at in detail for constructive changes to the contingency plan which should remain in place, and how we need to manage large, and, as evidence in the future that defy the traditional parameters of the incident command system…

First, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible parties, who they are, what they do, and how they interact with the contingency plan. We have worked with the responsible parties for over 20 years, very effectively managing oil spills…There were two basic issues that were not well understood by most of the people of the US and political leaders: There would be a constructive role for the entity that was attributed to causing the event. That created concern that could not be explained away. Even though we had worked effectively in that construct in responding to oil spills. The second is the fiduciary link between the representative of the responsible party and unified command and their shareholders. There are legal requirements for documenting costs which you have to carry on a balance sheet that they cannot sever.

The second notion was difficult for the people of this country to understand and our political leaders was ultimately, there is a fiduciary link between the responsible party and shareholders which would bring into question whether or not a decision should have been made based on the environment and the response itself. As stated in the national contingency plan and by statute, the responsible party is to resource the response and the federal government is to oversee their response…That is what occurred, but as you look at the enormity of this response, and the local implications, the isolated geographical areas where access is an issue, where logistical support for this type of response is an issue, a lot of the details that are carried out by those contractors that are brought to the scene are done in a contractual obligation basis with the responsible party under the general supervision of the federal government…

There is a discussion about what constitutes an authority to take action, the day-to-day supervision of workers. How this gets interpreted in terms of feedback and the effects you are trying to achieve. There is a couple of things we need to do. We need to look at the contingency plan and think about what we need by the concept of responsible party and how we want that to look in the future…

Admiral Allen is one of those rare people who somehow speak more clearly than the transcript can sometimes capture.  Thanks to C-Span, you can see and hear his extended remarks here.

As time and space expand, typically so does the number and diversity of those involved in engagement. Allen sometimes refers to the difference between theater command and incident command.  I wonder if just using the word “command” may be misleading.

March 14, 2015

Watch carefully, explain frequently

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2015

According to the World Health Organization, deaths from the year-plus outbreak of Ebola now exceed 10,000.  But as of Friday, March 13 it has been three weeks since a new transmission was confirmed in Liberia.

A team of Reuters reporters — or their headline editor — summarize Liberia’s key lessons-learned as watch carefully and explain frequently.  Both depending on (and potentially contributing to) trust-building community engagement.

Liberia was hit hard and, the nation’s President admits, slow to react.  But what seems to now differentiate Liberia’s — tentative — eradication from continuing (if much slowed) transmission in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea has been the accuracy of “contact-tracing” — essentially a mapping of personal relationships and movement related to any confirmed transmission.

This is classic public health practice. But to actually do it depends on a shared sense of solidarity… community… common cause… and community-oriented organization that cannot be taken for granted.

The recent measles outbreak in the United States demonstrates the epidemiological challenges that can emerge from a break-down of trust in communities.  I am intrigued (tempted?) with analogies to public safety and counter-terrorism challenges. Many historians of community policing trace its origins to public health models.  But I will not go there today.

It is worth noting that in this week’s Nature, respected scientists warn that the H7N9 flu virus is rapidly mutating.  The Los Angeles Times reports,

Overall, this second wave of H7N9 influenza viruses represents “a major increase in genetic diversity” compared with the viruses in the first wave, the study authors wrote. Unless live poultry markets are permanently closed, merchants stop transporting chickens from region to region, and other control measures are put in place, the virus will “persist and cause a substantial number of severe human infections.” So far, most people were sickened by handling infected chickens; cases of the virus spreading directly from person to person have been limited. That might change if the virus mutates, as happened with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that began 2009. 

In any case, Ebola is not the only potential epidemic (upon, on, among the people) to present a risk.

This may only be a projection of preconceived bias, but in trying to discern what is different in the experience of Liberia and Sierra Leone, I perceive a bottom-up strategy in Liberia and a top-down strategy in Sierra Leone.  Trust-building has been a challenge in both countries.  But the bottom-up strategy (or emergence?) in Liberia has been much more effective.  As a hypothesis to be tested, I would suggest the top-down strategy in Sierra Leone has potentially been as “effective” in suppressing a more sustainable bottom-up approach.

And I surmise this could have implications far-beyond Ebola.

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.”

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