Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 18, 2014

More listening: What is meant by evil?

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

Last Thursday, September 11, several of us exchanged a wide range of opinions on evil as an aspect of the challenge presented by terrorists.

The discussion spilled into Friday and the weekend as well.  In my judgment, it is a discussion that shows some potential to actually — eventually — elucidate an innately murky topic.

What is meant when we use the word “evil”?  When our political leaders use the word does their meaning generally accord with a widely shared meaning?  Does evil — in any form similar to common concepts — actually exist?  Is any concept of evil practically helpful to engaging terrorists and related threats?

These questions are prompted by the President’s reference to evil in his September 10 remarks announcing expanded operations against the so-called Islamic State.  He said in part, “We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.”

I heard President Obama saying that evil — specifically the evil of terrorism — is perpetually emergent.  If he is correct, this has important implications for homeland security.  Even if he is wrong this belief — as long as he is President — has important implications for homeland security.

In the weeks ahead I intend to give these questions some extended consideration.  I hope you will contribute to the process.

To start I have tried to discern the full meaning that may be embedded in the President’s choice of words. If you search for “evil” on WhiteHouse.gov over 12,000 possibilities are spawned.  I have not examined each.  But below are several comments on evil by President Obama.

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We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (Nobel Prize Lecture, December 10, 2009)

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.  Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.  None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.  Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy.  We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence.  We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.  But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.  (Tucson Memorial Service, January 12, 2011)

Even as we come to learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anyone to terrorize their fellow human beings.  Such evil is senseless – beyond reason.  But while we will never know fully what causes someone to take the life of another, we do know what makes that life worth living. (Weekly Media Message focused on the Aurora shootings, July 21, 2012)

For here we see the depravity to which man can sink; the barbarism that unfolds when we begin to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us, less worthy of dignity and of life.  We see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing, and how silence abetted a crime unique in human history. Here we see their faces and we hear their voices.  We look upon the objects of their lives — the art that they created, the prayer books that they carried.  We see that even as they had hate etched into their arms, they were not numbers.  They were men and women and children — so many children — sent to their deaths because of who they were, how they prayed, or who they loved. And yet, here, alongside man’s capacity for evil, we also are reminded of man’s capacity for good — the rescuers, the Righteous Among the Nations who refused to be bystanders.  And in their noble acts of courage, we see how this place, this accounting of horror, is, in the end, a source of hope. (House of the Children, March 22, 2013)

As the sun rose that Easter Sunday, he put on that purple stole and led dozens of prisoners to the ruins of an old church in the camp.  And he read from a prayer missal that they had kept hidden.  He held up a small crucifix that he had made from sticks.  And as the guards watched, Father Kapaun and all those prisoners — men of different faith, perhaps some men of no faith — sang the Lord’s Prayer and “America the Beautiful.”  They sang so loud that other prisoners across the camp not only heard them, they joined in, too — filling that valley with song and with prayer. That faith — that they might be delivered from evil, that they could make it home — was perhaps the greatest gift to those men; that even amidst such hardship and despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see those truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine.  Looking back, one of them said that that is what “kept a lot of us alive.” (Medal of Honor presentation, April 11, 2013)

You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We’ll choose friendship. We’ll choose love. (Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, April 18, 2013)

So America is at a crossroads.  We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.  We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.  But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.  And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.  That begins with understanding the current threat that we face. (National Defense University, May 23, 2013)

All these shootings, all these victims, she said, “this is not America.” “It is a challenge to all of us,” she said, and “we have to work together to get rid of this.” And that’s the wisdom we should be taking away from this tragedy and so many others — not accepting these shootings as inevitable, but asking what can we do to prevent them from happening again and again and again. I’ve said before, we cannot stop every act of senseless violence. We cannot know every evil that lurks in troubled minds. But if we can prevent even one tragedy like this, save even one life, spare other families what these families are going through, surely we’ve got an obligation to try. (Marine Barracks, Washington DC, September 22, 2013)

If the memories of the Shoah survivors teach us anything, it is that silence is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.  And it’s up to us — each of us, every one of us — to forcefully condemn any denial of the Holocaust.  It’s up to us to combat not only anti-Semitism, but racism and bigotry and intolerance in all their forms, here and around the world.  It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.  And it is up to us to search our own hearts — to search ourselves — for those stories that have no place in this world.  Because it’s easy sometimes to project out and worry about others and their hatreds and their bigotries and their blind spots.  It’s not always as easy for us to examine ourselves.  (USC Shoah Foundation Dinner, May 7, 2014

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What do you hear in these comments?  What does he mean?  Does his use of the term — perception of the concept — roughly accord with yours?  If not, how not? I’ll join you in the comment section for discussion and analysis.

September 4, 2014

Proactively managing a chronic condition

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 4, 2014

A decade ago the Afghanistan mission was seen as giving a possibly moribund post-cold war NATO new relevance, scope, and purpose.

At a summit meeting today and tomorrow NATO will consider a scheduled withdrawal from a still-divided, dysfunctional, and vulnerable Afghanistan, endeavor to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and review a deteriorating international security environment across wide areas of North Africa and the Near East.

While the current threat may be less existential, I perceive Europe has not confronted an equally complex security context since perhaps 1949. The implications for the United States are also complicated and multi-layered.

Yesterday — on his way to the NATO summit — the President met with his Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian peers in Tallinn. These three Baltic states constitute the Northeastern frontier of the alliance.

Given the venue (Tallinn is 230 miles from St. Petersburg, 650 miles from Moscow, and 780 miles from Kiev), the President’s formal remarks needed to focus mostly on the Russian threat. Given the reality of this threat — and the institutional DNA of the alliance — today’s NATO consultations are also likely to be dominated by Putin’s provocations.

But Wednesday afternoon (local time) the President answered reporters questions on how NATO might take up what is happening just outside the southeastern corner of the alliance. Here are his most extended comments:

Even before ISIL dominated the headlines, one of the concerns that we have had is the development of terrorist networks and organizations, separate and apart from al Qaeda, whose focus oftentimes is regional and who are combining terrorist tactics with the tactics of small armies. And we’ve seen ISIS to be the first one that has broken through, but we anticipated this awhile back and it was reflected in my West Point speech.

So one of our goals is to get NATO to work with us to help create the kinds of partnerships regionally that can combat not just ISIL, but these kinds of networks as they arise and potentially destabilize allies and partners of ours in the region.

Already we’ve seen NATO countries recognize the severity of this problem, that it is going to be a long-run problem. Immediately, they’ve dedicated resources to help us with humanitarian airdrops, to provide arms to the Peshmerga and to the Iraqi security forces. And we welcome those efforts. What we hope to do at the NATO Summit is to make sure that we are more systematic about how we do it, that we’re more focused about how we do it.

NATO is unique in the annals of history as a successful alliance. But we have to recognize that threats evolve, and threats have evolved as a consequence of what we’ve seen in Ukraine, but threats are also evolving in the Middle East that have a direct effect on Europe… We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.

And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the international community to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely affected. They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed. They’re the ones whose economies are completely upended to the point where they can’t produce their own food and they can’t produce the kinds of goods and services to sell in the world marketplace. And they’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow, but very dangerous, segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to do that.

The foregoing sets-out the institutional (NATO) and international (North African and Near Eastern) context.  Action is signaled.  But in terms of US strategic objectives for actions taken within this context, I found the following comments from earlier in the press conference to be most helpful:

Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.  And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities.  You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.

But what we can do is to make sure that the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression that we’ve seen out of ISIL that terrorizes primarily Muslims, Shia, Sunni — terrorizes Kurds, terrorizes not just Iraqis, but people throughout the region, that that is degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.

We will shrink it.  We will degrade it.  We will over-time and with deliberate effort eliminate its capacity for systematic and broad-based aggression. We can reduce it to a manageable problem. But there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc. The threat of violent extremism will continue to metastasize for the foreseeable future. New groups — new “its” — will emerge.  The long-term solution will arise — or not — within the host cultures, within Arab and Muslim and other social constructs.  Working with a broad alliance of committed and mobilized partners we can mostly contain the threat to us. We will try to facilitate more creative engagement of the problem by locals. But it is beyond the capacity of the United States alone to solve this problem. It will continue to be with us for a long time. We will continue to be targeted and sometimes they will hit us where it hurts.

Perhaps the President cannot — ought not — be quite as clear as the previous paragraph. Though he seems clear enough.  Isn’t this a reasonable “translation” of what he is saying? Isn’t this consistent with prior comments and behavior?

His tone is more reminiscent of Eisenhower’s farewell than Kennedy’s inaugural.  More inclined to elusive balance than heroic gesture.

If my paragraph accurately channels the President, doesn’t this authoritatively frame the counter-terrorism element of the homeland security mission?  Certainly it would communicate a current commander’s intent.  It also seems — to me — to effectively describe the strategic reality.

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Today’s Times of London (paywall) has published a joint op-ed by Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama. (Draft available at Prime Minister’s website.)  Reflecting the themes suggested above, here is one of their –no doubt, carefully vetted — paragraphs.

We know that terrorist organisations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions. So we must invest in the building blocks of free and open societies, including the creation of a new genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq that can unite all Iraqis, including Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian and other minority populations. When the threats to our security increasingly emanate from outside the borders of our Alliance, we must do more to build partnerships with others around the globe who share our values and want to build a safe, tolerant and peaceful world – that includes supporting the partners who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground, as we have done by stepping up support for Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces. And we should use our expertise to provide training and mentoring to forces elsewhere, whether in Georgia or the Middle East, strengthening the capacity of forces there to tackle local threats.

August 14, 2014

Resisting soccer-moms, embracing black swans, and expecting the unexpected

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2014

Last week a regular reader and thoughtful commentator observed:

Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.

Given the context of this individual’s commentary over the years I do not take this as cynical. At least in the modern use of cynic: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

Rather, I hear irony: “the mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” I hear an encouragement to greater preparedness, responsibility and accountability.

If I have misheard, s/he — probably he — will correct me.

By definition Black Swans cannot be accurately predicted.  As a result they are not well-suited to tactical planning.  At least not if plan-execution is your goal. But assiduously working through strategic scenarios with tactical details can be helpful to expose preparedness issues. This is especially the case if tactical planning is consistently framed and facilitated to achieve strategic purposes.

Too often organizations are tempted to treat planning documents as operational algorithms, something that — with enough resources and training  – will unfold per specifications and achieve each outcome.

In disaster preparedness, involving black or white swans, this is self-deluding.

Lee Clarke has famously and persuasively called such plans: “Fantasy Documents.” He writes, “When uncertainty about key aspects of a task is high, rationalistic plans and rational-looking planning processes become rationality badges, labels proclaiming that organizations and experts can control things that are, most likely, outside the range of their expertise.”

This is hubris: “an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.”

Bill, Claire, others: Are there longitudinal studies of the personality types attracted to Emergency Management?  Especially planning folks?  I am familiar with a study of the Clark County (Las Vegas, NV) Fire Department that I tend to project on the homeland security professions.  It found more than three-quarters of CCFD personnel testing with a strong SJ temperament on a Myers-Briggs type instrument.

Those with SJ temperaments are often called “Guardians” or “Protectors”.  According to Dr. David Keirsey: ”Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right. Guardians are meticulous about schedules and have a sharp eye for proper procedures. They are cautious about change, even though they know that change can be healthy for an institution. Better to go slowly, they say, and look before you leap.”

This personality type is especially well-suited for many aspects of public safety and disaster response.  But Black Swans are seldom tamed by following the rules and working steadily within the system.

Unless — I suggest — the rules and system are developed to anticipate Black Swans, to expect the unexpected and to develop the cognitive and organizational capabilities to critically and creatively engage the unexpected.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb drew on David Hume to popularize our current notion of Black Swans.  In his 2012 book Antifragile Taleb tells us:

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… Soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds–that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

Rigorous random near-traumatic episodes sound like the sort of “content” that many of the personality types drawn to public safety and emergency management would welcome.  This is the kind of learning that encourages us to expect the unexpected and develop the skills to engage the unexpected.

When was the last time you participated in a table-top or exercise that you would describe as rigorous random near-traumatic?  Have you ever participated in a planning process that could be described with these terms?  Too many planners and trainers and, increasingly, managers (self-styled leaders) are really just soccer-moms in disguise.

August 7, 2014

Deterrence: Prospect of pain and pleasure

Filed under: Radicalization,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 7, 2014

We seek to deter:

  • Russian adventurism (or worse) in Ukraine
  • Chinese nationalism in the Western Pacific
  • Cyberattacks
  • Drug cartels
  • Children at our doorstep
  • Domestic terrorism
  • Violent extremism
  • Building and rebuilding in flood plains
  • Driving Under the Influence
  • Boating Under the Influence
  • Tanning
  • Texting while Driving
  • Much more

Effective deterrence involves the suggestion or projection or conjuring or crafting — even the verb is situational —  of a context where others will not do what you do not want them to do without requiring that you fully invest in stopping them.  Deterrence is targeted at motivation and intention as much as behavior.

In May The Economist scanned a very troubled global context and asked, “Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?”  As the questions imply, deterrence is usually most effective when another party perceives you are ready and willing to fully invest in stopping them.

Since early in the Cold War we have characterized deterrence mostly in terms of the prospect of American military power applied. (Earlier understandings of deterrence were more expansive.) More recently — currently — we have experimented with the application of economic power as a deterrent.  In each case deterrence is coercive.

The downing of MH17 pushed the European Union to impose much tougher economic sanctions on Russia than were otherwise likely to have emerged.  The actual deterrent effect of these actions — combined with coordinated action by the US and others — is uncertain, especially in the near-term.  But there is increasing evidence that over the long-term economic sanctions can have an influence — if they are consistently and comprehensively enforced.  Big if and long-term can sometimes take too long.

On July 25 President Obama, hosting the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, said, “I emphasized that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children…but I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.”

In this context that “we” focused on that target suggests something more than the application of US military force or economic sanctions.

Deterrence is usually characterized in terms of increased risk.  Do X and we will do Y.  You won’t like Y. This is an important part of the story.  It is not — should not be — the whole story.

In the case of children-at-the-border deterrence is most often discussed in terms of quick-capture-and-return. By doing so many suppose the motivation of risking illegal entry would be widely discouraged.

Risk is perceived through cognitive frames.  This has been demonstrated empirically.  Most of us know this as a matter of personal experience. We are especially motivated to avoid losing what we have. Some hypothesize the more we have the more disinclined we are to lose it: the more susceptible we are to deterrence.

Does this predisposition work in reverse: The less one has, the greater readiness to risk it on a big win?  At least one study by Cornell University scholars found that “desperation motivates lottery consumption by the poor”.  The odds of successful illegal entry to the United States are much better than most lottery likelihoods.

Is desperation — financial, political, spiritual, existential — resistant to deterrence?  Yes, in my experience.

Several recent analyses have suggested Vladimir Putin is “cornered” in regard to Ukraine and more. Writing in the New Republic, Julia Iolffe, comments, “This is Putin today: a brash and unpredictable man backed into a corner with little, if any, way out. And it’s not a good Putin to be faced with.”  When, where, and how will he seek to break-out?

Putin is desperate to survive politically.  Survival is less abstract for hundreds of millions. Desperation may be the most common characteristic of a global tribe of young males. (Related academic study) Several demographic trends are discouraging for a significant proportion of this volatile group. Mass migration is only one symptom.

Despair — the absence of hope — is as susceptible to irrational risk-taking as it is resistant to rational deterrence. Humans will risk a great deal to reclaim hope.

To effectively deter almost always involves dampening desperation.

American military or police power can deploy a credible prospect of pain. What are our tools for generating the prospect of pleasure?  To fight is not our only investment option.  If deterrence is the investment goal, both pain and pleasure — carrot and stick — are needed to make real progress… along the Dnieper and the Tigrus and the Rio Grande.

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I posted what’s above early on August 3.  I am told that this week I am unlikely to be able to access the Internet.  Depending on what transpires, this post may seem especially irrelevant or entirely inappropriate.  If so, I apologize.

July 3, 2014

Hope, fear, and prospect theory

CBP and 8 year old

Photograph by Jennifer Whitney  for the New York Times

Chris Bellavita hopes the QHSR  will advance homeland security.  I fear too few will engage the QHSR to produce a sufficient effect. (Chris, btw bases his hope on evidence from the first QHSR while I deploy mostly worry and cynicism.)

Parents in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere hope their children will find a better life in the United States. Others in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, Murietta, California, and elsewhere fear these children will unravel the rule of law.

Some Sunni Salafist fighters hope they are creating the foundations of a just and righteous society across what is now Northern Syria and Iraq, eventually the whole world.  Many Shia faithful and others fear they are numbered among the unrighteous to be converted or killed.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and many geeks still unknown, hope to bring the whole world into our hand-helds, opening exciting opportunities for meaningful relationships and untold riches.  Some of us fear our credit-scores — and more substantive identities — are being delivered into the hands of criminals, terrorists, con-artists, corporate voyeurs, NSA spooks and more.

The current Executive hopes to establish and consistently apply a rigorous set of principles and due process by which evil can be prevented and sacred values preserved (while sources and methods are protected).  Senators Paul and Wyden among others fear that any hidden act claimed as lawful is a hot-house of hubris where the very best intentions will be incrementally reversed.

They want to retire to the beauty of the shore or mountainside or river or forest or such.  The prospect of hurricane, flood, earthquake, and fire prompt some second-thoughts.

We are tempted — especially those of us in homeland security — to treat risk as something that might be measured as accurately as an average shoe-size… if only we can gather enough shoes.  Imelda where art thou?

But the risk that matters most may be imagined more than measured.  Big hirsute Hobbit feet may be the common heuristic, no matter how many ballerinas bounce about us.

Over thirty years ago Tversky and Kahneman showed us, “Decision making under risk can be viewed as a choice between prospects or gambles.”  It is how we frame our expectations that decide our perspective on risk and thereby determine what choices seem rational.

For most our frame-on-reality is decided by a reference point: typically an expectation of the status quo persisting.  If we are more-or-less satisfied (or psychologically risk-averse) we worry more over the prospect of losing than embrace an opportunity to gain.  This can apply even if we have little to lose.  We  tend  to over-weight the downside and under-estimate positive likelihood.

Unless we are risk-seeking. As is typical with criminals, terrorists, and teenage boys. By the early 1990s Tversky and Kahneman had found, “Risk-seeking choices are consistently observed in two classes of decision problems. First, people often prefer a small probability of winning a large prize over the expected value of that prospect. Second, risk seeking is prevalent when people must choose between a sure loss and a substantial probability of a larger loss.”

There are other variations of human rationality that do not square with “expected utility” (rationality according to economists).  But risk-seeking has particular relevance for homeland security.

When my great-grandfather returned to England from another colonial war and had the audacity to marry a Scots seamstress of another (Christian) faith, they faced the disdain of family and very constrained prospects. Perceiving only losses to lose, he and she set out for Philadelphia.  The risk was real, but seemed less to them than remaining in Newcastle.

Nineteenth century Newcastle had a murder-rate considerably less than today’s Tegucigalpa (10 per million versus 1690 per million).  Who says the parent of the eight-year-old in the picture above has not made a reasonable calculation?

Today I will purchase a lottery ticket with a small probability of winning a large prize.  Early this week a new Caliphate was proclaimed.  Was the self-styled Caliph’s reasoning all that different than mine?

There are too many whose reference point is a land-of-loss, especially loss of hope.  The risks they are willing to take — heroic or demonic depending on taste — are worth our notice, a touch of fear, and some courageous creativity.  If reduction of risk-seeking is a goal, our target is their prospective imagination.

July 2, 2014

QHSR: tension between HS and hs

Filed under: Congress and HLS,General Homeland Security,Strategy — by Arnold Bogis on July 2, 2014

I’m a week late to the QHSR discussion and while I don’t have any big thoughts, I do have a few small ones.

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There are some problems at the foundation of the QHSR. Issues that point to underlying confusion of what homeland security is, or at least an unclear characterization of what it should be, at the federal level. However, this isn’t the fault of the DHS staff who put together the review, but rather the direction of Congress. As readers are reminded of in the report itself, the scope of the QHSR is:

Each quadrennial homeland security review shall be a comprehensive examination of the homeland security strategy of the Nation, including recommendations regarding the long-term strategy and priorities of the Nation for homeland security and guidance on the programs, assets, capabilities,budget, policies and authorities of the Department.

Soooooo…the Department of Homeland Security (let’s call it capital HS) is mandated by Congress to review the current Administration’s homeland security strategy that includes the work of other agencies (counter-intuitively, I’m going to refer to the whole enchilada encompassing what anyone might wish to include in homeland security as lowercase hs), while at the same time providing DHS-specific recommendations on force structure, authorities, budget, etc. I haven’t checked the authorizing language, but on a quick review of the last DOD QDR (which is supposedly the model for the QHSR) , it pretty much focused entirely on the last half of that charge.  There was little to no language that pointed to the concerns of their national security “partners” or the military’s analysis of the National Security Strategy. Instead it focused on questions of force structure and the impact of sequestration on the military.

In this matter, the important difference between DOD and DHS is that DOD has a long tradition, and specifically, a mature relationship with Congress.  DHS, on the other hand, seems to be generally regarded by many (if not most) lawmakers as the sole actor in the hs sphere.  The consequence being that anything that is considered a hs issue by Congress often becomes a HS issue by default.  A dumping agency.  Even if it is a topic long worked by experienced professionals elsewhere in the government.

- – - – - – - – - -

Contrasting examples of this can be seen in the chapters on bio and nuclear threats. At it’s creation, I do not believe any of the agencies or offices brought to DHS a primary role in either arena (outside of FEMA’s responsibility post nuclear attack).  But in the wisdom of a few, since that time the agency has grown both an Office of Health Affairs (OHA) and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

I can see the utility of a health office for the protection of the DHS workforce, not unlike the equivalent in DOD.  Perhaps over time they develop particular expertise to contribute to the larger efforts of the government as a whole.  Instead, projects such as the never-quite-right Biowatch placed them in a bureaucratic competition with agencies with long-standing expertise in public health, such as the CDC (the center of biosurveillance), and those newer offices with a concentration of expertise and responsibility, like ASPR (ESF-8 lead, partner in the National Disaster Medical System, and the government developers of new medical countermeasures through BARDA). The QHSR seems to acknowledge this, as it stresses a whole of government approach to public health and bioterrorist threats. DHS went hs rather than HS in addressing biological threats.

The reverse is true for nuclear terrorism. After identifying the issue and stressing the importance due to the possible consequence of such an attack (if this is so important to HS you’d think FEMA would have gotten it’s act together by now regarding planning for such an event…but I digress), the QHSR takes an entirely parochial view of the subject.

We prioritize a sustained, long-term focus on preventing nuclear terrorism through two foundational capabilities: (1) nuclear detection and (2) nuclear forensics. These capabilities are aimed at preventing our adversaries from developing, possessing, importing, storing, transporting, or using nuclear materials.

In stark contrast to bio-events, nuclear terrorism can and must be prevented.  And that prevention is likely not to occur along the pathways of the “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” or due to forensic capabilities. It happens because while large, the amount of special materials required for a nuclear terrorist attack are finite, thus possible to secure or eliminate at the source.  Hoping that THE major plank in preventing such an attack is detection of very hard to detect materials with the cooperation of others sitting along a spectrum of competence, corruption, and cooperation would be unwise.

I am not suggesting detection and forensics are unimportant, only that they are secondary to securing and eliminating fissile material.  Yet the QHSR focuses on these capabilities because that is what the DNDO does.  So DHS went HS for addressing the nuclear terrorism threat.

- – - – - – - – - – - – -

One last small quibble with the Review: why did they have to include a “Black Swans” section?  I don’t mean addressing potential future events that could have a significant impact on homeland security.  Rather, why did they have to attempt to co-opt the term itself?  Hasn’t the mess everyone has made with “resilience” taught us anything?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book “The Black Swan” that popularized the term, summarizes the attributes of these events: “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” The QHSR has already violated the third attribute, and their list of four potential Swans have been previously suggested and analyzed elsewhere.  They are neither unforeseen or unexpected.

Personally, I’d prefer to think of Natalie Portman when considering Black Swans.

June 28, 2014

QHSR at CSIS

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 28, 2014

Cohn_dhsreport_video

On Friday, June 27 Alan Cohn, DHS Assistant Secretary for Strategy, Policy, Analysis and Risk (above at the microphone) made a presentation on the QHSR.  A panel discussion followed.  There is a video and audio version of the two hour engagement available at:

http://csis.org/event/discussion-2014-quadrennial-homeland-security-review

June 26, 2014

QHSR: Translating the archetypes (especially anima/animus)

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 26, 2014

FRIDAY, JUNE 27 EDITORIAL NOTE:  The Friday Free Forum is on vacation this week, luxuriating in the quiet of a cool mountain glade beneath a sweep of stars, seeking to reclaim social and spiritual equanimity.  You are invited to join the QHSR discussion that is already underway below.

–+–

ORIGINAL THURSDAY POST:

How do we anticipate what we cannot predict?  That question animates the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. Strategy generates benefits to the extent it accurately anticipates.  An effective strategy generates an initial — sometimes persisting — advantage in dealing with whatever specific challenges unfold unpredictably.

The QHSR is a bureaucratic document. This description is not meant as pejorative.  There are various DHS components, other national security agencies, White House and Congressional concerns, and many other stakeholders.  While the QHSR wants to accurately anticipate, it is not a prophetic text.  Rather than speaking truth to power, this is power in search of truth.  It can be cumbersome.

Meaningful interpretation recognizes the limitations — and opportunities — of the bureaucratic genre.  Much must be said. Where have the authors moved beyond the minimum requirements? Bureaucracies tend toward girth, but are sensitive to hierarchy.  What or who is given more attention?

The QHSR reviews previous challenges and outlines what it considers important shifts in the risk environment.  It gives particular priority to the following (page 28):

  • The terrorist threat is evolving and, while changing in shape, remains significant as attack planning and operations become more decentralized. The United States and its interests, particularly in the transportation sector, remain persistent targets.
  • Growing cyber threats are significantly increasing risk to critical infrastructure and to the greater U.S. economy.
  • Biological concerns as a whole, including bioterrorism, pandemics, foreign animal diseases, and other agricultural concerns, endure as a top homeland security risk because of both potential likelihood and impacts.
  • Nuclear terrorism through the introduction and use of an improvised nuclear device, while unlikely, remains an enduring risk because of its potential consequences.
  • Transnational criminal organizations are increasing in strength and capability, driving risk in counterfeit goods, human trafficking, illicit drugs, and other illegal flows of people and goods.
  • Natural hazards are becoming more costly to address, with increasingly variable consequences due in part to drivers such as climate change and interdependent and aging infrastructure.

Lots on the plate even here.  But these six risks are segregated from the rest. There is also a full page text-box highlighting Black Swans.  Words are carefully chosen to avoid accusations of being alarmist, but the visual rhetoric is emphatic. When push comes to shove, here are the risks  that this QHSR seems intent to especially engage.  How?

At different places in the document (especially page 16 and again in the conclusion) the following “cross-cutting” strategic priorities are articulated:

  • An updated posture to address the increasingly decentralized terrorist threat; 
  • A strengthened path forward for cybersecurity that acknowledges the increasing interdependencies among critical systems and networks; 
  • A homeland security strategy to manage the urgent and growing risk of biological threats and hazards; 
  • A risk segmentation approach to securing and managing flows of people and goods; and 
  • A new framework for strengthening mission execution through public-private partnerships.

What does “updated posture” mean?  Read pages 33-38. Compare and contrast with QHSR vers. 1.0 and your own counter-terrorism experience.  There are others better able to read-between-these-particular-lines.  I hope you will do so in the comments.

The attention to biological threats is not new, but concerns related to pandemic are even more acute. (“Of the naturally occurring events, a devastating pandemic remains the highest homeland security risk.”)  Urgent and growing are almost prophetic terms.  But once again, others are better prepared to give you the close-reading of how we are to be biologically battle-ready.

In my reading the most notable shift in this QHSR, and on which the rest of this post will concentrate, is the priority given so-called public-private partnerships (which I strongly recommended be amended to “private-public relationships”).

I perceive this enhanced priority emerges from a confluence of cyber-threats, disaster-management, and catastrophe preparedness.  In each of these domains the public good largely depends on private sector capacities and potential collaboration between private and public.

Flows of people and goods are given significant analytic attention. Flow-of-goods is treated mostly as a matter of economic security.  In time of significant crisis this is also the source-of-life.  The capacity to maintain a sufficient flow resides almost entirely with the private sector. In case of crisis, the public sector may be able to lead.  But in many cases the public sector will do better to follow and support.  Sometimes the best possible is for the public sector to get out of the way.  The latter alternative is most likely when there has been minimal private-public efforts in joint preparedness.  Leading or supporting require much more joint engagement than currently anticipated.

Being strategically prepared to — depending on context — lead, follow or get out of the way does not come easily.  Even the insight is atypical.  In advancing this insight the QHSR is making a potentially major contribution to safety, security and resilience.

Here is how the QHSR frames the issue (page 60):

At a time when we must do more with less, two guiding principles help public-private partnerships maximize the investment by each partner and the success of the partnership: (1) aligning interests and (2) identifying shared outcomes.

By focusing on how interests align, we can provide alternatives to costly incentives or regulations and help ensure a partnership is based on a solid foundation of mutual interest and benefit. There are many examples of public and private sector interests aligning in homeland security. Common interests include the safety and security of people and property, the protection of sensitive information, effective risk management, the development of new technology, reputation enhancement, and improved business processes. New ways of thinking about corporate social responsibility—in which societal issues are held to be core business interests rather than traditional philanthropy—also present an opportunity to identify shared interests.

Where interests do not directly align, potential partners can often be motivated by shared desired outcomes, such as enhanced resilience; effective disaster response and recovery; and greater certainty in emerging domains, such as cyberspace and the Arctic.

Aligning interests and identifying shared outcomes are absolutely a big part of effective collaboration.  But behind this reasonable rhetoric is a complicated, often treacherous cross-cultural tension.  I once spent a few years brokering decision-making between Japanese and Americans.  The intra-American — and perhaps global — private-public cultural divide is at least as profound.

The QHSR helpfully identifies five “archetypes” for framing relationships between private and public (see page 60-61).  A “Partnerships Toolkit” has also been developed.  All of this is potentially constructive.  When DHS folks started talking to me about archetypes I immediately thought of Jungian archetypes.  This matches my sense that to really work together private and public will usually require the institutional equivalent of long-term joint counseling.  But this analogous leap seemed to make some of my DHS colleagues uncomfortable.

Some were even more uncomfortable when I suggested private/public is the equivalent of the anima/animus archetype. C.G. Jung wrote, “The anima gives rise to illogical outbursts of temper; the animus produces irritating commonplaces.”  I’ll let you guess which I associate with private and which with public.

But C.G.’s most important insight regarding these contending archetypes is that each depends on each, each is fulfilled in relationship with the other, and robust elements of both are required for ongoing creativity and growth.  The recurring clinical problem is an inclination to diminish, suppress or oppress one or the other.

In the life of an individual failure to meaningfully engage both anima and animus is self-subverting and can become tragic.  Our current failure to effectively engage private and public presents a similar social threat.  To suggest why — in less than another thousand words — here’s yet another analogy:

I happened to be reading about the Battle of Austerlitz when the QHSR was released last week.  In the summer of 1804 the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, accurately anticipated Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions.  He effectively forged a strategic alliance with Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Sweden. In October 1805 the British Fleet soundly defeated a combined French and Spanish naval force at Trafalgar.  It was the right strategy and the strategy was proving effective. But then in early December on a cold fog-drenched Moravian bottom-land the entire strategy unraveled.  Europe was, once again, transformed.

There are many reasons for the Third Coalition’s failure at Austerlitz. My particular author focuses on a clique of over-confident young nobles around the Russian Czar who seriously underestimated the practical requirements of deploying two emperors and their very different armies into actual battle.  The practical requirements of a national capacity for effective private-public collaboration in crisis are much more complicated.

The QHSR has articulated the right strategy.  We will undermine the strategy by minimizing challenges involved in making the collaboration operational.

On July 16 there will be an early signal of our operational readiness and sophistication.  That’s when new applications for the Homeland Security National Training Program: Continuing Training Grants are due.  This includes Focus Area 4: Maturing Public-Private Partnerships.  Will be interesting to see what’s submitted.

Brian, please be very cautious of any proposals received from twenty-something Russian princes.

April 17, 2014

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s…

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 17, 2014

On the anniversary of one great rebellion the commanders met secretly to advance their own rebellion.

For several years they had operated mostly in the far north, but now gathered in the capital city.

Just days before, their leader had taken direct — and highly symbolic — action against the regime. His shift from argument and example to economic boycott and violent protest surprised many.

Passwords were exchanged, introductions offered, preparations undertaken. The insurrectionists were fully aware it was risky to meet together. Most did not expect, however, that their inner circle had been compromised.

They gathered over dinner. The ancient rebellion was recalled and celebrated. As subversives will, they also quarreled. Around the table several motivations were represented: nationalists, religious extremists, idealists, some simply attracted by the charisma of their leader and a common cause. They disagreed more than they agreed.

The leader was skilled in forging an alloy of their differences. He served them. He warned them: They would betray him and each other. They would suffer. What they valued most would be destroyed. He had an uncanny ability to upend typical understandings of good and bad.

They would be separated from each other, attacked, oppressed, tortured and killed. Despite all, together they were creating a more just reality. The new reality’s lack of specific definition allowed each to project his particular preferences.

Sharing drink, food, and conversation reaffirmed the relationships around the table: tenuous surely, but tenacious as well. They found in each other a confidence that was much more elusive when alone.

There were many similarly subversive groups. Until quite recently this particular movement had not seemed much of a threat, more reformist than revolutionary. Some senior officials shared most of the reformist critique. Others had a grudging respect for the movement’s ability to generate popular support.

In retrospect even benign neglect would probably have produced a less dynamic outcome. But challenging a core economic engine surely required a deterrent response, just as a matter of due diligence. Then the good fortune of “turning” one of the movement’s inner circle was too good to pass up.

They might have rounded up the whole command-network. It was an elegant bit of restraint to choose instead a single decapitation. The remainder of the inner circle quickly dispersed, a demonstration that demoralized many long-time followers and disgusted recent converts.

The most sophisticated advocated for a long languishing imprisonment, the proven technique for facilitating a divided movement’s self-disintegration. The cowardly behavior of those insurrectionists left at-large argued the efficacy of such a plan.

But the most sophisticated had not anticipated the intensely personal antagonism that erupted when some of their superiors encountered the arrested leader face to face… or rather word for word. He was infuriating: self-righteous, obscure, and entirely unrepentant.

(We often feel the most innate conflict with those who remind us of our own most troublesome tendencies.)

The decision was made to put him to death. Behind closed doors the most sophisticated argued this was a mistake. Alive but imprisoned he would impede the emergence of a successor. Death opened an opportunity for someone more radical to arise. A public execution could transform one of many malcontents into a useful martyr for a wide range of discontent.

But at times events emerge and can take on a life of their own. The most sophisticated did not win the argument.

April 3, 2014

“Simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system” and the implications if true

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 3, 2014

OSO_Photo by Marcus Yam_The Seattle TimesPhoto by Marcus Yam, The Seattle Times

John Schwartz and the New York Times gave us an unusually thoughtful piece of journalism last Saturday: No Easy Way To Restrict Construction In Risky Areas.  Several cases are examined: Oso Landslide, Sandy, Katrina and more.

This is largely an issue of the transfer, avoidance, reduction, or acceptance of risk.  Very closely related are attitudes toward contingency.

The Oso landslide is a specific case where “complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or punctuations of all sizes.” Other dynamical systems include seismic networks, volcanoes, ocean currents and I would include the electrical grid and significant concentrations (populations) of almost anything.

In a seminal 1995 paper Per Bak and Maya Paczuski outline two very different explanations of the same “punctuation” event:

A Historian Describes a Sandslide.

On December 16, 1994, a grain of sand landed at the site with coordinates [14, 17] on the pile. Adding to the grains of sand already accumulated at this site, this addition caused a toppling of that site, spilling over to the neighboring sites. Unfortunately, one of these sites [14, 18] happened to be near an instability so that the toppling caused this site to topple also. This toppling destabilized sites [14, 19] and [15, 18] and eventually led to the collapse of a large part of the pile. “Clearly, the event was contingent on several factors. First, had the initial grain of sand fallen elsewhere, nothing dramatic would have happened. Also, if the configuration at position [14, 19] had been slightly different, the sandslide would have stopped sooner, without devastating consequences. While we can give an accurate and complete account of what actually happened, we are at a loss to explain how these many accidental features could possibly have conspired to produce an event of such magnitude. The event was contingent upon many separate, freak occurrences and could clearly have been prevented. Furthermore, we are baffled by the fact that even though sand had been added to the system for a longtime, only minor events had occurred before the devastating collapse, and we had every right to expect the system to be stable. Clearly, the event was a freak one caused by very unusual and unfortunate circumstances in an otherwise stable system that appeared to be in balance. Precautions should and could be taken to prevent such events in the future.

A Physicist Describes a Sandslide

During a long transient period, the pile evolved to a critical state with avalanches of all sizes. We were able to make a rough identification of the toppling rule and to construct a computer model of the phenomenon. Actually, the particular rule that we use is not very important. In any case, we do not have sufficient information about the details of the system to be able to make long-term predictions. “Nevertheless, our model exhibits some general features of the sandpile. We monitored how many avalanches of each size occurred, after the addition of a single grain to the pile. We made a histogram (Fig. 2), and found that the distribution of events where a total of s sites topple obeys a power law, P(s)- s-T. Thus, if one waits long enough, one is bound to see events that are as large as one has the patience to wait for. We ran our simulations (the tape of evolution) several times. Eliminating the particular grain of sand that caused a particular avalanche only made the system produce large avalanches somewhere else at different times. Changing the rules slightly — for instance, by planting snow screens here and there — does not have any effect on the general pattern.

Avalanches are an unavoidable and intrinsic part of the sandpile dynamics. “Actually, I’m not interested in the specific details of the event which Prof. Historian is so excited about and gives such a vivid account of. What the professor sees as a string of freak events appearing accidentally and mysteriously by an apparent act of God and leading to a catastrophe is simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system. History has prepared the sandpile in a state that is far from equilibrium, and the matrix through which the avalanche propagates is predisposed to accommodate events of large sizes. The complex dynamics which is observed in the ‘historical science,’ where the outcome appears contingent on many different, specific events, represents the dynamics of self-organized critical systems.

Historical narrative is inclined toward an understanding of reality where human intention, rationality and will can assert control.  Bak and Paczuski point toward the possibility of domains beyond our power, though certainly deserving our attention and respect.

March 20, 2014

A Catastrophic Failure

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Last Friday I finished about four years of work.  I won’t identify the specific work, but it is homeland security-related.

Mostly I failed.

Yes, progress was made:

  • We have a much better understanding of the problem; among other things we recognize a problem that previously was not widely recognized.
  • We have identified most of the key players who are needed to effectively engage the problem.
  • We have established some meaningful relationships among several of the key players.

But the actual problem is as threatening and complicated as it was four years ago.  Maybe more threatening.

After four years of serious, ongoing, and mostly well-received work, I failed to practically advance our security.

I advocate for a distinction between national security and homeland security. But as a wannabe classicist, I embrace “security” derived from the Latin se-curus, se: free from, cura: care.  If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.

Greater knowledge has, if anything, increased our concern:

  • We now recognize there are substantive differences between catastrophic and non-catastrophic.  Enhanced effectiveness dealing with the non-catastrophic has in some cases increased our catastrophic risk.
  • We now recognize the larger an impact area the more likely a catastrophe, even if the “first impact” is less than catastrophic.
  • We now recognize the more interdependencies (power, transport, fuel, supplies, etc.) the more likely a catastrophe
  • We now recognize that self-made vulnerabilities are at least as important — often more important — than external threats.

These aspects of the strategic landscape may seem obvious to you, but four years ago they were anything but.  Even today these findings are taken by some as fightin’ words.

While we now have a much better view of reality, we have not substantively reduced vulnerabilities. An analogy: The thick flat jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan is periodically punctuated by a rise.  Most of these exclamation marks are the overgrown ruins of ancient Mayan structures.  As the vines and trees are cleared from the stonework the threat of erosion — and trampling by tourists — actually increase the likelihood of collapse.

In clearing our problem’s landscape we have also experienced the cultural differences that complicate potential collaboration between the private and public sectors.

In this particular problem-set the private sector tended to recognize the risk earlier than the public sector.   So unlike some homeland security problems, the private and public sectors are in rough strategic alignment.

But to actually do anything together to mitigate risk has been problematic.  A forensic analysis of the multiple problems is not appropriate for a blog.  But at the highest level I think it is fair to say there has been a persistent disconnect between private and public regarding the fundamentals of time and space.

The dimensions of space important to the private sector are usually determined by markets that extend for hundreds, even thousands of miles in every direction.  One private sector participant said, “For our daily operations states are legal fictions.”  Yet on very bad days those fictional creatures become very real… with both good and bad consequences.

Dimensions of time can be even more complicated.  Everyone is busy. Everyone is mostly focused on meeting the calendar for some specific deliverable or set of deliverables.   Private sector success or failure is measured at least once a day and the measures arrive from multiple  players (dozens to tens-of-thousands) across diverse markets.  The public sector calendar tends to be more extended even while the measures-that-matter emerge from a much smaller set of observers/consumers/commanders.

As the private sector experience of time encounters the public sector experience of time reality can be contorted in weird ways.

Over the last four years I failed to practically accommodate these differences of space and time. I am sure private and public share the same reality.  I am sure they depend on one another.   But as I finish this work they remain trapped at different points on a very Newtonian plane.

–+–

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2014

Engaging Uncertainty

Filed under: Catastrophes,Disaster,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 16, 2014

Water-Order     Gov. Tomblin (right) and Jeff McIntyre, West Virginia American Water

Late on January 9 not much was known about the chemical leak into the Elk River. No one seemed to know how much of the chemical had poured into the river or been sucked into the water system. No one could be sure what sort of health-risks might arise from skin contact or ingesting water tainted with the obscure chemical. There was uncertainty about when the contamination had begun and how long it might take to remove the contamination. When 300,000 people might again be able to consume their tap water was beyond reasonable prediction.

Our species survived — and eventually thrived — largely based on our weird ability to imagine the future and recognize steps to achieve (or avoid) what we imagine. When this imagination is anchored in experience or knowledge (indirect-experience) it is a source of confidence, even solace. When the anchor is ripped up and our fragile craft is swept into a cyclone of uncertainty… well, different folks respond in different ways. But there is a tendency for fear to proliferate, which can unwind in atypical behaviors and amplify uncertainty.

In the first two days of the West Virginia water crisis there were many indicators of imagination untethered. Rumors spread. Conspiracies were alleged. Even worse to come was envisioned. But mostly fears were contained, rumors corrected, and a covenant of social trust and mutual concern was, if anything, strengthened.

A 500 word blog — okay, I’m not always so concise — is not the right place to undertake a full analysis of what happened and did not happen in terms of community resilience. But I advocate this being done.

My hypothesis is that what happened mostly involved the expression of preexisting social networks and relationships.

But I also want to credit — and ask others to more rigorously explore — the role of leadership that was courageous enough to embrace uncertainty.

I was in eastern West Virginia (outside the impact area) from Sunday through Tuesday, close enough to get a bit more of the local media angle. I was impressed by the calm, realistic, and consistently understated approach of the Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and the President of West Virginia American Water, Jeff McIntyre.

I never heard them claim to be in control. I did hear them state clearly the sources of uncertainty. They outlined in writing and in their remarks what was being done to engage the uncertainty. They did not try to distract citizens from the uncertainty with accusatory vents. They did focus on what citizens could do for themselves and their neighbors. They recognized progress. They did not over-promise.

Here is one of the first statements made by the Governor (bold highlights by me).

We urge all residents in the affected areas to follow West Virginia American Water Company’s “do not use” order until it is lifted. This includes water companies supplied by West Virginia American Water in this area. If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. At this time, I do not know how long this will last.

Don’t neglect the use of that personal pronoun.  Next he said:

We ask that all West Virginian’s check on their friends, families, and neighbors—especially those with small children and seniors living in their households—to make sure they have enough water, food, and supplies. If you—or anyone you know–experiences symptoms including: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of the eyes and skin, seek care immediately.

Here’s what a citizen can do, even should do.  The most important action that can be taken is to practically and personally renew the human relationships on which we all depend.  Begin some new relationships if you can.  Then, here’s what  your government is doing on your behalf (he said more, this is one of four paragraphs):

I’ve mobilized and deployed all appropriate government assets and resources, including our Office of Emergency Management, our experts at DEP, DHHR Bureau of Public Health along with our National Guard—who are out doing health and wellness checks across the area along with collecting, testing and monitoring the water. The federal government is also providing assistance. The President has approved my request to issue a federal emergency declaration to provide FEMA resources. County emergency offices are also working 24-7.

Your basic human needs can and will be addressed:

If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on the way. We are taking every measure to provide water to you. There is no shortage of bottled water. Supplies are moving into the area as we speak. We encourage all West Virginians in affected areas to contact their local emergency management office for water distribution sites.

Please be active in helping yourself and others:

If you or your organization would like to donate supplies, please contact your local emergency center. If you are in the Kanawha Valley Area, we are organizing a call to action drive for needed items—including water, sanitizer, wipes, liquid baby formula, paper plates, plastic utensils, and microwavable meals. The drive will take place on the Boulevard in front of the State Capitol from 2:30 – 6:30 today. It is important to emphasize, water and supplies are available—there is not a persistent shortage of bottled water.

We are grateful for the offers of support from private firms and charities—and our fellow West Virginians—to aid in providing relief.

This is the second time I have listened-in to Governor Tomblin deal with a basically no-notice and hard-hitting disaster.  The first time was the late-June 2012 Derecho.  In that multi-state event I was able to compare and contrast his approach to that of other governors, mayors, and such.   When others were attacking, blaming, and threatening, Governor Tomlin was thanking and encouraging and informing.

I think there are some lessons to be learned.

November 14, 2013

Healing our addiction to control

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Recovery,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Logistics hubs

The area shown above is a roughly 50,000 square mile region featuring six major and many smaller islands.  The region’s total population is about 11.2 million.

The typhoon made landfall in eastern Samar province early Friday morning November 8. With sustained winds of 195 miles-per-hour and wind gusts of up to 235 mph, the cyclone tore west across the nation of islands for the next twelve hours.

There had been preparations and in many areas evacuations.  But given the cyclone’s reach and Philippine geography one might run but not hide from a storm this size.

The number of casualties is not yet clear. The fate of survivors is clear enough. Tomoo Hozumi, the Philippines’ UNICEF representative, told CNN food, shelter, clean water and basic sanitation are “in a severe shortage, the situation on the ground is hideous.”

The dead have not been buried. Toxic detritus has been splashed across the wrecked landscape. Human waste is accumulating. Simple cuts become life-threatening due to infection and lack of medicine.

More than 11 million people are affected. More than a half-million have been displaced. Up to 2.5 million are in imminent danger due to lack of human essentials.  “Maslow’s pyramid has collapsed,” one Filipino said.

Delivering supplies is the preeminent challenge. As it was in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2010 Haitian earthquake, and 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake. We will see these challenges in the United States following a CAT-5 hurricane or 8-plus earthquake pummeling a dense urban area.

On Tuesday night, nearly five days after landfall, the Philippine national government outlined a “master plan” for supplying the expansive impact area roughly the size of Louisiana. Based on an interview with Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, here’s an overview from the Manila Bulletin:

“This will come out to be one of the largest logistic and relief operations that the Philippine government has ever done in history and the President wanted to make sure that we have aligned everything,” he added.

“There has never been anything at the magnitude of what we are trying to do now—not in size, not in volume, not in even the breadth of it,” he added.

Under the relief plan, Almendras said the government will set up a special processing center in Cebu that will integrate the flow of all relief assistance. From Cebu, the relief goods will be distributed to the typhoon-hit places.

He said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) will also establish additional repacking centers of relief goods, including in Ormoc, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.

He said the government is moving the relief goods to Tacloban City by air, land, and sea transportation. C-130 planes are doing sunrise to sunset operations to bring relief goods to the disaster-hit areas.

He added that Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has been designated “transportation guru” to ensure relief goods are moved as fast as possible.

On questions why the goods are not reaching some victims, Almendra said: “That’s really a local issue that we are trying to address now.”

The last — unanswered — paragraph is the crucial concern.  Establishing logistical hubs is certainly a challenge. They may be needed, I don’t know the status of preexisting hubs.  But hubs exist to serve spokes and move energy to the treads. Spokes and treads are how commodities become supplies that survivors actually consume.

In its November 13 situation update the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes, “Trucks and fuel are urgently needed to deliver aid. Debris and logistics continue to severely constrain the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” In the same report OCHA estimates that to date about 250,000 survivors have received food assistance (of the 2.5 million noted above).

There have been some — surprising — lessons learned from prior catastrophes.  After the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear emergency Japanese Self Defense Forces spent at least five days trying to self-create sufficient capacity to serve hundreds-of-thousands of survivors. There was never close to enough. Only after the perimeters came down, fuel was available and commercial resources were reengaged did supplies begin to meet demand.   The convenience store sector in Japan became a major engine of localized response and recovery.

A friend who was on the ground soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti says, “Really effective distribution did not take hold until street vendors opened a so-called black market for relief supplies.  Our initial reaction was moral outrage. Our second and very quiet reaction was gratitude.  In a couple of days the street vendors achieved a level of distribution that was far beyond the capability of the international and NGO communities.”

Since their 2011 experience the Japanese have given unprecedented attention to pre-planning and collaboration with the private sector. (There is even a — controversial — proposal to use private sector transportation for  non-disaster-related military missions.)  The emergency-response strategy is now more focused on restoring instead of replacing private sector supply streams.

In both Japan and Haiti — and now the Philippines — the strategic issue might be framed as, “How do you make complexity your friend?”

Some partial, situation-specific answers:  Clear debris, open roadways, restore or replace bridges, do not divert fuel from the commercial economy, keep perimeters reasonably permeable, compensate the private sector (even black-marketeers) to distribute at no-charge what they had previously sold, cherish and support truckers and trucks (especially small trucks), provide security as needed with convoys or otherwise. As much as possible, use whatever relationships, networks, systems, capacities, and capabilities facilitated distribution prior to the crisis. Encourage creative local — even random — adaptation.

I don’t know the Philippines well-enough to be confident of the right answers there and now. I do recognize in the government’s “master plan” familiar strategies that have proven ineffective in previous catastrophic situations.

The front-page of the November 14 Manila Bulletin includes this headline: Despair, chaos grip Tacloban: Survivors Hope To Escape Apocalypse

–+–

The “serenity prayer” is, perhaps, most associated with Alcoholics Anonymous:

Give me grace to accept the
things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We might adopt it for catastrophe preparedness, response and recovery.

November 9, 2013

Wednesday + Thursday = Saturday

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

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

It was entirely coincidental.

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

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

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

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

If not, why not?

November 7, 2013

Preparedness is different than planning

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 7, 2013

A rather small piece in the online version of The Atlantic flooded my in-box last week on the first anniversary of Sandy flooding coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

David Wachsmuth describes how existing response and recovery plans were ignored.  He writes:

… emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania created a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team for precisely this kind of emergency. But when the storm hit, the RCPT’s plans stayed on the shelf, particularly in New York City. As one NYC emergency manager described it to me, “The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and…we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, ‘Let’s do it this way.’”

Wachsmuth then explains why the book was left unopened.  He also points to other “books” he believes worth reading.  I agree with many of the symptoms Wachsmuth describes.  I doubt we share the same diagnosis (see below).

I especially disagree with the conclusion suggested by the title of his piece (How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters).  I am too much a disciple of Elinor Ostrom to reduce such manifold problems to jurisdictional diversity.

Full disclosure:  For most of the last four years I have been involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic, funded by the same FEMA grant as the unopened book in metro New York.  As such I have met with, admired, even envied the NY-NJ-CT and one-county in PA RCPT.   In every interaction I have been impressed by the expertise and commitment of these planners.   The actual plans were (are) thoughtful and extremely detailed.  There was considerable effort to socialize — even evangelize — the planning process and ultimate plans.

I disagree with the strategic predispositions of some of their plans. But by exposing their assumptions planners make possible intelligent discussion, exploration, and evolution.  The RCPT planners have always been open to comments, critique, and improvement.  They have been consummate professionals.

But in my judgement we cannot plan for catastrophe.

–+–

plan  noun

1. a scheme or method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc., developed in advance:battle plans.
2. a design or scheme of arrangement: an elaborate plan for seating guests.
3. a specific project or definite purpose: plans for the future.

–+–

Wachsmuth writes that RCPT plans  were “quickly sidelined by the Mayor’s Office.”  This alone suggests that Sandy — as bad as she was — was not the cause of a local, much less, regional catastrophe.  The Mayor’s office still had sufficient command-and-control to assert authority.  One persuasive definition of catastrophe is the total collapse of local command-and-control capabilities. (I think this definition originated with a regular reader and I hope she might comment further.)

Plans typically — though not necessarily — depend on systematic implementation by an authority.  Most emergency-or-disaster-or-catastrophe plans authorize atypical exercise of command-and-control, going well beyond the ordinary.

Yet any thing qualifying as a potential catastrophe has, ipso facto, at least confused if not destroyed most sources of authority and means of coordination.  Catastrophes are not just complicated they are innately complex, easily becoming chaotic.  Indeed some argue that efforts to contain catastrophric complexity accelerate the emergence of chaos.

Please notice that in the prior full-disclosure paragraph my role is identified as being involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe.

–+–

prepare  verb

1. to make ready or suitable in advance for a particular purpose or for some use, event, etc: to prepare a meal ; to prepare to go
2. to put together using parts or ingredients; compose or construct
3. ( tr ) to equip or outfit, as for an expedition

–+–

Beware of nouns.  Embrace verbs.

There is, of course, a verb form of plan, but even this action is usually focused on developing a noun (the plan).  Preparedness is an awkward noun.  Much better to stay with verbs: prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan,  implement, prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan, implement, and again… and again.

Plan as a verb helps. Not as a noun.

You knew it was coming:  To plan was originally to plane.  Ancient armies would plane battlefields to create space to operate chariots or otherwise shape for strategic advantage.  To prepare is derived from the root meaning to parry another sword or spar with another boxer or separate from a source of vulnerability. (The prefix pre- signaling to be ready to do so by what is done in advance.)

I am not opposed to planning.  But to be ready for the truly catastrophic is less about choosing and shaping context to suit your preferences and much more about being ready — psychologically and operationally — to effectively engage the range of surprises a catastrophe will create.

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