Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 11, 2015

Some reasonable thoughts on the Iranian nuclear negotiations

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2015

Reason has recently been a topic of discussion here at HLSWatch.  I lack the philosophical chops to get involved, so instead will go in an entirely unrelated direction and point to what I consider some well reasoned thoughts on the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran. This is generally considered a national and not homeland security issue, however the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran or military strikes intended to delay its nuclear program will surely be felt here in the U.S.

First up is Graham Allison, predicting in a Foreign Policy op-ed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would present a “false dichotomy” in his speech to Congress last week (and he was right):

In nuclear negotiations with Iran, he will argue that the United States faces a choice between a “good deal” and a “bad deal.” He will urge Congress to stop President Barack Obama from accepting the latter which, he will say, “endangers the existence of the state of Israel.”

Buyer beware. Every serious analyst of this issue — including the prime minister — knows that this is a false dichotomy. In negotiations, a bad deal is by definition unacceptable. The same is true for one’s opponent: in an either-or world, a good deal for one would have to be a bad deal for the other. Thus, negotiated agreements require compromises, in which neither party achieves all of its demands.

In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu will caricature any compromise as capitulation. To the untutored, his arguments may sound persuasive. No nation, he will say, would tolerate its archenemy acquiring nuclear weapons. Therefore, Israel has to demand that any agreement eliminate every aspect of Iran’s capability to ever produce nuclear weapons. Anything short of this, according to Netanyahu’s construction, is a “bad deal.”

Yet, this argument ignores what has happened on the ground over the past decade as successive U.S. and Israeli administrations have held to this view. By insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.

He goes on to speak uncomfortable truths:

The consequences of this failed strategy are two ugly but irreversible facts. First, Iran has advanced to the point that we now have to consider something called “breakout time,” the number of months it would take to produce a bomb’s-worth of enriched uranium. The second, even uglier, truth is that Iran has developed the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and this capability cannot be erased.

The critical tipping point on this path occurred in 2008 when Iran mastered the technical know-how to build centrifuges and operate them to enrich uranium to levels required for the core of a nuclear bomb. As I wrote at that time, “Iran has crossed a threshold that is painful to acknowledge but impossible to ignore: it has lost its nuclear virginity.”

Going one more level down:

There is no way to erase from the minds of thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers the knowledge and skills to produce weapons-grade uranium. There is no way to eliminate Iran’s indigenous capacity to mine uranium, manufacture centrifuges, or operate them. Thus, there is no conceivable end to this story in which Iran will not retain the capability to build nuclear weapons.

This is a truth that many in Congress simply refuse to accept, since like the prime minister they have repeatedly declared this would never be allowed to happen.

Fareed Zakaria, in his most recent weekly Washington Post column, thinks Netanyahu is the boy who never grew up:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was eloquent, moving and intelligent in identifying the problems with the potential nuclear deal with Iran. But when describing the alternative to it, Netanyahu entered never-never land, painting a scenario utterly divorced from reality. Congress joined him on his fantasy ride, rapturously applauding as he spun out one unattainable demand after another.

Netanyahu declared that Washington should reject the current deal, demand that Tehran dismantle almost its entire nuclear program and commit never to restart it. In the world according to Bibi, the Chinese, Russians and Europeans will cheer, tighten sanctions, and increase pressure — which would then lead Iran to capitulate. “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough,” said Peter Pan.

He also points out some inconvenient facts to those in what I guess we can now call the “Club of 47:”

The theory that Iran would buckle under continued pressure ignores certain basic facts. Iran is a proud, nationalistic country. It has survived 36 years of Western sanctions through low oil prices and high oil prices. It endured an eight-year war with Iraq in which it lost an estimated half a million fighters. The nuclear program is popular, even with leaders of the pro-democratic Green Movement.

Michael Cohen echos much of these same concerns in a Boston Globe piece:

SOMETIME IN the next three weeks, the United States and its allies in the international community could sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. If they do, the deal will be unsatisfying. Iran will still likely be able to maintain its nuclear infrastructure; a sunset clause of 10 to 15 years would make it possible for Iran to reignite its nuclear ambitions; the lever of international sanctions would be lifted; and the success of the agreement would depend on adherence to it by a country that has been caught lying about its nuclear aspirations in the past.

Welcome to the fun-filled world of international diplomacy, where the choices facing policy makers are almost never between the best or worst possible deal, but rather a set of least worst options. That’s the choice facing President Obama, and it’s a lesson that critics of his approach to Iran have consistently missed.

He identifies what many expect is the desired endgame by most of the critics of the current talks, and hints at why that might not be such a desirable outcome:

Others argue that military force should be used to destroy Iran’s program, but it’s hard to see how the unforeseen consequences of war (which may or may not be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure) would be better than even an imperfect deal.

To me this all seems like straightforward risk management.  The P5+1 negotiators are presumably during their best to mitigate future risk considering the facts on the ground.  This is a concept often hailed as a foundation for homeland security.  We can’t eliminate all the risk so we should try to prevent what we can, mitigate against the impact of what we can’t, properly prepare and respond to events, and recover as a nation.  Unfortunately I believe we are straying far off that path.

Once upon a time, President Bush and many in his administration could unequivocally say that despite the government’s best efforts the U.S. will be hit by terrorists again.  Obviously he was and remains correct.  And at the time, no political party or other entities made much of that common sense statement (except some fringe elements). Fast forward to this President pointing out the obvious that terrorism does not represent an existential threat to our nation and he is painted as naive.  Both men were right, yet it seems the climate has shifted to a never never land where any terrorist attack is a sign of failure, where the inability to control events on the other side of the world in countries and cultures we don’t fully understand is a sign of weakness, and where all we have to do is point and shout loud enough and the rest of the world will come to see that our national interests and priorities and norms of behavior obviously should be theirs.

Here’s hoping that a little reason, and a lot of risk management principles, returns to our public discourse.

February 16, 2015

New Defense Secretary Ash Carter on “Catastrophic Terrorism”…from 1998

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on February 16, 2015

You know how sometimes someone in the meeting comes off as the “smartest person in the room?”  On occasion, it is the truth.  Which is often the case with the newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Recently, and randomly, I came across an old Foreign Affairs article that he co-wrote with (past) CIA Director John Deutch and (future) 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. But today’s terrorists, be they international cults like Aum Shinrikyo or individual nihilists like the Unabomber, act on a greater variety of motives than ever before. More ominously, terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses. Also new is the world’s dependence on a nearly invisible and fragile network for distributing energy and information. Long part of the Hollywood and Tom Clancy repertory of nightmarish scenarios, catastrophic terrorism has moved from far-fetched horror to a contingency that could happen next month. Although the United States still takes conventional terrorism seriously, as demonstrated by the response to the attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, it is not yet prepared for the new threat of catastrophic terrorism.

American military superiority on the conventional battlefield pushes its adversaries toward unconventional alternatives. The United States has already destroyed one facility in Sudan in its attempt to target chemical weapons. Russia, storehouse of tens of thousands of weapons and material to make tens of thousands more, may be descending into turmoil. Meanwhile, the combination of new technology and lethal force has made biological weapons at least as deadly as chemical and nuclear alternatives. Technology is more accessible, and society is more vulnerable. Elaborate international networks have developed among organized criminals, drug traffickers, arms dealers, and money launderers, creating an infrastructure for catastrophic terrorism around the world.

The bombings in East Africa killed hundreds. A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.

The danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It is a national security problem that deserves the kind of attention the Defense Department devotes to threats of military nuclear attack or regional aggression. The first obstacle to imagination is resignation. The prospects may seem so dreadful that some officials despair of doing anything useful. Some are fatalistic, as if contemplating the possibility of a supernova. Many thinkers reacted the same way at the dawn of the nuclear age, expecting doom to strike at any hour and disavowing any further interest in deterrence as a hopeless venture. But as with nuclear deterrence, the good news is that more can be done.

The 9/11 attack, though conventional, did accomplish exactly what the authors’ warned of in stating:

“Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.”

Unfortunately, their conclusions I feel have still gone unheeded. Especially as we as a nation get wound up about an insurgent force highly proficient in propaganda but yet still lacking in strategic strength.  Though it would still be wise to ask, can we do something better with the hindsight of 14 years?

Catastrophic terrorism poses an eminent threat to America’s future. But the United States can fight back only if it sets the right goals. In 1940 and 1941, the U.S. government pondered what kind of forces it would need to wage a global war. The answers went so far beyond the imagination that wry smiles and shaking heads in Washington offices greeted the planning papers as they made their rounds. The Cold War saw a similar pattern of disbelief. The notion of an intelligence system founded on photographic surveillance from the upper atmosphere or outer space seemed outrageously far-fetched in 1954, when the U-2 program was born. The films and cameras alone seemed an overwhelming hurdle. A few years later the U-2s were flying; six years later satellites were in place. Similar stories could be told about the remarkable history of intercontinental missile guidance or the fast deployment of more than a half-million troops and thousands of armored vehicles to the Persian Gulf in 1991 and 1992. America can meet new challenges, but it must first imagine success. Only then can it organize itself to attain it.

You can read the entire article here.

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




September 5, 2013

Shaping the context: Syria and more

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Resilience,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on September 5, 2013

Our options in Syria are, as far as I can see, all bad.  Any action or non-action involves chaotic possibilities — probabilities — well beyond confident prediction.

In our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, dynamic — and therefore complex — world this seems to be the one source of consistency on which we can depend:  Outcomes are uncertain.

There may even be a corollary:  The more confident one is of a specific outcome, the more likely the confidence is misplaced.

Even as our tools of observation, analysis and action become more powerful our capacity to accurately anticipate results seems to recede until — not unlike our oldest ancestors — we are left arguing analogies.

Is this Hitler’s Rhineland or Poland or Stalingrad?  1914 Serbia or 1938 Czechoslovakia?  Are we in the midst of a new Thirty Years War or merely the newest wrinkle in a 3000 year-old-struggle?  Is our best model a new Treaty of Westphalia or Ataturk’s solution or some sort of Ottoman consensus or expanded Concert of Europe?  Are we truly latter day Crusaders or closer to Pax Romana administrators (with our share of both Pilate’s and Pliny’s)? The historical comparisons are endless and treacherous.

I will add one more analogy which is less about a specific outcome — ultimate or ephemeral — than how context can be shaped.

A true story: Once upon a time long-ago, but no longer so far away, the Great King-of-Kings was challenged by a minor kinglet from the edge of the civilized world. Despite the overwhelming resources available to the King-of-Kings, prior encounters with the upstart had not ended well, costing the empire considerable lives, treasure and prestige.

When various political and diplomatic efforts failed and the provocations persisted, even increased, the King-of-Kings decided patient persistence required the reinforcement of other techniques.  Accordingly and with careful political deliberation, military planning and battlefield execution the King-of-Kings gathered all he needed at a time and place of his choosing.  Ancient sources disagree on details, yet all concur the balance of forces was at least 2-to-1 and credibly as much as 5-to-1.

But an unexpected oblique upended the established order.  The King-of-Kings was chased from the field of battle, his centuries-old empire imploding, and a whole new cultural reality emerging from this unexpected loss.

What the clearly weaker party could claim as comparative advantage was mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and considerable self-confidence.  These strengths were demonstrated on that battlefield 2344 years ago on October 1.  Even more important, the upstart’s culture demonstrated the same characteristics, long surviving the short life of its victorious king.

I don’t have an answer for what we should do in Syria.  But whatever we do — or don’t — and whatever the outcome here and abroad, I hope our choices will nurture the characteristics of this and many other upstarts across history.  These are the intellectual and spiritual foundations of resilience.

We will be challenged, sometimes horribly.  We will make bad choices, sometimes tragically. But our homeland will enjoy greater security the more we embrace mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and self-confidence.

May 2, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

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

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

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s that anti-verb again.


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

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

Beverly Knight

January 10, 2013

What was, what is, and what will be

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on January 10, 2013

Earlier this week the World Economic Forum released its annual report: Global Risks 2013.

According to the WEF survey of 1000-plus “global experts”, over the next ten years the most serious risks by potential impact are:

  • Major systemic financial failure
  • Water supply crises
  • Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Food shortage crises
  • Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction

Of these most consequential risks the expert survey — complemented by a series of workshops — found that water supplies and fiscal balance are already widely in crisis (What a surprise!). The risk of food shortages and systemic financial failure will increase as water and fiscal problems worsen. Increased diffusion of WMD almost seems simple in comparison.

Combined with the November release of Global Trends 2030 by our friends at the National Intelligence Council, we now have even more excuses for bad dreams.

In his preface to the report, Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF comments,

I think you will agree [the report] makes a compelling case for stronger cross-border collaboration among stakeholders from governments, business and civil society – a partnership with the purpose of building resilience to global risks. They also highlight the need for strengthening existing mechanisms to mitigate and manage risks, which today primarily exist at the national level. This means that while we can map and describe global risks, we cannot predict when and how they will manifest; therefore, building national resilience to global risks is of paramount importance.

The report offers suggestions related to definitions of resilience and good practice in resilience.

I was one of those contributing to the WEF survey and workshops. WEF does a great job of bringing together a broad mix of public and private policy makers, academics, and fellow-travelers. The report is helpful and I look forward to the follow-on work. The Davos Summit, January 23-27, focuses on “resilient dynamism” and will kick-off several important initiatives.


I paused while reading of the WEF report to take a call from the operations manager for a grocery chain in the New York metro area. I will do a case study on their Hurricane Sandy preparedness and response. One store on Staten Island was flooded under three feet of water. It reopened within a week. Another store within three blocks of the New Dorp Beach inundation zone — the deadly ground zero for Sandy — stayed open without interruption. There are a range of smart, heroic and almost miraculous tales.

There is also a very open, practical self-criticism in how the grocers are working to prepare for and adapt to the likelihood of something-worse-than-Sandy.

I perceive a yawning gap between the analysis and attitude encountered at the grocery chain and that revealed in the WEF report. It is a contrast often found between the theoretical and the operational.

The point is not that the operators are hubris-free and the theoreticians — including me — abide with such overabundant pride (though the thought does occur and recur). Rather, it seems to me, that this gap is where many of our vulnerabilities originate.

The WEF report (and many more) is in the future tense. These are issues we can reasonably anticipate will influence the operational environment for the next ten years or more.

Operational thinking and even planning is considerably more present tense. The possibilities of now — both opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — are at the heart of the operational worldview.

Past, present, and future are characteristics of English. Other linguistic systems focus much more on action being finished or unfinished. Any meaningful notion of homeland security will remain unfinished (and perhaps worse) until we can more effectively communicate across the operational-theoretical continuum.


Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me strings sound in harmony, to song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine, has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in healing.

Metamorphoses, Ovid: Book I:521-523, Apollo begging Daphne to yield to him. I realize that quoting a Latin poet, even in translation, will not help bridge the gap. But it is beautiful, is it not? The Latin is luscious. And doesn’t it evoke an image of homeland security begging for affection? A big part of the challenge is to respect the insight that exists across the continuum, learning how to fully engage different dialects.

October 25, 2012

The Presidential Debates: Substantial agreement on homeland security

The word “homeland” was used once,  the term “homeland security” not at all  in the three presidential debates.  But a close-reading of the transcripts does expose HS-related discussion.

Below are direct excerpts from the debate transcripts.  I have purposefully not identified who said what.  Where the candidates seem to mostly agree, I have only quoted one of them.  Occasionally a candidate asserted a difference that — at least to me — seemed either non-substantive or illusory.  I have not included these assertions.  There are subtle distinctions.  I have chosen excerpts that I hope bring these forward.

To me the distinctions — on these issues —  often run counter to each candidate’s stereotype. President Obama comes off tougher than the other side wants to admit, Governor Romney more reasonable than he is portrayed.  Debate posturing?  Meaningful insight?  My own eccentric tendency to see what is shared more than what divides?


The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That’s its most basic function…

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The role of government is to promote and protect the principles of those documents. First, life and liberty. We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people…



First of all, this is a nation of immigrants. We welcome people coming to this country as immigrants… I want our legal system to work better. I want it to be streamlined. I want it to be clearer. I don’t think you have to — shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally. I also think that we should give visas to people — green cards, rather — to  people who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A. We should make sure our legal system works.

Number two, we’re going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who’ve come here illegally take their place… What I will do is I’ll put in place an employment verification system and make sure that employers that hire people who have come here illegally are sanctioned for doing so. I won’t put in place magnets for people coming here illegally. The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident…

If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done. And what I’ve also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship…

Domestic Counterterrorism (or Whole Community or gun control)

So my belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement…

Weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally… Part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence… And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity; that our schools are working; that if there’s violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control…

And so what I want is a — is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.

Resilience (?)

I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded.


International Counterterrorism

But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism…

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies…

The other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need…

We make decisions today… that will confront challenges we can’t imagine. In the 2000 debates, there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So, we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty…


We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space…

International Counterterrorism (Again)

Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the — in the relatively near future. They also have the Haqqani Network and the Taliban existent within their country. And so a Pakistan that falls apart, becomes a failed state, would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and to us. And so we’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met…


We should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.

International Counterterrorism (Again)

There’s no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed. But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States. And we want to shrink those groups and those networks and we can do that.  But we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that Al Qaeda is much weaker than it was…and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

I expect partisans of each candidate will complain I have obscured important differences.   In my judgment a narcissism of small differences is epidemic.   I have no interest in abetting the fever.  More interesting to me is — for good or bad — the considerable consensus that is articulated.

June 8, 2012

Homeland security as a national monomyth

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012


I have proposed that homeland security is, itself, the consequence of a catastrophe.  Further, I have suggested homeland security is a consequence that — among other things — reinforces and extends the catastrophic nature of the original event. For good and bad homeland security contributes to marking a catastrophic before and after.

The uncanny, even surreal success of the al-Qaeda plot was the crux of this catastrophe.   If the Pentagon alone had been hit, would our (a populist “our”) response have been as it was?  With both towers hit and casualties as high, if the structures had remained standing would our sense-of-devastation have been the same?

It was the televised — “you are there” — impact of not one but both towers collapsing before our collective eyes that ensured an awful day was widely experienced as little less than apocalyptic.  Pennsylvania and the Pentagon were dreadful subplots to the ghastly spectacle in New York.

I don’t know how to test it, but even the shared shock of Pearl Harbor may not have been as profound as that of 9/11.   Many were aware of the Japanese threat.  The conflict in China was big news, the European war well-known context. But eleven years ago most were unaware of AQ, even after the attacks on the USS Cole and the East African embassies.  For the vast majority of Americans, this terrorist threat might as well have emerged from Mars.

This was the genesis of homeland security.  Such a beginning matters.

Most of us expected — certainly I did — follow-on attacks.  Given the creative audacity of the “first” attacks anything seemed possible.   The following is from Ashton B. Carter, currently Deputy Secretary of Defense, writing in Countering Terrorism (2003):

The varieties of extremism that can spawn catastrophic terrorism  seem limitless… What is clear is that war-scale destructive power is becoming increasingly available as technology advances. The same advances heighten the complexity and interconnectedness of civilization, making society more vulnerable at the same time as technology deliver to small groups destructive powers that were formerly the monopoly of states. (Page 18)

According to a 2010 survey, 53 percent of Americans expect a terrorist attack using a nuclear device.  The President is evidently among this majority.  Having experienced the nearly unimaginable on 9/11, we can easily imagine much worse.

Since 9/11 there has been no new use or known attempted use of war-scale destructive power.  Yet many — probably most — Americans perceive that a small number of evil men present a clear, present, and existential threat to the United States.  This is the sustaining justification for homeland security.  This is the continuing cascade of catastrophe.

We talk and write about risk-informed decision making.  But our core homeland security narrative is not so subtle.

Nine weeks after 9/11 the first Harry Potter movie was released.  It was the highest grossing film of the year. The 2001 Christmas season saw the first Lord of the Rings movie open to crowds only a bit smaller than those for Harry.  The righteous anger of September was already predisposed to stark distinctions of good and evil.  Popular culture readily reinforced these tendencies.

But… as with the fictional Harry and Frodo, the most significant struggle has been internal.  Do not misunderstand, the external threat is real.  The existential challenge, though, is much more a matter of our national sense-of-self.  Are we brave, generous and loving or are we fearful, greedy, and vengeful?  The gravest question is not if we will defeat the enemy, but what this fight will make of us?

Homeland security has become our Hogwarts, our Middle-earth: a set of problems with which we are crafting our national character.  (“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets via the character Albus Dumbledore)

In 1998 Ashton Carter served as co-chair of the “Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group.”  He and his co-authors prophesied:

A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. (Foreign Affairs,  November/December 1998)

They failed to predict weaponized passenger jets, but the rest sounds accurate to me.  Please notice the most catastrophic consequences are self-inflicted.

The Lord of the Rings transpires over two years, the Harry Potter series in seven.  We are well into our second decade since 9/11.  By now our fictional heroes had  engaged their demons, returned home, and had earned the freedom to live fully.  We are not there.  The catastrophe is still unfolding.  Crucial choices still confront us.  We are unfinished.  We are unresolved.  We have not yet abandoned the “self-generated double-monster” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell).

Homeland security is double-minded, as Harry could so often be; as Frodo was even in his final struggle with Gollum at the Crack of Doom.

Homeland security problems are often as intimate as they are important.  Who do we trust? Why? What are our trials?  What are our temptations? Where are we most vulnerable?  To whom are we loyal?  What and whom are we prepared to betray? What is the call that would prompt betrayal?  Precisely because these are problems of self-identity and relationship they can be especially treacherous.

Our double-mindedness will be resolved.  When and how are pending.  I wish I was more certain of a happy ending.

Next week: Homeland security on the road of trials


This is the second in a series of posts on the relationship of homeland security to catastrophe (here’s a link to the first).  About ten posts on catastrophe are expected to be followed by another ten on resilience and another ten on civil liberties.  But this series is open, exploratory, and susceptible to tangents.  There were great comments on last week’s post that I am still thinking through.  This post is not especially responsive to particular comments, but I promise future posts will try to seriously engage the important issues you raised.  Please join in with your questions, concerns, and comments.


March 30, 2012

Need to know, duty to share, and — Hey, is anyone paying attention?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on March 30, 2012

Over the last couple of years a FEMA grant supported a locally driven process to anticipate a possible nuclear detonation in the nation’s capital.  I was peripherally involved in the local process.

On March 14 the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists posted a principal document emerging from this local effort. (See: http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf)

I commend the report to you.  In my judgment it’s a fine piece of policy-and-strategy oriented science.

Since the document was posted by the FAS it has been the focus of an Associated Press piece and several other media mentions.

“Have you seen the leak?” was the first line of several emails I received after the AP story appeared. As a “leak” the document suddenly had a previously unrecognized appeal.

When the document was initially completed in autumn 2011 it was simply a technical report — generated by a National Laboratory under a FEMA grant — but otherwise unofficial.    It was conceived by local leadership to provide an empirical and expert-informed basis for a process of  whole community engagement.  Public information and education regarding the IND issue had been a priority from very early in the process.  This original version of the report was distributed to the National Capital Region planning community, including me.

Sometime in December a decision emerged from FEMA to create an official version of the  document designated as For Official Use Only (FOUO).  This new version superseded the original document.  If DHS guidance on application of FOUO exists, I have not seen it.  In my experience FOUO means to know who’s getting the document and be sure there’s some good cause for that person to get the document.

While this is a very low level of “security”, there was still push-back to the designation from the response planning community. Local leaders argued they spent grant money on the report with an explicit expectation it would not be classified.  My favorite push-back quoted at length from a December 2 speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute:

In national security there is a culture of confidentiality, the need to protect the nation’s most sensitive information.  In homeland security there’s an expectation of transparency:  it’s not a need to know, it’s a duty to share, it’s an expectation to share. In national security there’s unity of command.  In homeland security, it’s a unity of effort.  It’s a different model.  It’s a different model.  And we need to understand the things that we deal with from the differences that that model represents. (The underline appeared in the original push-back.)

Despite local requests — and appeals to higher authority — the FOUO revision stuck.

Several weeks before there was even a rumor of FOUO, I was using the original technical report and other materials in an effort to entice some long-form journalism focusing on the issues involved.  There was not even a nibble.

Maybe it was my angle.   For me one of  the most interesting issues exposed by the report is how public preparedness is fundamental to surviving any really bad day.  Whether the cause is earthquake, hurricane, nuclear detonation or whatever, our best science is finding public readiness and resilience before an event largely determines the success (or not) of response and recovery afterwards.

In the particular case of an IND in DC, tens-of-thousands will survive and potentially thrive if they don’t immediately try (and probably fail) to evacuate and instead shelter-in-place.  The technical report made this clear.  So does the original AP report.

Most of the headlines and much of the commentary since have neglected this aspect of the report.  But at least one media outlet led with this angle.  The headline in the Arlington (VA) Sun-Gazette was: Local Officials: Report Confirms Nuclear Attack Survivable If Right Steps Are Taken.

A new federal report looking at a low-grade nuclear explosion’s impact across the metropolitan area provides better insight on how to react and survive such an incident, county officials said.

For the most part, the mantra of public-safety officials boils down to: Shelter in place until the danger passes.

“If you’re outdoors, get indoors. If you’re indoors, stay indoors,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management. “The public needs to resist the urge to go outside, get in their cars and get on the roads – the last thing we want the public to do is to be outside. Buildings do provide a lot of buffer.”

Seems to me a helpful message.  Glad it’s gotten a bit more attention because of reports on the report.

Here’s a guess, the report was news-worthy — it appeared in dozens of the nation’s principal news outlets —  for two reasons: 1) it was a government report about something very bad and 2) there was a slight suggestion the government was trying to keep the report secret.  As such the report fit two of the core narratives of journalism: “the king has announced” and “the king is corrupt.”   These two story-lines have been the top of the news for about two centuries.

Thank goodness for the FOUO designation.   Without that, no one may have noticed at all.

February 27, 2012

Nuclear blast simulator: NUKEMAP

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on February 27, 2012

Recently the web saw the emergence of a new online nuclear detonation simulator: NUKEMAP.

Created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics and blogger at “Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” this simulator is the best example of an admittedly small class of apps. It allows one to pick the target and yield of the device, either through drop down boxes or by entering unique values.  For the sake of simplicity, it defaults with an idealized air burst which eliminates the computational messiness of modeling the influence of unique geography and weather.

So this isn’t your National Lab/FEMA 3-D model tailored to individual cityscapes.  But it gives you a general idea about the varying effects of different sizes of nuclear weapons.

The features, in Alex’s own words:

  • Easily draggable target marker (which has an adorable little atom on it)!
  • Bright, stomach-churning colors indicating major negative effects of atomic detonations!
  • Effects described include zones of 500 rem exposure, major overpressures, and fire! Plus, the legend breaks these down into easy-to-understand descriptions of what they mean for your average person caught inside of them.
  • Lots of pre-sets for both places to drop them (I didn’t want to discriminate) and yields of historical weapons! It has never been easier to put a 50Mt H-bomb on the Eiffel Tower.
  • Automatically tries to drop the bomb on wherever Google thinks you are accessing the Internet from (based on your IP address)!
  • You can link to specific detonations and send them to your friends to enjoy forever!
  • Automatic zooming to make sure that all of a given nuke’s effects fit within the view window! (This can be disabled.)
  • More historically contextualized than your average web app!

While obviously trying to inject some levity in the most serious of subjects, among Alex’s stated goals for this project was to visually explain the difference between fission and fusion weapons effects:

I have in the past made maps of this sort for use in teaching, when I want to emphasize how “impressive” the first hydrogen bomb was when compared to the first atomic bombs. If you dropped a Fat Man-style bomb onto downtown Boston, the results wouldn’t be pretty, but the effects would be limited to the immediate area surrounding the peninsula, primarily. (In other words, I would tell the students, Harvard is probably not too bad off, fallout excepting, but MIT is completely fried.) Do the same thing with an Ivy Mike-sized bomb and you’ve set houses on fire all the way out to Concord (a visual argument, when done with appropriate build-up and theatricality, that never failed to result in a horrified gasp from the auditorium of undergrads). It becomes quite clear why many of the atomic scientists of the day considered H-bombs to be exclusively genocidal weapons.

For homeland security planners what this simulator makes vivid is how the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War. Multiple Soviet warheads in the hundred kiloton or megaton range is a totally different story than a single nuclear terrorist device around the size of the Hiroshima bomb or even lower.  While any local and state response will be immediately overwhelmed, the current threats are still national  catastrophes than can and should be planned for at a regional level.

January 10, 2012

Words Have Meanings

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on January 10, 2012

The Christian Science Monitor noted the sentencing of 37-year old Kevin Harpham in federal court a few weeks ago.  He was charged with four counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered explosive device, and attempt to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of race issues.

Harpham received a 32-year prison sentence for leaving a pipe bomb in a backpack along the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Washington, on January 17, 2011 — a year ago, next week. The pipe bomb held fishing weights coated with an anticoagulant associated with rat poison, which would have been ejected into the crowd by black powder ignited by a model rocket igniter. It didn’t work, fortunately for the march participants.

This story was of interest to me for two reasons. First of all, we have the FBI’s Seattle office describing Harpham as a “prototypical lone wolf;” the challenge being that there was no foreshadowing of a carefully planned attack. He hasn’t been named as a “homegrown terrorist” only because he was not directly or indirectly associated with a transnational terrorist group. While both Harpham and Faisal Shazad could both be appropriately identified as “domestic terrorists,” Harpham avoids the designation of “homegrown” only because he acted on his own.

It’s not that Harpham wasn’t associated with violent extremist groups. After a tour in the U.S. Army, he became an active member of the National Alliance, a white supremacy group. So it appears you get a pass from being called a “homegrown terrorist” if you’re a card-carrying member of a white supremacy group, but not if you’re an American citizen influenced by radical Muslim clerics based overseas.

Are these distinctions helpful? I’m not sure that they are. Both appear to be “lone wolves” in nature; the color of one’s skin and connections to overseas, rather than domestic, radical organizations do not appear to be useful discriminators.

I also have to notice that both Harpham and Shazad were both charged with attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, even though this was only a legal distinction  (Title 18 USC 2332a) and not a “WMD” incident in any sense of reality.

Neither the pipe bomb (Harpham) or an exploding propane tank (Shazad) could in any sense cause a mass casualty event. Neither device could be called equivalent to what the United Nations defines as a WMD – that is to say, a nuclear device or chemical or biological warfare agents.

So why does this bother me so?

In the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Report, Secretary Janet Napolitano calls on a “Homeland Security Enterprise” that includes the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and the intelligence community. Only one agency uses the Title 18 definition of WMD – that would be the Department of Justice. So when the Defense Department reviews its “CBRN Enterprise” for homeland security, it uses a different definition, focusing on chemical, biological, and radiological hazards and nuclear devices used within U.S. borders.  The National Guard’s 57 WMD Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and its 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Force Packages (CERFPs) don’t do explosive threats (but the 20th Support Command [CBRNE] does, under specific scenarios). The Marine Corps CBIRF doesn’t do explosive threats, but the Navy EOD does provide experts for that niche. There is no agreement across the federal government on terminology (or perhaps, they agree to disagree).

The reason why this disturbs me is this: As the National Guard fiercely defends the continued deployment and sustainment of its CSTs and CERFPs, it remains a fact that the threat of a domestic – or transnational – terrorist group successfully using CBRN hazards to cause mass casualties is remarkably insignificant, for all practical purposes, zero.

There is no “WMD” threat out there.

There may be limited incidents involving industrial chemicals, attempts to derive ricin from castor beans, dreams of exploding heavy metal radioactive isotopes, but nothing that can be appropriately called a “mass casualty” capability. Nothing that the locals can’t handle.

But as long as the National Guard Bureau can point to the FBI’s documented list of “attempted WMD” cases, someone will claim that this justifies having this huge federal response force around, spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year just to sit and wait for the firehouse bell to ring. Because hey, it’s not as if the U.S. government had any real budget concerns.

I know that Congress will never let the U.S. military get rid of these costly luxuries. They’re show-pieces, political promises that if a WMD incident ever happens, well, by golly, won’t you be glad when the CSTs and CERFPs show up – hours after the state and local emergency responders have done the heavy lifting.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Just not one I’m willing to endorse.

But at the least, the fact that the U.S. government cannot agree on the definition of “weapons of mass destruction” (or for that matter, consequence management) is glaringly apparent. We ought to at least be able to agree – and codify – one definition that defines a WMD as an incident involving nuclear, biological, or chemical munitions in a situation resulting in a mass casualty event – and then define what a mass casualty event is.

Little things like this keep me up at night.


January 5, 2012

Defense strategy and homeland security

Earlier today the President signed out and the Secretary of Defense released new strategic guidance for the Department of Defense. Following are my quick-takes on those aspects of the document  most closely related to homeland security.

Page 1:

The demise of Osama bin Laden and the capturing or killing of many other senior al-Qa?’ida  leaders have rendered the group far less capable. However, al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. More broadly,violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland.The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats thatcould directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the UnitedStates will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring theactivities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establishcontrol over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.

Page 2:

In the Middle East, the Arab Awakening presents both strategic opportunities and challenges. Regime changes, as well as tensions within and among states under pressure toreform, introduce uncertainty for the future. But they also may result in governments that,over the long term, are more responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people, and aremore stable and reliable partners of the United States.Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists anddestabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states.

Page 3:

To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the globalcommons ?– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms orother anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security. The United States will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by strengthening international norms of responsible behavior and by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities.

Page 4:

Acting in concert with other means of national power, U.S. military forces must continue to hold al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates and adherents under constant pressure, wherever they may be. Achieving our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qa?’ida and preventing Afghanistan from everbeing a safe haven again will be central to this effort. As U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan, our global counter terrorism efforts will become more widely distributedand will be characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance. Reflecting lessons learned of the past decade, we will continue to build and sustain tailored capabilities appropriate for counter terrorism and irregular warfare. We will also remain vigilant to threats posed by other designated terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

Page 5:

Accordingly, DoD will continue to work with domestic and international allies and partners and invest in advanced capabilities to defend its networks, operational capability, and resiliency in cyberspace and space….

U.S. forces willcontinue to defend U.S. territory from direct attack by state and non-state actors. We willalso come to the assistance of domestic civil authorities in the event such defense fails or in case of natural disasters, potentially in response to a very significant or even catastrophic event. Homeland defense and support to civil authorities require strong,steady?–state force readiness, to include a robust missile defense capability. Threats to the homeland may be highest when U.S. forces are engaged in conflict with an adversary abroad.

Page 6:

The nation has frequently called upon its Armed Forces to respond to a range of situations that threaten the safety and well-being of its citizens and those of other countries. U.S. forces possess rapidly deployable capabilities, including airlift and sealift, surveillance, medical evacuation and care, and communications that can be invaluable in supplementing lead relief agencies, by extending aid to victims of natural or man-made disasters, both at home and abroad. DoD will continue to develop joint doctrine and military response options to prevent and, if necessary, respond to mass atrocities. U.S. forces will also remain capable of conducting non-combatant evacuation operations for American citizens overseas on an emergency basis.

You may see more.   The document includes considerable attention to WMD and cyber threats not excerpted above.

October 31, 2011

Test anthrax vaccine on children: A bad biodefense policy idea

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 31, 2011

I was surprised, last week, to see this story in the Washington Post about the efforts of a working group of the National Biodefense Science Board. Seems that, back in April, the board decided to examine whether children should receive the standard anthrax vaccine in the event of a wide-area anthrax attack on the nation. Although it’s not explained well in the story, it is assumed that this would be a post-treatment administered under emergency matters after an attack, rather than as a pre-treatment.

“At the end of the day, do we want to wait for an attack and give it to millions and millions of children and collect data at that time?” said Daniel B. Fagbuyi of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, who chaired the group. “Or do we want to say: ‘How do we best protect our children?’ We can take care of Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle and Auntie. But right now, we have nothing for the children.”

Yes, oh who will think of the children? As the article explains, the vaccine has been tested for safety for the military, but it doesn’t explain that the vaccine’s efficacy is sometimes in question. Critics of the vaccine note that it hasn’t been tested against humans who have been exposed to a weaponized form of anthrax. And that’s true. There have been animal models that show the airborne vaccine should be both safe and efficacious for humans. And all of our researchers and veterinarians who work with anthrax use the vaccine, without any losses. Both the airborne vaccine and the natural form of vaccine work in the same way on the human body. So we’re pretty sure it’s a very good vaccine.

But back to the children. Medical experts and emergency responders have always been concerned about the “sensitive population” and how they are treated in the event of an emergency. Yes, it’s possible that an anthrax vaccine developed for adults might be too powerful for children or have detrimental side effects. We don’t know. But the chance of a wide-area anthrax attack affecting thousands, let alone “millions and millions of children,” is almost zero. Close enough to zero to not worry about it.

Except for this National Biodefense Science Board.  They decided, on a vote of 12-1, that in fact, we do need to have the vaccine tested on children in order to prepare for that day that is “not a matter of if, but when.”

“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine as we develop plans to use the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack,” said Ruth L. Berkelman of Emory University, a panel member.

Now these are smart people. I don’t doubt their sincerity or intelligence. I do question their common sense and rationality. The absolute possibility of a transnational terrorist attack involving kilograms of anthrax to cause such an event are just insignificant compared to the storm of controversy and outcry if the US government starts testing the anthrax vaccine on kids.

It doesn’t matter if the side effects of the anthrax vaccine are far less severe than nearly any other vaccine. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. government has been using this vaccine for over a decade and has literally millions of health records to study. The critics will argue that the government hasn’t proven the vaccine’s efficacy for adults, let alone children. And they’d be right, technically; but it still works. This is a lousy argument.

The recommendation to test the vaccine for use on children is just wrong.

Any sensible mayor or governor would suggest that the appropriate risk-management approach would be to plan and resource for the widespread use of Cipro or other antibiotics on the population, to include children and other sensitive population types, as a first course of action. And then if, and only if, an actual anthrax attack occurred, the parents would be asked if they want to take the chance on the vaccine – and sign a release form for its use. It needs to be explained that this is a post-treatment, and without its use, the affected patient may die a very horrible and sudden death. This testing is unnecessary because the scenario too remotely theoretical.

It’s really that simple. How our community responds to bioterrorism is too important to be left to the doctors. Let’s get some public policy analysts involved and make better decisions.


October 18, 2011

Flunk the Graders, Not the Country

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 18, 2011

Last week, former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO) released an assessment of the U.S. government’s preparedness for a biological terrorism event. The timing of its release, so near to the Hollywood drama “Contagion,” was not an accident. They wanted a reaction based on fear of a fictional global outbreak of a super-disease. Similar to their past report cards, this assessment was not a good news story.

“Today we face the very real possibility that outbreaks of disease — naturally occurring or man-made — can change the very nature of America,” the report concludes. Technology is also making it easier for terrorists to create deadly mischief, the report says.

A small team of individuals with graduate-level training and readily available equipment “could produce the type of bio-weapons created by nation-states in the 1960s,” the report warns.
The center stressed that one key to improving the nation’s preparedness is leadership.

“We have recommended that there should be someone in the federal government who has (bioterrorism preparedness) as their sole responsibility,” Graham said. “That someone should be an individual who has the capability to direct and influence actions by the multiplicity of agencies that are involved and provide leadership to non-federal entities.”

The office of the vice president would be an appropriate spot for that job, Graham suggested.

Funny thing, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisor “Scooter” Libby were the original proponents for pushing a significant biodefense strategy for the United States, a strategy that has put about $6 billion per year into the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Defense Department for the past ten years. The fact that this biodefense strategy has failed to protect the United States from a range of biological agents, due to lack of oversight, poorly chosen goals, and limited resources, doesn’t seem to faze Graham and Talent from suggesting putting that office in charge again.

The report card can be found at the former senators’ new digs, the “Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center” or WMD Center for short – which ironically, doesn’t address WMDs, just biological terrorism. I don’t understand why they didn’t call it the “Bioterrorism Center” – it would have been more honest. But I suppose they miss all the attention given to them in their role leading the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

This report card gives the U.S. government 15 “Fs”, 15 “Ds”, and no “As” in its assessment of both small- and large-scale biological terrorist incidents.

The executive summary cautions the reader to view each grade on its own:

“it should not, however, be interpreted by calculating a grade-point average (GPA).”

You know, I used to tell my mother that when I brought home my report cards from junior high school, but she didn’t seem to view it that way.

It’s a strange assessment, one that seems to ignore the development of a National Biosurveillance Integration Center and the nation-wide Laboratory Response Network to give the nation a “D” for biosurveillance preparedness.

Not prepared enough, the report says, but “promising.”

Really? I thought a “C” would have been acceptable for “promising.” The way they assess the diagnostics and reporting process, you’d think that they were reporting about some third-world nation instead of the nation with the largest and most expensive health care system in the world.

Amazingly, the report says that it is “unclear” whether Project BioWatch, with its air samplers in 30+ cities, is worth the long term financial investment required to protect the nation.

Clearly it is not a sustainable program to expand to other cities, and the much vaunted “Gen III” detector has been in testing for some time. It’s not going to be cheap, just like DHS’s attempts to field next-generation radiological monitors in its “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.” Are they trying to protect DHS’s S&T Directorate, which appears heading for significant budget cuts?

The report’s assessment on attribution capabilities is riddled with carefully parsed definitions to justify the failing grade that it provides the government. There are a few direct statements, but too many “probably” and “unknown” statements here for my taste.

Again, I am not sure why there is a National Bioforensics Center at Fort Detrick, one that includes participation from the FBI, DHHS, and DoD, but I imagine that it doesn’t deserve the charges that this report lays out.

The report’s assessors don’t seem to take into account the billions of dollars that DHHS is prepared to provide in the development of “private-public partnerships” for two new vaccine development centers. Yes, it will take a few years to build the centers and for the FDA to approve them, but still, not good enough to address a large-scale (multiple cities) outbreak. Yes, our past successes with pandemic disease outbreaks must have been flukes.

You can make up your own minds. From what I see, this is not an honest assessment of what the nation’s capability is to prepare for and respond to a bioterrorism incident. We are intended to overreact to this “lack” of preparedness because the report suggests bioterrorism is so easy. The report actually suggests that the success of Bruce Ivin in 2001, releasing his letters filled with anthrax, means that any general terrorist out there can do the same.

Yes, a man with more than 20 years experience working with anthrax on a regular basis in a well-prepared government lab; just the same as the man on the street. Really.

Fortunately, no one appears to be paying much attention to these Cassandras. They predicted in 2008 that there would be a bioterrorism incident prior to 2013. That’s only two years away. When this date comes and goes without such an incident, maybe we can shame them into retirement. We really don’t need these amateur-hour scare tactics. We have more important things to do with the billions of dollars poured into this money sink.


October 10, 2011

Anthrax Uncertainty

Filed under: Biosecurity,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on October 10, 2011

An interesting article in today’s New York Times casts additional uncertainty regarding the true perpetrator of the anthrax attacks:

A decade after wisps of anthrax sent through the mail killed 5 people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, biologists and chemists still disagree on whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.

Now, three scientists argue that distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores — including the unexpected presence of tin — point to a high degree of manufacturing skill, contrary to federal reassurances that the attack germs were unsophisticated. The scientists make their case in a coming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense.

I do not have sufficient knowledge in biology or chemistry to provide an opinion on the veracity of these claims.  What I find interesting is that there is serious concern that the perpetrator(s) of biological attack may still be unknown after so many years.

The new paper raises the prospect — for the first time in a serious scientific forum — that the Army biodefense expert identified by the F.B.I. as the perpetrator, Bruce E. Ivins, had help in obtaining his germ weapons or conceivably was innocent of the crime.

Please read the article itself for details regarding conflicting explanations for substances (tin and silicon) found in the anthrax and the reasons they might point to a different conclusion than the one at which the F.B.I. arrived.  What I find interesting from a homeland security perspective is that the anthrax mailings likely rank in the top five of all domestic terrorist incidents and are the only ones still surrounded by so much uncertainty.  This is not a conspiratorial take on the event (a la Truthers) or a reflexive “blame Al Qaeda” response (which would not be so surprising given their perceived presence at almost every major event in the world these days), but serious scientific doubt concerning the evidence and conclusions.

Is this because of the particular facts regarding this case–a difficult to obtain but deadly substance utilized in a sub-optimal manner (if the desire was mass fatalities) with little indication of motivation or goal?

Or a harbinger of the general issues that will surround further terrorist or criminal utilization of biological materials that will be difficult to trace for goals that may or may not be publicly announced?

A one off or an event that revealed a potential framing of the risk of biological terrorism?

Update: I had no idea when I was writing this post that PBS’ Frontline was opening their new season with an investigation of the anthrax attacks.  I caught most of the episode and it includes a lot of interesting details.  You can review their collected wealth of additional information (and I believe eventually watch the entire episode) at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/anthrax-files/

September 27, 2011

Explaining the Absence of Nuclear Terrorism

Filed under: WMD — by Alan Wolfe on September 27, 2011

As we continue to discuss the possibility of WMD terrorism, there always seems to be those nuclear weapons analysts who just cannot fathom how our civilization has not seen a nuclear terrorist incident yet.

We’ve had nuclear weapons around for more than 60 years now, we’ve had too many stories about missing or unaccounted for nuclear material, and yet no “boom.”

Thomas Schelling, famed game theorist and defense analyst, wants to know why.

In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!

Yes, it’s only a question of when, not if – and yet, and yet… the “when” has never arrived.

I am of the firm belief that it isn’t a question of when, but rather if a terrorist group could ever obtain enough fissile material, construct a bomb, and successfully hold a government hostage to its demands. There are more than a few federal agencies in the U.S. government looking for signs of any sub-state group with ambitions of grandeur – that is to say, those groups who have successfully avoided being the target of Predator drones and CIA-paid turncoats.

The media and those journalist bloggers who report issues related to nuclear terrorism are not particularly helpful in understanding this phenomenon. They’d rather sensationalize stories like this GAO report that says the U.S. government is unable to fully account for U.S. nuclear material overseas that has been given to partner nations for peaceful civilian use. If there were no specific reports stipulated in the partner agreement, and there has been no voluntary release of any information, well, then, the nuclear material might be anywhere! For all we know, there are thousands of kilograms of plutonium in some evil group’s lair, as we speak!

Or these “unaccounted” amounts of nuclear material might be sitting in reactors in Germany, France, Japan, India, Norway, perfectly safe and secure. You just don’t know, which is what has Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, so concerned.

“It’s amazing how completely cavalier the Department of Energy has been at tracking this. They’ve got nobody who worries about this on a day-to-day basis. … The old way of doing business was: You bought it. We have some rights, but it’s fundamentally not our problem.  Now, things are different.”

I’m thinking that they do in fact worry about this quite often. It’s not as if our government casually handed off nuclear material for other countries without any discussion, without any care as to what our partner nations did with it. Every country worries about nuclear terrorism. Every country with a nuclear reactor worries about a Fukushima incident. These are not casual issues. The only thing that is different today is the level of paranoia within the United States that something wicked this way comes, in the form of a terrorist-delivered nuclear weapon. So of course the solution has to be more control, more visibility over every shard of nuclear material out there. No one can be trusted to secure this material without our inspections and approval. If the U.S. government controls every aspect and can see everywhere on the globe with real-time intelligence, then we will be safe.

Except that no one can really afford that kind of omnipresence.

The Republicans in the Congress want to slash the Department of Energy’s nonproliferation funds, not increase it. They’d rather fund the intelligence agencies and US Special Operations Command with billions of dollars every year in an effort to monitor and interdict illegal movements of nuclear material. And that is one course of action, using military “hard power” instead of diplomatic “soft power.” You do what you can with the funds and authorities available. But in the end, as Dr. Schelling notes, there’s still no earth-shattering “kaboom” from a nuclear terrorist incident.

The media and journalist bloggers want to get your attention, they want gains in readership every month. They’re not interested, these days, in understanding exactly why Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) asked the GAO for this report.  Was he really worried about nuclear terrorism, or was he just trying to regain Department of Energy (DoE) funds that were slashed in earlier federal budgets? The GAO is not saying that fissile material is loose on the black market. All it is saying is that the Department of Energy could do a better job monitoring other nations’ holdings of U.S. nuclear materials. That’s all.

And, in fact, DoE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the State Department all disagree with the report’s recommendations, stating (in short) that the situation is well in hand. That’s not uncommon. The tone of the Jeffrey Lewis blog post, in particular, wants you to believe that there could be “enough material to make dozens of nuclear weapons” out there. That kind of sensationalistic reporting isn’t uncommon, either. But we professionals who actually want to do something about homeland security have to see past this sloppy writing and understand what’s really going on, if we are to make the best use of limited resources against the most compelling threats out there.


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