Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 16, 2014

Monday Musings

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2014

Just a couple of random thoughts for a Monday.

  • Why is the discussion around preparedness framed in such a binary manner? Personal preparedness is important, both for one’s self and loved ones regardless of the situation as well as to lessen the burden on any official response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However, I am just wondering if it should be thought of as such a zero-sum situation. The standard frame is that if we (i.e. citizens/non-professionals) are not prepared to take care of ourselves for some period of time following a disaster than we shouldn’t expect immediate help and are responsible for placing additional burden on the government or other dedicated professional responders (such as the Red Cross or other trained volunteers).Yet we live in a democracy.  So should it be us/them rather than just simply we? Those professionals are our neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow Americans.  Would it be at all useful if instead the frame is a discussion about the social compact involved in preparedness, response, and recovery rather than personal responsibility vs. big government? I’m thinking along the lines of the debate about healthcare.  Here it is predominately about personal choice vs. socialized medicine or government intervention, while in most other democratic, rich, industrial nations  it has long been decided as a community that some above basic-level of care is a responsibility of the entire society and the questions involve what form and how to pay for it. Bad stuff happens.  Let’s not focus on assigning blame or roles but rather collective responsibility.

 

  • There are a whole mess of issues wrapped up in the ISIS/Iraq/Syria/Middle East situation goings on. One that I find particularly interesting is the conventional wisdom that if ISIS is somehow able to carve out an independent area from land formerly part of Iraq and Syria that the odds of a 9/11-scale attack on the United States would dramatically increase. Putting aside questions about the possibility of them winning, holding on to the land, the short to medium term viability of such a state, etc., why is it such accepted dogma that Bin Laden living in Afghanistan made the attacks on 9/11 possible?  Does it matter that the pilots were trained in U.S. flight schools?  Or that vital planning took place in Germany and Malaysia? Or the plan was hatched by KSM, who had previously traveled the globe planning and attempting various terrorist attacks? Bin Laden at the time had refuge in Afghanistan, but I don’t believe that was central to the viability of the plot. Failed states and ungoverned spaces can lead to increased chaos and provide refuge for terrorists and other bad actors.  However, they are not essential to any large scale plot against the U.S. homeland or any other nation for that matter.

 

  • Despite today’s U.S. World Cup victory against Ghana, I wonder why are we so (comparatively) bad at soccer?  Putting aside the more American-centric sports for the moment, we still do well at the Summer and Winter Olympic sports that aren’t usually celebrated nightly on SportsCenter. Why hasn’t this translated to the football pitch yet? Oh well…go U.S.A.!

 

 

 

May 28, 2014

President Obama’s West Point Commencement Address

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2014

Earlier today President Obama gave the commencement address at West Point, describing his vision for U.S. foreign policy. Here are some of the homeland security-related points.

But the world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm.

 

It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.

As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.

 

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

 

This leads to my second point. For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.

We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al-Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.

But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job. And that’s why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces — those Afghan forces — secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this year, a new Afghan president will be in office, and America’s combat mission will be over.

Now that was an enormous achievement made because of America’s armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So earlier this year I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel.

Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaida, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and facilitating French operations in Mali.

A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers there, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.

So with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism. The partnerships I’ve described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do, through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, like those we’ve carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

 

Keep in mind, not all international norms relate directly to armed conflict. We have a serious problem with cyberattacks, which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens. In the Asia Pacific, we’re supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and we’re working to resolve these disputes through international law.

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food, which is why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

 

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.

 

The full transcript of the speech can be found here.

The video of his remarks, courtesy of PBS NewsHour:

 

May 16, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on May 16, 2014

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Administration’s nominee to be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, testified this week and last. While all the attention is obviously on “Obamacare,” do not forget that if/when confirmed she will be in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) that has the lead for ESF #8 as well as civilian medical countermeasure development through the office of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).  This is an important homeland security-related position.

Speaking of public health issues, cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are popping up at an alarming rate outside of the Middle East, including the U.S.

These are the issues I’ve been thinking about.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

April 30, 2014

Renewed use of chemical weapons in Syria challenges inaction

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 30, 2014

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE:  Today the U.S. Department of State submitted its annual Country Reports on Terrorism to Congress.  The Strategic Assessment includes:

Some of the thousands of fighters from around the world who are traveling to Syria to do battle against the Asad regime – particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe – are joining violent extremist groups, including al-Nusrah Front and ISIL. A number of key partner governments are becoming increasingly concerned that individuals with violent extremist ties and battlefield experience will return to their home countries or elsewhere to commit terrorist acts. The scale of this problem has raised a concern about the creation of a new generation of globally-committed terrorists, similar to what resulted from the influx of violent extremists to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

– +–

ORIGINAL POST:

Late Tuesday evening Greenwich Mean Time, The Telegraph, a leading British newspaper, published an exclusive story claiming to prove Syria has continued to use chemical weapons.

According to The Telegraph’s report,”…soil samples from the scene of three recent attacks in the country were collected by trained individuals known to this news organisation and analysed by a chemical warfare expert. Our results show sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia present at the site of all three attacks.”

Just last week President Obama said, “Eighty-seven percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have already been removed.”  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been working under an international agreement to relocate and destroy the Syrian stockpile.

The chlorine and ammonia assets allegedly used in recent weeks were not part of the chemical weapons inventory which the OPCW has been working to remove.  There is informed speculation that industrial chemicals have been crudely repurposed to replace the more sophisticated chemicals (including sarin and mustard) that have been removed.

Late last summer and into the autumn, the United States was dissuaded from military operations against Syrian chemical stockpiles when Russia brokered a “last-minute” deal to remove the weapons from Syria.  The decision by the US to not undertake military action disappointed the Saudis, surprised the French (who were prepared to join in the action), and precipitated a months-long reversal of progress achieved by the Syrian opposition.

As evidence accumulates of recent use of chemical weapons, there will be renewed pressure for US military intervention against the Assad regime.  For example, The Telegraph’s Defense Editor comments the new findings, “must serve as a wake up call to the West that it can no longer ignore a brutal conflict that has so far cost an estimated 150,000 lives.”

The Syrian Civil War is also a violent flash-point in Sunni-Shia antipathy, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a training ground for a new generation of international terrorists.

Whatever we do — or decide not to do — will have homeland security consequences.

April 9, 2014

House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning? Grading the Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy”

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on April 9, 2014

Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning?”

I’m going to say no.  No, they are not.

It seemed more an opportunity to critique the Administration on the concept of a “pivot toward Asia” and keeping us (too?) engaged in the Middle East rather than a honest attempt at assessing this difficult question.

However, the participants are well qualified to address this issue:

Panel I

The Honorable Joseph Lieberman
(Former United States Senator)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

The Honorable Jane Harman
Director, President, and Chief Executive Officer
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
(Former Member of Congress)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Panel II

Seth Jones, Ph.D.
Associate Director
International Security and Defense Policy Center
RAND Corporation
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Frederick W. Kagan, Ph.D.
Christopher DeMuth Chair and Director
Critical Threats Project
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Mr. Benjamin Wittes
Senior Fellow
Governance Studies
The Brookings Institution
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

One would think this would be a well attended hearing, but notice the empty seats around the 2:00 minute mark in this video (unfortunately I couldn’t find a video of the entire hearing that I could post):

For the full hearing, go here.

 

March 26, 2014

Dirty bombs a left/right issue: left or right of boom

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 26, 2014

One of the headlines to emerge from the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit concerned dirty, not nuclear, bomb material:

Twenty-three nations participating in the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands this week said they intend to comply with international guidelines regarding the security of so-called “dirty bomb” material.

The parties to the multilateral statement — including the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East — pledged to secure all their most dangerous “Category I” radiological sources under guidelines set out by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Specifically, they vowed to follow the IAEA “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.”

Radiological sources are those that, if paired with conventional explosives, could form a “dirty bomb” that disperses radioactive contamination over an area, but which cannot produce a nuclear detonation akin to an atomic bomb.

Matt Bunn, already referenced once today, isn’t accepting all this apparent progress on face value:

Bunn, however, criticized the transportation gift basket, which does not require the participating countries to utilize any specific security measures. He told Global Security Newswire that the transport-security pledge “is as weak as dishwater,” and he took exception to its suggestion that “the security record of civilian transport of nuclear materials has been excellent” historically.

“Essentially what it means is just that the shipments have not been seized by terrorists so far,” Bunn said. “It used to be legal to send plutonium by regular mail, and the industry complained loudly when the [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission] started requiring any armed guards at all.”

Yet what he or other critics of the agreement failed to mention is that it is entirely focused on what is referred to as “left of boom.”  These are the prevention, occasionally encompassing preparedness, measures focused on preventing a dirty bomb attack in the first place.

Nuclear terrorism is a left of boom problem.  The part of a nuclear attack terrorists cannot achieve themselves is making the required fissile material.  While a large amount of nuclear weapons-usable fissile material exists (the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia), it is a finite amount that can conceivably be locked down or eliminated.

If a nuclear explosion goes off, you and everyone else in the world will know.  If an attempted attack “fizzles,” it will still result in government action that will make the 9/11 reaction seem tame.  Preparing to respond to a nuclear detonation is important, but once it goes off officials are basically relegated to cleaning up.

A dirty bomb is mostly a “right of boom” issue.  It is incredibly helpful to reduce the access to the potentially worst dirty bomb ingredients, such as cesium, by eliminating or drastically reducing their use in medicine and industry, as well as increasing transportation security standards.

However, unlike a nuclear explosion, the bar to detonating a dirty bomb is extremely low.  Simply add any radioactive material, which exists in countless forms for countless uses in countless fields, to an explosive device and voila!…Wolf Blitzer will be interviewing former administration officials about how this dirty bomb could have happened.  Didn’t we agree to get rid of this stuff at the last nuclear security summit?!?

I jest.  To a point. It is important to secure or eliminate the most dangerous radiological sources.  However, unlike with nuclear terrorism, it will not be possible to accomplish this for ALL radioactive substances.  And the the end product of any dirty bomb is panic and fear of lingering radiation that results in economic damage.  Basically an own goal or touchback if officials and the media emphasize the presence of ANY radiation following an attack, regardless if it included cesium or another isotope considered dangerous (for which these new suggested regulations are attempting to increase the security) or something just barely radioactive that can be measured by local officials on their Geiger counters – if they aren’t simply registering the already existing background radiation.

So what to do?  Concentrate on preparedness, response, and especially recovery.

  • Don’t focus public messages on prevention, but instead on preparedness. 
  • Emphasize the low risk nature of the threat; point out the lack of radiation injuries resulting from Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
  • Prepare succinct talking points for officials in case of a dirty bomb attack.
  • Officials should become comfortable downplaying the fear of radiation.  This should also be instilled in first responders.
  • First responders should have clear, exercised plans for dealing with any radiation-related incident.
  • Federal officials should transfer money from expensive efforts at prevention to developing new technologies for cleaning up.

The only people likely to die in any dirty bomb attack are those injured by the explosion.  The worst damage is caused by a fear of radiation.  The ability to decontaminate an urban area will deter potential dirty bombers in the future.

As long as the experts, currently in and out of government, do not go on cable news to expound on the over-hyped danger of dirty bombs.

February 26, 2014

Old news (about a stolen radiation source), but new analysis

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on February 26, 2014

Last December the funny papers and cable news were all over the story of radioactive material that went missing in Mexico. This website’s own Phil Palin covered the news here.

The material was recovered, and the thieves ended up hospitalized for radiation exposure.

What I’d like to share is analysis of the implications for U.S. domestic radioactive source security.  In other words, it can happen here.

Tom Bielefeld, a physicist who is an associate at the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard, recently broke down the issues involved in this case for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In particular, he notes several cases in “Western democracies” which should raise concern:

  • In July 2011, in the parking lot of a Texas hotel, a thief broke into a truck and stole a radiography camera containing 33.7 curies of iridium-192. The truck drivers had forgotten to switch on the vehicle’s alarm system when they went to dinner. Even though the hotel’s security camera recorded the thief’s car as it left, the device was never found.
  • In February 2013, thieves stole another radiography camera in a small town north of Manchester, England. A courier had left it in his van, which was parked in front of the residence where he stopped for a weekend. The device turned up a month later, at a nearby shopping mall, luckily undamaged.
  • In Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission lists 17 cases from the past eight years in which radioactive materials were stolen from vehicles, or in which the vehicle itself was stolen with a radiation source in the trunk. Five of these cases involved radiography cameras. All five were eventually recovered.

The news isn’t all bad:

It is true that, in many countries, the situation today is somewhat better than it was 10 years ago. Largely, this is because the US government made the issue a priority after 9/11, when it launched programs for security upgrades in countries where unprotected radiation sources were abundant and presumably within reach of terrorists. US experts have worked in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, helping local partners install security equipment in hospitals and at disposal sites. They have also recovered radiation sources from abandoned facilities and assisted foreign governments in formulating new regulations to improve oversight.

It ain’t all good either:

While US initiatives to strengthen radiological security elsewhere in the world have been at least partially successful, progress at home has been surprisingly difficult. According to a 2008 report by the National Academies, there are more than 5,000 devices containing high-activity radiation sources in the country, including 700 with category-1 sources. So, if terrorists wanted to mount a dirty bomb attack in the United States, they might not have to go abroad to try to steal the material for it.

And there’s this:

Many stakeholders argue that the current regulations provide good-enough protection. In reality, however, there is still little reason for such confidence. In fact, in some US facilities, security conditions remain hair-raising, even when these facilities have been checked by inspectors. This came to light in a 2012 report published by the Government Accountability Office: GAO investigators visited a number of hospitals all over the country to see how the NRC’s new security rules were being implemented, and came back with some sobering findings. For example, one hospital kept a blood irradiator, a category-1 source containing 1,500 curies of cesium-137, in a room with the access code written on the door frame. Another hospital kept a similar device on a wheeled pallet down the hall from a loading dock.

Tom does not leave us without specific recommendations:

Ultimately, good security needs both: strong, strictly enforced regulations and actively participating licensees. Strong regulations are required because investments in security usually don’t generate profits for the businesses. But no security system can work effectively without a vigilant staff that understands the terrorism risk is real. Much like the long-established “safety culture” that has almost certainly prevented many serious radiation accidents, a new “security culture” is needed. This means that businesses, regulators, and government agencies are all aware of security threats, understand their individual responsibilities, and adapt their practices accordingly.

And:

Here are some specific recommendations for the various parties involved in transport security:

  • The NRC must further strengthen its regulations. Given the scale of damage that a “dirty bomb” could cause, it’s difficult to understand why there are still no armed escorts required for category-1 transports. A real-time location-tracking system should be mandatory, not just for vehicles transporting category-1 sources, but also for those with category-2 sources. Similarly, the requirement for drivers to identify “safe havens” for rest stops, before their trip begins, should be extended to category-2 transports.
  • The states could do a lot more, too. Those that do not yet require armed escorts for category-1 transports should implement such a policy soon—and not wait for the NRC to change its rules. And if there is one lesson from the Mexican incident for the states, it’s that all of them should be proactive when it comes to helping licensees identify secure parking areas.
  • The companies themselves play the main role in protecting radioactive sources. They need to be aware that someone might be after their cargo. Drivers, in particular, must be trained to follow security protocols, avoid risky situations, and respond appropriately should they come under attack. Managers should equip their trucks with low-cost security systems—such as GPS tracking systems, duress buttons, or vehicle disabling devices—even when they are not legally required to do so.

If you are concerned about dirty bombs, the entire piece is worth your time:

http://thebulletin.org/mexico%E2%80%99s-stolen-radiation-source-it-could-happen-here

January 29, 2014

Homeland security and the State of the Union

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on January 29, 2014

I think it’s fair to say that this year’s State of the Union address had even less directly related homeland security content than the last. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as beforehand everything indicated an economic heavy speech. It was still there, however, if you look hard enough.

For those of you possibly concerned by the lack of the phrase “homeland security” anywhere in the speech, rest assured that “national security” received only one mention. I am not sure there are any lessons to be derived from the paucity of homeland or even national security issues. The United States remains the strongest, most secure nation on Earth.  Perhaps it is just time that we realize that fact.

What little there is I’m going to divide up among three tiers.  Tier 1 are those issues directly dealt with by the homeland security enterprise and those with impacts on that community.  Tier 2 are topics that can have second or third degree impacts.  Tier 3 are much broader, societal resilience issues. Feel free to disagree about my sorting.  I still have second thoughts.

But first a few side notes:

  • The cable news stations are treading dangerously close to parody with their hours of pre-speech analysis.  It is beginning to have a Super Bowl-all-day-programming-filled-with-inane-segments feel to it.  Add to that the amount of time spent on the Oscar/Grammy-like red carpet segment showing the arrival of members of Congress, though they definitely skewed older and conservatively dressed.  Though I’d bet the First Lady could rock the red carpet.
  • More time was spent on the arrivals than the impact of the winter storm down South.  Thousands of people are stuck on the roadways in Atlanta alone with hundreds of schoolchildren sheltering in place overnight and CNN was able to tear itself away from post-speech analysis for a good five minutes. Thank god for the Weather Channel.
  • The White House labeled last night’s speech the “most accessible and interactive SOTU yet.”  Sure, you could watch it online or just look at the handful of slides they provided with additional information on particular topics.  And of course there was Facebook, Twitter, and other social media links for sharing with your friends.  But would it have killed them to simply post the text of the speech in a readily available location?  I searched around for a while, gave up, and Googled it.
  • The important trivia for the night: Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was the Cabinet Secretary chosen not attend the speech but instead spend the night in a secure, secret location to ensure continuity of government in case of catastrophe on the Hill.  The odd thing is that last year then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was the designated Cabinet official.  Is the thinking that physicists will do very well as a near dictatorial leader following the elimination of the rest of government?  Or are they just more likely to be bored with the speech?

Tier 1

Infrastructure:

Moreover, we can take the money we save from this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes — because in today’s global economy, first- class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure. We’ll need Congress to protect more than 3 million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer.

Immigration:

Finally, if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. (Cheers, applause.) Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.

Gun violence:

Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say “we are not afraid,” and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters and our shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.

Terrorism:

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.

The fact is that danger remains. While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks. In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks. Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks.

We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners, America must move off a permanent war footing.  That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.

That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated. And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.

Nuclear security:

American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.

Tier 2

Energy (as we continue to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy, our strategic relationships should change in a fashion that reduces our vulnerabilities):

More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years.

The “all the above” energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.

And even as we’ve increased energy production, we’ve partnered with businesses, builders and local communities to reduce the energy we consume. When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.

Climate change (a topic not directly worked by most federal homeland agencies, for example see the Recovery Diva’s recent post on the challenges facing FEMA, but many states and coastal cities are taking the risks very seriously):

But we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods. That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.

But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

Iran (a nuclear Iran would not be in the national interest of the U.S., but it would not represent an existential threat; the danger would not be a direct attack but rather further proliferation in the Middle East and the risk of poor control of weapons or materials; there is little evidence, and much academic work that concludes the contrary, any state would voluntarily hand over a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization):

As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

Tier 3

The majority of the speech was focused on jobs, education, and healthcare.  There are vast ideological differences on how to advance all three, but all are vital for the long term resilience of our society.

November 19, 2013

The reset of global violent jihad

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on November 19, 2013

This essay was written by Mike Walker as a series of 49 tweets.  Mr. Walker is the former undersecretary and acting secretary of the Army and former deputy director of FEMA during the Clinton Administration.    You can follow his twitter feed @New_Narrative.

—————

The nominee for DHS secretary told Congress last week his first priority would be filling open political jobs. Shouldn’t the top priority of any DHS secretary be protecting the nation? In fact, the DHS nominee said counterterrorism was his third priority. The administration insists we are safer from terrorist attack today. We are, but a threat remains while a new one gathers. Many analysts believe the core of al-Qaeda has been decimated in its Pakistan safe haven. Yet, al-Qaeda keeps replacing everyone we kill. Their bench is apparently deeper than expected. Thanks to good intelligence, we have made it difficult for al-Qaeda to launch major attacks here at home.

Yet, the terrorists’ affiliates, allies & adherents are now active in more than 36 countries. The Al Qaeda movement today is in 3 times more countries than on 9-11. Since 9-11, al-Qaeda has morphed, decentralized & disbursed on purpose. Some analysts believe this diffuse, new al-Qaeda movement is, therefore, less threatening. They say the terrorists are now more focused on local issues, no longer on global violent jihad. These analysts are missing two current trends inside the terrorist syndicate.

First, al-Qaeda’s radical ideology continues to inspire small numbers of people, including Americans. In fact, a new Pew poll indicates as many as 13% of Muslims, perhaps 200 million people worldwide, view al-Qaeda favorably. Analysts also insist those being inspired today are less lethal. Tell that to Boston’s victims. Al Qaeda is actively urging homegrown terrorists to launch more attacks like Boston in America. Many analysts say, however, al-Qaeda’s call to violent jihad is falling on deaf ears. Yet, since Bin Laden was killed at least 50 people in the US, influenced by the al-Qaeda ideology, have been arrested or indicted. In the years since 9-11, law enforcement has done a great job keeping the nation safe. However, Boston proves we cannot stop everything & shows a continued weakness in intergovernmental cooperation.

The second trend is al-Qaeda’s rebirth overseas. The cycle of terrorism is being reset. Though under attack, al-Qaeda continues safe haven in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, & Somalia. New safe havens are being established in Libya, the African Sahel & the Egyptian Sinai. But it is Syria that is most troubling. Syria is attracting thousands, influenced by al-Qaeda’s radical & absolute beliefs. For the first time in al-Qaeda’s 25-year history, it now has a base in the very heart of the Middle East. Hundreds of Europeans & at least 60 Americans are being trained in Syria. Former FBI director Mueller warns these newly trained Americans may return home & attack here. One cell returning home has already been arrested planning attacks in Belgium.

Spreading violent jihad in recruits’ home countries is a requirement of al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front in Syria. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq also promises to attack inside the US, as does the brutal new leader of the Pakistan Taliban. And AQAP in Yemen has already launched at least 3 plots aimed directly at the American homeland. Before 9-11, al-Qaeda trained thousands of violent jihadists in large camps in Afghanistan. Today’s terror training is more modular & more subtle, thus more difficult to detect & stop. It is also more sophisticated & more accelerated than during the old days in Afghanistan. Some believe al-Qaeda has accomplished in 2 years in Syria, what it took them 10 to accomplish in Afghanistan. So, the global violent jihad has not disappeared; instead it continues to morph & develop.

Al Qaeda’s leaders have said future attacks will be at the time & place of their own choosing. Al-Qaeda’s adherents are patient & think in terms of decades or even longer. It was reported in mid-2009 that U.S. officials feared al-Qaeda’s ally, the Pakistan Taliban, had gotten their hands on a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, it wasn’t true, but Pakistan’s nuclear security is the second weakest in the world. And leading Pakistani nuclear scientists suggest those weapons could be hijacked & given to terrorists. Taking no chance, FEMA has been developing response plans to deal with the aftermath of an improvised nuclear device.

To conclude, we should all be wary of analysts with rosy assumptions. The global violent jihad movement has only been in hibernation. Today, that movement is resetting for the next new phase of terror. The reset of global violent jihad is emerging from an unfulfilled Arab Spring & is encouraged by weakened US influence abroad. So, the first homeland security priority must continue to be the safety of the United States. We are safer now than on 9-11 but will not continue to be if we take our eye off the ball. It is no time for complacency in America. As the director of the NCTC told Congress last week, al-Qaeda will attack should the opportunity arise.

This essay also appeared on the blog “Pietervanostaeyen: Musings on Arabism, Islamicism, History and current affairs.

November 5, 2013

“LAX shooting: Does anyone care?”

Filed under: Aviation Security,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 5, 2013

(Posted before the reports started coming in of yet another shooting; this time in Paramus, N.J.  Another day, another shooting.)

This essay, by Joel Silberman, appeared Monday on the Los Angeles Times website.  (my emphasis, below)

LAX is not trending on Twitter. Seventy-two hours after a man opened fire on our gateway to the world, there is no discernible outcry for action, little apparent conversation at all. As I write these words, the latest mass shooting is not on the front page of the left-leaning Huffington Post or the right-leaning Drudge Report. It’s not lighting up the social media outlets where average people exchange points of view, or the op-ed pages where our nation’s elite do the same. The president called the head of the TSA to express condolences, but there will be no presidential visit to console the families of the victims. And that’s probably just as well because it would just make everyone complain about the traffic. Unpleasant though it may be to admit, it seems we’ve become uncomfortably numb.

In fairness, even horrifying attacks are relative: One adult dead and many wounded is not equivalent to the mass slaughter of schoolchildren that we witnessed 10 1/2 months ago. That was worse. And reporters for local news outlets — including The Times — have more than proven that they, at least, are not numb, with their extensive coverage of the LAX story.

But the question remains: Who cares? Literally, who? When people care, the atmosphere is like it was after the Boston Marathon bombings or the Newtown, Conn., shooting. Can anyone honestly claim that we are in that kind of atmosphere right now? If a body falls — or five of them fall — in a forest of exhausted indifference, do they make a sound?

Of course, our numbness to this kind of violence is born not only of its proliferation but of a rational recognition that our government is not up to the task of addressing it. When even the most moderate legislation on guns faces a filibuster in the Senate and won’t be brought up for a vote in the House, practical people can justifiably conclude that arguing about the issue further is a futile academic exercise. Even those who don’t follow politics know that there’s no change forthcoming, so they throw up their hands. Meanwhile, conservative leaders who insisted on improvements to the American mental health system as an alternative to gun legislation have not been forthcoming with concrete proposals. And so our country is at an impasse, with its citizens caught in the crossfire.

Inevitably, firearms fundamentalists argue that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is a brilliantly empowering slogan, the kind that could lift us all out of our desensitized malaise. After all, it’s fun to imagine that our personal security and well-being are all within our hands, that powerlessness is a malignant fantasy of the weak. But the events at LAX last Friday showed both the truth and the lie of the “good guy with a gun” promise: Yes, because the gunman’s target, a major airport, is one of the most security-heavy facilities in the country, he was brought down quickly by armed police. Even so, he also proved that no matter how many good guys with guns you have around, when a crazy person can spray off 700 rounds in a minute, he only needs a few seconds to do plenty of damage.

In a way, it’s really a shame that the airport shooter wasn’t Arab or Muslim. If he had been, the incident would have been deemed an act of terrorism, and terrorism warrants a serious response. But he was white instead of Middle Eastern and used a gun instead of a bomb, so now it’s not terrorism; it’s the price of freedom.

If there’s any silver lining in all this — and it is a very slim silver lining — it’s that maybe TSA agents will be given a little bit more respect, at least for a while. Perhaps people will be reminded that as annoying as it may be to have someone rifling through their belongings, TSA agents are, at the end of the day, security employees who are worthy of the esteem that designation implies. A few bad apples may make headlines for bad behavior, but the majority are hardworking people who deserve at least as much deference as the guards who work at government buildings or Staples Center .

Ultimately, the increasing frequency of mass shootings has given us a choice: live in panic and despair, or learn to suck it up and deal. Given the options of jitters or jadedness, the impulse to keep calm and carry on is understandable. There is even a sense of something like relief because there was only one fatality at LAX, a foreboding knowledge that next time we might not be so “lucky.”

The thing is, though, LAX was just one of several mass shootings in recent days . Eventually, inevitably, something will have to wake us from our self-protective stupor. I just fear what that thing might be.

Joel Silberman is a Los Angeles-based writer and the producer of such viral Web videos as “Legitimate Rape” Pharmaceutical Ad (TW) and Kids Do The News . Follow him on Twitter @Wordpeggio .

July 31, 2013

Throwing a little cold water on the Al Qaeda Threat?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 31, 2013

These are confusing…difficult…let’s just say unsettled times in the counter-terrorism field.

On one hand, the mainstream message seems to be that an extensive global drone strike campaign, combined with a vastly expanded intelligence and special forces capability, has disrupted not only Al Qaeda’s plots but the operations of it’s “central” organization and has kept the American homeland safe.

On the other, “Al Qaeda” is spreading among the chaos of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa.  While not the centralized, directed threat of the late 1990′s and early 2000′s, it is often posited as nonetheless a worrisome national security risk.

I’m not taking a side in this argument…at this point anyway.  However, I do think that Harvard Professor Steve Walt’s analysis (keep in mind he comes from the realist school of international relations)” is worth considering:

What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists’ charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans’ way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.

March 5, 2013

Eight homeland security stories

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 5, 2013

Here are the first sentences from eight homeland security-related stories that got my attention last week.

 

1. Watch the New and Improved Printable Gun Spew Hundreds of Bullets (by Robert Beckhusen)

Late last year, a group of 3-D printing gunsmiths developed a key component for an AR-15 rifle that anyone with a 3-D printer could download and make at home. The problem: It only lasted six shots before snapping apart. Now the group is back with a new and improved receiver that can fire more than 600 rounds….

2. US hackers attacked military websites, says China’s defence ministry (Security Law Brief)
02/28/13: The BBC reports hackers from the US have repeatedly launched attacks on two Chinese military websites, including that of the Defence Ministry, officials say. The sites were subject to about 144,000 hacking attacks each month last year, two thirds of which came from the US, according to China’s defence ministry….

3. The Best Books About Biotechnology (by Alexis Madrigal)

I’ve spent the last few weeks creating a syllabus for myself on the world — people, techniques, theory, history — of biotechnology. I’ve talked with some scholars, accepted some Amazon recommendations, and done some rummaging around in bibliographies, but I’m only getting started. I thought I’d list my recent acquisitions here in hopes that you’ll help me flesh my little self-taught course out. You know how to get a hold of me: comments here, @alexismadrigal, or amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com. (Oh, and I’m also looking for journals and blogs that I should be keeping an eye on.)….

4. Climate Change and the Arab Spring (by Will Rogers)

On [February 28], … Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia of the Center for Climate & Security …[released] a new study on “Climate Change and the Arab Spring” that “outlines the complex pressures exerted by the effects of climate change on the convulsions which swept through the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, exploring the long-term trends in precipitation, agriculture, food prices, and migration which contributed to the social instability and violence which has transformed the region, and offering solutions for progress.”…

5. NJ Plans Mediation of Disputes Between Consumers and Insurance Companies (by recoverydiva)

One of the impediments to recovery often is due to disputes between homeowners or business owners and insurance companies. We saw that after Hurricane Katrina and we saw it more recently in Christchurch, NZ. This article explains a pending action by Gov Christie of N.J: N.J. to launch mediation program for Hurricane Sandy insurance disputes

6. Phishing Has Gotten Very Good (by Bruce Schneier)

[Ok, more than a few sentences]

This isn’t phishing; it’s not even spear phishing. It’s laser-guided precision phishing:

One of the leaked diplomatic cables referred to one attack via email on US officials who were on a trip in Copenhagen to debate issues surrounding climate change.
“The message had the subject line ‘China and Climate Change’ and was spoofed to appear as if it were from a legitimate international economics columnist at the National Journal.”
The cable continued: “In addition, the body of the email contained comments designed to appeal to the recipients as it was specifically aligned with their job function.”
[...]
One example which demonstrates the group’s approach [to phishing] is that of Coca-Cola, which towards the end was revealed in media reports to have been the victim of a hack.
And not just any hack, it was a hack which industry experts said may have derailed an acquisition effort to the tune of $2.4bn (£1.5bn).
The US giant was looking into taking over China Huiyuan Juice Group, China’s largest soft drinks company — but a hack, believed to be by the Comment Group, left Coca-Cola exposed.
How was it done? Bloomberg reported that one executive — deputy president of Coca-Cola’s Pacific Group, Paul Etchells — opened an email he thought was from the company’s chief executive.
In it, a link which when clicked downloaded malware onto Mr Etchells’ machine. Once inside, hackers were able to snoop about the company’s activity for over a month.

Also, a new technique:

“It is known as waterholing,” he explained. “Which basically involves trying to second guess where the employees of the business might actually go on the web.
“If you can compromise a website they’re likely to go to, hide some malware on there, then whether someone goes to that site, that malware will then install on that person’s system.”
These sites could be anything from the website of an employee’s child’s school – or even a page showing league tables for the corporate five-a-side football team.

[Schneier] wrote [the following] over a decade ago: “Only amateurs attack machines; professionals target people.” And the professionals are getting better and better.

This is the problem. Against a sufficiently skilled, funded, and motivated adversary, no network is secure. Period. Attack is much easier than defense, and the reason we’ve been doing so well for so long is that most attackers are content to attack the most insecure networks and leave the rest alone….

7. Why Sequestration Could Be Good For Airport Passenger Screening (by Justin Hienz)

… the length and speed of security lines at airports are a function of the TSA’s inefficient security methodology, not its budget and staff. Reduced federal funds will magnify this inefficiency, but to claim longer lines are purely a result of budget cuts is a cop-out. Sequestration is actually an opportunity for the TSA to abandon its insistence on screening all airline passengers, which demands extraordinary resources and manpower, and instead adopt a more efficient and effective approach. If it does, budget cuts might be the best thing that ever happened to airport screening….

8. Feds Say Man Deserved Arrest Because Jacket Said ‘Occupy Everything’ (by David Kravets)

A Florida man deserved to be arrested inside the Supreme Court building last year for wearing a jacket painted with “Occupy Everything,” and is lucky he was only apprehended on unlawful entry charges, the Department of Justice says.

The President Barack Obama administration made that assertion in a legal filing in response to a lawsuit brought by Fitzgerald Scott, who is seeking $1 million in damages for his January 2012 arrest inside the Supreme Court building. He also wants his arrest record expunged.

What’s more, the authorities said the former Marine’s claim that he was protected by the First Amendment bolsters the government’s position … because the Supreme Court building’s public interior is a First Amendment-free zone [sic] ….

October 16, 2012

A Paradox, a Quantum Mechanics Principle, and a Greek Myth walked into a bar

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 16, 2012

From the middle of April through last Saturday, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with close to 300 “homeland security professionals.”  I put that phrase in quotes because the title is as ambiguous as the discipline.

I’ve taken to asserting that homeland security is a potential discipline.  It’s a way to stimulate a conversation. I use the phrase “homeland security professional” in the same way.

Almost everyone I spoke with about this agreed they are homeland security professionals, but they are other things also, and often foremost — like police officers, emergency managers, fire fighters, immigration officials, scientists, transportation security officers, public health professionals and so on.

This is a familiar argument: for many people in the business, homeland security is an ancillary activity.

My conversations with homeland security professionals over the past months reminded me — as those conversations have done once or twice before — of the lines from a William Butler Yeats poem

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a generalization, that’s approximately what I saw over the past 7 months: the best in homeland security lack conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity.

There are exceptions, of course, particularly for those who remain intensely committed to the collaboration and communication promise of homeland security.  But the exceptions were few, and frequently parochial.

—————————–

Less than a month away from the 2012 presidential election, and I can’t recall very much talk about homeland security.  If one is in a gracious mood, one can tie political yelling about events in the middle east, and Afghanistan, and drones, and Guantanamo, and bin Laden to homeland security. But from a disciplinary perspective, it’s a stretch. Even immigration and border security seem to have lost their homeland security luster: regionally intense, but nationally diffuse.

You’d think cyber security would get some play.

Is that even a homeland security issue?  Yes, say a few voices. It’s national security, say others. No more regulation, hum the private sector mouths.

But I think modestly polite indifference remains the national response.  At least until the oft-foreshadowed cyber pearl harbor arrives and outrage returns.

—————————–

I have a friend working on a book about homeland security education.  This friend never met a number he did not devour. He read his children to sleep by reciting the times tables. So I was surprised to receive the following homeland security parable from him.

A Paradox, a Quantum Mechanics Principle, and a Greek Myth walked into a bar.  The Bartender, seeking precision in a sometimes querulous manner, asked each of the trio to articulate their positions.

The Paradox, Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, suggested that progression toward a target is an infinite series of half-steps, meaning the object never reaches its target, only the half-steps along the way.

The Uncertainty Principle applauded Zeno but proclaimed it is not possible to measure position and trajectory simultaneously so Zeno should be content with each half-step and not concern himself with the objective.

The Greek Myth – Sisyphus –  wiped his brow and said he tired of endless toiling and repeated actions to push the boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back.

The Bartender served them, then noted in his journal that taken together, the positions of the three represented a metaphor for the pre-paradigmatic homeland security “discipline” struggling to move forward, able to measure only position, uncertain of its trajectory, impossible to reach its obscure objective and frequently seeing advances disappear.

The last entry in his journal that night was a paragraph (with a citation, of course) from Albert Camus:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. …. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Camus, Albert. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus (Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1955). London: Hamish Hamilton Publishers. Chapter 4.

September 17, 2012

Death for the idea

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 17, 2012

Der Tod für die Idee (Death for the Idea), Paul Klee (1915)

“Ideology is the science of idiots.” John Adams, second President of the United States

Koran, Sura 41: 34

–+–

There have been several earnest and helpful efforts to make sense of what happened last week, why it happened, and what it suggests will happen.  Five pieces I have found in one way or another illuminating:

The Embassy Protests and Arab Uprising, Marc Lynch (Foreign Policy)

Culture divide fuels Muslims raging at film, New York Times

Does Middle East unrest go beyond film?, National Public Radio

Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts, International Crisis Group

The Dignity of Difference, Being (interview with Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain)

But in my judgment all of these analyses fail to capture the deep distinctions of  felt culture and fundamental worldview that differentiate most Americans from most Arabs and increasingly divide Muslim from Muslim.

I’m not up to the task either.  But in Sunday’s New York Times there were two long pieces — purposefully twinned — that describe a crucial shift in Western culture over the last 100 years that lends a helpful lens to contemporary US-Arab relations.

There is absolutely no mention of Benghazi or Cairo or Islam or US foreign policy.  The articles deal with how high art could once be profoundly shocking to sophisticated Western audiences in a way that is unimaginable today.  The gulf between my grandfather hearing Stravinsky and my own reaction begins to explain the difference between today’s Times Square and Tahrir Square.

If you can feel the weight and meaning of this generational shift in the West, you will have a toe-hold on understanding the complexities that last week exploded in death, injury and destruction across a good portion of the Arab world and beyond.

If the analogy sounds interesting, check out: Shock Value.

July 18, 2012

Half-Full, Half-Empty or Too Big

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on July 18, 2012

I had lunch with an old friend on Tuesday. Like me, he was trained first as an engineer then as a public administrator, and spent most of his career working for the fire service in local government. He recently retired to accept a new position with a Fortune 100 company.

Over a very nice lunch, we discussed our common interests and experiences of feeling more than a bit disillusioned of late with the career we had chosen. Still passionate about public service, my friend noted that few of our colleagues seemed to be aware that the situation in which they find themselves these days is very much of their own making.

By the end of our conversation, the topic had shifted from work to life in general. My friend is Iranian. His parents sent him to the U.S. as a boy of sixteen to study out of fear for his safety if he stayed in his homeland after the Shah was deposed. (My friend, like me, tends to be more than a little outspoken, a trait his father feared would mark him with the authorities.) When he finished college, he helped his parents emigrate to the U.S. to join him.

His observations about the state of affairs in the Middle East and the U.S. role shaping the changes in his native land intrigued me. We agreed that the situation in which the U.S. finds itself with Iran and so many other hostile states in the region is largely of our own making.

It occurred to me later that the U.S. and firefighters have a lot in common this way. They both think pretty highly of themselves. They both know they have flaws, but do not seem to see them reflected when they look at themselves in a mirror. Many firefighters and many U.S. leaders alike take their influence for granted. They presume they deserve the respect and admiration of others to such an extent that they have difficulty understanding why anyone does not revere them, much less give them everything for which they ask.

As the U.S. looks upon the situation in the Middle East, what they see situations adapting according to their own rules and needs, not our national will. To be certain, people in many Arab nations are embracing democratic principles, pluralism and tolerance, values we purport to cherish. But not universally.

In many of these nations, democracy is not simply a question of individual liberty and respect for human rights. Achieving a balance of power means something much more difficult and delicate there than it does here. Balance must be achieved not only among co-equal branches of government or between the government, civil society and corporate interests or between secular civil society and competing or conflicting religious traditions and their peculiar institutional strictures and structures, but among all of these, all at once.

Our society can trace its democratic traditions back more than 200 years. Persian society, as just one example, can trace the emergence of democratic ideals in its literature, culture and customs back more than two thousand years. Clearly, we do not have that market cornered.

Whether we are wondering about the future of democracy in the Middle East or the sustainability of local and state government finances in the United States, we have to ask ourselves not only what we see but what perspective gives us the impression we perceive as reality. Not long ago, someone told me an old joke with a slightly new twist: “An optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘It’s half-full!’ A pessimist looks at the same glass and says, ‘It’s half-empty.’ An engineer looks at the glass as well and says, ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’”

As engineers, my friend and I agree about quite a lot, both in respect of the situation in our chosen profession and our view of world affairs. In both cases, we feel obliged to help others see these problems differently. Engineering is not just a way of evaluating alternative solutions to problems, it’s also about the ways we define the problems themselves.

As we parted after our meal, we both left feeling satisfied not only with the quality of the meal we enjoyed, but also with the quality of the company and conversation we shared. Perhaps more importantly, we left one another confident that we just might avoid making matters worse if we’re willing to be patient enough and astute enough and open enough to our own faults to accept the things we cannot change by ourselves.

May 1, 2012

Water challenges and US national security

Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on May 1, 2012

Time out for a moment from our regularly scheduled cyber issues and al Qaeda commentary for a word from the future, sponsored by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Global Water Security is a report published in February by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  The 30 page intelligence “product” is available here.

The document tries to answer the following question (for the State Department): How will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact US national security interests over the next 30 years?

Here is the Report’s answer:

During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.

The Report mostly focuses on the relationship between water security and US global interests.  But the future of water has domestic implications also.

Although most of the Colorado River originates in the basin’s upper states (i.e., Colorado, Utah, Wyoming), a 1922 Colorado River Compact allocates most of the water to the lower states (i.e., California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico).

Unfortunately, the agreement was based on data from the unseasonably wet five years prior to 1922, estimating the average flow to be 17.5 million acre-feet (maf). The actual average flow over the last 100 years has been nowhere near this number, averaging about 13 maf, with high variability ranging from 4.4 maf to over 22 maf.

A 2009 study by the University of Colorado projects that all reservoirs along the Colorado River—which provide water for 27 million people—could dry up by 2057 because of climate change and overuse. More recently, drought and low Lake Mead water levels have resulted in a multi-billion dollar plan to build a 285-mile pipeline to pump groundwater to the Las Vegas area from as far away as Snake Valley, which straddles the Nevada-Utah state line.

A 1944 agreement between the United States and Mexico stipulates the terms of water-sharing between the two countries, with water delivery obligations on each side.

The Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers, as well as their major tributaries, are covered in the agreement. The agreement allows the United States access to tributary contributions from Mexican rivers, and no Mexican access to contributions from US tributary rivers, and therefore many view the agreement as unfair. Delayed water deliveries, and even efforts to reduce canal water leakage, have occasionally complicated broader relations but have not been a major source of stress.

Not yet anyway.

Thanks to Dr. James Tindall for telling me about this report.

 

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