Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 9, 2015

Signals: soft, hard, misleading and inspired

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 9, 2015

A very rough algorithm bounces about my brain.

It asserts: [Kenya + Aden = Lower Manhattan]

This is the reductionist meaning I have constructed of the sequence:

US Embassy in Kenya (and Tanzania) attacked on August 7, 1998.

FOLLOWED BY

USS Cole attacked in the Port of Aden on October 12, 2000.

FOLLOWED BY

World Trade Center towers attacked in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001

The algorithm — narrative, analogy, mental map, whatever — is obviously deeply flawed, demonstrably unreliable.  Among many more problems the equation excludes too many variables and over-simplifies relationships.

But the perceived pattern persists.

So as dozens are killed in Kenya and the streets of Aden are splattered with blood, I expect something awful closer to home.

I am self-aware the expectation is ill-founded, but the felt-reality of the [K+A=LM] is predisposed to finding confirming evidence.

Given current context reinforcement is not difficult.  Since jury selection began on January 5 for the Boston Bombing Trial, we have been reminded almost daily of how much harm can so easily be done.  There is plenty more:

Two New York women were arrested for allegedly planning to build an explosive device, a federal law enforcement source said Thursday. The women, identified as Noelle Velentzas, 28, and Asia Siddiqui, 31,were arrested in connection with a plot inspired by the terrorist group ISIS and others to build a weapon of mass destruction, according to the source and a criminal complaint. They are both U.S. citizens and were roommates in the borough of Queens. The women were allegedly conspiring to build an explosive device for a terrorist attack in the United States. (MORE)

A 17-year-old Virginia student has been charged with helping recruit for ISIS, federal law enforcement officials said Wednesday… The teen, who lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington, is accused of helping a slightly older adult travel to Syria. The adult is believed to have joined ISIS there, a separate law enforcement official said. The teen is also accused of distributing ISIS messages to a network of contacts, one of the officials said. (MORE)

Social media and other technology are making it increasingly difficult to combat militants who are using such modern resources to share information and conduct operations, the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said on Friday…”New technologies can help groups like ISIL coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name,” Brennan said…”The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home.” (MORE)

The conflation of the probably random with the arguably correlated — even if I assiduously avoid causation — is not restricted to terrorism.

For several years I have encouraged more sustained preparedness for a long-term outage of the electrical grid.  Tuesday afternoon there was a short-term fluctuation — in some places, brief outage — of the electrical grid in the National Capital Region.  I received over a dozen emails from folks writing some version of: “Just as you predicted.”  Well, not really… but it did catch my attention and I was not displeased by connections others were making. (MORE)

Then did you notice the recent report out of El Salvador?

Last month 481 people were murdered in El Salvador making March the country’s most deadly month for a decade as authorities struggle to cope with the collapse of a controversial gang truce. An average of 16 people were killed every day in the country, which is the size of Massachusetts and has a population of 6.1 million, confirming El Salvador’s place as one of the world’s most dangerous places outside a war zone. The death toll was 52% higher than the same period in the previous year, and included the victims of six massacres, including eight people who were killed on 29 March at a truck stop just outside the capital San Salvador in a suspected dispute between transnational drug trafficking groups. (MORE)

Here I will hypothesize causation.  This extraordinary level of violence will push migration.  Especially if the violence persists this month, an increasing number of Salvadorans will seek someplace safer.  By late spring/early summer we will be able to test my expectations against numbers observed by CBP and their Mexican peers.

But even if the number of Salvadoran emigrants increases, does this absolutely confirm the relationship I am suggesting? Probably not.  Some will argue that Tuesday’s electrical problems actually demonstrate the resilience of the current system. This is true, if you stop unwinding the scenario fairly early on. My mind clearly tends to over-generalize unlikely connections between Kenya, Aden, and me.  May this, however, help to see whatever connections do exist?

Tuesday Dan O’Connor quoted Coleridge.  Not many can craft romantic poetry on Kantian themes.  Coleridge did quite successfully.  Kant gave Coleridge his architecture.  Coleridge gave Emerson courage.  Emerson gave many of us some considerable part of our sense-of-self.  Talk about unlikely connections. Approaching death the poet spoke of diverse realities resolved. “I say realities; for reality is a thing of degrees, from the Iliad to a dream.”  Where are you — where are we — on that continuum?

April 7, 2015

“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

Filed under: Climate Change,Infrastructure Protection — by Dan OConnor on April 7, 2015

In the Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,  the longest major poem written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one famous stanza has always stood out to me.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

With California having approximately an 840 mile long coastline and the Pacific Ocean covering approximately one-third of the Earth’s surface, decisions, infrastructure improvements, and investment are immediately needed to  maintain California as we know it.

Water, water everywhere…

california-drought-before-after 2

In mid-March an op-ed published by Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, painted a dire picture of the state’s water crisis.   Famiglietti wrote that every year since 2011, California has lost around 12 million acre-feet of stored water. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, the combined water sources of snow, rivers, reservoirs, soil water and groundwater amounted to a volume that was 34 million acre-feet below normal levels in 2014. And there is no relief in sight. In a nutshell; California has approximately one year of stored water left.

The 25 percent cut in water consumption recently ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises critical, economical, and fundamental questions about what life in and the future of California will be like.  It is no great surprise that California is suffering through an unprecedented drought with no end in sight.  I say unprecedented because while we have a limited context of the region historically, geographically we have inhabited it for a short period of time.  But let us be clear: California has been artificially hydrated.  That artificiality changed the landscape and also appears to be unsustainable.

“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about this state. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”  Has our innovation and creativity simply delayed Malthus’ postulation?

This artificial environment has yielded tremendous prosperity though. California has built a $2.2 trillion economy.  It is the seventh largest economy in the world, more than four times what it was in 1963, when adjusted for inflation.  California also feeds much of America.  California agriculture is responsible for providing a third of the nation’s vegetables and nearly two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.  The cattle industry has and continues to be impacted as well.  Cattle, its economy, and productivity will continue to experience a significant geographic shift.

And in a just-in-time, tightly coupled, highly complex food system, micro or meta interruptions can have significant unintended and cascading consequences.

With all this agriculture, cattle, revenue, and international impact when does the emergent crisis in California become a homeland security issue?

This to me is more than a meta issue.  If one were to remove themselves from the climate change/global warming diatribe we would see an emergent crisis with little means of self-correction.  One school of thought says to let nature take its course, allowing the region’s homeostasis to seek its ecological/environmental equilibrium and return to the semi-arid geography it once was.  Another school of thought wants to introduce more technology to maintain the artificial environment and to hydrate the region.

To allow the region to naturally return to its previous state on its face is folly.  The geoengineering that California has exploited for decades cannot be easily or readily undone.   Where do those industries go?  How do we replace that agricultural and protein output?  Where do we relocate tens of millions of people?  All critical difficult leadership questions in my view.

All of these decision points are homeland security issues.  Anthropocenic activities can no longer be ignored and must be recognized as homeland security issues.

The Anthropocene era is a chronological and geologic term used to describe the period when human activities determined active, furtive, and secondary consequences on Earth’s ecosystems.  The combination of the Anthropocene era, the artificial hydration of and the earth’s cyclical climate issues have combined to create a situation that leaves California and that region in significantly dire straits.

So there are really only two courses of action.

The first option is to do what we are already doing: lots of talking, attempts to conserve, policy narratives, and legislation; pretty much everything that got us here. It is slow, bureaucratic, and highly politicized.

The other course of action it to embrace the fact that we must engineer, innovate, and refocus our homeland security dollars away from ineffective surveillance and overpriced drone programs, and towards radical infrastructure enhancement.  Private/public partnerships, investments, and active engineering must be exercised to rehydrate the region with emerging technologies, desalinization, and a host of lesser improvements.

Resilience and mitigation may have an initial sticker shock.  However, if we do not have the funding to do it right the first time, how much more will it cost to repair it?

We have exercised great fear manipulation and amplified the threat to justify programs and spending that does not diminish the threat to any great degree.  Lots of drone strikes, 78 fusion centers, trillions spent, diminution of trust, and not a great deal to show for it.  We need water, food, and economies that build resilience and capability.

painted ship upon a painted ocean

 

January 12, 2015

Haiti

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on January 12, 2015

Five years on what so fully captured our attention is now too easy to forget.  More than 160,000 were killed.  The recovery has been difficult for thousands more.

There has been a tendency to dismiss Haiti as Haiti, too forsaken to have any lessons for anyplace else.  Yet when the Tohoku Triple Disaster struck, some experts saw comparable patterns in the initial response.  One has told me, “If not for the Japanese trucking companies voluntary action, Tohoku was sliding toward Haiti.”

Several colleagues at the White House, DOD, and with various voluntary agencies have commented on important lessons that each of them learned.  ”Catastrophes are entirely different beasts, as different as a Lynx from a Lion,” said one.  Another wondered aloud, “Would Americans display the resilience we saw in the Haitians, if hit as hard?”

So it has been a long day.  It is almost too late.  But while not nearly enough, a few words in honor of those who died, those who worked so hard to save lives, and for the struggle that continues today.

George Washington University creates Center for Cyber and Homeland Security

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Education — by Christopher Bellavita on January 12, 2015

From the web: http://homelandsecurity.gwu.edu/george-washington-university-establishes-new-gw-center-cyber-and-homeland-security

January 12, 2015

The George Washington University establishes new GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security

WASHINGTON—Today, The George Washington University announced the establishment of the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS), which integrates and builds upon the activities of two existing policy centers within the George Washington University: the Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) and the GW Cybersecurity Initiative. This new Center will build on the longstanding track record of these two entities and continue to engage in policy-relevant research and analysis on critical issues and challenges related to cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and homeland security.

The new Center will be governed by a Board of Directors and a Policy Advisory Committee, and will continue HSPI’s longstanding Senior Fellows program. It will carry out its work through four standing task forces that will shape the Center’s research and policy agenda and whose members will be drawn largely from the ranks of its governance committees and Senior Fellows:

Counterterrorism and Intelligence Task Force
Cybersecurity Task Force
Homeland Security Strategies and Emerging Threats Task Force
Preparedness and Infrastructure Resilience Task Force.

The Center is also establishing a corporate membership program, to provide a means for companies with interests in these areas to support the work of the Center and participate in its activities, including through events developed with the specific interests of its corporate members in mind.

The Center will operate under the continued direction of Frank Cilluffo, a former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, and Christian Beckner, a former senior staffer with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee [who also started Homeland Security Watch].

The goal of these efforts is to establish and strengthen the re-named Center as a leading venue for independent and non-partisan policy analysis and research on homeland security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity issues; and to provide valuable insights and context to key stakeholders in government, the private sector, and the media.

January 8, 2015

Counterterrorism as social judo

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

paris-je suis charlie

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

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

–+–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–+–

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

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

December 23, 2014

Celebrating Festivus by airing GAO’s grievances with DHS

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 23, 2014

Today, December 23rd, is when we celebrate Festivus. There is much to be learned about how to celebrate this day by reviewing how the Government Accountability Office treated DHS in 2014.


Here’s the headline that dragged me reluctantly into the Festivus spirit: “U.S. Not Fully Prepared For Nuclear Terrorist Attack Or Large-Scale Natural Catastrophe GAO Says.”

What in the name of all that is peace-and-goodwill-toward men could it possible mean to be “fully prepared for a nuclear terrorist attack?” How about being fully prepared for a “large scale natural catastrophe?” How do you do that? If you’re prepared, is it really a catastrophe?

True, it’s the Huffington Post’s headline writer not GAO that ruled on the nation’s inability to be ready for the end of the world.  GAO’s actual headline is much more unassuming: “Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps.”

If you read between the lines (and the report) you could see how the Huffington Post (and the dozens of other outlets that jumped into the story) could semi-plausibly, though not helpfully, reach the conclusion that life as we know it will end soon if we don’t get going on those capability gaps.

But an overt hatchet job is not GAO’s style.


A Washington friend once described the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as an agency that bayonets the wounded.

I believe that characterization is unkind.

GAO has a job to do. They watch things for Congress. They are not brutal. They are persistent, particular and as far away from petulance as it’s possible for one agency to be. There is a nobility to what they do and to how they express what they discover.

This is the time of year when we could all benefit from listening to what GAO has to teach about the right way to celebrate Festivus. Or at least what is arguably the most important part of Festivus: the “Airing of Grievances”.

The celebration of Festivus — according to Festivus officials — begins with the “Airing of Grievances”, which takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner has been served. It consists of each person lashing out at others and the world about how they have been disappointed in the past year.

If you are shy, anonymously write your grievances on a sticky note and post the note to the Festivus Pole. …

If your family and friends are shy and reserved types, keep the airing of grievances short, or possibly include a rule that the only personal grievances that can be aired must be directed to those who did not attend the gathering (fair game) or public figures such as politicians and celebrities (always fair game).

Of course DHS is required game – like putting up Christmas decorations while the children are out trick or treating.


For Festivus purposes, a grievance is “a complaint about a real or imaginary wrong that causes resentment and is grounds for action.” 

According to GAO, it has aired over 2100 grievances about the Department of Homeland Security: “GAO has made over 2,100 recommendations to DHS since its establishment in 2003 to strengthen its management and integration efforts, among other things.”

Do the research. Behind each of those recommendations hides one or more grievances that require airing.  Remedial action might follow.  But that’s not the point.  Or at least not as much of the point as the actual airing.

Done correctly and professionally, there is a subtlety about grievance airing. See if you can spot the disappointment, the sighs, even the sadness, in the following  selection of 2014 GAO report titles (and the occasionally excerpt).  Hear also the infinite echo of hopefulness that if DHS tries just a little more it could be doing just a little bit better.

The emphasis, in italics, is mine.


  1. DHS’s Efforts to Modernize Key Enforcement Systems Could be Strengthenedhttp://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-62
  2. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) role of collecting information and providing assistance on PII breaches, as currently defined by federal law and policy, has provided few benefits. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-34
  3. Until DHS … addresses the cybersecurity implications of the emerging technologies in planning activities, information systems are at an increased risk of failure or being unavailable at critical moments. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-125
  4. …DHS … officials acknowledge that they do not collect or assess data to determine whether the [Commercial Items] test program is used to the maximum extent practicable. As such, its limited use may indicate missed opportunities. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-178
  5. DHS Needs to Strengthen Its Efforts to Modernize Key Enforcement Systems http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-342T
  6. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has not identified or assessed fraud or noncompliance risks posed by schools that recommend and foreign students approved for optional practical training (OPT), in accordance with DHS risk management guidance. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-356
  7. GAO… has identified several key factors that are important for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement its partnership approach with industry to protect critical infrastructure. DHS has made some progress in implementing its partnership approach, but has also experienced challenges coordinating with industry partners that own most of the critical infrastructure. …more needs to be done to accelerate the progress made. DHS still needs to fully implement the many recommendations on its partnership approach (and other issues) made by GAO and inspectors general to address cyber challenges. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-464T
  8. DHS components have designed controls to help ensure compliance with the Department of the Treasury’s [Asset Forfeiture Fund] equitable sharing guidance, but controls could be enhanced though additional documentation and guidance. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-318
  9. DHS Could Better Manage Its Portfolio to Address Funding Gaps and Improve Communications with Congress http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-332
  10. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made progress in addressing high-risk areas for which it has sole responsibility, but significant work remains. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-532T
  11. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established mechanisms—including an intelligence framework and an analytic planning process—to better integrate analysis activities throughout the department, but the mechanisms are not functioning as intended. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-397
  12. DHS Needs to Better Address Port Cybersecurity http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-459
  13. DHS and CBP have established performance measures and reporting processes for the JFC and ACTT in Arizona and the STC in South Texas; however, opportunities exist to strengthen these [Southwest Border] collaborative mechanisms by assessing results across the efforts and establishing written agreements. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-494
  14. Continued Actions Needed to Strengthen [DHS] Oversight and Coordination of Research and Development http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-813T
  15. Improved Documentation, Resource Tracking, and Performance Measurement Could Strengthen [DHS Training] Efforts http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-688
  16. DHS Action Needed to Enhance Integration and Coordination of [Critical Infrastructure Protection] Vulnerability Assessment Efforts http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-507
  17. Additional Actions Needed to Determine Program Effectiveness and Strengthen Privacy Oversight Mechanisms http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-796T
  18. Federal Real Property: DHS and GSA Need to Strengthen the Management of DHS Headquarters Consolidation http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-648
  19. DHS OIG’s Structure, Policies, and Procedures Are Consistent with Standards, but Areas for Improvement Exist  http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-726
  20. Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Risk-Informed Covert Assessments and Oversight of Corrective Actions Could Strengthen Capabilities at the Border http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-826
  21. DHS Is Assessing Fusion Center Capabilities and Results, but Needs to More Accurately Account for Federal Funding Provided to Centers http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-155
  22. DHS Should Take Steps to Improve Cost Reporting and Eliminate Duplicate Processing http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-82
  23. Improvements Needed to Fully Implement the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-3
  24. Federal and Transit Agencies Taking Steps to Build Transit Systems’ Resilience but Face Challenges  http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-159 
  25. Continued Action Needed to Strengthen Management of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-95 
  26. Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-20 – better known as “U.S. Not Fully Prepared For Nuclear Terrorist Attack Or Large-Scale Natural Catastrophe GAO Says.”

The circle closes. The grievances have been aired.

Now on to the Feats of Strength.


Happy Festivus

festivus 1 frank-costanza

December 11, 2014

Resilience by Design

On Monday the Mayor of Los Angeles released a report entitled Resilience by Design.  It gives particular attention to how Los Angeles can take steps now to mitigate the consequences of major risks, especially an earthquake.

This is the kind of document that — too often — only appears after a major event.  It is significant that one of the first steps Mayor Garcetti took upon his election was appointment of a Science Advisor for Seismic Safety and tasking her to undertake this analysis.

The report gives particular attention to:

  • Resilience of building stock — It is interesting that this is treated as a matter of economic resilience as well as public safety.
  • Resilience of the water system — This is what worries me most regarding the vulnerability of the Los Angeles basin.
  • Resilience of the telecommunications systems — This is a key interdependency that can divide or multiply every other response and recovery capability.

There are, obviously, other crucial problems.  But too many of these kind of studies try to take-on too much.  If everything is a priority, really nothing is a priority.

These are three strategic elements within the ability of city government to seriously engage.  Enhancing the resilience of these three elements will improve the ability of the city and the whole community to address other challenges.

See the full report here.

December 9, 2014

Ottawa Attacks Reveal Public’s Confusion About Terrorism

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on December 9, 2014

Today’s post was written by Jason Nairn.  It appeared originally on the Homeland Security Roundtable blog.


The US media and news-consuming public are known for their short attention spans when it comes to domestic events.  A novel major story quickly refocuses attention, often leaving important issues without context or follow-on reporting.  This phenomenon, one that I like to call “Issue Attention Deficit Disorder (IADD)”, is exacerbated when the event in question is not domestic.

Major issues in Africa, Asia and Europe are simply underreported in the US media, and though they often do not, major events in Canada should merit our attention.  Ottawa is only a 9-hour drive (471 miles or 911 kilometers) from Washington DC, the rough equivalent of driving from Detroit, MI, to Marquette, MI (455 miles), or from Nashville, TN to Chicago, IL (471 Miles).

Canadian media coverage of the recent attacks in Ottawa involving the gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau has revealed a glimpse of the Canadian public’s attitudes about terrorism.  Two stories that ran recently in the National Post provide some valuable lessons for followers of homeland security trends.  First, according to a poll conducted in Canada of over 1500 citizens, only 36% of those that responded would characterize the attack on Parliament as terrorism.  Second, in a propaganda magazine ISIS took credit for inspiring both the attack on Parliament and an earlier attack on a Canadian Warrant Officer by another individual said to be a “jihadist”.

Homeland security professionals have been heard to lament the “nothing happens until something moves” effect of support for homeland security.  The idea is that only after a disaster or major event, like a terrorist attack, is attention refocused on the support of homeland security goals and objectives.  Based on the Canadian news reports, even serious attacks may not drive the public’s support of security priorities.

If an attack on the seat of government does not qualify as terrorism in the eyes of the public, but qualifies as supporting the mission in the eyes of the terrorist group, then something is awry.

Even if our neighbors don’t use the phrase “homeland security” as we do, a fundamental issue remains.  Getting the word out about what terrorism is, what homeland or domestic security is, and how to support resilience in our communities and institutions should be a focus that we maintain beyond the next headline.

December 2, 2014

Security, Liberty and Architecture: Creating Safe—and Safe-Feeling— Public Spaces

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 2, 2014

Today’s post was written by Justin M. Schumacher, and first appeared on Medium’s homeland security site.

 

NewImage

 

 


Open societies often struggle to balance values that can conflict with one another. Rights and responsibilities, freedom and equality, cohesion and diversity, openness and order are a few examples. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one of the most prominent such struggles is the re-balancing of security and liberty.

Much of this fight is taking place behind the scenes, in political battles over the powers of law enforcement, legal arguments over automatic license plate readers’ data collection, executive orders on the detainment of terrorism suspects, or hacktivist protests to it all by groups like Anonymous. But I’d like to focus on one of the most visible aspects of this shifting mindset: what does a safe and secure public space look like?

In the United States prior to 9/11 fear of terrorism was almost nonexistent, and public spaces had far less security than they do today. Much of current security was installed rapidly on an ad hoc basis, resulting in airport screening systems established in awkward places and ugly jersey barriers placed around all kinds of sensitive buildings. All around the country, fueled by a flood of homeland security funding, public spaces became more and more securitized, usually according to assessments of criticality and threat.

Current US Embassy in London; built during the cold war to be imposing upon its neighbors, with piecemeal security features added over the years that enhance its unwelcoming nature.

A decade has now passed, and social scientists are asking questions about the effects this security is having on us, individually and as a society. Because we are relatively new to threats in the public sphere many are looking to the UK for lessons. Having endured bombings annually for a generation during the Troubles, British architects, security planners and sociologists have a lot to teach.

Early on, the British did much as we have done since 9/11, installing barriers and bollards anywhere they might save some lives. But as the years passed, their approach became much more nuanced as they realized that over-securitizing public spaces drives away the public, which increases crime. This appears to happen in part because security features lead people to believe that crime is commonplace and increasing even if it is rare and decreasing, and in part because simply seeing security features causes anxiety and discomfort.

This realization has led to a number of projects in cooperation with the government and academics like Jon Coaffee that try to determine how best to design public spaces so that they are both safe and welcoming. They’ve published many documents, both instructional and intellectual, that might be useful for American security planners. In particular, Coaffee describes a spectrum of visibility / hidden measures that should be considered to achieve the right level of security while maintaining the character of place.

justin s 1

When well implemented, these ideas can lead to security features that are not only unintimidating but truly add to what a place has to offer. One example is the new US Embassy in London, currently under construction and shown in a rendering at the top of this article. It stands in stark contrast to the current embassy (shown in the smaller image). The tiered gardens and water features will make working there or walking by a much more comfortable experience, but they are designed to provide even better security than the maze of fences and barriers around the building’s predecessor.

photo credit Populous Brand Activation

Perhaps the best example of this theory put into practice is Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal football (soccer) team, which includes features like the auto barrier shown at right. More effective than bollards or jersey barriers, this security tool has itself become a draw with fans often going out of their way to get their pictures taken with it. Coaffee and his allies point to Emirates as proof that one can implement measures that meet security goals without the negative effects that so often come with an overt security presence.

Britain first began suffering car bomb attacks from the IRA in 1969 (1971 on the British mainland) and it took decades before universal measures were in place to combine crime prevention, counter-terrorism, and social benefits in public space design. Today, in addition to just providing guidance like that linked above, every local police department has an architectural liaison officer to assist with just this on all public and private projects at no cost to builders. By linking architecture and urban planning with law enforcement and security planning, they are working to ensure that future construction will be both safe and welcoming.

The construction of public spaces can take generations, but we in the United States need not wait a few decades to get started on planning for what we want those spaces to look like in the future. We should learn from the experience of the UK, adapting their lessons and their tools to our own urban design initiatives. Doing so will help ensure that the public square of tomorrow will do more than just be safe; it will feel safe.

November 26, 2014

Stafford at twenty-six

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Disaster,Legal Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on November 26, 2014

Quin Lucie authored this post. Mr. Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.

–+–

A Quarter Century More?

Nearly 26 years after it was passed, it’s time to take another look at the Stafford Act.

November 23, 2014 was the 26th anniversary of Public Law 100-707, The Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988. Probably doesn’t ring a bell does it? But if you’re reading this, you might know the name of the 1974 disaster relief statute it renamed, The Robert T. Stafford Act, or as most just call it, the Stafford Act.

The Stafford Act was the fifth major change to a series of Disaster Relief Acts beginning in 1950 and amended or replaced in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1974. The Stafford Act itself has seen at least four significant amendments since 1988. However, none of these later changes was done holistically. They were all crafted in a near vacuum of each other.

In 1993 and 1994, partly in response to the abysmal response to Hurricane Andrew, Congress first amended the powers of the Civil Defense Act of 1950 and then completely removed them. Some of the preparedness authorities of the old act found their way into a new title to the Stafford Act. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 added significant mitigation authorities. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA), for the first time, explicitly authorized the activities of FEMA, though those changes appear in the Homeland Security Act, not the Stafford Act. In the Stafford Act, PKEMRA made subtle changes to its response authorities, such as allowing the President to provide assistance, after a declaration, without a specific request from a Governor. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 made significant reforms to the way public assistance programs are delivered to State, tribal and local governments and made tribal governments eligible to ask for disaster declarations on their own.

The result of these independent, and occasionally improvised changes has been predictable. There are now major parts of the nation’s most important disaster relief authorities that are either forgotten, misunderstood or no longer work as intended. The lack of national dialogue approaches three decades.

Forgotten.

I’m not aware of a single person in FEMA, much less the Federal Government, outside of myself, who has  taken the time to read the legislative history of the Civil Defense Act of 1950, much less understand the factors that led to its demise and reinstatement of part of it in the Stafford Act. Or know why it is the FEMA Administrator, not the President, who was given control over it. There are several parts that could be of significant use to national preparedness efforts, and at least one could provide a very significant source of authority for catastrophic relief efforts. However, these authorities remain outside of the mainstream of planning efforts and the knowledge of emergency managers.

Misunderstood.

“FEMA could develop an updated formula… to determine the capacity of jurisdictions to respond to those disasters.” So stated Mark E Gaffigan, Managing Director, Natural Resources and Environment Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in February of this year. What Mr. Gaffigan failed to realize, even though he correctly labeled these formulas as recommendations, was the reasons they have not been updated in decades (Mr. Gaffigan said these fomulas have not been updated since 1986, I’m not sure that is correct – the particular regulation was last updated in January, 1990). Those reasons, which I spelled out in a post on this blog last year, were a direct result of Congress intentionally not wanting to reign in disaster declarations and to keep the criteria broad enough to allowed affected states and jurisdictions to lobby for a declaration.

No longer work as intended.

At that same February hearing, Collin O’Mara, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, spoke at length about how his state was not rewarded for significant pre-storm mitigation efforts it took, while New Jersey was rewarded with billions of dollars of assistance for failing to make similar efforts before Hurricane Sandy. It was clear from the testimony at this hearing that the Stafford Act, at least in parts, is no longer operating as intended.

In some cases, years of experience extracting Federal dollars under the law may have led to the exploitation of inefficiencies that can promote less than optimal mitigation strategies while discouraging more useful resilience policies. It probably now makes more sense for some state and local governments to avoid taking mitigation measures for certain risks, as they will be penalized or at least lack compensation for those measures, and instead wait for a future disaster and then use federal funding at no more than 25 cents on the dollar. In a future Stafford Act, a way needs to be found to reward the efforts of Delaware and Secretary O’Mara while incentivizing the next New Jersey to act before disaster.

These changes can be seen in real time in the States of Illinois and Pennsylvania. Illinois, who experienced several recent events where they did not receive a Federal disaster declaration, has seen legislation introduced in both its own legislature to provide state disaster assistance, and in the U.S. Senate by its two Senators to amend FEMA’s disaster declaration criteria. The proposed state law, last referred to a rules committee in April, is consistent with years of national disaster relief practice, namely that disasters should be handled locally, and then by the States before seeking Federal assistance. On its face, funds available under this law would be available immediately to local governmental bodies without waiting on the Federal government. If this reflects the consensus of the current Congress, it is this type of legislation that would presumably be encouraged and incentivized in a new Stafford Act. On the other hand, the legislation introduced by the two senators is a bit puzzling as it appears to treat FEMA’s regulations for disaster declarations as binding, when in fact they are only recommendations.

In Pennsylvania, there is a similar debate going on. Unlike in Illinois, Pennsylvania would make funds contingent on the fact areas eligible for assistance are not covered by a “Presidential disaster declaration.” This is different than the approach potentially taken by Illinois and could be seen as making Federal funding the primary source of disaster relief, rather than the State (Considering it was Pennsylvania’s own Tom Ridge who was the primary driver of the Stafford Act, it would be interesting for his perspective). Should this statute pass, the State would presumably then make grant assistance under this law unavailable to those in federally declared disaster areas. (After this post was written, a version of this statute was signed into law the last week of October).

Times change.

During the debate over the first disaster relief act in 1950, members of Congress went so far as to ensure its more cynical legislators that under the act there would be “no new agencies or bureaus” authorized under this new law. In fairness it only took around 24 years before a bureau within HUD was solely dedicated to disaster relief and 29 years before the creation of FEMA.

There are two main questions Congress must ask of itself, constituents, and State, tribal and local governments. First, does the Stafford Act currently reflect consensus national priorities for the mitigation, response, and recovery from disasters and the funding of disaster relief? Second, does the Stafford Act, taken as a whole, incentivize the most (politically feasible) efficient strategies for mitigating for, responding to and recovering from disasters? If not, what are the more (most) efficient strategies and can they be adequately prescribed under the current framework of the Stafford Act, or should the Stafford Act be completely restructured?

While not a primary consideration, Congress should also look closely at the relationship between the Stafford Act and the Homeland Security Act. For instance, the primary agency to carry out the Stafford Act, FEMA, has its primary authorities found in the Homeland Security Act. The danger is that such a discussion might quickly bog down over how changes to these two laws might change committee jurisdictions. It might also fuel the underlying friction between “emergency management” and “homeland security” something that is probably continuation of the debate between what is “civil defense” and “all hazards” from decades before.

After six generations of being taken apart, amended and replaced, the Stafford Act, when seen up close, looks more like something found in the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, cobbled together from years of compromise and improvised in the wake of major disasters. Maybe it’s time to take another peek under the hood and see everything that has been connected to the engine. It’s only been 26 years.

November 14, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2014

venice_flooding_01

According to my usual sources, November 14 seems to be less disastrous than most other days.  But above is a picture of the Caffe Chioggia in Venice on this day in 2012.

High water is not uncommon in Venice this time of year. There was flooding just last week. Venetian infrastructure and its people’s habits in many ways accommodate — and mitigate — the risk.  But  floods are recurring more often and tides seem to rising higher.   Will resilience be enough?

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

November 13, 2014

Immigration: Prepping the bowl game

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS,Immigration,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

It appears our end-of-year celebrations and contests will include a sustained play-by-play on immigration policy.  USA Today warns of “political war” on the issue.  We will probably see the gaming continue deep into basketball season.  Baseball? The 2016 World Series?

Despite the clear importance of immigration policy and practice to the Department of Homeland Security (where it can be seen as consuming the majority of resources), I have not given much space to immigration in my own working concept of homeland security.

Given the perpetrators of 9/11 it makes some narrative sense why immigration, border, and related agencies were brought together in the new DHS.  I will not resist that how we facilitate flows of goods and people into the nation has some sort of security implication. (Though Prohibition and the drug trade and human trafficking and mass migrations across all of human history suggest how tough it is for a big place to be anything close to impermeable.)

In terms of a terrorist threat, while we can make it more complicated and — with unusually good intelligence or vigilance or luck — actually stop some threats at the border, I have never met a professional who thought any of our immigration and border apparatus to be equal to a well-planned terrorist operation.  Much more effective is to disrupt the planning in Yemen or Af-Pak or Raqqa or wherever.  Border protection is like football’s free safety.  If that is what’s left, it’s already been a very tough play. You really want to stop them at the line of scrimmage or farther back.

When it comes to other aspects of homeland security: preparedness, mitigation, resilience, response, recovery, etc., etc….  immigration has seemed to me tangential.  There are issues of communicating in languages other than English.  Some immigrant communities — or areas where they tend to live — are considered more vulnerable.  But there are also studies that find the tight social connections of recent immigrants to generate a resilience-advantage compared to wealthier but more isolated neighbors.

There are a few cases where immigrant communities have become flash-points for radicalizing clusters of (mostly) alienated second-generation young men.  But to view this as an immigration or border issue strikes me as, again, giving too much attention to the free safety and not enough attention to the front line. (If you can’t tell, more than forty years and thirty pounds ago I was a defensive tackle.)

But whatever the actual homeland security implications, Secretary Johnson and his senior staff are going to be plenty focused on immigration in the weeks ahead.

So… an attempt to frame the issue for our future dialogue:

I have already acknowledged a personal prejudice on this topic.  But I will attempt to listen and learn from those with alternative points-of-view.

There is a plethora of expert — and advocacy — resources available.  Just a few:

Migration Policy Institute

Bipartisan Policy Center: Immigration Task Force

Cato Institute: Immigration Studies and Commentary

American Immigration Council

Texans for Sensible Immigration Reform

Brookings Institution: Immigration Workstream

Immigration Reform Law Institute

Federation for American Immigration Reform

Heritage Foundation: Immigration Workstream

US Chamber of Commerce: Immigration Resource Collection

If you have other sources of information, please include them in your comments.  At some point I will try to develop an annotated list of sources.

Trying the football analogy again, the two teams that are coming onto the field this season strike me as having very different strategies and styles of play:

Pragmatists versus legalists

Economic offense versus economic defense

Passing strategy versus ground strategy

Maybe Oregon versus Alabama?  Perhaps suggesting comparisons that go well beyond the gridiron.

The differences between the contestants are, in any case, so profound that I expect it may not be much of a game to watch.  The ducks may just sort of ride the tide.

I’ve never been a big fan of purist approaches to just about anything.

FRIDAY UPDATE: LOCKER-ROOM TALK

After I posted on Thursday the two teams started sending pre-game signals to each other.  Actually it sounded more like set-ups for a boxing match than most football games.  Anyway…

The Washington Post gives Capitol Hill trash talk top-of-the-fold prominence: Before immigration action, sides dig in.

Politico leads with Defiant Obama: I will use my power.

The Hill also calls the President defiant.

Roll Call quotes Senator Cornyn warning Presidential action on immigration could lead to a failure to fund the government.

Defiance abounds.

Our English word “defy” has its origin in a vulgar Latin term fidere meaning to trust, to have fidelity. That de on the front reverses the meaning.  Defiance emerges from mistrust.

November 8, 2014

Central Philippines one year later

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on November 8, 2014

Last November HLSWatch gave considerable attention to the impact of Hurricane Haiyan —  locally called Yolanda — on the Central Philippines.

For those not directly involved in humanitarian relief, the aftermath became a valuable case study in supply chain resilience… and too often suppression of such resilience.  There were plenty of lessons for the US, if anyone was willing to watch and listen.

A few year-old links that may be worth scanning for analogies that still apply:

Yolanda hits hard (Again), November 11

Healing our addiction to control, November 14

Post-typhoon supply chain, November 16

In terms of recovery:  Of course it has been uneven.  Of course there are heart-warming and heart-breaking stories.   In most ways and in most cases, recovery is the most complicated — complex — stage of the disaster cycle.  Will be interested in what lessons-learned you perceive.

Here are a few updates:

New Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan  (geenormous)

Summary of the immediately prior

Recovery briefing by Office of the President

Update Bulletin by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

GMA News Aggregation Site for Yolanda Recovery (Manila media outlet)

Some move on, some agonize (AP, The Inquirer, Manila)

Building Back Better (Christian Science Monitor)

Still trying to survive (BBC)

November 5, 2014

RIP Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino: The Public Health Mayor

This week Boston laid to rest it’s longest serving mayor, Thomas Menino.  He served as mayor in Boston for 20 years.  Yes. That’s right.  Twenty years.

To his admirers he was known as the “Urban Mechanic,” as the Boston Globe describes, ”leaving to others the lofty rhetoric of Boston as the Athens of America, he took a decidedly ground-level view of the city on a hill, earning himself a nickname for his intense focus on the nuts and bolts of everyday life.” To some of his detractors (and even his supporters) he was referred to as “Mumbles,” for his less than soaring rhetorical skills.

This humble man from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston rose to national prominence, with former President Bill Clinton paying his respects before the funeral procession and Vice President Joe Biden attending the ceremony. Impressive for a politician recognized to have no political ambition beyond running his city.

What does this have to do with homeland security? For some time I’ve heard from various colleagues that preparedness, particularly health-related preparedness, had an unusual amount of political support in Boston. Public health and EMS were not simply the minor leagues to law enforcement and fire service major league players. But it became vivid when I read the following description from a food-orientated homage to Mayor Menino from The Atlantic food critic Corby Kummer:

But aside from the coddling and special treatment any mayor who shows up gets, Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today’s food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtime Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as “the public-health mayor.” That made him work particularly closely with my spouse, John Auerbach, who served 10 years as Boston’s health commissioner. 

So….apparently I missed this self-appointment.  After the fact it was easy to find further evidence of Menino’s interest in public health.  See the videos I’ve posted below.

Again, how is this related to homeland security? Two points that at least I think of are interest. 

 

A lot, if not the majority, of public health work does not seem to fall into the category of homeland security. Expanding access to fresh produce in low income communities, anti-smoking efforts, childhood vaccination campaigns, etc.  It’s not always about responding to the next Ebola outbreak.  Yet when taken as a whole, improving the health of the community in general improves overall resilience.  Healthy people fare better during and following disasters than unhealthy ones.  People with access to health insurance are more likely to visit a primary care doctor than the emergency room for common maladies, thereby not taking up vital resources during events like the Boston Marathon bombing. A healthier community is a more resilient community.

Menino’s attention to public health underscores the importance of political leaders in homeland security. I have often heard professionals complain about meddling politicians (along with the annoying press) and how events can be run more smoothly when they are absent.  Yet not only do they play an important role in communicating with the public during and following disasters, they make or influence the choices made in a community before there is a bad day.  Menino’s focus on public health not only improved the overall health of Bostonians, but contributed to the competence exhibited during the response to the Marathon bombing, from the existence of a Medical Intelligence Center to the cooperation between city agencies such as Boston EMS and Public Health with the private hospital systems.

It is comparing apples and oranges, but in thinking about this I could not help but contrast Boston’s situation with that of New York City.  Size and resource issues aside, NYC has spent the most energy on security instead of general preparedness since 9/11.  I am not arguing that there has not been a lot of resources directed towards preparedness and response activities and organizations, only that it is lacking when compared with the radical changes enacted in the NYPD and other agencies charged with preventing a terrorist attack. I think I could make the case that Boston, under Menino’s leadership, took a more all hazards approach while NYC, under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, remained primarily focused on terrorism. That is not a value judgement, but simply an observation.

If you are interested, the following video highlights many of Mayor Menino’s accomplishments in public health.  From the Boston Public Health Commission (which Menino created in 1996):

 

If you have a little more time, here is a longer discussion held at Harvard’s School of Public Health with Menino shortly after he left the Mayor’s office.  For those more security minded, at the beginning of the discussion he is asked and replies with a lengthy description of his point of view about the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.

 

 

 

October 26, 2014

Embracing diversity

Filed under: Biosecurity,Border Security,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 26, 2014

obama pham(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

None of us much like what we perceive as mixed messages.  But many of us seek out diverse sources of information.

I am — as regular readers know too well — a big fan of diversity.  It is an intellectual and aesthetic preference, almost certainly a personality predisposition.

Diversity is also a key characteristic of resilience.  The more diverse a system the less prone it is to catastrophic collapse, the more creative combinations that exist the more likely the system (or sub-system) is to resist and, if necessary, rebound from challenges.

I am personally skeptical of most efforts to reduce variance, increase consistency, and especially any tendency to reserve decisions for some centralized authority.  I am aware such approaches can generate benefits.  But there are also trade-offs and I perceive we too often accept the trade-offs without recognizing what we are giving away.

Since Thursday I’ve been in Newark and New York.  The confirmation of Ebola in a physician who returned to New York after treating patients in West Africa has caused concern.  On Friday Governors Christie and Cuomo, acting more on their political instincts for advancing the common good than expert medical advice, announced a strict quarantine requirement for health care workers returning to JFK and Newark International airports.  This exceeds federal requirements. (Illinois soon followed for those arriving from West Africa into O’Hare.)

I was busy, but as I watched the local news a bit and read the reports I was pleased to see this diversity emerge.  I like it when state and local leaders exercise their best judgment and authority.  I respect political judgment, especially when it relates more to how human social systems actually operate and less about the next election.  I found the non-partisan, reasoned rhetoric of the Governors and Mayor de Blasio mostly helpful.  Medical therapies and social therapies can diverge.

At just about the same time, or at least during the same news cycle, President Obama was purposefully — and a bit awkwardly to my eyes — hugging nurse Nina Pham (above) who has recovered from the Ebola she contracted at her hospital in Dallas.  The intended message was, I hope, clear enough.  For the more literal minded, the President followed up explicitly in his weekly media message.

Meanwhile… Kaci Hickox a nurse arriving at Newark from Sierra Leone, asymptomatic, and according to a preliminary test virus-free, is nonetheless being kept in a 21-day quarantine against her will.  She writes in the Saturday Dallas Morning News:

I am a nurse who has just returned to the U.S. after working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone – an Ebola-affected country. I have been quarantined in New Jersey. This is not a situation I would wish on anyone, and I am scared for those who will follow me.

I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine… (The nurse continues with a rather horrific story of her welcome to the United States.  You should read it.)

The epidemic continues to ravage West Africa. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that as many as 15,000 people have died from Ebola. We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa.  The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity.

The ACLU has announced it will take action challenging the New Jersey quarantine order.

Then as if to put into even sharper contrast the different angles on reality alive in Trenton, Albany, and Washington DC, on Sunday morning I read our UN Ambassador Samantha Power is in West Africa.  She has already visited the Ebola wards.  Should she be quarantined in isolation on her return?  Or in deference to separation of powers, will a sanitary cordon of the Ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf be sufficient?

Thursday and Friday I was mostly impressed with how New York local-media was handling the story. Saturday I was too otherwise engaged to notice. Now early on Sunday morning there is a nearly palpable urgency to take sides… or, if one does not feel confident/competent to choose sides, to bitterly complain regarding the incompetence of the “authorities” who should have had this sort of risk fully thought-through.  ”It’s not tight”, the President himself has complained.

In my experience reality is seldom tight. At a certain point working to make it tight strips the threads and even breaks the head.  Can we learn to engage diversity affirmatively, creatively, even systematically, as a potentially positive — in any case, persistent — aspect of reality?  In dealing with complex risks, I have found this to be an especially productive option.

MONDAY UPDATE:

According to several news sources, New York will “loosen” its screening protocols.  Here’s a bit of the AP report:

Gov. Cuomo back peddled Sunday on his insistence that medical workers returning to New York from Ebola-stricken countries would have to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine at a government-regulated facility

The governor, in a joint news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, said health care workers and citizens who have had exposure to Ebola patients in West Africa will be asked to stay in their homes for the 21-day quarantine.

During the 21 days, the quarantined person will be checked on twice a day by health care professionals to take their temperature and evaluate their condition, Cuomo said.

Here’s the official statement from the Governor’s office.

Constant change in response to feedback, adapting to new information (new expressions of reality) is another feature of diverse and resilient systems.  And just to be clear: in the most resilient systems while change is constant a core-coherence persists.  Which highlights the big difference between consistent and coherent, between control and collaboration…

SECOND UPDATE:

According to NJ.com and other news outlets, Nurse Kaci Hickox will now be allowed to quarantine at home in the state of Maine. The New Jersey Governor’s office released a transcript and video to provide context for this shift.

October 21, 2014

Ebola, Fantasy Documents and Our Collective Inability to Tolerate Ambiguity

Filed under: Public Health & Medical Care — by Christopher Bellavita on October 21, 2014

Todays post is written by Jeff Kaliner. Kaliner is a public health emergency preparedness professional with twelve years in the field. For the last few years he has spent an unreasonable amount of time considering the intersection between complexity science, lessons that never get learned and homeland security. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University.

Over the last few days the media has suggested that hospital emergency plans and procedures are basically unsuccessful with respect to the ongoing Ebola event.  The narrative lays out that hospitals (and in effect the larger public health system) have failed to plan properly and in turn are now reaping the consequences of poor preparation. The evidence is apparent: one dead Liberian national and two infected Texas nurses.

Connecting these dots in a linear fashion gives us the proof we need to believe what this narrative suggests: The last twelve years of federally fueled funds to enhance emergency health and medical programs at the state and local levels have not worked.  The implication is easy to understand; better planning and procedures (and more money?) would have prevented this very serious situation.

Although the story seems to have a tidy and easily understood cause and effect relationship, it is wrong.

The problem with this tale is the dirty little secret that a well-crafted plan or procedure cannot and will not be enough to manage a complex event. When implied that they can, these documents take on a symbolic quality that suggest they are somehow able to control reality.  As Lee Clarke (in his book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster) points out, plans in this realm “…are rhetorical devices designed to convince others of something.”  The “others” in this case might be federal or state grantors, the public, the media, response agencies, etc.  Clarke goes on to state:

It seems that fantasy documents are more likely to be produced to defend very large systems, or systems that are newly scaled up. When they are proffered as accurate representations of organizational capabilities then the stage is not only set for organizational failure but for massive failure of the publics those organizations are supposed to serve.

Sound familiar?

In other words, the plans the media have been referring to are fantasy documents.  They were partly crafted to give an illusion of safety and security.

To be clear, I am not arguing that plans should not be written and that capabilities should not be exercised.  What I am saying is that the best we can ever do in the face of an increasingly complex catastrophe is write a bad plan and admit that a capability that was pulled off flawlessly during an exercise will probably not produce the same results during the actual bad day. This is not an indictment of all the dedicated and committed emergency planners across the world.   This is an invitation to acknowledge what the best of them already know: response documents become more useless as the event becomes more complex.

Maybe one possible solution to the plan as fantasy document is to conceptualize an emergency situation as an unfolding set of unpredictable events in a unique eco-system. Every eco-system has a pre-determined elasticity or resiliency that allows it to bend a certain distance before it breaks. In this narrative, instead of asking whether or not our plans have worked (and in turn placing blame on a variety of systems) we might wonder if the resiliency of our current health and medical system has actually been compromised and to what extent by an emergent event.

This idea has become clearer to me as I have been reading The Age of the Unthinkable  by Joshua Cooper Ramo.  Ramo suggests that one way to think about the resiliency question is to visualize the eco-system of a lake.  He writes

“The stability of a lake ecosystem can’t possibly be reduced to a few variables. What matters isn’t something you can score quickly but rather the strange mesh of interactions that make a lake resilient or not….  What you can easily measure in these systems matters much less than what you cannot: How strong are the relationships between different parts of the lake ecosystem? How fast can it adjust to shocks? How far can you bend the food chain on the lake before it breaks? In short, how resilient is it?”

What if we tried to apply aspects of this idea to how we define, manage and evaluate emergency response? What if instead of trying to bend reality to our whims by absurdly trying to measure the potential success or failure of our plans, procedures and capabilities (before the event), we looked a little deeper at the complex set of variables that make up a health and medical eco-system during an event and drew conclusions about how well we were doing based upon a more nuanced and admittedly ambiguous set of factors?  Factors including our ability to adapt, learn and change in real time.

As Ramo states: “Resilience allows us, even at our most extreme moments of terror (in fact, precisely because we are at such a moment), to keep learning, to change. It is kind of a battlefield of courage, the ability to innovate under fire because we’ve prepared in the right way and because we’ve developed the strength to keep moving even when we’ve been slapped by the unexpected.”

Preparing in the right way certainly means developing plans and procedures.  But that’s just where it starts. Ultimately there is no one playbook or plan that will quickly solve the multitude of problems that occur during complex events. In an unordered world, we all will have to become more comfortable with the messy reality that there is not just one factor that means we have won or lost the battle (think: Mission Accomplished).

In the book Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Miller and Page write, “Complexity arises when the dependencies among the elements become important.”  Certainly there are many elemental dependencies involved in the current Ebola outbreak.  Understanding and learning how these dependencies interact with one another to create new and unexpected aspects of this ongoing situation is critical to an effective response.

We can no longer reduce the negative events (the death of a Liberian national and the infection of two Texas nurses) that take place within quickly evolving eco-systems to simple platitudes. In this respect, false narratives (such as the ineffectiveness of a magical plan) need to be quickly identified and confronted as the simple and all too easy explanation for a very complex set of events that will probably never be truly understood.

If we do not identify these narratives for what they are, we diminish the two critical capabilities that we will need to consistently practice if we are to truly be prepared for 21st century challenges:

1) an emergency response system that has the political will and ability to quickly learn and adapt during the course of an emergent event; and

2) a media and public that will provide a type of unconditional support and understanding to let it happen.

Regardless, until we are all prepared to think about and understand the world in ways that reflect a more interdependent and non-linear sensibility, our reliance on simple narratives will remain. That reliance certainly works well for the media, but it’s just bad news for the rest of us.

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