Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2015

Uncertainty is our friend

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 19, 2015

Homeland security is a phrase widely used as a linguistic signal for a wide array of perceptions and problems… and programs emerging from those perceptions and problems.

Most of these problems pre-date September 11, 2001. Our perception of the problems, however, tends to be heavily influenced by experiences since 9/11… and since Katrina… and since our most recent significant personal experience that we label as related to homeland security.  Perhaps Sandy for you.  Haiyan for me.  Et cetera.

Human linguistics is, among other things, an expression of our cognitive tendency to categorize.  Using notional buckets we draw water from the roaring stream of experience, set aside various buckets, and give them labels.  This can often be helpful. A similar problem previously encountered becomes a possible short-cut to understanding and potentially solving a new problem.  Or a heuristic trap.

Some of us are inclined to closely observe and interact with selected buckets. We may even be motivated to separate each bucket into individual vials for more detailed consideration. We specialize. Well, I don’t. Not really. But maybe you do.

While the full stream of experience — including its rapids and cataracts — is very difficult to comprehend, it is often possible to observe interesting patterns within individual vials or buckets.  Patterns exposed outside the stream, may be more easily recognized within the stream.  In some cases we can explain and predict the emergence of such patterns. This can be very helpful.

There are, however, also instances where findings for one bucket or vial seem to be quite different from those for other buckets or vials.  Choosing which evidence to apply from one to another bucket or some aspect of the stream can require considerable time-and-effort, even trial-and-error.

It can be difficult to find the time to explore these possible patterns.  It can be challenging to invest the energy, especially when some of the findings — no matter how strong the evidence — seem speculative or even counter-intuitive. Patterns that threaten a preexisting understanding of ourselves are particularly troublesome.

I am more likely to make the investment in such exploration if, in addition to the evidence presented, there is a complementary social context.  Perhaps there is a preexisting friendship. Perhaps others involved are interesting to me for reasons that have little to do with the issue or evidence.  It makes sense to me that several studies have found peer-approval is often more important to what is learned than the teacher’s approval. (Also see Vygotsky.)

My personal readiness to be open to a novel finding is clearly related to the nature of my pre-existing relationship with the source of the report.  If my pre-existing relationship is fraught, I will be more skeptical.  If my relationship is positive, my attitude toward the novelty will also be more positive. This is not reasonable.  It is an impediment to reasoning together.  But it may be rational: prior direct experience has demonstrated the comparative utility of various sources of indirect experience. It is important to be careful regarding indirect experience.

Reason has a complicated ancestry. It has emerged in many forms.  If I have accurately understood Chris Bellavita and Jonathan Haidt they have, for much of their lives,  understood reason to be a matter of disciplined objectivity and careful weighing of evidence.

With sufficient objectivity and evidence there is (once was?) considerable confidence in finding the correct answer, correct as in how a mathematical formula might be correct (or incorrect). As Chris recently sighed… mumbled… prayed, perhaps “Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear…”

I am all in favor of objectivity and evidence.  More of each is usually helpful.  There is nothing inescapably delusional in either of these inputs.  But the supposed outcome?  That’s where the delusion begins to emerge… it seems to me.

Better and worse I will accept. More or less likely, okay.  Correct and incorrect are, however, beyond my expectation, especially for most aspects of homeland security.

If — instead of evidence — reason begins with the relational (human and conceptual) and then becomes conversational, I have found there is much more receptivity to whatever evidence is presented and less defensive posturing regarding any questions aimed at the evidence.

But if a stranger arrives on a mission to persuade me, I am predisposed to ignore, dismiss, or worse.  On a good day, I may self-correct this predisposition.  But most days I am not nearly that good.

–+–

A step back or shuffle aside: I have spent my life as an entrepreneur.  Initially by accident and then increasingly from habit, I have lived on the edge of what is known and operated mostly in the opacity of the not-yet-known.

My expectations of reason emerge from this context.

Entrepreneurship is usually collaborative.  Clients, colleagues, investors, suppliers and others are needed if the unknown is to be explored, even more if the unknown is to be made known.

There is absolutely a need to reason together about risks and opportunities, options and prospects, past experience and personal insights.   And at the heart of this process is the probability of failure.

I have failed much more than succeeded.  So has every innovator I know.  Most of us are eccentric, some are certifiably crazy, but I have never met an unreasonable entrepreneur who has been outfitted for more than one ride down the rapids.

Entrepreneurs depend on others — typically much more dependable sorts — to go along, even better: to share our enthusiasm.

Evidence is important to involving the less adventuresome.  Credible data — encouraging or not — is golden.  Self-deluding behavior is deadly.

In my experience the most dangerous participants in exploring the unknown are those who insist on living inside a bubble of their own unexamined beliefs.  The leader or flank support I crave combines courage, self-criticism, communication of where we are trying to go and reminding me why… without any temptation to certainty.

Certainty is not a friend of reason.

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March 18, 2015

Fear the Sun, not an EMP attack

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 18, 2015

Over St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness and Jameson did not pose the only threats to our planet. The enemy?  The Sun:

A severe solar storm created a stunning display of light in the night sky over parts of the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand early Wednesday morning, spotted by those lucky enough to be awake in the wee hours.

Called aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere, the lights were the product of large geomagnetic blasts from the sun that arrived Tuesday about 10 a.m. ET (1 a.m. Wednesday in Sydney).

Scientists knew the storm was coming, but it’s timing and strength was a bit of a surprise:

Forecasters had thought it would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning; instead it arrived just before 10am EDT and “it’s significantly stronger than expected,” Berger said.

There are some that warn that North Korea, or one day Iran, will detonate a nuclear bomb over the United States to shut down our electrical system by means of an EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) attack. These individuals and groups, ranging from the formerly esteemed to the crackpot, have forgotten that the U.S. has a LOT of nuclear weapons, many of which are riding around underneath the oceans on submarines.  So any nation that attempts this type of attack would almost immediately be the recipient of actual nuclear bombs exploding on their soil. Despite claims to the contrary, there does not yet exist a regime in our time that would willingly commit national suicide.

However, the risk from solar storms such as the one that struck the Earth this week is real.  Hopefully, eventually, (maybe even fancifully?), we as a nation will make the necessary investments to mitigate against even more damaging events.

Video of the gorgeous outcome of this assault below.  More pictures here, here, and here.

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March 17, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 2

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 17, 2015

I was in a room with two dozen people who think for a living. The meeting was called to discuss potential changes in a largely successful homeland security program. The person leading the meeting made it clear that we were just looking for ideas. No decisions had been made, or would be made. It was just about ideas.

No one in the room believed any of that.

I didn’t speak to everyone who attended, but I did talk to a lot of them. Every one of them thought about what impact any program change would have on their job.

But you could not tell that from the conversation. Everyone was polite, creative, and very cautious.

“If it’s brainstorming you want, then it’s brainstorming you’ll get. But we’ll put some reins on the brain part, and we’ll make sure no one gets wiped away by the storm part.”

I would like to pretend I was immune from the rationalist delusion. But – even though I knew the words and the theory – I got sucked into it as much as anyone else in the room.

As best as I could tell we were all being eminently reasonable. Making claims, providing supporting evidence, listening to counterclaims and evidence – behaving the way people who think for a living are supposed to behave.

I even had a 3 x 5 card to remind me about Haidt’s conjecture:

Our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasions, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people…. Skilled arguers… are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.”

The 3 x 5 card did not help me much.


On this blog last week, Christian Beckner countered Michael Tanner’s proposal to break up the Department of Homeland Security. Both Tanner and Beckner offered enough material to test the hypothesis that “First comes the conclusion, then the reason for reaching the conclusion.”

“Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something. “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe it.

Arnold Bogis reasoned about Iranian nuclear negotiations. Can I believe his argument that what we’re really talking about is “straightforward risk management?” Must I believe him when he writes the political “climate has shifted to a never never land where… the inability to control events on the other side of the world… is a sign of weakness?”

Phil Palin is such an amazing writer, a poet, that I can’t completely trust his arguments. And I can’t really tell if he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me.

He started his March 12 post  with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“Men have lost their reason!” Mark Antony cries out.

I have read enough of Phil’s writing to know he is a fan of reason, a diehard optimist about reason, a “creature of reason” – as he writes.

I knew from the title of his post (Reason resurrected from reductionism) he would use the flower of his language to defend reason – even if that meant coming up with his own definition.

“Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.” 

Maybe we’re not there yet, he argues. But don’t give up on it.

Must I believe him? Can I believe him?

Palin ends Mark Anthony’s quote with an explanation mark. But the citation Palin provided shows Antony’s words ending with a period.

A small, overly pedantic observation on my part. But I’m suspicious.  Is Palin using the explanation point to try to supplant reason with emotion?

When you don’t have evidence, raise your voice?

And why use Shakespeare, Plato, Aquinas and the Old Testament to support your assertions? Why not show how reason works in homeland security?

When you don’t have evidence, cite something from the Western canon?

Last week in homeland security I heard debates about StingRay cellphone tracking, read Martha Crenshaw’s argument that there is no global jihadist movement, heard the 14 to 1 results of a secret Senate intelligence committee vote on the cybersecurity information sharing act, learned about a lawsuit to get NSA to stop spying on Wikipedia users, read an essay about the almost complete absence of empirical studies on the effectiveness of antiterrorism strategies, learned that the great ice sheet of West Antarctic may have become irreversibly destabilized, and saw a study that concluded parental attitudes about vaccines are impervious to evidence.

I read, saw or heard nothing in those issues to reignite a faith that Reason is a winning strategy to advance the security of the homeland. What I did hear echoes what Brutus said, before he turned the stage over to the silver tongued Mark Antony:

Public reasons shall be rendered.

What Brutus did not say out loud is:

“We can’t revel our private reasons; as people will argue for the next 500 years, we don’t even know ourselves why we do this stuff.”

(A belated Happy Ides of March, by the way.)


My central observation last week remains the same this week: when it comes to homeland security policy, politics, or strategy, reason at best is a delusion, at worse it is a siren call to keep staring into the sun.

The social intuitionist perspective – the circle and arrows chart Palin featured in his March 12th post – is (in my opinion) an accurate depiction of homeland security’s dominant mode of inquiry: First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason.

Must I believe that?  Can I believe that? Or do I hold on to a delusion that any day now Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear?


Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about how to thrive amid the cacophony of delusion and intuition. I think we can do better.

And I think Palin may be on to something with this relationship business.

But this post has gone on much too long, so I’ll postpone the optimism for next week.

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March 14, 2015

Watch carefully, explain frequently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 13, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 13, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

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March 12, 2015

Reason resurrected from reductionism

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 12, 2015

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,–not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?–
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!

Mark Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

Jonathan Haidt, an honorable man, has caused Chris Bellavita, they are all honorable men, to doubt his long-held affection for — even worship of — Reason.  According to some readings of Haidt, the scripture, liturgy and authority of Reason is unveiled as deadly delusion.

I disagree. Rather, in the apparent death of their god they can find Reason resurrected, clarified, and even more capable.

I am not sure how Chris has viewed Reason.  But Jonathan has been prolific on the topic.  Haidt was apparently raised to understand reason as highly individualized and, if its liturgy was accurately observed, producing demonstrably dogmatic outcomes.

Consider Plato’s allegory of the cave: detach it from all the rest of the Dialogues and the whole pre-Socratic context. Haidt’s highly reductionist reason is achieved through the individual’s painful  ascent to the light and direct encounter with reality; which among other gifts, brings the enlightened to a state of patronizing disdain:

He would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?… Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? (The Republic, Book VII, Socrates to Glaucon)

Haidt has found this reason, which he long studied, attempted to master and live-out, to be a profound hypocrisy.  He has rejected it.

Haidt_social intuition model

Above is a visualization of Haidt’s alternative to reason, the Social Intuitionist Model, from a 2001 journal article entitled The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  Please envision many other participants in the social process (B, C, D, etc.) and step through all six steps as outlined. Imagine a maze (or, I would argue, labyrinth) of interconnections.

Don’t miss Haidt’s comments in the fine print, “Two additional links are hypothesized to occur less frequently: (5) the reasoned judgment link and (6) the private reflection link.”  Less frequent, perhaps, but in these links reason has been reclaimed from calcified post-Enlightenment reductionism.  This is the crucial opportunity for self-critique, critical thinking, and creativity.

For too long, too many have presumed that our social reality could be functionally framed as some Newtonian system of cause-and-effect.  This has always been a mechanistic fallacy that fails to embrace the fundamentally affective character of human experience and relationships.  It mistakes sense-making as meaning-making.  There are overlaps, but meaning requires much more than “fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data.”  Meaning may be data-informed, it is almost never data-driven.

In links 5 and 6 Haidt restores the potential of reason inasmuch as reason is anchored in community, in relationships, and in beliefs, intuitions, heuristics and prejudices. Links 5 and 6 will often be subversive to all these predispositions. Greater objectivity is possible.  But it is absolutely delusional to perceive reason can exclude the subjective. Meaning is — finally — humanistic, not algorithmic. Reason is how we engage the world together, more or less rigorously, more or less effectively, but together.  Reason is to discern a possible path, a working hypothesis for how we can — together — engage our common context.

Reason does not reject the possibility of individual enlightenment or personal expertise.  But neither does reason grant any innate privilege to such possibilities. Aquinas wrote, “Reason in man is rather as God in the world.”  Must I be so explicit as to emphasize both reason and God are encountered in love and relationship?

If you know Shakespeare, who is the more reasonable: Brutus or Mark Antony?  I strongly perceive it is the latter.  Brutus depends too much on his own logic, his own analysis, his own strength. He becomes trapped in isolated self-contradiction.  Mark Antony engages the crowd.  He begins by acknowledging vulnerability.  He argues from feeling.  It is through this feeling that he reasons.  We see — even better, we feel — him thinking aloud with us. (First Plebeian: “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.”)

The famous eulogy is often played as cynical manipulation.  This is not the only, nor best option. Read it again and imagine Mark Antony afraid, uncertain, but finding just enough courage to give voice to his intuition, to his judgment, and as the crowd listens and responds positively to this reasoning with them, to press further than he imagined when first he began.

Worship of fallaciously reductionist reason has seriously complicated homeland security.  The national security priestly class has assumed ecclesiastical authority.  A temple-centric policy and strategy apparatus has sometimes presumed to know and impose dogma.  Acknowledging uncertainty and vulnerability can be branded as weakness or heresy.  Projecting competence and confidence, regardless of inner doubts, has become a too often unexamined habit.  Like Brutus we have trapped ourselves, even betrayed ourselves.

If the prior 844 words have fairly heard Chris Bellavita (and Jonathan Haidt) and if my response, especially where I disagree, honors the dignity of my antagonists and acknowledges the possibility I may be wrong, then I have exercised reason.  If by starting with a Shakespeare quote and continuing with Plato and Aquinas, as well as Haidt, I have effectively dissuaded others from engaging with me, then I have acted unreasonably.  To the extent I invite and involve others, I am a creature of reason.  To the extent my rhetoric or actions reject a relationship with others, I am being unreasonable.

I look forward to Part 2.

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March 11, 2015

Some reasonable thoughts on the Iranian nuclear negotiations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to speak uncomfortable truths:

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

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

Going one more level down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do we need DHS? Yes.

Filed under: DHS News,General Homeland Security — by Christian Beckner on March 11, 2015

(Note: this piece is cross-posted from the GW Center for Cyber & Homeland Security’s blog, Security Insights.)

The CATO Institute released a short opinion piece today by one of its senior fellows, Michael Tanner, entitled “Do we need the DHS?” This story follows on a long legacy of similar opinion pieces in the news media, such as this piece from 2013. The new piece from CATO raises the question, following the recent resolution of the DHS funding debate, as to whether the Department of Homeland Security is needed. The piece lists off a number of the Department’s weaknesses and challenges, such as diffuse Congressional oversight, challenges with grants management, and morale issues – all of which are legitimate issues. But the piece then makes a gargantuan logical jump to assert that the Department of Homeland Security should be broken up in light of these problems and challenges. This proposal, if implemented, would be disastrous in terms of DHS’s performance of its key missions and would be contrary to the principles of effective government management.

I don’t think that there is a strong likelihood of proposals such as this being seriously considered by Congress, but I still think that it is important to push back against arguments such as this, and make the case for the ongoing value and necessity of the Department of Homeland Security. There is a long list of arguments that I could make here, but I’ll summarize my case with these four:

First, and most importantly, the Department in many respects has become much more than the sum of its parts in the last decade, with respect to its operational mission performance. CBP, ICE, USCIS and the Coast Guard all work together to carry out the Department’s border security and immigration missions. CBP, TSA and ICE all work together to prevent terrorist and other illicit travel (e.g. human trafficking) to the United States. FEMA and the Coast Guard have become closer since DHS was created in terms of their disaster response roles, and other operational components have been called on to support major disaster response efforts. ICE, the Secret Service, and NPPD all have significant cybersecurity responsibilities, and are working more closely together in support of their respective cyber activities. And all of the operational entities of DHS have some role (although admittedly not the lead federal role) in counterterrorism, and DHS information has played a critical role in disrupting several of the higher-profile terrorist plots targeting the United States over the past 7-8 years.

Second, the Department has played the critical federal role since its inception in integrating state and local law enforcement and first responders into supporting its missions. This is true not only with respect to FEMA and disaster response, but equally importantly with respect to counterterrorism, and increasingly in the last few years with respect to cybersecurity. (Of note on this issue, contrary to the CATO piece, fusion centers are not “operated by the DHS” – they are entities owned and operated by state and local governments, each with a small number of federal employees detailed by DHS and DOJ.)

Third, stories such as this promote a distorted perspective on the growth of DHS over the past thirteen years. The story says that “spending has skyrocketed, tripling from $18 billion per year in 2002 to more than $54 billion last year.” This statistic likely refers to the OMB’s government-wide crosscut of homeland security spending, but that annual analysis is not solely about DHS; OMB’s numbers include items such as domestic force protection at the Department of Defense and biosecurity programs at HHS. In reality, the DHS budget has grown since its inception from $36 billion in FY 2002 to $55 billion in FY 2011 – but this growth rate is far from a “tripling” of the budget. (Budget numbers taken from DHS’s response to a Question for the Record by Sen. Ron Johnson from a 2011 Senate hearing. See numbered pages 1029-1031 of this very large PDF.)

It’s also worth noting that most of this growth was not due to sprawling bureaucracy but due to increases to frontline operational capacity, in terms of personnel (notably the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol), technology and infrastructure. The reality is that the parts of DHS that I would consider to be “headquarters” – the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management (OSEM), the Office of the Undersecretary of Management, the Offices of Operations Coordination and Intelligence Analysis, and the Science and Technology Directorate – account for only 1.7% of the DHS workforce, a large share of whom are carrying out government-wide Congressional mandates in areas such as IT management and financial oversight.

Fourth, anyone who proposes dismantling DHS should have the burden of proposing what they would do with its constituent parts, and how such an initiative would improve the performance of the Department’s current missions. The five entities that have responsibility for immigration, border security and travel security (CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, TSA), where the rationale for operational integration is strongest, account for 195,000 of the Department’s 225,000 employees – around 87%. Is the author proposing that these five entities should not be within the same Cabinet department? If he is, he’s making a proposal that will have a serious negative impact on the government’s performance of these missions. If he is not, then he’s not really proposing to break up DHS, but instead proposing a more moderate tinkering, perhaps by returning the Secret Service to the Treasury or making FEMA an independent agency again. I wouldn’t recommend either of these; in particular, I think FEMA is now critically interlinked with many other parts of DHS. The reality is that there is no realistic option for a major overhaul of DHS that does not have significant operational impacts.

My bottom line: is the Department of Homeland Security today everything that Congress envisioned it to be when it created it in 2002? No, not yet. (And this is in part due to external factors beyond the Department’s control, such as (a) the decisions in 2002-2003 to hobble its intelligence-related mandate from the start by creating TTIC and the Terrorist Screening Center outside of DHS (b) and the ongoing dysfunctional structure of Congressional oversight). But has it made substantial progress toward realizing this vision? Yes. Would additional major organizational changes improve the performance of DHS’s current missions? No, and they would more likely backfire, and introduce substantial new operational and management-related risks.

For all of these reasons, and others, we still need DHS. And we’re better served as a nation by an ongoing policy discussion focused on how it can be improved and made more efficient, rather than a debate about breaking it up.

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March 10, 2015

Homeland Security and the Delusion of Reason: Part 1

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 10, 2015

Last Thursday Phil Palin argued optimistically that the resolution of the DHS budget problem was a “triumph of reason.”  As usual, he gave several elegant, and if one did not look too carefully, compelling justifications for his conclusion.

I think Phil was fundamentally wrong.  In my opinion what we saw in the budget dance was the triumph of power. The forces that wanted to reverse Obama’s immigration policy were too weak to overcome the Congressional forces that wanted to move on to something else.

I saw no evidence to suggest Reason (yes, I know it’s capitalized) had anything to do with it.

Unless you want to say that Power creates its own reason, its own truth.

I don’t think that’s where Palin was going.


The problem I have with Reason is its unquestioned normative dominance.

I know I’m being unreasonable when I complain about Palin’s triumph of reason simply by asserting another reason.

I know, however, if I acknowledge I’m being unreasonable, I can be forgiven – because I’m being reasonable again.

That’s the game.


“We are still living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest,” wrote Andre Breton in 1924.  But he was being surrealistically silly, and therefore easy to ignore.


I don’t think reason has much to do with homeland security – at least not the interesting bits of homeland security.

Yes, it plays a role in many aspects of the scientific and administrative parts of security.

But when it comes to policy, politics, or strategy, not so much.


I run the risk here of trying to use reason to construct an argument about the limits of reason in homeland security. That path leads to a Kafkaesque madness that I’ll pretend — for now —is not attractive.

I’ll defer for the time being to the general argument about the “rationalist delusion” developed by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. (The excerpts come from pages 103-108.)


A delusion is “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”

Reason gets to decide what’s a delusion and what isn’t.  How cool is that?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


Haidt writes

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods…, or [for the new atheists] that brings us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods…. [It is] a claim that the rational caste (philosophers and scientists [and people who write on blogs]) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.”

Where did we in the west learn about the pre-eminent value of being reasonable? Look to the philosophers, scientists and educators for that.

Thanks, Socrates.

But Reason gave us the internet and the iWatch and pharmaceuticals and abundant food and airplanes and so on — say the philosophers and scientists and educators. So reason’s got to be a good thing.


These Reason Advocates “believe reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

So reason not only makes the trains run on time (if that still happens), it’s also the cause of good behavior.

Haidt reports, tangentially, on one experiment designed to test the assumption that moral philosophers – people who spend a lot of time reasoning about doing the right thing – might behave better than other people.

Turned out they do not.

One conclusion from the study Haidt describes: “[Academic] books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.”


The argument is a longer one than I am summarizing here. But Haidt’s conclusion is succinct:

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.”

In at least the social and political domains, we tend not to use reason to search for the truth. Instead, says the evidence Haidt offers, our ability to reason “evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… ‘skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views’.”


Reasoning, says Haidt, is “more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

First comes the conclusion. Then comes the reason for reaching the conclusion.

“Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but “Must I believe it?” when we don’t want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.”

Test the claim for yourself.  In the following story by Peter Baker, which comes first your conclusion or your reasoning?

The fractious debate over a possible nuclear deal with Iran escalated on Monday as 47 Republican senators warned Iran about making an agreement with President Obama, and the White House accused them of undercutting foreign policy.

In a rare direct congressional intervention into diplomatic negotiations, the Republicans signed an open letter addressed to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” declaring that any agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”…

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

“It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “It’s an unusual coalition.”


As someone whose religion was — and may still be — Reason, I was not easily convinced by the arguments summarized by Haidt (and other behavioral economists and psychologists). Eventually, however, his reasons and evidence have become increasingly persuasive to me. (Yes, I see Kafka’s irony again.)   I believe Haidt is correct asserting the worship of Reason blinds as much as it enlightens.

What to do about this, especially in homeland security?

Haidt – and others – have ideas about how to manage the delusion enabled by Reason.

I’ll save that for another post.

 

 

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March 6, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

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March 5, 2015

Homeland security: reason versus truth

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on March 5, 2015

I don’t know anyone who was shocked when DHS funding was further delayed by contention between the House and Senate. This blog anticipated as much on January 29, and might have done so much earlier.

There was some surprise in the Department, at the White House, and on the Hill when last Friday’s first vote failed.  There had been an assumption our recently re-elected Speaker (or at least his Chief Whip) would be able to accurately discern the disposition of his conference.  Apparently not.

The most surprise I have heard has been reserved for Tuesday’s bipartisan comparatively low-drama resolution of funding for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year.  And for anyone who was once nerdy enough to have their own dog-eared copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, our surprise is enhanced by a certain delight in hearing how Rule XXII played such an important part (see page 36).

As I try to think this through on Wednesday morning, there has not yet been time for most of the consequences to play out.  But — so often an optimist — I am ready to declare Tuesday to be a triumph of reason.

In offering this observation I am also attempting a broader claim regarding the nature and role of reason in homeland security.

On my Grandpa Palin’s back porch just above his favorite chair there was a needlepoint reading: “Come now, and let us reason together.”  This is a partial verse from the first chapter of the prophecy according to Isaiah.

As with any literature worth the name this chapter can be read in many different ways. But one rather literal reading is as an invitation by God to a profoundly sinful and therefore broken people to enter into relationship… into conversation… into shared consideration.

The original Hebrew translated as reason is transliterated as yakach.  Depending on context this can be translated as argue, convince, judge, decide, and more.  It is derived from an ancient root meaning to be in front, in a clearing, in the sunshine, face-to-face.  Whatever else, there is a suggestion of achieving perceptive clarity.

In the first chapter of Isaiah this clarity is achieved by community and involves seeking justice, relieving  the oppressed, considering the fatherless,  and caring for the widow (verse 17). Evidently such activities undertaken together are clarifying.

Before this becomes even more a homily, for your consideration: Clarity is different than certainty.  Community consensus is different than individual insight.  These distinctions are crucial to the effective exercise of pre-Cartesian reason.

And, I suggest, we suffer from an excess of post-Cartesian reason.  Several weeks ago I happened to read: “In November 1628 Descartes was in Paris, where he made himself famous in a confrontation with Chandoux. Chandoux claimed that science could only be based on probabilities…. Descartes attacked this view, claiming that  only certainty could serve as a basis for knowledge, and that he himself had a method for attaining such certainty.”

I perceive this over-simplifies Descartes, but well-summarizes his cultural impact.  It is — back to homiletic — the modern era’s most profound and treacherous sin: The belief that certainty is possible — in some cases, necessary — engenders fruitless delay, pernicious pride, over-confidence, unnecessary conflict, manifest complications, perpetual frustrations.

This is especially the case whenever the problem involved is innately uncertain: as is the case with much of homeland security.

What pre-Cartesian reason encourages is clarity of decision and action that does not — because it cannot — depend on certainty.  This is reason that arises from shared humility, ongoing conversation, vigorous argument, careful listening and a commitment to advancing a vision of the Good that is as tentative as it is tangible.

On Tuesday those most certain of right and wrong lost the vote in the House.  It was, I hope, a clarifying experience… potentially for all of us.

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March 3, 2015

DHS budget theater: still not very funny.

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Christopher Bellavita on March 3, 2015

As you can see from the random selection of cartoons below, even otherwise reliable political cartoonists can’t come up with anything amusing, insightful, ironic or even nasty about the continuing congressional stage play over homeland security funding.

It’s as if – like congress – cartoonists are just going through the motions.  There’s no creativity, innovation, or leadership.  They seem to simply be waiting for the next deadline to turn something in.

Just like the cartoonists.

Judge for yourself.

Dhs 10 2015 03 01 22 27 25

Dhs 9 2015 03 01 21 44 53

DHS 8 2015 03 01 21 43 50

Dhs 7 2015 03 01 21 42 38

Dhs 6 2015 03 01 21 39 14

Dhs 5

Dhs 12 2015 03 01 22 39 51

Dhs 11 2015 03 01 22 38 50

Dhs 2 2015 03 01 21 34 09

Dhs 3 2015 03 01 21 35 16

Homeland security 1 2015 03 01 21 31 26

Dhs 14 2015 03 01 22 42 15

Dhs 13 2015 03 01 22 41 07

Dhs 4 2015 03 01 21 37 46

Yep. See you next week. Right after the second act.

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February 28, 2015

DHS: Another seven days

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Immigration — by Philip J. Palin on February 28, 2015

According to The Hill:

A partial government shutdown was narrowly avoided late Friday evening as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a surprise move to back legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for one week.

Pelosi’s support helped Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) move the one-week bill through the House in a 357-60 vote just after 10 p.m., with 55 Republicans and 5 Democrats voting against it. The Senate passed the one-week funding bill in a voice vote.

President Obama signed the bill just before midnight.

On Thursday Secretary Johnson gathered various federal, state, and local participants in homeland security to highlight the impact of a closure or continued delay in adopting more than a stop-gap Continuing Resolution.  See details at DHS website.

Friday the Secretary released a 46-page Contingency Plan providing some specifics on how a hiatus in funding would impact each DHS agency and function.

–+–

There are 247 Republicans in the current House of Representatives.  As recent votes demonstrate just about fifty are much more “Know-Nothings” than Reagan Republicans.  Lincoln specifically fought the influence of the original Know-Nothings during the founding of the Republican Party.

The Know-Nothing movement of the 19th Century was a mostly non-urban, middle-class, nativist reaction to dramatic social and economic transformation that happened to coincide with a rapid influx of Irish and German Catholics.  The strong anti-immigrant stance of the movement can be seen as projecting on specific “others” the blame for a great deal of threatening “otherness.”

In the current context, the power of this nativist — and nostalgic — minority is amplified by what I call the Cantor Effect and the structure of most party primaries.

The surprise defeat of Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, in his 2014 primary has been credited (accurately or not) to the power of this highly motivated and well-organized rump of the Republican Party.  They will show up and vote when other Republicans have not. Most estimates with which I am familiar suggest roughly 25-to-35 percent of self-identified Republicans perceive border security and immigration as top priorities.  But in many congressional districts nearly two-thirds of actual primary voters consider these and related issues top priorities.

These latter-day Know-Nothings are not just willing to hold DHS hostage to achieve their rather specific objectives.  They are holding-hostage the entire Republican Party, threatening Cantor-like outcomes in primaries across the nation unless their colleagues accommodate their priorities.

Hostage-taking is a reasonable choice for a minority attempting to punch-above its actual weight.  Responding to such a tactic is always treacherous.

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February 27, 2015

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 27, 2015

William R. Cumming Forum

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DHS Appropriation Update

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on February 27, 2015

UPDATED ON FRIDAY EVENING

According to The Hill:

A short-term funding measure to keep the Department of Homeland Security open (DHS) was defeated in the House on Friday in a stunning vote that could result in a partial government shutdown at midnight.

The bill failed 203-224, with 52 Republicans voting against legislation that was set to fund the DHS and its associated agencies through March 19. Twelve Democrats voted for it…

The next steps on the funding bill are not clear, with a shutdown of the agency just hours away.

MORE

According to The Hill, as of 9 PM EST on Thursday:

The House will vote Friday on a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks in an attempt to avert a shutdown slated for Saturday at the massive agency.

If the bill is approved by the House, the Senate is expected to quickly follow suit — though the upper chamber also plans to move forward with a bill funding Homeland Security through the end of the fiscal year.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the new strategy to his rank-and-file members during a closed-door caucus meeting Thursday night. Senior Republicans predicted it would win enough support to clear the lower chamber.

“I think we’ve got plentiful support. I was very pleased with the response. I think it’ll be a very strong vote,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told reporters after the meeting.

MORE.

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February 26, 2015

Good News

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 26, 2015

As we watch in awe and anticipation the murmuration of the DHS appropriation process; wonder over weather patterns emerging in the mid-Pacific heading toward Birmingham, Nashville, and Boston; consider the fractalizing of Salafist jihadism and complex adaptation of global climate; attempt to calculate the spectral radius of water systems, supply chains, telecommunications and the grid; and worry — at least a bit — about all the hidden interdependencies social, technical, and ecological that seem increasingly predisposed to rear their ugly heads… I offer for your late February consideration (consolation) three threads of good news.

Back to School in Liberia

Libera_back to school_UN Photo: United Nations

Thousands of Liberian school children returned to school last week, as several measures designed to facilitate “social distancing” were curtailed.  During the second week in February only two new cases of Ebola were reported in Liberia. (During the same period there were a total of 126 new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea.)  Risks continue.  Secondary and tertiary effects have been (will be) considerable.  Liberia experienced over 3900 deaths from the disease.  But outside help combined with amazing courage and community engagement by the local population has turned a corner in Liberia.

No Deaths in West Virginia

Train Derailment_Mt CarbonPhoto: Marcus Constantino, Reuters

Despite what is shown above and what most of us have seen on television, no one died and damage appears to have been modest (given the energy expended) as a result of the amazing CSX train derailment near Mt. Carbon, West Virginia.

Some of this is just random… fractal… luck.  Thirty minutes before the derailment, the oil tankers were rolling along the streets and neighborhoods of West Virginia’s largest city. Ice in the Kanawha and nearby streams helped contain the spillage. Time and space can be helpful friends.

But a colleague in West Virginia also reports that CSX, state, local and Coast Guard responders were competent and mostly well-organized.  The incident command system actually worked.  The McClatchy News Service reports that many of those responding had attended a railway accident training function in October and applied important lessons-learned.

Policy and strategy concerns are abundant, but some specific mitigation and preparedness measures paid off just a bit south of Charleston.

Circle of Peace around Synagogue

Circle_of_PeacePhoto: Reuters

According to a Norwegian newspaper:

Over 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue on Saturday, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community and condemning an attack on a synagogue in neighboring Denmark last weekend.

The entire area resonated with chants of  “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” Norway’s Muslims formed what they called a ring of peace a week after Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, a Danish-born son of Palestinian immigrants, killed two people at a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen last weekend.

According to an organizer, Zeeshan Abdullah, the event was organised to show that there are more peace loving people than warmongers. “Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that, he said in front of a crowd of Muslim immigrants and ethnic Norwegians who filled the small street around Oslo’s only functioning synagogue.

The challenges we face — natural, accidental or intentional — are real.  Even our good news can be plenty ambiguous.  But to neglect or dismiss the possibility of good is no better risk management than to deny an emerging threat.

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