Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 9, 2013

The answer to that (specific) question is no

Filed under: Legal Issues — by Philip J. Palin on March 9, 2013

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March 8, 2013

Snowquester: Prevention was wise (as far as human wisdom goes)

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on March 8, 2013

On Wednesday the threat of snow shut down much of DC.  Very little snow penetrated the Beltway.   In the wake of the “unnecessary” shut-down has come a blizzard of second-guessing.

I perceive three broad critiques:

Bad Intelligence Analysis (in this context called weather forecasting):  From a late February blogpost by weather-geek Cliff Mass, “U.S. numerical weather prediction is lagging behind the European Center and others–a diagnosis pretty much universally accepted in my field. I listed some of the reasons: inferior computers, poor management, lack of effective leadership, inability to tap the large U.S. weather research community, and others.” (At the Cliff Mass Blog you will find thoughtful self-critical analysis of the weather profession specific to the Snowquester).

Poor Communication between Intelligence Community and Decision-makers: “We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.”  More self-critique from the Weather Gang, “Communication of uncertainty is something the entire weather forecasting community should strive to improve… One of the reasons, as we get closer to the onset of the storm, that we drop some uncertainty information is that some readers want to know the bottom line, without qualification. They view scenarios and percentages as “cop-outs.” Ultimately, there has to be a sweet spot, where we can effectively communicate uncertainty concisely and effectively while also presenting a most likely forecast. We’re constantly working to find that and came up short in this last case.”

Over-dependence on Signal Intelligence (weather models) contrasted with Human Intelligence (common sense):  A reader comment posted on the Weather Gang’s blog, “Driving my car on Tuesday afternoon I listened to dire predictions of snow for Wednesday. Somehow I couldn’t equate the fifty six degree reading on my dashboard thermometer with the supposed 5-10 inches of snow set for the next day. Do weather forecasters ever engage in predictions that include going outside?  Sorry, my mistake I referred to them as weather forecasters and of course we know it’s weather guessers.”

Meanwhile about thirty miles west of the Beltway– and admittedly a thousand feet higher — the snow accumulated to over ten inches and power was out for tens of thousands.

Uncertainty can be denied, but it persists.  There is no “sweet spot”.  Humans cannot communicate clearly enough for everyone to accurately hear.  Many will not even listen.

Randomness is fundamental reality.  Perceiving patterns is possible, but precise prediction should not — cannot — be depended upon.  We have some important control along the margins, but we should not fool ourselves into overestimating  our capacity.  On a global scale a thirty mile margin is pretty impressive.

We will fail in both directions.  This time we seem over-cautious.  Some day soon we will seem neglectful.  There are consequences both ways.

The readiness to self-critique demonstrated in this instance is encouraging.  We should learn what we can.  But it is a profound error — the ultimate in tragic hubris — for any of us to expect perfection of ourselves or others.

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March 7, 2013

Issues in Homeland Security Policy for the 113th Congress

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on March 7, 2013

Congressional Research Service (CRS) published its outline of homeland security issues facing the 113th congress.  You can find a copy of the 70 page CRS report on the Federation of American Scientists’ CRS homeland security reports page.

Here is a direct link to the report:  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R42985.pdf

From the Introduction:

This report outlines an array of homeland security issues that may come before the 113th Congress. After a brief discussion of the overall homeland security budget, the report divides the specific issues into five broad categories:

• Counterterrorism and Security Management,

• Border Security and Trade,

• Immigration,

• Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, and

• Departmental Management.

Each of those areas contains a survey of topics briefly analyzed by Congressional Research Service experts. The information included only scratches the surface on most of these issues.

More detailed information can be obtained by consulting the CRS reports referenced herein, or by contacting the relevant CRS expert.

 

On a related topic, here’s my favorite Doonesbury report on CRS (click for a larger image):

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March 6, 2013

Our secular Trinity: supply chain, critical infrastructure, and cyber security

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Infrastructure Protection,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2013

Above from the conclusion to Zorba the Greek, please don’t watch and listen until reading post, then it might make some sense.

–+–

Late Tuesday a third key component in an emerging national strategic architecture was highlighted on the White House website.  The Implementation Update for the National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security outlines progress made (and if you read carefully between the lines, problems experienced) over the last twelve months since the Strategy itself was released.

This update — and the original National Strategy — should be read along side Presidential Policy Directive: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience (February 12, 2013) and the Executive Order: Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (February 12, 2013).

Together these documents frame a new Trinitarian order: three distinct strategies of one substance, essence, and nature. Trade depends on production, transport of goods and communication of demand.   We can also say economic vitality depends on these factors.  Often  life itself depends on these mysteriously mutual movements.

The Supply Chain is a particular manifestation of the mystery that benefits from specific attention.   Most minds will not immediately apprehend the wholeness of  cyber, critical infrastructure and supply chains.   A purposeful focus can help. But the Implementation Update is explicit regarding the connections and — much more than connections — the interdependence and indivisibility of the Strategic Trinity:

Priority actions include… building resilient critical infrastructures by creating new incentives… to encourage industry stakeholders to build resilience into their supply chains, which then strengthens  the system overall; mapping the interdependencies among the supply chains of the various critical infrastructure sectors (such as energy, cyber, and transportation); and creating common resilience metrics and standards for worldwide use and implementation.

There are, however, heretics.  Personally I tend toward a Unitarian perspective.   Others insist on the primacy of Cyber or of Critical Infrastructure. Some others recognize the relationship of Cyber and Critical Infrastructure but dismiss equal attention being given to Supply Chain. There are also “Pentecostals”, especially among the private sector laity, who celebrate Supply Chain almost to the exclusion of the other aspects of the Trinity.  I might extend the analogy to principles of Judaism, Islam, and other worldviews.  I won’t. (Can I hear a loud Amen?)

If this theological analogy is not to your taste,  then read the three policy documents along side a fourth gospel: Alfred Thayer Mahan’s  The Influence of Seapower Upon History.  Admiral Mahan wrote:

In these three things—production (with the necessity of exchanging products) shipping (whereby the exchange is carried on) and colonies (which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety)—is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations…

The functional benefits of colonies have been superseded by the signaling capabilities of multinational corporations, global exchanges and transnational communication, but the Trinitarian structure persists. Mahan called the Sea the “great common” from which and through which “men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others.”

Around these lines of travel, civilization is constructed, information is exchanged, and trade is conducted.   A bridge (critical infrastructure) may determine the direction of trade (supply chain), but the information and money exchanged (cyber) in the village beside the bridge may send supply in previously unexpected directions.   Today the bridge may be a digital link, the village an electronic exchange, and the product an elusive formula for the next new wonder drug.  But still the three must work together.  Corruption or collapse of one aspect will unravel the other two.

Our secular trinity is not eternal. There are ongoing sources of corruption.  There are prior examples of collapse.

I was involved in some of the activities and consultations noted in the Implementation Update.   Some personal impressions:  Many government personnel are predisposed to control.  Many in the private sector have a deep desire for clarity.  Each tendency is understandable.  Each tendency is a potentially profound source of dysfunction.   I know this is not exactly a surprise.

But… the desire for clarity can easily become reductionist, even atomist.  Imposing such radical clarification leads to a kind of analytical surrealism.   Some “lean” supply chains are absolutely anorexic.    The desire for control is justified by (sometimes self-generated) complication.  The more complicated the context, the more — it is said — that control is needed.   The more the laity seeks to deny complexity, the more the priests justify the need for their control.   Both tendencies miss the mark. (Sin in Hebrew is chattath, from the root chatta, the Greek equivalent is hamartia. All these words mean to miss the mark.)  The purpose of our secular Trinity is to hit the mark when, where, and with what is wanted.

There is at least one explanation  of the sacred Trinity relevant to our secular version.  John of Damascus characterized the Trinity as a perichoresis — literally a “dance around” — where, as in a Greek folk dance, distinct lines of dancers (e.g. men, women, and children) each display their own steps and flourishes, but are clearly engaging the same rhythm,  maintain their own identity even as each line dissolves into the others… in common becoming The Dance.

Rather than obsessive control or absolute clarity, the Trinity is a shared dance.  We need to learn to dance together.

Just getting private and public to hear the same music would be a good start.

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March 5, 2013

Knives on planes again. Well, some knives.

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

The Transportation Security Agency blog says some knives and some sporting equipment will be allowed back on planes, in late April.

According to the announcement,

…the following items [will be permitted] in carry-on bags [and presumably -- for knives -- in one's pocket] beginning April 25th:

  • Small Pocket Knives – Small knives with non-locking blades smaller than 2.36 inches and less than 1/2 inch in width will be permitted
  • Small Novelty Bats and Toy Bats
  • Ski Poles
  • Hockey Sticks
  • Lacrosse Sticks
  • Billiard Cues
  • Golf Clubs (Limit Two)

The change “is part of an overall Risk-Based Security approach” whose hermetically mysterious internal analytics can distinguish between the risks associated with a 6 centimeter, half inch wide, non-locking blade; and the risks created by a 7 centimeter, three-quarter inch wide, locking blade.

Maybe there is some science behind the metric.  But if the decision process was similar to many of the early TSA decisions Kip Hawley described in his book Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, there may have been more BOGSAT involved than science.

Whatever the rationale, for those who look at carrying knives as a 2nd Amendment right, a bit of pre-9/11 freedom is coming to an airport near you on April 25th.

It’s probably not a coincidence April 25th was selected to allow knives to return to flight. It is the 329th anniversary of the first patent for a thimble.

The date may also reflect the sense of humor of whoever at TSA decided small knives are an acceptable risk. On April 25th, 221 years ago, Nicolas Pelletier became the first person to be executed by guillotine – a different kind of knife.

 

Here are the TSA-provided pictures outlining the new rules (click on the image to make it bigger):

 

 

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Eight homeland security stories

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Ok, more than a few sentences]

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

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

Also, a new technique:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 3, 2013

Over your cities grass will grow

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 3, 2013

Opening today at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, is a group exhibit entitled: Disaster/The End of Days.

From the curator’s catalogue:

The word disaster comes from “disastro” (dis- and astrum, “bad star” or “star out of position,” thought to cause harm). It expresses the notion of catastrophe, decline and destruction, a wholly negative event. The theme of disaster has a rich iconography and set of interpretations, and continues to fascinate contemporary artists. This exhibition looks at current perceptions of disaster through a dialogue between artists from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds, working in media from painting to photography, video and installation.

Ezra Pound claimed that artists are the antennae of the race.   Long-incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (now site of the supposedly or potentially permanent Department of Homeland Security headquarters), the poet also complained “the bullet headed many” do not pay attention to meaning transmitted by the antennae.  Contemporary artists are seldom optimistic.

One of the artists featured at today’s Paris opening is Anselm Kiefer.  The video clip is from a documentary on Kiefer.  MORE.

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March 1, 2013

Secretary Napolitano on “What is homeland security?”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 1, 2013

From “The State of Homeland Security Address with Secretary Janet Napolitano,” on February 26, 2013, at Brookings. [My emphasis, below]

[MS. KAMARCK]: Okay. And finally, at a recent hearing on your Department, researchers at the Congressional Research Services pointed out that 30 other agencies in addition to DHS have homeland security in their missions. And they were critical that there was no consistent federal definition of homeland security. Does this matter?

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: Well, it would probably be, you know, nice, but it doesn’t really matter in practice. That’s the first I’ve ever even heard that, and I’ve been Secretary four plus years. So it’s certainly not affecting my day-to-day work. (Laughter)

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: But here’s the thing. Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, HSPD 5, I mean, there’s really a clear outlining of when you have a big complicated event, what is the role of DHS. And BP is a good example of this, which is to coordinate and lead multiple agencies who are responding, and there it was the EPA, and Energy, and Interior just to name a few. 

And we actually for months after the spill at a Cabinet-level, secretaries and the administrators would get twice-daily or once daily on the phone, weekends, it didn’t matter, going through what everyone was doing, what the response was, what some of the big issues were. And that really helped coordinate the response.

And I think, you know, in the aftermath looking back, again you always learn lessons. There’s always things you would do better or differently. But in the context of the largest oil spill of its type, I think really worked well to help mitigate the damage. And we did that after Sandy as well.

So in practice, what we mean by homeland security is what I said. It’s agility. It is the ability to prevent as well as protect. It’s the ability to continue to innovate. That’s what we consider to be homeland security.

And lastly, it is a sense that it is not the responsibility of one government department. It’s not the responsibility solely of the federal government. You have the states that have a critical responsibility. Governor O’Malley is here. Cities have a responsibility. And every single person has a responsibility in the security realm for the safety of themselves, but also of each other.

So trying to in DHS 3.0 inculcate that and just make it — this is one of the things we do, like putting on a seat belt, will be important for us.

 

If you have the time, it’s worth watching the Secretary answer this question (at the 50:40 mark on the video, available on the Brookings site). You can see how she constructs her definition of homeland security as she speaks.

I also liked the look on her face at the 51 minute mark when she thinks about the question and says “That’s the first I’ve ever even heard [about the lack of a consistent federal definition of homeland security], and I’ve been Secretary four plus years. So it’s certainly not affecting my day-to-day work.”

I found Secretary Napolitano’s response to be an interesting example of the gap between the practice and the theory of homeland security.

(Hat Tip to Zach Rausnitz at FierceHomelandSecurity)

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February 28, 2013

Connecting dots in Africa

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 28, 2013

Last Friday the President informed Congress that:

Forty additional U.S. military personnel entered Niger with the consent of the Government of Niger. This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region. The total number of U.S. military personnel deployed to Niger is approximately 100. The recently deployed forces have deployed with weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security.

The deployment is widely reported as supporting expanded operations from a US drone base near Niamey, Niger’s capital city.

Earlier this week the Strauss Center at the University of Texas published a research brief that concludes:

The analysis shows that the levels of violent Islamist activity in Africa have risen sharply in recent years, both in absolute and proportional terms. While much of this increase has been driven by the intensification of conflict in a small number of key countries,there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and eastward on the continent. Differences within and across violent Islamist groups reveal differential objectives, strategies, and modalities of violence across Africa. With ongoing conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali among the most violent in Africa – and evidence of the spread of violent Islamist activity across Africa – violent Islamist groups, their activities, and objectives are likely to remain extremely influential both nationally and internationally.

The research was finished prior to recent clashes with French and other forces in Mali.

On February 20, the same day that US Africa Command opened a major exercise with Cameroon’s military, Salafist fighters from neighboring Nigeria crossed the border and abducted a family of French tourists, now being held in an effort to influence the French intervention in Mali.  There are now 15 French hostages being held in North Africa.

The Hollande government has insisted it will not negotiate with the hostage takers.   In January a French hostage in Somalia was killed during an attempted rescue.

Yesterday the French Foreign Minister welcomed the new US Secretary of State by saying,

And it can be said that when France and the United States commit together, they can change things. It is the case in the Sahel, which we discussed, in Mali, where France committed and is determined to restore Mali’s integrity and stop the push of the terrorists. We benefitted from the full support of our American friends both politically and on the field. And I would like to thank the United States of America as well as John Kerry for the support granted to the intervention by France as well as the American forces against the terrorists.

Yesterday Nigeria completed its deployment of 1200 troops to Mali.    Tuesday the Wall Street Journal reported,

In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America’s strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter.

In the immediate aftermath of the hostage taking at the Algerian gas facility, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized:

This is a stark reminder, once again, of the threat we face from terrorism the world over. We have had successes in recent years in reducing the threat from some parts of the world, but the threat has grown particularly in north Africa. This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.

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February 26, 2013

Teaching what I need to learn

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on February 26, 2013

“What’s that hissing noise?”

It was 4:00 Tuesday morning. I was asleep. I thought my wife was asleep.

“Huh?” I asked, intelligently.

“That noise,” she said, sitting up in bed.

I did hear something. I got out of bed and looked out the window.

I heard hissing sounds. And popping sounds. Lots of them.

And I saw a red glow where there shouldn’t have been one.

A frighteningly ugly and much too close red glow.

“The shop’s on fire,” I said, using the name I gave to my study — a building about 300 feet from our house.

“Is it bad,” my wife asked.

“Yes. Get the kids out of the house.”

“Should I call 911?”

“Yes.”

 

Here’s what the outside of the shop looked like when we moved into our house a few years ago.

Here’s what it looked like from my bedroom window, at 4:16 on Tuesday morning.

My family practiced fire drills a few times a year. My kids took the drills seriously. So everyone was out of the house quickly, maybe under a minute. My wife and son moved the cars away from the house in case the fire spread.

It did not.

Even though our evacuation wasn’t perfect, I would like to believe the drills helped. At least at the margins.

As the preparedness experts suggest, our cars each have 72 hour emergency kits for the four of us, so that was a good thing. We also have a two week supply of food, water, blankets, and other recommended preparedness items.

I should say we “had,” rather than “have.” I kept our main preparedness kit in the shop.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

It also seemed like a good idea to use the shop as a study and library. The shop held something near 5,000 books that I’d started collecting when I was 18 (including the first two books I started with: Webster’s Collegiate and Roget’s Thesaurus). It had papers, notes, writings, and other relics of an academic life.

We used half the 1000 square-foot shop to store out-of-season clothes, tools, bikes, lawn mower, chainsaw, holiday decorations, camping equipment, pictures of the kids growing up, and the other miscellaneous items families keep, expecting to pass along to another generation.

 

I live in rural Oregon, so it seemed like 2 hours before the fire department showed up. Turns out it took them less than 5 minutes to get to my house.

Apparently internal clocks are not to be trusted during chaos.

The 7 or 8 responding fire fighters were calm, methodical, and professional. Even though it was a minor incident (to everyone but me, of course), they used incident command. The commander assigned one team to the north side of the building and the other team to the south side. Not knowing what was in the building, they brought masks, and canisters and lord knows what else with them. They were a credit to their profession. But it was their calmness that I best remember. It was infectious.

Most of the fire was out in an hour. One team remained for 90 minutes to extinguish returning flames.

The fire smoldered for several more days, even in the Oregon rain.

Books and family artifacts do not die quickly.

 

It’s been a week since the fire. A bizarre week.

My wife now defines herself officially as “an empty husk of a woman.” I helpfully remind her that at least she has that going for her.

My 12 year old is happy the internet has returned to our house. But he does hug me every now and then and says he’s sorry I lost everything. I hug him back and remind him he’s mistaken.

My 16 year old son surprised me during the hight of the chaos. He remained composed during the whole incident. He made sure his mother and brother had warm coats when they evacuated into the cold darkness. He wrote down — legibly — our names and contact information for the fire chief. He did a lot of small things that brought comfort and confidence to his mother and brother. I had not seen that part of him before — perhaps a glimpse of the man that he is becoming.

As for me, I look at what’s left of the shop and stagger between “Wow!” and “WTF??”

My professional network consists mostly of public safety and military men and women. I do not have words to describe how supportive they’ve been, offering to do anything I need, realistically knowing at this point the sentiment is enough.

These friends also are a stabilizing influence for me. I have been surprised by that. Yes, it was personally tragic, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

And for many of the people my public safety friends have known, it was worse.

Their emailed condolences indirectly remind me what they’ve experienced: New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Katrina, Haiti, San Bruno, Aurora, Sandy, Iraq, Afghanistan — to say nothing about the day-to-day tragedies that shape the routines of their professional lives.

The subtext of almost all the compassionate messages I received from them during the week was something like, “Sorry it was your turn. Take a little time to regroup. Then get back in the arena.”

Gently, one colleague reminded me he had to leave everything he owned — “except for a couple of suitcases” — when he was forced to leave his homeland.

Another wrote that he knew what I was going through because he’s still trying to recover from what Hurricane Sandy did to his home

Another friend was more direct:

Sorry Hallmark does not appear to make a “So your placed burned down” greeting card.

Maybe my favorite was this message:

No books. Wow. You’re about to try living life like an 18 year old.”

 

Yesterday I came across some words John Borling wrote (Borling spent six and a half years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war):

My view is that our job [like Sisyphus] is to get the rock up and over the hill…. And once you do, the rock rolls down the other side, and what do you see? You see another hill. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.”

And, I might add, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

 

Note: This post started out to be something about personal and family preparedness. But it got side tracked along the way.

I was going to write about where my preparedness plans succeeded (a few places), where they failed (far too many places) and what I’ve learned in the past week (far too much I should have known and acted on before the fire).

But I’ll write about that another time. I’m still preparing my after action report, and you know how long those things can take.

For now,  I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, get back to being resilient, and contemplate one more picture from a fire of still undetermined origin.


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February 25, 2013

You think it’s bad now? Remember the Cold War…

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on February 25, 2013

It’s popular to think that we live in extremely dangerous times.  Mother Nature seems angrier than in the past — whether due to global climate change or just the random desire to chuck space rocks at us — and man-made threats keep proliferating.

Al Qaeda has established itself seemingly everywhere (at least, anywhere at least one self-described member raises a flag and immediately is welcomed onto the drone target list), our ambassadors are vulnerable and our military unable to react to events anywhere immediately, and small countries lacking ICBMs are slowly taking steps to join the other eight established nuclear powers.

At home our economy is slowly recovering from the worst recession in recent memory (though it is recovering faster than other developed nations) and our citizens are no longer the sturdy frontiersmen of our past but needy supplicants of an ever growing federal government. [Please note the sarcastic tone...]

However, Tom Nichols of the Naval War College (along with Jim Walsh of MIT and others) reminds us that we faced some seriously crazy, apocalyptic stuff during our confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Such as the “Dead Hand,” a computer that was programmed to launch the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal if it ascertained that an American first strike had decapitated leadership in Moscow.

You can’t make this stuff up:

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February 21, 2013

No three hour cruise

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Port and Maritime Security,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on February 21, 2013

We are all aboard the Carnival Triumph.  That’s the cruise ship stranded at sea starting on February 10.  Our comfort and survival rest on interdependent systems most do not understand; and some systems many  actively avoid thinking about.

Usually the systems work well. But recently there has been a rash of cascading failures: Carnival Splendor,  Costa Allegra, and Azamara Quest.  The capsizing of the Costa Concordia is a different category, but not not irrelevant.  In the wider world of cascading failures other labels are applied:  Tohoku, Haiti, Lehman Brothers…

According to CNN:

“We know that the fire originated in front of a generator,” Patrick Cuty, a senior marine investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard, told CNN on Sunday (February 17)….  It appears that the fire suppression worked as designed, Cuty said Friday (February 15). The engineer who was on watch around dawn February 10 saw the fire ignite over a video feed and immediately notified the bridge, Cuty said. Based on an inspection of the engine room Thursday, Cuty said the fire did not appear to have been large.

On Monday afternoon February 18, the Associated Press reported, “A Coast Guard official says the cause of the engine-room fire on the Carnival cruise ship Triumph was a leak in a fuel oil return line.”

According to the New York Times:

The passengers had left the Port of Galveston in Texas on Thursday (February 7) for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating candy and ketchup on buns. “It’s like being locked in a Porta Potty for days,” said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Tex., as the ship crept closer to Mobile on Thursday. “We’ve lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse.”

I had hoped by now there might be more public detail on confirmed cause-and-effects.  I can’t find what I consider fully credible information.  But since I am just a blogger — and mostly want to argue an analogy — here’s a rough summary of what I understand:

  • A comparatively small fire — probably accidental in origin — was quickly extinguished.
  • But as a consequence water pumping, air conditioning, propulsion and ship stabilizers were all disabled. The Triumph was left “dead in the water.”
  • The crew was wonderful, according to many.  Most of the passengers were cooperative, collaborative, and creative under stress.
  • But living conditions quickly turned from luxurious to life-threatening.  The second of what will surely be many lawsuits, claims that passengers were “exposed to extremely toxic and debilitating conditions resulting in severe and permanent injuries.”
  • The response, both official and unofficial, was “effective”. No one died. The ship will cruise again.

Toxicity was mostly a matter of ongoing exposure to untreated human waste.  With over 4200 humans in close quarters pitching this way and that, human hygiene was seriously challenged.

This was also a problem at the New Orleans Superdome following Katrina.  This is at the core of the cholera epidemic in Haiti.  It was an issue in several New York high rises for weeks after Sandy.  In the aftermath of any sustained loss of power, pumping, or water, sewage system failure is a secondary — or sometimes tertiary — consequence that can quickly overwhelm densely populated places.

Water is often treated as yet another critical infrastructure.  Water pumping, storage, distribution, and treatment systems are among our most ancient human infrastructures.  But the water system is not just a contributing function, it is also a key supply: for hydration, fire suppression, and hygiene.   We can survive with no electricity, without fuel, and — for a considerable period — even without food.  But lack of water — or the persistent presence of wastewater — can very quickly overwhelm every other human capacity.

I almost headlined this post “Sh*t Happens”.   I am still my mother’s child so I hide it in the final paragraph (raising a multitude of issues related to hypocrisy, passive-aggressive tendencies, and various pseudo-Freudian totems).  But, indeed it does happen, both literally and figuratively, even as we pay our fare and blithely expect a three hour cruise.

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February 19, 2013

A dangerous idea that did not make the cut: “We should create a Department of Homeland Security”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on February 19, 2013

The entry period for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s 6th Annual essay contest closed on Friday.

This year’s question was “What is a dangerous idea you have about homeland security, and why is it dangerous?”

I’m looking forward to reading the essays people wrote.

 

Last week someone copied me on the message, below. It was a response to another email, asking if the recipient saw the essay question, and planned to submit an entry. Here’s the response:

I had seen [the contest announcement] and had already decided I did not have time to put a paper together.

But, yes, I have some dangerous ideas.

Like “We should create a Department of Homeland Security.”

This idea is dangerous because it will be guided by incompetent political appointees (either party, makes no difference), poorly managed by Senior Executives who are largely the rejects of the donor Departments, and guided by horrifically invalid concepts and assumptions (e.g., “One Job, One Agency” by James Carrafano of The Heritage Foundation, the most influential of the conservative Can’t Think Tanks).

Further, it is highly likely that Congress will say its primary mission is preventing terrorist attacks while, at the same time, Congress will leave all of the instruments of government appropriate to that task located elsewhere in government. This will ensure that the most senior leaders and managers in the Department, in addition to being incompetent, are focused on what, for the bulk of the Department, is “Mission Irrelevant.”

Why, with any luck, we can make sure that the new Department of Homeland Security has, year in and year out, the very worst morale of any large Department or Agency in government.

 

The author is not a wing nut, from either side of the nut spectrum. The author is someone who has been involved with the business of homeland security for more than 30 years. The author is one of the smartest, forward thinking, and creative public servants I’ve met in the past decade. The author understand the concept of risk as well if not better than anyone I’ve met in the homeland security enterprise. The author’s knowledge and understanding are grounded in an operational career that spans more than 30 years, and includes leadership responsibilities for some of the nation’s most significant response events.

I contacted the author and asked permission to publish the note.

“Sure,” the author wrote back. “I’m leaving [soon] anyway.”

 

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

But organizations in the public and the private sector frequently abridge their employees’ freedom of speech.  It’s not unconstitutional.

Allowing, encouraging, demanding that public servants in the homeland security organizations speak their mind is a dangerous idea that probably will not make the cut.

Louis Brandeis wrote “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

The author of the “We should create a Department of Homeland Security” is someone who, in my experience, lived Brandeis’ words.

I will be sorry to see him leave the arena.

 

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February 16, 2013

Dodging asteroids: compartmentalizing serendipity formed by an underlying synchronicity.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on February 16, 2013

I’m guessing you’ve probably recovered from all the parties you went to last night to celebrate Asteroid 2012 DA14‘s laughingly inept effort to destroy Planet Earth.

It missed by more than 17,000 miles.

I’m also assuming you’re not one of the 1200 people injured by the meteorite that “streaked across the sky and exploded over central Russia on Friday….”

The two events were not related, insist scientists from all over the world.  Just a “chilling coincidence.”

But maybe — just maybe — the sterile phrase “chilling coincidence” masks a much more serious warning from the scientific community.

Urban Dictionary defines chilling as “a conscious effort to maintain a calm demeanor or, regain composure;” and  coincidence as “a compartmentalized serendipity formed by an underlying synchronicity.”

Translating, perhaps scientists are only pretending to be calm as a part of what they do to compartmentalize the underlying synchronicity.

Serious homeland security professionals should read these signals and prepare for the worst.  Like this:


 

 

Check your 72 hour kit. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

 

 

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February 15, 2013

Does your all-hazard plan include meteors?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on February 15, 2013

Maybe it should.  Or at least Russians will think so after today:

Nearly 1,000 people have sought help for injuries caused by a meteor that exploded in the sky, blasting out countless windows, a Russian health official said Friday.

Chelyabinsk health chief Marina Moskvicheva, said that 985 people in her city had asked for medical assistance. The Interfax news agency quoted her as saying 43 were hospitalized.

The Russian Academy of Sciences said the meteor — estimated to be about 10 tons — entered the Earth’s atmosphere going at least 54,000 kph (33,000 mph). It shattered about 30-50 kilometers (18-32 miles) above the ground, releasing several kilotons of energy above the Ural Mountains.

Apparently, Russia is due such an event about once a century:

The arrival of the meteor provoked comparisons to the Tunguska event of 1908, when an apparent meteor exploded over a remote part of Siberia — more than 1,000 miles to the east of Chelyabinsk — and flattened nearly 1,000 square miles of forest. Studies suggest that that meteor was on the order of 300 feet across when it exploded — far larger than Friday’s visitor.

This serves as another reminder that whether it be a flood of molasses or a rock falling from the sky, unless you’re Bruce Willis there will be events that cannot be prevented and are often not included in planning.  I can’t think of a better argument for flexibility and resiliency than rum and meteors.

One of the many videos of the meteor that can now be found on the internet:

 

Bruce Willis describes a common theory of homeland security in the following clip (from the 1:30 to 2:00 mark):

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February 14, 2013

State of the Union and implications for the state of homeland security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 14, 2013

Neither the phrase “homeland security” nor the Department of Homeland Security were explicit in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, but topics that regularly appear on the homeland security agenda were prominent:

Mitigation of Natural Disasters:

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

Resilient Infrastructure and Private-Public Relationships:

Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.Tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.

(On Tuesday the President also signed-out Presidential Policy Directive 21: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience which sets out a renewed approach to herding several distinct species of very wild cats.)

Border Security and Immigration:

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years. Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally. And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

International Counterterrorism:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans. As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

Cybersecurity:

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy. That’s why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.

Gun Violence:

It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform – like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.

The Department of Homeland Security will be significantly involved in the border protection and immigration issue.  Cybersecurity is a high priority for DHS.   The new cyber executive order reaffirms an important role for the Secretary of Homeland Security.   Several DHS components — especially FEMA — have seats at the disaster mitigation table.   There is DHS related resilience work in which I am personally involved that seems promising.  The critical infrastructure effort is… well, critical.

But it seems to me unlikely the Department of Homeland Security or anyone primarily identified as a “homeland security professional” will emerge as the principal change-agent on any of these priorities.   We will occasionally contribute to  – and often impede — the process of change.  I would be amazed to see “homeland security” in the forefront of shaping policy and strategy for any of these issues.

I have some pet theories to explain homeland security’s lack of leadership, but would be interested if you agree or disagree… and why?

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