Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 10, 2012

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

- + – + – + -

An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

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June 8, 2012

Homeland security as a national monomyth

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Homeland security on the road of trials


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


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House action on DHS appropriations

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012

Yesterday, June 7, the House approved the fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill by a vote of 234-182.  The White House has threatened a veto unless key changes are made in conference with the Senate.

Lots of important details in the bill and related report.  Following, without comment, is a long excerpt from  pages 115-116 of the Committee Report dealing with FEMA programs.


State and Local Programs help build and sustain the preparedness and response capabilities of the first responder community. These programs include support for various grant programs andtraining programs.


The Committee recommends $1,762,589,000 for State and Local Programs, $1,137,623,000 below the amount requested and $412,908,000 above the amount provided in fiscal year 2012.

As part of the budget request, the Administration proposed including the Firefighter Assistance Grants and Emergency Management Performance Grants under this program. The Committee again denies this proposal and recommends funding for both of these grant programs as separate appropriations, consistent with prior years.

In fiscal year 2013, FEMA proposed a new grant program called the National Preparedness Grant Program under State and Local Programs. This proposal is denied due to the lack of Congressional authorization and the lack of the necessary details that are required for the initiation of a new program to include grant guidance and implementation plans.

The Department should work with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction to obtain the necessary authorizing legislation and to clearly define the Federal role and reassess the most effective delivery of support and resources to sustain and improve homeland security capabilities prior to submittinga budget request for such a program. Additionally, the Committee met with and heard testimony from numerous stakeholders that expressed concern not just with the grant proposal but also with the lack of stakeholder outreach prior to the program’s introduction. The Committee considers this lack of outreach concerning and it should be addressed.

Due to these concerns, the Committee continues the grant structure as enacted in fiscal year 2012. The funds provided for State and Local Program grants are to be allocated by the Secretary of Homeland Security according to threat, vulnerability, and consequenceto assist high-risk urban areas, States, local and Tribal governments, and other homeland security partners in preventing, preparing for, protecting against, and responding to acts of terrorism.

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June 5, 2012

How much does it cost? Inoculating thought in homeland security

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on June 5, 2012

The book that received the most positive reaction in a recent homeland security course was Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics. He never took an economics course. He is one of the people who created behavioral economics.

Creating a new discipline is a very good way to avoid taking an economics course.

I think the book is overwritten. It’s more than 400 pages; 250 pages would probably have been enough.

But if you’ve received a Nobel Prize, your books can be as long as you want.

Here is a video (about an hour long) where Kahneman outlines the core ideas in his book.

The video gets going for real at about the 8 minute mark. (Modified Wadsworth Constant at work.)

Here’s a question:

What is 2+2?

You probably have an immediate answer.

Here’s another question:

What is 17 times 36?

You probably do not have an immediate answer.

Kahneman posits two thinking styles. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional.

System 2 isn’t.


What do you think about this image?

Unibomber climate change

Or what about this headline and paragraph:

Climate-Change Deniers Are On The Ropes — But So Is The Planet

It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it: “I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable consequences.

According to Kahneman’s findings, if you like and trust the Heartland Institute, you are likely to accept the anecdotal story the billboard tells, more than any climate-alarmist propaganda or scientific evidence about climate change.

If you like and trust, ThinkProgress — the source of the On the Ropes tale — you like their anecdotes; maybe more than science.

If you don’t know anything about Heartland or ThinkProgress, you used some other System 1 shortcut to decide which story worked better for you.


Stories are concrete, specific and immediate. They cut through the need for all that heavy thinking stuff.

Stories appeal to System 1.

System 2 is slower, deliberative and a more logical way of thinking. It’s also a more difficult style to use.

It takes work.

Have you calculated 17 times 36 yet?

Nope; probably not worth the effort.

That’s System 2 at work; or rather at avoiding work.

Here’s another question:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

System 1 says the ball cost ten cents.

Next question?

System 2, when it gets around to it, — and in some tests, 80% of the time it doesn’t get around to it — System 2 will let you know ten cents is the wrong answer.

(If your System 2 gets off the couch, you’ll see why ten cents is not the correct answer.)

People are more afraid of dying in a terrorist attack than they are afraid of dying.

But the chances of dying are greater than the chances of dying in a terrorist attack. Why does the less likely path to death have a more greater emotional impact?

System 1 again.

People are more likely to believe the following statement is true:

“Woes unite foes”

than they are to believe this statement is true:

“Woes unite enemies”

Why do people tend “to see the rhyming [aphorisms] as more accurate than the non-rhyming ones”?

Even if both sayings mean the same thing.

System 1 likes rhymes.

What does this have to do with homeland security?

The April 2012 issue of Risk Analysis (“An Official Publication of the Society for Risk Analysis”) is filled with examples illustrating the significance of risk perception and communication.

The issue is titled “Risk Perception Behavior: Anticipating and Responding to Crisis.”

Take a look at the table of contents.

Or look at this report about one of the articles: [my emphasis]

A dirty bomb attack centered on downtown Los Angeles’ financial district could severely impact the region’s economy to the tune of nearly $16 billion, fueled primarily by psychological effects that could persist for a decade….

“We decided to study a terrorist attack on Los Angeles not to scare people, but to alert policymakers just how large the impact of the public’s reaction might be,” said study co-author William Burns, a research scientist at Decision Research in Eugene, Ore. “This underscores the importance of risk communication before and after a major disaster to reduce economic losses.”….

“The economic effects of the public’s change in behavior are 15 times more costly than the immediate damage in the wake of a disaster.”

“These findings illustrate that because the costs of modern disasters are so large, even small changes in public perception and behaviors may significantly affect the economic impact….”

Or look at these slides that report on a recent experiment about “Inoculation as a Strategy for Achieving Assertive Risk Communication.” [Please keep in mind the important caution that slides cannot substitute for the full study or being present at what I was told was a "fascinating" presentation by world class scholars.]

Assertive risk communication means “actively and continuously anticipating and preempting counter-arguments” that might be generated by someone else’s System 1 response to, say, a catastrophic incident in the United States.

“Inoculating messages foster resistance to counterarguments,” says one of the slides.

“Inoculation messages move individuals in the desired direction—initially enhancing confidence.
Inoculation messages enhance resistance to counter-arguments in high-risk circumstances.
Using inoculation messages fortify what is known about best practices for risk and crisis communication.” reports another slide.

So, what does that mean in practice?

Assume “a commercial airliner carrying 253 passengers from Los Angeles to New York exploded 70 minutes into flight leaving no survivors. Air traffic control lost radar contact with the plane and within minutes local officials in Nevada began receiving reports from witnesses who saw debris falling from the sky.”

Some people speculate it was terrorism. Others wait for evidence. No one is quite sure

What should the assertive risk communication message be to inoculate an uncertain nation against jumping to “inappropriate” System 1 conclusions? Or if people are going to jump to System 1 anyway, what kind of counter-perception could be seeded?

One message is:

The Department of Homeland Security said it had “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time, although we continue to monitor efforts by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks, both in the Homeland and abroad.”

Or how about this one:

“In addition to this event, DHS has detected and prevented numerous terrorist plots. All of these plots have been thwarted by a combination of intelligence work, policing, and citizen participation.”


Right now, I’m wondering what your System 1 response is to either message and to the idea of inoculating people through assertive risk communication.

My System 2 reaction is I think people interested in homeland security will benefit from reading  Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Or at least listening to Kahneman talk about his ideas.

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June 4, 2012

“CDC Denies Existence Of Zombies Despite Cannibal Incidents”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 4, 2012

Yes, that happened.

It is an actual headline on the Huffington Post website. Prompted by an actual CDC email.

As this website is no stranger in confronting the zombie menace, a little background is probably in order:

First came Miami: the case of a naked man eating most of another man’s face. Then Maryland, a college student telling police he killed a man, then ate his heart and part of his brain.

It was different in New Jersey, where a man stabbed himself 50 times and threw bits of his own intestines at police. They pepper-sprayed him, but he was not easily subdued.

Did we bring ourselves to the brink of a zombie apocalypse?

Zombies represent America’s fears of bioterrorism, a fear that strengthened after the 9/11 attacks, says Patrick Hamilton, an English professor at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., who studies how we process comic-book narratives.

Seriously, it may be time to prepare.  Read the following now and thank me later:

–An Ace Hardware store in Nebraska features a “Zombie Preparedness Center” that includes bolts and fasteners for broken bones, glue and caulk for peeling skin, and deodorizers to freshen up decaying flesh. “Don’t be scared,” its website says. “Be prepared.”

–On uncrate.com, you can find everything you need to survive the apocalypse — zombie-driven or otherwise — in a single “bug-out bag.” The recommended components range from a Mossberg pump-action shotgun and a Cold Kukri machete to a titanium spork for spearing all the canned goods you’ll end up eating once all the fresh produce has vanished.

The CDC would like you to believe none of this is possible.  That this threat doesn’t exist.

“CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms),” wrote agency spokesman David Daigle in an email to The Huffington Post.

Who to believe?  A government agency staffed by medical professionals?  Or this somewhat anonymous blogger begging you to prepare?

The choice should be easy.  Just remember: double-tap.

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June 1, 2012

Homeland security as an unfolding catastrophic consequence

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 1, 2012

There have been at least five mass extinctions on this planet. Some argue we are in the midst of another.

Without the Cretaceous extinction — 65 million years ago — mammals would have been kept in their place, mostly at the low-end of the  large reptile food chain.  The elimination of predators gave our  ancestors an opportunity to move up.

Less than a mass extinction, the eruption of the Toba supervolcano was plenty bad.  Only about 10,000 homo sapiens survived.  In the subsequent 73,000 years  we’ve made up the loss.   A similar eruption will eventually recur.

Very low frequency, very high consequence: This is one aspect of catastrophe.

There are also events that occur with more frequency and less consequence that many still perceive as catastrophic:  the Babylonian Captivity (6th Century BCE), Sack of Rome (410 CE), Siege of Baghdad (1258 CE) are three examples.  In each of these cases the catastrophe extends beyond the immediate event to the long-term cultural consequences of the event.

The complete destruction of Baghdad produced a very different Islamic worldview.  The Visigoth entry through the Salarian gate was mild compared to what the Mongols did to Baghdad, yet the desecration of Rome  was widely seen as closing the door to one era and opening a door to something very different.  The Judaism emerging from the exile of elites to Babylon was not the Judaism of the First Temple.

A catastrophe is not only a matter of numbers killed or property destroyed, it involves a fundamental shift in direction or perception, well outside pre-event expectations.

As the Baghdad, Rome, and Babylon examples also suggest, catastrophe is often a culminating event.  The catastrophic shift is the outcome of long-time trends — perhaps hidden, denied, or resisted — coming together in a moment of critical clarity.

Over the centuries Black Death has decimated many cities and regions.  But the pandemic of the mid-14th Century — killing 30 to 60 percent of Europeans — had an especially significant scope, scale and influence, transforming cultural, economic, and political foundations.  The Renaissance can be seen as a consequence of this catastrophic event.

The conquest of the Americas by Europeans was massively assisted by the pandemic wave that killed tens-of-thousands and disrupted indigenous structures well in advance of face-to-face first contact.  William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation wrote that the victims, “fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.”  The pilgrims inherited cleared fields and their village site from those killed by Old World germs.

New England was the new normal emerging from this catastrophic event.

Comparatively low-consequence events can also lead to the emergence of a new normal.  The death toll from 9/11 was just shy of 3000, considerably less than any of the previous examples.  But decisions undertaken in the aftermath of 9/11 — political, legal, military, and more — have arguably initiated a fundamental shift, the shape of which is still taking form.

The choices we make in response to an event can determine whether or not it is catastrophic.

In its classical Greek meaning,  catastrophe is a decisive turn in a dramatic plot, typically sudden, sharp, and surprising.  The outcome is usually unhappy for the play’s hero, overturning prior expectations held by both hero and audience.

In the real-world examples above prior expectations are overturned. But unlike the ancient dramas, most actual catastrophes play out over time.  To those experiencing the shift, it might be barely noticed (slowly boiling frogs?) or vaguely understood.   In some cases the critical event is less the cause of catastrophe than an explicit confirmation of an implicit transformation long-underway.

Results of a catastrophe can be mixed.  Death, injury and destruction are regular features, but the new normal unfolding from the catastrophe is not always worse than what preceded it.  Results may bifurcate.  Aztec v Spaniard or mammal v reptile.  One creature’s catastrophe may be another’s opportunity.

Bad can also unfold into much worse. The collapse of reactionary European monarchies created a new normal exploited by Fascism, spawning the Holocaust, and unleashing a global war of unprecedented destructiveness.  Inevitable?  No.  Related? Certainly.

Proposition: What we call homeland security is a catastrophic consequence of the 9/11 attack.

In this usage catastrophic is not a pejorative, it is a description of an atypically radical shift in perception and behavior from one condition to another very different condition.

Hypothesis: The velocity of a catastrophic shift is correlated with  two factors: 1) preexisting systemic resilience and 2) the intentionality of post-catastrophe response.   The more resilience and intentionality depend on control mechanisms, the greater velocity of change.  The more resilience and intentionality are predisposed to creative adaptation, the velocity of change is reduced.


This is the first in a series of posts considering the relationship of catastrophe to homeland security.  The series is conceived as an open and conversational exploration.  Proving the null hypothesis or refining the hypothesis is as helpful as presuming to prove the hypothesis.  I don’t pretend to know where this may end up.  I am sure the exploring will be more interesting and fruitful with the benefit of your comments and critiques.  Please join in.

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May 29, 2012

“… it is not fish they are after.”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Business of HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on May 29, 2012

“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” — John Buchan

Homeland Security Research Corp. (HSRC) describes itself as “a Washington, DC-based international market research and strategic consulting firm serving the homeland security community.”

Two years ago, it projected that

Over the next four years: the U.S. HLS-HLD (i.e. federal, state and local governments, and the private sector) funding will grow from $184 billion in 2011 to $205 billion by 2014. The market will grow from $73 billion in 2011 to $86 billion by 2014.

In another 2010 report– about the private sector’s role in homeland security — HSRC notes:

The private sector procurement of homeland security related products and services represents 15-16% of the total US Homeland Security market. The US private sector HLS market is larger than the combined federal aviation, maritime and land transportation HLS markets. Over the next five years, the US private sector HLS market is forecasted to grow … from $7.7 billion in 2010 to $11.2 billion by 2014.

(To digress, this report contributed to my personal collection of favorite homeland security facts by pointing out The US private sector controls 86% of the nation high-priority infrastructure sites.” The usual estimates typically cite an 85% figure. Since the 85% number has no basis in anything beyond rhetoric, I admire the attention to precision suggested by 86%.  I also respect the creative addition of “high priority” to the otherwise mundane term, “critical infrastructure.”)

A third HSRC 2010 report points out that DHS is just part of the homeland security enterprise:

While the DHS plays a key role in homeland security, it does not dominate the US counter terror … market. The combined state and local markets, which employ more than 2.2 million first responders, totaled $15.8 billion (2009), whereas the DHS HLS market totaled $13.1 billion. …In spite of the fact that nine years passed since 9/11 with no successful terror attack on the continental USA, periodic, multi-year Harris polls, reveal consistent growth of public concern about another major terrorist attack.

That concern suggests opportunity:

Future small scale terror attacks (successful or not) will maintain this trend in the future. [sic] For example, the failed 2009 Christmas attack aboard a flight bound for Detroit and the attempted car-bombing in New York’s Time Square (February 2010) resulted in immediate White House intervention, Congressional hearings and a radical air passengers screening upgrade program costing over $1.6 billion.

But even if the federal budget does not come through, there’s still state and local government.

Most analysts overlook the fact that the OMB federal rules demand that state and local HLS activities must be financed at the state, county and city level. Annually, all the states and over 40,000 counties and cities fund $53-$62 billion of their HLS activities, while the federal government supplements this spending with grants valued at $3-5 billion annually.


“Fishing is a delusion entirely surrounded by liars in old clothes.” — Don Marquis

A recent two-day Counter Terror Expo was sparsely attended, writes Andrea Stone in Huffington Post.

“This is probably one of the worst I’ve been to in years,” said Jason Henry of Field Forensics, a Florida manufacturer of explosives and hazardous-material-detection devices that was incorporated in September 2001. “Nobody’s walking the show.”

“It was not as well attended as we expected,” said Mark Anderson, a representative of FLIR, which manufactures sophisticated thermal imaging equipment for police and the military and was an event cosponsor. …

“Unless a war pops up somewhere else, the homeland security mission will become much more important [compared with a declining DoD mission],” said John Gritschke, a manager for Laser Shot, a Texas-based maker of training videos.

… Despite the low attendance at the expo, most exhibitors said business was good.

That bothered Benjamin Friedman, a Cato Institute analyst.

“Our panicked response to 9/11 has made a kind of self-licking ice cream that tries to keep us worrying about terrorism and sells us defenses against it,” Friedman stated …. “This conference is a small part of that.”

“The good news is that austerity has meant that there is less money for homeland security, shrinking the homeland security industrial complex and bringing it into increased competition with its far bigger cousin, the military industrial complex,” Friedman added.

But one can always count on human nature’s self destructiveness.

Whether it’s war fighters or cops, Patricia Schmaltz of Virginia-based A-T Solutions sees a vibrant market for her company’s antiterrorism training classes. “I don’t see peace on Earth coming anytime soon,” she said.

“We would definitely support it but we don’t see it,” Schmaltz said. “So long as there are bad guys and nutcakes out there, we’ll be in business.”


Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated story, Rebecca Shlien reports the third annual Homeland Security Bass Tournament took place on Friday, May 18th in Decatur, Alabama.

… [Roughly] 300 current and retired firefighters, police officers, first responders and military troops came to cast a line—and not only from North Alabama.

[The tournament's founder said] “I know we’ve got one [participant] here from Iowa, we’ve got Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida, so we draw them from quite a ways…. The jobs that these guys have, there’s a lot of tense, a lot of stress involved, and to get out there on the water and go fast in a bass boat, spend a few hours catching some fish, it really helps you unwind.”

If you’re interested, you can watch a video about last year’s Homeland Security Bass Tournament here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtxiA43BrnY

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” — Henry David Thoreau

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May 28, 2012

The Cyber-Tootsie Roll Effect (Or Please Stop Calling Every Cyber Something An Attack)

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2012

Imagine for a moment that you got your wallet stolen.

It could be from your back pocket in a crowd or your bag hanging on a chair in a busy restaurant.

Now, if the police caught the individual responsible, would they be charged with assault? Almost certainly not (assuming that you did not notice the initial theft because it was surreptitious).  You (or the victim) would most likely feel assaulted, offended and distraught about the invasion of privacy and security.  Yet the authorities would not consider your “feelings,” instead moving forward to deal with the specifics of the situation as they pertain to existing law.

Seems reasonable.  Right?  A pick pocket, if caught, shouldn’t be charged with assault.

Moving over to the cyber realm, is it me or is every possible type of incident beginning to be described as a “cyber attack!” And if you label every problem a nail, then a hammer is always the answer.

A few weeks ago Paul Rosenzweig of the blog Lawfare shared a list of ““Significant Cyber Attacks” on Federal systems since 2004” that he states is from sources on Capitol Hill.  I do not know Mr. Rosenzweig but he seems to be a sophisticated observer and analyst of cyber-related topics, so I am not claiming that everywhere he looks, everything he sees looks like a cyber attack to him.  That this list originated in some Congressional office is the disturbing part.  Just a few examples of incidents included in this list of “attacks” (the full list can be found the Lawfare blog post):

We have theft, we have espionage, and we have negligence. Could some of these turn out to reveal vulnerabilities leading to extortion or attacks at a later date?  Certainly.  Do these and other similar examples from the full list represent potential risks to our national security?  Perhaps.  But do they represent attacks?  No.

To be sure, there are attacks included on the list.  As well as cases of espionage that are frightening.  But you don’t guard against pick pockets in the same manner as you do muggers or attackers wishing to inflict bodily harm.

When you do in the cyber realm, you may end up in a “go time” mode similar to Security Debrief’s L. Vance Taylor:

These attacks aren’t coming because of any real or perceived lack of cyber security protocols in the private sector. The attacks are coming because we allow countries like China to use cyber space to lie to us, steal from us, cheat us and even physically harm us without consequences or repercussions. It has to end.

If Congress wants to do something productive to address cyber security, it should work (along with the Administration) to establish deterrents that will make countries like China think twice before taking our lunch. Two such deterrents could include:

  1. Banning businesses that are headquartered in countries that hack into our CIKR networks from competing on projects in the U.S. sectors where American networks have been compromised or attacked.
  2. Instituting economic sanctions (equaling up to 10 times the costs of the financial implications of a given cyber attack) on any foreign country attacking America or her industries.

In short, Congress should stop legislating the private sector as a means to giving the nation the illusion that it’s doing something about cyber security. Instead, it should do something to prevent future attacks and actually bring perpetrating countries to justice.

Mr. Taylor was describing his theory of response to attacks such as the recent targeting of the natural gas industry. Yet in seeing a tootsie roll, uh, I mean cyber attack originating in China (or Russia or any other country not counted as “allies”) in every event he suggests a tough sounding stance of deterrence that doesn’t take into account reality.

  1. Not every cyber incident is an attack.
  2. Not every cyber incident, even those that are attacks, can be accurately attributed.  We may suspect an attack came from Chinese computers, but can’t prove it.  Or perhaps we think it’s Russian hackers, but actually a group in Indonesia routed the attack through Russia.
  3. Not every cyber incident comes from a state of concern.  China and Russia are often singled out, and Iran has gotten attention in recent weeks, yet there are hackers in almost every country.  What if per #2 U.S. hackers attempt to shut down a piece of critical infrastructure but make it appear to be an attack from China?  And it is also an uncomfortable truth that allies spy on each other–the French have long been suspected of state-sponsored industrial espionage and does anyone remember Jonathan Pollard?
  4. What if other states adopt similar cyber policies?  Should U.S.-based hackers be discovered attempting to infiltrate an Indian government agency’s networks, what should the Indians do in response?  What if confidential industrial information was stolen, should they sanction U.S. companies through whose networks the attack took place without their knowledge?

It is also a fact that not only do hackers live in the United States, but our government is suspected of producing cyber weapons and maybe even (shhhhhh…..) undertaking a little cyber espionage:

Researchers have identified a sophisticated new computer virus 20 times the size of Stuxnet, the malicious software that disabled centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear plant. But unlike Stuxnet, the new malware appears to be used solely for espionage.

Variously dubbed Flame, Skywiper and Flamer, the new virus is the largest and possibly most complex piece of malware ever discovered, which suggests it is state-sponsored, researchers said.

As with Stuxnet, the creator of Flame remains a mystery, though some analysts say they suspect Israel and the United States, given the virus’s sophistication, among other things.

Some researchers say that certain characteristics common to Stuxnet and Flame suggest that whoever ordered up Stuxnet is also behind Flame.

The cyber realm is complicated.  There exist no simple answers to complex issues.  Unfortunately this world is not full of tootsie rolls, but instead reads like a John Le Carre novel.

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May 23, 2012

Standards of Cover(-up)

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on May 23, 2012

For weeks now, the Los Angeles Fire Department has been under intense scrutiny for errors in its reporting of response time data. Previously reported figures suggested the department was doing pretty well meeting its response-time targets despite budget cutbacks that affected service levels. However, it later came to light that the methodology for calculating response-time data presented to elected officials was flawed. These flaws included a failure to present the results of models as predictions rather than actual response data and errors in the way response times were measured and performance against targets reported.

When it became clear that the fire department’s responses had been affected by changes in staffing and service levels, the media and elected officials began asking some difficult questions. Unfortunately, most of these questions were precisely the wrong ones.

It’s one thing to ask whether the department is meeting response time targets. It’s another thing entirely to ask whether these targets are meaningful indicators of service performance. Errors in reporting could affect the answer in either case, but the effects would be very different.

In Los Angeles, it’s now clear that the fire department does not meet its stated targets. It should be equally clear that these targets are arbitrary and all but meaningless in the vast majority of cases. (In other words, the Los Angeles Fire Department remains a world-class outfit despite the cuts.) Unfortunately, the latter fact has dawned on very few people despite abundant evidence that the unwelcome answer to the first question is due in large measure to the growing dependence of the community on fire department responses to many low-priority and even non-emergency events where time matters very little if at all.

The expectation that fire departments are there to deal with anything unwelcome or untoward that people encounter when no one else is there to help them has not come about by accident. Firefighters love to be loved (and needed) and have been all too willing to answer these calls without regard to the costs. The controversy in Los Angeles suggests these costs are not just fiscal. The opportunity cost of attending so many low-priority and non-emergency calls is clear: The system cannot meet the performance expected when genuine emergencies arise.

For firefighters the answer is simple: expand capacity. For administrators, that’s simply not an option in these austere times. Sadly, elected officials too rarely take responsibility for the fact that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Nearly everybody these days accepts the adage that when it comes to performance, speed, quality and cost matter, but you can only have two of these. This is especially true when it comes to emergency services. The problem is that our expectation of which two we are willing to accept varies a lot depending upon the circumstances.

When it comes to situations that clearly are not time critical, time should not matter. But it does when you confuse it with an indicator of quality. And almost every fire department does just that because they have no idea how to measure quality but they can measure time.

Fire departments are inherently inefficient operations. They operate on two basic premises: 1) no one should ever have to wait for a response and 2) every response should be treated as an emergency until proven otherwise. These two assumptions combine with pernicious effect when it comes to the way we handle 911 calls. And let’s be clear about this 911 is no longer shorthand for “emergency.” These days, about 40 percent of all calls coming into public safety answering points are misdials and many more involve queries that have nothing whatsoever to do with police, fire or emergency medical services.

Rather than take a few seconds to find out what’s really going on, most agencies insist that dispatching decisions get made within 60 seconds of call receipt regardless of circumstances. This was once a relatively simple affair because it relied on the intuition and judgment of experienced call-takers and dispatchers who made the call based on relatively simple heuristics. When they were equipped with little more than a telephone and a radio console, the required action took little time or effort. Not so today. These days we have two, three or even more layers of technology between call-takers and dispatching decisions. Even after a dispatch is initiated, we have even more layers of technology through which signals alerting stations and conveying information about the call must pass before responders get the message.

These interventions have made it possible to track the most minute details about each and every incident. But they have not made the process of delivering emergency service faster or more efficient. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In many instances we have become unwitting slaves to the planned obsolescence of the technologies themselves and helpless victims of the technological hurdles involved in marrying up diverse platforms supplied by competing vendors procured by different agencies.

When fire departments talk about standards of cover – the five dollar phrase for these response targets – they rarely acknowledge the fatal flaws in the logic (or lack thereof) they apply to deciding what matters. These standards, often derived from flawed analogies to fire growth curves and the onset of brain death following cardiac arrest, were easy to meet using legacy technologies that were far simpler and more efficient. But now we must contend with the expanded and often unrealistic performance expectations arising from our inability or unwillingness to make the simplest distinctions about the services we provide.

Adopting arbitrary standards of cover, like 60 second call processing times and five minute travel times, may allow us to direct the blame at others when we miss the mark overall, but it does almost nothing to solve the problem when performance falls short.

When time matters, it matters a lot and cost is not much of an issue. The good news is that getting these decisions right involves little more than giving people permission and encouragement to treat very different situations differently. The quality of the outcome always depends on how well the people perform, and when the way they use the technology becomes an impediment to what they are trying to accomplish we have the tail wagging the dog.

The single biggest factor affecting our success may well our willingness to recognize that what people experiencing or witnessing an event do before we arrive matters much more than how long it takes us to get there. Sure, response time and the quality of care help, but not if people wait too long to seek help or take no action to mitigate the consequences before we get there.

The best case in point may very well be right in my back yard: King County and Seattle, Washington have managed to achieve a 50 percent survival rate from witnessed cardiac arrest involving shockable arrhythmias (ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia). Sure, we were among the first communities to establish a fire-based advanced life support paramedic program. Yes, we send first-response EMTs on fire-based units to every call, and often as many as 10 responders to confirmed cardiac arrest calls. But the factor that has probably made the most difference has been the frequency and quality of bystander CPR.

Other programs send paramedics on the first due fire engines whenever possible. We do not. Some use dispatchers to give CPR instructions over the phone. We do too. But we do something even more important: We get out in the community and teach everyone willing to give us a few minutes of their time how to save a life.

Don’t get me wrong. People here still worry about response times. But they have a lot less reason to do so because we have nothing to hide: We rely on the public as much as they rely on us, and we’re proud of it.

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May 22, 2012

Seven someday posts

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 22, 2012

Writing for this blog lets me use cognitive surplus to explore different facets of homeland security.

Clay Shirky coined the term cognitive surplus to mark his recognition that “the time Americans once spent watching television has been redirected toward activities that are less about consuming and more about engaging [in blogs, for example]….  And these efforts aren’t fueled by external rewards but by intrinsic motivation—the joy of doing something for its own sake.”

I think that accurately describes why people write for Homeland Security Watch — whether writing a post or a comment.  It is intrinsically satisfying for us to think out loud about homeland security issues.

I’ve been doing work related travel for the past 5 weeks. As I sit in a hotel room on my last night before heading home to a plot of Oregon grass that hasn’t been cut in weeks, I realize my cognitive surplus is currently down to stems and seeds. (To mix several metaphors.)

I cannot complain.  I heard and talked and thought about lots of intriguing ideas over the past 34 days, many of which I put on my “why don’t you write about this someday” list.

Here are seven items on that list, in no particular order, and expressed more through speculation than research.

1. The 2012 National Preparedness Report may be homeland security’s first post-modern document.

I understand “modern” in this context to mean a time of a single dominant narrative. I use “post-modern” to refer to a time of multiple narratives, multiple points of view about the world.  Modernity requires a single narrative; post-modernity requires recognizing there will not be and cannot be one story.  The Preparedness Report  – and whole community — is about making room for many stories. (But then isn’t that a dominant narrative? I want to think more about this.)

2. As far as I can tell, no one in the homeland security enterprise (Big E or little e) has responded publicly to the risk assessment critique John Mueller and Mark Stewart make in their book Terror, Security and Money.

They claim homeland security money used to prevent terrorism has been spent with little regard for benefits. They assert homeland security’s terrorism risk assessment has been characterized — among other things — by “probability neglect.”  Probability neglect means ignoring the statistical evidence about the likelihood of a significant terrorist attack. Strategies that support probability neglect include emphasizing worst-case scenarios, overestimating terrorist capabilities, amplifying target importance, and calculating risk elements incorrectly. There’s much more to their criticism. Basically they argue the risk based emperor — mostly the terrorism emperor — has no clothes. They even provide evidence to support their assertions. I’m surprised the emperor has not responded. (Or maybe the emperor has, and I wasn’t paying attention.)

3. The common wisdom seems to support the idea that the Arab Spring was helped significantly by social media, facebook and twitter in particular.

I heard a second hand report about someone in an Egyptian revolutionary leadership position who says the common wisdom is wrong.  People who expressed their outrage online over the Mubarak government were called “couch activists” by people who took to the streets.  But when the government shutdown the Egyptian internet, the couch activists got angry they couldn’t tweet or Facebook anymore. That got them off their couches and into the streets. Interesting, if correct. (As I said, it was a second hand report.)

4. Appendix II.1 of the U.S Coast Guard’s Deepwater Horizon Incident Specific Preparedness Review is titled “Characteristics And Qualifications Of An Effective Crisis Leader.”

It’s worth a read.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Many Government Agencies and private corporations ‘grow’ leaders from within. They also often bring in proven leaders from outside to provide new leadership and direction for the organization; however, the skills of organization and the ability to manage and lead are only baseline competencies when a crisis arises. The outcome of a crisis or the success of a response to the crisis is directly related to effective crisis leadership. Some leaders are naturally suited for such a role, but often are not the ones who find themselves confronting a crisis or are not the ones placed in the position of leadership when the crisis occurs. Leaders involved in crisis management may find themselves on national television, with little or no media training or experience for their leadership position. Crisis managers are required to make critical and binding decisions without the benefit of lengthy study or peer-reviewed advice. The crisis dictates the pace, tempo, and duration that drives the decision making process. Leaders not trained and prepared to function effectively in a crisis can create an image of incompetence, chaos, or disorganization, even if the incident is being managed competently and effectively. In most cases, the leader in a crisis is the “face” of the organization he or she represents; in some cases it may be virtually the only time the public is aware of the organization. The reputation of that organization will largely be determined by the performance of the crisis leader.”

The report then identifies 10 attributes of an effective crisis leader. In my opinion, Appendix II.1 is not your usual government appendix.

5. What’s the story with private sector fusion centers?

I know some private sector organizations — usually large corporations — have representatives in some fusion centers. Companies can be good sources of information, and they can benefit from receiving appropriate information.  Recently I’ve heard that some global corporations have started developing their own fusion centers — not just corporate intelligence units, but actual fusion centers.  I wonder if there’s any truth to that.

6. Where do good homeland security ideas come from?

The answer can be as simple as a bunch of guys – gender neutral meaning of guys — sitting around drinking coffee or beer. That’s the claim Steve Johnson makes in a TED video, here. (I added the homeland security part.) That’s also what happens in a good homeland security seminar discussion. (Except for the drinking part.)

7. What did Hitler think about the security vulnerabilities of cloud computing?

According to this four minute video, he apparently placed too much trust in his Information Technology folks.

I have a friend who says when “Hitler” comes up in a conversation, it’s time to stop talking.

No one’s listening anymore.

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May 18, 2012

Three issues, thirty posts, can we improve homeland security?

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,Privacy and Security — by Philip J. Palin on May 18, 2012

If you haven’t noticed, Fridays are my responsibility here.

Daily blogging — most blogging — tends toward multiple short pieces.  Whether news or commentary,  unpaid (and many paid) bloggers seldom have enough time to do much more than aggregate, trying to make interesting connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.

With more contributors — one for each weekday — HLSWatch has morphed toward analysis and advocacy.  It will probably seem a strange analogy, but drafting these weekly contributions is for me a bit like attending church.  It is a discipline that I find helpful in focusing attention to aspects of reality I might otherwise neglect.

In this vein, I perceive the need for a bit more continuity between weekly services: a kind of lectionary.   Since beginning to post in 2009 my choice of topics has been opportunistic, even impressionistic.  Over the next few months I intend to give more consistent attention to three issues:

Catastrophes –  I am increasingly persuaded the federal role in homeland security should mostly be focused on preventing, preparing for, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from very high consequence events.  I also perceive the federal government has a key role in encouraging some modest, but consistent attention to catastrophic potential by other levels of government and the private sector.  Catastrophes and potential catastrophes are, I will argue, complex events that unfold in distinct ways, different than emergencies or disasters.  Some of the skills that are essential to managing emergencies and disasters can be profoundly counterproductive in potential catastrophes.   At least these are my current perceptions.  Can these claims hold up to my own analysis and your criticism?

Private Resilience – There’s lots of talk — often empty talk — about private-public partnerships.  I’m all in favor of meaningful and practically focused private-public relationships. I am, though, much more interested in readiness and resilience that does not depend on the public sector.  There is some intriguing evidence that many resilient neighborhoods have emerged in contention with the public sector.  Is resilience a synthesis of a private antithesis engaging a public thesis? My interest in private resilience is related to my focus on potential catastrophes.  In the very worst events private need will exceed public supply by several multiples. What are the characteristics of systemic resilience?  How is such resilience engendered?  Resilience can wither, how and why? My colleague Arnold Bogis has been clear that he perceives “resilience” to be little more than an intellectually sloppy buzz word.  Can I convince him otherwise? Will he convince me?

Civil Liberties - Since 9/11 several legal measures have been undertaken that challenge — even directly assault — freedoms that were previously taken for granted. Other than various indignities at the airport, the narrowing of our liberties has not seemed to elicit sustained citizen concern… and even at the airport the protests have more often been whines than something more substantive. The explosive expansion of digital commerce and sociability provides the government (and others) unprecedented opportunity for intruding into civil and private “space.”  There are reasonable motivations — preventative and protective — for this intrusion.  The long-term consequences for our civil liberties are worth careful consideration and active engagement.  Related, at least for me, is the issue of individual responsibility and the role of citizenship.  Perhaps the government is not so much taking away civil liberties as the citizens are trading them away.

I have other homeland security-related interests — religious conflict and supply chains, to name two — but I have chosen these three topics for some sustained attention because I wonder if these three may, in combination, point us to an overarching reality.

Is there a persistent cascading complexity that we perpetually endeavor to deny?  Do we regularly walk the edge of chaos, one step from catastrophe, but choose not to notice?  What might be the outcome of noticing?  Are the key components of resilience — flexibility, agility, adaptability, what else? — more effective than command-and-control to deal with cascading, unpredictable consequences?  Is the active application of our civil liberties an essential  tool for effectively engaging this complexity?

I will not post next week.  Between the first Friday in June and Christmas there are 30 Fridays.  In thirty posts, no more than 30,000 words — plus our discussions — can these questions be meaningfully answered?  Will you participate?  Argue with me?  Propose your alternatives?  Can we co-create an enhanced understanding of homeland security through our engagement with these three issues?

Claire Rubin has suggested blogs are not the best format for such extended considerations.  Claire is one of the wisest women I know.  But I have often found creative benefits in gentle foolishness.  So, I will try.

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May 16, 2012

See No Evil? Then Just Do It

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Private Sector — by Mark Chubb on May 16, 2012

It’s been awhile since I have managed to post something. The last wholehearted attempt I made was a reflection on May Day observances that I never finished. For some reason or another I could never come to a conclusion to that piece that really satisfied me. At least not in the sense that I was getting to the heart of what I was watching on the news and in the streets, especially here in Seattle. As a result, it sits mouldering in my queue still waiting for rewrite or deletion.

Somehow, though, a few of the themes I struggled with just a couple of weeks ago came into sharper focus for me this week in the form of two articles I read. The first described the effects of growing income inequality on individual mortality. Put simply, those who earn the least can not only expect to live shorter lives, but they can also expect their longevity to diminish as the length or the depth of the gap widens between their earnings and those at the top. The article cites other studies’ speculation as to the causes of income inequality-related mortality while noting that the academic research cited has reached no firm conclusion about specific causes, especially over the short-term. At the same time, the study provides compelling evidence of the cumulative effect of income inequality on health.

The second article suggested that crime really does pay. Or rather that unethical behavior or at the very least less-than-ethical behavior has its rewards. The Harvard Business Review item noted a recent study that displayed significant gaps between the earnings of those men who self-reported improvements in ethical awareness and subsequent ethical conduct as a result of exposure to ethical principles and practices in their post-graduate management curricula. (Sorry, no word on how the women did. Let’s just hope it was considerably better than the boys.) Sadly, but probably not too surprisingly, those who earned the most reported little awareness of or influence from exposure to ethics while earning their MBAs.

These two items got me reflecting anew on a third item that aired on May 1. NPR’s Planet Money Team produced a truly exceptional segment entitled Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things. This piece examined the story of Toby Groves, a convicted mortgage fraudster who convinced colleagues to conspire with him to create a ghost mortgage, a very real loan for an utterly fictitious property, to cover mismanagement of his business.

In the simplest terms, Toby and his colleagues justified their actions by framing the problem in two very simple but compelling ways. First, instead of seeing their actions as unethical, which they openly acknowledged they were, they reframed the decision as one of business necessity. They supported this framing in a second but equally compelling way by seeing their actions as a personal favor for a trusted friend and valued colleague. In other words, they saw Toby as someone they liked and enjoyed working with who now needed a small favor from them as opposed to the illegal and craven actions of a desperate man at his wits’ end. In short, their decisions to be helpful were aided by the notion that Toby Groves was a business associate, his business was at risk due to financial decisions they all make, and the actions he requested of them (which he openly acknowledged could get them all in heaps of trouble) required little effort on their part and were actions in which they were routinely engaged as part of their normal and legitimate business practices. Clearly, the road to hell — and prison — is paved with good intentions.

If the NPR story had any shortcomings, it was in the lack of resolution I felt from the reforms they suggested might arise to combat the problem of inappropriate cognitive framing of ethical dilemmas in the business environment. How, I wondered, might it help the situation to remind people on the forms they are signing that lying or misrepresentation are unethical or illegal? Don’t they know this already? And who reads the fine print anyway? Sure, it might help to change auditors frequently to keep them from becoming too cosy with those they oversee. But don’t we want auditors to be both rational and fair? Does this not suggest a need for some sort of empathy? How much then is too much?

Clearly, the dilemmas we face are becoming more complex just as they problems that give rise to them become more complicated and even convoluted. The credit crunch that led to the lingering economic stagnation we still endure, the ideological and political excesses of violent extremists here and abroad, and the inability to reconcile political differences for the common good not only reflect certain states of mind but also provoke powerful emotions in us that arise largely from our own cognitive biases. The challenge then is not to oversimplify any of these issues but to see them for what they are: Situations that require us to apply many different frames to achieve not only the proper resolution but sufficient perspective to interpret correctly what sits before our eyes.

We can look upon the health effects of income inequality as the sad but unintended consequences of an otherwise salutary economic system or an injustice that demands redress. We can reward unethical conduct in the workplace and accept unequal rewards for those who look after themselves before others or we can hold one another to account for what each of us thinks, says and does. If it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s also worth noting that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and we should try them all rather than looking for the easy way out.

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May 15, 2012

Permanent Emergency — Kip Hawley’s time at TSA

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 15, 2012

I have one chapter left to read in Kip Hawley and Nathan Means’ book Permanent Emergency.  The book describes Hawley’s term as TSA Administrator, from 2005 until 2009.

I don’t want the book to end.  It’s really good.

I’ve read Tom Ridge’s and Michael Chertoff’s after-office books.   Permanent Emergency is in its own class, at least when it comes to back-in-the-day homeland security memoirs.  Ridge’s book engages the reader.  Chertoff’s book challenges (ok, it’s a hard read).

Hawley and Means’ work is a page turner.  I will not be surprised if Permanent Emergency is made into a movie.  A made-for-TV movie. But still, a movie. (By then, maybe the book can lose the melodramatic subtitle, “Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security.”)


Here are some of the questions the book asks and answers:

How did TSA get into the behavioral detection business?  Why do passengers really have to take their shoes off during screening? (It’s not because of the shoe bomber.)

What’s life like for a screener? Why do they check wheelchairs and people who’s hips have been replaced?  Why do they follow rules instead of use their discretion?  What was the only professional decoration Hawley had on his “love me” wall?

What command center did the TV show 24 model?  What law enforcement agency receives “the best and most specialized firearms training?” How long does it take to fire a senior executive who’s not doing his job?

How credible was the UK liquid bomb threat? How long did TSA have to implement the liquids ban? How did they get it done? Why is the 3 ounce rule actually 3.4 ounces? (Ask someone who knows the metric system.) And why plastic bags? What happened to the man in Milwakee who wrote “Kip Haweley is an idiot” on his plastic bag?

How did the TSA blog get started?  And how did Blogger Bob get his job?  Why did TSA use the Blogger platform (available free from Google) instead of spending millions to develop a proprietary blogging platform? Why did the blog change its name from the empirically accurate “Evolution of Security” to the bureaucratically bland “TSA Blog.” (The book doesn’t answer the last two questions, but inquiring minds remain interested.)

Where did Hawley get his ideas from about aviation security as a complex adaptive system?  Why was he told not to talk about complexity theory in public? (Seriously.)


Every man is the hero of a biography he had a hand in writing. This book is no exception.  At times Permanent Emergency reads like a 21st century version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Like Mr. Smith, Hawley (and the talented team of people he collected and credits) got things done. Not everything he wanted to do. But progress.

Also like Mr. Smith, I’m sure there were people in Washington who wanted Hawley gone before he did leave.  I spoke with a few of them over the years.  The consensus from those few was “nice guy, but in over his head.”

OK, but who’s not in over their head in this homeland security business? That does not mean you can’t learn how to get things accomplished.

Permanent Emergency would be a valuable addition to almost any homeland security academic program in the country. For one thing, it’s written so well students will actually read it. I’m not kidding when I say it’s a page turner.

For another, it shows how one person (ok, one person with great contacts and experience) can make a difference. It shows the importance of being able to spot talent and clear the path for that talent to disrupt — in creative and productive ways – staid organizations. It shows the role politics, bureaucracy, leadership, science, research, trial and error, communication, good and bad luck, public relations, physical energy, commitment, intelligence, risk management, sacrifice and persistence play in getting things done in homeland security.

It also reminds the reader how much uncertainty and stumbling and making things up characterized homeland security’s first years.


I met Kip Hawley twice. I found him creatively thoughtful, sincere, and caring. He also appears to listen to the people talking to him. Those traits come through in the book.

Before I read Permanent Emergency I was not a fan of how TSA does its mission. For a lot of reasons, I think on balance the costs — including the privacy we surrender to fly — are greater than the benefits we receive from submitting to the government.  I recognize there are other views — including Kip Hawley’s.

After reading Hawley and Means’ book, I’m still not a TSA fan.  But the authors make me doubt some of the reasons why I hold the postion I do.

Whether you largely agree with TSA’s role in homeland security or not, if you read this book your views about the agency and the people who serve in it will change.  Maybe permanently.


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May 14, 2012

Nuclear Terrorism: Are We Winning or Losing?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on May 14, 2012

As regular readers of this blog know, we’ve hosted a robust back-and-forth regarding the risks of nuclear terrorism.  Along those lines, for those wishing to read a succinct and interesting summary of arguments for both sides, I would recommend a recent Arms Control Wonk post by Michael Krepon (please follow the link for a full bio, but the short version is: Co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center. Prior to co-founding the Stimson Center, Krepon worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Carter administration, and in the US House of Representatives, assisting Congressman Norm Dicks.)

He gives voice to those concerned about the threat:

Graham Allison predicted in Nuclear Terrorism (2004) that, “In my considered judgment, on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.”

And those slightly more dismissive:

John Mueller’s answer, in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (2010) is that nuclear dangers are far less than we presume:

Fears and anxieties about them, while understandable, have been excessive, and they have severely, detrimentally, and even absurdly distorted spending priorities while inspiring policies that have often been overwrought, ill conceived, counterproductive, and sometimes massively destructive. And they continue to do so.

It is not a long post, so I instead of continuing to post quotes in absence of my own analysis, I’ll just end with his conclusion:

Are we winning or losing the battle against proliferation? There are indicators that point in both directions. How you answer this question probably reflects your optimistic or pessimistic nature.

Again, if you’re interested in the topic (and proliferation in general, which he addresses in an earlier related post) it is worth your time:


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May 11, 2012

National Preparedness Report: Voice, vision, and a reality beyond systems engineering

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 11, 2012

This is the second in a two-part consideration of the recently released National Preparedness Report.  Please see the prior discussion immediately below.


As was the case with NSC-68, the National Preparedness series is being authored by a collective.  This is the way of government.  Recall that Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration was edited first by a committee and then by the entire Continental Congress.  It is unusual for clarity of thought to survive such a process.

I know — and respect — several individuals who are contributing to the National Preparedness series.  I don’t know their individual contributions and have not asked for their private critiques, concerns, or enthusiasms.  I empathize with their struggle to deal with the tensions involved in generating any document of this sort — and even more, the challenges to practically advancing policy.

I am using the National Preparedness series to press my arguments and make my own contributions to national resilience. The documents are helpful to this work.  I appreciate the outcomes, even as I unfavorably compare the outcomes to the Declaration of Independence and NSC-68.

At least I did not choose Shakespeare and Lincoln as your benchmarks.

The music of the Declaration reflects the remnant of Thomas Jefferson’s voice that survived the editorial process.  The clarity-of-argument in NSC-68 is a double-echo of the dialectic between Kennan and Nitze.   In some ways, the document is Nitze’s edit of Kennan’s Long Telegram.  Two superb minds engaging the same problem, disagreeing, agreeing, refining and reframing.  In the end, Nitze’s voice was strongest, but he would not have sung this song without Kennan’s prelude.

If there is a principal author of the National Preparedness series I do not hear his or her voice.

This is typical of most government reports, even those, as from GAO or CRS, who identify specific authors.  There are a host of motivations for this default anonymity.  Potentially the most powerful — and least credible — is the desire to achieve a tone of omniscient authority.

By contrast, in both the Declaration and NSC-68 any discerning reader is fully aware an argument is being offered, a case is being made, counter-arguments are anticipated, a dialogue is assumed… even as the author(s) scrambles for the moral high ground and persuasive preemption.  With all his personal confidence, network of influence, and even with the power of the President’s pen expected, Nitze does not proclaim.  He describes.  He questions.  He argues.

Why is that sort  of voice so rare?

This is a substantive, not merely stylistic difference.  The vain attempt for omniscient authority asserts right-and-wrong and a claim to compliance.  Offering an argument honors  and invites the independent judgment of your readers.

From section VI, A of NSC-68:

The full power which resides within the American people will be evoked only through the traditional democratic process: This process requires, firstly, that sufficient information regarding the basic political, economic, and military elements of the present situation be made publicly available so that an intelligent popular opinion may be formed. Having achieved a comprehension of the issues now confronting this Republic, it will then be possible for the American people and the American Government to arrive at a consensus. Out of this common view will develop a determination of the national will and a solid resolute expression of that will.

Again, this was a classified document.  No one was trying to pander to a political audience.  The document itself circulated among mostly elite circles at a time when both classified documents and elite circles were more tightly contained than today.  What would be the reaction of “intelligent public opinion” if the National Preparedness series included the quoted paragraph?

What might it mean if Nitze actually believed and behaved as if the stated assumption were true? Do we?


Homeland security suffers from taxonomy-obsession.

What is prevention?  How is it differentiated from protection?  Doesn’t mitigation sometimes prevent?  Sometimes protect?  Isn’t mitigation often a “response” to a prior event?  When does response become recovery?  Are some events non-recoverable?  I have asked each of these questions in earnest more than once. (“Hi, my name is Phil, and I’m obsessive-compulsive regarding the seams between the homeland security mission areas.”)

There has been a persisting tendency to perceive that if we could just accurately frame the homeland security domain and its principal parts, we could then assign roles and responsibilities with clarity, fund appropriately, and craft the best of all possible worlds.

Systems engineering was especially hot at the turn of the century, perhaps this discipline is more a part of the homeland security field’s DNA than we have fully acknowledged.  Are we hard-wired by the time-and-place of homeland security’s genesis to constantly cycle through requirements analyses? (There’s a vision of hell if I’ve ever heard one.)

Whatever its source, there is a continuing fascination with finding the right taxonomy.  Below, again, is the National Preparedness framework of five mission areas and thirty-one core capabilities.  Farther below is Carl Linnaeus‘ taxonomy for the animal kingdom: six classes consisting of various orders, then families and so on (by clicking on the image you can see a larger version).  The parallels are, I think, remarkable.

If you are over 45 you probably have a vague memory of Linnaean taxonomy from 7th grade science.  If you’re under 45 and/or a biologist you know this system has been mostly superseded by other descriptive systems.  Linnaeus sought to distinguish by function. Many of the newer systems highlight origins and relationships.

Linnaeus advanced our understanding.  The five mission areas and 31 core capabilities also advance our understanding.  But the greatest value will almost certainly emerge from recognizing and making sense of the relationships across the mission areas and core capabilities.  There are, and will need to be, functional divisions within the homeland security “kingdom.”  But these divisions are means, not ends.

The November 2011 version of the National Preparedness System closes with the following two paragraphs:

While the National Preparedness System builds on a number of proven processes, it will evolve to capitalize on new opportunities and meet emerging challenges. Many of the programs and processes that support the components of the National Preparedness System exist and are currently in use; others will need to be updated or developed. As the remaining PPD-8 deliverables are developed, further details will be provided on how the National Preparedness System will be implemented across the five mission areas in order to achieve the National Preparedness Goal.

This document describes a collaborative environment and living system whose components will be routinely evaluated and updated to ensure their continued effectiveness. This environment will be supported through collaboration and cooperation with international partners, including working closely with our neighbors Canada and Mexico, with whom we share common borders. In the end,the National Preparedness System’s strength relies on ensuring the whole community has the opportunity to contribute to its implementation to achieve the goal of a secure and resilient Nation.

The National Preparedness System is emerging.  As it does, can it find a unique voice, well-matched to its extraordinary mission, capable of effectively advancing the purposes articulated in PPD-8?  As it emerges, can the National Preparedness System avoid the reductionist specialization that is endemic to modern organizations? With the second annual National Preparedness Report will we read and believe that relationships are being fostered across mission areas and core capabilities, among jurisdictions, and between private, public and civic sectors?

Linnaeus warned, “Nature does not proceed by leaps.”   Neither does the best policy-making.  But each can grow, change, and evolve.

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May 10, 2012

The National Preparedness Report: Trying to describe reality and outlining how to engage it

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 10, 2012

Presidential Policy Directive 8 begat the National Preparedness Goal, the NPG begat the National Preparedness System.  This lineage has now begat the National Preparedness Report.

The forebears for this race of documents might be extended into the mist of history and myth: a veritable Book of Numbers or Metamorphoses of policy-making.

But surely the one common ancestor looming over this titillating thicket of conceptual coupling would be NSC-68.    If ever there was an Ur text, this is one.  In fifty-eight pages a national policy was articulated with such clarity and strength that it seemed to call-forth — creating not just framing — a half-century of national purpose.   President Truman signed the document on September 30, 1950.  Some suggest NSC-68 achieved its apotheosis on November 9, 1989.

The problem of preparedness is no less acute or consequential than the problems facing Truman, Acheson, Nitze, Kennan, et al.  Here’s how PPD-8 situates our current challenge:

This directive is aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the Nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters. Our national preparedness is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and individual citizens. Everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm. As such, while this directive is intended to galvanize action by the Federal Government, it is also aimed at facilitating an integrated, all-of-Nation, capabilities-based approach to preparedness.

This is a big idea.  Read it again, not as a dollop of  political/bureaucratic prose but as if it was an earnest expression of national intent.

NSC-68 was also capabilities-oriented.  A long quote:

In examining our capabilities it is relevant to ask at the outset–capabilities for what? The answer cannot be stated solely in the negative terms of resisting the Kremlin design. It includes also our capabilities to attain the fundamental purpose of the United States, and to foster a world environment in which our free society can survive and flourish.

Potentially we have these capabilities. We know we have them in the economic and military fields. Potentially we also have them in the political and psychological fields. The vast majority of Americans are confident that the system of values which animates our society–the principles of freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual, and the supremacy of reason over will–are valid and more vital than the ideology which is the fuel of Soviet dynamism. Translated into terms relevant to the lives of other peoples–our system of values can become perhaps a powerful appeal to millions who now seek or find in authoritarianism a refuge from anxieties, bafflement, and insecurity…

These capabilities within us constitute a great potential force in our international relations. The potential within us of bearing witness to the values by which we live holds promise for a dynamic manifestation to the rest of the world of the vitality of our system. The essential tolerance of our world outlook, our generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations are assets of potentially enormous influence.

These then are our potential capabilities. Between them and our capabilities currently being utilized is a wide gap of unactualized power.

It is worth recalling that NSC-68 was a classified document.  The public did not see it until a quarter-century after the President’s signature.   In our Ur text policy-makers are self-consciously communicating, arguing, analyzing, trying to persuade their fellow policy-makers.

The National Preparedness Goal lists thirty-one core capabilities.  The National Preparedness Report gives attention to each.  ”Freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual, and the supremacy of reason over will” are not  among the thirty-one.

Each of the core capabilities are organized by five mission priorities.  Within the government, these mission-with-capability-clusters increasingly reflect lines of authority and responsibility.  What we have in the NPG, NPS, and NPR is an effort to describe reality and an emerging structure for engaging that reality.

It tends to be a very instrumental view of reality, almost mechanistic.   It is, at least in my judgment, consistent with observations of reality. It is also complicated.  The National Preparedness System has begun to remind me of Ptolemy’s eccentric, epicycle,  and equant.  It works, but is less than elegant.

This is not meant as a fundamental critique of the National Preparedness collection and is certainly not a criticism of these documents’ authors.

It is an expression of concern regarding contemporary rhetoric, by which I mean the art of decision making.

If the National Preparedness authors had used a rhetoric similar to NSC-68, my obscure voice at this little blog would have congratulated them.  From nearly every other corner they would have been savaged, being accused of superficiality, hypocrisy, and — probably — jaw-dropping hubris.  Yet this older rhetoric and its now seemingly quaint gathering of evidence and argument is still honored for having set-the-stage for winning the Cold War.

Beyond matters of style, I perceive an important substantive difference between the intellectual and operational assumptions set out in NSC-68 and those unfolding from the National Preparedness collection.  What are those differences?  What may be their practical implications?

Take some time to read NSC-68 and come back tomorrow.

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