Friday, May 30, 2008

FEMA's Revised Logistics Operation

The Federal Times takes a look at FEMA's revised logistics operation:

“Katrina showed we did not have the capability in place to replenish what we had,” said Eric Smith, FEMA’s national logistics coordinator. “Our reliance was too much on what we had in stock.”

FEMA has developed several new approaches to disaster preparation. One is transparency: making visible to everyone concerned what FEMA has in stock — items such as blankets, generators and portable housing units.

Another is partnerships with first responders, such as the Red Cross, which is often first on the scene with first aid, food and temporary housing, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with providing ice, water and emergency power.

Also, FEMA has forged a closer link with the Defense Logistics Agency to help it provide fuel, food, water, cots, blankets, “anything in their inventory,” Smith said.

Tom Essig, chief procurement officer at the Homeland Security Department, FEMA’s parent agency, gives another example.

“After Katrina, FEMA bought ready-to-eat meals. We don’t do that now. Now we contract. When we need it, we provide it. We don’t buy and store any more. We buy the service, which includes the transportation. The companies themselves are responsible for the logistics of transportation,” Essig said.
This is more in line with FEMA's structure and purpose. FEMA is not supposed to be a massive agency that stockpiles emergency supplies and delivers them in the event of a disaster. FEMA is a relatively small agency that needs the authority (and often the political cover) to direct other, larger agencies to do what needs to be done.

As Katrina showed, situational awareness and communications are two more critical requirements for FEMA. The best logistics system in the world won't do you any good if you don't have information on what is needed where, or if those needs can't be communicated.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cohabitate :: Collaborate

One way to get to know people is simply by being around them.

In Edison, New Jersey, they're putting that principle into practice by building a new "public safety center" which will house police, fire, EMS, and training facilities:

The facility, which Mayor Jun Choi expects to be open by early next year, will house police, fire and EMS personnel all under one roof. It is intended to be a state-of-the-art facility and will have a full training center for all the township's public safety personnel ... Choi said that coordination between different branches of public safety is essential in improving emergency response in town.

The importance of coordination between police, fire and EMS was a theme repeated multiple times ... something that people said would definitely be helped through the placement of personnel from all three services in the same building.

Col. Rick Fuentes, New Jersey State Police superintendent ... noted that fire and police could help each other, for example, in sharing information about the nature of certain buildings, noting that fighting fires at, say, a methamphetamine lab might be particularly dangerous and require contact with police.

Conversely, he noted that some firefighters report gang members stopping fire trucks from getting near burning buildings until incriminating evidence is cleared.
It's a step.

Cheap Preparedness Stuff

Good idea: In conjunction with Florida's Hurricane Preparedness Week, retailers have lowered the prices on items that can help citizens become better prepared:

Governor Charlie Crist today joined state and local emergency managers and the Florida Retail Federation to promote Florida Hurricane Preparedness Week, May 25-31, 2008. He announced that some Florida retailers will be hosting special sales on hurricane supplies, beginning Friday, May 30, and continuing through June 8.

Some of the items included on the emergency supply list include:

· Flashlights and portable, self-powered light sources
· Portable radios, two-way radios and NOAA weather-band radios
· Flexible waterproof sheeting (tarps)
· Gas or diesel fuel containers
· Batteries
· Medications
· Ice chests or other food storage coolers
· Portable generators
· Carbon monoxide detectors
· Storm shutter devices
· Pet carrier and supplies

That's nice public-private sector collaboration.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lead, Follow, or ... Something

Evidence that 9/11 is receding into memory: an article in today's New York Times, describing state and local resistance to DHS' priorities for homeland security funding:

More openly than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks, state and local authorities have begun to complain that the federal financing for domestic security is being too closely tied to combating potential terrorist threats, at a time when they say they have more urgent priorities.

Local officials do not dismiss the terrorist threat, but many are trying to retool counterterrorism programs so that they focus more directly on combating gun violence, narcotics trafficking and gangs — while arguing that these programs, too, should qualify for federal financing, on the theory that terrorists may engage in criminal activity as a precursor to an attack.
I've long argued that precursor crimes are a good way to target potential terrorist cells. But it depends how it's done. If it's a strategic effort that involves information-sharing in an active search for links to potential terrorism, that's good. But if it's simply an attempt to conflate ordinary crime-fighting with "potential terrorism" (because, well, you never know who might be a terrorist...), then that's not strategic. It would just be a matter of luck. Your effort to stop crime might uncover a terrorist because any type of police work could.
The Seattle chief of police, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said, “If the law enforcement focus at the local level is only on counterterrorism, you will be unable as a local entity to sustain it unless you are an all-crimes operation, and you may be missing some very significant issues that could be related to terrorism.”

Chief Kerlikowske is president of a group of police chiefs from major cities who said in a report last week that local governments were being forced to spend increasingly scarce resources because, they say, Homeland Security did not pay for all the costs. “Most local governments move law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence programs down on the priority list because their municipality has not yet been directly affected by an attack,” the report said.
What we're seeing here is two ends of a spectrum, neither of which is appropriate. On the one hand, it's ridiculous to imagine that local law enforcement should exclusively focus on combating terrorism.

And on the other hand, no jurisdiction should ignore the potential for terrorism or erroneously conflate all crime-fighting with counterterrorism. Like any low-probability, high-impact event (an earthquake, a tornado, etc), a potential terrorist attack should be prepared for and prevented and/or mitigated to the degree possible.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Information Sharing Through "Enlightened Bribery"

Alabama has created a geo-spatial tool, Virtual Alabama, that accumulates public data about homes, schools, businesses, and other locations within the state. Police, fire departments, health care providers and other users can use the tool for preparedness and response. (Also see this post from last July.)

Government Computer News offered an inside look at how the state's Department of Homeland Security went about getting the information to populate the database:

[P]rojects such as Virtual Alabama are always hungry for data, especially in their early stages. And one of the best ways to get data from other local agencies is a form of enlightened bribery, Walker said.

“We determined very quickly that the best imagery available in Alabama was in either state agencies or in county revenue departments because they fly and take a picture of your house to reassess it,” Walker said. “So we go to the revenue folks, and I say, ‘I’m the Homeland Security director, and I’d like your imagery.’ And they say, ‘I’m not giving you my imagery. I paid a million dollars for this imagery.’ They don’t want to give it to anybody because they assume that you have some sort of financial gain after they’ve spent this money. So how do we solve this problem?”

Walker’s strategy was to do an end around by going to county sheriffs. “The typical Alabama sheriff carries a pretty big stick in his county,” Walker said. “He can get just about anything he wants. So we bring the sheriffs together and say, ‘OK, sheriffs, if we had your county’s imagery, these are the kinds of things we [could] give you for free,’ ” he continued.

Walker offered to give the sheriffs free access to the data on one condition: “You’ve got to get me your county data.” So, Walker said, “the sheriff goes to the revenue commissioner and says, ‘I’ll tell you what: You’re going to get a ticket every day if you don’t give the Homeland Security director the imagery from our county.’ ”
Sounds like good old-fashioned leveraged negotiations to me.

Virtual Alabama is a real-world demonstration of the concept that, for information-sharing to be successful, two conditions must exist:

1. Parties must be willing to share the information.
2. The information must be presented in a usable format.

Virtual Alabama succeeds on both counts. But too often, even if the first hurdle is passed, the second one is not. We're hearing that out of fusion centers - that there's a lot of data being ostensibly shared, but it's not in a usable form, so it's difficult to use effectively.

Form follows function.

Terrorism and the Drug Trade

A good post from Douglas Farah, discussing the U.S. first drug conviction with a connection to fund-raising by a radical Islamist terrorist group - in this case, the Taliban. Key points:

As money from donations and charities becomes harder to acquire and move safely, the easy alternative is the drug trade.

I believe this is the future. Religious/ideological radicalism and organized criminal groups will become less and less distinguishable in the pipelines of illicit activities we see more and more.
This argument has been made many times before. Call this another data point.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Local Networks as Counterterrorism Tools

I don't have much to add to this story from In Homeland Security, except to say I think it's spot-on:

Israel places a high value on Human Intelligence and weaves HUMINT into all aspects of their law enforcement activities. A prevalent saying in their intelligence community guides their efforts: “the small bring in the big”. Israeli law enforcement and intelligence collection agents build long term, lasting relationships on the ground with all types of business people.

For instance waitresses, bartenders, taxi drivers and barbers can be a wealth of information. Emergency room employees, gas station workers, and grocery or drug store employees are all good collection sources. Around a specific target, street vendors are worthy of engagement since they frequent the same area and have a perfect viewpoint for noticing out-of-the-ordinary activity. If protecting a church is the objective, the clergy and worshippers are valuable informants.

The key is to cultivate the relationship; visit the sources regularly, build their trust, instruct them on what to look for, and make sure they have a way of contacting you 24/7 if they notice something suspicious. Your sources are force multipliers and critical to gleaning the information needed to identify, monitor and then disrupt terrorist activities. ...

If illegal weapons such as grenades are needed, the builder will need to move out of the circle of those aware of the plot, potentially exposing him and the planners. Well cultivated sources will notice this unusual activity and alert you.
Any kind of malicious actor is vulnerable to exposure at certain stages, because they have certain material needs that must be filled. Building a local network, cultivating relationships and - importantly - instructing your partners on what to look out for - is indeed a "force multiplier" in detecting these moments of exposure.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Interfaith Disaster Preparedness Groups

Does your community have one? It's a good idea. Local networks with common interests can accomplish a lot. For instance, here's what they're doing in San Francisco:

Leaders from more than a hundred San Francisco-based churches, synagogues and other places of worship are expected to gather today at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to learn how to make their spiritual sanctuaries into places of physical refuge. Alameda and Santa Clara counties have made similar efforts.

In sessions organized by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the church leaders will be taught how to create disaster plans for themselves, help congregants prepare their own households and be safety hubs for their neighborhoods in the midst of disaster.

"This is not to say we expect congregations ... to conduct a full-scale disaster response," said Alessa Adamo, program director for SFCARD, a nonprofit that trains faith groups and nonprofits on disaster preparedness. "What we're hoping for is that they're able to take care of their existing client base, help their immediate neighbors and provide a way for volunteers to help."

One of the main goals of today's gathering is to create neighborhood-based clusters of sanctuaries so different congregations can learn how to work as teams.
One thing not to repeat: The tendency to wait until after a disaster:
The San Francisco Interfaith Council was created after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake after leaders realized they needed to figure out collaborative ways to bring calm after a crisis. The Marin Interfaith Council was created in response to the devastating floods in 1982.
Business groups and non-profits can also work together, along with public officials. The more planning and preparation that's done ahead of time, the better.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Does This Make Sense?

A pair of simultaneous reports has me scratching my head. First, from Syracuse, New York, we learn:

[Radiation] detectors are now in the hands of two local police agencies, as well as state police, as the Office of Homeland Security expands its radiological security program into Central New York.

The hope is if a terrorist is transporting radioactive material to make a dirty bomb, police will be alerted to the material in transit, at the assembly point of the device or at the plot's launch site, said Frank Tabert, deputy director of the state Office of Homeland Security.

The detectors are paid for by grants from the Office of Homeland Security. Twelve police agencies statewide with bomb squads shared $1.4 million in grant money.

Generally speaking, Deputy Chief Michael Kerwin of the Syracuse police, said the devices usually are given to traffic units on the highways and used at large events downstate, such as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
While radiation detectors have some utility in a protective system, their biggest limitation is that they are, for the most part, a last-minute intervention. For this type of intervention to work, you've got to have a bad guy who is already in the U.S., has procured radioactive material and is transporting it so that he can assemble it (i.e., the 11th hour) or deploy it (i.e., the 11th hour, 59th minute).

Granted, the article does say New York intends to station larger, more sophisticated detectors at toll booths and other locations - and this makes some sense, as it's a good idea to station such equipment at transportation bottlenecks. But detectors alone are far from sufficient to protect against radiological threats.

At the same time, in the UK there is doubt about whether European ports - another key bottleneck in the transportation system - will continue radiation scanning of US-bound cargo. The problem? Not enough money:
Doubt has been cast over whether the security scanning of containers bound for the US from Southampton docks will continue after questions were raised over the financial feasibility of the move long term.

The city's docks were among the first ports in the world to start scanning containers destined for the US for nuclear materials as part of a move to step up homeland counter terrorism measures.

[I]t has been reported that the European Union has expressed concern over the long term feasibility of the programme after it was calculated that imposing the scanning of all containers would cost in the region of $500 a unit to US trading partners, based on simple calculations.
Overseas radiation scanning of cargo containers makes a world of sense. It is part of a layered security strategy, aimed at preventing the theoretical bad guy from moving radiological materials into the U.S. in the first place.

Not only that, but ports themselves are key potential targets for a radiological attack. If a "dirty bomb" were deployed in a port and the area became contaminated with radiation, port operations might be shut down for an extended period, with significant economic effects (especially locally).

The idea that we are deploying a new, 11th-hour intervention but potentially losing another layer of the security system is a puzzler.

Collaboration: A Quick But Worthy Read

The Partnership for Public Service has published this brief paper, entitled "Collaboration in Times of Crisis," which captured the lessons learned from a series of roundtable discussions. My favorite takeaway:

Following the panel discussion, our experts and audience discussed ways to improve coordination across other agencies and advance the collaborative capacity of the federal workforce. Their recommendations include:
  • Engage leadership who support and model collaborative behavior
  • Plan and budget for collaborative efforts
  • Enable workers on the ground to regularly interact across teams and agencies
Are you better at collaborating or talking about collaboration? Do you plan your collaborative efforts? Do you budget for them? Does collaboration happen throughout all levels of your organization?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Winning the Battle of Ideas

I found a couple of thought-provoking comments in this opinion piece by Erik Iverson in the Harvard International Review. Although the main focus of the article is on the national counterterrorism strategy, I thought a few points were fit for consideration by state and local "first preventers." First, this is an excellent encapsulation of counterterrorism strategy:

The objective of counterterrorism efforts is to reduce the incidence and effect of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, an element of behavior; it is not an ideology. Consequently, the objective of counterterrorism policy should not be to change what extremists believe. The objective should be to change how terrorists act on those beliefs.
In other words, focus on behavior. Focus on what they do and how they do it - not on their underlying value structure. An extremist is not likely to be deterred by a crisis of belief, but they can be deterred by a crisis of confidence in their chances for success. To that end, one of Iverson's recommendations includes:
The United States should aggressively exploit the weaknesses of Al Qaeda’s new decentralized structure. It must degrade the trust in the organization’s systems, among its activists, and between its leaders. Al Qaeda is now critically dependent on a high degree of trust for cohesion among its many elements.

Paralysis of Al Qaeda’s critical organizational systems and the degradation of its most important relationships will not eliminate the Salafi jihadist terrorist threat. It will, however, reduce the ability of the organization to execute operationally complex, high-impact, spectacular attacks.
This is the sort of thing that's possible on the local level. During the recruiting, fund-raising, and operational phases, anyone interested in launching an attack - especially a complex, high-yield attack - will have to take actions that risk exposure. All of these actions present an opportunity to sow doubt and discord.

It's absolutely critical to make distinctions, however. If the reach is too broad and innocent people are swept up, then this just feeds into al Qaeda's paranoid propaganda (i.e., "The West is against us!"). But if the targeting is accurate, then there is a potential to disrupt the trusted networks that are so critical to success.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Senate Report on Homegrown Terrorism

I don't really have much to say about the new Senate report on homegrown terrorism and Internet recruiting, because it covers ground that I've covered before.

But after 10 pages - more than half the report - describing al Qaeda's sophisticated media, communications and marketing campaigns, this stuck out like a sore thumb:

[T]he U.S. government has not developed nor implemented a coordinated outreach and communications strategy to address the homegrown terrorist threat, especially as that threat is amplified by the use of the Internet. According to testimony received by the Committee, no federal agency has been tasked with developing or implementing a domestic communications strategy. While there are a series of outreach efforts being pursued by federal agencies, those efforts are limited, isolated, and not part of a strategic, government-wide policy to significantly minimize the influence of violent Islamist ideology in the United States. ...

And finally, the efforts by DHS' Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and the FBI’s Community Relations Unit are not tied into programs administered by local police departments, some of which are quite comprehensive.
Lesson to local law enforcement and homeland security professionals: If it is to be, it is up to you. (Be countersubversive.)

It's worth remembering that, while someone can be radicalized via the Internet, two things remain true:

1. Radicalization involves a separation from society, so if recruits can be pulled back into the real world of family and society, the process can be reversed.

2. Before recruits can become a legitimate threat, they need tactical skills. To some extent these are available via the Internet (e.g., bomb recipes). But for larger, high-yield attacks, they need to coordinate with others, raise money, and perhaps acquire specialized training. Making these connections and participating in this type of training can be a significant vulnerability for them, as it requires them to leave the relative safety of the virtual world.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Shift in Counterterrorism Communication Strategy

Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson write in PolicyWatch that the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has recently undergone a shift.

Where, previously, the emphasis was on selling the U.S. as "the good guys" (Remember Charlotte Beers? Remember Karen Hughes?), the emphasis now is on demonstrating the degree to which al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are "the bad guys":

Today contesting al-Qaeda's ideology is an integral part of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Efforts now concentrate on discrediting the terrorists. The United States has gone about this using a two-fold approach. As National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Michael Leiter suggests, the United States is trying to point out "how bankrupt" al-Qaeda's ideology is, and demonstrate that "it is al-Qaeda, and not the West, that is truly at war with Islam" by highlighting the extent to which Muslims are victims of the organization's attacks.

In general, the United States is trying to highlight the fact that al-Qaeda is a merciless and cruel organization whose tactics -- such as deploying mentally deficient people as suicide bombers -- are repugnant. As Leiter argued, "showing the barbarism of groups like al-Qaeda in the light of truth is, ultimately, our strongest weapon."
This message can have some traction - for instance, we've already seen evidence of this in the eventual Sunni rejection of al Qaeda for its horrific practices in Iraq.

In a way it's basic politics: Demonize your opposition.

For the strategy to be effective, this message needs to work on the local level. The homegrown threat, which was discussed in this post on Tuesday, can be countered by demonstrating the bankruptcy of al Qaeda's ideology. Trusted Muslim leaders can be a vital ally, as they are best able to formulate counter-arguments that are based on an Islamic perspective. These arguments can have real weight against the "cut-and-paste" version of Islam that is taught by the usually self-taught radicalizers (see this post).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review - Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't

It's time for another book review. This one is James Miskel's Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't (2006). In general, I found that the book accurately identified some of the problems with disaster response, but I'm somewhat skeptical about some of the proposed solutions. Let's dig in:

Problems With The Current System

In discussing the problems with the disaster response system in the U.S., Miskel argues that it often works well for smaller, more common disasters, but not for major catastrophic events:

There has, indeed, been a pattern of "failure" in meeting the needs of the victims of certain types of catastrophic disasters. ... Where preparedness is lacking is in the realm of out-of-the-ordinary disaster.
But the disaster response system has not been improved because it generally works well and fails only in less frequent catastrophic disasters, especially hurricanes:
In fact, few studies look at disaster relief as a system that is built upon a network of interdependence among too-numerous organizations. That network usually functions reasonably well, but it has repeatedly stumbled over its own feet in certain types of major disasters. ...

[A] review of the history of the disaster relief program indicates that the system has never responded well to major hurricanes.
Given that after-action reports on many catastrophic disasters have identified the same problems, again and again, Miskel argues that big changes are needed:
It seems clear that this fine-tuning has not made enough of a difference and there is no reason to believe that the answer is more fine-tuning.
As I said earlier, Miskel identifies a number of problems inherent in the system. First, there are many cooks in many kitchens, which seriously complicates the response to major disasters:
Private sector organizations, state and local government agencies, and federal agencies each have their own disaster relief programs and the challenge imbedded (sic) in the system is how to orchestrate these multiple programs effectively. ...

Just as uncertainly and information overload are inescapable features of war, they seem as well to have been inevitable in the responses to major relief operations. What has made them inevitable is, of course, the scale and geographical dispersion of the disaster itself and the complexity of the response system itself - with its too-numerous actors at the federal, state, and private sector levels...
This problem plagues the response at all levels, not just the federal level:
When Hurricane Hugo struck the state [of South Carolina], the governor's office chose to rely upon the state police radio network to collect information about storm damage, rather than the network that had been set up by the emergency management agency. ... Whatever the motive, the result was that there were two emergency operations centers in the state: one in the governor's office and the other at the emergency management agency, and there were reports that for ten days the emergency management agency did not even know that the second emergency operations center existed.
Another problem, Miskel argues, is that the current reimbursement system provides an incentive for state and local governments not to prioritize preparedness. In the wake of a disaster, the president decides whether to issue a formal disaster declaration, making the state or local entity eligible for federal reimbursement of costs. Then, the federal government makes a political decision regarding the rate at which reimbursement will be provided - usually, 75%, 90% or 100% - though in major disasters the rate tends to creep up, as federal elected officials want to be seen as generous in a time of crisis. Miskel argues that this has a negative effect on the preparedness efforts of state and local governments:
Ninety or 100 percent reimbursements amplify the incentives for states, local governments, and even individuals and private sector organizations to spend less on preparedness on the presumption that whatever the costs are of inadequately preparing for disasters, most if not all of them will ultimately be assumed by the federal government.
The only time there is a focus on preparedness is in the aftermath of a major disaster such as Katrina. But the focus and energy soon fade:
Coordination of before-the-disaster preparedness efforts, on the other hand, is rarely either proactive or consistently effective. Except in rare circumstances (such as the immediate aftermath of disaster when the images of the destruction and suffering are still vivid and the political pressures for action are still strong) preparedness measures have historically been regarded as a low priority relative to other government functions. As a result, the coordination of preparedness at the federal and state level has been only intermittently energetic.
One noteworthy exception: Miskel points out that some private-sector entities, such as insurers and utility companies, have a strong economic incentive to respond quickly and effectively to disasters. And as a result, these entities have generally done a better job of focusing on preparedness.

For its part, the federal government tried to deal with the problem of insufficient preparedness in 1979, when it created FEMA. But FEMA was never vested with sufficient authority to overcome this structural obstacle:

[When FEMA was created in 1979] the prescription was for centralized federal orchestration of preparedness planning at all levels of government by a new agency, FEMA. The executive order did not, however, give FEMA enough clout to overcome the low priority that is ordinarily assigned to preparedness.
As a result, when there a major disaster does strike, the White House usually finds it necessary to play a direct role:
[O]ne of the lessons that can be drawn from tropical storm Agnes [in 1972] is that a heavy White House hand is sometimes necessary to achieve responsiveness and unity of effort within the family of federal agencies. ...

[Hurricane Andrew] was another example of the need for the White House to take special steps to ensure unity of effort by the federal agencies. The other examples that have been noted so far are Vice President Agnew's fact-finding tour after tropical storm Agnes; Jack Watson's interagency strategizing in the Carter White House, and the appointment of Harold Denton as the president's "personal representative" during the Three Mile Island episode; President Clinton's flood relief summits during the Midwest floods; and the replacement of the FEMA Director by Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
So, federal operational leadership is not the reason why the system tends to succeed in response to disasters that are relatively limited in scope. Miskel credits others:
When it succeeds, the disaster relief system does so not because of inspired operational leadership at the federal level, but because it is a system whose pieces have been built beforehand, over time in response to federal preparedness policies, state and local government initiative, and private sector response to market incentives and regulation, as well as the dedication of private voluntary organizations, and the acumen of individuals and families.
Miskel expects nothing to change:
Given the fact that preparedness has always ebbed in the months and years after events such as a major earthquake, hurricane, or terrorist event, there is no reason to expect anything different in the future as long as the existing structure of the disaster relief system remains in place.
So, in review, the basic problems are a too-complicated system, a low priority on preparedness, and an overreliance on federal assistance, especially operational assistance.


In discussing potential solutions to these problems, Miskel compares the disaster relief systems in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These other countries are like the U.S. in that they have developed economic infrastructure, and each also has a federalist system of government in which states and provinces have important - and in many cases, primary - responsibilities.

In making these comparisons, Miskel spends much effort on describing the process by which reimbursements are doled out to Canadian and Australian provinces, in comparision to U.S. states. It is clear that the reimbursement system in both Australia and Canada is both de-politicized and less generous than the U.S. system. Miskel argues that there's an important effect to this:
Lower reimbursement rates are an important consideration. Not only do they restrain federal spending, they also give a stronger incentive for states to take emergency preparedness seriously because that helps reduce costs and to manage their disaster relief expenditures carefully.
Miskel suggests the Canadian model as exemplary. Under Canada's system, provinces are responsible for all disaster response and recovery costs up to $1 per capita, after which the federal government kicks in 50% of all costs up to $3 per capita, 75% of costs from $3 to $5 per capita, and 90% of costs over $5 per capita. Miskel writes:
If the right [reimbursement] trigger were established, as it appears to have been in Canada, states would always have the financial incentive to manage relief operations effectively because their share of the costs would never get as low as it does in the United States.
Recalling the earlier point that federal operational leadership is not often the determining factor in the success of a respons, Miskel's more significant proposal is for the federal government to largely
abandon the disaster response business and focus on preparedness. He argues that the federal government's direct involvement in response activities is actually a detriment to an effective response:
One of the surest ways to weaken the self-organizing features of response in the private sector and at the state and local government level would be for the federal government to assume a more direct role in managing disaster responses. The very last thing that the federal government should do is crowd initiative at nonfederal levels out of the system in the name of improving the federal response to catastrophic disasters. ...

The more effective and proactive the federal government becomes at providing disaster relief and the more generous it is in reimbursing state/local governments, the more it may be encouraging the states to trim their investments in preparedness

As the federal government preempts the states in more and more disaster responses, the result will be the displacement of the very things that make the system work most of the time - state, local, and private sector preparedness and initiative.
Miskel argues that unless the federal government abandons operational assistance for "routine" disasters, not only will state and local governments continue to provide a less effective response, but the federal response to major catastrophes will always be less effective than desirable, because FEMA will always train and prepare for routine events rather than catastrophic ones:
[A]s long as the responsibility for routine and catastrophic disasters remains in FEMA or a successor agency, the habits and protocols that the agency learns and repeatedly relearns during the course of responding to the forty to sixty disasters that are declared in a typical year will necessarily dominate its culture and influence how it responds to atypical disasters.
The answer, Miskel argues, is for the federal government to focus almost exclusively on preparation for major disasters:
[I]f the federal government were to get out of the business of responding to routine disasters, it would be better able to concentrate on addressing the shortcomings in preparedness that have been identified after each of the catastrophic disasters since 1972.

If the Canadian or Australian model were adopted for routine disasters, presidential disaster declarations would become considerably less frequent as they would be required only when a state requested physical, operational assistance from the federal government. ... As state governments would then become unambiguously responsible for disaster response, this should result in greater political attention to preparedness at the level of state and local governments.
So state and local governments would be clearly in charge for routine disasters - but what about major disasters? What sort of steps would the federal government take, once it took charge of preparedness for major disasters? Miskel would give the military much of the job of designing the response system:
[C]onsideration should be given to assigning the military with the mission of developing and managing both a command and control structure for disaster operations and a program for conducting drills and exercises that would work out over time the kinks in command and control procedures, identify gaps in operational plans, and train federal agency personnel.
And since White House pressure is always needed in major disasters anyway, Miskel would formalize this:
In any event, greater White House involvement will be essential if the shortcomings of the past are to be avoided in the future. ... The responsibility for overseeing federal and system wide preparedness should be taken from FEMA and added to the vice president's portfolio or assigned to an Emergency Management Council based in the White House.
I like Miskel's ideas regarding the de-politicization and limitation of the reimbursement process - it never makes sense to incentivize inadequate preparation.

I also agree with his argument that the disaster response system generally deals quite effectively with smaller, more localized disasters.

But I'm less persuaded by his proposed fixes for the federal system. Essentially the argument seems to be that if the military and the White House take over, they will have sufficient capability and power to bring the federal operational response under control, even during a chaotic response to a catastrophe. But how will the federal government interact with state and local governments? How would federal agencies perform during catastrophic operations that are, by definition, infrequent events? How much more seriously will the federal government take its preparedness efforts? Won't the tendency to short-shrift preparation for unlikely catastrophic events persist, even if the charge is led from the White House? Would the White House be able to improve the response under the proposed system, moreso than in the current system, when it has to get involved anyway?
Essentially it seems like the details of the federal response would be kicked over the wall, into the Pentagon and the White House. And it's not clear to me that those are the silver bullets to fixing the federal response system.

On Resilience

HLS Watch has a nice recap of yesterday's hearing on resilience by the House Homeland Security Committee. A key takeaway from Jonas' post:

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy, Stewart Baker, represented the federal government and its views on resilience, as well as current efforts to invest in this capability. Much of A/S Baker’s prepared remarks focused on the ability to “bounce back” as the goal of resilience. This is important, but it leaves out other dimensions that make the concept of resilience valuable (i.e. deterrence, measured response, dual use, etc.).

You're not going to be able to sell resilience as a policy unless you can argue that a resilient target is an unattractive target. Politically, you just can't say, "We must beef up our systems so that when the terrorists destroy them, we'll be able to rebuild quickly." But given that al Qaeda seeks to harm us economically, there is a persuasive argument to be made that resilient systems will be a less tempting target.

Dumb analogy: You know all those action, sci-fi and horror movies, where it doesn't seem to matter what you do to the bad guy - he reacts as if nothing happened? Well, this attribute - all by itself - makes him a pretty formidable adversary. As viewers we begin to despair for the hero. We think, "Why even bother fighting this guy - nothing works!"

Of course in the movies, the small, scrappy good guys always win because they're the good guys. But in the fight against terrorists, the small scrappy guys are pretty darned abominable. If the U.S. is a resilient, indefatigable force for good (read: soft power), we are clearly the stronger horse and the more attractive option. Choosing terrorism becomes a dual loser: You choose not only an abhorrent ideology, but futility as well.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Al Qaeda in the U.S.

Last week FBI Director Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee there have been al Qaeda cells in the U.S.:

FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week that the FBI has uncovered small groups of Al Qaida terrorists in the United States, although he declined to provide details.

As to your first question as to whether we have found affiliates or, as you would call them, cells of Al Qaida in the United States, yes, we have."
Mueller gave some credit to the FBI's program to develop relationships within America's Muslim community.
“And every opportunity I have, I reaffirm the fact that 99.9 percent of Muslim-Americans or Sikh-Americans, Arab-Americans are every bit as patriotic as anybody else in this room, and that many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States,” Mueller said.
Within some circles, engaging the U.S. Muslim community is controversial. But as a tactic to deter the emergence of radical jihadism in the U.S., I think it only makes sense. As Mueller argues, the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful, and it only make sense to engage them as allies to be on guard against the emergence of violent groups. This approach is codified in the National Strategy for Homeland Security:
The arrest and prosecution inside the United States of a small number of violent Islamic extremists points to the possibility that others in the Homeland may become sufficiently radicalized to view the use of violence within the United States as legitimate. ... We will continue efforts to defeat this threat by working with Muslim American communities that stand at the forefront of this fight.
I'm also reminded of this 2006 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which found that, although the FBI had been more proactive in its outreach efforts within Arab American communities, those communities generally perceived local law enforcement as more trustworthy:
Toward local police agencies, Arab Americans reported a fair amount of goodwill, even in jurisdictions where the two had little interaction. Where departments invested resources to cultivate this goodwill, the evidence points to dividends in the form of reduced tension. Community perceptions of federal law enforcement were less positive. Even though most of the FBI field offices in the study had reached out to Arab American communities, many Arab Americans remained fearful and suspicious of federal efforts.
Local law enforcement has a role to play in detecting potential threats of all types - not only those that emerge from a radical jihadist mindset, but from other ideologies as well (e.g., Timothy McVeigh-type "patriot" groups, narco-terrorists, etc.) My post on the Vera report is here.

Update 2008-05-07: Yesterday, DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen also riffed on al Qaeda's improved recruiting capabilities in Western societies:
Al-Qaeda's leadership has delivered over the past 12 months, an unprecedented number of audio and video messages and has increased its translation capability, diversity of subject matters, and media savvy to reach out to wider audiences globally. Its objective is to gain wide Muslim support, empathy, financing, and future recruits.

At the top of this sophisticated marketing machine, al Qaida leaders have carefully crafted and controlled their words. Al Sahab produces the audio or videotapes; the al-Fajr online media network plays the messages on numerous electronic platforms to include messages that download onto iPods and similar electronic devices. The Global Islamic Media Front then translates, re-packages, and re-disseminates these messages onto numerous - sometimes redundant - websites with the capacity to regenerate any website if a government or private entity attempts to bring it down.

I find it particularly alarming that al Qaida is improving its ability to translate its messages to target Europeans and North Americans. A year ago, al Qaida leaders solicited for "English translators" and subsequently have ratcheted up the speed and accuracy of translated statements openly marketed to U.S. and other English-speaking audiences. Last month, Osama bin Ladin's Chief Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released English translations of a two-part online interview to address questions from both extremists and mainstream Muslims around the world. To help al Qaida target US citizens, several radical websites in the United States have re-packaged al Qaida statements with American vernacular and commentary intending to sway U.S. Muslims.

In Case of Terror Attack, Good Luck Getting in the Hospital

Not surprising: Emergency rooms in major cities may not be sufficiently prepared for an influx of patients that would result from a major terrorist attack.

There are certainly some politics being played here, but the basic fact that we've lost hospital capacity in general, and ER capacity in particular, is accurate:

[T]he House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., conducted a survey of 34 hospitals on March 25 and found that not one was prepared at that moment on that day for a terror attack.

"The situation in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles was particularly dire. There was no available space in the emergency rooms at the main trauma centers serving Washington, D.C. One emergency room was operating at over 200 percent of capacity: more than half the patients receiving emergency care in the hospital had been diverted to hallways and waiting rooms for treatment. And in Los Angeles, three of the five Level I trauma centers were so overcrowded that they went 'on diversion,' which means they closed their doors to new patients. If a terrorist attack had occurred in Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles on March 25 when we did our survey, the consequences could have been catastrophic. The emergency care systems were stretched to the breaking point and had no capacity to respond to a surge of victims."

In the interest of keeping costs down, hospitals have shed excess capacity, shortened hospital stays, kept fewer supplies on hand, etc. At the same time, the 47 million uninsured know the only place they can reliably get immediate medical care - emergency or not - is the ER.

So you've got a situation where many ERs are regularly maxed out. A surge in patients, whether it results from a major accident, terrorist attack, or naturally occurring disease, could very quickly overload the system.

It reminds me of an example Steve Flynn provided in The Edge of Disaster: After a 2003 nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, in which 96 people died and 215 were injured, the health care system in New England was fully taxed in trying to accommodate even that number of patients. Considering that the
concentration of hospitals is relatively more dense in New England than it is in most locations in the U.S., that ought to give public health professionals and emergency response planners something to think about.

Update 2008-05-09: HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt agreed that there's a lack of surge capacity:
"There are deficiencies in our surge capacity..." Leavitt testified.

Leavitt said HHS will report by the end of the year the results of a nationwide survey of surge plans and capabilities. He said a survey is underway of hospitals' ability to electronically track and report the number of available beds on one hour's notice.

"Surge capacity is about using existing assets to convert to a hospital capacity very quickly. It is not simply using the emergency room," Leavitt said.
It's not clear to me what reason - other than politicking - there is for just studying the scope of the problem rather than beginning to address it. If you know there's a lack of surge capacity, you could start mitigating it even as you study its scope.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Europol: Jihadist Recruiting Is Improving

Europol has released the 2008 version of its EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. A few noteworthy highlights regarding terrorist recruiting, via Terrorism Monitor:

The Europol report underscores several interesting trends in Islamist terrorism in Europe:

First, “although the majority of all arrested suspects for Islamist terrorism continue to be North African citizens, the member states reported a high number of arrested suspects with the nationality of the country of arrest.” This seems to confirm a growing threat of homegrown terrorism that has been observed for several years.

Second, this increase in homegrown terrorists is partly the result of an increase in quantity and a “new quality” in jihadi propaganda in Europe (see Terrorism Focus, February 20). It is now widely recognized that propaganda on the internet has a central importance in recruitment. Hence, some recent developments appear particularly worrisome. For instance, al-Qaeda’s media arm, al-Sahab, now offers English subtitles or translations.

Recruitment constitutes an important part of jihadi activities in Europe and arrests related to this activity have increased. The observed developments in propaganda and recruitment suggest that al-Qaeda is taking roots in Europe and could potentially become stronger in the near future.

Third, propaganda and recruitment serve multiple purposes. Some would-be jihadis are recruited by local cells to carry out operations in their own countries. Some are “self-recruited” through the media, and constitute a “new generation” of terrorists. Some limit their support to financing terrorism. Others, finally, decide to join the jihad abroad, in Iraq—which remains the main destination for European fighters—in Afghanistan, or, increasingly (according to French intelligence), in Somalia.


Anti-recruitment efforts are clearly important to winning the war against terrorism. As long as young people are drawn out of society into these violent groups, we'll always be fighting this war. It's imperative to ensure that young people have strong social bonds with those who eschew violence. Community policing can help law enforcement prevent and detect potential problems.

The "self-recruited" group who radicalize via the Internet is the hardest to prevent. Yet at the same time, they are the least likely to develop the higher-order tactical skills necessary to pull off a major attack. There is still a reliance on the expertise of experienced fighters. The critical thing is to cut off the connections between those hardened fighters and potential recruits.