Past as Prologue

Ice storm cuts power in New Hampshire. From the Manchester Union-Leader.

Later today (Monday, December 15) President-elect Obama's National Security team will meet in Chicago. I would not want to be in charge of setting the agenda.

Last Sunday we remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor. On Monday white powder envelopes were received by many of the nation's Governors. More envelopes arrived on Tuesday and Wednesday. Talks with North Korea regarding its nuclear program stalled on Wednesday. On Thursday Belgian authorities conducted sixteen raids on suspected terrorist cells. In Morocco the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of several suspected terrorists who are accused of planning bank robberies to finance terrorist operations. On Thursday the World Health Organization confirmed another human infection with the H5N1 avian influenza virus. On Friday an ice storm hit the Northeast United States knocking out power to millions. Earlier today the Boston Globe reported that at least 300,000 will continue without power for several days. On Saturday the Indian navy announced the arrest of 23 pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Intensive diplomatic efforts continued throughout the week in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. There were bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Et cetera, et cetera.

Effective leadership often involves distinguishing between what is important and what is urgent. The distinction can sometimes be subtle.

The to-be-nominated Secretary of Homeland Security is a member of the National Security team. It has not yet been decided if there will be a White House Homeland Security Advisor.

Which of the incidents listed are Homeland Security incidents? Which are National Security incidents? Which are both?

Which of the incidents listed are important? Which are urgent? How did you decide?

Which of the incidents present the most likely threat to more Americans? Which present the most consequential threats? What are the top risks? How did you decide?

The new week began with an editorial in the Sunday Times arguing that the "National Guard is ideally designed to reinforce homeland security" and urging President-elect Obama to avoid over-using the Guard for missions abroad.

I understand the new national security team will meet for a couple of hours. Would be interesting to hear how they choose priorities. Just the last few days present a powerful prologue for their continued work.

NOTE TO READERS: This is the last MONDAY (P)REVEW expected to be published in 2008.

Focusing on Any Single Threat is Risky

On Tuesday I met with a retired four-star general. He is a thoughtful and experienced man concerned that prevention of terrorism does not and will not receive sufficient priority. He pointed to the lack of attention to terrorism in the election, recent public opinion surveys, and the lessons of human nature.

That this worry was credible in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attack seemed a bit surreal. While the general and I were talking the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released its report titled World at Risk. As is required of any report hoping to garner attention it offered a breath-taking warning, "It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

The media took the bait and appropriately apocalyptic headlines were offered: Alarm raised on threat of mass assault (Financial Times), US sees WMD attack by 2013 (Arab News) 1900 Days and Counting (Newsweek), Biological terror attack likely by 2013 (CNN), Report Sounds Alarm Over Bioterror (Washington Post) and many more of similar tone. If anything US headlines were understated compared to the international media. Not everyone agrees with the findings, but we have learned it is dangerous to underestimate the imagination and persistence of our terrorist adversaries.

The Commission report is thoughtful and helpful. There is also nothing really new in what is offered. In December 2002 the White House announced a new Homeland Security Presidential Directive entitled National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. While the HSPD is classified we know the first sentence reads, "Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) -- nuclear, biological, and chemical -- in the possession of hostile states and terrorists represent one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States. We must pursue a comprehensive strategy to counter this threat in all of its dimensions."

In terms of the Commission's warning of a biological attack, in April 2004 the White House released HSPD-10 entitled BioDefense for the 21st Century. The details are secret. But a declassified overview explains, "Biological weapons attacks could be mounted either inside or outside the United States and, because some biological weapons agents are contagious, the effects of an initial attack could spread widely. Disease outbreaks, whether natural or deliberate, respect no geographic or political borders. Preventing and controlling future biological weapons threats will be even more challenging. Advances in biotechnology and life sciences -- including the spread of expertise to create modified or novel organisms -- present the prospect of new toxins, live agents, and bioregulators that would require new detection methods, preventive measures, and treatments. These trends increase the risk for surprise. Anticipating such threats through intelligence efforts is made more difficult by the dual-use nature of biological technologies and infrastructure, and the likelihood that adversaries will use denial and deception to conceal their illicit activities. The stakes could not be higher for our Nation."

Four years later essentially the same finding is headline news. This is the part of human nature that worries the general.

There is a widespread expectation that the Obama administration may appoint high-level "czars" to coordinate national policy and strategy related to nuclear, biological, and cyber threats. Certainly nothing wrong with that. It is tough to coordinate a big beast like the federal government, even harder when there is a need for cooperation with foreign governments, the States, and private sector.

But all of this is a bit reminiscent of Chicken Little. In focusing on one possible threat - the sky is falling - we can too often neglect an even more significant threat - Foxy Loxy. I am not suggesting the bio-terrorist threat is analogous to a mere pebble or acorn or cherry (the original threat analysis was ambiguous). But rather than be preoccupied with any particular threat, we need the discipline of ongoing risk awareness and adaptation to the risk environment.

This kind of risk awareness is hard. It is not part of our human nature (pdf). For a variety of reasons that paid dividends in our evolutionary past, we tend to discount future risks even while we react - sometimes irrationally - to current threats, perceived or real. The general is right to be worried.

NOTE TO READERS: Over the next several weeks new professional obligations may delay or interrupt regular publication of Monday (P)review.