Homeland security, the dark side and fear

I often joke with my law enforcement friends that they see people divided into two groups:  criminals and others who just haven’t been convicted yet.

Of course, jokes like that are funny because they usually contain an element of truth.  Unfortunately, that sort of outlook also permeates much of the homeland security community as well.  When it comes to how homeland security is conducted, therefore, citizens are seen through the lens of paranoia and suspicion.  That’s why you get treated like livestock at the airport, aren’t allowed to take pictures when you’re at the train station, or have a file on you if you’re Muslim, brown and anywhere near New York City.

It also leads to a lack of any real attempt to engage with the public about terrorist threats and countermeasures.  And so…here’s the latest.

My opinion is this is a bullshit report (you can read it here).  I get that everyone is going to spin this as intrusive government surveillance of constitutionally protected activity but I think that misses the real story (or stories).

  • This is a calorie free report.  It doesn’t contain any real insight or analysis but that might be fine.  The Occupy movement had a lot of people scratching their heads so some context might be fine.
  • The conclusion is both banal and troubling.

The growing support for the OWS movement has expanded the protests’ impact and increased the potential for violence. While the peaceful nature of the protests has served so far to mitigate their impact, larger numbers and support from groups such as Anonymous substantially increase the risk for potential incidents and enhance the potential security risk to critical infrastructure (CI). The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests. Due to the location of the protests in major metropolitan areas, heightened and continuous situational awareness for security personnel across all CI sectors is encouraged.

That’s pretty standard language and I think you could safely translate that as:

“We don’t have any evidence of a threat but a) in order to justify our jobs we need to say something is threatening b) don’t want to find ourselves on the wrong side of a senate testimony is things go wrong and c) our overlords are already treating this like a threat and nothing else will get through the system.”

It is worthwhile to note that this isn’t a ‘law enforcement sensitive’ document and, therefore, probably had a fairly wide distribution within the private sector.

The extent of private sector/homeland security cooperation is the real story here. 

People should be asking how much information is being shared back and forth between the two communities and how each respond to the others needs.  How much do private sector priorities drive intelligence and investigative priorities?  Does the relationship allow for inappropriate exchanges of information based upon personal relationships (the revolving door is not limited to federal government employees and industry) or political considerations?

And the whole idea of information operations remains unexplored territory.  It’s not just that few in the community are familiar with the concept, even fewer have a shred of interest in it or believe it has value.  It’s almost as if they’re institutionally incapable of processing that sort of information.

And as the environment changes dramatically (as it may be doing now) this inability to change one’s perspective to things of rising importance will mean that we continue to apply old solutions to new challenges.

That tends to not work out so well.

So, why do they do this sort of thing?

Paul Pillar comes to the rescue while discussing an article in the latest Foreign Affairs (which I haven’t read yet but it’s on my list).  He describes the numerous reasons why the homeland security community is hardwired  to exaggerate risks (and to be fair, this also extends to law enforcement).  In particular, I’d like to point your attention to the following excerpt:

The bureaucracies’ role in the exaggeration process is less a matter of pecuniary interests than of engrained expectations. The biggest annual presentation that the director of national intelligence, for example, is required by law to make to Congress is supposed to be about worldwide threats. So naturally he describes a world that appears to consist mainly of threats.

And just about every agency involved in homeland security has to produce some sort of periodic threat assessment.  Sometimes such reports are mandated by law or regulation and sometimes they’re needed for budgetary/institutional interests.  Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that the expectation is for the threats to always be high.  Think about it, how many times can you recall a threat assessment (either about a country on the other side of the globe or about the local crime problem in your neighborhood) that said things were getting less threatening?

Sometimes you’ll hear that it’s ‘our job’ to err on the side of caution and that may be true.  But that only works if it’s somebody’s job to act as a counterbalance and view things through a lens of realism. And let’s face it, there ain’t nobody at that helm…


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