Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ignorance is Not Bliss

I received the following piece through the FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education (EMI) Project. Secretary Chertoff replies to the New York Times article which correlated anxiety induced by homeland security to increased incidence of heart problems.

“Last week, the New York Times Science section ran a column that posed the question: What is more dangerous – al Qaeda or homeland security? Pointing to a recent study about cardiac health problems caused by anxiety, columnist John Tierney suggested that continuing elevated threat levels – and changes in security measures – may spur anxiety-based heart damage that harms more people than al Qaeda.

“I’ll admit that I began to read the article expecting at the end it would be tongue in cheek. But this didn’t turn out to be satire. The Times seems to feel that where terrorism is concerned ignorance is, if not bliss, at least tranquility. Of course, there are a couple of quick points to be made. Contrary to Mr. Tierney’s assertion, the United States Government does not frequently change the alert level, and when we do we explain as fully as possible why. I could also point out that the Times’ advice suggests that the newspaper itself may be a bigger cause of anxiety-related heart disease, what with the recent reporting about foiled terrorist plots in Spain and Germany, and, less happily, the Bhutto assassination, and bombings in Pakistan and Algeria.

“But I want to take the Times’ point more seriously, because it is an example (more obvious and outlandish than usual, perhaps) of an increasing strain of intellectual denial when it comes to terrorism. As I have often said, our approach to terrorism must be balanced. Neither complacency nor hysteria is appropriate in dealing with a global struggle that will be with us for the foreseeable future. The right answer is to acknowledge the threat, manage the risk and make the necessary reasonable and cost-effective investments that we need to secure ourselves and respond if necessary. And averting our eyes from the threat of terrorism will seem very hollow when the abandonment of security leads to tragic losses that cannot be ignored

“We certainly debate about what the right balance of security is, but does it make sense to pretend that what we read about doesn’t exist? When facts become uncomfortable or upsetting, should we ignore them? On the Times’ theory, we should also not discuss preparing for pandemic flu or major catastrophes. The anxiety caused by a 21st century in which technology has given terrorists and militants unprecedented destructive capabilities is very real. The constructive approach to that anxiety however, is not to wish it away or pretend that it doesn’t exist. The correct approach is to confront the danger, be transparent about the facts, and build real capabilities that assure us that we have maximized our chances of averting or minimizing harm. These are the kinds of behaviors that calm--rather than promote--anxiety.

“Ignoring the danger leads neither to bliss nor tranquility. Rather, we should recognize that in a world where man-made and natural hazards exist, the most constructive outlet of anxiety is to motivate solid, intelligent, and balanced preparation.”

Michael Chertoff

On one hand, I’m not prepared to agree with the New York Times assertion that there is a correlation between increased homeland security levels and heart conditions. At least here in Cincinnati, most people don’t know what the current homeland security level is or why it is at its current level. Outside of health officials and emergency managers, most people have not heard of pandemic flu and even those that have really don’t understand why they should be prepared. People here in Cincinnati (and I’m willing to bet elsewhere in the United States) are far more concerned about the potential of an economic recession or number of violent crimes being committed by plain old US criminals. Cincinnatians and Northern Kentuckians are far more worried about the potential merger of Delta Airlines with another major carrier and the potential loss of jobs at the Delta hub. Others are more concerned about their favorite sports team or the latest scandal of their favorite entertainer. If homeland security were at the forefront of most people’s concerns, it would certainly have been reflected in the talking points of the presidential candidates. The buzzword for presidential candidates now is “change” versus defense of the homeland.

On the other hand, I believe Secretary Chertoff and Department of Homeland Security misses the important point that it isn’t enough to just tell people that “wolves” are dangerous but help them understand how “wolves” pose a risk and what people can do about it. Intelligence analysts are very familiar with the difficulty of keeping leaders focused on a threat when that threat fails to ever materialize. For example, the Soviet Union was always viewed as a threat due to its political and military views which were diametrically opposed to those held by the United States. But other than during the Cuban missile crisis, the US and Soviet Union postured more than ever actually showing signs of attacking. It became increasingly hard to be prepared for an event that over the course of time did not seem in the late 1980’s to be as likely as it did in the 1950’s. Homeland security is going through a similar, albeit compressed, cycle where a terrorist attack is not foremost on the minds of average citizens. Perhaps those living in New York or Washington D.C. (where the attacks occurred) may have a more heightened sense of concern of attack but I doubt it rises to the level of creating heart conditions in citizens. The Department of Homeland Security needs to not only be the broker of information concerning threats, they need to educate the average citizen on their role in maintaining and improving the defense of the homeland. For example, the United States government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow however the threat level is High, or Orange, for all domestic and international flights. What does that mean to the average citizen? For most people is means only small amounts of liquids, aerosols and gels are allowed in carry-on baggage. I doubt if the majority of passengers now even are aware of why they are limited to only certain carry-on items.

According the DHS website however citizens should also be doing the following;

• All Americans should continue to be vigilant, take notice of their surroundings, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities immediately.
• Everyone should establish an emergency preparedness kit and emergency plan for themselves and their family, and stay informed about what to do during an emergency.

The first recommendation can be assumed that any law-abiding citizen does this as a matter of course. The second recommendation, to prepare an emergency preparedness kit, is not one most people are aware of much less actually have completed. In one of the courses I teach, I have the students create a list of items they would need to be self-sustaining for 72 hours. Most have never thought about this before and even fewer realize that a good list of items for an emergency kit can be found at The students quickly learn what is needed and how ill-prepared they are to evacuate in the event of a disaster. While having the information posted on the DHS is good, without a program to emphasize the information through education and public awareness program the information fails to have the desired impact.

Secretary Chertoff is right about the continued risk to the United States but the way only to increase awareness is through education and training. Proper training would lead to citizens being more aware of their roles which in-turn would increase the preparedness of citizens as a whole. Preparation is the best means of reducing any anxiety induced by the threat of terrorist attack. And of course, training and education eliminates ignorance.

Friday, January 18, 2008


This was posted on the Ohio Homeland Security website:

"The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced today final rules establishing minimum security standards for state-issued driver licenses and identification cards.

Earlier today, Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles officials received the 284-page final rule document and participated in a national conference call where DHS officials discussed today’s announcement.

“Our review of the proposed final guidelines for Real ID implementation is underway,” said Henry Guzmán, Director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety. “Throughout this evolving process, our primary concerns on a state level have always been the financial impact of implementing this new federal standard in license verification and issuance, and determining how REAL ID impacts how we serve our customers across the state.”

DHS officials confirmed during today’s conference call Ohio was the first state to be granted an extension to comply with the provisions of the REAL ID act. In collaboration with the General Assembly, state officials initiated the request for an extension to federal officials in October and received notification from DHS officials granting an extension on December 10.

The first deadline for compliance with REAL ID is December 31, 2009. By that date, states must complete an initial upgrade of the security of their license systems.

REAL ID addresses document fraud by setting specific requirements that states must adopt for compliance, including (1) information and security features that must be incorporated into each card; (2) proof of the identity and U.S. citizenship or legal status of an applicant; (3) verification of the source documents provided by an applicant; and (4) security standards for the office that issue licenses and identification cards.

ODPS officials will work closely with the Governor’s Office and federal officials throughout the review process, Guzmán added.

For more information on today’s release of REAL ID regulations, visit "

Ohio changes at a glacial pace sometimes. In this case, it may be a benefit as the challenges of implementing REAL ID are worked out. As Director Guzman points out, REAL ID will have financial costs associated with implementation that may be apparent until the program begins. There will also be an economic impact to businesses required to use REAL ID protocols. Those increased costs will be passed on to the customer through higher prices and processing fees. Even businesses that aren't required to use REAL ID, but still deal with other businesses that do, will experience higher costs associated with doing business. Cargo and freight companies could also be effected should REAL ID become a standard for port and terminal identification. It remains to be proven if these increased costs result in a corresponding reduction in terrorist attacks or activity. Hopefully metrics will eventually be created to allow an objective evaluation of REAL ID. Should it prove that REAL ID costs are disproportionate, then perhaps a re-evaluation would be in order much like DHS recently did with its goal of inspecting 100 percent of all inbound shipping containers.

The one thing about Ohio pedantic pace is it will allow lessons to be learned from othes as REAL ID begins to be implemented living up to Mark Twain's observation about Cincinnati. The author once quipped, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always twenty years behind the times."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Europe, air travel and the plague

Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made news the other day when he proclaimed the next terrorist attack against the United States could originate in Europe.

The head of US Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in an interview with the BBC that there would soon be stricter security checks on people wishing to fly to the USA from the EU. Chertoff said that the planned tightening of security was due to concerns that terrorists "were increasingly looking to Europe both as a target and as a platform for terrorist attacks." He had "watched the rise of home-grown terrorism in Europe", referring in particular to the bombings in Madrid and London as well as the attempted bombings in Germany.

In a way, this should not come as a surprise as Europe is no more immune to disenfranchised individuals then we are. Ethnic divisions between the Walloons and Flemish, for example, came to forefront recently as an interim government was formed in Belgium. Some viewed this as an affirmation of the European Union that Belgium did not fall into immediate collapse. What it also shows is despite the apparent homogeny of the European Union old ethnic divisions still exist and could be the basis for a terrorist group to find new recruits. The Basques have taken exception to policies of both the governments of Spain and Portugal for decades. Kosovo has declared independence from Serbia potentially igniting new conflicts in the Balkans. Even the Swiss have been in the news lately due to calls by some for stricter regulations against immigrants. These are just some of the various European issues that could all be the basis for forming new terrorist organizations or strengthening old ones through new alliances.

The tightening of security checks for travelers from Europe causes me to think of a different challenge for those in homeland security. Travelers, those visiting from afar as well as those returning home, are exposed to many different stimulus while away. They have experienced different sounds, languages, sights, smells and food. Travelers entering the country also may have been exposed to contagious diseases. It seems like identifying passengers at risk for spreading communicable diseases is more of a pressing need than restricting travelers from Europe. Two recent stories have help make my point. The first comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported a woman infected with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis flew aboard American Airlines Flight 293 in mid-December 2007 from New Delhi to Chicago. Earlier in 2007, another traveler, who knew he was infected with tuberculosis, boarded an international flight person. Neither of these individuals were terrorists nor did they subscribe to any kind of nihilistic ideology. They simply thought their need to travel outweighed their obligation to the safety of their fellow passengers. It takes only one individual with a contagious disease to pose a grave threat to hundreds or even potentially thousands of unsuspecting individuals.

The disease that has most been in the news recently is H5N1. The H5N1 virus, or avian flu, has been the focus of attention for the last few years even though this virus has not show a sustainable ability to spread from human to human. The concern is that H5N1 has shown the ability to mutate and it may mutate into a form that could become easily communicable amongst humans creating a worldwide pandemic. However, there are other diseases that already possess the ability to infect large numbers of people at least on an endemic level. Two that have been on the rise are Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and anti-biotic resistant tuberculosis. Both are highly contagious and can be spread amongst human beings especially in enclosed spaces such as office buildings or airliners. According to a news article on Reuters, plague, the disease that devastated medieval Europe, is re-emerging worldwide and poses a growing but overlooked threat, researchers warned on Tuesday.

While it has only killed some 100 to 200 people annually over the past 20 years, plague has appeared in new countries in recent decades and is now shifting into Africa, Michael Begon, an ecologist at the University of Liverpool and colleagues said. A bacterium known as Yersinia pestis causes bubonic plague, known in medieval times as the Black Death when it was spread by infected fleas, and the more dangerous pneumonic plague, spread from one person to another through coughing or sneezing. "Although the number of human cases of plague is relatively low, it would be a mistake to overlook its threat to humanity, because of the disease's inherent communicability, rapid spread, rapid clinical course, and high mortality if left untreated," they wrote in the journal Public Library of Science journal PloS Medicine.

Globally the World Health Organization reports about 1,000 to 3,000 plague cases each year, with most in the last five years occurring in Madagascar, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The United States sees about 10 to 20 cases each year. The most recent large pneumonic outbreak comprised hundreds of suspected cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006.

The most recent large pneumonic plague outbreak was in October and November 2006 in DRC, with hundreds of suspected cases, and a smaller outbreak arose just across the border in nearby Uganda in February 2007. "Plague may not match the so-called 'big three' diseases (malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis) in numbers of current cases," say the authors, "but it far exceeds them in pathogenicity and rapid spread under the right conditions."

It is easier to focus attention on terrorist groups, particularly those abroad, than to deal with ways of identifying passengers with communicable diseases and finding ways of limiting their exposures to others. Advocating stricter types of identification for traveling on airlines may help prevent a known terrorist from boarding a flight but it has not yet been able to stop passengers with known infections of tuberculosis. Perhaps some alienated youth in Europe may be at this moment having visions of attacking the United States but without the organization and funding, he or she will just remain disillusioned. On the other hand, a passenger infected with TB or plague and nothing more than a desire to travel without regard to the safety of others can pose a far greater risk. It was not that long ago some anti-terrorism experts feared a variant of the suicide-bomber scenario where the terrorist intentionally infected himself or herself with smallpox flew into a major airport like O’Hara in Chicago. There the smallpox-infected terrorist would try to physically touch as many individuals as possible in an attempt to spread the disease. It doesn’t take a terrorist to pose a threat to our homeland, just an infected traveler on an airliner. Most are cases of bubonic plague contracted through contact with infected rodents and fleas, although outbreaks of pneumonic plague (directly transmitted from human to human via inhalation of infected respiratory droplets) still occur.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Local Homeland Security Agencies

The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003 by consolidating agencies as diverse as the U.S. Secret Service to the U.S. Coast Guard, all said 22 federal agencies employing 220,000 people formed the new agency. The first real test of the Department of Homeland Security came just two years later when Hurricane Katrina stuck land. The lead agency for the disaster was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, by many accounts, arrived too late with too little. Over two years later and still the citizens of New Orleans are still trying to recover from the disaster. The response efforts to Hurricane Katrina brought to the forefront shortcomings such as lack of emergency communications, poor computer integration (system interoperability) and information sharing. These were all problems experienced during the Hurricane Katrina response but a recent New York Times article points out that these problems continue to permeate not just FEMA by the whole of the Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS disputes these charges and points out the insurmountable challenges of merging so many divergent agencies with dissimilar missions to meet the challenges of protecting the homeland. The realization of the complexities of these tasks is reflected in how the DHS is modifying recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report. For example, the DHS recently changed its goal from inspecting 100 percent of all shipping containers arriving at U.S. ports to more random screening based on new technology to identify suspicious containers. The original goal had proved unachievable due to cost and time. Shipping containers illustrate one of the tendencies of homeland security to invest in emerging technology whenever faced with an insurmountable challenge. Another example is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adding more and more technology to passenger screening yet only recently has additional screening or airport employees and aircrew been brought up. The Airline Pilot’s Association is against additional screening of pilot’s and aircrew flying as passengers citing the extensive background checks that airline aircrews already undergo. The association feels additional screening will add more delays with little increase in overall security. While the pilot’s association is concerned about their members, the issue brings up an important point. Technology being employed by TSA, regardless of the sophistication, is still only at the screening area. Terrorists, in theory, are still able to arrive at the airport BEFORE any technology can be used to detect their presence or the presence of any weapons. Security is already at a disadvantage if a terrorist, or anyone determined to commit violence, arrives at the airport without any prior warning. TSA should not be put into the position of being the first line of defense; they should be part of a continuum of security that begins with law enforcement and the local community. Reliance on high-tech solutions does not always add that human element needed to get advance warning of hostile intent by a formerly unknown operative.

Technology can be effectively used to overcome shortfalls such as insufficient manpower or time, however the reliance on technology has become the default setting for implementing homeland security especially at the local level. DHS grants last year totaled $1.7 billion to local homeland security programs in 2007. However, the majority of these grants are for purchases of technology and not for the more enduring programs such as training.

DHS grants are broken into five programs to be used in a regional approach to strengthening homeland security. Grant funding priorities include reducing risks of improvised explosive devices and radiological, chemical and biological weapons. They emphasize interoperable communications, information sharing and citizen preparedness. HSGP fiscal year 2007 funding totals were:

State Homeland Security Program (SHSP)- $509.3 million

Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program (LETPP)- $363.8 million

Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI)- $746.9 million

Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS)- $32.0 million

Citizen Corps Program (CCP)- $14.6 million

With the exception of the last category, DHS grants are applied to big-ticket items (such as new decontamination equipment, emergency medical response units, or equipment for detecting weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The problem with these grants is that assumes another attack along the lines of 9/11 by an outside organization such as Al Qaida. The technology purchased by these grants is of little use to a small community that may never face an Al Qaida planned attack but could very easily face a disaster created by a disgruntled employee at the local chemical manufacturing plant or food processing plant. The motivations may differ but the results are the same. Local homeland security agencies, along with their communities, need to have the ability to train and improve their interoperability. While technology does offer some opportunities for improvement in this area, it still comes down to people developing and maintaining the networks formed best by training and working together. The DHS grants force communities to create scenarios requiring high-end technology to justify the amount of the grant. In reality, the local homeland security agency would be better served by focusing on the Universal Task List (UTL), which has more irrelevance to many communities rather that trying to prevent the next attack from Al Qaida. This does not mean smaller communities may not be faced with discovering an active terrorist cell in their community, only that there are far more likely situations facing communities that aren’t related to terrorism but would require some of the same skill sets.

Technology, regardless of how advanced, has a limited life cycle, which may be shortened by the arrival of newer technology or by tactics that render the technology obsolete. Smaller communities may have state-of-the-art equipment today but find themselves unable to maintain it over the course of years. The other problem with technology is the need to continually train on the technology. Depending on the technology and its applicability to normal requirements, the equipment may get relegated to being used once a year or less. Immediately following the events of 9/11, Air National Guard bases received high-tech equipment for passive detection of threats to the base. The equipment was procured under emergency funding and sent out to the bases. Much of the technology sat dormant however since there was no funding available to set the equipment up. Similar gaps may occur in local communities that purchase high-tech items only to find out the cost of setting it up or maintaining is goes beyond the scope of the DHS grant.

Training tends to get short-changed in most grants due to the perception of training as a “soft skill”. Unlike equipment or personnel, training is harder to measure and account for in audits. It is difficult to establish a measure of effectiveness for training conducted through a grant. There is no empirical way to know for certain whether or not the training actually occurred or whether the students actually learned anything. Unfortunately, training personnel has a more enduring impact than technology and properly trained personnel build their own strategies flexible enough to deal with ever-changing threats facing the local community. Going into the seventh year since the attack on 9/11 the homeland may have more equipment to detect potential terrorists but it does not appear that local homeland security agencies are anymore capable when it comes to interoperability. Those enamored of technology will point out the numerous software applications out there to help improve interoperability and the latest routers to handling data from multiple agencies. What are missing in all of this are still the basics. The people of these agencies have to feel comfortable with one another and develop the necessary networks THEN the appropriate technology can be applied to streamline the flow of information. Even in the 21st Century, it still starts with a handshake and business card.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Comprehensive Risk Assessment

Vulnerabilities and risk assessment tend to be undertaken from a micro point of view. For example, if you are a county commissioner you are only looking at those critical infrastructures that fall under your jurisdiction. Out of all of those, you tend to focus on facilities or structures most vulnerable to attack or failure. From there the list is narrowed further prioritizing which infrastructures will received funding to improve their survivability in the event of an attack. Measures could range from hardening to replacement depending on the work required and the funds available to support the work. Prioritization of projects occurs both in the public as well as private sectors and is standard practice for equitably distributing limited funds amongst multiple projects. Often as the saying goes it’s the squeekiest wheel that gets the grease. Prioritization of projects may make sense from a fiscal point of view, however it does not change the fact that many other vulnerabilities may exist but due to a lack a funding must be left until sufficient dollars become available. By addressing vulnerabilities in such a manner, the county commissioner in this example could be increasing the likelihood that their community may be attacked. Tacticians regardless of their motivations and allegiances look for areas of weakness in their enemies defenses to exploit. Major homeland security projects will call the potential terrorists attention to which structures have been protected and be default which ones have not.

With the possible exception of Alexander the Great who favored attacking an enemy at their strongest point, most tacticians (military and otherwise) look for weaker area to exploit during an attack. Attacking a weak point makes sense both from a tactical level as well as a financial one. Going against a hardened facility may be not only be tactically unsound as well as being cost prohibitive. A planner looking for a vulnerability to exploit may discover their target by a simple process of elimination. In one sense by hardening one area against attack may provide the inspiration needed to divine the true area of vulnerability.

Going back to my example of the county commissioner, efforts to insure vital areas and critical infrastructures are protected could drive a terrorist to plan an attack from an adjacent location. The location may not have sufficient funding nor have the same risk associated as their neighbor. For instance, the city water supply may originate from a remote area outside the county and thus susceptible to attack. Taking steps to protect water supplies may cause terrorist planners to note other targets such as power substations, fiber optic cables, or agricultural areas. The location or size of these targets prevents any large scale physical security measures from being enacted. Even in those cases where physical security measures can be taken, costs may prohibit a comprehensive plan from being taken.

Too often communities implement systems to reduce terrorist attacks but do so in a vacuum without looking at how such actions may fit into larger strategic plan. Jonah Czerwinski over on Homeland Security Watch wrote a piece about the New York city subway tip line. If a commuter sees something amiss, they are to call the tip line and report the suspicious activity. As Mr. Czerwinksi notes, the premise is good but is incomplete. Commuters could tie up the tip line with numerous reports of everything BUT the very suspicious activity it was designed to prevent. He notes that despite having not actually capturing any terrorists, it does seem to have made commuters more aware of their surroundings. What is missing in the New York city example, and Ohio for we have a See It Report It hotline, is an education program for the public. The specific behaviors commuters should be looking need to be shared with the public. The system is good but was implemented in a vacuum without taking into considerations how to make it even more effective. The tip-line could be part of a comprehensive plan to increase citizen awareness not just on subways but throughout their daily travels. Citizens in this case could be used force multipliers for law enforcement and others responsible for preventing terrorists attacks.

Education and training of average citizens seems to still be an under-developed area of the homeland security spectrum. Homeland security grants pay for high-dollar projects yet the efficacy of these projects remains to be seen. Ohio has the Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS) which gives subscribing agencies contiguous communications throughout the state. Because agencies have to pay monthly fees per each radio, many smaller agencies are unable to afford MARCS radio. In theory MARCS is a statewide radio network but costs prohibits all agencies from being able to use it. Inversely the most remote communities are the ones with the least number of radios due to the costs which these communities cannot afford. To be sure, MARCS is far better than what Ohio had in 1989 and had NO interoperable radio system during the Shadyside floods. However, MARCS needs to be part of a comprehensive interoperability plan and one that the average citizen understands.

Football season is over for teams from the local area (the Bearcats won their bowl game and well the Bengals are still the Bengals) but I still recall watching a championship high school game earlier this year. Two high school teams were playing for the regional championship at the University of Cincinnati with a record crowd of 20,000 (a huge turnout). It occurred to me that for all of the fear about attacks at NFL games, a Friday night high school game could present a terrorist far easier group for attack. Homeland security experts and law enforcement agencies would agree there is a risk but would also lament the lack of funding to deal with a rather remote threat. Instead of accepting this defeatist attitude, the development of a comprehensive homeland security plan that includes educating the public what to look for would pay far more benefits than many of the high dollar measures. Of course educating the public runs the risk of offending special interest groups but if these groups are brought in at the start, such protests could be reduced or eliminated altogether. Comprehensive means not just addressing all likely scenarios and vulnerabilities but also including all stakeholders from the community. Education of the community may not pay high-dollars but it is a cost-effective way of protecting ALL of the community, not just selected portions.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


China may pose the greatest homeland security threat to the United States but not for the convention notions of political or military power. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union over 15 years ago, foreign affairs and military pundits alike still frame the world in terms similar to the Cold War era. Iran, North Korea and now Pakistan get the majority of headlines because of their unstable or anti-American regimes. Nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan, along with rumors of nuclear weapons development in Iran, excite those analysts brought during the halcyon days of the Cold War to imagine these nations posing the greatest security challenges. China has been at best ambivalent when it comes to its relationship with the United States. During the Cold War, the Communist government of China placed it squarely on the side of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union recast Sino/U.S. relations where relations were based less on political ideologies but rather on economic relations. The U.S. saw the developing Chinese economy as a way of improving its own economic future. China for its part saw partnering with the United States as an expeditious route of becoming an economic superpower. The Chinese appear to have achieved their goals which now along with Japan holds 44 percent of the federal debt. At the same time, China is posed to overtake Germany this year as the third largest economy in the world.

The economic relationship the U.S. now has with China has lead in part to the over 200 recalls of Chinese products last year. China is shipping unbelievable amounts of goods over to the United States far and beyond the ability of any company or federal agency to inspect. That statement should come as no surprise since the Department of Homeland Security recently decided to forgo a 9/11 Commission recommendation to search 100 percent of all shipping containers coming into the United States. The intention was to prevent a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb being brought into the United States via a shipping container, however the mechanics of conducting such pervasive searches has proved untenable. Perhaps though instead of looking for nuclear weapons or dirty bombs we need only look at the trade imbalance between the United States and China.

Last year, the United States imported over $266 million dollars worth of goods from China while only exporting $52 million dollars worth of goods for an deficit of -$213 million (source: U.S. Census Bureau). The imbalance has allowed China to buy more and more government securities which if China were to sell these off quickly would result in a increase of interest rates in the US. Keeping interest rates low allows the U.S. to continue to purchase large amounts of Chinese goods. The sheer volume of Chinese goods coming into the United States increases the likelihood of more recalls in the future.

China is a growing economy and much the like the United States during the early 20th Century is concerned only with growth. Products are being manufactured as quickly as possible to meet consumer demands. Such rapid growth does not allow adequate quality controls to be introduced to insure consumer goods are being manufactured in quality environments or with the best of raw materials. The money in China right now is being made by those that can produce the most not those than can provide the best quality control or safest working conditions. The United States is not really in a position to demand stronger quality control standards as the goods being imported are far cheaper than similar goods available from other markets.

Global warming became mainstream earlier this year with former Vice President Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. The change in views by the current administration has been seen in recent adoption of energy standards requiring 35 m.p.g. automobiles within 13 years and elimination of incandescent light bulbs within 4 years. However, these measures seem to pale in comparison to the environmental challenge posed by Chinese economy. China right uses more coal than the United States, Russia and India combined. The copious amounts of coal burned in China obliterates any carbon offsets effected by California. More pollution along the Western Coast of the United States comes from China than from the US! These trends are likely to increase as the Chinese economy continues to grow.

The United States is spending more of its own money to respond to issues created by China. The pollution and recalls of goods manufactured with dangerous materials means US companies have to spend additional dollars in clean-up and litigation. Chinese economic growth is having and adverse effect on the US economy. Unlike the Cold War era, the greatest security threat to the United States may not be a nuclear strike but a new economic superpower. Chinese/American relations are the best they’ve been in many decades yet the impact of the Chinese economy is more disastrous to the security of the homeland than any potential dirty bomb or nuclear device. The United States needs to somehow convince the Chinese to adopt a different approach to economic growth. Of course this may be perceived by the Chinese as an attempt to thwart their growth which be all accounts may lead them to rival the US in the not too distant future. The United States needs to encourage Chinese companies to adopt better quality control standards NOW and show them how this will increase, rather than hinder, economic prosperity. The United States needs to also help the Chinese implement cleaner manufacturing processes and need to see how this will help maintain worker’s health and still lead to economic prosperity. If not, our homeland will continue to be damaged and degraded by the Chinese growth. For the first time ever, we may lose the battle of a war that isn’t being fought.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Go Michigan!

Recently the Michigan State Attorney General overturned a previous ruling and now illegal aliens are denied driver’s licenses. New York had previously proposed a similar measure in 2007 but the outcry from the public and the media quickly caused the governor of that state to back away from the issue.

On the Detroit Free Press website, immigration attorney Faten Tina Shuker listed the typical arguments heard from those in favor of issuing driver’s license to illegal aliens:

By denying driver's licenses to a segment of Michigan residents, we are exposing ourselves to unlicensed and uninsured drivers. I don’t know about Michigan but in Ohio we are inundated with drunk drivers that continue to drive long after their licenses and insurance have been terminated. One individual had been arrested and convicted of DUI a record 19 times! I don’t see where issuing a driver’s license to an illegal alien makes us any safer or secure. Possession of a valid driver’s license is no guarantee that the driver will have insurance.

Restrictions will only create an underground mechanism and demand for fraudulent licenses. The current mechanisms that jeopardize our national security will become more powerful as the demand for service increases. The argument presupposes that such mechanisms will be increased as though they don’t exist already. I’m remain unconvinced that if driver’s licenses were to be issued to illegal aliens this would somehow have an adverse effect on the illegal identity trade. Furthermore, if an individual is here illegally I don’t see the incentive for them to obtain a legal document with their residence officially recorded. I can see a driver’s license (or some equivalent) being issued to driver’s who are here on some kind of visiting worker visa but outside of this instance it just seems as though and illegal alien would prefer not to have their home of record official documented.

Local law enforcement officers will be exposed to unidentifiable criminals, and their lives will be more in danger. The statement assumes that majority of the time a police officer questions someone they know they are dealing with a known criminal. Every police officer I’ve met has said a traffic stop is one of the most dangerous things in their line of work because you never know who is driving the car much less what their intentions may be. The individual could be an otherwise law abiding citizen but could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Their mental state could be deteriorated from an illness unrelated to drugs or alcohol. None of this is made any less dangerous by the issuance of a driver’s license to an illegal alien.

For the sake of our state's homeland security, we need to know who resides in our state instead of helping create an underground community. The majority of illegal aliens are here because they can’t make the same wages back home as they can in the United States. There is no incentive for them to get a driver’s license as most are able to work without one (or simple drive in the hopes of not getting stopped by police). The terrorists that enter the country here illegally are even less interested in obtaining some document that makes it easier for law enforcement to track their whereabouts.

While I see driver’s licenses for illegal aliens as failing to deliver on the claims of its proponents, I do agree with TSAs new background checks of pilots and other airline personnel. The Airline Pilot’s Association said they are concerned a no-fly list that regularly grounds members when they fly as passengers could prevent some of their ranks from reporting to work. While the union feels this is unnecessary due to the extensive and regular background checks pilots undergo, the issue does address a potential vulnerability. Pilots that are assigned to fly an aircraft are working with other crew members that can quickly identify if the pilot is a legitimate employee or not. The same cannot be said for an individual “dead-heading” as a passenger. The uniform and identification cards could be stolen or fake. For those airline personnel flying as passengers, I see it as prudent to have ALL passengers undergo the same level of security screening.

TSA procedures have successfully reduced the threat of a terrorists boarding flights. Despite reports of individuals being able to get various banned materials and substances through screeners, it should be noted that not a single instance has involved a terrorist. While I don’t believe the TSA processes are infallible, I do believe that the procedures have greatly reduced the possibility of a terrorist boarding as a passenger with some kind of weapon. I still believe a greater possibility resides in airline personnel being recruited for nefarious purposes. The other potential is for their credentials and uniforms to be stolen and an impostor poses as an airline employee to gain access to sensitive areas of the airport or aircraft. Shoring up security of passenger screening is only one part of deterring terrorists from using airlines or airports to launch some type of attack. If that means pilots and other airline personnel may have to undergo additional screening in order to travel as a passenger, then so be it. It should not be seen as somehow demeaning of the arduous training and background checks that pilots undergo, merely as a way of removing one more route for terrorists to use our airlines and airports against us.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Study doesn't support truck ban

The New Year brings cold weather back to the Cincinnati area with a vengeance. As local residents begin to head back to work and school, the news is primarily focused on the Presidential hopefuls in general and the Iowa caucus specifically. In the midst of all of this, a critical issue in the local area has already become a footnote. The Ohio Indiana Kentucky (OKI) Regional Council of Governments released its study on banning trucks from the Brent Spence (I-75) bridge. The Brent Spence bridge had come under scrutiny after the bridge collapsed in Minnesota back in August. Many learned for the first time that while federal law requires regular inspections of bridges, there are no laws requiring states to repair bridges. The cumulative effects of road traffic, weather and time eroded the I-35W bridge to the point where it finally collapsed killing 13 people. "The problem is there, year after year after year. And they don't let you do anything about it," said Bart Andersen, a Minnesota Department of Transportation bridge inspector who took a leave of absence earlier this year to act as a union representative.

As I’ve written about before, the Brent Spence bridge is part of the I-75 system which runs from Detroit, MI to Miami, FL. According to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates, I-75 is one of the busiest trucking routes in North America with truck traffic approaching six billion miles annually. In addition, more than 250 freight trains per day pass through or have destinations within the I-75 corridor. The interstate portions of this transportation system are nearly 50 years old and significant safety and capacity problems exist.

According to the OKI analysis, 5,200 fewer trucks would be traversing the Brent Spence Bridge during peak periods if the truck ban was implemented. The primary alternate route for northbound trucks would be I-275 east to I-471 north which 60 percent of the banned trucks would follow.

Most significantly, OKI’s research showed the safety impact of a truck ban would be minimal. On the Brent Spence Bridge, only one less severe crash (resulting in injuries or fatalities) would occur per year. For the entire study area, only two fewer severe crashes would occur annually, reducing the total from 528 to 526.

The communities around the Brent Spence bridge on both sides of the river applaud this decision as most agree a truck ban was only a partial solution to a much larger problem. What is desperately needed is a new bridge to accommodate the huge traffic the flows daily over the Brent Spence. The life expectancy for the Brent Spence is about 10-15 more years at which time local planners hope to have a new bridge funded and under construction.

What the Brent Spence situation shows us is how long it takes to solve a impending problem that we know of but lack the funding and ability to correct in the short-term. While the OKI study makes the case that diverting truck traffic would not effect the number of severe accidents on the bridge, as many are already saying it only takes one accident if you are in it! The problem of course is there is no way to tell how severe that one accident will be, it could be the one that completely demolishes a section of the bridge. The accident could happen during a snow storm with a huge multiple care pile-up. For those unfamiliar with the bridge, the lanes are extremely narrow with traffic flowing one-way on two different road decks. North bound traffic is routed along the lower road deck which is akin to driving through a tunnel. There is no room to swerve to avoid a collision without immediately crossing into other traffic and hence compounding the magnitude of the accident.

Obviously there is no quick solution to any infrastructure problem but motorists traveling the Brent Spence bridge need to exercise extreme caution. Too often people speed or drive erratically (especially under the influence of drugs or alcohol) which drastically increases the likelihood of an accident. Hopefully the OKI study will be used to increase the design and construction of a replacement bridge for the Brent Spence and not seen as an excuse to delay a desperately needed solution to a critical infrastructure challenge.