Tag Archives: Department of Homeland Security

Clearing the Swamp More Efficiently

Alligators at the deli.jpg

Remember when t’was said the current administration was only going to hire the Best People?  Yes? Well, unfortunately for that self-same administration, so does everyone else.  First, there’s the view from well above the field (or swamp):

“Already, 57% of Trump’s “A Team” staffers have left the White House in just its first year and a half, according to statistics maintained by Brookings Institute’s Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. That nearly equals the turnover among top staffers for the entire first terms of Barack Obama (71% turnover), George W. Bush (63%), Bill Clinton (74%) and George H.W. Bush (66%).”   [CNN]

Please note that Trump has blown through five communications directors, counted as one turnover by Brookings, and that the contrast is being made between 18 months of one presidency and a full four years of the Obama, Bush II, Clinton, and Bush I presidencies.  CNN continues:

“Focusing just on Cabinet secretaries, the numbers are equally stunning for Trump. He’s already seen seven Cabinet officials — three in his first year, four in his second — leave in his first 18 months in office. Obama had zero Cabinet departures in his first year and four in his second. George W. Bush lost only four Cabinet members in the entirety of his first four years.”

Business Insider has been tracking the departures.  Additionally, the resignations during the previous administrations were a bit smoother than the Price firing, the Flynn abrupt departure, and the McMaster mess.  For example, the change from General Colin Powell to Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State for George W. Bush was a planned transition.  Of the Obama resignees, we’d have to include Eric Shinseki, forced out of the VA as a “scandal” casualty; and, General David Petraeus as a victim of his own infidelity, the others left for work in academia or the private sector.  Or, in the case of Secretary of State Clinton, to pursue her own political career.   It might be easier for us if the current cabinet and top level officials would TAKE A NUMBER.

On the waiting list — Wilbur Ross.  There’s this description of his problem:

“A watchdog group has asked for a government investigation of whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made a “false statement” to the Office of Government Ethics about his stock holdings and violated insider trading rules when he engaged in a short sale of a shipping company with links to Russia.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Acting Director of the Office of Government Ethics David J. Apol to investigate whether Ross made a false statement about divesting himself of his stock in Invesco, the firm he managed before taking office in the Trump administration.

The group’s executive director Noah Bookbinder and chair Norm Eisen also asked for an investigation of Ross’s sale of his shares in Navigator Holdings, the shipping firm, in October 2017. That company did business with a Russian energy firm whose directors included a Russian oligarch who was subject to U.S. sanctions and a son-in-law of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.”

There’s enough for investigators to chew on in those three quick paragraphs to keep them busy for a bit.

And to this we’d add Secretary of the Interior, the Flag Flying Ryan Zinke.  Here it comes:

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, initially proposed the development in 2012 Politico first reported. The project, a large commercial development on a former industrial site, is largely backed by a group funded by Lesar, and a foundation established by Zinke is playing a key role in the plans. Interior IG’s office originally confirmed late last month that it was assessing the allegations, but did not not confirm a formal investigation. [The Hill]

The Secretary has already had a brush with travel expenses and other allegations of taxpayer funded/subsidized hanky-panky.

Waiting as an alligator, or to be consumed by the others —

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.  Nothing says ‘job security’ quite as tentatively as to have the word “embattled” precede your name in the press reports and releases.

Kirstjen Neilsen, Secretary of Homeland Security has some explaining to do about migrant children taken by the US government from their parents at the southern border, and not returned in good order, or in a timely manner.  A change in the composition of the House of Representatives after the mid-term elections could cause some oversight improvements in the way the DHS handles its immigration policy.

Betsy DeVos, has some explaining in the offing concerning her attitude toward student loans and the repayment thereof.   In short, it probably doesn’t do to complain about having one of your yachts banged up about the same time one is proposing to cut back on the assistance given to students who’ve been ripped off by for-profit educational schemes.

At any rate, it would be very helpful for all of us who are trying to follow the current administration through its swamp if the alligators would queue up politely, take a number, and let us proceed in a more efficient manner.

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Filed under Politics

Now A Warning? Same Old News About Russian Interference Without Any New Response

No, it’s NOT okay.  Merely because it isn’t thought the Russians actually changed any voting results doesn’t mean things are hunky-dory for the 2018 elections.  Today’s ‘news’ is in reality old news.  Consider the following excerpts from times gone by:

September 22, 2016 – “Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Adam Schiff, ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, issue a joint statement declaring that based on information they received during congressional briefings, they believe that Russian intelligence agencies are carrying out a plan to interfere with the election. They call on Putin to order a halt to the activities.” [CNN]

September 29, 2016 –  “There have been hacking attempts on election systems in more than 20 states — far more than had been previously acknowledged — a senior Department of Homeland Security official told NBC News on Thursday.  The “attempted intrusions” targeted online systems like registration databases, and not the actual voting or tabulation machines that will be used on Election Day and are not tied to the Internet.The DHS official described much of the activity as “people poking at the systems to see if they are vulnerable.”  “We are absolutely concerned,” the DHS official said. “The concern is the ability to cause confusion and chaos.” [NBC]

Fast forward to 2017, and the story remains essentially the same, albeit with more details.  In September 2017 the Department of Homeland Security finally got around to officially notifying the states they’d been hacked.

“The Department of Homeland Security said earlier this year that it had evidence of Russian activity in 21 states, but it failed to inform individual states whether they were among those targeted. Instead, DHS authorities say they told those who had “ownership” of the systems — which in some cases were private vendors or local election offices.” [NPR]

Yes, it took ten months for the Department of Homeland Security to officially tell the states what was going on.  And now…. this is “news:”

February 7, 2018:  “The U.S. official in charge of protecting American elections from hacking says the Russians successfully penetrated the voter registration rolls of several U.S. states prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said she couldn’t talk about classified information publicly, but in 2016, “We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.”  [NBC]

Indeed, this isn’t coming as news to the 18 states that volunteered for the free cyber-hygiene scans offered by the Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security in 2016.  However, a person would have to wonder what happened to the two states which refused the free scan offer, and why we keep getting what is at best a repetition of the same warnings issued at least a year ago.

And what has happened since November 2016? It would be far easier to track what has NOT been done.  For example, there has not been a single cabinet level meeting concerning the issue of Russian interference.  There has not been a single report issued by the current administration issued on the subject of Russian interference.  There has been nothing done by the current administration to implement the sanctions overwhelmingly enacted by the 115th Congress against the Russians for their interference — their continuing interference.  And yes, the Russians did in fact hack into some voter rolls. [TheHill] And yes, the Russians are still at it. [NYT]

How do we know this? Because CIA Director Mike Pompeo says he’s reasonably certain the Russians will meddle in the 2018 midterms. [BBC/Politico]  The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says we’re going to be a target in 2018 (and there’s probably nothing we can do about it.)’ [WashExam]

So once more it’s time to refer to the only comprehensive report on Russian interference issued from Washington so far — the Cardin Report:

“A Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff report released Wednesday and commissioned by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Committee’s ranking member, details Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nearly two decades-long assault on democratic institutions, universal values, and the rule of law across Europe and in his own country. The report comes one year after Senator Cardin introduced the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, which served as the basis for the sanctions package signed into law last August, and makes a series of recommendations to adequately bolster U.S. and European defenses and counter the growing Kremlin threat to democratic institutions.”

It is well past time for the administration to take action.  One obvious suggestion would be for the administration to do something more efficacious than publishing a list of Forbes’ Richest Russians and apply additional sanctions as a response to continuing Russian interference in our political systems and institutions.  “Name and Shame” has obviously NOT stopped Russian efforts.  As the Cardin Report points out, the timidity of the US reaction to Russian activities as compared to actions taken by European nations has a source, in the White House:

“Despite the clear assaults on our democracy and our allies in Europe, the U.S. government still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home. Although the U.S. government has for years had a patchwork of offices and programs supporting independent journalism, cyber security, and the countering of disinformation, the lack of presidential leadership in addressing the threat Putin poses has hampered a strong U.S. response.”  [CardinReport pdf]

So, the British have publicly chastised the Russians for their meddling and have taken steps to secure their cyber-systems and election procedures.  The Germans upgraded the cooperation between the government and the campaigns, taken stronger measures against bots and trolls, and issued strong warnings of consequences for any additional Russian games.  The Spanish cracked down on Russian based organized crime groups, especially those seeking to use the country for money laundering.  The French took direct action to address cyber-hacking and smear campaigns.  The Nordic states have adopted a “whole society” approach to address Russian propaganda and cyber efforts. The Baltic states have employed public information campaigns, strengthened cyber-security systems, and reduced their energy dependence on Russian sources. [Cardin] If most of our western allies can take active measures to address Russian interference, the question remains — Why has the US done so little?  The Cardin Report conclusion that the lack of presidential leadership has not been helpful takes on more credibility.

There are some activities good old Average Americans can do to help rectify this situation.  (1) Get informed.  Read the Cardin Report.  (2) Evaluate the suggested steps the US could take to directly confront Russian interference. (3) Contact Senators and Representatives to let our lawmakers know that the public IS interested in Russian operations in the US.  (4) Contact those Representatives to tell them the American public (and their constituents in particular) insist the administration implement and enforce the sanctions enacted by Congress.

Perhaps there’s a sufficient number of phone calls, post cards, e-mails, and constituent meetings which will prevent the Russian Meddling from being an annual event in the American press, each time reminding us that nothing has been accomplished thus far to prevent Russian activities to sow discord, dissension, and advance the demolition of American political institutions.  We should not only hope so, but also work to make this happen.

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Filed under elections, Homeland Security, Nevada politics, Politics

The Problem Of Focus: Viewing the Russian Interference Issue

At the risk of redundancy, please remember the findings and suggestions in the Cardin Report:

Putin’s Asymmetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security,” finds that President Trump’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the threat posed by the Russian government has hampered efforts to mobilize our government, strengthen our institutions, and work with our European allies to counter Putin’s interference in democracies abroad.

Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president, and without a strong U.S. response, institutions and elections here and throughout Europe will remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s aggressive and sophisticated malign influence operations.

Notice the three elements incorporated in this introduction.  We haven’t mobilized our federal agencies into preventative action. We haven’t strengthened our political institutions to prevent further incursions from Russia.  Nor have we cooperated fully with European allies to prevent more interference.

The current occupant of the Oval Office and his apologists appear to define Russian meddling only in terms of electoral results, if the Russian interference didn’t cause any change in the voting returns then there was no big problem, and hence no sense of urgency in addressing the Russian bots, trolls, and other efforts.  There has been no cabinet level meeting to date during which the Russian Interference constituted a major agenda item.  Recall AG Jefferson B. Sessions’ statement last October:

“We’re not,” Sessions said, when asked by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., if the government is taking adequate action to prevent meddling in its elections. “The matter is so complex that for most of us we’re not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.”

Sessions said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 election and may attempt to do so again. He said the Justice Department has been aggressively looking into the stealing of trade secrets in the private sector and noted that the FBI’s computer experts are also highly trained.

“Are we at the level we need to be yet? I don’t think so,” Sessions conceded.”

Sessions made the statement in mid-October 2017, if finger counting is correct that’s 8 months since the onset of the current administration. Nor has the Cyber-security page on the DoJ been updated since that date.  “Are we at the level we need to be yet?”  I don’t think so either.

The Department of Homeland Security also has a cyber-security component.  DHS describes its concerns:

“Cyberspace and its underlying infrastructure are vulnerable to a wide range of risk stemming from both physical and cyber threats and hazards. Sophisticated cyber actors and nation-states exploit vulnerabilities to steal information and money and are developing capabilities to disrupt, destroy, or threaten the delivery of essential services.”

The idea that the Russians might be profoundly interested in disrupting the delivery of essential electoral services doesn’t seem to have moved to the top of the department’s concerns, at least not to the point of making any special reference to those instances of interference.  There is a draft of a DHS publication on cyber-security efforts (pdf) available online for the purpose of public comment, published this month.  At this point let’s review the Cardin Report summation of the problem, and then read a portion of the DHS Draft Report on what might be the same subject.

Cardin Report: “Mr. Putin has thus made it a priority of his regime to attack the democracies of Europe and the United States and undermine the transatlantic alliance upon which Europe’s peace and prosperity have depended upon for over 70 years. He has used the security services, the media, public and private companies, organized criminal groups, and social and religious organizations to spread malicious disinformation, interfere in elections, fuel corruption, threaten energy security, and more.”

 DHS Draft 1-5-18: “Given the networked nature of the risks, real coordination is necessary to fully understand the problem and identify paths to solutions. While the information technology and communications sectors do actively work to understand security risks, sectors often are unable to coordinate well with other sectors. Even though some entities coordinate domestically or regionally, there are few global mechanisms to share information about threats, solutions, and their adoption and efficacy. In many cases, lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities has impeded collective action, resulting in security failures.”

At no point in the draft does one find any specific reference to interference in political institutions and operations.  A generous interpretation might be that political interference is included in the general category of infrastructure.

In short there’s not much in the DHS Draft which would offer any Nevada voter, of any stripe, comfort as to the security of our political institutions, or our election processes.  In fact, a quick reading of the draft leaves the impression that the issue of political cyber-security is left to the private sector, and market forces, whatever that might be.

Therefore, we’re back where we started, with a federal Executive Branch unable or unwilling or un-directed to develop specific guidelines or regulations toward preventing Russian interference in political matters and a market (Google, Facebook, Twitter) adrift and stumbling around what they may perceive as business and public relations pot holes on the road to prosperity.

“Russian trolls sought to steer Facebook users toward events, even protests, around contentious issues like immigration. In its response to Congress, published Thursday, Facebook elaborated that Kremlin-aligned agents created 129 events on 13 of its pages. Roughly 338,300 unique accounts viewed these events, while 25,800 accounts indicated they were interested and about 62,500 said they would attend. “We do not have data about the realization of these events,” Facebook explained.”

“Google, meanwhile, previously informed Congress that it had discovered that Russian agents spent about $4,700 on ads and launched 18 channels on YouTube, posting more than 1,100 videos that had been viewed about 309,000 times.”

“And Twitter told lawmakers at first that it found 2,752 accounts tied to the Russia-aligned Internet Research Agency. Last week, however, the company updated that estimate, noting that Russian trolls had more than 3,000 accounts — while Russian-based bots talking about election-related issues numbered more than 50,000.”  [Recode]

There does seem to be some movement from social media operations, however nothing in the draft appears to directly address any specific assistance to state and local governments trying to secure their election rolls, ballot security, and count integrity.  Not to put too fine a point to it, but the DHS draft reads like it was crafted by the Chamber of Commerce not law enforcement agencies.  A wide and highly generalized focus such as the one presented in the DHS draft doesn’t exactly offer much satisfaction to those voters seeking an answer to the problem: What are we doing about Russian interference?

PS: “The Departments are requesting comment, asking for further insight into the issues and goals raised by the report, as well as the proposed approach, current initiatives, and next steps. The draft will be finalized based on adjudication of received comments before submission to the President. The final report is due to the President on May 11, 2018.” <https://www.ntia.doc.gov/report/2018/report-president-enhancing-resilience-internet-and-communications-ecosystem-against&gt;

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Filed under Nevada politics, oversight, Politics, Public Records, public safety

Train Wrecks and Exercises in Futility: Laxalt Joins Texas Immigration Suit

Futility 2 It’s nothing unexpected, Nevada Attorney General Adam “Train Wreck” Laxalt has inserted Nevada into the Texas lawsuit (pdf) concerning executive actions on immigration.  This is one Tea Party invitation anyone could have predicted Laxalt would accept.  The lawsuit is also the kind of political theater the Tea Party/GOP enjoys: All Puff, Fluff, Sound, Fury based on the premise that an objection to an executive action on ideological grounds is always “constitutional.” So, what exactly has “Train Wreck” gotten us into?

#1. An argument over immigration policy with only an extremely thin veneer of constitutional controversy.   The second point made in the case is that: “This lawsuit is not about immigration. It is about the rule of law, presidential power, and the structural limits of the U.S. Constitution.”  Yes, and I am a giraffe…because I say I am.  Because the remaining points in the suit are all about Immigration, about the proposed DREAM Act, about DACA, about the Nava-Martinez Case, about the DHS directive.   It’s easy to make a pronouncement disclaiming any anti-immigrant intent; it’s far more difficult to assert this claim when the objections are predicated exclusively on actions involving immigration policy.

It is also all the more difficult to explain away the anti-immigrant content of the litigation when the lead plaintiff (the state of Texas) has said the case is about immigration policy. [Newmax] One of the contentions is that the implementation of the Administration’s immigration policy creates an economic harm for the state.  If it’s not about immigration policy then what happens to the economic harm element?  It’s about immigration.  And, we can figure this out from the next clue – where the case is being filed.

Interestingly enough, the case was handed to Judge Andrew Hanen, a Bush appointee, who is already on record opposing the Obama Administration’s immigration policy. [AmThink] How convenient?  It might have been easier (and more literally convenient) had the case been sent to a court in Dallas? Austin? But, for obviously political reasons the case is sent to Judge Hanen’s realm in beautiful downtown Brownsville.

#2An argument about immigration policy in which the Office of Legal Counsel (Department of Justice) has already established guidelines for executive action.  The language in the lawsuit implies that the President didn’t follow the directions of the Office of Legal Counsel in a “unilateral creation of the DACA program.”  It might have been helpful if someone had perhaps read through the OLC’s directive in full?   There is this segment which we should take into consideration:

“Nonetheless, the nature of the Take Care duty does point to at least four general (and closely related) principles governing the permissible scope of enforcement discretion that we believe are particularly relevant here. First, enforcement decisions should reflect “factors which are peculiarly within [the enforcing agency’s] expertise.” Chaney, 470 U.S. at 831. Those factors may include considerations related to agency resources, such as “whether the agency has enough resources to undertake the action,” or “whether agency resources are best spent on this violation or another.” Id. Other relevant considerations may include “the proper ordering of [the agency’s] priorities,” id. at 832, and the agency’s assessment of “whether the particular enforcement action [at issue] best fits the agency’s overall policies,” id. at 831.”

In short, if the agency’s resources require prioritization of actions then the agency/executive have the authority to create priorities. In this case the priorities are to deport undesirable individuals such as those who have committed crimes, etc., and to place youngsters with no criminal history at the bottom of the ‘to do list.’  And, did the Department of Homeland Security do what is permissible under the law?

“In our view, DHS’s proposed prioritization policy falls within the scope of its lawful discretion to enforce the immigration laws. To begin with, the policy is based on a factor clearly “within [DHS’s] expertise.” Chaney, 470 U.S. at 831. Faced with sharply limited resources, DHS necessarily must make choices about which removals to pursue and which removals to defer. DHS’s organic statute itself recognizes this inevitable fact.”

The argument over authority could now be reversed such that we could ask if the Texans and their Tea Party allies may interfere in the lawful prioritization of executive department implementations of statutes?  In one of the sillier arguments presented the Texans and Tea Partiers offered the following:

“Although OLC had cautioned the President that it was “critical” to DACA’s legality that the Administration evaluate every application on a case-by case basis, the President and DHS ignored that advice. According to the latest figures available, the Administration granted deferred action to 99.5-99.8% of DACA applicants.”

Merely because a policy might apply to 99.5% of the applicants doesn’t mean that all such applications will be automatic.  In fact, the Obama Administration policy doesn’t provide automatic categorization, as we can see from the OLC analysis:

And, significantly, the proposed policy does not identify any category of removable aliens whose removal may not be pursued under any circumstances. Although the proposed policy limits the discretion of immigration officials to expend resources to remove non-priority aliens, it does not eliminate that discretion entirely. It directs immigration officials to use their resources to remove aliens in a manner “commensurate with the level of prioritization identified,” but (as noted above) it does not “prohibit or discourage the apprehension, detention, or removal of aliens unlawfully in the United States who are not identified as priorities.” Johnson Prioritization Memorandum at 5. Instead, it authorizes the removal of even non-priority aliens if, in the judgment of an ICE Field Office Director, “removing such an alien would serve an important federal interest,” a standard the policy leaves open-ended. Id. Accordingly, the policy provides for case-by-case determinations about whether an individual alien’s circumstances warrant the expenditure of removal resources, employing a broad standard that leaves ample room for the exercise of individualized discretion by responsible officials.”  (emphasis added)

We might boil this down to some essentials.  First, the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to prioritize its activities based on the resources at its command. Secondly, the Obama immigration policy does NOT create any categories of ‘removable aliens’ who cannot be removed. And, third, there is, in fact, provision for a case by case determination of an alien’s circumstances and responsible officials may exercise their discretion.

That the Texans and Tea Partier Allies may wish to jump up and down crying “Amnesty!” doesn’t mean that the actual Office of Legal Counsel guidelines, and the actual Obama Administration’s policy directives, and the actual Department of Homeland Security plans are anything close to a rational definition of ‘amnesty.’

#3. A lawsuit including the now-defunct “child crisis at the border.”  The Nava-Martinez section and the ‘defendants cause a humanitarian crisis’ portion are a rehash of the right wing talking points during the reactionary assault on a very well intentioned law enacted in the waning days of the Bush Administration, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. [Vox]

#4. A lawsuit which strings together some quotations from the President about the necessity of enacting comprehensive immigration reform statutes.  Amen to that, but neither the President’s actions in terms of the DACA directives nor the Trafficking Victims Protection Act preclude the enactment, or non-enactment for that matter, of comprehensive immigration acts.  Nor can it be established that since Congress didn’t do anything about immigration policy reform that the President can’t do anything either.

#5. A lawsuit which is blatantly anti-immigrant per seThe DHS directive will increase the number of undocumented persons in plaintiff states.  If we remove the deportation threat the U.S. will seem more attractive to undocumented persons. It will trigger a new wave…” And this is terrible because…?  Any sovereign state should have control of its borders, but that doesn’t mean the Great Wall of China (a ‘wall’ which also served as a channel for international  trade as well as defense).   Additionally, the states will have to spend money on childrens’ health care and indigent health services… and when did we become so callous that taking care of children, even other people’s children, is to be categorized as an unconscionable expense?

#6. A political suit which could easily put the Republican Party in Nevada at peril in the next round of elections.  “Attorney General Adam Laxalt announced today that Nevada will join a multistate coalition suing President Barack Obama’s contentious deportation deferral program, his first major publicized legal action and one he’s carrying out without the backing of Gov. Brian Sandoval.” [LVSun

The suit may very well make it through Judge Hanen’s court, but for the most part this will probably be yet another exercise in futility by the reactionary Right, for the reactionary Right, and from the reactionary Right. This matters little to the ideologues of the Right.  We’re looking at what highlights the differences between Establishment and Reactionary Republicans, and  we may also be looking at what a Train Wreck the Nevada GOP could become?

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Too Many Disasters?

The Back Story: When the fire crews were pulling out after fighting the Holloway, Ten Mile, and Long Canyon wildland fires in Nevada last August, local residents were invited to take the extra briefing and planning maps of the operations which would otherwise end up as recycled paper.  I picked up three of them.  The Holloway Fire map showed the 461,047 acres burned, the Long Canyon map shows another 36,904 acres burned over. [Inci]

The local community hall had been transformed into a command center complete with a “business office” situated in one corner with account clerks, management, billing, and procurement personnel all crammed around crowded folding tables.  A mapping center was located in the center of the room, capable of creating large maps with updated information showing the extent of the burn, roads and fences,  along detailed locations of ranch buildings, homes, and other edifices.  Heavy equipment rumbled into town by the convoy.

The meeting room became the “check in” site, for crews and equipment coming in from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and other units from around the country.  The storage room was pressed into service as the meeting room for the coordination between and among the various crews.  Everything from crew camping areas, a portable helicopter port, radio and communications services, to food service was coordinated for some 800+ firefighters in a building designed to handle events for a village of some 200 people.

What the National Interagency Fire Center coordinated was essentially a town within a village, a town the sole purpose of which was to fight a threatening wildfire complex.

Yes, there were local resources available — all three fire fighting vehicles we had were in use; when the Ten Mile fire threatened to turn west toward the town county volunteer fire fighting crews and equipment for structure fires were on hand.  We provided some of the water used; the NIFC keeping very careful records of pumping — for which the local GID was paid.  However, please bear in mind we could have thrown all the crews and trucks we had at the fire complex and still have been totally swamped by the incident.  800 firefighters could have cleaned off our local grocery store shelves in a day.



The News: Why recount this “old news?”  Because in the wake of the disaster on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy there are still those who from the comfort of their think tanks who argue that we’re allocating far too many of our national resources on national disasters.

One argument holds that we have “too many” national disasters.  The central tenet is “… emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”  [NYT]   To wit one might say, yes and what’s your point?  If incidents like wildland fires and hurricanes can be handled at the local level they will be.  However, a half million acre fire or a super storm covering the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine, surely are events falling neatly into the “national disaster” categorization.

The argument quickly gets mired in quantitative nit picking.  When is a wildland fire too big to require coordinated management? How much flooding does there have to be before activities of  the Red Cross, the  National Guard and coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers are in order?  How many states must a hurricane pass through before it’s a national problem, or will the devastation of coastal and  central Florida be sufficient to pass the “national disaster” test?

The Heritage Foundation takes the quantification argument a step further.  Look, says the graphic, we are declaring too many events as national disasters — look at the numbers:

Wow, look at all those “new” national emergencies!  Whoa. A bit of history is in order.  Note that after 1993 the number of fires increases in the total. There’s a reason for that, which is explained in the history of the National Interagency Fire Center:

“The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) was created in 1965 because the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Weather Service saw the need to work together to reduce the duplication of services, cut costs, and coordinate national fire planning and operations. The National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined BIFC in in the mid 1970s. The US Fish and Wildlife Service later joined in 1979. The Center’s name was changed in 1993 from the Boise Interagency Fire Center to the National Interagency Fire Center to more accurately reflect its national mission. The US Fire Administration-FEMA joined NIFC in 2003.”

Therefore, the more agencies involved in the coordination of forest and wildland fire fighting the more declarations of fire emergencies there will be simply because the number of jurisdictions included — for the sake of not duplicating or squabbling over resources — has been increased.  This explains the fact that fire management events were not included before 1965.

The other bit of mental gymnastics required to make the localization or privatization argument work stems from tightly controlling the definition of a disaster:

“The most efficient role for the federal government is to fill in where states cannot, for example, where the damage is of such a nature that it is not amenable to state or local solutions. Hurricane damage typically is localized, and requires a street-by-street response which the federal government is ill prepared to provide. A large oil spill, by contrast, is not capable of local relief alone, and that is where federal coordination can be most effective.”  [NYT]

Where did that “hurricane damage typically is localized” conception come from?  Hurricane Isaac wandered around Louisiana and Arkansas, Tropical Storm Beryl graced Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  [NOAA]  The oft mentioned Katrina involved Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. There was Andrew in 1992 slamming into Louisiana and Florida.  In 2008 Hurricane Ike caused severe damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  In 2004 Ivan was a memorable experience for residents of Florida and Alabama. [WU]

Yes, some street by street responses are in order.  However, let’s not skip a step here.  In the aftermath of major weather events some has to get the infrastructure going.

WalMart, Home Depot, etc. can’t get bottled water and plywood to anyone until the roads are cleared.  You can’t go street by street until you can find the streets.  The city of Hoboken, New Jersey found that it’s local equipment was completely inadequate to get to some 20,000 stranded people, and has requested and received assistance from the National Guard.  [NJ.com] Purchasing industrial sized high wheeled vehicles isn’t practical for most small cities and towns.  The U.S. Army and National Guard has such equipment, and the situation in Hoboken is precisely why national assets can be usefully applied to local situations.

Yes, local power companies assist each other during weather related outages.  However, what the think tank tinkerers seem to have missed is that the Department of Homeland Security has worked with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (among others)  to produce the National Response Plan (pdf) and the roles of NGO’s and private corporations are discussed beginning on page 24.

As mentioned in a previous post, the National Interagency Fire Center had pre-positioned resources available to address fire events in northern Nevada based on information from the National Weather Service, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies which had been monitoring the potential for wildland fires well before the summer of 2012.  This is relevant because some coordination is necessary to put the infrastructure restoration in process for other kinds of weather related disasters — flooding, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Coordinating information between power companies and the NOAA is essential if private sector companies and public utilities are to effectively plan for emergency operations.

The second major theme of the localization/privatization crowd is that the federal government already recognizes the need for locally managed response operations.  Indeed, this is one of the main features of the National Response Plan cited above.  So, what?

If an emergency can be managed at the local level it should be.  However, as demonstrated above major wildland fires, and major tropical storms and hurricanes aren’t local events.   And, even if they are localized to some extent, such as hurricanes affecting only the state of Florida, this doesn’t mean that local resources are sufficient to address the needs of the population. Nor does this mean that local administration and resources aren’t themselves victims of the event.

Secondly, this argument implies that FEMA and other federal resources are superseding rather than coordinating local and state emergency responses.  Wrong again.  Someone must have missed this memo from the Department of Homeland Security last June:

“Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano today announced the final allocations for seven FY 2012 Preparedness Grant programs, totaling more than $1.3 billion to assist states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profit agencies, and the private sector in strengthening our nation’s ability to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies in support of the National Preparedness Goal (NPG). In FY 2012, DHS preparedness grants were reduced by nearly $1 billion from the FY 2011 enacted level and $1.5 billion below the President’s FY 2012 request.”

That’s right — federal dollars to states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profits, and the private sector to help them (those local governments and local agents) to help them better handle emergency situations.  Included in those grants were funds for the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) Program – providing more than $339 million to assist state and local governments in enhancing and sustaining all-hazards emergency management capabilities. [DHS]

Far from discouraging the preparedness of local officials and agencies, the federal government is actively promoting their capacity to handle what they can.

A third problem with the localization argument as presented by opponents of federal activity and those promoting the privatization of emergency services is that the focus is almost exclusively on FEMA.   The first thing out of most of the conservative mouthpieces is that FEMA didn’t perform well in — Hurricane Katrina.   We can take that for granted.  The agency at the time, that would be the Bush Administration, was headed by an unqualified person and bereft of the resources necessary to tackle the job. The conservative argument become circuitous: The agency failed, therefore all federal emergency management must fail, thus proving privatization is preferable.

No. It doesn’t prove that at all. All that’s proven is that FEMA was a mess under the previous conservative administration.  Additionally, to cite FEMA as the all purpose whipping boy is to ignore the other efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate local responses, assist local communities and utilities with pre-disaster planning, and to coordinate federal and private sector responses to natural and man made disasters.

That FEMA operations will have some glitches is reasonable given that the agency’s most obvious functions are highlighted during times of extreme stress.  However, the privatization crowd would gleefully cite individual instances of mis-applied efforts to argue that the totality of the operations are failures.  The most rarefied academic response proposing privatization sounds like this:

“Put simply, if FEMA continues to centrally plan the economies of disaster areas, it is bound to fail. Economists from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have stressed the inherent problems in central planning.” [NYT]

Who is  “centrally planning the economies…?”  In fact, the operations of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security sound remarkably like the prescription from the privateers: “Government disaster response should focus on: restoring law and order and protecting the life and property of citizens; providing emergency services; and quickly restoring infrastructure to open the channels of trade.” [NYT]  Translation – prevent looting and lawlessness, provide emergency public services, and get the infrastructure up and running.  In what fantasy world does FEMA, or any other coordinating  local or state agency, not attempt to do these things?

The greatest disaster would be one in which we fall prey to the siren song of privateers who would protect the carried interest income of the wealthiest among us while advocating that state and local governments attempt to cope with natural and man made disasters on their own.  Worse still would be the effect of allowing price gouging and rampant local inflation perpetrated by the unscrupulous upon the un-protected during emergency situations.

That would be one disaster too many.

* and we haven’t even touched on the probability that given the advance of climate change the weather will be ever more unpredictable and extreme, but that’s a post for another day.

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