Category Archives: counter-terrorism

Expecting to find the unexpected

If you search hard enough through enough information, can you expect to find the unexpected?

A number of angles appeared to me looking into a review of the US DHS’s Counter-Terrorism ‘fusion centres’ in Wired Magazine recently. The simple summary is that the US has spent between  $289 million and $1.4 billion to product ‘a Bunch of Crap’. I have personal experience of national centres although nothing on the scale of the US DHS and can see the possibility of this smelly outcome.

The article discusses reviews by Senate (political) committees into public service activities. The perspective and motivations of such reviews should automatically alert you to clarify what, if any, spin was desired in the outcome. References and ‘facts’ quoted by the reviews help to let the reader form some opinion but just remember that somewhere in another filing cabinet will be a review commissioned by the public servants praising the outcomes of the work. The truth lies (?) somewhere between these two extremes and in my experience, the more clearly the objective evidence is portrayed separate to the subjective, the better. While this is true in government across the world, national security seems to have a particular challenges due to the gravity and sensitivity of the mission and the cloaks which operate around the edges of activities and information.

The idea that the budget expenditure would be between $289M and $1.4B is clearly an indictment of fiscal accountability and transparency. For a smaller country like, say, Australia, the equivalent statement would be that the funding was between $28,000 and $140,000. A big difference, but not one that’s likely to keep anyone awake for too long. It does show the scale of things in the US and obviously suggests that even at this scale, it’s not working.

In my experience, the idea of ‘sharing information’ between a broad set of stakeholders to arrive at a cohesive, more informed, holistic result is extremely difficult. The best ‘fusion’ usually occurs between individuals maintaining personal connections across agency lines. The more bureaucratic the process, the less dynamic and adaptive and inevitably, the lower the fidelity of the complex, dynamic, real world information trail. Agencies would do better by encouraging and facilitating these domain wide communities but that would require lowering the drawbridge into the silo and losing a sense of control and budget.

Even if you can get agencies to collaborate with a shared intent and cooperation, there are technical and methodological challenges in fusing, synthesising, distilling etc. volumes of data which are generated in a wide variety of contexts. Often the military terminology of ‘situation awareness’ and ‘common operating picture’ is used here however the military environment is significantly different to that of national security. Indeed the military environment is one of many environments that come together here including health, emergency management, intelligence, foreign affairs, customs, etc.. No matter how parochial different arms of defence services are, the military has the benefit of a much more tightly integrated command / control structure than will ever exist in the vast domain of national security. Complexity and extreme risk methods are more likely to achieve results than brute force applied to an assumption that answers will just drop out with the right goggles.

The article discusses the diversion of funds to local crime fighting and the twist of the police that local crimes are a form of local terrorism. There are definitely overlaps between the capabilities required for national security and local security. The goal of the national security investment however, should be to improve the national security and, as a by-product, enhance capabilities which can also be useful in other areas of local security, national disaster, pandemics and CBRN accidents.

An alternate strategy is to invest in the capability of capability management. Using this approach, capabilities to handle routine emergencies in many domains are pooled as a portfolio which is configured in response to specific threats. Rather than investing in national capabilities which may never be utilised, this approach focuses the investment on the ability to manage the stakeholder network – something which is taken as a given in typical national initiatives yet which is usually the weakest link in the strategy to execution chain.