I have a suggestion for those hard-working, well-meaning and too-often overwhelmed folks in the DHS Public Affairs shop. Get rid of the “one size fits all” term (“OSFA”) when referring to homeland security programs that Secretary Napolitano wants to change. Instruct the speechwriters that this “universal fit” reference needs to be eliminated from the arsenal of terminology. It just doesn’t fit.
As far as I know, from its inception, DHS has talked about “layered security” and has consistently avoided a “one size fits all” security mantra. Yet to hear Secretary Napolitano and her team these days, one would conclude that it was the only approach her predecessors took. This cannot be a coincidence and DHS ought to be ashamed.
Just within the past few weeks, Secretary Napolitano, TSA Administrator John Pistole and CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin all used (or inferred) the convenient OSFA phrase in public statements.
Last week Secretary Napolitano spoke at the Global Travel and Tourism Summit, and according to a Vegas, Inc. report, said:
“‘… the challenge of protecting millions of passengers who board airliners daily is that new technology to detect explosives, poisons and other toxic materials not only has to be efficient, but scalable to move people quickly. We’re moving away from the one-size-fits-all security model,’ Napolitano said.”
Did anyone ask her what she meant by “moving away from” the OSFA model? I suspect the answer is “no.”
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Pistole used similar language in a speech to the American Association of Airport Executives annual conference. In his prepared remarks about risk-based screening, Pistole said:
“One specific thing we’re considering is developing ways to expand our ability to conduct more identity-based screening. Just about six months into this process, we have made good progress toward developing a long-term security construct that we hope could eventually change the flying experience for most travelers.
“While many of these potential changes are still being developed and are not quite ready to be rolled out fully, in the coming months we expect to be ready to move forward with some smaller concrete steps that will begin to move us away from what can seem like a one-size-fits-all approach and onto the path of more risk-based security.”
CBP Commissioner Bersin has also used the phrase quite a bit over the past months. He took a slightly modified version of the OSFA phrase when he was quoted in a Homeland Security Newswire story this past week about SBInet and border security technology:
“The notion of one virtual fence and the concept of one Star Wars command and control center is a concept the secretary has rejected as impracticable and frankly, one that was not cost-efficient,” … Bersin said.”
It was the Homeland Security Newswire story about Bersin’s comments that set me off on the quest to see DHS dump the OSFA reference.
Why, you ask, does this upset?
The answer is simple. It is just not true that SBInet was contemplated as a one-size-fits-all program. DHS officials at all levels of the department know it – yet they persist in using the term because it apparently has the blessing of the Secretary and her inner circle of political advisors.
Additionally irritating is that Commissioner Bersin did not explain in his answer that the “requirements” for the so-called virtual fence AND for the SBInet command and control center were set by CBP itself. Government contractors are penalized when they provide solutions that are outside government requirements and that has never been truer than when false or misleading statements are made about the SBInet program.
I will be one of the first to admit that Washington is a town where “spin” is practiced as a profession by a significant portion of the population. I might even have to plead guilty myself if confronted with past “sins” of this nature. But the current overuse of OSFA references by DHS officials raises my blood pressure to an unhealthy level because I believe it goes far beyond “spin.”
It is not all that uncommon for debaters to develop a “straw man” argument which, according to Wikipedia, is:
“… a component of an argument… based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”
When DHS announced that it was halting the SBInet program, Secretary Napolitano’s use of the OSFA “straw man” term was picked up by many news outlets. It is based upon a “superficially similar proposition,” to the truth. Nevertheless DHS has continued to use the terminology. Most repeats refer to the language in the DHS Executive Summary of the report canceling SBInet, which said:
“As a result, Secretary Napolitano has directed CBP to end SBInet as originally conceived and instead utilize existing, proven technology solutions tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region. This is a significant departure from the original SBInet concept of a single, one size fits all integrated fixed tower-based solution across the entire border.”
The problem with this language is that it is based upon a false premise. The original SBInet concept was NEVER intended as an OSFA solution. The original concept of SBInet, as explained at the Industry Day on January 26, 2006, made no reference to fixed towers. Potential bidders were told that there was no single solution set to the border security problem. Current CBP and Border Patrol officials know this because several of them attended the Industry Day event.
DHS headquarters personnel are culpable in repeating the misrepresentation. Indeed, the Public Affairs office of DHS ought to know that OSFA was never the basis of the SBInet program – and if not, all they need to do is look on the DHS web site for the incontrovertible proof.
The DHS’ website contains a Leadership Journal piece by former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff dated February 2, 2008 entitled “Missing the Facts.” It was apparently written in response to other misrepresentations about the SBInet program contained in a Wall Street Journal article. Here is what Chertoff said:
“As anyone living in the Southwest will tell you, it’s a rugged, landscape with little geographic uniformity. Therefore a one-size-fits-all approach utilizing a single physical fence or a single virtual fence is doomed to fail. That’s why we’re applying a mix of technology, traditional fencing, and manpower to secure the roughly 2,000 mile border – and Project 28, or P28, is the first stretch of what will eventually be several miles of towers, radars, and sensors at strategic points along the border.”
Chertoff’s comments were made more than three years before Napolitano picked up the OSFA buzz-term. Chertoff’s language recognizes that DHS originally intended to deploy different technologies based upon differing geography and populations.
Let us remember the difference between the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) and SBInet. In 2007, Greg Giddens, then the Executive Director of SBI, told the House Homeland Security Committee:
“SBI is the comprehensive multi-year plan established by DHS to secure America’s borders and reduce illegal immigration. Within this effort, CBP is the executive agent for SBInet, the component charged with designing, developing and implementing a solution that incorporates technology and tactical infrastructure to support Border Patrol agents between the ports of entry and CBP officers at the ports of entry to gain effective control of our Nation’s borders.”
As the SBI’s first Executive Director, Giddens explained the original concept to committee members and explicitly rejected the OSFA approach.
“While technology remains a critical element of our strategy, it is not the only element of our layered defense plan. Securing our Nation’s diverse border terrain is an important and complex task that cannot be resolved by a single solution alone. To secure each unique mile of the border requires a balance of technology, tactical infrastructure, and personnel that is tailored to each specific environment.” (emphasis added)
The history is clear. There was NEVER an intention to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to technology deployment or to border enforcement. That is the truth, as inconvenient as it may be to the current DHS’ leadership.
There are several other examples of where DHS is perverting the facts to fit its OSFA messaging construct. The Homeland Security Newswire story referenced above has at least three misrepresentations in its first paragraph:
“After spending more than $1 billion on the failed virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, DHS is moving ahead with the latest incarnation of the high-tech system. But this time rather than using a one-size fits all strategy, DHS will use readily available technology to create tailor made approaches to the geographically diverse 2,000-mile long border.”
First, according to the GAO, the $1 billion dollar expenditure HSN references included purchases for steel for construction of physical fencing/barriers, for portable radars and cameras that were used outside of the SBInet system, AND for environmental assessments which slowed down the deployment of the SBInet system. So while the money was spent on the SBInet program which included the “virtual fence” component, it was not spent solely for that purpose, as the article infers.
Second, CBP’s technology lead on SBInet, Mark Borkowski, has expressed his belief that SBInet is NOT a failed program. He recently told HS Today’s Mickey McCarter:
“The Boeing [SBInet] system produced right now is operating very effectively and we like it,” he said. “Now, it is relatively high end. And I am hopeful that we can skinny down this common operating picture to be more manageable.”
Third, the original SBInet concept was to use “readily available technology” which could be adapted to the terrain where the system would be deployed. This is not a new concept, as outlined above. If technology was not at a Technology Readiness Level of 8 or 9, meaning that, at a minimum, the technology must have been proven to work in its final form and under expected conditions; CBP mandated that it not be used.
Further, as GAO pointed out on several occasions, the only “development” work contemplated as part of the original SBInet system was for software which would integrate existing, proven technology components into a common operating picture. For DHS now to say that it is changing course to one where only “readily available technology” will be deployed is as disingenuous as it is dishonest.
Maybe someone else will challenge DHS’ efforts to re-write history. Until such time, I return to the original premise – DHS should get rid of the one-size-fits-all reference and follow the advice it gives to prospective job applicants. The DHS “Tips For Writing a Federal Resume” advises, and I quote: “One size never fits all.”