Be Prepared

Because the government sure as hell isn't.

Back in 2002, the Pentagon mounted one of its periodic war games, meant to test preparedness for wars the armed forces might face in real-world situations. Operation Millennium Challenge was nothing if not timely. The scenario postulated that a virulently anti-American Mideast military commander with a potent personal ethnic and religious power base was threatening to bring war to the entire region.

Millennium Challenge ended up costing the government a quarter-billion dollars, much of it spent on something called Effects-Based Operations, a phenomenally complex computer-driven system of communications and information handling. The officer chosen to lead the bad guys, the Red Team, was a retired Marine veteran of the ground war in Vietnam named Paul Van Riper. Van Riper proceeded to kick the Blue Team's ass all over the virtual Gulf—without any sophisticated comm gear—by approaching his task as all great ground commanders do: Identify the target in front of you, hit it first, and hit it hard. Repeat as necessary.

I refer to this story, which you should read at full length in Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book Blink, because it's terrifyingly relevant to what's likely to happen every time we expect bureaucracies, military or civilian, to respond to complex and fluid situations. When information from the ground makes its way up the decision tree, a decision coming back down is going to be out of date by the time it gets where it's going. And since the whole system depends on communication, all it takes is one broken link to render it helpless.

But there's another way of looking at the challenge posed by hurricanes, terrorist attacks, or the "fog of war" that shrouds a battlefield. Here's Gladwell on how Van Riper prepared for Millennium Challenge: "He and his staff did their analysis, but they did it first, before the battle started. Once hostilities began [he] was careful not to overload his team with information. Meetings were brief. Communication . . . was limited. He wanted to create an environment where rapid cognition was possible." In other words: Give people in the field an outline, resources, and responsibility, and let them react to what's under their noses.

This might seem intuitively obvious, but hierarchies are not friendly to intuition. They derive power from their monopoly on information and decision making. The functionaries who threw roadblocks in front of every individual and local effort to respond to Hurricane Katrina didn't do so because they were incompetent patronage appointees (though it appears that they were) but because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a bureaucracy and, therefore, constitutionally incapable of responding to anything in real time.

A few months ago, while working on a report about avian flu's threat to humans, I discovered that six years after the emergence of "bird flu" in Hong Kong, and two years after King County's office of emergency preparedness got to work on the problem, planning had got as far as developing a database of the region's emergency operations. Then on Aug. 31, County Executive Ron Sims announced that he was inviting 50 local businesses and chambers of commerce, along with representatives from fire, police, and schools, to hear about the potential impact of a pandemic and to "share ways that businesses can prepare today, talk about business needs and concerns related to a pandemic flu, and identify potential next steps that businesses can take."

We can only hope that bird flu holds off until they finish "hearing about," "sharing," "talking about," and "identifying potential next steps," and start "doing something." But I'm not sanguine. It was pretty much the same lineup of leaders who took part in 2003's Operation Topoff—a big Homeland Security exercise designed to test how well the region would respond to a bio-terrorism event in Seattle. You won't find any public documents evaluating those responses in anything but generalities, and for good reason. Operation Topoff was in its modest way as big a flop as Millennium Challenge. A response structure totally dependent on electronic communication (phone, fax, etc.) between "leaders" totally broke down.

There's no visible evidence that the failures have resulted in any significant changes in emergency strategy. Our "leaders" still think that they can plan their way out of any emergency, from earthquake to pandemic flu. Maybe they can. What troubles me is that our "leaders" have seen to it that they're going to be well shielded, with everything from emergency bunkers to stockpiled medication. The system will survive, no matter how many of us followers get it in the neck.

Oh, by the way: When the results of Millennium Challenge were in, the Pentagon ran the exercise again but forbade Van Riper to use any of the tactics he used the first time around. To no one's surprise, that time the Blue Team won.

Roger Downey is a Seattle Weekly senior editor. The usual Mossback, Editor in Chief Knute Berger, is off this week.

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