Paul Rosenzweig on Obama's Comment to Woodward

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, September 23, 2010, 8:46 PM

Paul Rosenzweig, who served as deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security during the last administration, writes in with following perceptive thoughts, fleshing out my sense that Obama's comments to Bob Woodward could have been uttered by any number of officials from the prior administration:

Everyone uses language differently, of course, but here is a remarkably similar sentiment expressed by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in testimony before the Senate:

“First, it’s important to make sure we are focused on the most significant risks to our homeland and that we apply our resources in the most practical way possible to prevent, protect against, and respond to both man-made and natural events."No matter how hard we may try, we cannot eliminate every possible threat to every individual in every place at every moment.  And if we could, it would be at an untenable cost to our liberty and our prosperity.  Only by carefully assessing threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences, and prioritizing our resources, can we fully ensure the most practical and optimized protection for Americans and our nation.

"What are we most concerned about? Our priority focus remains on those events that pose the greatest potential consequences to human life and the functioning of our society and economy.  At the top of that list is the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which if used, would have shattering consequences.  Preventing the introduction and use of such weapons requires our priority attention and constant vigilance.”

Though Secretary Chertoff didn’t talk about “absorbing” a blow (and if the President could do so he might now choose a different word) others have used that exact word.  A significant fraction of DHS’s infrastructure protection efforts are focused on the problem of resilience--that is, how to restore a system that has been damaged.  The National Infrastructure Advisory Committee provides advice to DHS on infrastructure protection and has issued a number of reports including one on “Critical Infrastructure Resilience."  There the NIAC says that resilience depends on the ability of infrastructure to “anticipate, absorb, adapt to and rapidly recover” from a disruptive event. Likewise the National Infrastructure Protection Plan says America’s goal is to be a “resilient” nation and then defines resilience as the “ability to resist, absorb, recover from, or successfully adapt to” an adverse event.  So the concept--that we can’t protect against all risks and we must be prepared to recover when our efforts at protection fail--is not a new one.

The subject of risk assessment and risk management involves teaching decision makers how to allocate scarce resources to address a wide-array of risks.  Often if the expert is honest, however, his education will  always end with a caveat about “risk communication”--namely that telling people that not all risks can be prevented is something the public has a difficulty accepting.  The reaction to President Obama’s comments seem to fall into that category.