Book Review – Failures of Imagination by Michael McCaul

Failures of Imagination: The Deadliest Threats to our Homeland – and how to Thwart Them by Michael McCaul.  A few months ago I put up a short post when I heard about this book coming out.  I speculated a bit on what I anticipated and fortunately those were good assumptions.

Michael McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.  Congressman McCaul (R-TX) has served with the US Department of Justice and was chief of Counterterrorism and National Security for the US Attorney’s Office in Texas.  Along with chairing the House Homeland Security Committee, he is also a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.  The background all contributes to some interesting insights and perspectives on the threats our nation faces.  Several of those threats have been presented to us in this book. FoI

Failures of Imagination presents several scenarios including an attack on our seat of government, a radiological dispersion device (RDD), foreign influence on an election, a mass shooting in a public space, a cyberattack on finance and infrastructure, a bioterrorism attack, an airplane bombing, and an invasion by foreign powers.  Each scenario is introduced with what I will term a short story, followed by a fictionalized executive situation report, and concluded with a factual review of how the scenario is plausible.

The short stories that introduce each scenario are fairly compelling.  They read like any popular thriller novel, establishing two or three converging story lines with a brief bit of character development which quickly establish motive, plot, and execution.  The timelines are set anywhere from two to 10+ years from now.

With the those scenarios set further in the future, I feel the author has taken some liberties assuming that little has changed in comparison to the current global politics and state of affairs, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  I expect that some readers might feel these fictionalized stories sensationalize the scenarios a bit.  While on the surface that is understandable, consider that the plots as they unfold in these stories may not be far from reality, and that the Congressman has discovered that a mix of fiction and non-fiction can help enhance the readers’ experience and sell more books.  Also consider that we often do the same thing when doing scenario-based planning, training, and exercises.

As a follow-on to each scenario’s short story, a mock executive-level situation report is provided which gives an overview of the impacts of each scenario as presented in the short story.   The basis of this is something we also do in many of our preparedness efforts as we try to gauge a realistic scope of impact.  The Congressman outlines in many of these not only the casualties, but broader impacts such as those to the economy, and takes some realistic stabs at longer term recovery matters.  These situation reports give a good perspective to the reader about the potential impacts of each scenario beyond the more narrow scope of the short story.

Lastly, McCaul provides some narrative on how each scenario presented is rooted in reality.  These summaries provide information on the current situation as it relates to each scenario, typically regarding the modus operandi of certain terrorist groups or state sponsors of terrorism, relationships these groups may have with each other across the globe, and weaknesses in our own security construct which may permit these groups to gain access to the US and do us harm.  While much of the information and recommendations provided by Mc Caul in these sections are factual, practical, and eye-opening, I have to admit that I was significantly turned off by several instances of what I can only call antagonistic political finger pointing.  While I don’t disagree with what the Congressman was saying about certain policies and actions of other elected officials which have influenced our ability to prevent, protect, and prepare for these types of attacks, the messages often came across as snarky and partisan – something I have little patience for, especially in this election cycle.

Failures of Imagination certainly delivered.  While the focus of this book is on threats to the US, I would suggest that the foundational issues identified can apply to most nations and are a good read for anyone in emergency management and homeland security.  The short stories included in each scenario feed our desire to be entertained and contribute to the book being a quick read.  While the scenarios overall don’t serve as much of a resource for emergency management planning, as many of these types of scenarios are already in use in our efforts, the book does provide some context for each scenario which could be referenced, especially in regard to impacts.  Of most importance are the recommendations which Congressman McCaul provides for each scenario.  Many of the recommendations indicate higher-level actions we as a government need to take to prevent, protect, and prepare for attacks of these types.  Increased awareness of these actions will hopefully lead to development, funding, and implementation.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

A book of worst-case scenarios

I came across this article yesterday about US Rep Michael McCaul from Texas (who happens to chair the House Homeland Security committee) penning a book titled “Failures of Imagination: The Deadliest Threats to Our Homeland — and How to Thwart Them”.  The book, set to be published in January, will apparently outline a variety of terrorist attack scenarios against the US and how they can be stopped.

I’ve written in the past about the necessity to consider credible worst-case scenarios (natural and human-caused) which can impact your jurisdiction or organization.  Following the model outlined by Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 201 for the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) process, it’s not just enough to say you are vulnerable to flood or wild fire.  To identify what your specific vulnerabilities are (location, duration, severity), it is necessary to flesh these out into scenarios.  Identification of these vulnerabilities will then help identify impacts, such as those to infrastructure, resources, and populations.  Plans should then be based upon these impacts.

I’m doubtful that Rep McCaul’s book will provide any foundation for planning (although I don’t think it’s intended to), however the scenarios contained may be eye opening to EMHS professionals and even citizens.  Regular readers of this blog know I feel that we are on borrowed time regarding terrorist attacks.  Yes we have experienced some on US soil (and the UK, Canada, Australia, France, India, and many other nations), and they have been devastating, but we have to know that with organizations such as ISIS thriving on our planet, more will come.  Mumbai-type scenarios, with multiple coordinated simultaneous attacks can be crippling and certainly demonstrate what a credible worst-case scenario could look like.

I’m interested to see what Rep McCaul’s book contains.  I’ll be sure to publish a review once it comes out and I’ve had an opportunity to read it.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

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