The Watchman

by Peter O’Brien

I used to keep a sign in my office, where the watch officers could see it, a line from the Old Testament: Ezekiel 33:6

“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life… I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.”

The point is simple and clear: The real world has some harsh realities, everything isn’t win-win, every situation can’t be “worked out,” every situation doesn’t have a silver lining. In fact, the entire concept of intelligence is about decidedly Win-Lose situations. If you get intelligence wrong, bad things can happen. In some cases, truly horrific things can happen. At the very top of the pyramid of this process is that particular slice of intelligence called “Indications and Warning,” (I&W).

I&W is exactly what it sounds like, the process of watching a specific problem, looking for any hint that something is going wrong (Indications) and, when the situation warrants, blowing the horn and providing “alertment” to those who need to be alerted (known as Warning.)

The obvious problem of I&W is knowing when to sound the alarm, when to, as Ezekiel noted, to blow the trumpet. You never want to miss sending out a warning when one should have been sent out. But, you don’t want to sound the alarm unless it’s necessary. Crying “Wolf” not only degrades the system, in the modern world, crying wolf can lead to a self-generated crisis; and such mistakes aren’t particularly well tolerated.

This past weekend in Hawaii the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency – a state agency – put out the following false text during a drill:


Several points come to mind.

The director of HEMA needs to be fired and the person who sent out the message needs to be fired; a detailed investigation is needed to make sure everyone knows precisely what happened. People inside the system need to understand both what went wrong and that mistakes of this sort simply won’t be tolerated. Want a worker-friendly job? Go someplace else.

Containing North Korea must be job one. As much as everyone wants to blame Mr. Trump, this is not Trump’s fault. This is primarily Mr. Kim’s fault, he’s the one building the nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles. Is there more blame to share? Certainly. Begin with the Clinton agreement in 1994 to fund peaceful nuclear reactors in North Korea, with an inspection regime inadequate to preventing North Korea from continuing its nuclear weapon development program. (I can hear someone crying now: “It wasn’t inadequate.” Yes, it was. North Korea has nuclear weapons. The program lived. Inspection failed.)

There’s more fault to go around. Both the Bush and Obama administrations had clear indications that the regime had continued the weapon development programs and essentially did nothing. How clear? Underground nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2 in 2016. When Trump came to office North Korea already had nuclear weapons; the test last September was a test of a larger weapon.

As horrible as a nuclear strike would be, civil defense has a role. A nuclear detonation over Hawaii would kill many people. But many more would live. A well-rehearsed civil defense system would maximize the number who lived, and improve the process of providing aid and relief to survivors. What happened in Hawaii is a lesson to us all that we need an effective public warning system, and we need a revamped civil defense system nation-wide; the world we live demands that we all address this heightened risk.

Expanded Missile Defense is needed now, one that provides a high degree of reliability, one that would make it unlikely that a single missile or even an attack of several missiles could actually reach US territory.

Finally, the US deterrence force, our nuclear arsenal, must be modernized. The paradox of deterrence is that the more reliable, capable and flexible the nuclear force, the more effective its deterrent effect.
What happened in Hawaii was a serious mistake. We need to recognize and accept that our nation’s defense, civil and otherwise, has problems and move forward and fix those problems.