14 April 2005

It only took a week - time for a public security advisor on the Hill

News this morning that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the offshore regulatory board and the oil companies have finally gathered enough information to go back to their regular jobs and stop panicking over the launch of an American rocket from Cape Canaveral.

Having spent now a total of 25 years dealing with defence and security issues both as part of my undergraduate and graduate studies and my work life, I'd draw everyone away from the cheap and easy conclusions here.

The simple fact remains that defence- and security- issues are on the provincial government's agenda on a daily basis. Historically, the provincial government has difficulty making accurate assessments of defence and security matters on its own - even though they can collect accurate information from a variety of sources. Instead, the government relies almost exclusively on getting things from Ottawa. That was one of the big problems in this instance.

In this instance, no threats were averted. There was no threat. It was a totally artificial crisis. But it does point to a fundamental problem in the province's ability to identify a crisis accurately, deploy resources and then address a crisis. This has nothing to do with this premier and this government: it is a chronic problem going back 25 years and more. I saw it during my time in the Tower.

For a case after my time, does anyone remember 9/11? While people have been busily patting themselves on the back, it was largely characterized by fumbles and some monumental gaffes. Some were minor; some, like actual physical security of the airport were serious. Some, like the silly spat with Ottawa over cots were based on exactly the sort of misinformation that led the Premier to go public in this instance, with predictable and avoidable responses.

Personally, I think it is time for government to undertake a public security review. There are at least three senior retired army generals from this province I can think of who would be available to take on the task. Other provinces did that sort of thing after 9/11.

Aside from anything they'd recommend, government needs to appoint a senior official as a direct advisor to the Premier on public safety and security, much like the new national security advisor to the Prime Minister. It's a specialist area; let's find someone who knows what they are talking about.

When there is another Titan booster scare, the security advisor can calm frayed nerves. By the same token, when something real happens, cabinet can be assured that they will be getting the most reliable information from the best sources, including their own. They can act with confidence in their information.

And it won't take a week to figure out something this simple. At the risk of prompting yet another couple of e-mails poking me, I will remind you that most of the basic questions the Premier asked were answered here either when he asked them or beforehand. When it came down to the self-destruct mechanism question yesterday, I actually threw up my hands in astonishment.

But hey. The fact is that readers of this blog had reliable, factual information on this booster from the get-go. Had I heard this story on Wednesday night - like government did - you would have rolled out of bed Thursday morning to a full briefing with your coffee. And you would have gone about your regular work-week unaffected by fear of things falling from the sky.


Note: This is actually a new posting, but I am including the text of one from yesterday in which I made some observations about this Titan episode. It is attached here since the two things are linked.

"Information levels up; anxiety levels down"

It was encouraging to see the Premier scrummed today expressing increasing comfort with the information he is getting about the upcoming Titan 4B launch on Sunday.

Over the past 24 hours or so, I have been getting a bit of clarity of my own on what the basic problem was. If there is any doubt or confusion from any earlier posts, let me try to put my conclusions as succinctly as possible.

1. It appears that neither the provincial government nor the oil companies noticed the number of rockets flying over the Grand Banks before.

2. Therefore, when information on this launch was handed to them, there was a legitimate and understandable "holy shit" reaction. Everybody here reacted as one would want them to react.

3. The Premier and others went searching for information, primarily from the federal government. Again, this is exactly what anyone would expect.

4. There is a limited or non-existent capability within the provincial government to make any independent assessments of defence- or security-related information that affect the province. I base this on my observations of this case and my knowledge of other cases from previous administrations going back 20 years. There is a systemic dependence on the feds. Yes, I know this is a federal area of responsibility but broader security issues like this are at least a joint responsibility.

5. The feds never really paid any attention to this launch for a variety of reasons. The simplest one is that officials at DND or Public Safety likely looked at the mission, calculated the risk and then decided there was no big deal here. They may have passed on the information to provincial Emergency Measures but it may have been flagged as "information purposes only", as opposed to "get ready to panic". Essentially, the federal interpretation of this event was the right one if they watched but didn't rush to action.

6. The Premier's ongoing frustration with this matter and his public comments stem for the basic lack of information he was getting. He either wasn't getting good briefings, what he was getting was crap, or he just didn't trust what he was hearing. Either way, he has a significant issue to deal with because...

7. The provincial government should be able to make some security-related assessments on its own using a variety of information sources. If the oil companies lacked information and were hopping up and down, the provincial government should have been able to calm them down somewhat. Then they could proceed to ask some focused, informed questions outside the glare of public scrutiny

8. If the Premier had received reliable information as early as Thursday, he may not have gone public as quickly as he did. As a consequence, he would have avoided putting everyone else on edge. Don't be surprised if the Americans were scared of law-suits. I noted that prospect days ago. As such they would become even more reluctant to share information, especially if they had any fear at all that a confidential briefing would be on CNN that night or the next day. Get lawyers involved: everyone's backside tightens.

9. On that basis it may well have been possible to defuse this matter as early as Saturday last week, i.e. 10 Apr 05, a mere three days after the initial scare.

10. As it is, the thing is finally settling down. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a decision taken to continue drilling as if nothing happened.

11. If anyone wants briefings on the launch licensing process for US rockets, the safety precautions and the international and domestic US legal issues, please let me know. I can easily deliver them to a group for an appropriate fee. After all that is one of the things I do for a living.

And yes, as you can expect me to say, just remember you read it here first.