Admiral Thad Allen discusses his distinguished career in the U.S. Coast Guard, including leading the federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and Rita and serving as the incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, his work as the former executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, and his current role at NASA.
Lessons Learned is a roundtable series, open to term members and younger life members, which features distinguished speakers who reflect on their career experiences, the choices they made along the way, and the lessons they have learned from them.
PHILLIPS: Thank you. Thank you so much.
ALLEN: Hello, fun-seekers. (Laughter.) Remember that guy?
PHILLIPS: Yes. (Laughs.)
PHILLIPS: That actually—that would have been fun to pipe through on the—on the monitors. It’s so comfortable. All good start. OK. Boy, we’re getting rocking and rolling right away. I love this. I love this intimate setting.
Well, what a pleasure to be here, because I’m not only with someone that I have dealt with professionally for many years but he’s also a very good friend of mine, Admiral Thad Allen. For those of you that may be not familiar with the admiral, right now he chairs a federal advisory board for NASA. And when I knew him, he was the commandant of the Coast Guard. And also, he’s a former executive vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton. Now, though, he does do some consulting for Booz Allen on maritime issues. He’s also, of course, a member and Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations. And I’m a member as well, so this works out perfectly. It’s a pleasure—
ALLEN: This is your maiden appearance. (Laughter.)
PHILLIPS: That’s right, the first time I’m presiding. I’m a little nervous here. (Laughter.) I’ve got my specific notes on exactly what I need to do.
I’m Kyra Phillips. I’m an anchor and correspondent for ABC News based here in Washington. When Thad and I worked together, I believe I think for every event I was at CNN when I was there for about twenty years. And that’s when we were, boy, in the trenches of Katrina together, Deepwater Horizon. And so we have worked together professionally many, many big events. And he became one of my best friends. He and his wife and his kids and our families come together. Our kids come together. So it’s pretty awesome and I’ve learned a lot from the admiral. So it’s a real pleasure to be here and do this Q&A and a discussion with him.
And this is a part, as you probably know, of CFR’s Lessons Learned Series, which features distinguished speakers who reflect on their career experiences and the choices that they made along the way and the lessons that they have learned from them. And believe me—(laughs)—there were a lot of lessons, as Thad will tell you, about 9/11, about Deepwater Horizon, about Katrina. Boy, we could even go back to Elián González, and you were part of that mission as well.
PHILLIPS: So let’s get started. I cannot believe it has been twenty-one years already since 9/11—we were actually putting the math together—sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina, and eleven years since Deepwater Horizon. I know that each one of those big events sure changed my life, and it changed your life as well. I was covering them all as a journalist. You were deep within a mission for each one of those. Do you want to reflect briefly just on those three main events and your role that you played in each one of them?
ALLEN: Sure, and I’ll try and be brief. I have a problem with that sometimes. (Laughter.)
On 9/11, I was the commander of the Coast Guard forces for the Atlantic. So when one of the planes had taken out of Boston, we had the—obviously, the awful event in New York City, then we had the event at the Pentagon. From the maritime side, the Coast Guard closed New York Harbor and we had to deal with—I don’t think they’ve ever gotten the numbers right—estimates range from five hundred thousand to a million people evacuated off Lower Manhattan and resupplying Ground Zero for the response. Here in D.C., we closed the Potomac River north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, locked it down completely, and as a result of that there now is a Coast Guard station full time 7/24 in D.C. now. And then we put cutters around the major ports until we kind of figured out what was going on. Major event for the Coast Guard. It changed everything about how we think about port security and what goes on in our ports.
For Hurricane Katrina, I was asked a week after the hurricane came ashore by Secretary Chertoff and President Bush to go down and become the deputy principal federal official to Mike Brown and basically assess what was going on in New Orleans, because it was generally considered by the public to have been a response failure and a failure of the federal government to kind of support what was happening down there. I ended up taking charge of the entire response from Mike Brown, who was director of FEMA. Actually, Kyra did a twenty-four-hour embed with me during that response and we stabilized the response that was going on in New Orleans, pumped out the city. Everything was good after that. The problem was we spent a week wasting a lot of time, and we can talk about later on lessons learned and how that went.
Deepwater Horizon was different. Deepwater Horizon was a manmade disaster and the federal government had a much different role than Hurricane Katrina. In natural disasters, state and local governments have the responsibility for the response itself. In Deepwater Horizon, it was forty-five miles offshore, outside state waters, clear federal preemption. And my big problem there was we actually had a protagonist in BP and we had the strange event where the person that was responsible for the event was the one that had the competency to fix it. And then there was a crisis of relevancy in the Oval—clear to the Oval Office about how to be responsive to your constituents and be somehow part of the response when the private sector completely owned it, and that really, really was a difficult problem. I spent more time brokering between BP leadership and the White House and Congress than I did actually attending to the spill because we had experts that did that.
But out of all of this, I would tell you that every major crisis or event or a disaster becomes an exercise in applied civics.
PHILLIPS: (Laughs.) So on-the-ground learning by the moment.
Post-9/11, why don’t we start there. Top threats facing the nation today.
ALLEN: Yeah, I think the big difference between 9/11 and now is 9/11 was a physical attack on the country. That had never happened before. We had been separated from our adversaries by oceans, and somebody actually came in and physically attacked our homeland. What we’ve found since then is we have adversaries and threats out there that are agnostic to our borders—not always physical; sometimes involve space, weather, radio spectrum, germs. And now there can actually be a kinetic event or a kinetic impact in our homeland, and we know that now, caused by the cyberattacks and everything else in the pipeline.
So now we’ve moved away from—in my view, from physical security to looking at cybersecurity and what role technology and spectrum plays in all of this. And we haven’t really updated a lot of our laws and legislation to move us towards how to actually deal with that in terms of legal frameworks. It’s still not clear what constitutes an act of war in cyberspace, still not clear which agency is in charge on a cyber event, because in the absence of attribution it can be one of any five or six agencies, and they’re all going to respond because they think they may be responsible for it. And trying to make that all coordinated puts a tremendous demand on government to create a unity of effort, and I think the biggest gap we have right now is when we have a hybrid event that involves a lot of agencies or even COVID overlayed over something like a hurricane. It’s to create unity of effort in the federal government and get these agencies to work together.
PHILLIPS: Well, talk more about that. I mean, if we go back to 9/11, that was one of the biggest pitfalls, that that communication wasn’t happening. There were so many warning signs, but because all the various agencies weren’t communicating 9/11 happened. Personally, how did—how did that impact you I guess professionally and personally? How did 9/11 impact you? What do you remember the most? And how it changed you as a leader.
ALLEN: Well, I was actually in Norfolk, Virginia, at the time, where the Atlantic Command for the Coast Guard was. I was actually getting a physical and having blood drawn, and there was a breakroom across the way. And they went—obviously, went to the special coverage when the first plane hit the tower. When the second plane hit the tower, you know—(laughs)—exam over, we’re going to go to work.
And then it was trying to rethink how we actually ran the Coast Guard in ports. And we dramatically changed how we were organized in a port in terms of who was in charge, how we did surveillance. We conducted oversight of security for waterfront facilities and vessels that were coming in out of—there was a major, major sea change in the mission set for the Coast Guard and how we operated.
PHILLIPS: Post-Katrina, we still continue to experience severe weather, climate events. You talk about that all the time. What have we learned since Katrina? And what remains to be done to improve our response capability and also national resiliency, which you talk a lot about?
ALLEN: I actually think there’s been a tremendous improvement in state and local governments. Nobody wants to see what happened in New Orleans again in their city or their state. So I actually think we’re seeing more responsible response operations from governors, mayors, county executives, and so forth.
The challenge is the order of magnitude of these things is increasing and the number’s increasing. We have more population exposed in coastal areas. And the rapidity of these events, the scale of these events placing tremendous, tremendous stress on response organizations. And one of the things we really haven’t done that we could do is introduce technology to help the response, including people that need help—personal assistance how you actually apply for help from FEMA, actually how you get it, how the money flows from the state down to the local communities. In my view, it calls for probably a look at the Stafford Act, which is the enabling legislation for the Disaster Relief Fund.
The real problem we have—and we can talk about this more if you want—you can pick a large, complex problem—you can talk about an oil spill; you can talk about a hurricane—but our inability to pull up a basic piece of legislation after something occurs—and I’ve testified at hearings and before commissions on this—and basically tweak the legislation, change it, add what you need has become nearly impossible in the divisive political environment we’re in. And I’m not sure we understand the political damage that’s being incurred by our inability to take lessons learned and actually turn that into statutes and regulations that improve our performance in the long run because we never get to those big, complex problems because we’re mad at each other all the time.
PHILLIPS: Just to add a little flavor, because you always try to find the interesting stories within covering these types of events, and just a couple of things. Does everybody remember Russel Honoré, General Russel Honoré during Katrina? (Laughs.)
ALLEN: We may be dating ourselves here.
PHILLIPS: We might really be dating ourselves. He was—he was, you know, the Army general that was called in to save the day during Katrina. And the one clip that went viral at the time was when he came in there with all his guys and it was a little bit of a—of a chaotic scene, and he was yelling at people, put those damn guns down and, you know, we need to take control. And everybody called him the Cajun cowboy because he is from Louisiana. OK, good, I’m seeing some folks remember Russel Honoré. He was a very interesting character, to say the least. Always had a cigar hanging off the tip of his mouth. He just laid it out. He said things, you know, in a very Louisiana way. I mean, this was his homeland, so to speak.
And then, when it was time to make that transition and you were coming in to sort of take over there after he had been there for a bit, you talk about two very different people but the two of you also had a really great relationship. Could you just give some personal reflections on how you two worked together and how different you were, but, at the same time, you were able to make a lot of difference there while based in New Orleans.
ALLEN: You can go on YouTube and have a lot of fun with Russ Honoré.
ALLEN: Lieutenant General Russ Honoré was the Joint Task Force Katrina commander for U.S. Northern Command, responsible for all the defense support civil authorities that were there, and he was on the ground before I got there. The problem with Katrina—and this is Allen’s definition right now—was that we thought it was a hurricane and the hurricane was gone in one day. So Allen’s definition of what happened during Katrina was, it was the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect used on a city without criminality, Mother Nature, that resulted in a loss of continuity of government with decapitation of leadership. That’s a big mouthful. But what was happening, because the city and the state didn’t have the command and control or the mechanism to take the resources and apply them to the highest need, everybody that was deploying down there was reporting back to their own administrative chains. They were all doing great work but they weren’t talking to each other because they had lost the command and control system in New Orleans, weren’t able to reestablish it. So Russ and I got together—first of all, we said there would be no air gap between us. There was a limit to what he could do with military forces legally and I was supposed to coordinate the response on behalf of the president but I had no legal authority to order anybody—a little bit of a tall order. But we both decided that if we’re going to make this work we had to work together, and sometimes you have to subordinate your ego. He clearly was a guy that talked to the people of New Orleans. (Laughter.) OK, so—and I was OK with that.
One thing about Russ Honoré, he may not be right but he’s never in doubt. (Laughter.) So I had to clean up a few press conferences. You know, it worked OK, and then we got an agreement with the Louisiana National Guard, divided the city into sectors, sent out rubber boats and teams to actually—maybe you remember they were circled with Xs or icons and which houses had been visited and looking for people that needed to be saved and then the very difficult issue of remains recovery. But once we got that all together, had a planning cell on the dock and we knew what we were doing, we stabilized the response in seventy-two hours.
I was asked one time if I had to do it over again what would I do in Katrina, and I said I would like to be there the day before the hurricane came ashore. We spent a week trying to figure out what the problem was.
PHILLIPS: Wasted time. And on that note of Russel Honoré, I’ll never forget the press conference where a reporter threw out some question and he just looked over and said, reporter, don’t get stuck on stupid. Do you remember that? (Laughter.) And I thought, oh, boy, this is going to be really interesting.
ALLEN: Yeah, there were bumper stickers in New Orleans. (Laughs.)
PHILLIPS: Yes. (Laughs.) Yeah, there were T-shirts, bumper stickers. Yes, it became quite—he carries on quite a legacy.
So what is your view on the role of climate change as it release—as it relates, rather, to increased natural disasters? Because clearly those are not going away.
ALLEN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to be too grim and cynical about this, but, you know, we’re kind of setting the conditions for our own extinction. I don’t know where this ends if we don’t do something about it and you can talk to people that, you know, believe it or don’t believe it. I remember I was at a hearing as commandant and I had a senator lean over his glasses and he looked at me and he goes, Admiral Allen, what is your opinion on global warming? (Laughter.) Like, I was going to touch that in a hearing. (Laughter.) I looked at him, I said, Senator, I don’t know anything about the science, all I know is there’s water where there didn’t used to be and I’m responsible for it. I didn’t get another question.
So it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, the effects are there and we see them every day. You know, whether it’s increased, you know, hurricanes, wildfires, even volcanic activity, as we’ve seen. One of the things with global warming is it’s creating a lot of water vapor in the upper atmosphere, and that water vapor actually moves around the world like rivers, invisible rivers, and fifty inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey actually could have started in the Indian Ocean with evaporation. And again, this is one of those threats that’s agnostic of borders. So you think you can solve these problems by a populist movement or somehow saying we’re going to solve this with our country in the middle, no, you’re whistling in the wind.
Other than that, I have no opinion. (Laughter.)
PHILLIPS: Is this when the Tesla commercial comes across the screen? (Laughs.) “Go electric.”
Post- Deepwater Horizon, clearly the worst oil spill disaster in the nation since Exxon Valdez in 1989, which is so interesting that I ended up being with you covering Deepwater Horizon and knowing, actually, Captain Hazelwood, who was the captain on Exxon Valdez, went back and spent time with him, did a very in-depth interview on the twenty-fifth anniversary of that, so you and I have talked a lot about the differences between those spills. And I mean, maybe we start there and then let’s talk post-Deepwater Horizon. Now we’re going way, way, way back, but—
ALLEN: It’s important that we do that.
PHILLIPS: OK, good. Good.
ALLEN: Let me go back to what I said earlier.
ALLEN: Everything’s a civics lesson, OK? After the Exxon Valdez, it was in 1989, they passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a far-reaching piece of legislation, together with the Clean Water Act, that basically aimed to reduce the threat of tanker spills by setting up a legal framework for liability to phase out single-hull tankers and put in double-hull tankers, and it was a groundbreaking piece of legislation and it took almost twenty years to get it implemented, but the intent of that legislation was to prevent a tanker accident. Guess what. It worked. In the meantime, oil drilling went offshore and deep, so you always go to war with the tools you’ve got, so when the Deepwater Horizon explosion and loss of well control occurred, we went to war with the tools that had been created to deal with a tanker accident, and in the meantime, oversight of the safety and response plans for offshore drilling were not paid as much attention to because everybody was focused on implementing the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act in 1990. And that’s after the oil spill, testifying before the presidential commission and on the Hill, we need to look at things like the use of dispersants, in situ burning.
These were all very, very controversial because we had gotten the authority to use them in OPA ’90, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, but we never thought we’d have to use them on that scale. When you got to using a million gallons of dispersants, there were a lot of differing scientific opinions on what the impact of that was and we started arguing about the best available science. It would make every—it would be a violent attack of sanity to go back and revisit that legislation and change it based on the lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon, but again, in this divisive environment, I don’t ever expect something like that to be lifted out of this Congress, and I think that’s one of the things that is really a shame about the current political environment, that we’re not dealing with the complex problems that really have an impact on our day-to-day lives.
PHILLIPS: So are we better prepared for a similar type of situation like Deepwater Horizon now?
ALLEN: I would say somewhat. They had never been prepared to put a capping stack on a well that had lost control. It’s hard to understand but what we had was a—we lost well control and the wellhead was five thousand feet below the surface. The reservoir where the oil was at was another twelve thousand feet. So from the surface down to where the oil was at was three miles. The only access to the well itself was through remotely operated vehicles. So what we had was the largest environmental disaster in the history of the country and we had no human access. So we had to rely on remotely operated vehicles to not only do what we could down there before it was capped, but they had to create a capping stack that could take out—and we’re—the blowout preventer for Deepwater Horizon was three stories high and weighed a hundred tons—looks pretty little when they explain it. It’s huge. And to create a capping stack and put on there, it took them eighty-five days before we finally capped the well because they didn’t have one in inventory. Now, through Marine Well Containment, consortiums have built in the Gulf of Mexico, they have those now, but it would still take the time to get it on a barge, get it out there and actually sink it, use remotely operated vehicles to actually put it in place. So are we better prepared? Yes. Are those capping stacks available? Yes. Have we reduced the risk for something to happen in offshore drilling? I think there’s improvement there, but again, it’s probably going to take legislation to do it.
PHILLIPS: Just to put in perspective how difficult it was as a journalist to understand what had happened with Deepwater Horizon, you know, with Exxon Valdez, the tanker hit ice, right, and it cut into the tank and oil started leaking. I actually went to the admiral at the time and I said, I cannot grasp how this works and how you’re going to cap the oil from flowing and I don’t understand this apparatus. And do you remember what you did for me?
ALLEN: I think I drew a picture.
PHILLIPS: (Laughs.) He did.
PHILLIPS: I literally gave him my reporter's notebook and he sketched exactly what it looks like, this is how it works, this is what we need to do, there’s where the oil’s coming from, and once I saw the picture, OK, all right, I can understand the engineering now.
ALLEN: It was not elegant. (Laughter.) It was not elegant.
PHILLIPS: But I finally understood exactly why this was so difficult and what we were lacking at the time, and I actually saved that in my files; somewhere in my memory box I’ve got that picture.
ALLEN: That day we capped the well in July 2010, that day above the well site we operated twenty-one remotely operated vehicles at the same time, to move things down, hold the boat, see the boat, turn the boat. It was all coming back to BP headquarters in Katy, Texas, in a place they called the HIVE, the high-intensity video environment. There was a guy sitting in the middle of the room like Captain Kirk looking at twenty-one ROV screens and calling the shots. It was probably like a guy doing all the cameras in an NFL game, except there was a lot more at stake at this thing—(laughter)—but it was—I was in the room. It was extraordinary. It was extraordinary.
PHILLIPS: When it comes to dealing with both natural and manmade disasters, which you just laid out—we gave three really good examples—what’s the biggest challenge, you think, facing our country today?
ALLEN: Well, I think it’s knowing, as I said earlier, the difference between the two, and regardless of the laws that are involved, it’s going to be an exercise in applied civics and your ability to create unity of effort, subordinate parochial interests; to fix the problem is going to be what you need to do. In a natural disaster, under the 10th Amendment—not to give a civics lesson here today—but all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. There’s a limit to what the federal government can do and that was part of the problem in Katrina; everybody was kind of sitting back, waiting for the city and the state to do what they could and they didn’t have the capability to do it. OK, so, you know, in a natural disaster, the ability to integrate vertically between state, local, and federal, accomplish the outcome the American public expects, is paramount. In a disaster like Deepwater Horizon or some kind of industrial accident, you’re going to have a responsible party, there are going to be legal issues involved, and the politics are going to get really, really ugly because there’s somebody to blame and you have politicians that want to be relevant. It becomes much more complex, and even with Deepwater Horizon, I spent a lot of time mitigating issues between, say, the CEO of BP and the chairman of the board and the president himself, who had strong feelings about accountability and what needed to be done and what the federal role should be.
PHILLIPS: You know what? If you don’t mind delving into that for a minute, because that’s a really good point to make. There were—I mean, you could probably—it’s fair to say the majority of America, the world, they were very, very upset with BP, and especially the comment that, again, went viral, where he said, I just want to get back to my life. I’m sort of paraphrasing; you have a better memory than I do. And that created even more anger and more frustration. And you did. You had to be this mediator between the president of the United States and the head of BP. He still had to talk to the head of BP because they needed to be involved in the part of this process. Can you explain how you did that? Because you were able to—you were a brilliant negotiator with these two.
ALLEN: Well, let’s start with Tony Hayward, who was the CEO of BP when the explosion occurred. At one point he said he wanted his life back, which disenfranchised every American that cared about what was going on. In a way, he was right. There were forty thousand people down there, including Thad Allen, who wanted their lives back.
PHILLIPS: He was supposed to retire, by the way, but the president said: You’re not retiring, I need you to oversee this. That’s how that happened. He’s not going to tell you that, but I’ll tell you that.
ALLEN: Yeah. The problem was it wasn’t appropriate. It was poor leadership, didn’t establish any credibility or confidence in the American people. It was bad leadership and bad judgment and he paid for it. He was replaced as the CEO. They brought in Bob Dudley, who was from Mississippi, Gulf Coast native, immediately started regaining credibility about how the response was working. But in the long run, as I told everybody, quit beating BP up right now because they’re going to be in court when this thing’s over. They’re going to pay, but right now they’re critical to the response. And that was very hard for at least the lower-level political staffs to understand because they were trying to support the president, and at that point, you’re trying to cap the well but they’re talking about whether or not they should shut down offshore drilling.
Well, they did that for a while, and what they did was we had already put people out of work that couldn’t fish, all the waterfront facilities were impacted, and so about, you know, 30 or 40 percent of the people were out of work and then we shut down offshore drilling. That put about 30 or 40 more percent out of work. It didn’t help me cap the well. So I had to balance these things that were in tension all the time, and it required actually sitting down, you know, knee to knee in a helicopter with the president or with Bob Dudley, the CEO of BP, and convincing them that we could fix it and the accountability for BP would be afterwards in the legal process. And ultimately BP paid $60 billion for that spill.
PHILLIPS: Reminds me of Katrina as well, and you talk about state, local, federal, all the entities that have to work together when responding to these type of disasters, and certain asks have to be made before other agencies can get involved, right? And this was a big part of Mayor Nagin, Ray Nagin, at the time, in New Orleans, and he got a lot of criticism, he got a lot of heat that he didn’t ask for help soon enough, that he didn’t prepare because a lot of people wanted to know, well, what took the military so long? Why did it take so long for Russel Honoré from Northern Command to arrive with food and water and getting, you know—and boats to get people out of their homes that were flooding, you know—what took so long for the Coast Guard to get in and be able to rescue people from the roofs of their homes? And that’s because of local leadership—
ALLEN: Well, everything’s local.
ALLEN: All politics is local.
PHILLIPS: He didn’t say help.
ALLEN: There is no politician in the world that wants to admit this is beyond—
PHILLIPS: He screwed up.
ALLEN: Well, not even screwed up. It’s beyond my control. The scope of this thing exceeds the resources I have. That’s not admission of negligence. That’s a recognition of the fact and being responsible for what you need to do to bring to bear a solution to a problem. The problem is, when that gets mixed up politically, where they think there’s going to be a political price to pay, they simply state, this is a problem; this is what we need. How can we fix it? How can we work together? And there’s a perception in their mind—it’s a zero-sum game that a political price to be paid for doing that, and frankly, the American public has the most credibility and respect for a response that’s going on if they realize you’re being honest, transparent, you talk to them every day, and they don’t think there’s any spin being put on it and you’re focused on one thing and that’s fixing the problem.
PHILLIPS: Speaking of fixing the problem, I think this is a great opportunity for you and I’m going to tee you up for this, to just brag about the Coast Guard. It was absolutely remarkable to watch those helicopters come in and rescue people from the roofs of their homes, I mean hanging on with—you know, sometimes no shoes on their feet, some of them holding onto their dogs, their last bag, their children. If you just, for a moment, could just talk about the execution of that mission and how many lives were saved and just how remarkable those rescue efforts were, because that’s when you bring in the Coast Guard—(laughs)—in high-water situations.
ALLEN: It was gratifying, but one of the things about the Coast Guard is we don’t have to wait to be deployed.
ALLEN: DOD has to have an order from the secretary, they have to be mobilized, they have to deploy. There’s a whole command and control thing that goes with it. What’s interesting about the Coast Guard is we’re permanently deployed where we live. There’s a helicopter and a small boat, no matter what part of the coastline of the United States you’re at, that’s got a responsibility to respond if something happens and they don’t have to ask higher authority. And what we normally do is move all of our assets out ahead of the storm, and in this case, they moved all the helicopters to the west of New Orleans, and as soon as they have flyable weather, which was about one or two o’clock in the afternoon on Monday the 29th, they ran over the city. Didn’t have to ask for higher authority or anything, they just did it. Then over the next week, between the small boat crews and the helicopter crews, they saved thirty-five thousand people. And something happened that I had never seen happen in peacetime was they—we were awarded—the entire service was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, which is usually reserved for a combat unit, so very proud to be part of it. But I wasn’t out there dangling off a winch cable with a chainsaw cutting through the rough, then trying to bring people out. It was really remarkable.
PHILLIPS: Cyberattacks. We were going to talk about this because it’s a threat that did not exist on 9/11, which was a physical attack on the nation. But there are challenges now to creating a unified national response to a major cyberattack. It’s something we’ve been talking a lot about with Russia. This is a timely issue and this is one of your expertise.
ALLEN: Let me go back to what I said earlier and kind of extend the discussion, if I could. When I was with Booz Allen Hamilton, we had a very senior former defense official, very close friend of mine—still is—and he was—and other people have used the term too; they talk about a potential cyber Pearl Harbor. And one day I walked into the office and I said, listen, I’m not sure you ought to be using that term. And he said, why? I said, well, first of all, if you go back and look at it, Pearl Harbor should not have been a surprise. There was enough intelligence out there. It was like before 9/11; there was a failure of imagination and put the pieces together on what the Japanese were up to. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. And a cyberattack—for anybody should not be a surprise.
Now, where it happens, like the pipeline or something or an electrical transmitting station, may be. And he said, well, how would you characterize it? I said, the thing that bothers me most is a cyber Desert One. And most of you don’t know what Desert One is. There was an operation to go in and rescue the U.S. hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the Iranian Revolution and that mission was scrubbed because they tried to get together in the middle of the desert, fixed-wing helicopters and so forth, was bad weather, they had some problems with the aircraft, and ultimately they had to abort the mission. That became part of the reason they passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act that resulted in the joint warfighting structure we have in the United States right now. So what I’m concerned about is a bunch of different agencies all having authorities and jurisdictions that can’t rule out the fact that they may ultimately be responsible, but since you can’t attribute it—so what you’re going to have, the folks in NSA who are going to say it’s a Title 50 issue and we have to do our job because we don’t know that isn’t. The folks at U.S. Cyber Command are going to say it’s a Title 10 issue; we cannot not do our job because it may be the People’s Liberation Army or, you know, Russian folks. The folks in the FBI, they say this could be a terrorist a criminal act so we need to start an investigation, develop evidence, and keep track of it just like we were openly go to a prosecution. And Homeland Security’s going to say we’ve got to protect critical infrastructure.
And so my question always is, who’s conducting the orchestra? And the problem is, if you don’t have the discipline to create unity of effort—and inside the military it’s OK because we have a Uniform Code of Military Justice and there’s a legal construct from the lowest private to the president. You can actually order people to do things and you can create, well, I call unity of command. Once you move outside defense operations, the best you’re ever going to achieve is unity of effort. But somewhere along the line somebody’s got to have the lead and be responsible for coordinating it. And I can tell you right now, because I’ve done it twice: Presidents are loath to support any one Cabinet officer to another, plus they can point to a law and says—this says you’re in charge. And if you don’t do that, just kind of let it bounce around, and there’s no central accountability, nobody’s talking to the American people and what you have is a fragmented response, and the last thing you ever want is to have this managed out of the National Security Council and the White House, or we like to say a five-thousand-mile screwdriver. (Laughter.)
So in my mind, what we need to develop in the country is a—is a more facile way to create unity of effort, bring everybody together. If you need to designate a lead/follow—somebody has a lead, somebody follows—in military parlance, that would be a supported and supporting commander. That has legal definitions and it codifies who’s actually representing the secretary of defense and the president is the commander-in-chief and how we’re going to fight. We have to figure out some way to emulate the ability to do that. We don’t have the statutory authority subordinate, say—well, let’s take COVID. Homeland Security and HHS, FEMA and ASPR—you know, how does that all work together? Well, you’re hoping that everybody works together and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re going to have to create leadership in this country that’s capable of addressing those levels of complexity and creating the art of the possible and unity of effort out of that kind of a, you know, volatile environment, and it’s tough. Those are the kind of leaders we need to be building.
PHILLIPS: I know we’re going to move into Q&A in just a second, but just since you are currently chair of the presidential Spaced-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board with NASA—AKA GPS, everything GPS. You know, we are hearing a lot of reports of GPS—you have told me this a number of times—being vulnerable to spoofing and jamming. What should we know about the vulnerability of GPS now and just the impact of—on us for everyday life?
ALLEN: GPS is what we would call a global navigation satellite system, or a GNSS. GPS happens to be the American brand. The European Union has Galileo, China has BeiDou, and Russia has GLONASS, and they operate very similarly; it’s a satellite, you pick up a signal, and the satellite transfers you information that allows you to look at three or four different satellites and calculate the range to the satellites. Well, if you know the range of four satellites that crosses at one point, you know where you’re at and it gives you a position, navigation, and timing information. The problem is it’s a line-of-sight very weak signal, and it’s very vulnerable to jamming, spoofing, and adjacent-spectrum interference. Those are all issues right now and they’re all issues that are actually playing out right now in the Ukraine because we know in the past where Russia is conducting operations they have the capability to actively jam navigation systems in the area and basically cloud from a navigation standpoint what kind of operations are being conducted. There’s a lot of work going on right now to create what we call assured PNT, or position navigation and timing, and that’s strengthening the receivers to be able to know the difference, augmenting the sources of information, maybe terrestrial and space-based systems to back up what is now GPS, and then actually protect the spectrum they’re operating in. Those are all issues that we are working on in the advisory committee that I chair.
PHILLIPS: All right, I’d like to invite members now—oh, good, I’m so glad—to join the conversation with their questions. Please, tell us who you are and—
ALLEN: What you’re famous for.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, exactly, what you’re famous for, your favorite food. (Laughs.)
Q: It’s getting very personal today. (Laughs.) Hi, I’m Sabs. I actually was on the ground for Hurricane Katrina’s AmeriCorps, that I was at HHS for as emergency coordinator, as well as investigative epidemiologist during Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
PHILLIPS: Oh, wow.
Q: In the last sixteen years I’ve dedicated my entire career, actually, to Ebola outbreaks. I was in South Sudan; I was in Syria—both manmade and non-made disasters. And I really want to get back to that point, Admiral, about—and thank you so much for that in-depth, like, touch on lessons learned as well as unity of effort, because I’ve noticed the same thing as well. And I’ve always admired when the military has stepped in and the Coast Guard to help with these disasters, because I do see that unity in terms of chain of command. But what happens—and you kind of touched on this—you know, I’ve written papers on lessons learned. When individuals—when the disaster’s over, when the emergency is over, so goes the funding, right, so goes the attention, and that preparedness section, right, that left of boom, always seems to get ignored. And even now, in terms of COVID, a lot of the funding is still going towards what’s sexy, right, like data and digital, when one of the biggest gaps is simply worker burnout and staffing and that kind of support and this type of continuity and understanding the human condition.
So I guess my question to you is, like, how do we reprogram both how the government approaches the sector but also us as humans? And also, how do we really engage the private sector to be on board as we kind of approach these disasters more from that left side of boom rather than while you’re building the plane in the middle of the disaster?
ALLEN: All great comments, and thank you for your service.
Q: Thank you.
ALLEN: Unless you make it a stated doctrine and the way we’re going to do business, nobody’s going to have any incentive to change what they’ve done before, which is, what’s my authorization, what’s my appropriations? You would not be surprised how many agencies in this town, when something’s happening and they’ll say, can you get some people and move them there, and the first thing they say is, what’s my cost code so I can charge it to something; I don’t have enough funds. In my view, that should never be the answer. All right, you can always move money around and there’s always an emergency supplemental coming, but this reticency to move because they either don’t understand it, there’s not funding, or they haven’t dealt with contingencies before or prepared to mobilize inside the agencies is a real problem. And we do these national-level exercises occasionally but we never make them hard enough where people actually have to get together and have those hard questions about what’s going on.
The other thing that happens is—I was on a team that did—the blue ribbon panel that looked at the HHS response to Ebola headed by the head of the medical department of UCLA. The other issue is if you don’t divorce the political response—we talked about this earlier—from the actual “what do I need to do to fix the problem,” you make decisions for the wrong reason. And if you surround yourself, your inner circle with the people that are giving you political advice rather than professional advice on how to actually deal with the technical problem, one of two things is going to happen: number one, you’re going to make a mistake, or you get politically frustrated because you don’t seem to have an impact; you’re going to call an audible. And most likely, it’s going to be wrong.
I wrote an op-ed—and I can make it available if you want to send it to everybody—on the anniversary of 9/11 that this failure of imagination is creeping back in because we’ve lost the ability to address complexity and then define what the roles and responsibility should be, and that only happens above the departmental level.
And I told you earlier that every president is loath to support one Cabinet officer to another. They’d like to say, well, under Title XX you’re in charge; everybody, you know, follow him. In a hybrid event it’s going to be unclear. In fact, I talked to members of the administration when COVID broke out, and they decided that FEMA would be the easy button. So they activated the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA to be able to manage the COVID response, and this was around—what was it—February, March, or April. And I simply talked to somebody at the National Security Council staff at that point. I said: Tell me what FEMA intends to do with the National Response Coordination Center on 1 June when hurricane season starts. So, all of a sudden stuff started shifting back to HHS, you know? But you need to institutionalize that way of thinking. It needs to become doctrine—this is how we think and act—and unity of effort has got to be at the top, in my view. I’m in violent agreement with you.
Q: It’s personal because—
ALLEN: Yeah. Yeah, I’m with you. We should go have a drink. (Laughter.)
PHILLIPS: Thanks, Sabs.
Q: Hi, there. Chloe Demrovsky, president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International. You spoke at our event—
Q: —in 2016.
ALLEN: I guess I’m going to get my paper graded now. (Laughter.)
PHILLIPS: Let’s see how you did. (Laughter.)
Q: It’s a great pleasure to see you again, Admiral. Thank you for this.
Q: I was pleased that out of the COP-26 in Glasgow there was more attention paid to adaptation rather than the mitigation conversation—mitigation, mitigation.
Q: You mentioned that you have to deal with the water, and you are well-positioned for knowing what we should do with the said water—(laughs)—whether it’s the Coast Guard or Norfolk, Virginia. I would ask are we doing enough, but clearly we’re not doing enough. So what do we need to prioritize in terms of actually preparing ourselves for that level of flooding that is hitting us?
Q: And then—and this is sort of related to that question, which is the—is there a way to kind of use some of these disaster shock events to actually wake people up around the stressor of climate change and dealing with it? Thank you.
ALLEN: Yeah, it’s a real problem in terms of climate change, and let’s talk about sea level rise, OK, which is one of the impacts of climate change. So much of what we do in this country in relation to infrastructure along the water is done at state and local building codes, OK? And there are certain places where they are smarter than others. You can tell on a barrier island whether they’ve got a right building code or not because the first living floor is up one level, and they park the car underneath it. So they’ve elevated that building based on a building code.
There is not a universal acceptance of how to actually translate mitigation measures into decisions that are made by local cities, counties. and states in terms of zoning, land use, and building codes. If I were to give you the one biggest thing, it would be a national consciousness about how you need to do that and how you need to deal with it. But I’m not sure everybody understands the implication of water rising.
And I really didn’t understand this myself until I talked to some folks over the last couple of years, but the first—the first indication I got from this was way back in 2006 when I went to the Arctic in the summer. I started talking with the Inuit and Inupiat people on the North Coast, and with the receding ice—there is some ice up there that’s there almost year round, and with the ice not there adjacent to the shore, it’s causing severe erosion, and they’re actually having to relocate native tribes there because they just have no place to live any more. It’s being eroded.
Well, that’s—you know, it’s like the canary in the coal mine. Where are we going to go moving on that?
But I have to tell you what I didn’t know was if you look at the—and I wouldn’t act as a scientist on this and I didn’t play one on television either—the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the central part of Long Island contain two of the largest aquifers on the East Coast. When you think of a bowl full of fresh water, you know, what happens—let’s say the Long Island Aquifer, if we have sea level rise to the point where it intrudes into that freshwater aquifer—now that seems extreme, but that’s not beyond the realm of possibility given what we are experiencing moving forward.
So we’re going to have to come up with a national consensus, and it may be shock therapy, and it may be something has to happen, but then again, I don’t want to be too cynical about this. A lot of these things require legislative changes, consensus in the country to act to change the laws, rules, and regulations to do that, you know. And I get—I just get concerned because regular housekeeping things you need to do around the country for critical infrastructure—just keeping things running—you know, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: food, clothing, and shelter—we didn’t even get an appropriation this year until six months into the year. We just now, in the last couple of weeks, got our appropriation for 2022, and then we’re six months away from needing 2023, and the Hill hasn’t even started on it yet.
You know, we’ve got issues on how we actually take care of business on a day-to-day basis that allows us to mitigate the threats that are around us. There is collateral damage, secondary, tertiary effects to the political divisiveness that’s going on right now.
Another one is lack of continuity between administrations on planning. We have done pandemic planning three or four times in the last forty years, and everybody comes in and they reject whatever was there before because they didn’t think of it, and there is a slow erosion of intellectual capital and competency. This is continuity of government at a very large level that keeps being eroded every time we have a presidential election, and it’s not in regard to politics. We just haven’t learned how to stop campaigning and govern.
Q: Hi. Casey Deering. I’m from the Department of Defense.
I don’t work on any of these issues, but I really appreciate your conversation today. The question I wanted to ask was following up on the cyber conversation that you at least started, and to point back to the preparedness comments that our colleagues made earlier.
Do you think that there is a greater role that the intelligence community and the federal government should play in working more closely with industry to enhance preparedness for cyberattacks? And how do you do that in light of extreme classification and compartmentalization of the most important information?
And then sort of second, just because you keep coming back to laws and civics, if you comment on you think in the cyber realm if there is something that you feel like we are missing in terms of treaties, codes of conduct, et cetera, that would really benefit us, whether it’s in preparedness or a response to those events that may in fact be inevitable.
ALLEN: Yeah, First, on the intelligence question, I think we know a lot, but it’s compartmented, and we’re restricted by law on where we—if a U.S. person is involved, is it foreign intelligence, it is domestic intelligence? And it’s very hard to sit down and have a conversation about whether the current legal structure is actually serving us well when these things were all created around the fact of how we handle communications security post-World War II because NSA has always been organized between communications security and signals intelligence. And the question is how do we—and foreign intelligence, OK? So the question is how do we actually bring all this together in terms of privacy and actually how we share this.
I think—and you can get back to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, whatever—the pieces are there. I know because, like you, I work in the area, and you know where everything is at, but you also know where it’s subdivided. And this gets back to how do you create unity of effort. And sometimes there are roadblocks, and the biggest roadblock right now, probably—I mean, there are others—but you are familiar with the difference between Title 10 authorities for DOD and Title 50 authorities for the NSA. You know, sometimes I think we need a Title 60—(laughter)—10 plus 50—(laughter). But right now we have the director of the NSA double-hatted as U.S. Cyber Command, too. So if nothing else, they’ve got the sneaker net where they can walk across the room and say hey, you know.
We have to figure out a way to structurally take on these complex problems in government because—you’ve all seen Hamilton, right? In the room where it happened? None of those guys had a cell phone—(laughter)—right?
PHILLIPS: But they’re scrappy. (Laughs,)
ALLEN: Yeah. None of them envisioned the ubiquity of information what we’ve got going on right now. And we’re going to have to figure out, you know—in the last—between technology, what’s going on with social justice, what we’re finding out in terms of, you know, like cell phone data after a mass shooting, and all that kind of stuff. We’re actually stress testing the Constitution, in my view. And the question is what do we think about that, and at what threshold do we go back and revisit the assumptions that were made at the time that never, never envisioned—they didn’t even have steam engines at that point, you know.
And I don’t want to give any theoretical class in political science or civics, but sooner or later, we’ve got to come to grips with whether or not the current legal framework is that a control we want a government to do.
Now I’m going to age myself. That answer was not a Miller Lite answer; it did not taste great and it wasn’t less filling. (Laughter.)
Did you all drink Miller Lite?
ALLEN: No, I just watched the commercial. (Laughter.)
Q: I’m from Milwaukee.
PHILLIPS: Oh, all right. Hey, I worked in Green Bay; I’m with you.
Q: I think that was—(inaudible). (Laughter.)
Q: I’m Maryum Saifee. I’m with the State Department, Foreign Service officer.
A comment and a question. I loved the failure of imagination. I work in an office focused on diversifying the State Department, and I think a lot about if we had more diversity at the table, you know—the State Department is notoriously, you know—largely, you know, homogenous in terms of demographics—white male. And I thought about that. It is failure of imagination over decades transcending party.
My question is related to what you said about mayors and governors on the front lines of disaster response, climate, and there is legislation pending that has been introduced by Representative Ted Lieu called The City and State Diplomacy Act, which would essentially establish an office in the State Department that would be sort of connective tissue between mayors, governors, state and local actors, and the federal government.
Q: How do you think this could potentially—with this coordination that you were talking about, or the lack thereof, in advancing our foreign policy, addressing the complex challenges, pandemic response, climate, disaster response and beyond?
ALLEN: Yeah. First of all, I’ve got to thank you. I love your body language. You’re just giving me all kind of energy. So just thank you for that. (Laughter.)
I’ve actually been working with a study group the comptroller general put together at GAO to try and look at how do we improve recovery after the response is done. We have these long-term problems, although they’re still working on stuff from Katrina. And it gets back to what somebody said: how do you move this to the left of boom where you mitigate what’s going on before.
Let me give you an antidote to kind of put this in perspective on how I view it. I was giving a press conference in New Orleans after Katrina, and I got a question from one of the reporters. I don’t remember exactly when, where, or how, but the question was basically this: she wanted to know if there were any social equity issues in the response. And I kind of got what she means, and so I said, let me divide the answer into two questions here. First of all, if you’ve got a rescue swimmer dangling from a wire over a house where you just cut a hole in the roof, the hand reaching down is not looking at the color of the hand reaching up, so let’s get that out of the way right now.
That said—this is going to be an overstatement of the obvious—the event doesn’t create the preconditions. And to the event you have underserved communities—and name it—childhood nutrition, health care, whatever—whatever chronic stressors exist before the event, if you have a catalytic event that comes in, the consequences are going to be huge. And the question is—we already know where these communities are at, and I recently led a committee working for the National Academy of Science looking at measures of community resilience. And we not only looked at the Gulf—by the way, this was paid for with money from the BP settlement. It’s a thirty-year project.
We actually went up to Native American reservations in the Dakotas, looked at flooding on the rivers up there, and tried to take a look at this. And one of the problems was—you were talking about building codes earlier. One of the things, if you’re going to be successful in working to the left of boom for this type of thing is you have to engage enough people and stakeholders to get a consensus where there is community support for actually doing something that’s—not even mitigation; mitigation is something you do after the fact. It’s preventative, increasing resilience before the fact based on risk assessments you do locally in communities.
And here’s where the problem comes in. Not every community assesses risk the same way. And so folks that live in the lower bayous in Louisiana are not worried about wildfires generally, OK? And people on the East Coast are not generally thinking about tsunamis. So the question is how do you create, within a region, a consensus for what those factors are that can be mitigated in advance if you look at communities that are at risk, and how do you attack that.
Now we came up with a way to think about it, but to actually put that into action, somebody has got to have the political will and that consists for them, really, down at the state and local level to actually take that on and say, for where we live, here are the three, four worst things that can happen to us. Here’s what we think we need to do to help that, and again, you know, it’s not going to be a tornado in Alaska. And that’s a very hard conversation to have. And I’m not sure we’re mature enough as a country, especially with differences regionally and how we actually go about it. But in my view, that’s the way to think about the problem writ large.
Sorry I went on with that one.
PHILLIPS: Any other questions here in the room? Did I see—oh, I didn’t see—you know why, because this gentleman’s head’s blocking your hand. (Laughter.) I’m so sorry, because she’s smiling a beautiful smile. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. And thank you so much for this. This has been really wonderful.
I have so many questions I could ask, but I’ll focus on the fact that I think as commandant of the Coast Guard you’re in a—you were in a unique position to see different parts of this country and be bottoms up in these communities. And here in Washington, I think that’s something that often can get lost amongst leadership, is the voices so local. And you’ve made a number of comments about divisiveness and how that translates into Congress, but also how it plays out in the example that you just gave. And I’m curious kind of more holistically—I personally think that our divisiveness is one of our biggest national security threats, and I’m curious how we—in your experience, what do we to start to mitigate that and move forward as a country, because it is key to all these challenges that you’ve named: climate change, you know, to name—you know, cyberattacks, all of these. And just in the, you know, wealth of your experience where you would encourage us to start.
Oh, sorry, I apologize. My name is Joy. I’m a White House fellow. Thank you.
ALLEN: Great program. Great program.
I think one of the—you could say this is a blessing or a curse, but one of the things that’s really helped me over my lifetime is my father was in the Coast Guard. I was actually born while he was at sea on a Coast Guard cutter and I started grade school in Alaska when it was a territory. That’s how old I am. (Laughter.) I’m seventy-three years old and I’ve had forty-seven addresses. So geographical—and the only continent I haven’t been to is Australia, and I plan to do that—including the South Pole.
But I have a sense for the geographical diversity. And when you get moved around and you live in all these different places, you start to understand the differences. But the common denominator is the thing—the thing that makes us al human, you know. And who’s at risk against the threats that are—that exist in that area and how do you think about it. You know, if you—if you go anywhere on the West Coast and you get near a beach, it’s going to—it’s going to say tsunami warning, this is where you go when this happens. If you’re in Florida, it says here is the hurricane route. Both things intended to deal with left of boom, but different.
I think it takes creating a mental capacity to understand how you deal with a problem. Then, when you apply it locally, you’re going to have a different outcome depending on where you’re at and the risks that are apparent. But it takes a mentality to understand what’s at risk, what do we value.
I got asked after the oil spill—I always—I get asked this question a lot—Admiral Allen, is it safe to drill? Wrong question. What’s an acceptable risk to extract fossil fuels? Because nothing’s risk-free. But we already start off with: Is it safe? Not the right answer. What’s the acceptable level of risk for what it is you want to achieve? And sooner or later, we’re going to have to come up with what’s the acceptable level of risk to allow a disenfranchised, underserved community not to attack those problems, because not only does that help you mitigate a disaster and become more resilient; when those folks become adults, start to solve a lot of other problems we got in this world. And in my view, a lot of this stuff starts with the kids—taking care of them, raising them right, making sure they’re healthy, well-fed, and educated.
PHILLIPS: Thank you. Good. Admiral Thad Allen, thank you very much.
ALLEN: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: That went by so quickly! (Laughs, applause.) And of course, a transcript of the meeting will be available on CFR’s website. And hopefully for all of you that are here, we’ve got a reception just outside for a little bit so I hope you’ll join us. Thank you all so much. (Applause.)