The end of an era in free communication


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 21 August 2010 Updated: whenever

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

Closed door policies for NWS offices

Today (20 August 2010) my empirical suspicions have been confirmed. It is now office policy for the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) that open access to the forecast area is closed. The doors to the forecast area are now automatically closed and locked during the day shift (0800-1600). The outer doors, allowing access the NOAA spaces in the Weather Center are now locked outside of the day shift time. Thus, an era wherein I could freely enter the area and chat with my SPC friends during day shift is over. Of course, it's my understanding that I could go to that door and knock, in hopes that someone would let me in. Before I address that particular issue, however, let me review some history.

When I returned to Norman in 1986, the new NSSL Director, Bob Maddox, had arranged that I would have my office in the Norman National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Forecast Office (WFO), which had previously moved from its earlier location at Will Rogers field in Oklahoma City. Thus, I had free access to the forecast area and I developed some lasting friendships with several of the forecasters. But I noticed something - access to the forecast office was not generally free. In fact, in order to gain entrance, outsiders were forced to ask permission to enter and prior arrangements were preferred rather than spontaneous walk-ins. This culture of excluding outsiders had begun while the office was still at Will Rogers, and that culture persists to this day. With time, it was decided that I had to go - the reason given was that my office space was needed for new computer hardware. In due time, I was converted from 'insider' to 'outsider' and had to beg for entrance to the forecast area, just like all the rest of the outsiders.

This policy has had a chilling effect on my desire the interact with the WFO. It could be argued that I'm simply taking personal offense at being treated like an outsider. I don't think that's what I'm doing. If it were just me being excluded, then I might have due cause to take it personally. But the principle of exclusion is pervasive. I found out that here in the so-called "National Weather Center", I could knock on the WFO operations area door and someone might let me in. But it's been my choice to remain on equal footing with all other outsiders - I presume nothing about my relationship with individual friends working in the forecast area. Hence, virtually from the day I was expelled from the office (which was then on the North Campus of OU, across the street from the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), my employer, I have only set foot in the Norman NWS-WFO operations area a handful of times. None in the last several years. Whatever interactions I might have developed as a result of free access to the area can't be known, of course. The same could be said about all outsiders. The policy of exclusion, represented by a perpetually closed and locked door, likely has inhibited interactions of all sorts.

I don't know the precise reasons for the Norman office's exclusion policy, but I believe it springs from the perception that having outsiders in the office is too distracting. Thus, it seems that this policy may be the direct result of forecasters complaining about the distractions of conversations between outsiders and forecasters. I know in the past, when Al Moller and I got into arguments while visiting forecast offices during our storm chases, we were told to shut up or take our discussions elsewhere. I respected that, in large part because the forecasters in those situations told us directly that we were bothering them. Al and I understood that, apologized, and took our discussion elsewhere. However, making exclusion an office policy also inhibits communication with outsiders in situations where no harm is being done by those possibly animated conversations - not all the time are forecasters head down and focused on their duties, after all. And some forecasters can work through distractions with virtually no ill effects. When the rule of exclusion becomes the default position for the whole office all the time, then the potential for positive interactions is discarded with the dirty bathwater of distractions.

My reaction to an exclusion policy is reflected in my absence. If interaction is not free and available to anyone, then I have a problem with that policy. Rather than trying to change it, I simply acceded and excluded myself permanently - I had no wish to beg for admittance. I didn't want to presume on my friendships.

Thus, confirmation of my recent empirical observations that the SPC operations area is now routinely closed and locked gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. Apparently, for the SPC, the new policy is partly one of trying to limit noisy distractions in the ops area (often associated with tour groups, not allowed entrance but making enough noise to distract forecasters through the open door), and partly related to security issues. I'll take up the latter shortly. But for now, I want to discuss the topic of distractions. I've had some of my friends tell me that I've bothered certain tight-ass forecasters in the SPC by talking loud and by using offensive language. Of course, the offended persons never bothered to tell me themselves - they just complained to someone after the fact about my offensive presence in the ops area. Well, my tight-ass acquaintances (not friends), rest easy. Your exclusionary desires have been satisfied. The new policy will produce an identical result regarding the SPC that the comparable policy has produced for me regarding visits to the Norman WFO - I'm outta there, so long as the exclusionary policy remains in effect. As with my policy regarding the WFO, I don't take this personally. I'm not personally offended by the policy because it isn't aimed directly at me, although my sense of what ultimately is good for my profession has taken a hit. By the same token, I hope that none of my NWS friends will be offended by my policy.

Therefore, if any forecaster in the WFO or, now, the SPC wishes to collaborate with me, they'll have to come up to my office and see if I'm there and willing to let them in, or make prior arrangements to meet elsewhere. No more free and easy conversations in the ops area. That has come to an abrupt end as a consequence of a policy with which I disagree. Given that I'm close to the end of my professional career, the time to pull out of the NWC is fast approaching, anyway. No one is going to shed any tears about my absence from the ops area in the SPC. Whatever good (or bad) things regarding the SPC are not dependent on my participation anymore, if they ever were. I won't be asking for special visitation privileges.

The so-called "National" Weather Center (NWC) was built ostensibly to foster communication among the various weather-related organizations in Norman. Are exclusionary policies the way to go if this communication is to take place? I don't see how they can - at least not in a spontaneous, grass roots sort of fashion. Sure, it's still possible for organizations and individuals within the NWC to collaborate with the NWS offices there. But this collabortion evidently is not permitted within a context of free mutual access. To gain access to NOAA spaces, one must beg for it. It must be pre-arranged rather than happening as a sort of free and easy consequence of interactions when colleagues can visit freely. I think I know where that train goes, and I won't be boarding. My loss, I suppose.

Security issues

To the extent that security issues have influenced the SPC's locked door policy, I know of no reason to be upset with the SPC, per se. They have requirements being imposed on them by bureaucrats at levels above the SPC itself. I don't know how much local management agrees with policies coming from above, but I'm pretty sure that many of my friends in the ops area are not necessarily pleased with the tightening belt of security. This likely is not their fault, but they must comply with orders coming down the chain of command.

Since the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, a war on terror has been underway. That war has been felt by some more than others - for instance the friends and families of those killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's also been felt by innocent muslims here in the USA. It certainly has been felt by the victims of terrorism. Now, however, the war on terror is being felt in the NWC. As time has passed, the measures taken to provide "security" for the NOAA offices within the NWC have become ever more strident. Before walk-in visitors were locked out of the SPC, they had recently been required to sign in and out of the NOAA spaces, a requirement that already had had its inhibiting effect. As I write this, I've found out that the SPC is considered at "high risk" (interesting terminology) for becoming a terrorist target, apparently owing to their national scope.

There have been various measures in place (or recently put in place) to provide "protection" for the NWC from terrorism, including a stand of trees and boulders in the lawn surrounding the NWC that are not just decorative, but ostensibly to provide protection from car bombs. In recent weeks, a barrier system for the driveway leading to the 2nd floor NWC entrance has been installed, that can be raised to prevent access and lowered to allow access. Visitors must check in at the security desk and obtain a visitor pass to enter the building.

Honestly, I have no idea why a terrorist would single out the SPC as a target. If I were part of a terrorist cell in Norman, OK, it's hard to imagine why the SPC would spring into my head as a high-priority victim. Out of all the things that a terrorist might consider as a horrific act that would call attention to the cause that compels him/her to be a terrorist, what is it about the SPC that would make it so attractive? I certainly can think of a fair number of other local targets that would have a far larger impact on the public psyche. Killing a bunch of government employees is always going to be somewhere on a terrorist's list of potential targets (as demonstrated by our home-grown terrorists in 1995), but what might single out the SPC? Is Homeland Security aware of something they're not telling us about? I doubt it, actually.

But let's suppose that a cosmic ray struck a terrorist leader's brain synapses in just the right way to make him/her think that the SPC should become their cell's next target. Does anyone believe that the existing security measures would prevent such an attack? Is there any reason to believe that all potential terrorists are so consumed by passion that their capacity to carry out a successful attack on such a lightly-secured facility as the NWC has been impaired? I think it would be almost trivial to attack the NWC and even to target the SPC specifically. Naturally, terrorists don't care about collateral damage, so they would feel free to attack the entire building in order to achieve their hypothetical goal of destroying the SPC. Will closed glass doors bar a suicide bomber from carrying out a mission? Would the existing security measures allow every building occupant to rest easy in the knowledge that they simply cannot be attacked? A moment's reflection should disabuse anyone from thinking that the security of the NWC is high enough to prevent a well-organized attack.

I'm also told that even stronger security measures are being considered: metal detectors, x-ray scanning, armed guards ... . Armed guards!! I remember my first ever trip to a communist nation in 1988, before the fall of European communism. It was a shock to see guards carrying submachine guns in the airport! I thought to myself - "How wonderful it is to live in the USA, where the specter of guards with machine guns is unthinkable outside of military facilities and other high-security situations." Now, the war on terror has made us accept the possible necessity for guards with guns. The decision to implement this enhanced security within the NWC has yet to be made, but it's definitely being considered, and if the level of paranoia in this nation increases further, we may see such stringent security become the norm at the NWC. If that day arrives before I've completed my research projects there, that's the day I start packing to leave the NWC.

Thoughts on the war on terror

What I see happening at the NWC tells me that we as a nation are losing the war on terror. As I suggested in an essay posted shortly after 9/11, if the terrorists succeed in making us give up our freedom in the name of security, then they've won. Most Americans have been told by their leaders that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is keeping the war on terrorism off of American soil. Supposedly, were it not for our military operations in those places (that already have been responsible for more American fatalities than the 9/11 attacks), this war could be ongoing in America. That is simply not the case - the war on terror is being fought right here, right now! It's similar to Vietnam - military victories in Vietnam were inconsequential to the war being fought in America between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. The communists in Vietnam knew that if they continued to kill Americans, we eventually would lose our willingness to fight those battles. They were willing to sacrifice 20 or more Vietnamese for every American fatality, because they knew the important battle wasn't being fought with guns. It's what was being shown on television every night in American homes. How did they know that would work? Because they had studied history, including that of the American Revolution, where we used similar tactics to free the USA from England. The war on terror is similar to the Vietnam war. If the terrorists induce us to become a police state, a christian theocracy, then they've won a huge victory!

This is just not a war that can be won by killing all the terrorists. For each terrorist we kill, for each muslim we persecute and disenfranchise, for each innocent non-combatant that dies, more terrorists spring up. Terrorism can't be defeated by military operations. The islamic terrorists aren't interested in invading the US, conquering us to turn us into a vassal state. They hope to turn us onto ourselves by convincing us that our freedoms put us in danger. They succeed not by military victories but by fanning the flames of our fear. We have a whole segment of our population that benefits from fear-mongering. They're encouraging us to give up freedoms that have defined us as a nation, simply for the sake of an illusion of security. Turning the USA into a christian police state won't make us more secure - it will be the fulfillment of the dark vision of Orwell's 1984. We can win this war only by conquering our fear.

Why have muslims left their homelands to come to the USA? I suppose this is seen by some to be a vast conspiracy, a fifth column festering within our borders, nests of snakes ready to strike when commanded by their muslim masters. But the reality is that most of them came to the USA to escape the tyranny of the theocracies running their homelands. They came to the USA for the same reason that most of our ancestors came to the USA - for freedom and for the economic opportunities they can develop for themselves, which they saw they couldn't have in their homelands. Any hidden terrorist cells within the American muslims must be a tiny, tiny minority. Persecuting American muslims by denying them the same rights all Americans are supposed to have, only confirms islamic terrorist propaganda - that the USA has declared war on all of islam. It recruits terrorists.

At the start of WWII, the US shamefully interred Japanese, German, and Italian Americans (sometimes 2nd or 3rd generation Americans) simply because of their national origins. Not because they had done anything to cast suspicion on themselves. Just because they were connected, however tenuously, with governments with which we were at war. There was no attempt to sift the chaff from the wheat - all were guilty without cause or trial. This is a shameful episode in our history - a self-induced repudiation of the freedoms that we were at war at that very time to protect! It seems that today, some would have us follow that same path: to deny some of our citizens the very rights that many thousands of Americans have fought for and died to preserve. Martin Niemöller once wrote:

I repeat: it is our freedom that terrorists fear the most. Not our guns, not our bombs, not our technology. It is by standing as a beacon of civilized light in a sea of barbaric darkness that we Americans can defeat terrorism. We can't win by killing. We can't win by imposing ever-tightening security on ourselves, limiting our freedoms for the illusion of protection. We can't win by becoming mirror images of our enemies. The only thing we really have to fear ... is fear itself!