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“Homeland Security USA” TV Show Underscores Need To Provide Fuller Explanation To Public About What Homeland Security USA Exactly Is

February 6th, 2009 · No Comments

“Homeland Security USA”,  a new reality show on ABC-TV, aired its fourth episode this week. Television reviewers have had two primary criticisms of the program: first, that the show offers too positive a gloss on the work of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because it was produced with the cooperation of the Department; second, that “Homeland Security USA” is not interesting and complete enough because it focuses largely on ‘traditional’ border and immigration issues and not terrorism prevention.

I wanted to comment on the second criticism, because I believe it gets at a fundamental issue about how the government communicates its activities to the public. In fact, I think the frustration some critics have had with the show’s lack of terrorism stories is related to the frustration that former DHS Secretary Chertoff expressed in a recent exit interview with ABC News about the difficulty in explaining what he believes is the scope of the terrorist threat to the American public. 

ABC has been promoting “Homeland Security USA” by promising that:

“…The series takes cameras into situations never before seen on television, with each episode covering eight or more locations on the “front lines” where the officers and agents work each day…The Department’s missions include everything from vetting adoption papers and checking visitors’ passports to intercepting undocumented immigrants, drugs and other contraband, and stopping potential terrorists trying to cross our borders.”

But through the first three episodes, there have been no examples of potential terrorists being stopped trying to cross our borders. Most every story shows customs and border security personnel doing the border security that we all are used to — ie. “intercepting undocumented immigrants, drugs and other contraband”.  

Now, those responsibilities are very important, but it is not the full picture of Homeland Security USA. There is almost nothing on terrorism activities which Americans have been told is DHS’s raison d’etre. And almost eight years after 9/11, if viewers don’t see any examples of potential terrorists trying to enter the country on a show called “Homeland Security USA” then a lot of them will get the message that maybe there aren’t any terrorists trying to do so anymore. Understandably, people become skeptical about the threats if they never read or see anything specific about any of them. 

That only makes the job of law enforcement officials more difficult. In the interview with ABC News, Chertoff tried to emphasize that terrorists are still regularly attempting to get into the United States. According to the story on the interview:

“Every month, I get a report from our border authorities about people who are stopped” as they attempt to enter, he [Chertoff] said. Though it’s somewhat rare, he said some are stopped “based on what they have in their laptop or what they have in their luggage or based on what we know about them, people who are dangerous, who are coming in either with a plan or a recipe to build an improvised explosive device, or people who we know have affiliations with terrorist groups. ”Fortunately, we have stopped them at the border and that’s what protects this country,” he added. Though he wouldn’t say how many individuals are stopped for such reasons, he said, “it’s certainly a number that would concern me if we stopped doing what we are doing.”

But I think that the American public should be told a little more about these “individuals” who are of concern. I would recommend that going forward government officials need to be more forthcoming with specific information about who is being stopped and why. Obviously, there are limitations with sharing that type of info; top secret sources and methods often cannot be given away. But I believe there is need to address the skepticism from public and media about the threat, because it is a major problem if the government does not have citizen support and trust. Further, getting more information would also allow civilians to be more helpful to law enforcement which officials say they would like and in fact need to make their anti-terrorism efforts as effective as possible.

Homeland Security USA.

A U.S. border security officer in ABC-TV’s “Homeland Security USA”

By focusing almost solely on immigration cases, “Homeland Security USA” adds to the public perception that the threat may not be there. The title of the show , though dramatic and eye catching,  just underscores that disconnect. It probably should have been called Border Security USA. In fact, this show has been modeled after a program from Australia, “Border Security: Australian Frontline”. (By the way, I enjoy the show and find informative as well as entertaining. Despite its shortcomings detailed above, it does provide interesting behind the scenes access to immigration operations and can often be quite colorful in depicting some of things people do to get into the U.S. illegally.) 

According to Chertoff and many law enforcement officials I have interviewed, there remains a significant ongoing terror threat. But as time passes since 9/11, there is a need to remind the public of the situation — in a calm, reasoned and accurate way. I would suggest that new DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and other national security officials aim to be more open with the public and the media. I think this can be done without compromising security, sensationalizing it or scaring the public.

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Tags: Entertainment · Media

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