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Govt. Still Determining How Best To Communicate Terror Threat And Engage Public To Help Out Eight Years After 9/11

September 14th, 2009 · 4 Comments

As the nation marks the anniversary of 9/11, one of the significant homeland security challenges the government still faces eight years later is figuring out how best to communicate the terrorist threat to the public and then engage the citizenry to help in its anti-terror efforts.

Both parts of that challenge involve a difficult balance. On the first, many homeland security officials worry about citizen complacency and would like do a better job of conveying that there is still a significant terrorist threat to the nation. However, in doing so they do not want to unnecessarily scare the public or give away intelligence sources and methods.

As for the second part, officials believe that civilians are a significant information resource that they would like to do a better job utilizing. And, in fact, better utilizing the public in the homeland security enterprise has been an early theme of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Last month, Napolitano told the Council for Foreign Relations in New York City “for too long we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security,” adding:

we’re taking a much closer look at how we can support and inform our greatest asset, individual citizens, and with them the private sector. You are the ones who know if something is not right in your communities, such as a suspicious package or unusual activity

...With basic training, every one of us can become better first preventers as well as first respondersYou know, I think there’s actually an important role that we can play in educating even our very young about watching for and knowing what to do if – if you’re in an airport and you see a package left with no one around; you know, that sort of thing. I also think we could do a much better job at educating young people about how to — how to prepare how to handle themselves so that they can protect themselves also if something untoward were to happen…”

But she acknowledged that work needed to be done in figuring out how to do so:

“…So do we have a plan in that – in that way, or have we actually worked that angle of this? Not yet. But I think you’re getting the gist of what I’m saying, which is to say we need a culture of collective responsibility, a culture where every individual understands his or her role…”

Interestingly, the difficulty developing such a plan was underscored in the post-speech audience questions, a number of which expressed concerns that any new effort  on making Americans better “first preventers” might impinge on civil liberties.

U.S. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations July 29, 2009 in New York City. The head of the Department of Homeland Security is scheduled for several stops in New York today, including Ground Zero, as she addresses national security issues. Napolitano has also initiated a review of the color- coded terror-alert system deemed vague by critics that's intended to inform the public on terror threats.


Napolitano’s task is made more difficult because the country has not been attacked since 9/11, and the public may not perceive a continued threat. In an interview in the Washington Post last week, the Secretary was asked “if the American people could see what you see — if they were privy to intelligence reports and they saw the whole spectrum of what was out there, do you think they would have a different view of preparedness?”

Her reply: “Oh, yes, perhaps. But on the other hand, I think what is important for them to recognize is that we have hundreds of thousands of people working on this every day.” Even as she would like to get the public’s attention, the Secretary understandably does not want to unnecessarily stoke concern. Finding that balance is key. Yet, if they want to address “complacency,” officials will have to find ways to better illustrate what is “out there,” to narrow the gap between what they see and what the public does.

Clearly, there is a limit to what can be disclosed without comprising intelligence activities, but many in law enforcement that I spoken to believe more can and should be told to the public. In fact, many have told me that they would like to offer more information so Americans understand the threat situation better. It makes their jobs easier, establishes more credibility, and may better innoculate the nation when/if something does happen. A goal of that education should also be showing how citizen involvement actually helps and more precisely what citizens should (and should not) be doing to help.

In her Council for Foreign Relations speech, Napolitano noted some examples of citizen involvement:

“Three years ago, it was an attentive store clerk who told authorities about men trying to duplicate extremist DVDs. This led federal agents to eventually round up a plot to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix army base here in New Jersey, in New Jersey. Just last month, a passenger saw two employees exchange a bag at the Philadelphia airport that had not been properly screened. That passenger’s vigilance ultimately stopped a gun from getting onto the plane.”

More recently, Napolitano thanked a commuter who took a photo of a sleeping guard at the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River, telling CNN, “Catching those lapses is an important reminder that none of us can be asleep on the job,” Napolitano said. “Security … safety is something that we all have a responsibility for.”

Highlighting those examples are helpful. But more detail is necessary to get the public’s attention. One thing I might suggest is to make more use of security videos of people caught (or at least suspected of) surveilling infrastructure. Again, that would be done in a careful, sober manner, not to stir panic or fear but to better illustrate the threat and what is being asked of the public. Along those lines, former Secretary Chertoff — who expressed a similar concern about public complacency in his recent book – told me that government has to do a better job of “packaging and presenting” the threat.

There is also a need to provide the public with more context for their role. Earlier this summer, Napolitano appointed a task force to look at the future of the Homeland Security Advisory System. And, I think any type of new system should include more information for the public about why an alert is being raised and lowered along with guidance on what to do when it changes.


Phil Palin of the Homeland Security Watch blog wrote a nice post on this topic. In “Aunt Mae Or George Orwell? We Can Choose,” he usefully illustrates that we can strike a balance between enlisting the public as part of the homeland security effort without overreaching, in part because we have models in our own communities to learn from:

“A few days ago a reader passed along information on the DHS “First Observer” program. Enclosed with the Email was a brief blurb promoting a training event, “By participating in this 9-11 web cast, you will be a certified First Observer. You and thousands like you will help us put together pieces of complex security puzzles and allow us to solve those puzzles and prevent Attacks in a way we were unable to do prior to September 11, 2001.” The reader had entitled the Email, “Calling George Orwell,” but otherwise reserved comment.

On the street where I grew up our first observers were Alice Bobo, wife of the firefighter next door, and across the street my Aunt Mae, wife of my grandmother’s half-brother Bob. They were our intelligence service, border security team, and public health unit all wrapped into a wonderfully collaborative and unified operation. I have never since encountered a surveillance and response capacity quite as effective…

Together Mrs. Bobo and Aunt Mae handled the whole block and most of the alley north of Fulton street. If some eight-year-old tried a cigarette, one of them (both prodigious smokers) would let his or her mother know. When the Morgan’s mother was gone and there was no food, Aunt Mae would show up with some of her Hungarian Goulash, which I have since learned was much more Midwestern than Magyar, but boy was it good. Someone else would bring food the next day, and the next, until Mrs. Morgan returned.

One Sunday morning while we were at breakfast, Mrs. Bobo called my Dad about a little girl being beat up at a house two blocks away. He ran out faster than I had ever (have ever) seen him move. Dad returned shortly after with the girl. She stayed with us a few days. Okay, not exactly international terrorism. Not exactly a 5.0 hurricane or a 7.5 earthquake. But not entirely irrelevant either. What Aunt Mae and Mrs. Bobo did was combine ongoing close-in surveillance with trusted communication. They took coordinated action to prevent, mitigate and respond. They were there, and organized others, to assist in recovery…

The vocabulary is different, the setting is dramatically changed, but the human realities are the same. Aunt Mae and Alice Bobo knew their community, cared about their community, and the community trusted, supported, and worked with them…I probably don’t want a latter-day Alice Bobo “deputized” to enter information in compliance with 28 CFR, Part 23. But I expect George Orwell’s Big Brother is only possible where there are too few George Baileys actively engaged in their communities and neighborhoods. With Aunt Mae and Alice Bobo working with the rest of us, Big Brother ain’t got a chance… and neither do others who wish us harm.”

Phil does a good job of pointing out that citizen involvement community security is nothing new, and we can find a way to engage Aunt Mae without also inviting Big Brother. (Though, of course, it will always be a delicate balance.) As the Obama Administration develops its approach for better engaging and tapping the public in homeland security, offering this kind of context would be helpful.

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Tags: Preparedness Ideas · See Something/Terrorism Tips

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