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As DHS & FEMA Develop New National Citizen Terrorism Tips Campaign, Addressing Public Skepticism Will Be Key

July 19th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Last week, I wrote about a new partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police to research how to improve the public’s response to suspicious activity. The findings will help the government as it expands the “See Something, Say Something” campaign nationally which was announced earlier this month by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

I am supportive of this new initiative. But I received two critical comments on the post, which I think nicely represent the skepticism that a good deal of the public has about these citizen terrorism awareness campaigns. They prompted me to write this separate post pointing out the difficult (yet do-able) challenge facing DHS and FEMA in designing both the content and then carefully implementing a meaningful program.

(This skepticism will only be increased by the publication this week of a major Washington Post series, “Top Secret America”, which will raise more questions among the public about the need to further expand security. Its thesis: ”The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”)

The two comments I received last week on the blog post:

“Hmmm, to what extent do these programs produce valuable intelligence versus wasting law enforcement time and effort and infringing citizen privacy and rights by putting public security surveillance in the hands (and eyes) of untrained people.” (Roberto)

“FEMA is wasting tax money by interfering with local law enforcement citizens and law enforcement have already demonstrated capacity to respond but FEMA has not FEMA needs to do what it is qualified to do: write checks.” (Dr. Marchand)

These are typical of the reaction I hear from some Americans — coming from all political stripes — who question such a citizen role whether it be for philosophical or logistical reasons. It echoes the feedback Janet Napolitano heard last year at a major speech on public involvement in homeland security she made at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A small portion of her remarks that morning touched on her plans to have the agency take “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 responders.”

Afterwards, it was a little surprising but revelatory that the much of the question-and-answer portion was taken up by audience members expressing concern about that making Americans better “first preventers” might impinge on civil liberties. And, this was from a politically friendly and highly sophisticated crowd.

So, as DHS and FEMA start planning how to expand the program, I wanted to relay the input I have received on this issue. These comments have only reinforced my reporting that it will be challenging to develop and implement a program that really does capitalize on the public as a homeland asset but does so in a careful, sensitive and useful way. It will require research on how these unfamiliar threats should be best communicated to the public using new technologies.

It will need to show specifically how the public can be helpful in helping law enforcement and share more success stories as models. And, it should emphasize that any anti-terror initiative will ask the same things of the citizenry that many of us are already doing in our communities on crime prevention as part of efforts like Neighborhood Watch.

The Washington Post series will undoubtedly raise questions about creating even more security initiatives and might have an impact on the development of the national “See Something, Say Something” campaign. But I think that would be a mistake. There is a need to further involve the public as an asset in the nation’s homeland security. But what it does underscore is that any program needs to have a sharp focus, clear objectives, ongoing communication and followup if it is to work.

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Federal Emergency Management Administration · See Something/Terrorism Tips

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roberto // Jul 20, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    “Afterwards, it was a little surprising but revelatory that the much of the question-and-answer portion was taken up by audience members expressing concern about that making Americans better “first preventers” might impinge on civil liberties. And, this was from a politically friendly and highly sophisticated crowd.”

    I don’t find it surprising at all. Given the extent to which government (all branches, and trickling down to enforcement agencies) has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to trample on civil liberties (witness Arizona Governor Brewer’s eagerness to ram into law the constitutionally dubious SN 1070), citizens are right to question 1) what their fellow citizens will be able to contribute to public security, and more important, 2) what the government will do with any ‘intelligence’ that’s gleaned.

    In Arizona it’s law enforcement that has aligned itself with the federal government in questioning the constitutionality (and feasibility and fairness) of SB 1070, and it’s very easy, given the polarization of American politics over the past 10 years, to imagine ‘public involvement in homeland security’ leading to vigilantism.

    As you wrote, “It will need to show SPECIFICALLY how the public can be helpful in helping law enforcement and share more success stories as models.

    The trouble is, success stories are not enough. There are always success stories, as there are failure stories. We simply can’t, unfortunately, trust the government (or anyone) to publicize its failures. Hard statistics are needed, and/or independent evaluation by citizen watchdog groups/observers.

  • 2 admin // Jul 20, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Fair points, particularly in light of the Arizona situation. What I was saying I found “surprising” about all the questions at the Napolitano was 1) that the citizen tips idea was only a small part of the speech and 2) I expected the Council on Foreign Relations audience to raise more strategic Homeland Security issues with the Secretary.
    But it did underscore to me how carefully any type of tips program needs to be planned and rolled out as it should be.

  • 3 Roberto // Jul 20, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    I guess it demonstrates that people generally trust government agencies to get on with their jobs (e.g. the development and execution of security strategy and tactics) reasonably competently.

    Where we worry is when those agencies, frequently with the blessing of their masters in the executive branch, and their putative overseers in the legislative and judicial branches, overstep their constitutionally prescribed duties.

    In the well-known words of Baron Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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