Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Public relations and Homeland Security


In case you missed President Bush's speech earlier this week on the occasion of our bouncing baby Department of Homeland Security's first birthday, a quick summary: The folks there are doing a bang up job, gold star and a smiley face for all concerned. As you may recall, we invaded a country in the Middle East last year, which has made us safe from weapons of mass destruction in Libya. We're much safer. But not so safe you should consider voting for Democrats. Finally, the provisions of the PATRIOT Act—so controversial that they were passed with sunset clauses even immediately after 9/11—should stay on the books indefinitely.

Now that Tom Ridge has finished opening his presents, it's probably worth asking how successful the war on terror's prodigal son has actually been. Clearly the DHS has made some progress—it would be surprising if we didn't get anything for some $36 billion. But a report released by Democratic members of the Select Committee on Homeland Security provides a report card with fewer gold stars than might be expected from the president's sanguine assessment. The report highlights disconcerting gaps in bioterror preparedness, infrastructure security, and many other areas.

Democrats—and the department itself—suggest that a lack of funds is largely to blame for these gaps. Others point to the problems inherent in shoehorning 22 formerly autonomous agencies into the same back seat for a very long car trip, a project which has changed the nameplates on plenty of offices, but may not have done as much to quell longstanding interagency rivalries.

Nevertheless, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the young department might stretch its allowance further if it rearranged its priorities along with its nameplates. Its most visible achievement thus far has been a kind of public relations campaign calculated to produce a sense of inchoate uneasiness, followed immediately by the equally vague sense that Something Is Being Done.

As James Bovard reported in February's Reason, the department's Transportation Security Administration has thrown itself into a frenetic effort to create the appearance, if not the fact, of hyper-security in American airports. Yet as the Democratic report observes, only a small fraction of cargo shipments at American seaports are subject to as much scrutiny as your aunt's shoes. Perhaps this is a classic case of "fighting the last war," but it also suggests that the agency is more concerned with taking maximally visible steps than with allocating its resources in the most efficient way.

It's difficult otherwise to explain the priority placed on developing a series of dubiously useful public service announcements warning citizens to be vigilant and keep canned foods around the house… perhaps to throw at terrorists if one comes by. My favorite of these is a Spanish-language spot [RealMedia] that suggests that the DHS must be keeping unemployed telenovela producers on retainer. A pair of soulful-eyed guardian angels gaze down over the lights of a city at night, trading platitudes about the population's blissful ignorance of the constant terrorist menace: "Eyes that don't see, heart that doesn't feel," oozes a young female angel. "Yes, but the shrimp that falls asleep is carried away by the current," parries an older, grandfatherly male. (It works better in Spanish.)

There's also the department's handy informational site, Ready.gov, whose chief benefit thus far seems to have been inspiring a moderately amusing parody that made the e-mail rounds last year. And, of course, DHS has given us the much-derided color coded security system, which is doubtless a source of endless amusement to terrorists who can sit back and watch communities ramp up expenditures whenever they increase their "chatter" levels. (This has probably also proved useful for spotting weak links in terrorist communications networks.) Tom Ridge did his part for the economic recovery by urging concerned Americans to flood Home Depot to purchase duct tape and plastic sheets as safeguards against biological and chemical attacks—the 21st century equivalent of "get under your desk and put your head between your knees."

Since DHS has earned a gold star for its efforts, however, the president is persuaded that our primary concern when it comes to homeland security should be the pending sunset of several contentious sections of the PATRIOT Act, which he described as "key provisions."

But are they? Eager to calm civil libertarians, Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote in a memo last September that not only had the PATRIOT Act's controversial "business records" provision, section 215, not been abused—it hadn't been used at all.

The president's rhetorical approach to PATRIOT mirrors his attempt to equate failure to extend temporary tax cuts as a vote for a tax increase. While PATRIOT provisions are set to expire in 2005, he reminded us, echoing his State of the Union address, "the terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule." This provides a neat illustration of the burden-shifting power of sunset provisions, which Chris Mooney described in a recent issue of Legal Affairs. Sunset clauses, purported to rein in programs and powers that prove unnecessary or subject to abuse, ease legislators' doubts during the initial passage stage. When those sunset provisions are later attacked, those who would leave them intact are forced to justify themselves—and when, after all, will "the terrorist threat expire"? Quite probably never.

In a sense, however, this too is part of the PR campaign—a savvy method of exploiting disproportionate public focus on the PATRIOT Act. Those sunset provisions aren't actually slated to kick in until 2005, but making them an issue now allows the president to frame the debate over homeland security debate in the run up to the election. The record of the toddler DHS is upstaged by a squabble over a few sections of the law—a fight the president will very likely win. The president's gift to the nation on DHS's birthday may leave something to be desired, but the wrapping paper sure is shiny.