WASHINGTON – A House panel grilled DHS officials about its communication skills with the American people, especially the agency’s failure to address questions and concerns on a host of issues from agency tactics to terror threats.
Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, the federal government has mounted an unprecedented domestic effort to protect the nation from terrorist threats. As part of this effort, the federal government combined more than 20 agencies into a newly created cabinet-level department – the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In its 12-year history, the DHS has been the focus of criticism several times for its poor communications with other government agencies and the public. The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing Friday to explore challenges of the DHS in communicating with the American people.
“Whether it is with members of Congress, the press, or directly to the American people, 10 years after its establishment, the Department of Homeland Security seems to have developed serious challenges communicating its goals, priorities, tactics, and missions,” said Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) in his opening remarks.
Duncan criticized the administration for its “increasing sense of bunker mentality” in responding to the public and collaborating with industry and advocacy groups. He also highlighted the department’s ammunition procurement, sequestration, and ICE’s detainee releases as examples where the department has failed to adequately inform the American people.
“The inability of DHS to sufficiently address concerns raised by the general public — or even to engage in a discussion — erodes trust in the department, and that is my concern,” Duncan said.
“An uncommunicative Department of Homeland Security that is seen as consistently stonewalling increases people’s skepticism of DHS, strains the institution’s credibility, and makes people question the motivations of the department’s leadership. How does this serve DHS’s critical mission to defend the homeland?” he continued.
Duncan asked pointed questions to the two DHS representatives participating in the panel.
Robert Jensen, DHS’s principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, acknowledged the challenges but mentioned that the DHS uses several methods to engage with the public, such as social media tools and the agency’s website. Jensen highlighted DHS’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which aims to encourage the public to report suspicious activities to local law enforcement agencies, as an example of the agency’s efforts.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) questioned whether political correctness has interfered with the agency’s ability to keep the country safe, saying that suggestions included in DHS’s counterterrorism training contradict the campaign. According to Hudson, one of the DHS’s recommendations was “not to equate radical thought, religious expression, freedom to protest or other constitutionality protected activity” with being violent.
Yet, Hudson pointed out, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects in the Boston bombing, had an extremist outburst at a mosque that upset many of the people in attendance, but the incident went under the radar until after the attack.
“On the one hand folks are being told to ignore this kind of language, and then on the other hand, we’re telling the public, ‘if you hear this type of thing, let us know.’ You know, are we sending mixed messages or are – are we erring too far in one direction or the other?” said Hudson.
Tamara Kessler, DHS’s acting officer for civil rights and civil liberties, told the panel DHS has worked hard to avoid profiling people based on their ethnicity or religion. Kessler said the agency focuses on behaviors, rather than speech or appearances.
“It’s true that I think it’s very important in the context of countering violent extremism that there’s a differentiation between speech and activities…so part of this is not to control thought and it’s not to tamp down the ability to express that thought, but to watch for when it crosses the line, when behavior starts to indicate that there might be a bigger problem than just the philosophical opinion of that person,” Kessler said.
Bill Braniff, executive director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), said more than half of the respondents in a survey conducted by his organization had not heard anything about the campaign, and only 57 percent of respondents said they would be willing to meet with DHS officials to talk about terrorism.
While Rep. Ron Barber (Ariz.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, praised the agency’s work, he also noted problems with DHS communications with the public. The Arizona representative panned the agency for putting “image control before information flow.”
“It is the role of the department’s Office of Public Affairs to communicate to the public the programs and policies of the department and to inform the public with necessary homeland security information,” Barber said. “Too often, the dissemination of this information to the public has not been handled in an effective manner.”
“This type of information management is problematic, especially considering DHS may have more daily contact with the American public than any other agency,” he continued.
Barber said DHS has provided conflicting information about the impact of sequestration. In particular, Barber mentioned that the agency failed to communicate with the public in an effort to avoid a public fallout by initially reporting that it had only released a few hundred illegal immigrants, only to later revise the figure to more than 2,000 detainees. Barber noted that members of Congress did not find out about the actual figure of released detainees until it was published in the newspapers.
Jensen also had to answer questions about his department’s response to inquiries about purchases of large stockpiles of ammunition. The AP reported in March that DHS planned to buy more than 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition over the next five years, and that it had already bought 1.5 rounds in 2012. DHS refuted those numbers, saying the media reports were misleading, but that the agency was planning to buy in bulk to save money.
Duncan observed it had taken months for DHS to respond to lawmakers about the ammunition purchases. Jensen conceded the agency could have handled the issue in a better manner, but that DHS had replied to every media and blog inquiry and, despite a delay, had also provided Congress with the information requested.
“Americans don’t want to distrust their government. Americans don’t want to believe that big brother is listening to their phone calls, or reading their private correspondence. Americans don’t want to believe that the government is buying up ammo so that it won’t be available to them when they go to their sporting goods store…but they do distrust government when there is a failure to communicate,” Duncan said.
Doug Pinkham, Public Affairs Council president, shared with the panel ideas on how DHS can learn more about communications and public affairs from the private sector. Pinkham said offering “proof of correctness” of their policies and the quality of their performance is not enough for leaders, in both the private and public sector, because it underestimates the power and influence “of misinformation campaigns and urban legends.”
In particular, he noted, “Because DHS deals with major national security and civil liberty issues, it has to be diligent about setting the record straight when the public is misinformed. Yet it must do so with compelling stories to supplement its facts.”