Rich Cooper

Apr 16, 2009

Every now and then a “no-win situation” can be made worse by what a person says, how they say it, or  what they do not say at all.  This is the situation facing DHS following a recently issued report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”

Since its release earlier this month, a firestorm of controversy has erupted from conservative outlets, veterans groups, the blogosphere and beyond blasting the Department’s report for concluding that “a rise in  ‘rightwing extremist activity,’ [is occurring] saying the economic recession, the election of America”s first black president and the return of a few disgruntled war veterans could swell the ranks of white-power militias.”

It is more than appropriate for DHS to produce a report to be shared with its state, local, tribal and private sector partners that identifies emerging threats wherever they may occur and from whoever may be driving them.  That is one of the reasons DHS, its Information and Analysis (I&A) Branch (that produced the controversial report) and its Fusion Centers were established.  With those responsibilities to produce reports also comes the need  proactively explain (or at a minimum to be prepared to explain) to the American public why a report was issued and what is behind its eye-popping conclusions.  Just because I&A “can produce” such a report is not a good enough reason for it to do so.

While this report was stamped as “For Official Use Only” and was intended to be limited in its distribution to the usual state and local customers of I&A, a politically tinged report of this type undoubtedly has legs and can and will be run all over the place by responsible and irresponsible parties alike.  Hence the increasingly defensive situation DHS finds itself in right now.  

For example:

•    David K. Rehbein, the Commander of the American Legion, one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished veterans organizations, has sent/posted a very pointed letter to DHS Sec. Napolitano sharing his “concern” about the I&A report calling its conclusions “politically-biased” and “incomplete.”
•    The Drudge Report has posted a picture of DHS Sec. Napolitano on its site with hyperlink entitled “SHE IS WATCHING YOU” connecting to a World Net Daily story on the I&A report focusing on how returning US military veterans could be “particular threats” to right-wing extremism.

•    Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin has fired her own blog salvo at the Department: “Confirmed: The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives is real.”

•    And traditional media outlets have posted their own spin on the report.

Can you just imagine how the over-caffeinated, belligerent TV talking heads of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann will treat this subject matter?  Ugh.

None of these reactions – however proper, appropriate or over the top – aids in building the Department’s credibility or confidence.  Whatever facts and real information this report was designed to communicate have been lost forever because of an absolute failure to think about the report’s interpretation beyond its intended audiences and its dreadfully worded conclusions.  As such, the credibility of DHS and I&A suffer.

By the very nature of the intelligence and security personnel that work there, I&A does not make it its business to be media savvy or public affairs sensitive about its products (reports, bulletins, etc.).  That has never been its job.  Its focus is on the information it collects; the analysis it concludes and ensuring those insights are shared accordingly.  How the agency appears to the larger public and constituencies beyond those it serves has never been a priority.  The organization’s traditional posture of ignoring public perceptions is certainly evident here, and hurts  DHS’ mission to build credibility and confidence.  These are the same traits that destroyed the potential promise and dividends of the National Applications Office and doom whatever insights this report and others like it supposedly contained.

It also negates some of the credibility and incredibly positive ground I&A gained before Congress and its constituencies as profiled in recent Congressional hearings.  

Continuing to ignore the PR implications of its actions will further damage I&A’s ability to lead, craft and execute critical information sharing abilities for those who depend upon it.  That can not be allowed to happen.

I don’t believe for an instant that I&A or DHS is an ideologically driven organization whose purpose in issuing this report was to slander conservatives, veterans or anyone else.  I take Sec. Napolitano at her word when she says “we [DHS] monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.” 

Since taking the reigns of DHS, Sec. Napolitano has talked often and openly about the need and importance of information sharing but part of any effective information sharing is knowing how to say things; when and where to say them; and saying them in informed, effective and appropriate ways.  

We live in a split-reaction society that values outbursts over informed insight. When you issue a report with sweeping conclusions that focuses on a particular ideology and has poor word choices and incendiary content, you are guaranteed to not get the right message to your audience.

This is undoubtedly one of those occasions that just shows we still have lots to learn in communicating in lots of ways.


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