Friday, July 18, 2014

The Department of Homeland Security’s Ingenious Catch-23

It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true:  members of the press can’t call the DHS press office. 

In one of the great pieces of absurdist literature of all time, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 discusses the method by which bomber pilots may claim insanity for the purpose of getting out of a dangerous mission.  The gist of it is that if you’re willing to fly, you’re clearly nuts.  But if you try to get out of the flight—for instance, by claiming insanity—then you’re committing a rational act, and therefore cannot claim to insane.  So either way, you go on the mission.  Bureaucracy wins.

Now, if you were in government, how would you apply this type of absurdist approach to the function of providing news and information to the press and public, in such a way as to ensure that the bureaucracy emerges victorious?  How about creating a press office that the press can’t call?  Yeah, that would work.

Would you believe that this is exactly what the Department of Homeland Security has done?  If you’re a reporter and you don’t want information, then this press office is perfect for you.  All the facts you need but don’t intend to get are right there in the press office waiting for you.  But if you do want the information—well, sorry, we could give you that phone number, but then we’d have to kill you.  Either way, the government wins.

Call it Catch-23.

I swear I am not making this up.  (Well, maybe I did exaggerate the part about killing you.)

I hit upon this discovery when I set out to penetrate the veil of secrecy behind the current immigration crisis.  Oh, I didn’t really think I’d be able to do so all by my lonesome, but I thought I’d at least give it the old college try to see what I could learn.  DHS has, for the most part, stiff-armed any and all media attempts to find out very much about what is going on at our borders.  For instance:  how many border crossers has the administration placed on planes and buses?  And at what expense to taxpayers?  How many of the migrants have done what they’re supposed to do and have checked in with immigration authorities once they’ve reached their final destination?  Where are they going?  And so on.  For the most part media have gone along with this information shut-out rather meekly.  That is why you have seen news reports in recent weeks containing phrases like this one, quoted from a recent Associated Press article about the current immigration crisis:  “An undisclosed number have been released into the community with notices to report back to immigration officials or in court at a later date” (my bolding).  

That single word—“undisclosed”—summarizes and then blithely skips over a startling fact:  the Obama administration is keeping the media, and therefore the public, largely in the dark about the current flood of illegal border crossers.  It’s making assurances that everything is under control, while at the same time seeing to it that you can’t easily verify the truth for yourself.  It’s even keeping this information secret from your local law enforcement officials who arguably have a real need to know it—as Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told PowerTalk 1210 listeners on Thursday.   

Certainly, there are some perfectly good reasons to keep some kinds of information secret.  But I have found that when politicians withhold the facts, you can’t assume or blindly trust that they’re doing it with the public’s best interests in mind.  In fact, I learned that you have to assume the opposite, that they’re keeping the public in the dark in order to serve their own selfish ends—such as the need to prevent embarrassment, or to keep facts off the table that might serve to undermine a political position.  And those are not appropriate reasons for withholding the public’s business from the public.  That’s why when I was a TV news director I always coached and mentored the journalists working with me not to accept “no comment” or any other kind of stiff-arm response when seeking information the public has a right to know.

This week I set out to follow my own advice.  And, trying to be reasonable about it, I allotted three days for the info quest.  Now, I’m not an immigration beat reporter, so in calling the Department of Homeland Security with questions, I was not able to resort to a Rolodex or anything of that nature containing a stockpile of useful phone numbers.  Instead, I simply looked up the official Media Contacts web page for DHS, and then I called what seemed like the appropriate number.  A nice lady who answered the phone told me, with a perfectly straight face, that the office I had reached—which was the Media Office for the “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service”—was not the office for the media to call with questions about U.S. citizenship and immigration services.  

Okay.  Fine.  The obvious question at this point was, “So what is the correct number?”  And that’s what I proceeded to ask.  The answer I got led to a Dutch Tilt moment.  You’ve seen Dutch Tilt many times in your life, although you may not have known what it was.  When a film director wants to send a subliminal message to the viewer that the world has just become a little strange and off-kilter, he or she has the photographer tilt the camera about ten degrees off the horizontal.  This has the effect of making the viewer feel vaguely uncomfortable and a bit weird.  That’s how I felt, and this answer is what did it to me:  the nice young lady on the phone told me that the Press Office telephone number was not available to the press.  She flatly refused to give it to me.

Let me repeat that.  Your Department of Homeland Security has a Press Office to handle media inquiries.  But its phone number is secret.  

That sort of makes it tough for the members of the press to direct press questions to the press office, doesn’t it?  But the office does have an email address, and as it turns out that is the only way to contact it unless you’re armed with inside contact info.  In fairness, beat reporters for national news organizations probably have developed contacts inside the office.  But reporters for local TV and radio stations across the country who don’t usually have to call Washington with immigration enforcement questions—but are having to do so now—not so much.

I’ve dealt with DHS many times before as a journalist, and was very well aware of its preference for ducking microphones and cameras and hiding behind written statements.  But during my last major go-round with the agency, I had no problem getting a spokesperson on the phone, on whom I could try my best verbal arguments.  The secret press office phone number takes that duck-the-media tactic to a whole new level.  Really, it’s a stroke of pure genius.  Now DHS doesn’t even have to say “no comment.”  Nor do any of its press officers have to waste precious bureaucratic time bickering with pesky reporters on the phone.  They can simply deflect any queries to the email inbox and be done with it, without so much as having to hear a reporter splutter in protest.


What was it President Obama promised us about how his administration would handle requests for information?  I looked it up:  “The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable.  And the way to make government accountable is to make it transparent.” 


But I digress.

For the moment withholding my natural journalistic tendency toward overtly expressed cynicism, on Tuesday I dutifully fired off a very polite email to the address I was given, in which I stated the nature of my inquiry and said I’d like to get someone on the phone for the purpose of exploring the possibility of arranging an interview for later in the week—the following day or the day after being ideal.  I got a quick response.  Here it is, verbatim:

“Hi Forrest-- We are unable to provide someone to go on air today.  Feel free to visit for FAQ’s.”

As I said, pure genius.  My email was short, but obviously the person receiving it had not taken time to read it.  She turned me down for an interview on a day I had not requested, pointed me to a web page that did not answer any of my questions, and then went on about her business.  It was a thing of beauty.  Amount of taxpayer-funded manhours invested in this brush off:  about 15 seconds.  30, max.  Never let it be said the Obama administration isn’t concerned about the efficient use of public resources.

The next morning I called the DHS Office of Public Affairs and went through the whole thing again.  A nice man confirmed that, yes, the press office number is secret, and that no, I can’t call anyone there directly.  He suggested a second email.  I pointed out that the last one had resulted in a quick blow-off, and asked whether he knew of any secret tips for producing a better response.  He suggested that I put some key phrases in bold print.

So, I did that.  I wrote a second, very polite email in which I bolded certain key phrases.  “I'm trying to get someone from the press office on the phone,” I wrote.  “I'm looking to chat with someone in person about the possibility of getting some questions answered about the current immigration crisis, and I'd also like to see if it would be possible to arrange an on-air interview with someone from your office.”  And so on.

This email got a quick response.  A press officer (the same one as before) now promised to call me.  When I had not heard from her after a couple of hours, I sent her a polite reminder.  And this succeeded in prying a phone number out of her.  (Eureka!)  When I called, she picked up the phone, but immediately told me that she could not talk because of some kind of deadline emergency she was facing.  I blurted out one quick question about who’s buying bus tickets for the immigrants, which she answered by saying that the government is not providing any of those.  This was new information that I had not seen reported elsewhere, and that was good.  I wanted more.  But she then stated hurriedly that the numbers I needed were already up on the Border Patrol website.  When I asked her for the address, she said she’d call me back in ten minutes, and then disconnected.  Thirty minutes later, I sent her another polite reminder by email.  In reply, she sent me a link to a web page I’d already seen, which did not answer my questions.  In another exchange of emails, she promised to have a Border Patrol spokesperson call me.  That was two days ago. 

It's worth repeating at this point that my immediate goal throughout this process was very simple and was clearly stated in my emails:  I just wanted to GET SOMEONE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE ON THE PHONE. 

But, other than the above-mentioned lightning-fast exchange, it was not to be.  I have called again, twice, and I’ve sent more follow-up emails, optimistically bolding different phrases this time.  If you think it might be easy for a government bureaucrat to simply ignore an email, you’re starting to grasp the situation.  None of the follow-up calls or emails succeeded in eliciting a response of any kind.  I’m now an unperson, apparently.  My feelings are really hurt, given that my tone throughout was nothing but polite and professional.  I had my figurative hat in my hands the whole time.

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious.  No one should have to hold hat in hand when approaching our government.  We have no king or queen.  The citizens of this country are supposed to be sovereign.  That’s the theory.  The reality, of course, is sometimes a bit different.  

The fact is, a government that keeps its citizens in the dark is hostile to those citizens.  The Obama administration wants us to trust that it’s handling this situation well and with the country’s best interests in mind.  But it doesn’t extend the same trust to us.  If it did, it would not hesitate to give us the information we need to make up our own minds.

It’s no coincidence that the first thing a tyrannical government does when it wants to establish a police state is to eliminate the free press.  I’m not saying that we’ve arrived at such a place.  Far from it.  But I am saying that if we do decide to go there, we won’t have to change direction.

That is why I strongly supported Pinal County Sheriff  Paul Babeu’s decision to release his information to the public this week.  Yes, it did result in a protest.  Yes, some people think protests are ugly, especially when they involve demands for immigration enforcement.  I think public demonstrations are an exercise in democracy.  That’s supposed to be a good thing.  

But right now, too many people think it’s not a good thing, that the spectacle of Americans expressing their feelings—especially if those feelings lean toward the right—is an embarrassment to right-thinking people everywhere.  To prevent that, strong forces are at work arguing for more of the secrecy we’ve already seen.  Note that Sheriff Babeu got creamed in certain quarters of the press for doing what he did to pierce the veil.  Outraged opponents now demand that he borrow a leaf from DHS’s book, and keep his mouth shut.  Such people seem to feel that nosy reporters, like mushrooms, are best cared for in the dark, and that what the people don’t know can’t hurt them.

I spent 33 years in TV news fighting the kind of secrecy we’re now seeing from the Obama administration.  So I will have to be forgiven if I think that officials who did what Sheriff Babeu did serve the public interest.  He may or may not have had a political agenda in doing so.  I say that if he did, so what?  Err on the side of openness.  Put the facts on the table.  Let the chips fall where they may.  The American people can handle the truth.

We should have zero—repeat, zero—tolerance for any public official, political party, or special interest that believes otherwise.


©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.


  1. Forrest, you have fought 33 years "fighting the kind of secrecy we're now seeing from the Obama administration," but I surely hope you aren't attributing this exclusively to the Obama administration. Transparency has been an issue since I first covered the Reagan administration. It has grown progressively worse with each succeeding Presidential administration and long ago passed the "intolerable" category.

  2. Brian, I'm just focusing on the problem in front of me. I don't claim that any one party is more likely to endorse such secrecy. But I do claim the Obama administration promised to be different. And it's definitely my impression that this problem has been getting worse and worse with the passage of time.