The inaugural episode of ABC’s newest reality television series did exactly as producer Arnold Shapiro told viewers it would: unabashedly celebrated the Department of Homeland Security. It also failed in every conceivable way to critically examine the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II.
“Homeland Security USA” is the latest iteration of reality TV that like the show “Cops” romanticizes actual working police catching bad guys, except that now the cops aren’t just snagging small-time drunks and corner crack dealers. They’re federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security with far greater power using the latest technology to keep America safe from terrorists and stop international organized criminals from trafficking massive quantities of narcotics into the United States.
Shapiro received full access with his camera teams to nearly every agency folded into the Department of Homeland Security when it was created in 2003, from the United States Coast Guard to Customs and Border Protection, an accomplishment no investigative journalist ever could attain.
But he made a deal with the devil in exchange that would cause any journalism ethics professor to blush in embarrassment. Shapiro agreed to grant the department “pre-screening” rights over the series, according to the New York Times.
Missing, then, from the Jan. 6 premier—and presumably from future episodes—are allegations like those unearthed by journalists and other watchdogs that some federal air marshals, for example, have accepted bribes, trafficked cocaine themselves, and even sought to have a woman killed in one stupefying instance. Gone are reports of border agents taking luxury cars as payment in exchange for secretly allowing illegal immigrants to cross into the United States. Not included either are the innumerable accounts from government overseers of dubious multimillion-dollar technology investments made by the department that are later abandoned after being deemed worthless.
Law-enforcement bureaucrats featured in “Homeland Security USA” instead are cast as motivated not by the reliability of a government paycheck and an otherwise limitless federal budget with which to purchase new toys that frequently fail but by a simple desire to protect American families from the world’s ghastly horrors.
“I love investigative journalism, but that’s not what we’re doing,” Shapiro told the Hollywood Reporter in May. “This show is heartening. It makes you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us.”
By no means do the American people begrudge law-enforcement officials for doing their jobs. Quite the opposite. They want police heroes to maintain the highest professional standards possible and for serious lawbreakers to be placed behind bars.
So it’s indeed disheartening to realize that what some of the best news stories published and aired in recent years showed was the many ways in which the Department of Homeland Security has actually failed to protect America’s borders and keep dangerous criminals off of jet airliners, disconcerting truths that clash spectacularly with Shapiro’s own take on reality, which ABC officials say will span 13 episodes.
For instance, a partnership between the journalism nonprofit ProPublica and USA Today published in November revealed that the Air Marshal Service, dramatically expanded after 9/11 and a significant defense against an air-based terrorist attack, contained in its ranks at least 18 people charged with felonies.
One air marshal was hired despite at the time being under an FBI investigation for skimming drug profits while working as a sheriff’s deputy in Arkansas. Another allegedly snuck cash and cocaine past airport security. Yet another allegedly tried to hire someone to murder his wife. Additional marshals had already been fired from past law-enforcement positions for misconduct but were hired by the Department of Homeland Security anyway.
According to the story:
“Since 9/11, air marshals have taken bribes, committed bank fraud, hired an escort while on layover and doctored hotel receipts to pad expenses, records show. They’ve been found sleeping on planes and lost the travel documents of U.S. diplomats while on a whiskey-tasting trip in Scotland.”
The show’s first episode, titled “This is Your Car on Drugs,” focuses on the exploits of Customs and Border Protection. In one segment, a young woman arrives from Switzerland at the Los Angeles International Airport “with no working papers but a suitcase full of titillating surprises!” ABC described it in advanced press copy sent out before the show aired. She had revealing apparel in her suitcase, we learned during the Jan. 6 airing.
Meanwhile, the department’s Inspector General discovered something else at LAX in October. Computer systems there managed by homeland security officials are susceptible to a cyber attack because they’re poorly guarded, according to a report. One data system maintained by the Transportation Security Administration allowed anonymous access, which meant a hacker could log on without proper credentials. In another incident, customs authorities installed high-speed wireless Internet access at the airport for their use, but it was hampered by technical problems and no one could say after a full year if it had ever actually worked.
The report pointed to a 2007 mishap when customs officials suffered a major network outage at LAX that halted operations for hours and disrupted the travel plans of thousands who were stranded on the airport’s tarmac and elsewhere. An aging IT infrastructure apparently exacerbated the problem.
In another segment of the show, border patrol officials inspect vehicles at the southwest border and execute a drug bust while cameras are rolling. Multiple large packages of marijuana spill out of the spare tire and gas tank of the car as border agents grin broadly nearby. Later at Washington state’s border with Canada, 77 pounds of cocaine are found stuffed inside baby diapers after Shapiro’s protagonists grow suspicious of a Ford Explorer.
“The money that funds narcotics also funds terrorism, and the more of that we can stop, the better,” one agent tells America following the catch.
But when reporters Lowell Bergman and Andrew Becker teamed up for a project with Frontline/World and the New York Times last May, they found that there were roughly 200 open corruption investigations at three major homeland security components with border responsibilities: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The journalists (one a Center for Investigative Reporting co-founder and the other currently a staff reporter) profiled nine customs officers and border agents who’d been arrested between 2005 and 2008. Two of them, brothers named Raul and Fidel Villareal, disappeared for several months while under investigation before being captured in Tijuana last October and charged with smuggling Mexicans and Brazilians into the United States, using a government-issued vehicle to transport illegals to San Diego and laundering money.
Another man, Michael Gilliland, admitted receiving between $70,000 and $120,000 in bribes to wave cars piloted by smugglers through his inspection lane unmolested. A former marine who joined the Department of Homeland Security is believed to have made as much as $80,000 in such bribes. Others sprung detainees from ICE detention facilities.
One FBI agent told Becker and Bergman:
“There’s more pressure on the other side of the border from the smuggling organizations to elicit the help of a corrupt border official. The pool of individuals who are susceptible to corruption has grown.”
Becker then reported for the Times in November that police arrested a veteran customs inspector in Del Rio, Texas, for allegedly helping to smuggle 3,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States over a period of five years. Media outlets in Texas all-but-missed the story because the press release announcing his indictment sent out by the regional U.S. Attorney’s Office neglected to mention the man was an employee of the Department of Homeland Security. But a standard note at the bottom disclosing that the department’s Inspector General was involved in the probe provided a crucial tip. The customs officer also is accused of accepting $30,000 to falsify a passport application on someone else’s behalf.
As producer Shapiro resides in an editing room melding together rapid-fire segments of brilliant television that portrays law-enforcement technology as infallible and witless criminals and terrorists as sure-to-be-caught, others have filed Freedom of Information Act requests, studied little-noticed congressional reports and interviewed disenchanted whistleblowers to show that while the multibillion-dollar Department of Homeland Security does protect America from the world’s dark side, it also persists as a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars and a revolving door for government executives who turn their civil-service jaunts into lucrative private-sector careers.
U.S. News & World Report in 2005 described the seamless transition for top homeland security officials to corporate positions. Just before Tom Ridge took over as head of the new agency, two of his top aides joined a lobbying firm that represents major homeland security contractors including Boeing and BearingPoint. At least six others with big titles at the department, including Ridge himself who eventually joined the board of a firm developing security technology, made similar moves.
We likely won’t learn it from “Homeland Security USA,” but the department is continually battered by corruption, including reports in 2007 that former FEMA officials charged the federal government double what their private consulting firms paid for subcontracted employees during the Katrina clean-up, rates they insisted were “industry standard.”
In fact, the first episode didn’t touch the department’s heavy reliance on private contractors, which made up a whole 40 percent of its activities last year.
Then there are the department’s widespread problems with mismanagement. In one extraordinarily ironic case, homeland security officials had to completely scrap a $52 million computer system that was supposed to better enable it to manage an annual budget of approximately $50 billion. The department had originally intended to spend $229 million creating the failed eMerge2 program. There was “little to show for it” despite the amount already poured into the system, according to one Government Accountability Office report.
Like the once wildly popular reality show “Cops,” Shapiro threatens to create the false impression that police are not vulnerable to corruption or breaking the law to enforce it and that the law-enforcement lobby in the United States always acts in the best interests of the American people and their taxpayer dollars.
It would be equally false to assume that investigative journalism, which asks tough questions of the department, is intended to disrespect those who work in law enforcement or to be sympathetic of criminals who illegally move dangerous weapons in and out of the country, engage in human trafficking of sex victims or further destroy America’s inner cities with powerfully addictive drugs.
The New York Times called “Homeland Security USA” a “recruitment video” and the Washington Post piled on dismissing it as “a sorry excuse for a television show.”
Either way, the television medium won’t be used this time to share with the public a reality of the department’s many colossal mistakes and stumbles since its establishment. So details of them remain tucked away in mile-high stacks of reports from the GAO and Inspector General awaiting exposure by the more curious among us.
Turns out we weren’t the only ones critical of ABC’s newest reality television show, “Homeland Security USA.” Unenthusiastic reviews circulated swiftly on the Web last week amid the show’s Jan. 6 premier (see more reviews here, here, and here).
As it happens, however, the toughest crowd the real Homeland Security USA has to win over might not be television critics who have never worked as law-enforcement officers but rather the department’s own 218,000-plus employees, portrayed in the show by producer Arnold Shapiro as action figures unwavering in their commitment to the war on terror.
On Jan. 8, just two days after the inaugural episode of the show, the Office of Personnel Management released the 2008 Human Capital Survey, which examines the level of job satisfaction among federal employees. As far as staff morale is concerned, the results didn’t bode well for the Department of Homeland Security.
The DHS employees described by Shapiro in an Associated Press interview as “average men and women on the front lines protecting our country from various things illegal and dangerous,” apparently have greater-than-average negative feelings about department higher-ups and each other.
The survey invites federal employees to rate their work and workplace by agreeing or disagreeing with such statements as “I have trust and confidence in my supervisor,” “My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills,” and “Creativity and innovation are rewarded.”
The Department of Homeland Security outpaced a long list of others in generating negative responses from its nearly 10,000 responding employees. It had one of the highest numbers of respondents who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.” Ditto for the statement, “I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.”
Questions regarding the outlook DHS employees had on their agency supervisors also elicited a comparatively higher number of negative responses, including those asking whether senior leaders seemed to exhibit honesty and integrity and whether personnel felt safe blowing the whistle on corruption or law-breaking without fear of reprisal. That’s not surprising considering multiple recent stories in the media about corrupt department employees being charged with crimes related to their work.
The department also faired poorly when employees were asked simply “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?”
A number of employees didn’t believe there were enough opportunities for advancement in the department. More than 45 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” Nor did they believe agency supervisors did enough to support their need to balance work and family issues (only the Department of Transportation received more negative responses in this area).
When DHS conducted its own internal survey of homeland security employees in 2007, much of the same bad news surfaced. Only a fraction of respondents believed pay raises were based on how well they performed their jobs, 41 percent didn’t think creativity and innovation were rewarded and 53 percent said a high rate of staff turnover made it difficult to get the job done.
Problems with the department’s revolving door continue to be publicized. A project newly unveiled Jan. 7 from the Center for Public Integrity, “Broken Government,” noted that top homeland security officials left their jobs at a rate of 14.5 and 12.8 percent, respectively, in 2005 and 2006. That figure is double the average for similar positions at other cabinet-level departments. Senior staffers frequently use their experience to pull down bigger salaries working in the private sector, as U.S. News &World Report found in 2005.
Further, more than 45 percent of the internal-survey respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.”
Department managers were quick to cast some of the internal-survey results as positive in public statements. An overwhelming majority of employees said the work they do is important and that they cooperate well with one another to complete tasks – a plus considering turf wars that otherwise poison much of the potential for information-sharing and teamwork in the federal law-enforcement bureaucracy. The department’s same internal survey conducted the following year resulted overall in only 50 percent “favorable” responses, more or less equivalent to 2007.
Grumbling among homeland security personnel is considered to be an ongoing challenge for the federal government’s newest bureaucracy, as it conceded in an annual report to the public released this month. (Detailed results from the latest internal DHS survey aren’t available online just yet.)
An acute staff shortage in some areas had already caused headaches for DHS. Private contractors handle 40 percent of its workload, but the department can’t hire enough federal employees to police the contracts and make sure taxpayers get their money’s worth. Many of the contracts, as a result, are disastrously executed.
A deputy from the watchdog Inspector General’s Office told Congress in September that DHS has hardly half the bare minimum of personnel it needs to properly oversee the contracts, and a significant portion of the people who are there will be eligible for retirement in the next few years. A recent end-of-the-year report from the inspector general found only modest progress has been made in closing the gap since DHS was created in 2003 by absorbing and consolidating a number of federal law-enforcement agencies.
According to the deputy’s testimony:
“Until a fully trained acquisition workforce is developed, it will be difficult to achieve further progress needed for an efficient, effective, and accountable acquisition function.”
It’s doubtful that any inkling of poor employee morale or other negative news such as tales of corruption and mismanagement that have plagued the department since its establishment will ever been seen in ABC’s latest experiment with reality television, “Homeland Security USA.” Producer Shapiro obtained unprecedented access with his cameras to major agencies within the department, but he also reportedly allowed officials to “pre-screen” the show’s run of 13 episodes.
As for the initial reviews last week, some merely laughed off the show’s premise while others were more serious in faulting Shapiro for agreeing to present the department only in a positive light.
In mocking honor of the show’s debut, Hollywood blog Defamer used the department’s overly simplistic, color-coded terror alerts to rate the likelihood viewers would turn to the season premiers of other shows on television instead. “Homeland Security USA” received a “green” or “low” probability that viewers would be interested, falling behind “The Biggest Loser,” “Scrubs,” “Gray Matters” and “Nip/Tuck.” As Defamer put it:
“Yes, we support the troops and pay our taxes, but if this spins off into a show about the real-life workings of the Department of Health and Human Services, we are moving to Edmonton.”
(Sister blog Gawker belittled a TSA employee who approached tears on camera during the first episode as he vowed to “protect my public.”)
The Boston Herald offered a slightly more unique perspective wondering aloud if it’s a good idea to let “millions know the techniques agents use to identify and apprehend suspects.”
Reuters called it mundane and speculated that since some aspects of the department’s activities are by their very nature repetitive – e.g. searching cars and emptying suitcases – the fast-paced camera work and red-alert soundtrack wouldn’t be enough to sustain interest.
Perhaps some stories about border guards aiding Mexican drug runners or accepting bribes would boost the show’s ratings.
Episode two of ABC’s newest experiment with reality television, “Homeland Security USA,” deploys action-packed sequences to take viewers inside the frontlines of a leading post-9/11 initiative for the Bush Administration: the final deportation of illegal immigrants.
Behind the scenes, however, further troubling incidents occurred recently amid the department’s own law-enforcement ranks that join a long list of misconduct allegations unlikely to make it into the final edits of the show where the only criminals are foreign smugglers and immigrants.
On Jan. 9, prosecutors accused 44-year-old Michael Clifford, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer from Massachusetts, of having sex with an 11-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro while there on official duty for the Department of Homeland Security. Clifford propositioned the girl outside of a cafe late at night, took her back to his hotel and snapped photographs of the two engaged in sexual acts, according to the allegations. Investigators say security camera footage from the hotel showed Clifford entering with the child and then sending her away in the morning. He is currently in detention.
Then, the day before Clifford was arrested, a federal judge in an unrelated case sentenced former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Juan Sanchez of Arizona to 15 years in prison after he pled guilty to drug, bribery and worker’s compensation fraud charges. Prosecutors say he smuggled thousands of pounds of marijuana in his work vehicle over a period of two years into the United States. He also received a total of $45,000 in bribes, according to the charges, and continued to illegally collect worker’s compensation benefits after recovering from an on-duty vehicle accident without notifying officials that his condition had improved.
Prosecutors imply in court records that they believe the accident was in fact staged. It occurred after he was made aware of the evidence against him but before accusations were officially lodged. Sanchez was alone at the time and crashed into a guardrail. Photos of the vehicle (shown at right) contained in court records show minimal damage to the front bumper.
He nonetheless claimed that the accident caused him to suffer “complete retrograde amnesia” in which he forgot everything about his life, including the allegations that he’d partnered with a smuggler from Sonora, Mexico, to transport multiple payloads of narcotics into Arizona, as many as three dozen bundles at a time. So how could a man with no memory accept a deal and admit he committed a crime?
According to a plea memorandum:
“Sanchez proposes establishing a factual basis to the charges by stating that he has reviewed the videotape of himself transporting drugs in his U.S. Border Patrol vehicle, and has reviewed all the photographs and reports (including his confession) associated with the drug and bribery charges and although they do not refresh his recollection, they have convinced him that he is guilty of those offenses.”
Sanchez received monthly worker’s comp checks of between $3,800 and $4,000 for approximately three years literally until the day of his agreement, all while a cloud of suspicion hung over him. As part of the plea, though, he’ll have to pay $48,000 in restitution to the Department of Labor, according to court records.
None of these new details of real-life corruption at the department are expected to make appearances on “Homeland Security USA.” Instead, while the cameras roll during one scene of episode two, ICE agents from a deportation unit coincidentally based in Massachusetts and driving unmarked cars descend on an unsuspecting contractor as he is exiting his driveway. Officials say the man has overstayed his welcome as an illegal immigrant in the United States by about 13 years, and after placing him in cuffs, they tell “Danny,” as the narrator calls him, that he’ll be heading for detention.
He cries into the camera exclaiming that he has sole custody of his children and one of them is suffering from autism. He can’t leave them now, Danny wails. The officers try their best to soothe him before he’s transported to a holding cell, and from there, presumably, out of the country to a destination not revealed for viewers.
“He committed a crime. He violated the immigration laws of the United States,” an ICE supervisor later declares into the camera. “At that point, he became a fugitive. The bottom line is, there will be folks from this agency out looking for you.”
Spending by the Department of Homeland Security on detention and removal operations carried out by ICE officials ballooned from $1.6 billion in 2005 to more than $3.1 billion budgeted for this year. The workforce responsible for such efforts doubled during that period to 8,360 federal employees. The department set a goal of removing 342,200 people from the country this year and charging a quarter-of-a-million of them with violating immigration laws.
Some once-ailing private jail operators like the Corrections Corporation of America who are these days cashing in on new federal contracts also appear pleased with the Bush White House’s decision to detain immigrants behind bars for months as they await hearings for possible deportation rather than releasing some of them on bail before their court dates arrive, as immigration authorities once did. It’s not clear whether the new Obama administration will enforce that policy.
“Homeland Security USA” has been a public relations coup of sorts for the department, presenting its activities like final deportation strictly in glowing terms and without criticism. But the federal government’s newest bureaucracy battles with its own demons frequently enough these days that the department manages to ruin any improvements made of its image from the gracious help of a prime-time TV slot and weekly access to millions of Americans.
In yet another recent separate case, three employees at an ICE facility housing immigrant detainees pled guilty Jan. 6 to stealing prescription painkillers and other drugs intended for inmates and distributing the medication among themselves and co-workers. Court documents show that two of the defendants, Lisa Schwab and Richard Lawson, were pharmacists at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in New York, while the third, Leonard Iannello, was a private guard working for Asset Protection & Security Services, a frequent ICE contractor.
Schwab confessed to a special agent from the Inspector General’s Office that she gave the barbiturate Fioricet to a colleague “almost daily” for two or three years and handed muscle relaxers off to a second, among other things. She alleges that her co-defendant, Lawson, took a “large quantity” of expired psychotropic and pain medications home so they would avoid the notice of inspectors from an accrediting commission. Old pharmaceutical drugs are supposed to be returned to the distributor so the federal government can receive a refund. Schwab also claims that Lawson took a bottle of liquid vitamin K and several needles “to treat his pet dog for an exposure to rat poison,” she wrote in a sworn statement.
The episodes of “Homeland Security USA” that have aired so far are available for free on ABC’s Web site.
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on drug interdiction in 2005: $1 billion
• Amount budgeted for drug interdiction in 2009: $1.4 billion
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on migrant interdiction in 2005: $549 million
• Amount budgeted for migrant interdiction in 2009: $568 million
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on reducing maritime fatalities and injuries in 2005: $613 million
• Amount budgeted for reducing maritime fatalities and injuries in 2009: $778 million
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on search and rescue efforts in 2005: $911 million
• Amount budgeted for search and rescue operations in 2009: $1.1 billion
• Cap at which the U.S. Coast Guard promised to limit the five-year average number of commercial deaths and injuries on oceans and waterways under American jurisdiction in 2008: less than or equal to 225
• Actual five-year average number of commercial deaths and injuries: 244
• Percent of mariners facing imminent danger in 2008 that the U.S. Coast Guard promised to save: 87
• Percent of mariners actually saved: 83.6
• Cap at which the U.S. Coast Guard promised to keep the number of collisions and groundings in oceans and waterways under American jurisdiction during 2008: less than or equal to 1,756
• Actual number of collisions and groundings: 1,857
*The U.S. Coast Guard was folded into the Department of Homeland Security upon its creation in 2003. G.W. Schulz