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‘Homeland Security USA’: The Outtakes
Posted on Jan 9, 2009
By G.W. Schulz, Center for Investigative Reporting
Note: G.W. Schulz is working on a project at the Center for Investigative Reporting about homeland security in the United States, “America’s War Within,” which can be found here.
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 Coast Guard to Customs and Border Protection, an access that 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 premiere—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. There is nothing like the reports of border agents taking luxury cars as payment for secretly allowing illegal immigrants to cross into the United States. Not included either is any reference to the innumerable accounts from government overseers of dubious multimillion-dollar technology investments made by the department that were 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 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 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, contained in its ranks at least 18 people charged with felonies.
One air marshal was hired despite at the time being under FBI investigation for skimming drug profits while working as a sheriff’s deputy in Arkansas. Another allegedly sneaked cash and cocaine past airport security. Yet another allegedly tried to hire someone to murder his wife. Other marshals had 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 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 whether it had ever actually worked.
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