Nuclear Weapons

Is the Department of Homeland Security interested in serving the public or saving face?

08.28.06 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

We recently received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security asking us to change the graphics on our website because they believe we have infringed on their “intellectual property” because we used logos and graphics that were similar to those used on their site, which was, of course, part of the point. Today we announce that we have altered the graphics so that we can focus on the fact that the Department of Homeland Security’s emergency preparedness website is inadequate and sometimes misleading and that they should fix it and we have explained how and why.

We recently launched the website to provide clear and correct information to citizens interested in preparing themselves for emergencies and to demonstrate how easy it would be for the Department of Homeland Security to correct the many faults that have plagued their emergency preparedness website

The site has got lots of press coverage and a lot of direct feedback, all of it favorable. For example, we have had favorable pieces in the Washington Post and on ABC World News. Indeed, the only negative comments we have heard about our efforts came directly from DHS which has engaged in ad hominem attacks.

Their defense of their website is not that it is better than ours, but that it is based on the work of a bunch of experts. For example, in a feature on CNN’s Situation Room, was covered and the segment closed with a comment from DHS:

We reached out to the Department of Homeland Security, and they told us today that the FAS is, in their words, woefully uninformed. They say a Web site like this is counterproductive. They question putting an intern on a project of this magnitude. They say that their Web site is created by federal experts in the field of emergency management and preparedness. And they say that they get 1.9 billion visitors since the site was launched. It is updated almost daily.”[emphasis added]

We would be curious to know what part of our analysis of their website they think is “uninformed” and how it “counterproductive” to supply better, clearer information to the public. Overall, the DHS is strangely silent on the flaws in our website and about how theirs is better where the two differ. They also say that we should not have put an intern on a “project of this magnitude.” But the fact is, we did, and in 2 months she produced a website that was better than theirs. Finally, the claim that they update the information on their site “almost daily” is absolutely untrue. We checked.

DHS also sent a written press release to ABC News in which they state:

However well intended, the work done by the Federation of American Scientists, relegated to an intern, runs the risk of confusing rather than benefiting the public. The Ready Campaign welcomes feedback and constructive suggestions that assist us in getting behind the science of helping people get prepared and creating a lasting culture of preparedness across America.

Now we understand why they are so upset. The government is giving people bad advice and we are giving them good advice and this might confuse them.

Now they are making a legal claim that we are infringing on their “use marks,” which are sort of like trade marks. It seems they have filed to register things like the word “ready” (but only in grey, of course) with a green checkmark. Again, the letter cites the grave dangers of “confusing” the public. There is no empirical evidence of confusion. We think the public is smart enough to see that we go to great lengths on to critique the government site, cataloguing its shortcomings, and provide examples of how the information could be presented more clearly. The DHS is threatening to take us to court for correcting their mistakes.

An unbiased observer would be forgiven for at least suspecting that DHS is not really concerned about confusing the public, they are using these use mark demands as a way to stifle a site that is embarrassing to them. Rather than worry about what they should be worrying about, providing clear information to the public, they are worrying that they look bad. We could hope for more, but the DHS that we are dealing with turns out to be a bunch of petty cover-your-ass bureaucrats more concerned about embarrassment than doing their jobs.