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'Homeland Security' Show An Incomplete Picture

By Ed O'Keefe

The Eye and Almost Mrs. Eye spent part of their Tuesday evening watching the debut episode of ABC's "Homeland Security USA" in spite of poor reviews and strong online criticism of the program.

While the show provides a unique and informative look at the work of homeland security employees, very little distinguishes it from similar reality programs about law enforcement or government programs like "Cops" or the Discovery Channel specials. The show also leaves several questions unanswered, and may suggest to viewers that some of the department's rank and file are too eager for action.

Last night's episode focused on the efforts of Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Ysidro, Calif. U.S.-Mexico border crossing and the Blaine, Wash. U.S.-Canada border post. It also profiled Transportation Security Administration officers at Los Angeles International Airport, BORSTAR officers patrolling near Tucson, Ariz. and the International Mail Center in Carson, Calif.

The show's producer Arnold Shapiro recently told the Hollywood Reporter that, “I love investigative journalism, but that’s not what we’re doing.” Indeed, one incident at the San Ysidro border crossing demonstrates the show's imbalance. CBP officers stop a vehicle allegedly carrying a man wanted on charges, leading to a case of mistaken identity, since the man in question has the same name and birth date of different individual.

“Why are you guys doing this? You always get my husband confused with someone else," the man's wife asks officers.

“We have to take every precaution that we can," an officer explains to viewers.

But how often does CBP mistakenly identify potential criminals? What happens to those families? What did the family in this situation think of how they were treated? No such answers were provided.

The show's audience might also conclude that the Blaine, Wash. border crossing seems staffed with officers eager for action.

Officers respond to a possible case of radiation. Cameras show officers leaping from their office desks and running out a door towards the car.

"It doesn't take much to make a dirty bomb," one officer suggests. But following a commercial break, viewers learn the car was merely driven by a person who had undergone medical treatment. Such incidents account for "99 percent" of radiation readings at border crossings, according to the show.

Later, officers discover a car carrying more than $700,000 worth of cocaine. In the process of finding the contraband however, a female officer tells cameras that the car is "hopefully" stocked with drugs, barely containing her excitement. Hopefully? Why hopefully? Because you hope you didn't mistakenly rip apart a car? Or because you want to take drugs off the street? Clarification might have helped.

One of the show’s best aspects is that it demonstrates how grossly misinformed some travelers are about security procedures, a common frustration among DHS employees.

Norah, a Swiss belly dancer, arrives in Los Angeles with no money or hotel reservation, claiming she's merely visiting. CBP officers eventually realize she's seeking employment as a dancer and send her back to Switzerland. At the U.S.-Mexico crossing, a young man does not understand why he cannot carry smoking pipes across the border.

“Do you want to get penalized, or do you want to abandon them?” an officer asks the teenager.

“If I get punished can I still take them?” he asks.

Shapiro promised a "heartening" look at DHS employees that "makes you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us." Such emotion was evident towards the end of the episode.

"When these people come through here, they're my responsibility," a TSA officer at Los Angeles International Airport says with tears in his eyes as passengers go through security checkpoints. "When my kids fly, they're my responsibility. I'm going to protect my own. Yeah, I get emotional." It was a powerful reminder that the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- which began at airports -- eventually led to the creation of Homeland Security.

Previews for upcoming episodes suggest viewers will see much of what they saw last evening: cars stuffed with drugs, illegal aliens attempting illegal border crossings, false alarms and excited officers in pursuit of potential problems. Is the show likely to draw large audiences every week? Television history suggests it could: "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted" have aired for more than 20 years, Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" specials scored huge audiences and "Wheel of Justice" segments on local television news programs draw loyal crowds. The Department of Homeland Security however would be wise to seek methods other than prime-time television entertainment programs to win the hearts, minds and trust of Americans.

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 7, 2009; 5:50 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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Comments

Haven't we been subject to enough pathetic "reality" shows yet?

Posted by: MacDad | January 7, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

DHS also includes FEMA. How about some examples of what FEMA employees do? They need some positive exposure.

Posted by: cbrubin | January 7, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I haven't seen any of the show or shows, but I am so sick n' tired of reality shows, it is pathetic. Most are filtered by the strong arm of the federal govt (behind closed doors). If I want reality shows with HLS, I'll attempt to fly from one airport to the next and witness it first hand. How those over weight and incompetent screeners treat their so-called customers. How going from one airport to another, and the rules change and the enforcement is either worse, or lax. How each and every passenger and customer feel like we are submitting ourselves to a Nazi-type cross-check. Show me your papers!

I am an American citizen since birth. I am no felon, nor am I a terrorist. I am a federal employee with a clearance most of those screeners wouldn't understand. They should be showing me THEIR papers! Quit making people remove thier shoes! That is dumb and believe me, there is technology to sniff out explosives and drugs! Quit the Nazi treatment.

Now if you want to hire pleasant, obedient, calm and trustworthy employees for screeners... please do continue; otherwsie, just stop all the screener b.s. We've had enof!

Posted by: darmar40 | January 7, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

This will be just like every other so called reality show. The DHS/TSA people will be lionized. Citizens will be treated at times well and at other times crudely/rudely.

This will go a long way in contributing to the bias we seem to love to have about the other guy.

Just ask an African-American if they beleive Cops, portrays them in a positive manner.....

Posted by: Thatsnuts | January 7, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Watched about 10 minutes, including the car tear apart and the TSA employee - same old stuff of all reality TV shows. YAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWN! BORRRRRRRRING! Never again - back to NCIS

Posted by: Govt | January 7, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse


In the post 9/11 world the US has become less reactionary to terrorism and attacks. No more just promising "to hunt down those responsible" the US actively seeks to interrupt their planning and funding.

We put up with inconveniences such as removing shoes in exchange for reduced attacks on American soil. I am frustrated when I am subjected to further screening. But when I see so many other countries have been hit by terrorists via bombs or gunmen, I realize that the reduced risk of attack comes with a small price in terms of inconvenience. Yes, we have individuals shooting up malls, but not coordinated attacks killing dozens like Mumbai had in 2008.

Regarding the writer's comment about unanswered questions about the show, I think he answered it himself, at least in terms of the woman hopeful to find drugs. So many times it is a mundane explanation such as a "same name, same birthday" or "just underwent medical treatment." It probably helps their spirits to realize that their work is meaningful and helpful, that they are keeping drugs and illegal aliens off of the streets.

The border patrol segment showed 6 men trying to cross the border in AZ. Initially I felt bad that the Border Patrol was spending so much time trying to track them. When they did stop them and were seen adorned with gang tattoos I was VERY glad the patrol went to such lengths.

At the end of the show, my wife said she felt safer knowing all these things that the country was doing to make us safer. I am glad the show is on as maybe people will be smarter travelers.

Posted by: ArlMalc | January 7, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

It is better than "Manhunters" which is a near comedy portraying US Marshals picking up some fairly marginal criminals.

Posted by: 206driver | January 7, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I canceled watching NCIS to check this program out. I enjoyed it thoroughly and will make it a regular view. Reality shows have never interested me, but the appalling invasion of illegal aliens and drugs has come to my neighborhood. It's good to see measures being taken to stop this even if they are not nearly as much as they should be.

Posted by: Estoban | January 7, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I actually work in DHS and was hoping the show would explore and educate the public on some of the more interesting and important things we do, instead it focuses on the low level cop stuff. It dumbs down DHS, but like the TV show "cops" this is probably more appealing to most viewers. On some level this is reality as we have people with badges and guns who get excited exercising their authority, sometimes uncontrained by common sense and their egos run rampant, but this is not the whole picture of DHS. There are many of us who are truly dedicated and believe in proving excellent customer service.

Posted by: Falcon4 | January 7, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

How about the U. S. Coast Guard? Many exciting rescues, drug busts, etc, happen every day providing plenty of real-life drama.

Posted by: a_l_delgado | January 7, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Falcon4, I think you may be missing the point. It is infotainment. To maintain an audience producers need to make the show interesting and compelling. I'm sure that you feel you have an important position within Homeland, but viewers don't really want to watch someone typing memos or drinking coffee. If you feel your role is compelling, maybe you can go to the show's fan site and submit your story. Roll the dice.

Posted by: Homer65 | January 7, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Reading through the writer's comments makes me wonder who some of these people really are? Some are very sincere while some show signs of eagerness and disgruntlement towards the safety of themselves and the public. I’ve been in the Security/Law Enforcement field for many years and have been exposed to many dangerous situations. Although reality TV like cops, dumb criminals, best police chases, etc can become annoying and over exposed, it shows how the life in the field really is. However I can vouch that some of which is shown on TV can be a little too overboard and hyped a bit for TV viewer purposes but in all reality that is what it is. You may not like it but it’s REAL. I hear from people all the time no matter the field they are in on how Law Enforcement employees whether local/county/state/ or federal are eager, controllable, and gun ho individuals. Well the truth of the matter is, is that employees in this industry need to be on their toes or the general public would run all over them. They need to be alert at all times and know of their surroundings. The most dangerous people in my experience come from those we least expect it. And although the employees in the Security/Law Enforcement field seem to act as if they are the law, their job is to enforce the law no matter what it is and they know that, even though it comes off as the other way around. I knew several people working in the towers on the 9/11 attack and thankfully they were all accounted for. But when our land is threatened it is our priority as Americans of all nationalities to come together and help our own to ensure our safety for the future. For those citizens that have a sour taste in their mouth about Homeland Security, maybe you need a reality check yourself and watch the news a little more from around the world that don’t have Homeland Security measures in place in their country. The check points at our borders and airports can be overwhelming but WAKE up people. What you think isn’t necessary, really is. And yeah the employees themselves have to go through the same steps as you when they travel themselves not just you. The fact of the matter is, is they can’t dig deep enough in my opinion. You may hate the procedures now, but when something goes down, who do you call for help?

Posted by: myinput | January 7, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see more Coast Guard stories too. I see news accounts of drug busts, heavy seas rescues, Cuban rafters rescues, and helicopter rescues all the time. The Guardian was a decent movie about rescue swimmers who jump out of perfectly good helicopters to save people. Maybe it can translate to TV.

Posted by: Homer65 | January 7, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Homeland Security is a baloney protection. Anyone who wants to sneak a bomb onto an airplane can easily do so. That has been tested time and again. The airport procudures have gaping holes in them. The endless "security" lines are a public relations stunt to show our government is protecting us, not a real protection at all. The show about Homeland Security is just more bunk public relations instead of real action to protect us from terrorism. The most important thing the U.S. could do to protect us, is to change U. S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians to treat both fairly to win a peace for land deal that helps both sides. bob baker

Posted by: rjbbaker | January 7, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Hasn't his country seen enough of "cop" shows? Where does this obsession with cops/authority figures come from anyway? Are we all stuck in some infantile cops/robbers mentality? Is there no other facet of our society worth reviewing? Are we being "conditioned" to accept an ever increasing role for police agencies within our society? We already have more policemen than any other country in the world for chrissakes! Enough already! Let Hollywierd get its jollies portraying something else for a while.

Posted by: Doubtom | January 7, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

So, once again we prove H.L. Mencken was right when he said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Nor, apparently, has anybody ever gone broke pandering to public prejudices.

Of course our federal officers, like our police and military, are fine men and women of courage and dedication. They naturally believe their work is essential to protect America, and the violence they do to Constitutional freedoms is an unfortunate necessity of evil times.

Their efforts probably have protected us from attacks by incompetent zealots and psychotic criminals. But protecting an open society from a determined and sophisticated enemy is impossible. TSA knows it. Al Qaeda knows it. And, in our hearts, we know it, too.

Airport officers can confiscate the 1¼” Swiss pocket knife or small bottle of perfume a passenger inadvertently leaves in a carry-on, but they never ask about the 7lb laptop with its 4lb battery he puts in the overhead. They can search every family vehicle that crosses our boarders, but hundreds of thousands of trucks and millions of shipping containers cross uninspected each year.

Their real mission is not to protect us. It is to give us the illusion of protection and to allow our political leadership to claim, "But, we did everything we could!"

Personally, I think the vaunted War on Terrorism has done more damage to our nation than bin Laden could with the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Posted by: JohnInTexas | January 7, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I loved the show! I'll be watching every week.

Posted by: mangono | January 7, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised by some of the negative comments. . .but shouldn't be. It's a TV show based largely on interruptions in the mundane, routine stuff DHS employees do for a living. Hours and hours of boredome interrupted by moments of "YES!! We got 'em" and the stark terror or indifference in desperate people doing stupid things.

Those who have fed on a steady diet of televised excitement and dramatic re-enactment interdiction of bad guys WILL find this show boring or, at the very least, contrived. So, it does a poor job pandering to TV addicts and action junkies.

But the reason I was initially surprised by some of the responses here is the complacency, dis-regard and seemingly total 'blow-off' attitude and aggravation toward the federal government's efforts to prevent another 9/11. It would be people of the same ilk, misery and irresponsibility who would once again say, "Why didn't the government do something to protect us?" or, "Why didn't DHS capture them before they contaminated the subways of New York?"

Sadly, 9/11 was a low point in a series of wake-up calls. In hindsight it, (or some other misery), was bound to happen at the hands of literally crazy people who love the American standard of living but hate Americans. But, "when" it happens again, there are those of us who will be able to say, "We tried our best to prevent it." That sentiment will never be good enough or of much comfort. . . .but we tried; as opposed to those looking for the immediate gratification of another action-packed evening in front of a wide screen TV. Many Americans (and Canadians) have gone soft-headed.

The battles at our US borders are the same battles we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan RIGHT NOW! And if the American people don't see the connection, respect efforts to keep the country safe and then do their part, we're screwed. The United States is. . . .at war.

I have no greater earthly respect right now than for the kids in Irag & Afghanistan! And, in my heart of hearts, I would be there with them if I could.


Posted by: whiskeyjack1 | January 7, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree completely with the comments of JohnInTexas and whiskeyjack1. Also, I rather enjoyed the program.

Posted by: garyncarol | January 7, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

If officers do not do their job everyone says "where are they". If officers do their job everyone says "poor me, leave me alone". Hey Americans! quit being spoiled brats and enjoy the freedoms that these officers are giving you. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the pollution.

Posted by: logdog39 | January 7, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

In 1985 i was 13 years old and traveling with family to europe. Then and only then i saw first hand how other countries were preparing for terrorist. What an eye opener. Wake up citizens of america the fight is here (9-11-01). As diverse of a nation we are, our obstacles are many and not easily accepted by all who enjoy the freedom in which it brings. Not a perfect solution rather one that works given the situation. After all the land of the free and home of the brave has an open door policy , welcome in or out. Justmike.

Posted by: justmjh | January 8, 2009 2:43 AM | Report abuse

I ACTUALLY THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD PROGRAM TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ON WHAT THESE GUYS HAVE TO CONTEND WITH. IT WAS VERY REALISTIC (IT WAS REALITY!). I DON'T THINK THEY WERE TRYING TO "WIN THE HEARTS AND MINDS" AS THIS WRITER PUTS IT, JUST MERELY SHOWING WHAT GOES ON. THESE GUYS LIKE THE BP ON THE BORDER PUT THEIR LIVES AT RISK 24 HRS. A DAY EVERYDAY! BUSH'S HENCHMEN LIKE JOHNNY SUTTON HAVE THEM THROWN IN PRISON FOR DOING THEIR JOB TO SCARE THE OTHER BP AGENTS. MAKES YOU WONDER WHY? DO THEY HAVE SOME SPECIAL SNEAKY AGREEMENT WITH MEXICO? I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE THOSE WONDERFUL MINUTEMEN WHO ARE THE EYES AND EARS FOR THE BORDER PATROL AND PUT THEIR LIVES ON THE LINE FOR THE PEOPLE OF THIS NATION, TOO. WHILE MEXICAN AND OTHER VIOLENT CRIMINALS SNEAK IN BY THE THOUSANDS EVERY DAY. WE NOW HAVE OVER 600,000 VIOLENT FELONS IN ALL OUR PRISONS WHO ARE ALL (YES, ALL) ILLEGAL ALIENS AND THERE ARE 38 MILLION TO 60 MILLION ILLEGALS IN THIS COUNTRY TAKING OUR JOBS, WELFARE, FOOD STAMPS AND ANYTHING ELSE THEY CAN GET AWAY WITH. MANY, MANY OF THE DRUG TRAFFICKERS ARE ILLEGALS, ALSO. THE MEDIA KEEP THAT AND MANY OTHER THINGS FROM US AS THEY ARE RUN BY 6 MAJOR CORPS. THAT WANT THE CHEAP LABOR HERE! ON OUR WAY TO THE ONE WORLD GOV'T THAT BUSH'S DADDY SAID HE WAS GOING TO MAKE.

Posted by: laura427 | January 8, 2009 3:14 AM | Report abuse

You have to remember this is "Made for TV" and the producer is responsible for anything that is portrayed incorrectly. Like the radiation alert in Blaine, Wa. The Producer combined an alert for a Armed and Dangerous and an alert for a radiation alarm just to make it look more dramatic.

Posted by: AMJim | January 11, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

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