Friday, December 06, 2013
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Julia Horwitz just mentioned, Congress may be the only way to exert pressure on agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, to be less opaque. Here at OTM, we recently launched a “Shed a Light on DHS” tool, to help constituents connect with their representatives to push for more transparency. We created the tool after one of our own producers, Sarah Abdurrahman, was held with friends and family in a very cold room for six hours at a Canadian border crossing. Despite her efforts, and ours, over a long period of time, we never learned why. Here’s a clip from Sarah’s original piece.
ABDULLA DARRAT: It was freezing. I felt like I had goose bumps the whole time I was there.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: That’s Abdulla, my husband.
ABDULLA DARRAT: Everybody was like putting their arms in their shirt, and there’s points where my teeth were chattering.
JAMES LYLE: There's probably no form of border patrol abuse that’s better documented than that. People have reported being held in extreme cold, and they call it the icebox.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: James Lyle is an attorney at the ACLU of Arizona. He says, in addition to the icebox, people have reported physical and verbal abuse, as well as denial of food, water or medical care by Customs and Border Protection, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
JAMES LYLE: The accounts are so widespread and so consistent that it's very hard to see this as anything other than a systemic problem and not just a couple of bad apples here or there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Later, I spoke with former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who currently serves as a member of the US Homeland Security Advisory Council. He told me that because there are more than a hundred congressional committees and subcommittees tasked with overseeing DHS, very little actual oversight happens. He says that even if the bureaucracy is indifferent to violations of civil rights, voters can ensure that their legislators are not.
FORMER CONGRESSMAN LEE HAMILTON: There's always more political pressure in greater numbers, so you want to organize the people who are complaining. You want to contact as many members of Congress as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So at the end of October, in an effort to get some clarity from DHS, we launched the “Shed Light on DHS” tool which enables you, the listener, to be the journalist, connect with your congressional office and ask the tough questions we reporters can't get answered.
This week, we reached out to some of the listeners who’ve tried the tool, and they join me now. Philip Elmer-Dewitt, Alison Dalton Smith and Ehud Gavron, welcome to the show.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: Thank you.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: Glad to be here.
EHUD GAVRON: My pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let’s start with why you all decided to use the tool to contact your representatives. Philip, you're sitting right here with me. What got you interested?
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: Well, as a former journalist who used to work in an organization with hundreds of correspondents and, I mean, watch them kind of shrink, the idea of an app that would do crowd-sourced journalism was very appealing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ehud, explain why you did it.
EHUD GAVRON: I, I think that the tool is incredibly useful to allow a lot of people all over the country to deliver the exact same hard-hitting questions in the same words to their representatives all over, and over time the message will be delivered that we actually want answers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re a patient man, though. You don't expect this to happen very fast, do you, Ehud?
EHUD GAVRON: No, it’s gonna be a long and lengthy process. I don’t actually expect the people on the Committee to talk to each other for a long, [LAUGHS] long time either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, Alison, you were drawn to the Shed Light project because Sarah’s story sounded so familiar.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: It was almost exactly the same story of what had happened to my friend as he was coming back from a wedding in Montréal and he was detained at the border for six hours, and their passports were taken away, and then after six hours they were told they could go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your friends were put in the same cold room that Sarah’s friends and family were put in when they were detained at the border. They’re Muslim. Sarah wears a headscarf. We got some rather ignorant mail that suggested, you know, that was justification enough to detain them. Your friends who were stopped at the border were white. Your friend’s father was a firefighter who had actually died in 9/11.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: And it seemed like an anomaly, but then hearing Sarah’s story I said no, this is, this is some sort of policies being implemented and we’re not being given the answers. Instead of just feeling deflated and like, oh, here’s more civil liberties that are being taken away, here was a chance to take action. And it was easy, and it wasn’t intimidating. And I could just put in my phone number, and, and it was like before I even knew it, I was already participating and I was engaged.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was it a satisfying interaction?
ALISON DALTON SMITH: It was satisfying in the sense that I spoke with somebody who was an actual person who worked for a representative, but it was just phenomenally frustrating, asking the questions, because it was just stonewalling, like, well, there must be a reason these people are suspicious and, and just pushing back on me, that I didn’t even get to the meat of the questions that you guys had written –
ALISON DALTON SMITH: - ‘cause it was just like, nah, send a letter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we first launched the tool, it connected people directly to representatives who were on the two oversight committees that we decided were most relevant, and that was when you got stonewalled.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then we changed the tool because experience showed us that people weren't gonna get any kind of response, unless they called their own representative, so it would just hook you up with your own representative. And then what happened?
ALISON DALTON SMITH: And then I made a, a tiny bit of progress. I was connected to my representative in the Hudson Valley, Sean Patrick Maloney, and I was given the contact information of somebody in his office, Tom Mintz, who actually works on Border Patrol issues. And we have a phone call scheduled for tomorrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Philip, tell me what your experience was like.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: It wasn't what I thought it was gonna be. I thought I would get some intern who would take my message and pass it on to – in this case, it was Representative Peter King. Instead, I talked to this guy, Kevin Delury, who’s Peter King’s New Media guy. I said this producer for On the Media had been stopped and held for six hours and with no explanation. And he said, why should I believe this just because someone reported it?
And I kind of got my back up and I said, so are you calling the NPR producer a liar? And he said, oh, so you got your gotcha moment now, was a little hostile at that point. And I backed off and I said, no, no, it’s a journalistic experiment. We’re trying to elicit information, we’re trying to learn what the policy is. But basically, his answer was Sarah should call her representative, and that’s all there is to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ehud, you live in Arizona, which is a border state.
EHUD GAVRON: Not only are we a border state, but with a recent declaration by the Department of Homeland Security that they feel that the border extends up to a hundred miles from the actual physical demarcation of the countries, and having set up random checkpoints on various roadways that in no way actually reach the, the frontier, but yet, they still stop people and harass them and ask them questions, such as, are you an American citizen, can I search your vehicle. Their presence here in the state of Arizona is very, very highly disregarded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who did you reach when you used the tool, and what was the response?
EHUD GAVRON: I called Representative Ron Barber, his constituent services rep named Sean Goslar. I stuck to the script and tried to see how many of these questions that you guys came up with I could actually get answered. I didn’t get any of it answered, but I got some information on the first one, and the question was, DHS and its agencies have been unwilling to go on record with journalists, can we get the Congressman to request that these policies be made public? And then the answer that I got is, fortunately or unfortunately, the courts have given DHS a lot of power. So, of course, that’s not directly from the Congressman nor from any of the committees on DHS, but it does give us an idea that the thought in Washington is not to question what DHS does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
EHUD GAVRON: Then, as I persisted with the other two questions, I was, at that point, stonewalled with the famous, you’ll, you’ll need to send that in writing, to which I, I did send something in writing. And I’m still waitin’ for that response.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What prompted you to use the tool?
EHUD GAVRON: When individuals call, those messages don’t get directly to the representatives, but by using a tool such as this, if other people also use this tool then anybody in Mr. Barber’s district would call in with the exact same questions. And after a couple of days of fielding these kind of questions that are all the same, the message will get delivered to him.
And then, moreover, sooner or later, we’re gonna have a guy sitting in a committee and next to him on either side is gonna be another guy or another guy or a woman, all of whom who’ve received the exact same questions from their constituents. And they might begin to figure out that people really do want some sort of openness and transparency and access to journalists for the policies that are being used by our government to detain us.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: I, I just wanted to add that when I got off the phone with Kevin Delury, my heart was pounding. I was furious, I was enraged. And it’s my usual response to a bully. And I realized, [LAUGHS] in retrospect, that I was feeling sort of an echo of what poor Sarah must been going [LAUGHS] through, waiting for six hours. I mean, that's part of what the value of this exercise is, that other people get to sort of go through something like what Sarah went through –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: - and, and have the same sort of motivation to get to the bottom of it.
EHUD GAVRON: Well, you know, I want to add something to that. I, I’m officially a white guy, but I come from the Middle East and I have a strange name. I associate with people from foreign countries. I have no doubt that there will come a time when my family or I will also be subjected to the same sort of treatment that, that Sarah and her family suffered, and I would like to see that before that happens, these policies are addressed and removed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there advice you could give for listeners who haven’t used the tool and might consider doing so?
EHUD GAVRON: I would say it’s easy, it’s fun, it makes the conversation with Congress a lot easier because you have straight-up questions that somebody else has researched and put in front of you.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: The magic of it is you enter your phone number and suddenly your phone rings and your congressman is on the other line.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: I would say that it’s very empowering, and I would suggest that anyone who is thinking about it, just take the leap. It's easy and it’s quick, and you feel like you're part of something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any advice for us about maybe how to improve the tool?
EHUD GAVRON: I would say that your questions, they’re great questions, they’re deep. They paint the respondent into a corner from which he must either answer or duck.
And if the question was put in a, in a softer way or maybe if it was broken out into, you know, a lead-up question, which they start to answer and then a follow-up with the meat –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
EHUD GAVRON: - by which time they’re already engaged in, in actually providing information, that might be better.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: It does seem like everybody that was reached got their back up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We offer them no escape right out of the box.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: [LAUGHS] I think it might also be interesting to have some sort of map so that people can go on. And I also spent time living in Arizona, so if I knew like Ehud was doing it, that’d be like, oh wow, that’s so cool, and just to see that scope.
EHUD GAVRON: If the people participating could share their experiences and pass on tips, you'd start to get the rudiments of a community working for you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If we never get an answer, should we deem this experiment a failure?
ALISON DALTON SMITH: Absolutely not.
EHUD GAVRON: No, absolutely not.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: No, just keep doin’ it ‘til the end of time.
EHUD GAVRON: Well, one of the things that Phil said I think really touches on that and it also answers the question, how do we keep this thing going. The answer is provide a mechanism to put this on social medias.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the tool is embeddable on Facebook and Twitter. All you have to do is go to the tool and on the top right you'll see either a bird for Twitter or the Facebook insignia. You just click on that, and then you can transport it.
EHUD GAVRON: Okay, I do see those things. All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We are so grateful for your participation. Thank you so much.
ALISON DALTON SMITH: Oh, thank you.
EHUD GAVRON: Thank you.
PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former Time Magazine editor Philip Elmer- Dewitt currently blogs about Apple for Fortune. Allison Dalton Smith is a recent graduate of the New School International Affairs Masters program. And Ehud Gavron is the director of Legal Affairs for Login, Inc., a Tucson, Arizona data company. They all participated in our Shed Light on DHS project, and you can too! Just go to onthemedia.org, click on Shed Light on the Department of Homeland Security, and you will find our handy little tool, which can be easily shared on your Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the little icons on the top-right corner.
And, by the way, we’re taking our listeners’ advice and tweaking the questions. And the WNYC Data News Team is currently creating a map to show which districts have been called and which need a little more help.
And to help build that community Alison mentioned, we’d like to propose using the Twitter hashtag #shedlightdhs, where you can share stories, tips and feedback about the effort. It's a long road to transparency, but we think it's worth it, and we thank you all.