Defense Media Network

‘If You See Something, Say Something’ Is Hometown Security

DHS’s campaign enlists citizens in preventing terrorist attacks

President Barack Obama has more than once voiced concern about the difficulty in anticipating a “lone wolf” terrorist – a concern he repeated after a right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, carried out two attacks in Norway in July 2011. Over the past year or so, the Department of Homeland Security has aggressively expanded the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign as an adjunct to the Department of Justice’s Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI), a federal, state, local, and tribal partnership that trains law enforcement officers to recognize behaviors and other indicators related to terrorism, crime, and other threats. NSI also standardizes how such indicators are reported and analyzed, and ensures the sharing of reports with the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) for further investigation. According to DHS, more than 180,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel have received NSI training.

The expansion of “If You See Something, Say Something” has focused on partnerships with owner/operators of infrastructure or venues where people congregate in numbers – air, rail, and other transit operators; professional sports leagues and teams; and even retailers like Wal-Mart and those at the Mall of America®, located in Bloomington, Minn.

In each partnership, the outreach is tailored to the setting. For example, DHS partnered with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA) beginning in November 2010 to educate hotel staff, and in November 2011 it was announced that a new partnership between DHS’ “If You See Something” campaign, AH&LA, and LodgeNet (a media company that provides in-room TV entertainment) would result in a 15-second PSA being aired on LodgeNet’s “Welcome Channel” in 1.6 million hotel rooms nationwide.


Betsy Markey, assistant secretary for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security, observes a television monitor aboard a Washington State Ferry in Seattle displaying the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, May 19, 2011. The campaign is a simple and effective program to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and violent crime and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper state and local law enforcement authorities. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan W. Bradshaw

The basic idea behind the campaign is summed up in another DHS tagline, often repeated by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: “Homeland security begins with hometown security.” Using thwarted attacks such as the Killeen plot and the Times Square car bombing as inspiration, every citizen, Napolitano has said, can play a role in fighting terrorism.


What the Critics Think

In the post-9/11 world, the idea that the public should be vigilant and report suspicious behavior is hardly controversial. However, DHS’s launch of a nationwide public campaign urging American citizens to keep an eye on each other and report behaviors has elicited some criticism, which appears to be roughly divided into two concerns: civil liberties and the capacities of law enforcement resources.

Though it has been voiced in few, if any, mainstream media outlets, the charge that “If You See Something, Say Something” is evidence of DHS’s role in establishing a police state, patrolled by a growing network of unpaid citizen-spies, has been leveled against the campaign. When the state of Florida formally adopted the campaign in August 2011, Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, charged that it would inevitably lead to profiling and spurious tips.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...