Public affairs officers in Southern Arizona and along the Southwest border received an unusual directive from a regional spokesman on Feb. 1.
"All," William Brooks addressed them, "We will no longer provide interviews, ride-alongs, visits etc. about the border, the state of the border and what have you.
"Should you get a request, inform the reporter that you will see what you can do and get back to them. Then send it to me."
If that sounds like an instruction for these agency spokesmen not to do their jobs, you shouldn't be surprised. The U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies of the Department of Homeland Security have worked steadily over recent years to centralize their image control and deflect scrutiny.
This has happened at the same time the Border Patrol has grown to become the largest law-enforcement agency in Southern Arizona by far, numbering 4,300 agents. The upshot: It's harder and harder for the public to know how this omnipresent force is using its taxpayer funding and its police authority.
A Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., later corrected Brooks' email (See box for complete statement). But it still represents what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's paid communicators have prioritized: image control, not information flow.
Consider the television show "Border Wars," launched by the National Geographic Channel during Napolitano's tenure in January 2010. The "COPS"-style reality-TV show features Customs and Border Protection officers in action, taking down smugglers and saving endangered border-crossers.
The deal DHS struck was that the show's producers get special access to agents while the agency gets review power over material to be aired. Image control.
Later in 2010, The Associated Press revealed that requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act were being reviewed by Napolitano's political appointees in addition to public-records officers.
AP reporters got internal emails that "point to acute political sensitivities that slowed the process, a probing curiosity about the people and organizations making the request for records, and considerable confusion," reporter Ted Bridis wrote. "Political staffers reviewed information requests submitted by reporters and other citizens as a way to anticipate troublesome scrutiny."
I ran into a similar suspicion of scrutiny among CBP officials late last year while researching shootings by Border Patrol agents for a story that ran Dec. 9. After having interview requests rejected by Napolitano, CBP head David Aguilar and Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, I dealt almost exclusively with Brooks, the regional public affairs officer who sent the Feb. 1 email.
In email exchanges over weeks, he said the Border Patrol's use-of-force policy is not publicly available - even though other police agencies post such policies on the Internet - and denied a request to know what discipline, if any, several agents had received as a result of specific shootings.
Revealing a misunderstanding of the difference between government employees and workers for private companies, he wrote in a Nov. 30 email to me, "I would expect your personnel records are private as well, no?"
Given all this, it wasn't surprising how the agency responded when I sent them the Feb. 1 email, which was passed on to me, and asked for an explanation. Brooks' emailed response was one sentence: "Who sent you a copy of the email?"
A CBP spokesperson in D.C. called and immediately asked to go off the record - that is, to speak to me without being quoted. I grudgingly agreed and later received an approved, written statement (see box) saying the Feb. 1 email was an incorrect carrying-out of instructions by an in-demand agency. But I suspect it reflects a broader problem.
I asked our local congressmen, Ron Barber and Raúl Grijalva, if they wanted to comment on the issue. Grijalva responded and pointed out what may be a key explanation.
"Sometimes I think the effort on the border happened so fast that the processes never caught up with it," he said. "If we're going to have a security effort of this magnitude, then there should be a corresponding attention to transparency and access."
"Should" isn't enough. In a democracy like ours, in a region where we encounter Homeland Security agents daily, transparency is a must.
BP's explanation about email
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Melanie Roe released this statement Thursday, when asked about an email telling the agency's spokespeople not to do interviews, ride-alongs or other press interactions about the border.
"Due to the recent national discussion on border security, CBP has received an increased volume of requests for ride-alongs and information on our operations along the Southwest border. The email sent to Public Affairs personnel on Friday was intended to ensure that we are responding to inquiries consistently and utilizing our resources to facilitate ride along requests in balance with operational needs and in an efficient manner.
"While the original email did not adequately convey that sentiment, CBP Public Affairs staff have since received that guidance. CBP remains committed to open and transparent engagement with the public and will continue to facilitate media requests for interviews and information about operations and programs while maintaining our focus on protecting our borders."
Contact columnist Tim Steller at 807-8427 or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter at @senyorreporter.