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Decapitations, Public Relations and the Department of Homeland Security

I understand today is the last day for Sean Smith, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. He leaves under a bit of a cloud for having threatened to decapitate staff in the press and legislative affairs shops at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). So it makes me a little nervous to write this post; I don’t want to end up getting pistol-whipped with a stapler.

Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security has taken quite a few hits in recent months for putting overly political operatives into place at key positions throughout the department. Of course, every administration puts politicals in place. That’s why they’re called politicals. And they serve a valuable purpose.

The caricature of the political appointee is some young aide from the presidential campaign who has no experience whatsoever in the job into which he or she has been tossed. It’s a political payoff, the modern version of to the victor goes the spoils. That’s about as fair as the caricature of career employees being obstructionists, hostile to change, and ready to punch the timecard not a minute after 5:00 p.m.

Both caricatures are unfair. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of examples of each caricature to give them just enough credibility to stick. It doesn’t help that news has recently broken that politicals in the department inserted themselves in the FOIA process and tried to block access to certain documents based on political calculations. You have to wonder how these folks thought this effort would never come to light.

Everything comes to light when you work in the federal government. Every single email you send should be written with a mind toward the fact that it could land in the Washington Post. After Katrina, many appointees in the Bush Administration were deeply embarrassed after FOIA’ed emails were published in the media. Many good people got caught up in the embarrassment – not for having necessarily done anything wrong or covered up anything but simply for a lack of discretion in their emails. Bad jokes. Dumb speculation. Or just poorly worded communications – which, when published, tend to be manipulated by the media for maximum colorful effect. People commenting on what the head of FEMA should be wearing, for example, came to light, making them look like shallow spindoctors who were more concerned about appearances than making things right. It’s easy for a reporter to make these folks look stupid or shallow, despite the fact that every press shop in the world thinks about such things. You can indeed worry about appearances while at the same time worry about making things right. Bill Clinton was a master of it; George Bush less so.

Then there are emails that really can’t be taken out of context or manipulated for effect. The recent news of Smith threatening employees at ICE is just bizarre. For somebody who should indeed be concerned about appearances, and somebody who should be the first to know that government emails can end up in the media and cause public relations disasters, Smith’s hostile and threatening email showcase the mind of a political operative rather than a professional communications strategist. And, yet, for somebody who’s been on the campaign trail, and all the pressures that attend it, the email shows a lack of control when things go south – not a quality you want in the high-pressure job of serving as the chief communications strategist for one of the most high-profile departments in the federal government. Perhaps it is telling that White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, in response to Smith’s departure, praised the press aide as much for his work on Barak Obama’s campaign has he did for his tenure at DHS.

So what did Smith say exactly? Concerned that ICE’s press secretary Kelly Nantel was leaking information to the media, or perhaps that somebody in her shop was, Smith let loose with an email threatening to cut off her head. Seriously, he wrote that. “I swear to f*cking god I am going to come over to ICE and f*cking decapitate every single person in both the press shop and leg[islative] shop,” Smtih wrote to Nantel.

Rahm Emanuel would be proud. If Smith has any difficulty finding a job, he should consider heading to Chicago, where f-bombs and threats are like tea and crumpets.

It is a shame that Nantel was the target of Smith’s outburst. She is a solid professional who served ICE well as a career professional, who recently left ICE for another job at the National Transportation Safety Board. I don’t know if her leaving was in any way prompted by the decapitation incident, but ICE has lost a good communicator. I hope she fares well in her new position. And that nobody cuts off her head while she’s there.

Word is that Brent Colburn, FEMA’s chief of external affairs, is in line to replace Smith. His experience in crisis communications – both at FEMA as well as prior work at Burson Marsteller, a well-regarded public relations agency– suggest he would be a good fit for the high-pressure role. Certainly he is part of the team that has helped repair FEMA’s image post-Katrina. And, yes, Colburn would bring a campaign background with him. However, I believe that this is a good thing. DHS is a popular target, and will always be a target, of critics from every sector – including that mess of 180-plus committees on Capitol Hill. The quick and adaptive thinking that a campaign can instill in a good communicator is a huge benefit, provided that an overly political mindset does not dominate. In the end, the job is about public service, and I am hopeful that Colburn, should he get the job, will return that balance to the role.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More
  • Al

    Having retired after 3+ decades with the G & being nothing but a worker bee I find amusing. Those at that level dole out abuse as they see fit those that accept want to get to the abusers level!