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See it, say it - then wait for Homeland Security officials to pick up the phone

(Istockphoto.com For Callers Who Want To Report Something Suspicious To Homeland Security Officials: Good Luck.)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 8:21 PM

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has launched a public awareness campaign to encourage Metro riders to be more vigilant. It's part of her department's "If you see something, say something" campaign. So "if you see something suspicious," she advises in a message airing on station speakers, "say something to local authorities to make it right." Report it to an employee or call Metro police at 202-962-2121.

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It may work fine in Metro, but these "see-say" campaigns can be tricky. Our colleague Jeff Stein, on his SpyTalk blog, recently wrote of a retired municipal judge in New Jersey who tried repeatedly to report an abandoned suitcase in historic Jackson Square in New Orleans.

The judge, a frequent visitor to that area, was at home watching a live video feed of the square when he spotted the suitcase at 9:30 a.m. After about an hour, no one had picked up the suitcase, so he called the New Orleans police and was shunted to "complaints," where no one answered after 15 or 20 rings, so he hung up.

He then called the main Homeland Security number in Washington, and after describing his concern, he told Stein, he was "transferred to another number that never picked up." Same thing happened when he called the FBI's New Orleans office about 10:30 a.m.

Finally, around 2:30 that afternoon, a New Orleans FBI official called back and apologized for the delay. By then someone apparently had picked up the suitcase.

It's like that scene in Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1," when one rebel leader boasts that he can "call spirits from the vasty deep." Big deal, a skeptic replies, anyone can call them. Question is, do they show up?

Apparently not always.

Haute diplomacy

Back in June, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Washington, President Obama took him to a getting-to-know-you lunch over cheeseburgers at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington.

But the suits at Foggy Bottom prefer higher, much higher, cuisine. So when a group of senior-level State Department officials wanted to grab some grub with their Chinese counterparts a couple of months ago, they opted for a somewhat more upscale environment: the world-class Inn at Little Washington in Rappahanock County, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains - where dinner for two, with a modest bottle of wine, can run you nearly $600, we're told.

The inn apparently was picked not for its exceptional food but as an "informal setting that created an environment conducive to a sustained discussion on key issues," department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in an e-mail. No negotiating, just a free-flowing roundtable on various topics.

The American group, led by Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, included the undersecretary for economic matters, Bob Hormats; arms-control special adviser Bob Einhorn; the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell; and the National Security Council's senior Asia director, Jeff Bader. The Chinese quintet was led by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, who handles the American portfolio for Beijing.

Crowley declined to say how much the meal cost. "We were able to negotiate a very reasonable arrangement for our meeting venue. Let's just say that if we have the same level of success negotiating with the Chinese on currency in the coming months, we'll be very happy," he wrote. (Campbell handled the negotiations with the inn. Even so, dinner had to run a couple grand, easy.)

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