A Bush political appointee in the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection bureau drafted and distributed a public relations strategy designed to "change perception" about the nation's security by repeating the message, in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, that America is safer, according to internal government documents.
The "90-day Strategy" lays out a detailed media plan to "push information out," "maximize" the media and "brand" the border protection agency as a model of counterterrorism operations.
"Reassure the citizens of the United States," says the strategy, which was presented five weeks ago to public affairs officials for Customs and Border Protection regional offices around the country. "Repeat the message. . . . Repeat until we are completely exhausted by it."
This week, the chief public affairs officer for the border protection agency disavowed the 90-day strategy document and said it was never approved or implemented by senior officials. Dennis Murphy said it should never have been distributed and does not represent the department's approach to public affairs.
"Our job is not public relations," Murphy said. "It's to communicate facts."
James M. Loy, deputy secretary of homeland security, dismissed the document as an unfinished draft and a "piece likely produced by well-meaning, enterprising public affairs folks." A copy of the three-page strategy obtained by The Washington Post is not labeled as a draft.
Loy and Murphy said they were unaware of any details about the document. They said they did not know that it existed or had been distributed to field officers until reporters contacted them this week.
The two officials said that politics played no role in writing the document, and that senior homeland security and White House officials knew nothing about it. Other documents from the same public affairs office take note of the campaign season by listing the dates of the presidential debates alongside radio interviews and media appearances by high-ranking Homeland Security officials.
Murphy said the debates were listed for planning purposes.
"If there's an announcement that you need to communicate and the public needs to know about, you need to know when the debates are," he said. "If you're going to make an announcement, you're not going to make it on that day."
Although Loy and Murphy said they disagree with the strategy's emphasis on repeating positive messages, they said the document is essentially accurate.
"We are absolutely safer as a nation today than we were on the occasion of 9/10/01," Loy said.
Murphy said the strategy was written by Kristi M. Clemens, assistant commissioner in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's office of public affairs. She came to the border protection agency, known as CBP, in August after working as a spokeswoman for L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the former Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Clemens also served as a spokeswoman for the Federal Transit Administration and liaison between the Small Business Administration and White House personnel.
"I developed a draft communications plan intended to spur debate on how we could effectively communicate some of our recent border security improvements and more efficiently structure CBP public affairs' activities which are spread out across the country," Clemens said in a statement. "The draft plan was an internal CBP product that was never shared outside of my staff nor executed."
The 90-day strategy surfaces at a time when the effectiveness of homeland security has become a key issue in the presidential campaign.
The Bush administration and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have been warning that the nation can expect another terrorist attack, but homeland security officials have also trumpeted as successes a series of initiatives designed to make America safer.
Officials have emphasized improvements in several areas, among them border security, the inspection of cargo containers brought in from overseas and the screening of visitors to the United States.
On Aug. 31, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar declared at a news conference in Laredo, Tex., that his agents are securing the Southwest's border against illegal immigrants. "Even if they get past the border, they're going to be caught up in that net of enforcement," he told the Associated Press.
In September, Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the U.S. Marine Security Conference and Expo: "We assess the risk of every ocean-going container headed for the U.S." Six months earlier, he told Congress, "We're inspecting all high-risk containers for terrorist weapons."
Last month, C. Stewart Verdery Jr., assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee that "enforcement capabilities are growing by leaps and bounds" with help from US-VISIT, a new program. It is aimed at using computer technology to identify and track the entry and exit of every traveler to the United States.
On Oct. 7, a border protection agency fact sheet stated: "Following 9/11, under the leadership of President Bush, we developed and implemented a smart cargo container security strategy to identify, target and inspect cargo containers before they reach U.S. ports."
But government audits and investigations have detailed numerous shortcomings and continuing problems in those initiatives. Some security analysts say homeland security has improved but officials sometimes overstate the advances.
"We're getting security through rhetoric," said Stephen E. Flynn, a former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard whose work on border and port security has been cited in Bush administration reports and speeches. "Is it better than what we had before? Absolutely. Is it sufficient? No."
The 90-day strategy was given to the public affairs field officers in mid-September at a planning meeting in Washington.
The document contains sections titled "MESSAGE," "OBJECTIVE," "AUDIENCE," "STRATEGY" and "TOOLS." It also contains an action plan that calls on the public affairs officials to "Maximize media" and "Brand CBP."
"America is safer today because of U.S. Customs and Border Protection," states the section labeled "MESSAGE." It continued: "Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency is doing everything in its power to protect our nation at and beyond her borders from terrorists and terrorist weapons, while facilitating global trade routes and fostering economic security."
Under the section labeled "OBJECTIVE," the document states: "To change perception through continuous, consistent and highly credible information."
The document also suggests the use of "surrogates" to spread the agency's message and to "Implement a 'theme of the month.' " It proceeded to list them: "OCTOBER: Border Patrol. NOVEMBER: Agriculture. DECEMBER: Trade."
In one related document labeled as a draft, October is listed as "National Border Protection Month."
One action listed in the draft document, a news conference with Bonner on the use of FBI fingerprint technology at the borders as a "web of enforcement," took placed as scheduled during the week of Oct. 4.
The document stated a message: "In this time of increased security, the United States Customs & Border Protection Agency is controlling and securing our nation's border: preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S.; and, preventing illegal aliens, smugglers, and other contraband from entering the U.S."
To get that message out, the document proposed pitching stories to the "Editorial Board with Washington Times," to "Morning Shows" and to "pitch exclusive" to "FOX 3-4 part series ending with the Commissioner Live in studio. Geraldo or as backup Dr. Bob Arnot with MSNBC."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.