Walmart Shoppers: Homeland Security Wants You Starting this week, Walmart shoppers will be treated to a short video from Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, urging them to report any suspicious sights to local authorities. It's part of a wider program called "If You See Something, Say Something."
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Walmart Shoppers: Homeland Security Wants You

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Walmart Shoppers: Homeland Security Wants You

Walmart Shoppers: Homeland Security Wants You

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish, in for Guy Raz.

For the last few years, commuters in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., could count on hearing this message ring out in the subway tunnels.

(Soundbite of subway)

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Hello. I'm Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

CORNISH: You heard right. That's the voice of Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, telling people if you see something, say something.

And starting this week, the anti-terrorism public awareness campaign is expanding in a big way - to your local checkout line.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: If you see something suspicious in the parking lot or in the store, say something immediately.

CORNISH: Customers in more than 500 Walmart stores across the country will see Napolitano in this video.

(Soundbite of DHS video)

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Report suspicious activity to your local police or sheriff. If you need help, ask a Walmart manager for assistance.

CORNISH: This comes just as the Department of Homeland Security is looking to drop the color-coded terror alert system, and after air travelers cried foul over new airport pat-down procedures and body scanners - and as the head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, defends undercover stings that in one case, involved a man flagged over a Facebook posting.

So today's cover story: our role in our security. We'll start with Walmart. Shoppers at one store outside Nashville told our producer Kim Green(ph) what they think about the Homeland Security messages echoing over the aisles.

Unidentified Man #1: What do I think about it?

Unidentified Man #2: I think we ought to be 24/7, 365 aware of what's going on around us.

Unidentified Man #3: That's kind of wild right there.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think that's a little unnecessary for shoppers in Walmart.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, especially a small city like Nashville. I mean...

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't think someone like that would be shopping at Walmart.

Unidentified Woman #2: It doesn't make me feel really happy to walk around that and then think, oh gosh, I even need to look over my shoulder while I'm grocery shopping.

Unidentified Man #4: I guess it don't hurt, you know? I don't see the bad in it, I don't guess.

KIM GREEN: What do you think suspicious means in this case and would you - if you saw something - what would you think of as suspicious, and would you report it?

Unidentified Man #4: I guess that's a matter of opinion, you know?

Unidentified Woman #3: I don't know what I would consider to be suspicious.

Unidentified Man #4: I guess 911's going to get overloaded now.

Unidentified Man #5: Groups of people in one area.

Unidentified Man #6: Lingering around behind the stores, side of the store, being in a car...

Unidentified Man #7: Not picking out goods to purchase but...

Unidentified Woman #3: I probably would report something but then, I probably don't trust the people here that I would report it to. I don't think they would care either way. So...

GREEN: And do you think there's any danger that people might sort of profile their - other people?

Unidentified Woman #4: I'm sure. I am absolutely sure.

Unidentified Man #8: Oh, I think there's an opportunity for that to happen.

Unidentified Woman #4: You see the way that people look at certain people, the way they're dressed. I mean, I saw some people in Walmart, you know, dressed...

Unidentified Man #8: The dress of people...

Unidentified Woman #4: ...from other countries, and people kind of look at them funny.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good grief, Walmart? Usually, a person at Walmart is on a mission to buy something but not blow it up, I don't think. And if that's what their purpose is - I don't know if they have clues that they're going to hit Walmart next. I don't know.

CORNISH: The voices of Walmart shoppers outside Nashville, Tennessee.

I talked with Secretary Napolitano this week and asked her, why Walmart?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: We are expanding See Something, Say Something in a number of venues. It's Walmart, it's Mall of America, it's different sports and sporting arenas, it's transit systems. And as the slogan says, if you see something, say something.

CORNISH: What are you hoping to accomplish with this expansion? Is it getting more tips, specifically, or general awareness?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Both. Not only tips but general awareness, people being what we call situationally aware. But time and time again, we have seen that even suspected terrorist plots have been foiled by alert citizens who report something that really seems out of the ordinary.

CORNISH: Now this program isn't new. I know I've heard your voice a number of times while I'm standing on the platform here, the Metro subway system in Washington. And obviously, it began in New York City after 9/11. But you know, the New York Times reported that there weren't a lot of useful tips coming in.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, part of it is tips, but part of it is just having people be aware. There was a recent study that said that 80 percent of the foiled terrorist plots in the last - I think, five years have been the results of citizen tips or citizen information.

CORNISH: Can you give an example of that?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, I can give several. One of the most graphic, of course, is the Times Square bomber, where you had astreet vendor notice a vehicle parked, with smoke coming out of it - and immediately reported that to a New York City policeman. And we went from that cold report to apprehending Faisal Shahzad within 53 hours.

CORNISH: It reminds me of the kind of citizen surveillance system in East Germany. I mean, essentially, you're asking people to keep an eye on each other.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: I think that's a little extreme. What we're asking is to do what citizens in this country have been asked to do a lot of different times -which is to be aware, to report things that seem awry, out of the ordinary; report them to appropriate security forces or law enforcement.

CORNISH: At the same time, I mean, you're also putting that definition in the hands of everyone as well. I mean, the definition of what's suspicious? What's out of the ordinary? I mean, in a lot of communities, that could mean different things - and lead to, you know, bad tips.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Yeah, that's why you report to law enforcement, who are trained, and we have been doing this program in pilot phases since 9/11. And it's worked very, very well. And so, some of the things you're pointing at now really haven't been issues or problems.

CORNISH: And what education will there be around what people should look for?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: It is the unattended package. It's the car with smoke coming out of it, left unattended. And all we're asking that be done is to report to security personnel, to law enforcement. Let them do the follow-up.

CORNISH: And lastly, I have to ask, is there anything a little bit strange or Big Brother-ish in seeing your image, and hearing your own voice, everywhere -issuing these warnings?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, I wouldn't look at it that way. But all I would say is look, this is very straightforward, easy to remember. And we rely on the common sense and judgment, and the community involvement, of the American people.

CORNISH: That's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Frank Cilluffo was a special assistant to President Bush for homeland security when the department was being set up. Now, he directs the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. And Frank Cilluffo says he has some concerns about the See Something, Say Something program.

Mr. FRANK CILLUFFO (Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute, George Washington University): An engaged citizenry is part of the solution. Now whether or not that should be driven from Washington, I have some concerns about that.

I think having Secretary Napolitano on screens throughout the country provides a bit of a creepy feeling. That shouldn't be from Washington; it should be driven by local authorities, local figures that the community already knows, works with and is part of every day.

CORNISH: So is it the message itself that's creepy, or just the fact that it's coming from Washington you have a problem with?

Mr. CILLUFFO: You know, I think that people will turn to people that they actually know, and people that they see every day, to be part of the solution. Now the message itself, I think, is short on - long on noun, short on verbs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CILLUFFO: I think we need some specificity around what it is we're trying to convey. See Something, Say Something, in theory, may work but ultimately, what are people looking for? What sort of suspicious activity? What actions should they take? And who do they specifically turn to if they identify a suspicious activity?

To be afraid is not the same as being provided the ammunition, the knowledge to fight fear.

CORNISH: And also, isn't there the risk that if you hear these messages everywhere, and see them everywhere, that you just start to become desensitized to them?

Mr. CILLUFFO: That is something that I think we need to constantly re-examine -not only the message itself, but what it is we're asking people to do, and how they respond to these sorts of messages. I mean, there is a threat; it is real. And we can't be lulled into a false sense of security and a false sense of complacency.

But at the same time, we need to make sure that what we're conveying is the best information that - are in people's hands. And I would err on the side of sharing more information when you have it. Countries that have, arguably, some of the most robust communications efforts vis-a-vis terrorism and risks and the like, are the U.K. or Israel - or countries that are seeing terrorism on a more frequent basis.

Now, in the U.S., I think communicating terrorism, communicating risks is at best, an art. It's by no means a science, and I'm not even sure we've got the art down.

CORNISH: And lastly, Frank, you had a hand, actually, in creating the Department of Homeland Security. You were special assistant to the president for homeland security. Is it doing what you hoped it would do? I mean, is there anything you would have done differently?

Mr. CILLUFFO: Well, I certainly don't want to take any personal credit for creating a department. That was the premise behind a Department of Homeland Security - was while we had a number of national security and security efforts, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Today, are we greater than the sum of its parts? Not yet.

CORNISH: Frank Cilluffo is the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Frank Cilluffo, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Mr. CILLUFFO: Thank you. My pleasure.

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