Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of “Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and CEO of Zemcar. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In theory, there is nothing objectionable about the White House’s plan to send a message from President Trump to virtually every cell phone in the country. The message is a test of a warning system – created under President Barack Obama in 2016 – designed to alert the public about national emergencies.
There is no opting out. Most people with a cell phone — turned on and within range of a cell phone tower – will receive a “presidential alert” text at 2:18 p.m. ET on October 3.
As broadcast TV and land-based phone lines become obsolete, our homeland security apparatus needs to keep up with current technology. This test should be seen as a positive step, bringing crisis communications into the wireless era.
But some are not seeing it that way – and it’s the Trump administration’s fault. By continually and bitterly politicizing things that shouldn’t be political, like natural disasters, journalism, the criminal-justice system, you name it – Trump and his followers have fanned growing fears that everything they do is about partisan advantage. It’s understandable that people believe this cell phone test is just another authoritarian attempt by Trump to bully his way into our daily lives.
So, let’s be clear. The statute that Obama signed into law allows for this national communication only when the event “relate(s) to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.” It cannot be used for political purposes. It gives a president the capability to direct the public, should they need guidance or knowledge of an event of such national consequence, just as is tested on televisions with the Emergency Alert System.
But, as the test date approaches, there has been real concern about Trump’s having access to the nation’s cell phone numbers and what he might do with them. These concerns – even if they seem overblown at times – are the direct result of a White House that has turned emergencies into political fodder and Trump loyalty tests.
First, there is no reason that the alert needs to be titled “presidential alert.” Nothing in the statute requires it; it isn’t the term that is used for television alerts. Instead, a more generic term like “national alert” or even “DHS alert” would take Trump, an unpopular President who consistently lies about basic facts, out of the calculation.
If the goal is to honestly assess alert capability, there’s zero need for the term “president” to be used in the roll-out.
Second, because the President has so politicized basic facts about emergency management and made them about himself and his White House’s capabilities, we can have no confidence that the benign nature of the test will remain so. This became clear last month when Trump repeatedly used his office to question the validity of non-partisan, George Washington University study on the death toll in Puerto Rico, blaming the Democrats for concocting lies to make him look bad.
In fact FEMA Administrator Brock Long was doubling down on the President’s language, arguing that “I don’t know why these studies were done… They are all over the place.” Maybe, Administrator Long, so that we might determine how many are dead.
Now FEMA and the White House, just days after these surprising pronouncements, want us to have confidence in an objective alert system deployed in a crisis by the very federal agency and White House that has “graded” every single one to date.
The US needs to ensure it can communicate with the population on cellular phones. It is so obvious that, at any other time, it would seem like an essential upgrade for America’s capabilities. But the consequences of years of misstatements and lies from the President’s mouth and Twitter feed inevitably have consequences for the most anodyne of policies.
I am not surprised that even the most generic alert system has become a new source of controversy for this White House where truth is whatever Trump hopes it to be.
This article has been updated.