The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is taking part in town meetings across the United States to gather opinions and suggestions from local officials and ordinary citizens on how to make the country safer. The latest meeting was held Tuesday at the Baker Institute on the campus of Rice University in Houston.
Around 300 people crowded into the meeting hall to take part directly in the forum, while thousands more listened to a live broadcast on a local radio station. On hand were a number of local officials, representatives of the business community and some emergency response agency personnel. The series of town hall meetings have been put together by the Council on Excellence in Government, an organization with both private and public support. The council's president, Patricia McGinnis, moderated the discussion and explained how the information collected around the nation will be used.
"We will be coming up with some recommendations that will be made available to federal, state and local officials, also to the business community, specific organizations," she said. "We will also be making some recommendations to you, as citizens, about what you can do to help prepare and how you can be involved."
While some of the discussion involved response to emergencies such as floods and hurricanes, terrorism and the response to it remained the main focus of many citizens participating in the meeting.
Participant Jan Wilbur said she came to learn more about what is being done about homeland security. "One of my concerns is that we may lose some of our civil rights and I am concerned about that in talking about homeland security," she said.
Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security for the Department of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson responded.
"I think it is very appropriate that our department has a chief privacy officer, a chief civil rights officer that second guesses us and provides checks and balances on the system," he explained. "It is a constant balancing we have to do. We have to have information to determine who is at risk and be able to put our resources there. We want to make sure that individual citizen's privacy is protected at the same time."
Mr. Hutchinson praised Houston officials for the work they had done to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for those who attended the American football game known as the Super Bowl, which was held here in Houston on Sunday. He said Homeland Security officials saw the game as a possible terrorist target and they had stopped a commercial airline flight to Houston on Sunday because of intelligence information indicating a possible threat.
"Our intelligence was specific and credible," he said. "It caused us enough concern that the ordinary security measures, we believed, were not something we should rely on and we took the step to cancel that flight. We continue to evaluate the intelligence. The good news is our intelligence is getting better. So we do have specific information in which we can provide a specific response."
Mr. Hutchinson said it was the first time a domestic commercial flight in the United States had been cancelled because of a possible terrorist threat, but he declined to provide details about the incident.
While most participants in the town meeting seemed pleased with the event, some expressed dissatisfaction. Attorney Nicole Morrison said there should have been more focus on the foreign threats to the United States and more participation by the officials who deal with those issues firsthand.
"I am disappointed that we have left out the Department of State and the Justice Department in this discussion because, clearly, I think, our consulates and embassies overseas are really vital players in this program," she said. "They know the lay of the land in specific countries and there was no one here to discuss that. I also find it interesting that Houston has ... over 70 consulates. Various countries from around the world have missions here. No one was invited from any of those, and yet they are our allies allegedly. That perspective was left out."
Information from the meeting in Houston and several other cities will be compiled in Washington in a few months for review by experts in security and emergency response, who will prepare a final report.