BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week ABC News announced that it had found a gaping hole in the Homeland Security Department's defense system. Reporter Brian Ross packed 15 pounds of depleted uranium into a teak trunk along with other furniture and shipped it from Jakarta, Indonesia all the way home.
BRIAN ROSS: Within minutes it was on the 110 Freeway, moving through the heart of downtown Los Angeles. And Homeland Security officials did not learn what happened until hours later, after our truck driver whom we told we were from ABC News became nervous and authorities were notified. The government reaction has been to investigate -- ABC News! Agents were dispatched at midnight to our Los Angeles Bureau where they demanded the material and threatened to file criminal charges against ABC personnel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:While depleted uranium can't be used to make weapons and is actually legal to ship, the Homeland Security Department maintains that ABC broke the law in not disclosing the contents of the trunk accurately. ABC responded that it's highly unlikely terrorists would fill out a form saying they're shipping uranium and that that was the point of the test. Dennis Murphy is a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. Welcome to the show.
DENNIS MURPHY: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ABC also breached port security last year when it shipped I guess a similar batch of uranium to the Staten Island, New York port.
DENNIS MURPHY: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously the intention of ABC News is to show that there are some important holes in our security that need to be closed!
DENNIS MURPHY: If, if the hole to be closed is to prevent depleted uranium from coming into the United States, then I would agree with you, but the hole we're trying to close is to prevent real nuclear material from coming into the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you would dispute the nuclear physicists with the National Resources Defense Council quoted by ABC who said that if federal inspectors couldn't detect that depleted uranium, then they can't detect the real thing.
DENNIS MURPHY: I would definitely disagree with that. The items we use are calibrated to pick up real material. Now they're not perfect, but they are designed to pick up the real thing --they're not designed to pick up inert --relatively inert -- material. This is a very unscientific experiment. There is no science to this test.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well then let's say, Mr. Murphy, that this was for argument's sake a valid test - a test that would hold up on your lights scientifically. Would you then regard this exercise as valid and important as ABC regards it evidently?
DENNIS MURPHY: There are hundreds and hundreds of news outlets. If every journalist decided Hm! I think I'll test the system too -- we would spend an enormous amount of valuable Homeland Security resources doing nothing but chasing ghosts, trying to find out if these tests are or are not a real media or, or someone posing as the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mr. Murphy, there are plenty of reports running through Congress and in the media that suggest that the Homeland Security Department is terrifically underfunded, that they can't conduct all the exercises they need to, to find the holes in the system, and I think that it is generally regarded as the role of the press to hold our government agencies accountable when other accountability fails or is underfunded.
DENNIS MURPHY: Well, I, I agree with you one hundred percent that the media has a valuable role to play in holding the government to account. But number one rule is - don't violate the law to do it! I mean I think that if they're going to do this, then they should have gone out and done scientific analysis; they should have gone out and reported it as a true investigative work rather than just perpetrate a hoax to say Gotcha.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me toss out a case -- a famous case -- in which a news organization broke the law -- in fact it was ABC and it's the Food Lion Supermarket chain. ABC reporters posed as employees, lied on their application forms and secretly taped what was going on inside the areas of the market that the public couldn't see. And there you saw them doctoring chicken, mixing old hamburger with new hamburger and generally engaging in unsanitary practices that threaten the health of the public. Now obviously these supermarkets undergo regular inspections, by the government; at least they're supposed to. ABC broke the law; was originally hit with 5 and a half million dollar damages -- punitive and otherwise --which was ultimately reduced to two dollars. The appeals court determined that if a reporter breaks certain laws in pursuit of a story that protects the public, then perhaps that can be excused.
DENNIS MURPHY: You're isolating one case and saying Hm, Maybe it's okay; maybe it's not. Maybe these laws are okay to break. But who is the judge of that? And which other reporters are out there trying to determine -- Hm. Which law should I break now to-- to tell my story?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess what I'm suggesting is that if it was deemed okay to protect the people from, say, tainted meat -- aren't the stakes even higher in this case?
DENNIS MURPHY: Well, but I, I also don't think that terrorists are going to pose as meat inspectors or-- as meat employees to carry out a terrorist attack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But they might try to ship dangerous substances from, say, Jakarta to New York! Don't you want to know if our systems to catch that don't work?
DENNIS MURPHY: Well, and, and we - we, we are gearing our systems to find the real thing, and my point about the validity of the test that caused us to spend resources to determine is this a real news organization, is this real material or not -- you know - that was hundreds of hours of manpower that was devoted to that! And to me, I think that's a waste of our resources. We should spend those resources trying to pursue terrorists and criminals --not reporters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well I want to thank you very much for talking to me.
DENNIS MURPHY: I appreciate the opportunity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dennis Murphy is a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. [MUSIC]