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Juliette Kayyem on BPR

Why Did The President Just Text You?

Emergency Alert
The first test of the national wireless emergency system by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is shown on a cellular phone in Detroit, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. About 225 million electrtonic devices across the United States received alerts from FEMA Wednesday afternoon.
Paul Sancya/AP
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Juliette Kayyem on BPR

At 2:18 p.m. ET on Wednesday, roughly 225 million Americans received a text from the president. A nationwide wireless emergency test was pinged out through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, conducting the first-ever “presidential alert” that read: "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."

Within seconds, social media sites erupted with confused and surprised responses, with many users asking how to block future alerts from the Trump administration, and some describing the incident as a "War of the Worlds" type event.

According to national security expert Juliette Kayyem, the political turmoil and national division around President Trump have distracted from what should have been a non-remarkable test of a public alert system.

“I think this is absolutely necessary,” Kayyem said in an interview with Boston Public Radio Wednesday. “I think in any normal society, we wouldn’t be thinking twice about it, it would just be like okay, they’re testing the systems, and that’s fine.”

The Emergency Communications Law, which passed under President Obama’s administration, was meant to create a more direct channel for important alerts in an age where many people are more connected to their smartphones than to their televisions or radios.

“The idea was ... in the 21st century, people communicate through different means, and in particular they communicate through their iPhones,” Kayyem said. “The Emergency Communications Law was a way to test whether our private carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon are able to provide information to the American public in the same way that we demanded it from TV stations in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s in a timely fashion.”

It was described as a “presidential alert” because the president may, at times, need to alert the American public of important news alerts, but provisions were written into the law to prevent abuse of such a system.

“The president couldn’t easily just say 'vote for this person' — the law is pretty circumspect in that there be lots of checks to a president doing that,” Kayyem said. “People are pretty nervous about that.”

According to Kayyem, messages are lost when they come from a White House led by such a controversial political figure.

“I would wish it had come out of an agency … since Homeland Security is so toxic too, why not the FCC, since they’re the ones actually running this?” Kayyem said. “You don’t even need a name, just say the national alert system and the FCC are testing our network carriers, and get it out of the political space.”

“We want the system to be reliable,” Kayyem continued, “and the White House has lost the benefit of the doubt in that regard.”

To hear Juliette Kayyem’s full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio player above.

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