Not for public consumption
Caught between a rock and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yolo County decides it can’t host an agroterrorism workshop
Yolo County Public Information Officer Beth Gabor was pretty excited when she heard that the Yolo County Department of Agriculture was going to host a March 1 workshop on agroterrorism and the local food supply.
This is great news, she thought. This is a great service we’re providing to the community.
Gabor wrote a press release explaining the issues: potential impacts, response and recovery resources, and coordination strategies for all levels of government.
SN&R was intrigued, but when we called for more information, Gabor told us, with audible disappointment, that Yolo County had just learned that press couldn’t attend. It seems the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which funded the workshop through a grant to UC Davis’ Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, thought the information was too risky to share with the public.
“We have lots of courses that are closed to the press,” said Marlene Phillips of the DHS Office of Grants & Training. “When we train first responders and officials, there’s lots of sensitive information.”
Phillips used another line of reasoning familiar to reporters: With news people in the room, other attendees would feel too uncomfortable to interact openly.
Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner Rick Landon also had heard that a manual used in the workshop included real-live terrorism scenarios.
“They don’t want to have the manual in the hands of the public,” said Landon.
Sharon Avery, director of operations for the Western Institute, explained that this workshop was the first in a six-part series that was being held around the country. It was geared toward fire, police and public-health professionals, as well as food processors. None of the courses was open to the general public.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, agreed that the press probably couldn’t force the issue based on any federal or state law. “It’s not a meeting that’s subject to any kind of open-government laws, as I see it, on first blush,” he said.
As February came to its soggy conclusion and the event was only hours away, Gabor and Landon began to wonder if a public agency should be hosting an event from which the press was barred. They decided at the last possible minute to rescind their offer to host the workshop at a county office.
“We’re very cognizant of doing our business in public,” Gabor explained. “We’re a public agency. Everything we do is in the public eye.”
“We felt uncomfortable telling the press they couldn’t attend when we were the hosts,” said Landon.
At 8 a.m. on the morning of the event, the Yolo County Farm Bureau agreed to host the workshop, and the county put up signs at the original location: “This is not a public event.”
Over at the farm bureau’s office, instructor Jim Lapsley stood outside and said he’d asked himself whether agroterrorism was a real concern or just paranoia. There have been no attempts to disrupt the local food supply, but he said he’d seen general analysis of American food-distribution systems that was seized by American forces in Afghanistan. He decided that there was real reason to be concerned.
During the course, he intended to talk about hardening local targets and identifying the top five areas of the local food-distribution system open to attack.
“If we’re talking about problems, do we want to be putting out examples [to the public] of how to negatively affect our food systems?” he asked.
Terrorists might already have ideas, Lapsley conceded; our crops are out in the open, after all, and we do truck them all around the country.
“But they might get better ideas,” Lapsley told SN&R. “I guess I will not allow you to go in.”
Landon attended the meeting and mostly recognized attendees from government agencies, he said, with a smattering of people from the rice, almond and seed agencies. They did sit around a table discussing what to do in the case of a specific food emergency, but otherwise, the event was really about sharing response strategies and warning people to be prepared.
“In agriculture,” said Landon, “you used to never see fences and locks. It just never occurred to them that people would deliberately try to do anything.”
Was the information really too hot for the public to handle?
“If I were king,” he said, “I would have said you could have attended. … I think we created more interest, or more story, by saying the press couldn’t attend.”