When Madison Avenue Meets Mayhem

Best of Post 9/11 Hysteria: The Strange Case of Priceline.com's 9/14 Take Over of the Terror Rewards Program

When Madison Avenue Meets Mayhem

The Rewards for Justice program was a “paying for tips” program began in earnest in 1984 to incentivize people in the "terror loop" to cash-in on any information that could potentially catch suspected terrorists. It was entirely relaunched after the attacks of 9/11 with a new “public-private” structure that permitted it to push the limits of goofy Orwellian specter. Ostensibly still concerned with “rewarding” people for tips on terrorism, it was quickly turned into an entirely unironic conditioning tool providing the impression that terrorists were lurking under everyone’s bed and that turning Joe Six Pack into a wannabe Jack Bauer was somehow a good use of State Department authority and money.

Put another way: the pre-911 Rewards for Justice program was based on paying people for information on solving past (read: real) attacks, this new version was almost entirely concerned, instead, with “training” people to somehow spot future (see: not real) attacks. The result is predictably hilarious.

What before was a rather run of the mill government website :


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Post-9/11, quickly became a sexed-up tabloidy propaganda tool:


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Its focus shifting from providing information to propagandizing under the pretext of doing so. A good example of the hysteria dragnet at work:


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So pretty much… anyone! But let’s say you’re a “commuter”, which is to say you're one of the 90% of Americans who drive to work. What can you do to help stop terrorism:


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But what if you don’t drive to work. What if you instead either teach or are currently being taught in some formalized manner?


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Also on the homepage is an “observation skills test” designed to “test” your ability to remember a randomly flashing license plate, the correct answer revealed in a click-thru. (Go ahead, take the test, see how YOU can help spot terrorists!)


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The answer, if you're curious, to the third question? The registration was expired. What a “damaged plate” or "tampered numbers” looks like is left unmentioned. Also left unmentioned is why a random citizen would ever be called upon to remember a fleeting license plate or what, more importantly, any of this has to do with the State Department’s purpose of diplomatic relations. What mattered was that 9/11 Changed Everything™


THE PRICELINE.COM ANTI-TERROR PROGRAM


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Though the Rewards for Justice program had been around in name for 17 years, what happened in the days immediately after 9/11 was a rather hasty severing of the programs financial and oversight regime from the State Department into an ad hoc “public-private” arrangement with Priceline.com's principles via a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Official histories report this new design was, at the very least, a co-creation between State Department Head of Public Affairs and former Madison Avenue "hotshot" Charlotte Beers and Priceline.com Founder and CTO (currently head of Start Up America) Timothy Scott Case.

From the L.A. Times December 2001 --

The co-founders of a private fund for the Rewards for Justice program have used their Internet experience to improve the program's Web site (rewardsforjustice.net) and worked with Florida and other states to allow motorists to purchase "United We Stand" license plates. Proceeds from the license plate sales and private donations would be used to augment the State Department's budgeted reward funds.

"This is fighting terrorism with capitalism," said Scott Case, a co-founder of Priceline.com

But it still makes clear the post-9/11 scheme was entirely her making

The brainchild of Charlotte Beers, the Madison Avenue executive brought in to give State Department diplomacy more market savvy

The chronology doesn’t quite bear this out. Indeed, it's clear from primary source records that the whole enterprise was underway weeks before Ms. Beers even arrived at the State Department and was, for all intents and purposes, the "brainchild" of Priceline founder Timothy Scott Case.

Charlotte L. Beers wasn’t confirmed by the Senate in her capacity as Under Secretary of Public Affairs until September 26 2001, roughly twelve days after Priceline CTO and founder Timothy Scott Case and EVP and CMO Joe Rutledge registered the program’s nonprofit fundraising arm with the state of Delaware (9/14/2001) and ten days after they filed the project’s two new domain addresses (9/16/2001).

Timeline:

Friday, September 14th 2001, three days after 9/11, Priceline Founder and CTO Scott Case and Priceline EVP and CMO, Joe Rutledge, filed incorporating documents for the Rewards for Justice Program’s new funding mechanism, a 501(c)(3) called “Rewards for Justice Fund” with the state of Delaware.

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Monday, September 16th, 2001 Mr. Case registers two new program domain names.


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Not until Wednesday, Sept 26 2001 is Ms. Beers confirmed by the Senate as Under Secretary of Public Affairs.

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This leaves us with two options

A) Ms. Beers was running State public affairs projects immediately after 9/11 without Constitutional authority to do so.

B) Subsequent press did a bit of timeline fudging to lend the program a veneer of governmental sanction.

Whichever it was, what’s clear is that this setup was advantageous for a few reasons: bulk funding to an outside entity, even when nonprofit in nature, radically alters who oversees its day-to-day operations and budgeting priorities. In March of 2001, according to their website at the time, the program was overseen by everyone from “the White House National Security Council, the CIA the DoJ, the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Marshals Service to the Dept of State”. Three days after the attacks this day-to-day oversight would be reduced to only two people, both from Priceline.com. It was, though perhaps justified and benign in intent, a textbook case of the type of corporate coup d'etat that would go on to define the Bush Administration. The result being the “marketingization” of national security that, though eventually reigned in, briefly served as a useful satire of what happens when the unchecked marketing fluff of the corporation combines with the unchecked hysteria of a country gripped with fear.

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