The government shutdown has cranked up the volume on the blame game of who is causing the most misery for whom. The latest move comes from the right, where accusations began to fly that President Barack Obama was willing to put missing children’s lives at risk to score political points.
From what we found, the claim started in the Twitterverse with tweets late on Friday night, Oct. 4, 2013. "Did u see how the amber alert system was shut down & they even produced a screen to declare it!?" said one. Amber Alert is the system that draws the public into the hunt for an abducted child.
The Right Scoop carried the message to a wider audience. At around 5 p.m. Sunday, it posted that the U.S. Justice Department Web page for the Amber Alert program was down. "I’m sure you care about your lost child but Obama doesn’t – at least not while he’s trying to ‘win’ the government shutdown," the blog post said.
The Drudge Report put that item on its homepage with the headline, "Amber Alert website shut down, Michelle’s ‘Let’s Move’ stays up." By the next morning, the Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott had an article titled, "Obama shutters Amber Alerts as government shutdown enters second week."
"Somebody, somewhere in the Obama White House or the Obama Justice Department decided to shut down the Amber Alerts, despite the system's long and stellar record of helping locate missing children," Tapscott wrote.
By mid-morning Monday, the government Web page was back up, but chastising tweets continued. We decided to check out exactly what had been shut down, and by whom.
If you went to the federal Amber Alert Web page on Sunday, you would have found this message "Due to the lapse in Federal funding, this Office of Justice Program website is unavailable." That is what triggered the blog postings, tweets and articles.
A Justice Department spokesperson explained to the Huffington Post, "All the sites that had to go offline were put behind a firewall so that they couldn't be hacked while the IT people were on furlough."
The spokesman said a furloughed worker was brought back Monday to put the site back online.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gave the reason for that move at his press briefing later that day. "To eliminate any confusion among the public about the status of the program. A furloughed Justice Department employee was called in to work in order to restore the informational site," Carney said. "But again, it’s informational. The system itself was never interrupted."
We contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private nonprofit that assists local and state authorities in this work. According to their data, over this weekend, at the same time the tweets and blog posts were building, the Amber Alert was activated twice: in Texas on Oct. 4 and in Florida on Oct. 5.
At the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, spokesperson Gretl Plessinger said the news stories about the federal website had prompted some people to call out of concern. Plessinger reassured the public that Florida's program "is operating as it always has."
We also got in touch with Gene Thaxton of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, who coordinates the Amber Alert system for that state. Thaxton was emphatic that the program never closed.
"Oklahoma has its own Amber Alert program, and it is not affected by the government shutdown," he said. "The federal Web page is informational. It doesn’t affect the operations of the program."
To be clear, the Amber Alert system is not run by Washington. States set up their own programs and use guidelines and standards that are shared nationwide. The program is a network of these state-run operations.
At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, spokesman Bob Hoever told us that the federal Web page plays no role in actually finding children.
Hoever said local or state law enforcement officials trigger an Amber Alert when authorities have details like the name of the child, a photo of the child, the kind of car involved, a plate number, or a photo of the suspect. "Those are the things that have led to a rescue in the past," he said.
State authorities then notify the media and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center spreads the word through the Web and over cell phones, sending automatic text messages to everyone with a smart phone in the area where officials think the child might be.
"We had a case in Minnesota where a teenager read the text on her phone, and there across the street was the car," Hoever said. "She told her dad, and he called the police, and they rescued the child."
Hoever said as far as he knows, from the initial investigation to the public reports of a possible sighting, the federal website has never been involved.
"If people knew how this worked, we wouldn’t be dealing with this confusion," he said.
People on Twitter, bloggers and others said the Obama administration shut down the Amber Alert system. Actually, each state has its own alert system, and national coordination takes place through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private nonprofit, untouched by the federal stalemate. The system has continued to operate through the federal shutdown, sending out alerts in Texas and Florida.
The one sliver of truth that triggered this claim is that a federal webpage promoting the program was closed, but that did not affect the program itself. It is a mistake to confuse that web page with the Amber Alert system.
We rate the statement False.