- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

The Bush administration is preparing to adopt a military-style system of terrorist alerts for the public instead of repeating general “terrorist threat advisories” like the one now in effect.
The White House Office of Homeland Security has requested state and local governments and federal security specialists to help develop an alert process similar to a system the Department of Defense uses that indicates the level of a threat’s seriousness and dictates the appropriate response to each level.
The security office’s action comes in response to growing public irritation with the series of amorphous alarms that began in October and, in the opinion of many, has put the government in the position of “crying wolf.”
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Tom Ridge, the office’s director, said that Mr. Ridge “has directed his staff in concert with other federal agencies to develop a system similar to Defcon that will help local law enforcement officials determine where to deploy resources when they go to certain threat levels.” Defcon is the Defense Department’s acronym for the Defense Readiness Conditions system
“The OHS is working on it now,” Mr. Johndroe said, adding it will be developed “in the not-distant future.”
“Going to a Defcon system will look spiffy. But, when it comes down to it, the move might just provide finer resolution to meaninglessness,” said Matthew Baker, chief analyst for Strafor, a prestigious private intelligence agency based in Austin, Texas.
Mr. Baker explained that a graduated system of alarms “will serve the main function of avoiding public exhaustion. You want people to be alert, but not to wear out with one tier of threat. So you come out with five or six. Then the public can take a one-day breather.”
Alerts are necessary, the analyst insisted, because they keep the terrorists guessing about what we know or don’t know. Importantly, they are “a powerful deterrent” and can disrupt planned attacks. But, he added, there is no clear intelligence on terrorist activities.
Evaluations are based on false rumors that the terrorists are “masters” at spreading, on “shadow alarms” generated by the alerts themselves and on various true but unspecific reports. In Mr. Baker’s view, the admitted vagueness on which the alerts are based robs them of real meaning that the public can act on.
Many agree. The lack of specificity brought complaints when on Oct. 11 the FBI warned of attacks inside the United States or abroad in the next few days. Then 18 days later, the FBI called a high alert because of a general attack threat. And early last month, Mr. Ridge ordered a return to high alert because of an increased number of threat reports. The FBI later extended the high alert to March 11.
None of the alerts gave information about targets or types of possible attack.
Among others, state and local officials began complaining that keeping police and rescue teams in a state of alert was costing inordinate amounts of money, creating fatigue and needlessly alarming the decreasing number of people who put any credence in the alarms.
Mayor Patrick McCory of Charlotte, N.C., is just one who has written to Mr. Ridge asking for change. He said, “We need a phased-in approach regarding the severity of each alert so we can allocate resources and can make the public understand the seriousness of the situation.”
It is not yet clear how a system similar to the military’s will do that or if it can defuse the resulting skepticism when there are warnings but no apparent danger.
After all, Defcon describes a progressive system of combat “postures.” The system is primarily used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders of unified commands, and it requires that the seriousness of confirmed threats be evaluated and categorized.
Defcon 5, for example, describes “normal peacetime readiness” and Defcon 1 demands “maximum force readiness.”
In addition there are two levels of national emergencies called Emercons. A “Defense Emergency” describes a verified, major attack upon U.S. forces overseas, allied forces anywhere or “an overt attack of any type made upon the United States.” An “Air Defense Emergency” indicates that an aircraft or missile attack against the continental United States, Canada, or U.S. installations in Greenland is “probable, imminent, or is taking place.”
The military prescribes the appropriate actions to take when any of the seven conditions is declared. The homeland security alert system being formulated will also indicate how federal authorities and state and local security teams should respond to each level of threat.

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