- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has appointed a 17-member board to review and evaluate the Homeland Security Advisory System, the familiar, if often ignored, five-color terror-alert warning. The system is long overdue for review and should be improved.

The system was established in March 2002 as a readiness measure for state and local law enforcement and the public generally. It has been the butt of many jokes, and most Americans have no idea what the current alert level is at any given time. But the system has some utility. It works best when there are concrete signs of increased terrorist activity. The last time the system went to red alert was in 2006 after evidence emerged about a plot in Britain to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners.

Unfortunately, the alert status often has fallen victim to politics. During the George W. Bush years, the president’s political opponents charged that the administration was trying to whip up hysteria any time the alert status moved up, despite concrete evidence that the terror threat had increased.

The political equation at the lower end of the scale is more mundane. The United States has been at yellow alert (signifying “significant risk” of attack) since 2006, with airlines at orange alert (“high risk”). Some localities maintain their own alert levels. For example, the New York City metro area is at orange alert and generally stays one level above the federal alert status. The country as a whole has never been to blue (“general risk”) or green (“low risk”) alert since the system was implemented, and it probably never will be. In part, this is because the world is a dangerous place, and there always will be some degree of threat.

No policymaker will risk lowering the alert status to blue or green because if an attack took place after the change, it would be fatal politically. Lowering the alert level might even encourage terrorists to attack, either because they would assume our guard was down or to demonstrate that they still are a force to be reckoned with. Yellow is bureaucratically safe. It does not court charges of creating undue panic, but neither does it promise we are safe. Yellow is the de facto floor. The Department of Homeland Security could do away with blue and green, and it would make no difference.

Reform is necessary. In 2007, Congress instructed the department to make the threat system more precise and to tie threat levels to specific countermeasures. That was not done. In 2003, a major interagency effort was undertaken to find ways to improve the system. Working groups examined a variety of other models, including the British Columbia Threat Advisory System, a very effective Canadian warning program. Unfortunately, the 2003 effort did not lead to any significant changes. The new panel could profitably review the records of that earlier endeavor to avoid some needless duplication of effort.

The most important reform would be to take politics out of the warning system. To the extent possible, threat levels should be tied to objective measures determined by counterterrorism experts. Rather than using a national alert system, threat levels could be determined on a regional and local basis by the scores of joint counterterrorism task forces that already operate nationwide. The task forces are closer to the threat, understand it better and can respond more quickly to changing circumstances.

Modern global terrorism is decentralized, complex and adaptive. The last thing we need is an alert system that is centralized, sluggish and unchanging.

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