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Book of Matthew: Common sense in the Department of Homeland Security

Published: January 28, 2011
Section: Opinions


President Obama gave a good speech Tuesday night, but he could have made it even better by mentioning a small but important piece of news. Starting this week, the Department of Homeland Security will begin phasing out the Bush-era Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS).

Few people—except perhaps those stuck in an airport—pay attention to the HSAS anymore. But there was a time when this color-coded chart made headlines as the great arbiter of the terrorist threat to America. Created in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the system’s five threat levels (green for “low,” blue for “guarded,” yellow for “elevated,” orange for “high” and red for “severe”) were designed to “communicate with public safety officials and the public at-large through a threat-based, color-coded system so that protective measures can be implemented to reduce the likelihood or impact of an attack,” according to the Department of Homeland Security website.

It had just one problem: Like most Bush Administration initiatives, it didn’t work.

In fact, the HSAS has been endlessly criticized (and often mocked) by journalists, comedians, security experts and President Bush’s political opponents for its inability to effectively warn Americans of danger. Each threat level provides a laughably vague analysis of the supposed threat. (For example, the yellow “elevated” level means that there is a “significant risk of terrorist attacks”). The government never published specific criteria for the threat level, nor did it make much of an effort to explain why it made changes. But between 2002 and 2009, the HSAS level has been raised to orange five times (and three other times for specific industries) and raised to red once, in August 2006, after British authorities announced that they had stopped a plot to blow up an aircraft.

Today, like most days, the threat level is set to yellow (orange for all domestic and international flights). It has never dropped to blue or green.

Because of the seemingly nonsensical nature of the threat level changes, some critics suspected that the Bush Administration simply used the HSAS to frighten more voters into choosing candidates whose main focus was national security (Republicans). Considering that during a yellow security threat the Department of Homeland Security website advises Americans to “ensure disaster supply kit is stocked and ready,” “develop alternate routes to/from work or school and practice them” and “continue to be alert for suspicious activity and report it to authorities,” it’s understandable that people might be scared and seek protection. In 2004, one Cornell sociologist claimed that, after tracking Department of Homeland Security Alerts and 131 Gallup polls taken since 2001, he had discovered an average 2.75 poll bounce for President Bush per terrorism warning.

Indeed, in August 2004 the Department of Homeland Security notably raised the HSAS level from yellow to orange just as the presidential campaign season was in its home stretch. In his dramatically-titled 2009 book: “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege … and How We Can Be Safe Again,” former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge claimed that many of Bush’s top aides tried to convince him to raise the threat level to red just before the election in November (not that former Vice President Dick Cheney—who once told a group of Des Moines Republicans that a Kerry victory would put the United States at risk for another major terrorist attack—would have ever attempted such an underhanded political ploy).

Ridge wrote that he never gave into those demands, yet many Democrats still argued that the damage was already done: The HSAS level was not dropped from orange back to yellow until Nov.10, 2004—eight days after Bush won re-election.

Some doubts were raised about the HSAS after that election, but the issue was more or less ignored until 2009, when an extensive review of the policy found a “disturbing lack of confidence in the system.” This prompted the Obama Administration to try a comparatively “no drama” approach. Called the National Terrorism Advisory System, Obama’s plan will scrap the xylophone-esque color scheme and replace it with something about as simple but much more effective: Terrorist alerts that will be specific to each threat that the administration uncovers.

These alerts will have two (colorless) levels signaling either an “immediate threat” or an “elevated threat.” They will be sent only to the audiences that need to know about them—like the NYPD, in the case of a serious threat against New York City. And when these alerts are sent out, they will include a description—perhaps as short as one page—explaining to law enforcement officials the nature of the threat, the precautions they must take and how the government plans to respond. In the unlikely event of a major nationwide threat, the administration plans to issue a specific announcement that will be released to news organizations and social media outlets.

Rather than keep Americans in a perpetual state of ignorance and paranoia, wondering how many guns they will have to buy and who to point them at, the Obama Administration is going to issue warnings only when there is something worth warning people about. What a novel idea.

It’s a stark difference between Bush and Obama that would have fit well in a State of the Union address that focused on responsible government for the 21st century. But all things considered, I’d rather see an effective plan implemented with little publicity than the opposite. And we’ve been through nine years of the opposite.