Panel Says Terror Alert System Works Better for Institutions Rather than Public

By Matthew Harwood

Institutions, including the private sector, are much better served by the color-coded terror-alert system created after the 9-11 attacks than the public, a bipartisan task force created to reevaluate the system reported yesterday.

"Institutions including the federal government, state and local governments, and the private sector have used the Advisory System for planning and calibrating responses," the 17-page report from the Homeland Security Advisory Council said. "The current system has functioned reasonably well for this audience, especially as alerts have become more targeted geographically and to specific sectors."

The task force, however, did find room for improving DHS communication with its institutional partners.

Tops among their recommendations was to cut off the two lowest levels—green and blue—of the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) because they have never been used.  The readjusted HSAS would leave just three levels: yellow (guarded), orange (elevated), or red (high alert). 

This owes to public understanding "that in a post September 11, 2001, world the nation will always remain guarded," according to the panel, and that "for terrorism threats, there should be a bias against keeping the nation, or any region or sector, at an elevated alert in the absence of specific, ongoing threat information." Aside from lossing substantial credibility, keeping the country on elevated alert means considerable public and industry expenditure on security.

To further lessen the costs to institutional and industry players, the panel recommends that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano should determine as specifically as possible where an elevated threat resides and who it affects. After a threat is identified, the secretary should revisit and explain to the audience impacted every 15 days why the threat remains elevated to justify ongoing security costs.

To improve DHS communications with their partners, the panel said Napolitano must "put in place the plan, protocol, and detail for reaching institutional players during future alerts." Noting that communicating with private industry means sophisticated and technical discussions, the panel advises that Napolitano review her department's technical ability to conduct such discussions during crisis situations.

The report also recommended that DHS leverage the nation's 72 fusion centers and over 150 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) to assess the threats to different regions and sectors. To  further bolster DHS's communications strategy, the panel says fusion centers and JTTFs should become points of contact for communicating with institutional players and the public at the state level. "DHS needs to continue to improve on delivering timely, unclassified, update frequently Homeland Security information that is based on state, local, and tribal specific requirements," the report noted.

While the bipartisan panel all agreed that the HSAS color-coded tiers should be simplified if retained, half of the panel believed it should be scrapped entirely. The panel found that the HSAS's colored threat levels were generally poor at communicating helpful messages to the public, who saw it as a bad joke.

"The system's ability to communicate useful information in a credible manner has been poor," Frances Fragos Townsend, co-chairman of the task force and President Bush's former homeland security adviser, said at a press conference last evening reported by The Washington Post. "The American people should be provided with as much detail -- consistent with national security -- that is focused on specific locations and sectors at specific risk."

According to a statement from DHS spokeswoman Sara Kubin, Napolitano will now review the document and share the panel's recommendations with the White House and other Cabinet members.

♦ Screenshot of report


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