The United States of America has been in a state of uninterrupted “elevated” alertness – or Yellow on the Department of Homeland Security’s color coded national advisory system – for nearly seven years now. Seven years straight of strained, eyeballing-fellow-passengers-on-airplanes, nerve-jangling elevated alertness. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I can barely handle uninterrupted parenting for seven years straight, but looking down the grim kaleidoscope of yellows and oranges and reds – the primary colors of terrorism – is just too much.   Will the government ever tell us we can relax?

I don’t mean to be unreasonable. Nevermind getting down to green – the “low” level of alertness. I recognize that no public official is delirious enough to risk the politically dicey move of saying America can go to a low level of alertness. He or she would be skewered by the national media should an attack ever happen during that time.  A Republican Administration would be skinned alive by the liberal media, and a Democratic Administration would be tarred and feathered by the conservative media – never mind that the particular color of our advisory system will frankly have no effect whatsoever on whether or not we are attacked again.

Do you think the folks at DHS would be sitting around drinking mint juleps simply because of a relatively arbitrary color scheme being set to green? If you do, then you haven’t seen the kind of daily intelligence warnings that flow into the Department and the other three-letter national security agencies.

But I’m not asking for common sense, not in Washington. Still, is it all possible that we could ever get to, oh, say, Blue – which is merely a “guarded” national state of anxiety. Like a dog that trains an annoyed eye on you if you get too close to his food bowl while he’s eating.

That’s right, we have never, ever – in all the years since September 11th – settled into a mere guarded state of alert. We have always been at either yellow or orange (even red once).

Which means Yellow is the new Blue. If a color coded advisory system is to have any value, if Yellow is to truly mean “elevated,” then we cannot as a nation remain at Yellow for all time. If we do, then the term elevated loses its meaning. By definition, the term elevated suggests a rise, a peak above the ordinary, in alertness. We have had a consistent plateau of Yellow since the advisory system was introduced. The only peaks have been increases from Yellow to Orange or Red.

For all practical purposes then, Yellow has become the baseline. It no longer means elevated at all. Which means, the whole coding of the system is useless. If elevated doesn’t mean elevated, then what does it mean? And what’s the point of even having Blue if we are to never to use it. And Green? Well. Might as well have Lavender or Mauve and let them represent whatever you want, along with Green, because none of those colors mean anything at all.

No, we’ll never get to Blue or to Green. And the decisions behind the alert levels have nothing to do with our actual threat levels. It has everything to do with the unenviable responsibility of high-level public officials who must be the ones to say – Relax, no threats here.

And since no one is going to say that, it’s time to reconsider the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System. It’s time to either revise the coding – perhaps to Yellow, Orange and Red – or get rid of it altogether.

Secretary Napolitano has put together a bipartisan task force to evaluate this very matter. (Two of my fellow Security Debrief contributors, Randy Beardsworth and James Carafano, were named by the Secretary to sit on the panel.) It’s the right thing to do. I look forward to the resultant suggestions that emerge from this body.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More
  • That’s where we are in Maritime Security. The normal state of affairs – MARSEC Level 1 – equates to Yellow in the DHS scheme. and it’s as low as we can go.