#1 Enduring Merit of a Dedicated Terrorism Advisory System
In the view of the Task Force, a national threat warning system for terrorist attacks is as central now as it was when today’s system was established in 2002. Further, that warning system should remain dedicated to threats from terrorism and not be combined with other national warning systems for weather, natural disasters, infectious disease and so forth. Though the Task Force offers suggestions to reform the current system, the members unanimously share the Secretary’s view that maintaining the nation’s vigilance is the key to protecting against terrorism.

#2 Two Audiences – The Public and “Institutions”
The Task Force members agreed that there are two primary audiences for the Homeland Security Advisory System. Institutions including the federal government, state and local governments, and the private sector have used the Advisory System for planning and for calibrating responses. The current system has functioned reasonably well for this audience, especially as alerts have become more targeted geographically and to specific sectors; however, improvements are needed. The system’s ability to communicate useful information in a credible manner to the public is poor. Significant rethinking of how to communicate to this audience is warranted.

#3 The Current Advisory System -Commanding Insufficient Public Confidence
The Task Force members agreed that, at its best, there is currently indifference to the Homeland Security Advisory System and, at worst, there is a disturbing lack of public confidence in the system. In our judgment, this lack of public confidence must be remedied. As outlined below, the Task Force is unanimous in its view that there are constructive measures to be taken.

The Question of Colors
As to the specific question of whether to retain some form of the nation’s current color code system, the Task Force was divided. Though recommending reform of the current system, half of the Task Force membership believes the concept of color-coded alerts is sufficiently clear, powerful and easily understood to be retained as one element in the Secretary’s alerts to the nation. By equal number, Task Force membership believes the color code system has suffered from a lack of credibility and clarity leading to an erosion of public confidence such that it should be abandoned. However, the Task Force members are unanimous, that if the Secretary decides to retain a system of alerts utilizing colors, that substantial reform is required.

Measures to Restore Public Confidence

  • The Task Force recommends that the Secretary consider the measures below to restore confidence in the Advisory System. These include:
  • A discipline of more narrowly targeting the specific region and sector under threat, avoiding elevating the alert status of the nation as a whole.
  • A practice of providing more specific information on new threats: including information on the type of threat, the credibility of the source of the information, and the steps the government is taking to mitigate the vulnerability.
  • A practice of accompanying new alerts with actionable steps the public can take.
  • An acknowledgment that the new baseline for the United States is guarded. We remain a nation confronting the threat of terrorist attack, but given that we remain ever on guard, the number of levels can be reduced from five to three.
  • As disciplined a focus on lowering the alert status as now goes into raising it.
  • A practice of debriefing the nation after alerts have been issued -what happened to the threat, can we now return to (what we recommend to be termed) “guarded” status?

#4 Changing the Alert Level Baseline to Guarded Status
In the judgment of the Task Force, a central undermining feature of the current alert system is that the threat level more easily moves up than comes down. Understanding that in a post September 11, 2001 world the nation will always remain guarded -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. In the words of the Task Force, “the escalators need to run both ways.” As it is institutionally difficult for the Department to lower a threat level, the Secretary should consider some “forcing mechanism” by which alert status defaults to “guarded” in the absence of an affirmative override. The lowering of the alert level should be automatically lowered to “guarded” within 15 days unless credible intelligence shows a reason to keep it elevated.

#5 Greater Precision is Required in Identifying the Specific Local Governments, First Responders and Private-Sector Companies Threatened and the Protective Measures that Necessitate a Response
The significant success of the Homeland Security Advisory System has been in the detailed planning of protective measures to be taken based on increased threats and alert level. Not only has the Department engaged in extensive planning and communication with thousands of state and local government agencies, police forces, fire departments, first responders and private-sector corporations, but these entities also have developed plans on their own for various alert levels. In fact, as an instrument of national planning, the Homeland Security Advisory System has made a major contribution to our enhanced state of readiness.

However, the Task Force believes the cost in dollars -and skepticism -of overly broad alerts is a substantial problem requiring remedy.

The best response involves:

1) Targeted raising of the formal alert status -as opposed to issuance of broad based verbal warnings.
2) To the extent possible, the American people should be provided as much threat detail consistent with national security -with focus on specific location and sector at actual risk.
3) The alert system must return any elevated status to “guarded” as soon as possible, consistent with the threat intelligence, unless credible intelligence shows a need to maintain an elevated alert.

#6 The Homeland Security Alert System Will Require Dedicated Infrastructure, Staff, Established Protocols and Procedures
The Homeland Security Advisory System was created in a crisis and for that reason it was done with admirable speed in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Moving quickly, responding to a rapid succession of threats, executive branch leaders depended on ad hoc practices for changing the nation’s alert status and communicating that message. Further, the system has had no staff dedicated to manage the work in a crisis. The Task Force believes the Secretary should establish the protocols, procedures, and staff capable of supporting the Secretary.

This basic infrastructure should include:

  • Criteria for deciding when an alert shall be made or a change in threat status announced.
  • A protocol for applying the criteria to new threat information. • A protocol for consultation with the White House.
  • A protocol for communicating alerts and new status information. • A protocol for providing the supporting information to the public at the time of the alerts.
  • Individuals designated to coordinate the resulting communications