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A New Terrorism Warning System – Time to Decide

In July 2009, the Department of Homeland Security announced the kick-off of a 60-day task force review of the Homeland Security Advisory System – that of color-coded infamy (“It’s a simple five-level system . . . OFF WHITE, followed by CREAM, PUTTY, BONE and finally NATURAL . . . an excellent guide can be found on page 74 of the spring J. Crew catalog,” lampooned Saturday Night Live soon after the system was announced).

That system was an earnest but misguided response to a public demand for immediate, mass-consumable information, a demand that does not exist to the same degree today.

In a report issued in September 2009, the task force concluded that the terrorism warning system should be significantly reformed. But task force members were split on whether to retain some version of a color-coded system.

Then, in November 2010, the press reported that DHS had decided to scrap the color-coded system and would unveil the new system in several weeks.

Scrapping the color-coded system, which long ago ceased to be useful, is sound public policy. And it requires guts – because the public largely has forgotten about that system, it would have been easy for DHS to simply ignore this relic. Replacing it with something new, on the other hand, is bound to generate criticism. The split among the task force members on whether to maintain some version of a color-coded system is testament to the fact that on the complex question of how to convey terrorism information, you cannot please all the people all the time.

But periodically announcing that the system will be changed – and not actually changing it – will please no one. In the hope that 2011 will bring the change that DHS has signaled several times, here is a concept for how a new system could work:

1. At least once per year, DHS would issue a “baseline terrorism threat” report outlining the “background” threats to the country and general preparedness measures of the sort that DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends. This would set the “Level 1” equilibrium threat and response state. This baseline “Level 1” would be re-calibrated annually and could be re-calibrated more frequently if necessary.

2. In case of intelligence indicating a significantly heightened threat and need for public diligence, DHS would issue a “Level 2 Bulletin” explaining, in as much detail as possible, the nature of the threat (whether focused on a particular location, industry, timeframe, etc.) and any suggested response. A Level 2 Bulletin would expire automatically after one week, but DHS could affirmatively choose to renew the Level 2 Bulletin as many times as necessary and/or could issue a new Level 1 baseline report indicating a change in the equilibrium threat and response state.

Whether the new system is based on this concept or something else, DHS should be applauded for announcing a change to the terrorism warning system but booed if that change is not forthcoming soon. It has been 18 months since DHS announced a 60-day task force review. It’s time to decide.

Stephen Heifetz blogs primarily on aviation, transportation and maritime security, immigration and border security, and homeland security policy. He is a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson, LLP , where he helps clients navigate laws and policies at the nexus of international business and security. Read More