January 8, 2004 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Warning: We Need a Better Warning System

Caution: While you're reading these words, a terrorist strike could occur in the United States.

But whether, when or where al Qaeda strikes again won't depend on whether our government has issued the proper color-coded warning. And it won't change the fact that the advisory system created after 9/11 to warn us of future attacks badly needs revision.

The system relies on a series of color codes to designate various levels of national preparedness. America just spent its first "orange" Christmas-the second-highest danger level. It was the fifth such alert in two years.

Recent warnings of possible impending terrorist attacks are credible, and additional security measures are justified. But the current advisory system ratchets up concern throughout the nation regardless of whether the nature of the risk warrants it, while doing little or nothing to make us safer. As Dan Goure, a national security specialist with the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, concluded, "We have a better system for rating movies."

Worse, this imperfect process is prohibitively expensive. Every time the country goes on orange alert, America spends an estimated $1 billion a week for increased security. Unfortunately, we don't even know if these precautions prevent or deter attacks. Because we do know we're in a war that may go on for decades, we must save scarce security dollars for measures that truly make us safer.

We need not scrap the current system entirely. It appears to work well at the federal level, where assets are under centralized control and deployed by people with unfettered access to classified intelligence. Washington should be able to add or subtract from the levels of security we have at our borders, at sea, and around key assets.

It's not so simple for states, counties and cities. Many communities, absent specific information on threats to their area, do nothing. Others pile on security, breaking their overtime budget, then turn to Washington, which put them in this fix to begin with, for more money.

As expensive as it will be to secure the homeland in coming years, we need to improve significantly the current nationwide, non-specific alert system so local and state governments don't divert to security expenses funds that would be better spent elsewhere. We need a system that accurately tells average citizens when the security measures they already observe every day-watching for suspicious activity, reviewing their personal security and disaster response plans, etc.-are inadequate.

Responsible voices, including former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who chaired a prestigious national commission on terrorism, along with Reps. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Jim Turner, D-Texas, ranking members of the House's Homeland Security Committee, have called for revising the alert system. It is time for the administration to listen.

Our suggestions:

  • Scrap the public color-coded portion of the advisories. Instead, when appropriate, issue simple and clearly worded watch or warning reports that average people can understand. Officials should tell people what they can when they can, then let them make their own choices on how to respond.

  • Replace the national alert to state and local governments with regional alerts and specific warnings for different types of industries and infrastructure. This will become easier once the Department of Homeland Security completes its comprehensive risk-level ranking of all areas in the country. Hopefully, the ranking will address criteria such as population, threat assessment, number of important sites, and level of vulnerability, and then classify areas as low, medium or high risk.

  • Establish standards of preparedness and response for state and local authorities so they can determine what they need to do to counter terror threats and what help they should expect from the federal government.=
Terrorists don't respect our color-coded system. They will attack us when and where it suits them, not because or in spite of any alert we issue. America needs an alert system that will enable it to respond to threats that could arise periodically for decades. Only with cooperative efforts between federal, state and local authorities, and a public understanding of how to respond to threat alerts, will the advisory system truly be effective.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire