January 8, 2004
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. and Ha Nguyen
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
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
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
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.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
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.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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