October 8, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
The terrorists were busy last month. On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, they stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the American ambassador.
All was not quiet on the home front either. After palling around online with extremist networks and toying with 29 possible targets, Adel Daoud settled on trying to bomb a Chicago bar. It would be, he thought proudly, an act of war against his fellow Americans.
Daoud parked his car bomb by the bar, walked a block away and hit the detonator. That was when the FBI swept in and arrested him.
Both events appear unconnected to the wave of anti-American violence that swept the Islamic world last month. Nevertheless, both here and overseas, vigilance was ramped up -- just in case. One step officials didn't take, though, was to raise the terror color-code alert on the home front. That's because the Department of Homeland Security abolished the "alert" system last year. Even the bureaucrats realized it was good for little more than jokes in late-night TV monologues.
Over its eight years of existence, the threat level changed color 17 times. It was never reduced to low or guarded (green or blue). Once, the threat level was raised to red. Most of the time it set on orange. None of this made sense. Travelers would hear a preprogrammed voice endlessly drone the day's color code at airports, without a clue as to what it meant or what they were supposed to do about it.
That code's uselessness was confirmed after this latest outbreak of terror concerns. No one panicked because they didn't know the threat color.
More important is what has replaced the color code. For the most part, it's a pretty sensible collection of activities to make sure that folks are not caught unaware when there is information available that can be shared, responsibly, to help them stop or prepare for bad things before they happen.
Washington calls this new effort to share effective "risk communications" the National Terrorism Advisory System, or NTAS. Instead of picking from a palette of colors, it includes practical measures. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, for example, issued a joint intelligence bulletin on the security implications of the anti-American protests.
NTAS further provides for information-sharing, not only across the government but also with the private sector and the broader civil society. Thus, Homeland Security and the FBI reached out to religious organizations and other groups that might be potential targets.
The information-sharing here at home stood in sharp contrast to the administration's bungling release of the facts surrounding the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. The White House ultimately had to correct its early story that the attack was spontaneous, with no connection to terrorist groups. The administration also botched its public response over how respond to anti-American diatribes.
There is a lesson to be learned from contrasting the administration's Forrest Gump-like response to overseas threat and the sensible steps taken here at home. Public officials who make it up as they go along, keeping one eye on CNN and the other on the polls, leave us poorly informed and -- inevitably -- undermine their own credibility. On the other hand, when they put together a practical system of "risk communications" and use it right -- it keeps us well-informed and prepared.
Last month, Washington gave us examples of risk communications at their best and at their worst.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner.