September 26, 2012 | Issue Brief on Homeland Security
Last week, the FBI foiled the 52nd thwarted Islamist-inspired terrorist plot against the United States since 9/11. The thwarting of this plot came as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued warnings to religious organizations and other groups within the U.S. of the potential for heightened violence in connection with recent unrest in Egypt and Libya. Yet while U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and other communities increased their vigilance, the national threat level was not raised to red, orange, yellow, or even blue.
This was because in May 2011, DHS did away with the oft-criticized, color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). In its place, the Department created the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) in an effort to better communicate clear, timely, and specific information about the nature of the terrorist threat to the American people.
Overall, this system, coupled with other sensible efforts at effective risk communication, has served to enhance national preparedness, but more should be done. DHS should work to build on these efforts by merging terrorist alerts into an “all hazards” alert system, enhancing information sharing, and building human capital and professional development among the next generation of homeland security professionals and leaders.
Most Americans are familiar with the once-common announcements that the national threat level was orange. Once heard throughout U.S. airports, the color-coded threat level announcements have not been missed. While the system was designed to convey a wide range of threat levels, elevated and high (yellow and orange) threat warnings became the norm, desensitizing the public and causing HSAS to lose its credibility. Over the eight-year life of the old system, the threat level changed 17 times; however, it was never reduced to low or guarded (green or blue), and only once was the threat level ever raised to red.
Not only did the perpetually heightened threat level undermine the credibility of the system, creating apathy and complacency among the American public, but the alerts ignored the basic principles of effective risk communication by offering no actionable steps for citizens to follow. The system also failed to convey any meaningful difference between its non-specific alert levels. The differences between yellow and orange, for instance, had little to no difference in meaning for the public.
Abolishing HSAS in May 2011, DHS created the National Terrorism Advisory System in its place. Unlike its predecessor, NTAS offers only two alerts:
With each alert, the streamlined system also offers a brief summary of the threat, steps for public preparedness, information on the affected areas, and expiration date of the alert, as well as further details on the nature of the threat and actions being taken by authorities. Once activated, alerts are disseminated to state and local partners, as well as through the media, e-mail alerts, Facebook, and Twitter.
Not only a warning system for the public, NTAS also provides a tool for information sharing across the government and the private sector. This allows the federal government to communicate details about the nature and location of a terrorist threat to state, local, and private-sector leaders.
What may be most notable is that since the creation of NTAS more than a year ago, no alerts have been issued. Unlike HSAS, NTAS alerts are issued only when credible information is available about specific threats to the U.S. As one prominent example, vigilance was heightened across the nation immediately following the death of Osama bin Laden last May, yet no NTAS alert was issued indicating a credible or imminent terrorist threat to the U.S. Instead, both non-specific and specific threat and intelligence information may be communicated to law enforcement and public and private officials through such important and sensible tools as the FBI–DHS Joint Intelligence Bulletins.
Building on the experience of the HSAS system and the principles of effective risk communication—ensuring that information is credible, specific, actionable, and understandable—the NTAS system has made extensive strides in enhancing the federal government’s threat communication. While NTAS offers a vast improvement over the now-defunct color-coded warning system, more should be done to improve risk communication and national preparedness. Accordingly, Congress and the Administration should:
Last year, DHS wisely replaced its colorful but ultimately unhelpful and oft-ignored Homeland Security Advisory System in favor of the more specific and useful National Terrorism Advisory System. The NTAS provides actionable and understandable warning when a credible terrorist threat against the United States exists.
While this system and other tools (such as the FBI–DHS Joint Intelligence Bulletins) provide actionable intelligence to U.S. law enforcement and the public, there is more work to be done. The U.S should pursue an “all-hazards” alert system, as well as greater information sharing and professional development for homeland security officials, to further enhance risk communication and the nation’s overall preparedness.
—Jessica Zuckerman is a Research Associate in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.