Security experts: Homeland Security faces hurdles in replacing terror alerts

National security experts applauded the decision to end the color-coded threat advisory system, but said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to ramp up information-sharing and messaging efforts if a new system is going to succeed.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced last week the agency’s plan to drop the Bush-era advisory system that used colors to indicate the level of threats to the U.S. In its place, DHS plans to deliver “formal, detailed alerts” about “a specific or credible terrorist threat” that will either be tagged as an “imminent threat” or an “elevated threat.”

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But as DHS pushes ahead with its new two-tiered message-driven advisory system over the next three months, experts say it will be a challenge for the department to strike a balance between disseminating the right amount of information to thwart an attack and giving out too much information that could jeopardize the security of the country’s intelligence.

“The hardest part is going to be how do you create the right unclassified messages in order to communicate with people, when you’re dealing with classified sources and methods. And then how do you do that rapidly,” said David Howe, the CEO of the homeland security consulting Civitas Group. Howe was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the senior director for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Homeland Security Council in the White House.

The new threat advisory system plans to disseminate threat advisories to law enforcement officials, private businesses — such as shopping malls or hotels — and the American public, depending on the nature of the threat. It is part of DHS’s push to engage local communities and law enforcement officials in identifying suspicious activity or behavior, which was launched to the forefront last year with the department’s “See something — say something” campaign.

But in stepping up its messaging efforts, DHS is going to need to be more specific in identifying what the threat actually is, said Jena Baker McNeill, a homeland security policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.

“If the public doesn’t know what they should be looking for, what are they supposed to say?” Baker said. “So if there’s a specific report about shopping malls, people at those malls are going to understand a little bit better what they’re supposed to be looking out for.

“There’s a lot of desire among people to know what we’re facing. I mean we talk about that but a lot of times we don’t really communicate it to the public in a way that means something to them.”

Brian Jackson, a terrorism researcher with the RAND Corporation, said DHS’s messaging might be used not only to advise the public but also as a deterrent against a terrorist who could be plotting an attack and might think otherwise after the alert.

Jackson said the trick for DHS will be to temper how often it sends out alerts about possible threats. 

“The real challenge in information sharing is that you don’t want to have a warning that you don’t act on because you thought it was a false alarm. But you also don’t want to share so many of the false alarms that you’re running up the cost of responding where that’s not sustainable either,” said Jackson.

The color-coded system was developed after 9/11 to give the public a color that represented the level of the threat. It largely remained at yellow for domestic travel and orange for national security, and when it did elevate to red, the public was rarely given any specific information about the reason why. As a result it was widely criticized as being ineffective and was believed to have caused the public to become complacent to the warnings.

“We have lots of information that flows and sometimes it’s difficult to really know which piece of information is critical to need to handle right now,” said J. Eric Dietz, the director of the Purdue Homeland Security Institute and founding executive director for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Adding to that precarious line of deciding what is a threat and what is not is the fact that when DHS elevates the threat level, it inevitably receives a deluge of reported threats from law enforcement and the public.

“The challenge is that when we over-alarm the public and we get more information than we can handle and chase down, then we look as equally ineffective with too much information as we did with too little,” said Dietz.