Homeland Security chief defends not raising threat level after bin Laden death

Several senators criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Wednesday for not raising the country’s threat alert level in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing. 

Napolitano, testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said there was no credible or specific threat to the U.S., but that the agency had taken heightened measures to guard against possible attacks. 

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Napolitano said she is prepared to raise the nation’s alert level if any credible threats emerge, and added that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is monitoring the analysis of information seized at bin Laden’s compound on a real-time basis. 

“We continue to review on an ongoing basis all material seized during the operation, as well as new intel that may be coming in, and I stand ready to issue an alert should intel or information emerge that warrants it under the new advisory system,” said Napolitano. 

But the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), pressed Napolitano on the issue, saying that raising the alert level makes sense given the widespread sentiment that the U.S. is especially vulnerable to an attack after killing bin Laden. 

“I’m wondering why we’re not increasing the threat level,” Collins said. “It seems to me that until a further assessment is conducted of the intelligence, including a full exploitation of the material and data seized at the compound at which Osama bin Laden was living, that it would be prudent to increase the threat level ... to acknowledge that we are in a situation where we are at risk.”

Collins referenced Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter’s comments earlier this week, in which he said U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned about retaliatory attacks against the U.S. for the killing of bin Laden. Leiter said, however, that no specific plots had been discovered as of that time.

The oft-criticized color-coded threat advisory system was replaced last week by the new National Terrorism Advisory System, which functions from a baseline understanding that the U.S. is always under the threat of attack and therefore always on alert.

If a specific threat emerges, however, the alert level can be raised to an “elevated” status, or, if the specific threat grows, an “imminent” status. 

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) objected to DHS’s decision not to change the country’s threat level after bin Laden’s killing, saying that if the alert level never changes, then the American public won’t be able to trust the system. 

“The purpose of an advisory system is to advise the public when something has changed,” said Johnson. “If we’re always on the same constant level of alert that just degrades over time — I’m just kind of scratching my head.” 

Napolitano said that if a specific threat to the U.S. is uncovered, under the new advisory system, people would be told what the threat is, what they can do to help DHS stop the threat and where they can go for updated information about the threat. 

Following bin Laden’s killing, DHS deployed additional officers and resources to critical areas of the country, such as large airports and ports of entry. DHS has also been, in conjunction with the FBI, “reviewing all open cases” of potential al Qaeda operatives possibly in the United States, Napolitano said.

DHS also issued advisories to the numerous fusion centers throughout the country, as well as to chief intelligence commanders of major cities, private-sector critical infrastructure owners and other law enforcement officials.

And the agency “is continuing to strengthen its recurrent vetting for visa, asylum and other benefit applicants and recipients in cooperation with the intel community,” Napolitano said.

This story was posted at 2:33 p.m. and updated at 7:36 p.m.