How the National Terrorism Advisory System can rebuild DHS credibility

How the National Terrorism Advisory System can rebuild DHS credibility

To communicate threat information to the country, in 2011, the Department of Homeland Security created the National Terrorism Advisory System. Prior to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, there was silence from DHS. No NTAS bulletin warning would be issued, despite available intelligence activity to the contrary. In fact, an NTAS bulletin would never come, not even immediately after the insurrection at the Capitol. 

Instead, the Biden administration would take over and utilize NTAS during their first week in office when they issued a bulletin citing the continuing threat presented by domestic violent extremists to this country. 

How is this possible and could NTAS have left the country and law enforcement agencies better prepared for the events of Jan. 6 if it had been used by the previous administration?

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This becomes even more of a question following previous claims made during the Trump administration that adverse intelligence and other signals indicating domestic violent extremism and specific threats against the Capitol and lawmakers did not exist. These questions, along with a long list of others, must be answered to determine what went wrong leading up to, during, and following Jan. 6 and to make sure it never happens again.

DHS has evolved and matured since its creation in 2002 and NTAS is just one example of that maturity from the color-coded threat system that preceded it. NTAS would have helped federal, state and local officials anticipate, coordinate and plan for the events at the Capitol by providing specific and credible threat information that we now know existed.

With the creation of DHS in March 2002 under President George W. Bush, the department unveiled the Homeland Security Advisory System. This color-coded threat system — green (low), blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), orange (high), red (severe) — would serve as DHS’ primary way to communicate the significance of specific threats to the country and inform security posture decisions across the government, private sector and for everyday citizens. 

Any person with a memory of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, which led to the creation of DHS, will recall the use of HSAS and the repeated public announcements of the country’s threat level and color while traversing an airport and other locations. 

While HSAS was not perfect, for a large and new department struggling to pull together and ‘rebrand’ legacy federal law enforcement agencies — FEMA, U.S. Coast Guard and others — under one umbrella, the system had the right intentions and matched the intelligence infrastructure and capabilities of DHS at the time. 

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Most importantly, it was a fact-based system — the intelligence information drove the threat level, not politics. HSAS never went below yellow (elevated) and was raised and lowered a total of 16 times between 2002-2006, when it was raised to orange (high). It remained at that level until 2011, when it was replaced with the current NTAS by the Obama administration.

NTAS strengthened the means by which threat reporting occurs by leveraging the maturity and increased intelligence capabilities of DHS. It is intended to enhance communication from DHS to law enforcement, private sector and the public by providing them with actionable threat information without jeopardizing sources, methods and ongoing investigations. 

NTAS bulletins contain only pertinent information and to avoid the risk of complacency, each bulletin includes a ‘sunset date’ which ensures that a bulletin tied to a specific threat does not linger forever. The alert either expires after a designated time frame or can be extended, both of which are clearly communicated to the public and other stakeholders. NTAS has thus far been used infrequently and when it has been used it has done exactly as intended. But it must be used when needed!

The certification of the presidential election on Jan. 6 at the Capitol should have been designated a national security special event, placing the U.S. Secret Service in charge of planning and coordinating overall security and bringing forth a whole of government security solution, similar to a State of the Union and Inauguration. The issuance of an NTAS bulletin highlighting the available and specific threat information would have brought the national security special event option quickly to the surface for DHS, Capitol Police, National Guard and D.C. government. There is no doubt that had the event been designated an NSSE, any attempts of an insurrection would have failed.

DHS is gaining its credibility back, one week into the Biden administration. By doing the right thing by law enforcement and the American public and issuing an NTAS bulletin, which should have been done weeks ago. A decision that could have prevented deaths, injuries, destruction and a violation of a sacred institution and building. 

DHS has numerous tools in its toolbox to protect the American public. It is refreshing to see that experienced people will be put in place to do the right thing and utilize the tools available to them.

Charles Marino is the CEO of Sentinel Security Solutions, a global security and crisis management firm. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the U.S. Secret Service and as the senior law enforcement advisor to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. He oversaw the implementation of the National Terrorism Advisory System for DHS and appears regularly as an analyst on major cable news networks. Charles is a graduate of the National War College in D.C. and holds a masters degree in national security strategy.