To be sure, it’s not easy to suggest a better system — especially since we’re reasonably sure the country would be better off without a Department of Homeland Security and with better coordinated intelligence. But there’s little question the color-coding system designed to alert the public to intensified danger of terrorist activity has become something hardly more than a joke.
That’s just what several members of Congress tried to tell Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy at a hearing last week.
Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was sober and responsible in his criticisms as usual. But it’s easy to identify with Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, who put it a bit more colorfully:
“What I think is idiotic, foolish and stupid is to go to a high threat and then tell the public, ‘Just do what you normally do.’ I can’t think of anything stupider than that,” Shays said.
He has a point.
For a full year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the country struggled by without the alert level being raised to orange, despite several specific warnings.
In April 2002 the FBI warned about possible plans to strike banks and a warning was issued about a possible shopping-mall attack. A flurry of warnings came in May, along with warnings that the next terrorist attack was “not a question of if, but a question of when,” as Ridge put it.
There were specific warnings in June, July and August as well. But the first time the pseudoscientific terror alert level was raised from yellow to orange was on the first anniversary of the attacks. Since then it has been raised and lowered several times.
Each time, Americans are told to be more vigilant in some nonspecific way — and told to go about their ordinary business as if life were perfectly normal. This contradictory message is profoundly unhelpful.
As Rep. Cox said, “what citizens want is to be able to know — though perhaps not every detail — is what government is doing to meet a threat. If they can’t tell us even when the threat is reduced, what good is it?”
In fact, the system just might turn out to be useful to would-be terrorists, who are alerted that officialdom at least might be more vigilant than usual. It also gives terrorists a chance to observe just what happens on the ground when the government declares a higher state of alert, which could be useful for planners seeking gaps and vulnerabilities.
The Red-Orange-Yellow system has smacked of being a PR gimmick from the outset.
When government intelligence people have information about a specific threat in a particular region or particular industry, they can — and by all accounts do — communicate with relevant law enforcement agencies and try to coordinate activities.
But the nationwide, nonspecific warning that is involved in going from yellow to orange serves mainly to increase the stress level of ordinary citizens.
Homeland Security should take this system off life support and let it die.