New Terror-Alert System Was Overdue

Friday, 22 Apr 2011 10:10 AM

By Judith Miller

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From the balcony of Grand Central Terminal, New York's most glorious public space and among its top terror targets, Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, formally unveiled Wednesday the nation's new terror alert system, officially scrapping the color-coded warning system that had become the butt of late-night talk-show jokes.

Goodbye HSAS (Homeland Security Advisory System). Hello NTAS (National Threat Advisory System). The chart showing five different levels of threat will be gone as of next week. Gone too, will be those colors.

So say farewell to green, (low threat) blue (guarded), yellow, (elevated) orange (high), and red (severe). They have been replaced by two colorless threat levels — "elevated" and "imminent."

The new system, says the homeland security chief, is intended to give citizens more information about "specific, credible" terrorist threats to sectors of our economy — planes, trains, ports, etc. From now on, she told us, we're supposed to be "alert," not "afraid."

The new alerts, based on information collected by the FBI, CIA, and others, is also supposed to provide as many unclassified details as possible. It is also intended to tell Americans what we can do in an emergency and how to stay prepared, she says.

It may be too good to be true, one top law enforcement officer suggested. Since information about ongoing threats is usually jealously guarded by the FBI and its over 150 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (that's the JTTFs), they often resist sharing it even with other agencies, much less the public, classified or unclassified. 

Their fear is that premature disclosure of too much information may compromise ongoing investigations or inadvertently divulge intelligence sources and methods.

Nevertheless, the revamp seems long overdue, as Democrats and Republicans seem to agree.

Jerome Hauer, a former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration, who said he opposed the old color-coded threat system "from day one" praised its successor as "simpler and well conceived."

Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who attended the announcement Wednesday, complained that the old system was confusing and irritating, particularly at airports. Rep. Congressman Peter King of New York, another attendee, told me that although the old color-coded system "was not as bad as its critics have said," it was time to "move on."

It's hard to argue with that.

The secretary's new alert system follows many of the key recommendations of a special advisory task force that studied the alert system back in 2009. Headed by Frances Fragos Townsend, the former counterterrorism adviser in the Bush National Security Council, and William Webster, a former FBI director, the task force concluded that the alert system was broken when it came to communicating not with law enforcement agencies, but with the public.

Though they divided on whether to abandon color-coding, they unanimously agreed that the system needed fixing.

For one thing, the 19-member bipartisan group wrote, although the threat level had been changed 17 times since President Bush signed it into law in early 2002, it had mostly remained at yellow or orange for more than five years.

Only once was it elevated to red, the report noted. That was back in August 10, 2006 when the Bush administration warned about a danger for commercial flights originating in the United Kingdom after an al-Qaida plot to blow up trans-Atlantic planes was disrupted. The system, the task force complained, had never lowered the threat level to "green (low) or blue (guarded)."

Task force members also couldn't help but notice that it was easier to raise the threat level than to lower it, and that some threats never seemed to disappear. As a result, new alerts will automatically expire after two weeks unless fresh intelligence justifies their extension.

The group also recommended that the Homeland Security Department alert Americans by using social networks – Facebook, Twitter, emails and other social sites and engines. Welcome to the 21st century, DHS.

What will this mean for American travelers at airports? Alas, not very much, a Homeland Security spokesman told me. We'll still have to remove our shoes and our computers from our hand luggage for screening.

Those cuticle scissors may still be confiscated — the TSA, which  Napolitano has struggled mightily to fix, still can't seem to impose uniform standards about what can, and can't, be carried in purses and small bags onto planes. And yes, you still won't be able to carry more than 3 ounces of liquids in your briefcase or handbag onto a plane.

But at least those dreadful tape-recorded announcements about the threat level will be gone, said Napolitano, the former Arizona governor who is no stranger to the security nightmare that airports have become for so many Americans. And those orange signs will come down.

Instead, the department is adopting the MTA's mantra: "If you see something, say something." This, too, is smart. For as any Israeli counterterrorism official will tell you, there is no substitute for alert citizens.

Napolitano was honest about another hallmark of modern American life: We won't be a blue or even a green nation any time soon (though she did wear a cheery green jacket at her press briefing). Given al-Qaida's deadly persistence, an "elevated" threat level, she acknowledges, is the new normal. This, too, is an evolution for the homeland security chief, who refused even to utter the word in her early testimony on Capitol Hill, but who spoke of terrorism threats to the nation with eloquence and passion in an appearance before Rep. Peter King's Homeland Security panel several weeks ago.

There were plenty of signs of the new normal at Grand Central on Wednesday. As Napolitano spoke, flanked by Reps. King and Maloney, and New York's indefatigable Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose department has disrupted at least 12 plots to the city since 9/11, NYPD cops patrolled the area, as MTA bomb-sniffing dogs checked for explosives.

Men in tight-fitting suits with bulging biceps and cords dangling from their ears spoke in hushed tones into cellphones.

But below Balcony B, hundreds of New Yorkers and visitors scurried across the station to catch trains and subways as usual, and stopped to chat at the clock or snap pictures of the glorious building. For them, it was just another day at one of the city's major transit hubs and tourist destinations. And that's just the way Napolitano and Kelly wanted it.

Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com

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