Shades of Warning: What It Means to Inform

Ben Friedman helpfully supplies more information to go with my positive reaction to the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to scrap color-coded threat warnings.

Our colloquy leaves somewhat open what should replace color-coding. Because most threat warnings are false alarms, and because exhortations to vigilance will tend toward the vagueness of the color-coding system, Ben hopes “DHS winds up being tighter-lipped.”

His points are good ones, but they don’t dissuade me from my belief that DHS should “begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government.”

The right answer here centers on who is better at digesting threat information—experts in the national security bureaucracy or the public?

There is a great deal of expertise in the U.S. government focused on turning up threat information and digesting it for policymakers. However, that expertise has limits, often manifested as threat inflation, as Ben notes, and as myopia. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy: The American Experience illustrates the latter well (especially the edition with Richard Gid Powers’ fine introduction).

The public consists of hundreds of millions of subject matter experts in every walk of life. They include owners and operators of all our infrastructure, reporters and commentators in the professional and amateur press, academics, state and local law enforcement personnel, information networks, and social networks of all kinds. We have security-interested folk in the hundreds of millions spread out across the land, all in regular communication with each other. We’re a tremendously powerful information processing machine. I believe this public can do a better job of digesting threat information than “experts,” particularly when it comes to terrorism threats, which can—theoretically, at least—manifest themselves pretty much anywhere.

The public constantly digests risk and threat information from other walks of life. We digest information about ordinary crime, health and disease, finance and investment, driving and walking, etc., etc. There is nothing about terrorism that disables the public from making judgments about threat information and incorporating it into daily life. People can figure out what matters and what does not, and they can apply information in the spheres they know.

When I say “fully inform,” I don’t argue for broadcasting every speck of information the U.S. government collects. There are limited domains in which information sharing will reveal sources and methods, undercutting access to future information. Appropriate caveats are part of ”fully” informing, of course. Natural pressure will cause too speculative threats to be winnowed from public release. But even opening a firehose will get people the water they need to drink.

Tight lips sink ships. The presumption should fall in favor of sharing information with the public. After a period of adjustment lasting from months to a year or more, the American information system would incorporate open threat information into daily life, and the country would be more secure. People made confident by the ability to consume and respond to threat information will feel more secure, which is the other half of what security is all about.