Commentary

Back to Yellow Alert — But What Changed?

By Charles V. Peña
September 25, 2002

Ever since it was launched in March, the homeland security advisory system has been sending nothing but mixed and confusing signals. After raising the alert level to “orange,” indicating a “high risk of terrorist attacks” for two weeks after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorism, the alert condition is now back to its previous six-month state of “yellow” for a “significant risk.” But absolutely nothing has changed in terms of the potential threat of a terrorist attack against the United States.

Once again, the rhetoric and actions about possible terrorist threats seem completely disconnected from the homeland security terrorist alert level. So what’s the point of having an alert system? It’s supposed to “provide a comprehensive and effective means to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to … the American people.” So far, it has done nothing but communicate vague and decidedly unhelpful information.

In April, the FBI issued warnings about possible terrorist plans to strike banks and financial institutions. And a warning was issued about a possible attack on a shopping mall or supermarket. Yellow alert.

In May, there was a flurry of warnings and dire pronouncements. U.S. intelligence sources reported that Islamic terrorists were planning an attack on nuclear power plants on the 4th of July. Vice President Cheney warned that another terrorist attack was “almost certain.” FBI Director Robert Mueller said that suicide bombers like those who have attacked Israel are “inevitable,” and the FBI asked apartment owners to report any suspicious activity. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said a future terrorist attack was “not a question of if, but a question of when.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld echoed Ridge, stating that the “question is not if, but when, where, and how” another terrorist attack will occur. Capping those warnings, the FBI alerted New York City authorities about possible terrorist attacks against city landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The Department of Transportation also issued a warning about possible attacks against subway and rail systems. Yellow alert.

In June, Attorney General Ashcroft announced an alleged “dirty bomb” plot in connection with the arrest of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla. The Coast Guard issued an alert for ports and harbors. And the FBI warned about fuel tanker attacks against Jewish schools and synagogues, and investigated the claim of a cell phone conversation in Arabic talking about a “hit” on the “day of freedom.” The FBI also issued a secret alert to law enforcement agencies - but did not warn the public - about a possible terrorist attack around the 4th of July holiday. Yellow alert.

In July, the Transportation Security Administration warned small airports and private pilots to be on the lookout for suspicious persons, activities and operations. The Senate Select Committee on intelligence stated that al Qaeda was regrouping and working secretly inside the United States. And U.S. intelligence agencies claimed that the al Qaeda infrastructure in the United States could consist of as many as 5,000 terrorists and supporters. “Intelligence chatter” raised serious concerns that terrorists would try to strike again sometime during the summer. An al Qaeda spokesman claimed that Osama bin Laden was still alive and that more attacks were being organized. Still more of the same. Yellow alert.

But on the anniversary of 9/11 the warning status inexplicably elevated from yellow to orange — yet there was no new information about terrorist threats against the homeland. According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, the heightened terror alert was prompted by “specific intelligence” pointing to threats against U.S. interests abroad, in South Asia and the Mideast. President Bush even admitted, “We have no specific threat to America.” So why increase the “homeland” security alert level and thus the public’s level of fear and anxiety?

Now the alert level is back to yellow despite no real evidence that the United States is any safer from terrorist attack than when the level was raised to orange.

It seems the best purpose for the homeland security advisory system is for the federal bureaucracy to be seen as “doing something” to prove to the public that politicians and government officials are not asleep at the wheel — if something actually does happen, they can claim they gave fair warning. But it’s of little use to state and local government officials, as well as the general public, because no clearly defined actions are associated with any of the alert levels. Indeed, throughout all the various warnings - including increasing the alert level from yellow to orange and back to yellow again - the public has been told to go about their normal, everyday lives.

The truth is that the homeland security advisory system is government sound and fury signifying much of nothing.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.