Homeland Security: Follow the Bouncing Ball

Paradoxically, just prior to U.S. military action in Iraq, the homeland security terrorist alert threat level was raised because the U.S. war on Iraq carried with it increased risks of possible terrorist attacks from al Qaeda, Iraqi operatives, and freelance terrorists, even though the war itself was portrayed as a necessary act to reduce the terrorist threat. Now that the war in Iraq is essentially over (despite the United States not yet declaring victory), the Bush administration has lowered the national terror alert level from “orange” — meaning a high risk of terrorist attack — to “yellow” or significant risk.

For starters, can someone please explain the difference between “high” and “significant”?

And did raising the alert level prevent any terrorism? This falls into the same category as trying to prove a negative. To be sure, there were no terrorist attacks against the United States during the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But there is no way to know with any certainty whether this was due to Operation Liberty Shield (the code name for the alert level increase specifically tied to the war in Iraq) or because there were no attacks planned.

The nature of terrorism is to flow around obstacles and find the path of least resistance. So it makes sense that terrorists would choose not to attack if they knew that enhanced security measures were in place. The easier thing to do is wait until the United States is less alert to the possibility of an attack. Ironically, that is exactly what is communicated by lowering the alert status — by definition. Indeed, according to U.S. officials, some security measures around the country will be relaxed.

Since its creation a little more than a year ago, the alert level system has been raised three times from yellow to orange: on the anniversary of September 11; in February 2003 in conjunction with the Muslim holiday the Hajj; and for the Iraqi war. But there have also been countless warnings about possible terrorism that didn’t change the alert level. So it’s hard to correlate between warnings about possible terrorist attacks and the actual alert level. And given that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks regardless of the alert level, it’s difficult to know if the alert level makes any difference at all.

Compounding the problem are the “don’t worry, be happy” messages that accompany changes in the alert level. How can people be told to go about their normal lives and not cancel any events as if nothing has changed, when, in fact, the threat level has been changed? If the threat has increased, people need to know what they should do — beyond buying duct tape and plastic sheeting. One warning cited apartment buildings as a possible terrorist target. Does that mean that people who live in apartment buildings should find another place to live for the duration of the alert? Another warning was about possible attacks against passenger trains. Incredulously, an administration spokesperson urged Americans to “continue to ride our nation’s rails.”

Equally absurd are the electronic highway signs with a toll free number for people to report terrorist activity. This is akin to being told to report “suspicious activity” (whatever that is) to the proper authorities. One can only imagine how many innocent people have been reported as a result. And exactly how do the FBI and other law enforcement agencies decide which of the myriad reports of suspicious activity to follow-up on?

The homeland security advisory system is supposed “to provide a comprehensive and effective means to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts … to the American people” and “to inform and facilitate decisions … to private citizens at home and at work.” But it’s really just a bouncing ball with little or no practical utility for Joe and Jane Q. Public.

Instead of needlessly raising anxiety levels or providing a false sense of security with the color-coded alert system, the Department of Homeland Security needs to focus its resources on more important tasks, such as preventing terrorists from entering the country. Indeed, all of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 entered the country through a legal point of entry, as do millions of other people each year.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.