13 Years Later, Still a Ways to Go on Sharing Terrorist Threats With Public

By Stew Magnuson

Back in 2011, then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ended the much maligned, and often ignored, color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale.

At that point, the homeland security advisory system had been “orange” for several years. Few seemed to know what “orange” meant, and during the few times it was raised to “red,” the government was reluctant to share with the public details of why it was raised, and not much happened except for a lot of police collecting overtime pay.

The nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s homeland security intelligence council recently organized a tabletop exercise in order to see how well the national security apparatus shared information in the event of an attempted terrorist attack.

One of the findings in a report detailing the results of the exercise was that communication mechanisms with the American public needed to be reviewed.

The color-coded warnings were replaced by the national terrorism advisory system. Not once since its creation in April 2011 has an alert gone out to the general public.

The tabletop exercise scenario involved a terrorist cell that wanted to detonate a radiological dispersal device, also known as a “dirty bomb.”  The intended target was the U.S. financial sector.

Caryn Wagner, chair of the alliance’s homeland security intelligence committee, said the exercise’s participants had a “uniformly negative” reaction to the question of whether they should notify the general public about the threat.

This brought up a question about the national terrorism advisory system: “Is it so narrowly drawn that it will probably never be used?” she asked at the alliance’s Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

The current system has two levels: One is an “imminent” threat. That is when the government has credible, specific information about an impending plot. The “elevated” warning is simply defined as a “credible” threat.

DHS has the responsibility to disseminate the information via alerts, including social media.  
Rand Beers, deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council staff, said, “It doesn’t require an alert to be issued nationally in order to alert people to deal with an issue.”

Alerts can go to a certain economic sector, or done in a geographically limited area. “They can include intelligence bulletins to local law enforcement that can recommend countermeasures that they can take to mitigate the threats,” he noted.

The report said the new system has “proved unexpectedly difficult to deploy for a variety of reasons.” There are complications from notifying the public about a threat that is not yet clear, it said.

In the scenario, a man is caught smuggling a scientific gauge that contains radiological material. He admits that he has brought in more and delivered them to anonymous buyers in Detroit.

After the participants — who came from federal, state and local law enforcement organizations, as well as the private sector — decided not to share the information with the public about the plot, the exercise’s organizers threw in a monkey wrench: There was a leak to the media. In addition, the news reports mischaracterized the threat as nuclear rather than radiological.

In that case, the tabletop exercise exposed weaknesses in the strategic communications plan.
“Be prepared to share information publicly — ready or not,” was the conclusion of the study.

While sharing information publicly could result in tips to help apprehend the terrorists, it also opens the door to the media spotlight, it said. Agencies could become inundated with bad tips.

The government needs to have a clear communication strategy to combat misinformation and speculation, the report said.

Topics: Defense Department, Homeland Security

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