Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 23, 2005

Where have all the code oranges gone?

Filed under: DHS News,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on December 23, 2005

Josh Marshall asks:

…When was the last time there was a major terror alert? They were something like a regular occurence for the eighteen months or so before the 2004 election. And through 2004 the administration pushed the line that al Qaida was aiming to disrupt the elections themselves. But as near I can tell there hasn’t been a single one since election day.

Through 2004, of course, critics of the administration routinely questioned whether the frequency and timing of the various terror alerts were not all or in part for political effect.

How do we explain what appears to be a night and day difference between the year prior to November 2004 and the year since in terms of terror alerts and scares?

My quick take on these questions:

1. Wikipedia’s page on the Homeland Security Advisory System has an accurate and complete list of the “orange alerts” that have taken place.

The last full scale alert was nearly two years ago, around the 2003-04 holiday period. Since then, there have been two “partial” alerts – the one for financial centers in NY, NJ and DC in August 2004; and one for transit assets after the London bombings this year. But basically it’s been two years since the last full alert. If we’re counting partial alerts, then there actually has been one since the Nov. 2004 election.

Overall, the timetable seems to undercut the idea of politicization in the run-up to the election. If that were the case, wouldn’t they have increased from 2003 to 2004?

2. In terms of the question about “why”, here’s the top-level list of plausible hypotheses:

a. Alerts have diminished due to post-2004 election environment and lack of need to politicize fear.
b. Alerts have diminished due to gradual reduction of al-Qaeda threat against US.
c. Alerts have diminished due to realization in DHS that alert system is a poor means of communicating to the general public about threats.

I’ll put most of my chips on #3. Consider this quote from the person most identified with the threat advisory system, Tom Ridge, after he had left DHS:

“People focus too much on colors. It could be numbers, it could be animals,” Ridge said. “The American public wants us to focus more on the information.”

He’s mocking his own baby. Why? I think the senior leadership of DHS realized in 2004 that the advisory system was essentially counterproductive, since it was causing freakouts in the low-threat heartland and leaving local leaders and law enforcement officials asking, “ok, so it’s orange, now tell me what am I supposed to do?”

This is my sense as to why the “financial centers” alert in 2004 was narrow, and why Sec. Chertoff has essentially mothballed the broader alert system since he took office.

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