Today, the color-coded threat system, officially known as the Homeland Security Advisory System, will be nixed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She should be applauded for getting rid of a system that has zero credibility and has done little to achieve its goal of informing the public about potential threats.
The color-coded system has long been the butt of late night talk show jokes since it was created after 9/11. Who could forget Jay Leno teasing that the Department of Homeland Security had “added a plaid [to the color codes] in case we were ever attacked by Scotland.” The fact that it became such easy fodder for humor demonstrated what made it such as disaster. The system would ratchet up terrorism concerns through the nation by raising the color level regardless of whether the nature of the risk actually warranted an increase, and in turn the federal government would respond by spending an estimated $1 billion on increased physical security measures (this doesn’t include the cost to state and local governments, the private sector, or private citizens). As my colleagues emphasized, we never knew whether measures ever even prevented or deterred attacks. The public, for its part, mostly ignored it.
Heritage proposed abandoning this approach almost immediately after it was created. This viewpoint was shared by a taskforce organized by Napolitano in 2009 to examine whether the system should be abandoned. The taskforce concluded that the system “has suffered from a lack of credibility and clarity leading to an erosion of public confidence such that is should be abandoned.”
Napolitano plans to replace the current system with something that will hopefully improve its effectiveness. The ideal replacement would be one that is understandable, credible and actionable.
These reforms could help make the system more than just background noise in the busy lives of Americans. And if appropriately used, a Homeland Security Advisory System can serve the purpose of integrating federal, state, local, and private-sector responses while preventing, deterring, or mitigating the effects of a terrorist attack.