Terror Alerts in the 'See Something, Say Something' Era

On Monday, Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson announced the national terrorism warning system would be changed again.


On Monday, after President Obama’s Oval Office address about last week’s ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he would change the national terrorism-warning system.

This raises an important question: What is the current terror warning system in the United States? (Scratches head.)

Since the discarding of the infamous color-coded threat levels, Americans have been left to rely on the National Terrorism Advisory System. The mission of the four-and-a-half-year-old system is to “effectively communicate information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports and other transportation hubs, and the private sector.”

The only problem is that it has never been used. While Americans traveling abroad may have heard warnings from the State Department, no alerts have been issued by the Department of Homeland Security. In the wake of the San Bernardino attacks and a heightened uneasiness about terrorism, Johnson said it was time for a change.

“I believe that in this environment, we need to get beyond that and go to a new system that has an intermediate level to it and I’ll be announcing soon, hopefully, what our new system is, that I think, reflects the current environment and the current realities,” he said at a Defense One event.

Forgetting that this already sounds a little like what the current system was designed to do, what does an “intermediate level” of warning look like? The answer, it seems, is a lower bar for officials to pass along information about threats to the general public.

“The new alerts will be similar to intelligence bulletins the FBI and DHS share with law enforcement agencies around the country, and not currently with the public,” CBS reported.

One irony here is that Johnson’s announcement comes in the wake of an attack for which there was seemingly no warning or intelligence. Even ISIS could only take partial credit for the events and, if anything, the episode only renewed the discourse about the challenges law enforcement faces in confronting violence by self-radicalized attackers. Meanwhile, on the Sunday morning shows, pundits and presidential contenders alike weren’t calling for inquiries into intelligence failures, but debating gun control, no-fly lists, and the broader fighting against ISIS.

In one critique of the old color-coded terror warning system, Bruce Schneier, the terrorism expert, explained, “They don’t tell people what they can do—they just make people afraid.” Will giving the public access to intelligence bulletins offer more than that?