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Terror Alert Task Force Splits On Keeping Color System; But Is Unanimous In Calling For More Specificity, Transparency, Actionable Steps, Follow-Up & “All Tools” In Public Communications

September 16th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Though it divided on whether or not to maintain the color alert system, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) advisory committee yesterday unanimously recommended that the Obama Administration make the government’s terrorism warning communications more robust, specific, transparent and actionable.

The Homeland Security Advisory System Task Force was appointed earlier this summer by DHS Secretary Napolitano. It was co-chaired by former top government officials Frances Townsend and William Webster. Napolitano will discuss the report with the White House and other members of the Cabinet before making any changes.

From my perspective, the report is generally on target. It correctly focuses much of its critique and recommendations on the public (one of the alert system’s “two primary audiences”) and emphasizes the need to improve government warnings to the citizenry whether or not the colors remain. By contrast, the report says the current system has “functioned reasonably well” for the other audience, “institutions” (ie. government/private sector), especially as alerts have become more targeted geographically and to specific industries.

“The system’s ability to communicate useful information in a credible manner to the public is poor. Significant rethinking of how to communicate to this audience is warranted,” the report concludes, adding, ”The Task Force members agreed that, at its best, there is currently indifference to the Homeland Security Advisory System and, at worst, there is a disturbing lack of public confidence in the system. In our judgment, this lack of public confidence must be remedied.”

Among the recommended “Measures to Restore Public Confidence”:

• A discipline of more narrowly targeting the specific region and sector under threat, avoiding elevating the alert status of the nation as a whole.
• A practice of providing more specific information on new threats: including information on the type of threat, the credibility of the source of the information, and the steps the government is taking to mitigate the vulnerability.
• A practice of accompanying new alerts with actionable steps the public can take.
• An acknowledgment that the new baseline for the United States is guarded. We remain a nation confronting the threat of terrorist attack, but given that we remain ever on guard, the number of levels can be reduced from five to three.
• As disciplined a focus on lowering the alert status as now goes into raising it.
• A practice of debriefing the nation after alerts have been issued -what happened to the threat, can we now return to (what we recommend to be termed) “guarded” status?

Among the report’s “Recommendations for the Secretary” are:

* “The Task Force believes that, with reform, the advisory system should remain exclusively focused on the threat of terrorism to the United States.”

* “Consistent with national security, alerts issued by the Secretary should provide the fullest degree of information possible. The Secretary should consider, consistent with national security concerns,” including details, credibility of information, actionable steps.”

* “Whatever threat alert system is adopted, the federal government -across agencies — would benefit from a common vocabulary — exactly what each level of threat means to the general public.”

* “Consistent with national security, the Department of Homeland Security should offer the greatest transparency possible on the process by which alert decisions have been made.”

* “When public security merits an increase in threat status, the Secretary should target that higher alert level, as best possible, on the specific location and the specific sector at risk.”

* “To retain credibility with the general public, the threat level of the country must be regularly reassessed and lowered when practicable and consistent with the available threat information. The Secretary should consider various “forcing mechanisms” to encourage default to a guarded status following periods of elevated concern.”

* “More generally, the Secretary should consider a practice of “debriefs” explaining recent threats and what has become of them.”

* “The Task Force recommends the Homeland Security Advisory System retain some form of targeted risk communication to the public should a ‘terrorist alert’ be announced. There was no consensus over whether this should be a graduated, easily-recognized code system that can convey, in an instant, a change in the level of concern or a simpler, more-flexible system of targeted warnings that easily would be understandable, credible, and actionable by the public. Some Task Forces members felt strongly that the public alerts be consistent with, but bifurcated from, preparedness, readiness alerts for institutions. While the Task Force did not think terrorist alerts should be integrated with natural disasters, some task forces members did believe that the form of terrorist alert should mirror the kinds of alerts and warnings issued for natural disasters and public safety concerns. Several examples were discussed, yet the Task Force was deadlocked on whether to retain colors going forward.”

* “The graduated alert status is not a substitute for the fuller disclosure of information recommended above. If anything, it should be the lesser part of the Secretary’s communication to the nation.”

Finally, the task force came up with a nice new turn of phrase in urging a larger role for new media: “Since 9/11, a revolution has upended media and communications; the Homeland Security Advisory System should stay current with the communications revolution and adopt an ‘all tools’ [my italics] approach in reaching the general public.”

[On a personal note, I just wanted to mention that this is the blog's 500th post. I hope most of them have been worth reading. I thank everyone for your input and support throughout.]

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