Monday, July 20, 2009

What's your threat level?

On the BBC News website, there is an article announcing that the UK threat level has been reduced from “severe” to “substantial”. It was raised to “sever” in 2007 and although the Home Secretary says there is still “a real and serious threat”, it was felt the intents and capabilities of terrorist groups were such the level could be lowered.

Reading this I was reminded that I couldn’t recall the last time our own Homeland Security Advisory System had changed. According to DHS, the last time the entire system setting changed was in January 2004 when it was lowered from Orange (High) to Yellow (Elevated). There have been changes for specifics areas (such as transportation and finance) since then but the system as a whole remains at Yellow.

The problems with such an advisory system are numerous. Each color is supposed to represent a different level of perceived threat; and what are you supposed to do?

A threat to a target in New York City means what to a fire chief in Cincinnati? If the level goes from yellow to orange, what steps are taken by which agencies (if any)? Can the required agencies afford to take any preventive measures? How effective will those measures actually be in preventing an attack?

Contrast the Homeland Security Advisory System with the recent Cincinnati Enquirer article stating the city manager is now facing a $28 million deficit. Basic city services will have to be cut, including police and firefighters being laid off. If daily tasks can’t be executed it seems ridiculous to expect these same agencies to react to an elevated threat level based on a threat to an area outside their jurisdiction.

The news of late is focused on the increase prevalence of swine flu, the political unrest in Iran as well as their burgeoning nuclear program, and the North Koreans desire to shoot a missile at the Hawaiian Islands. These events may or may not present a threat to American citizens but the current Homeland Security Advisory System would not react to these events as they are not “terrorist” related. While there had been some discussions under the Bush Administration to label North Korea and Iran as part of an “axis of evil”, this seems to have fallen by the wayside.

The above events point to another flaw with the DHS advisory system, it focuses only on terrorist events. Unless a “terrorist” group threatens the United States, then the system remains unmoved.

I think the current system should be abandoned for it really doesn’t give a true assessment of what is going on in the world. The State Department is perhaps in the best position to assess situations for Americans travelling or living abroad. Local law enforcement, in conjunction with the regional FBI office, is in the best position to determine local terrorist threats. It is impossible to establish one national system for a country the size of the United States. It can only be concluded that the Homeland Security Advisory System was for public relations and not really a tool for local community leaders to use.

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