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Feature

The Homeland Security threat system.

Following 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security developed a color-coded chart to signify the level of threat from a terrorist attack.

Crying wolf?: When and how to alert the public of possible terrorist attacks

When and how to alert the public of possible terrorist attacks

By Jamie Proulx

Published on August 13, 2004

Earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge issued a terror alert raising the threat level to orange, or high, in multiple east coast cities. Did any of us change our routines in light of this new threat on our soil? Did any of us know that orange on the color-coded chart used by DHS indicates 'high risk'?

Tom Vellenga, director of the Public Affairs and International Outreach Programs at the Humphrey Institute, served as senior adviser on national security to White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta during the Clinton administration. He applauds the efforts made by the government to inform citizens but finds fault in their methods and calls for change.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the only other country in the world to make strides in using a nationwide terror alert system is Israel.

"I want to give credit to the homeland security department for thinking about this. They've devoted a lot of resources and time to figuring this out," Vellenga says. "But when they issue a blanket alert to the entire country, it just raises levels of anxiety. The color-coded system isn't telling people what to do, and I think they ought to abandon the thing and admit it's not working and not helping," Vellenga says.

Gloria Leon, U psychology professor, also takes issue with the lack of action items attached to terror warnings. She chairs the psychosocial task force for the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine and recently published information from a conference held to discuss the psychological effects of terrorism and preparedness. "The general consensus was that there is a need for more accurate information from appropriate governmental agencies about specific impending threats, to ensure better coping," Leon says. "The Color Code Alert System has proved disquieting and not as helpful as intended, because the system has not been accompanied by specific guidelines for expected behavior."

Vellenga points out that this system is still relatively new for all of us and says, "It's important to start [the conversation] with the fact that we didn't have an alert system such as this before 9/11. This phenomenon is brand new for the people of the United States, and this government is still trying to learn how to use this program effectively."

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his colleagues are under attack for not releasing enough information to the public unlike, they say, U.S.. officials who share what they know.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the only other country in the world to make strides in using a nationwide terror alert system is Israel. Having lived with the threat of terror since the late 1960s, Israel's government has had time to refine their messages and timing. "The people there are accustomed to the general threat of terror and live under that level everyday. When the Israeli government has specific information that's helpful, they'll announce it," Vellenga says.

Leon and her colleagues agree with that tactic. "Without specific information there is a danger that the system will lose credibility and the public eventually will disregard it," Leon says.

In this increasingly partisan election year, there have been allegations that the alerts are not necessarily linked to increased threat levels but are politically motivated. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean bluntly accused the Bush administration of raising the terror alert to improve his poll numbers. Other leading democrats dismissed this notion, but Vellenga says the system is vulnerable to abuse.

"I take it at face value that [the government] is sharing information when it gets it," Vellenga says. "I would like to believe they are not announcing these threats for political purposes, but the troubling thing is we don't really know."

To avoid the political purposes charge, Vellenga supports more separation between the president and the Department of Homeland Security. "One of the most important messages for the Bush reelection campaign is that we are at war and it's important not to change leaders mid-stream," Vellenga says. "So when Secretary Ridge couples his warnings with praise for President Bush for his work on fighting terrorism, it's inappropriate. The DHS needs to have a separate and non-partisan spokesman."

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his colleagues are under attack for not releasing enough information to the public unlike, they say, U.S. officials who share what they know. So which is it then? Share the information you have or withhold it? Some say it's a matter of deciphering when to release information with a warning, when to only alert law enforcement, and when to simply acknowledge the situation is status quo.

For more information on preparing yourself in the event of a terrorist attack, see the Department of Homeland Security Web site.

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