Bruce Schneier on terrorist threat level alerts, from his most recent Cryptogram newsletter…

The color-coded threat alerts

issued by the Department of Homeland Security are useless today, but

may become useful in the future. The U.S. military has a similar

system; DEFCON 1-5 corresponds to the five threat alerts levels: Green,

Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Red. The difference is that the DEFCON

system is tied to particular procedures; military units have specific

actions they need to perform every time the DEFCON level goes up or

down. The color-alert system, on the other hand, is not tied to any

specific actions. People are left to worry, or are given nonsensical

instructions to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape. Even local police

departments and government organizations largely have no idea what to

do when the threat level changes. The threat levels actually do more

harm than good, by needlessly creating fear and confusion (which is an

objective of terrorists) and anesthetizing people to future alerts and

warnings. If the color-alert system became something better defined,

so that people know exactly what caused the levels to change, what the

change means, and what actions they need to take in the event of a

change, then it could be useful. But even then, the real measure of

effectiveness is in the implementation. Terrorist attacks are rare,

and if the color-threat level changes willy-nilly with no obvious cause

or effect, then people will simply stop paying attention. And the

threat levels are publicly known, so any terrorist with a lick of sense

will simply wait until the threat level goes down.”

Living under Orange reinforces this. It didn’t mean anything. Tom

Ridge’s admonition that Americans “be alert, but go about their

business” reinforces this; it’s nonsensical advice. I saw little that

could be considered a good security trade-off, and a lot of draconian

security measures and security theater.

I think the threat levels are largely motivated by politics. There are

two possble reasons for the alert.

Reason 1: CYA. Governments are naturally risk averse, and issuing

vague threat warnings makes sense from that perspective. Imagine if a

terrorist attack actually did occur. If they didn’t raise the threat

level, they would be criticized for not anticipating the attack. As

long as they raised the threat level they could always say “We told you

it was Orange,” even though the warning didn’t come with any practical

advice for people.

Reason 2: To gain Republican votes. The Republicans spent decades

running on the “Democrats are soft on Communism” platform. They’ve

just discovered the “Democrats are soft on terrorism” platform. Voters

who are constantly reminded to be fearful are more likely to vote

Republican, or so the theory goes, because the Republicans are viewed

as the party that is more likely to protect us.

(These reasons may sound cynical, but I believe that the Administration

has not been acting in good faith regarding the terrorist threat, and

their pronouncements in the press have to be viewed under that light.)

I can’t think of any real security reasons for alerting the entire

nation, and any putative terrorist plotters, that the Administration

believes there is a credible threat.

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