History has an uncanny knack for repeating itself. In the late 1950’s, the US Government’s Office of Civil Defense adopted a system called “CONELRAD” (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation). In a nutshell, it stopped all radio and television transmissions in order to deny the Russians the ability to “lock in” on these signals and use them to guide bombers and ICBMs to their targets.
It made sense, in a Cold War kind of way, but unfortunately, the government continued the program long after both sides had developed guidance technology that no longer required any assistance in finding their victims. As such CONELRAD has become a mocking reminder of that paranoia and ineffective government response. If you don’t believe me, then I suggest a visit to: www.conelrad.com
We’ve long cautioned Public Information Officers that many well intended efforts at informing and preparing the public for the current “Homeland Security” threats could easily become tomorrow’s “Bert the Turtle”. I can’t think of any better example of a flawed public outreach effort than the Homeland Security Terror Alert Color Code Chart.
In a new report, the incoming DHS Secretary tries to address the programs shortcomings, and the lack of public confidence in it. Recommendations are made about simplifying the code to only three levels or perhaps even dropping the “color scheme” all together.
With respect to the authors, we have a better idea. Drop the Terror Alert Chart completely. It’s a fatally flawed system that was doomed from it’s inception.
Take a step back from the ledge, and try to look at this with a cool head. If the US Government had intelligence that an attack was imminent, then that information must have been obtained through one of only a handful of methods:
Electronic Intelligence: Monitoring of cell phone calls, social networks, radio communications, etc.
Human Intelligence: Literally “spies” or members within the cells who had been flipped by our agents. Perhaps a tip from someone within the terrorists own circle of friends who had a change of heart.
Random Discovery: Someone stumbles onto a site where bombs or biological agents were prepared and the evidence left behind.
No matter how the intelligence was obtained, by raising the terror threat, our government “tips it’s hand” and reveals that they’re aware of the plot–at least in a general sense. This may disrupt an ongoing investigation and allow members of the cell to escape. It may “burn” a source, literally putting their life in danger. It may cause the terrorists to switch to an alternative form of communication, making future intercepts impossible.
In short, it can really only be used as a “last ditch” effort to stop an attack by letting the bad guys know that we’re on to them. As such, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it will ever be used at all.
Worse, it results in a cascade effects of law enforcement efforts including the deployment of additional officers, high visibility check points, additional screening at airports, etc. Millions of dollars of expense are incurred each time that the threat level moves up. In short, it is not a decision to be taken lightly, which explains why it has been raised so rarely.
In truth, there is little that the general public can do to help prevent a terrorist attack without a lot more information to go on. It’s unlikely that information would ever be released.
For example, the FBI might suspect a home-grown Aryan Brotherhood planned to attack gay bars using small arms and improvised explosives. This is a coordinated attack that they suspect may occur in several cities on the same day. Even if they were free to release those details, what should we be on the look out for? Rednecks buying extra propane at the Quickie Mart? Hank Hill might roll over in his cartoon grave.
To be effective at preventing terror attacks, a person needs what is called “actionable intelligence”. Details of the suspects, perhaps photos of members, markings, tattoos, known associates, etc. By it’s very nature, this information is tightly controlled and not usually suitable for release to the public. Lacking actionable intelligence there is little that the public can do to aid the effort to prevent the attack.
Attempts to revamp the system, and make it simpler do nothing to address this fatal flaw. Our recommendation would be to scrap it, and return to a time when actionable intelligence was shared within the law enforcement community, and the rest of us were left in the dark, often for our own good.
In this age where mistrusting the government has become as chic as the latest clothing line from Paris it might seem strange to say so, but sometimes you just have to depend on the government to protect us. And to do that, they can’t always share their secrets or their sources with us.