The Slow Death of the Color-Coded Terror Alert System

Juliette Kayyem WGBH News

The much-maligned color-coded terror alert system was seen as a flawed not only by the public or late night comedians, but by those who worked at the highest levels of national security– including former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security

Courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security

You may remember that Chertoff served the Bush Administration until the day of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Before he became the head of Homeland Security, he was in charge of the Department of Justice’s criminal division during and after 9/11. This was the time of the Patriot Act – which he co-authored- and other dramatic additions to what he described as the  “domestic architecture for preventing future terrorist attacks.”

This week on Security Mom, Juliette Kayyem spoke with Chertoff about what was wrong with the system, so we might better understand the bigger challenges we confront in a world of mayhem —  how to understand risk, and how to talk about scary things.

On what was wrong with the color-coded alert system:

A couple things became evident. One is that it doesn’t make sense to raise it generally. You oughta be more specific about either a location or a particular function like transportation. Second, what became evident was the lowest level was green. It was evident we were never gonna be in green.

Green was a theoretical baseline of world in which there’s no terrorism. That’s not gonna happen. So then you had yellow and orange. Yellow being kind of some level of threat, orange being a heightened threat. And then you had red. And the problem is it was very difficult to define to define what red was. Did red mean an attack is literally gonna happen like tomorrow? Did it mean an attack already happened? Once you’re at red, how do you come down from red? So, we realized pretty quickly that essentially you’re really dealing with two states. Yellow is your base. And orange is your elevated. And then we tried to be focused on, again, particular regions or particular types of threats.

On his  “gut feeling” about a terror attack in 2007:

Based on what we were hearing from intelligence there was a reason to believe there was a somewhat heightened threat environment based on things that were going on overseas. And I wanted to communicate that, but  I wasn’t going to reveal classified information. So, I tried to couch it in terms of ‘the environment is such that… my senses… my intuition is that we’re in a heightened threat environment…’ Now, that’s not to say that that’s not a reasonable thing to say under the best of circumstances. Because I did get criticism for it, I actually found a book that someone had done as a social science study- I think it’s called Gut Feeling – and it talked about how intuition actually is a useful guide, because what happens is your subconscious processes information more quickly than your conscious mind does. But actually part of the reason I cast it that way was to avoid having to get into revealing something classified.

On raising the terror alert before the 2004 election:

I would bet if someone said that it was not out of a nefarious effort to manipulate the election, but it might have been out of concern that an election- and remember this was the first election since 9/11 for president. There may have been some concern that that would be a moment when the terrorist would actually wanna make a statement by carrying out the attack.

Security Mom is a podcast hosted by Juliette Kayyem that aims to unpack how the strange and secretive world of national security works. Subscribe to the Security Mom podcast in iTunes.

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