The Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded terror warning system has become ineffective because it serves only to alarm the public with information too vague to be of much good, the Libertarian Party contends.
“Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge risks becoming like the boy who cried wolf with his frequent, unsubstantiated orange alerts,” said George Getz, the party’s communications director, in a statement. “Soon the public might start ignoring him – and that could be a real disaster.”
Federal terror-warning system
According to the department’s “Threat Advisory System,” a five-color chart is supposed to signify the government’s current perception of the threat of a terror attack.
Green, or “low,” means a low terrorism risk, compared to red, or “severe,” meaning officials believe terrorist attacks could be imminent. The threat level is currently set at yellow, or “elevated.”
The Homeland Security department has issued a number of terror alerts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The department has raised the threat level to orange, or “high,” the second-highest level, on four occasions since the system became active. No attacks have materialized during that time.
Officials at the agency defend the use of the warning system and point out the enormity of the department’s task.
“The Department of Homeland Security has one mission but uses many tools and areas of expertise to accomplish our goal of securing the homeland,” says a June 19 agency statement. “Any given day, we perform a variety of different tasks and functions to make America safer and our citizens more secure. Although our responsibilities are varied, we are united in a common purpose – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Among the duties performed by DHS, said the statement, is the daily processing of 1.1 million passengers and visitors at U.S. airports and seaports. That includes inspection of more than 57,006 trucks and containers, 580 vessels, 2,459 aircraft and 323,622 vehicles and the guarding of 5,525 miles of border with Canada and 1,989 miles of border with Mexico.
Nevertheless, say Libertarians, frequent warnings of impending attacks have forced Americans into taking action that was later unjustified and, in the view of some, unnecessary.
One example, says the party, came in February, when “Americans stockpiled food and water and rushed out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes after the government warned about the risk of a chemical or biological attack.”
“At the time, Ridge claimed the intelligence reports were based on ‘multiple sources, obviously credible and corroborated,’” the party said. “But days later he quietly canceled the alert after being forced to admit that the reports were ‘not as accurate as we thought.’”
An unreliable terror alert system may be worse than none at all – which is why the program should be dismantled, Libertarians say.
“Telling a nation still reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks to be on alert for another horrific attack – without telling them when, where, or how it might occur – is nothing more than scaremongering,” Getz said. “In fact, every orange alert that is issued based on flimsy evidence actually endangers the nation by making Americans more likely to ignore future warnings.”
When the alert level is raised, local police and state security agencies must spend resources and money beefing up safety measures, a bad thing say Libertarians, especially at a time when states are reeling from budget shortfalls.
“The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that cities spent $2.6 billion on additional security costs since the September 11 attacks, much of it related to ‘code orange’ overtime costs for police and other emergency personnel,” Getz said. “These warnings actually made America less safe, because every dollar spent on imaginary threats is a dollar that can’t be spent arresting an actual murderer, robber or rapist.”
Getz said his party supports replacing the current color-coded system with one based on the needs of law enforcement, not “political posturing.”
“If the federal government obtains a specific, credible threat, it should share it immediately with local law enforcement officials and let them take the appropriate steps to warn and protect the public,” he said. “But in the absence of solid information, it should cut the political chatter and refrain from alarming 280 million Americans with a vague, generalized terror alert.”