State Officials Push Localized Color-Coded Alerts

By: - March 9, 2004 12:00 am

The nation’s security status was ratcheted up to “high risk” in February 2003, but you’d never know it under the swaying palms on Maui’s beaches or on the hiking trails of Kauai, two of Hawaii’s most popular tourist sites.

No extra police were on duty on Maui or the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai. Small power plants didn’t step up security as specified by the state’s classified checklist of actions for higher alert levels, said Robert Lee, Hawaii’s homeland security director.

In both February and April 2003, when the federal government raised its color-coded terror alert to orange or “high risk,” Hawaii took an a-la-carte approach to stepping up its own alert status. Gov. Linda Lingle (R) kept the state level at yellow or “guarded,” despite U.S. intelligence fears of an al Qaeda attack. Hawaii clamped on more security at airports and harbors, but stood down elsewhere.

“If you were a tourist on Maui or Kauai or the Big Island, it made no sense to have that elevated threat and security level in those areas versus some of our key sites,” said Lee, Hawaii’s adjutant general.

Hawaii, the same state that takes credit for being first to create a color-coded alert within a month after Sept. 11, 2001, also has led the states in using the two-year-old nationwide system in targeted ways. In a move urged by many state homeland security directors, the federal government’s color-coded terror alert system is shifting toward localized warnings. States are pressing for future alerts to be tailored to geographical locations or types of targets.

“If you have a threat in Chicago and New York… does that mean you put the whole nation on alert? No, I don’t think so, and that’s the thought process now,” said Arizona Homeland Security Director Frank Navarette, who added that he won’t follow the federal government’s alert if it doesn’t make sense for his state.

The threat alert system that costs federal, state and local governments millions in extra civil defense spending has been heightened five times since its creation in March 2002. In January, the Department of Homeland Security lowered the threat level nationwide but for the first time kept it elevated in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

“When we brought it down from high to elevated, we maintained targeted security at certain venues, and we’ll do more and more of that,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said at a Feb. 4 press conference. “Admittedly, elevating to a separateto a higher level–across the board is a fairly blunt instrument.”

Ridge’s office is working with state directors to develop a way to routinely localize alerts. Brian Rohrkasse, spokesman for the homeland security department, said that the advisory system was designed for targeted warnings but that incomplete intelligence information has thwarted clear-cut alerts.

“Unfortunately al Qaeda does not tell us specifically how, whom and when they are going to hit,” Rohrkasse said.

Congress also is looking at making the alert system more precise. U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said the warnings trigger expensive responses that worsen economic conditions.

“We should not be using the public, color-coded threat advisory system to warn of terrorist threats that are not national in scope, if we are not willing to discuss them publicly…. We cannot expect states and localities to sustain such unbudgeted expenditures indefinitely,” Cox said at a Feb. 4 hearing on the security advisory system.

Several states, including Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Utah, developed their own state-level color-coded alert systems that largely mirror the federal threat advisory system after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Hawaii’s system adds a “black” alert level to indicate that a terrorist attack already has taken place.

Critics and late-night talk show hosts have derided the federal five-color alerts, saying the United States acts like “Battlestar Galactica,” the science-fiction TV series, when broadcasting vague and overly broad alerts to the general public. Filmmaker Michael Moore, who had his microphone cut off at the 2003 Oscars as he lambasted President Bush and the “orange” alerts, charges the government’s warnings needlessly whip up public anxiety and keep the public in constant fear.

State homeland security directors say the alerts are essential but simply need tweaking.

“I wouldn’t call the federal alerts useless,” because they let states know what is happening on a global scale, said Annette Sobel, New Mexico’s homeland security director, who supports a regional alert system.

“But they clearly need more specificity built into the system. This process clearly isn’t perfect yet,” said Sobel, who wants the next meeting of state homeland security directors to focus on tailoring alerts to regions.

“We need to drive this and push our recommendation back to Washington so we have control over what happens at the state and local level. The bottom line is, I’m on the front lines. I need to answer to the governor. You need to empower me,” Sobel said.

Jerry Humble, Tennessee’s homeland security director, said, “What I prefer is that when necessary we alert the whole nation, but as we work together, federal and state, that we adapt what security enhancements we do based on intelligence and situational awareness. I’m not so sure a regional approach is absolutely the answer, and whatever we come up with next probably won’t be the answer, and we’ll adapt. And that’s how we do it in America.”

State homeland security directors, who were appointed after Sept. 11, 2001, [see “State Anti-Terrorism Chiefs Play Unclear Role,”, Sept. 11, 2002] regard the federal alerts as a recommendation that must be validated with their own intelligence information.

Glen Woodbury, Washington state emergency management director and a board member of the Center for State Homeland Security, said more targeted alerts would be helpful, along with standardization among localities’ choices of colors for warning levels.

Critics have complained the frequent alerts foster public indifference, and say only police should be warned, not the general public.

Edward Luttwak, senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was special national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, said, “If we ever have a situation where we want the public to be involved, to take their flashlights and go out at night with their guns, then we don’t need this alert system. We can use our mass media. We need to save a few bucks and abolish a useless alert system.” 

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