Post-9/11 National Threat Notification Efforts: Issues, Actions, and Options for Congress

CRS Report for Congress
Post-9/11 National Threat Notification Efforts:
Issues, Actions, and Options for Congress
April 29, 2005
John Rollins
Specialist in Terrorism and International Crime
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
L.J. Cunningham
Reference Assistant
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division

Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Post-9/11 National Threat Notification Efforts:
Issues, Actions, and Options for Congress
A perceived lack of coordination in the federal government’s warning
notification process and inconsistent messages regarding threats to the homeland
have led to an erosion of confidence in the information conveyed to the Nation.
Congress is now considering legislation (H.R. 1817, The Department of Homeland
Security Authorization Act for FY2006) to reform the Homeland Security Advisor
System to allow for greater confidence in the threat information conveyed to the
Since September 11, 2001, numerous federal government organizations have
notified the public of threats to the Nation. At times, warnings have been issued in
a government-wide coordinated manner; other times this has not been the case. In
each situation that has led to increasing the threat level, a number of organizations
have made public pronouncements regarding the nature of the threat prior to, during,
or after the raising of the alert-level. The information conveyed to the public often
has been inconsistent regarding the threat or the timing of a suspected attack. This
lack of coordination and unity in message has led to a dilution in the American
public’s belief in the pronouncements and a questioning of the utility of the
Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). The focus of this paper is the federal
government’s coordination efforts in publicly alerting the Nation of threats to the
homeland. The report reviews past warnings and changes in the alert level,
organizations that have made public statements regarding threats to the Nation, and
examples of how this lack of unity might lead to confusion and misinterpretations of
the threat level. Options for Congress are provided regarding delineation of roles and
responsibilities and which government entity should be held accountable for warning
the Nation of threats to the homeland .
This paper may be updated based on future National threat notifications or
changes in the notification system. For a discussion and options regarding the
Homeland Security Advisory System’s (HSAS) level of detail with respect to
disseminated warnings, Department of Homeland Security’s suggested protective
measures, coordination of the HSAS with other current federal warning systems, or
the costs associated with threat levels changes see CRS Report RL32023, Homeland
Security Advisory System: Possible Issues for Congressional Oversight.

Issues Concerning the Nationwide Threat Notification System..............1
Threat Notification Responsibility.....................................2
Threat Notifications Chronology......................................3
Effects of Uncoordinated or Inconsistent Threat Warnings ................10
Homeland Security Advisory System.............................10
Other Warning Advisory Problems...............................10
Discussion and Options for the 109th Congress..........................11
Option: Clarify DHS’s Primacy in Alerting the Nation of
Impending Threats........................................12
Option: Eliminate the Homeland Security Advisory System...........12
Option: Transfer the Threat Notification Responsibility to the National Counter
Terrorism Center (NCTC) ..................................13
List of Figures
Figure 1. HSAS...................................................2

Post-9/11 National Threat Notification Efforts:
Issues, Actions, and Options for Congress
Issues Concerning the Nationwide Threat
Notification System
A perceived lack of coordination in the federal government’s warning
notification process and inconsistent messages regarding threats to the homeland
have led to an erosion of confidence in the information conveyed to the Nation.
Congress is now considering legislation (H.R. 1817, The Department of Homeland
Security Authorization Act for FY2006) to reform the Homeland Security Advisor
System to assure greater confidence in the threat information being conveyed to the
Nation. A universally understandable, consistent, and reliable national threat
notification system is deemed necessary in today’s world of increasing and time-
sensitive threats to the Nation. Many believe that the notification of a threat to the
United States should be conveyed by a single entity and the message should be
consistent with other communications federal government officials may offer. In
times of crisis or national emergency, the federal government’s unity of message and
a coordinated delivery of the threat notification are widely seen as crucial to the
effectiveness of the system designed to convey the message. “The System’s color-
coded warnings have become the primary means by which the federal Government
communicates directly to the public its bottom-line judgment on the risk of terrorist1
attack at any given time.” However, the circumstances and explanations
surrounding the warnings and changes in the Homeland Security Advisory System’s
(HSAS) color code to date have called into question the utility and credibility of the
system. In particular:
!At times it appears the color-code has been raised based on
speculation that a terrorist attack may occur rather than receipt of
new threat information;
!At other times, warnings of heightened threats have been issued
without changing the HSAS; and
!On numerous occasions agencies have provided different, and
sometimes contradictory, information about threats to the homeland.

1 House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, Full Committee Hears
Testimony Regarding the Homeland Security Advisory System; U.S. House of
Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, February 4, 2004.

Threat Notification Responsibility
On March 11, 2002, the President signed Homeland Security Presidential
Directive-3 (HSPD-3) and created the HSAS (See Figure 1). This Directive gave
responsibility to the Attorney General to administer and make public announcements2
regarding threats to the Nation. Subsequent of the Homeland Security Act of 2002,
enacted November 25, 2002, provided that the Under Secretary of the Infrastructure
Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate, subject to the direction and
control of the Secretary (of Homeland Security), shall administer the Homeland
Security Advisory System (HSAS), including (1) exercising primary responsibility
for public advisories related to threats to homeland security (2) in coordination with
other agencies of the Federal Government, providing specific warning information
to State and local government agencies and authorities, the private sector, other3
entities, and the public.
Figure 1. HSAS

2 “The decision whether to publicly announce Threat Conditions shall be made on a case-by-
case basis by the Attorney General in consultation with the Assistant to the President for
Homeland Security. Every effort shall be made to share as much information regarding the
threat as possible, consistent with the safety of the Nation. The Attorney General shall
ensure, consistent with the safety of the Nation, that State and local government officials and
law enforcement authorities are provided the most relevant and timely information. The
Attorney General shall be responsible for identifying any other information developed in the
threat assessment process that would be useful to State and local officials and others and
conveying it to them as permitted consistent with the constraints of classification. The
Attorney General shall establish a process and a system for conveying relevant information
to Federal, State, and local government officials, law enforcement authorities, and the
private sector expeditiously.”
3 PL 107-296; Sect 201(d)(7). Homeland Security Act of 2002.

Though the Homeland Security Act of 2002 is fairly clear regarding the
transition of responsibility of administering a national threat notification system from
the Attorney General to the Secretary of Homeland Security, there reportedly have
been “a few occasions in the past couple of years that Secretary Ridge was frustrated
when Attorney General Ashcroft announced terrorist threat information, despite the
fact that the Homeland Security Act of 2002, transferred the responsibility of
management of the HSAS from DOJ to DHS. Also at times, DHS has disagreed with
the alarming tone of Ashcroft’s announcements.”4 This paper will discuss examples
of uncoordinated national threat announcements between DHS, DOJ, and other
federal government entities. It is possible that recent changes of Departmental and
Agency leadership may assist in resolving future occurrences of uncoordinated and
premature threat announcements. However, the issue remains that previous threat
announcements and arguably a lack of discernible processes in determining from
whom threat information is to be conveyed, has seriously eroded the HSAS’s
credibility generating congressional review and discussion of ways to approach future
national threat warning efforts.
Threat Notifications Chronology
!September 11 - September 24, 2002
First time the threat-level is raised from Yellow-Elevated (Significant Risk
of Terrorist Attack) to Orange-High (High Risk of Terrorist Attack)
Pursuant to the responsibility given to the Attorney General and delineated in
HSPD-3, Attorney General Ashcroft announced on September 11, 2002, that “the
U.S. intelligence community has received information, based on the debriefing of a
senior Al Qaeda operative, of possible terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the
anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States.” However, one-week
prior to the official notice put forth by the Attorney General, Office of Homeland
Security Chief Tom Ridge reportedly stated that “U.S. officials do not have
intelligence indicating terrorists are plotting another attack on the September 11th
anniversary. We do not anticipate raising the threat level for that day.”5 Though it
is common in the world of intelligence to receive information that contradicts
previous analysis, possibly explaining moving from an elevated (yellow) to a high
threat (orange) environment in one-week’s time, the concern is that prior to the first
use of the HSAS, two senior members of the Administration spoke publicly to the
status of the threat environment. In this case the Director of the Office of Homeland
Security seemed to have preempted the Attorney General’s responsibility to publicly
announce information regarding the threat environment and the status of the HSAS.

4 John Mintz, “Chertoff Orders Agency Review, Changes Possible, DHS Chief Says,”
Washington Post, March 17, 2005, p. A23.
5 “Ridge Sees No Hint of New 9/11/ Raid,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 4,


The following two items review instances where threat information of a significant
nature was discussed by senior Administration officials in an open forum. These
instances did not result in a change of the HSAS.
On October 17, 2002, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Tenet stated
before a joint session of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, “You must
make the assumption that Al Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us
both here and overseas. That’s unambiguous as far as I am concerned.”6
On November 15, 2002, the FBI stated, “Sources suggest Al Qaeda may favor
spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties,
severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma.”7 Despite
the tone of the warning, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the national
alert status would remain unchanged.
Although the previous two examples did not represent official public
announcements, the effect was the same in that both of these events were widely
publicized. Both statements may have been analytically correct, however a
potentially troublesome precedent was being set by senior officials offering diverging
interpretations of the nation’s threat environment in a public forum.
!February 7 - February 27, 2003
Second time the threat-level raised to Orange
Prior to the raising of the alert level, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 had
been enacted (November 11, 2002). The act provided that the Under Secretary of
IAIP subject to the direction and control of the Secretary (of Homeland Security),
shall administer the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). On February 7,
2003, Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge announced that intelligence reports
suggested that Al Qaeda was planning attacks on apartment buildings, hotels, and
other soft targets.8
In the week leading up to the issuance of this threat warning and during the
twenty-day duration of this rise in the alert level, numerous Administration officials
provided varying descriptions as to the level of specificity and immediacy of the
threat. Homeland Security Secretary Ridge said a terrorist attack was unlikely one-
week after Attorney General Ashcroft stated that there was an increased likelihood
of an attack on the United States. During this same time-period DCI Tenet testified
before Congress that the information that led to this threat alert was as specific as it
has ever been.9 Secretary Ridge also stated during this alert level change that the
intelligence about a possible attack more often than not is vague, whereas Attorney

6 “Tenet: Al Qaida Set to Strike Again,” Associated Press, October 17, 2002.
7 Posted on the FBI’s website Friday, November 15, 2002.
8 Homeland Security Threat Level Raised to Orange, February 7, 2003.
[ ht t p: / / www.whi t e news/ r el eases/ 2003/ 02/ ml ]
9 “Weighing the Risks of Terror, Snippets and Threads Can Sway Threat Index,” The
Washington Post, February 16, 2003.

General Ashcroft stated that specific intelligence was corroborated by multiple
intelligence sources.10
On February 24, 2003, in the waning days of this increased alert level, Attorney
General Ashcroft stated that the threat of terrorist attack remained high and there
were no plans to downgrade the Nation’s alert level. Less than three days later,
Secretary Ridge announced that the HSAS was being lowered to Yellow- Elevated.
!March 17 - April 11, 2003
Third time threat-level raised to Orange
On March 17, 2003, Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge stated that
Intelligence reports indicated Al Qaeda would probably attempt to launch terrorist
attacks against U.S. interests to defend Muslims and the Iraqi people. On the eve of
the war in Iraq, Secretary Ridge informed the public that the terrorist threat level was
being raised, not because of any new threatening intelligence, but because the war
seemed likely to provoke a terrorist response in the U.S.11
Prior to the war in Iraq, numerous Administration officials including some at the
CIA and FBI, and lawmakers believed that should the United States commence
military operations in Iraq, terrorist attacks in the United States would be an
inevitable cost of toppling Saddam Hussein.12
In lowering the threat level on April 11, 2003, DHS released a statement that
after an assessment of the threats by the intelligence community, the Department of
Homeland Security had made the decision to lower the threat advisory level. Defense
Secretary Rumsfeld later noted that “the Nation must remain vigilant and alert to the
possibility Al Qaeda or those sympathetic to their cause; as well as former Iraqi
regime state agents, may attempt to conduct attacks against the United States.”13
This change of alert level status was accompanied by a continuing pattern of
independent official announcements regarding possible threats to the Nation,
including statements by the Secretary of Defense countering the reasoning used to
lower the alert level: threats remain of an attack from al Qaeda or Iraqi

10 “Ridge: Attack Is Unlikely, Keep Duct Tape in Storage,” Newsday, February 15, 2003.
11 “A Nation at War: Domestic Security; New Signs of Terror Not Evident,” The New York Times,
April 6, 2003.
12 “A Nation at War: Domestic Security; New Signs of Terror Not Evident,” The New York Times,
April 6, 2003.
13 “Terror Threat Level Dropped to Yellow; Easing of War in Iraq Cited,” The Washington
Post, April 17, 2003.
14 Ibid.

!May 20 - May 30, 2003
Fourth time threat-level raised to Orange
On May 20, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the
United States intelligence community believed Al Qaeda had entered an operational
period worldwide, including plans to attack the United States
On the morning of May 20, 2003 DHS Secretary Ridge appeared before the
House Committee on Homeland Security and stated that “America had the terror
networks off-balance and that we are much safer (as a Nation)”. Later that day in a
press conference held to announce raising the threat alert level, Secretary Ridge
reportedly stated “in response to intelligence reports concerning anti-U.S. terrorist
group intentions and the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco15 we are raising
the HSAS to Orange”. “While there is not credible, specific information with respect
to targets or method of attack, the use of tactics similar to those seen in recent
terrorist attacks overseas include small arms equipped assault teams, large vehicle-
borne improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombers.”16 Simultaneous with this
announcement, DHS Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa
Hutchinson announced at a press conference on Capitol Hill that the alert level had
been raised because “there is increased specificity in what we hear, but not
necessarily in terms of the target.”17
On the following day FBI Director Mueller stated that there was no specific
information regarding potential targets or the timing of an attack. DOD Secretary
Rumsfeld reportedly stated that same day that some Al Qaeda leaders in Iran were
plotting attacks.18
In this instance, a number of senior members of the Administration discussed
the information considered in the raising of the alert level, and one of the Secretary
of Homeland Security’s principal deputies offered conflicting information regarding
the specificity of that information.
!December 21, 2003 - January 9, 2004
Fifth time threat-level raised to Orange
On December 21, 2003, Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge stated that the
United States intelligence community had received a substantial increase in threat-
related intelligence reports and that credible sources suggested the possibility of
attacks against the homeland around the holiday season and beyond. “The
information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term

15 “U.S. Less Vulnerable, but Terror Attacks Still Possible: Ridge,” Agence France Presse,
May 21, 2003.
16 DHS Website, “Statement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Raising the
Threat Level,” May 20, 2003.
17 CNN, “United States Goes on Orange Alert,” May 20, 2003.
18 “Terror Alert Raised to High amid Fears Foreign Attacks Could Spread,” The Associated
Press, May 21, 2003.

attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New
York and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania nearly two years ago.”19
On numerous occasions since the inception of the HSAS a variety of senior
government officials have been quoted saying that it may never be known if raising
the alert level stopped a terrorist act from occurring. However, two days after the
alert level was raised for the fifth time since its creation, the Secretary of Defense
stated that “there’s no question that there are any number of terrorist acts that were
stopped prior to their actually occurring.”20 Also, six days after this HSAS threat
level was lowered, the FBI Director stated that he did not foresee a time when the
country could drop its guard and that “we probably will at some point in time have
another attack.”21
There were two public discussions in 2004 of threat information of a significant
nature that produced some anxiety among U.S. citizens and frustration on the part
of the Congress. Neither of the following instances resulted in a change of the HSAS.
On March 24, 2004, the FBI issued a threat advisory indicating that the Texas
oil industry may have been targeted by terrorists. While DHS is statutorily
responsible for public advisories relating to the announcement of homeland security
threats, specifically as they pertain to alerting infrastructure owners and operators of
threat related information, the advisory came solely from the FBI. As House
Committee for Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox stated two-weeks
after this occurrence, “Clearly this is a very troubling development. Was it simply a
one-time glitch or has there been a breakdown in communications between some of
our key federal agencies?” Chairman Cox added, “Congress and the American
people need to know, given the dangerous, uncertain times we live in today,
cooperation among all authorities is more important than ever. We simply can’t
afford to be sending confusing messages to a nervous public.”22
May 26, 2004, On May 26, 2004, Secretary Ridge appeared on five television
news shows stating that although the prospect of a terrorist attack is significant,
Americans should “go about living their lives and enjoying living in this country.”
At 3 p.m. that same day Attorney General Ashcroft and Federal Bureau of
Investigation Director Mueller held a press conference and gave a warning to the
American public. The Attorney General announced that based on “credible
intelligence from multiple sources, Al Qaeda intends to attack the United States in
the next few months. This disturbing intelligence indicates Al Qaeda’s specific
intention to hit the United States hard.” Ashcroft said the intelligence — along with
recent public statements attributed to Al Qaeda — “suggest that it is almost ready to
attack the United States.” He further stated that after the March 11 train bombings

19 “Error Fear Alarms Homeland,” The Boston Herald, December 22, 2003.
20 Defense Department Operational Update Briefing, December 23, 2003.
21 “FBI Head Says U.S. Defense Is Stronger,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), January 15, 2004.
22 “Chairman Cox and Subcommittee Chairman Gibbons Concerned About Coordination of
Terrorist Threat Advisories,” Congressman Jim Gibbons Press Release, April 2004.

in Madrid, Spain, an Al Qaeda spokesman said the network had completed “90
percent of preparations” to attack the United States.23
During this press conference a reporter asked if there was credible intelligence
suggesting the United States is going to be attacked between now and the election,
why the threat level had not been raised. Attorney General Ashcroft responded that
“the Homeland Security Council, led by Secretary Ridge, would make such a
decision, and for me to try to speak for them at this time would be inappropriate.”24
After Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement, Mr. Ridge seemed surprised by the Attorney
General’s warning. Asked why the National Color-code alert had not been raised, Mr.
Ridge replied “there is nothing specific enough (to raise the alert level).”
This seemingly uncoordinated effort was followed by a response from
Representative Christopher Cox, Chairman of the House Select Committee on
Homeland Security. “Dissemination by our government of sensitive terrorism
warnings must be closely coordinated across our intelligence and law enforcement
communities,” Cox said. “In the Homeland Security Act, DHS was assigned the
central coordinating role in this process. The absence of Secretary Ridge from
yesterday’s news conference held by the attorney general and the FBI director, and
the conflicting public messages their separate public appearances delivered to the
nation, suggests that the broad and close interagency consultation we expect, and25
which the law requires, did not take place in this case.”
These last two examples are cited by many observers as suggesting a general
lack of coordination and unity in message of warnings to the nation of threats, and
also reflecting a lack of overall collaboration between DHS and other federal
intelligence community and law enforcement organizations. Homeland Security
employees have complained that their CIA and FBI colleagues show them little
respect. Intelligence agents reportedly counter saying that DHS has been known to
go public with terror alerts based on information that other agencies found to be
sketchy.26 This latter contention does not seem to be supported by the pattern of
Administration officials, other than the DHS Secretary, openly discussing threats to
the Nation.

23 Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller Press Conference, DoJ Media
Advisory, May 26, 2004.
24 Transcript, “Ashcroft, Mueller Discusses Terrorist Threat,” FDCH E-Media, Wednesday,
May 26, 2004.
25 Statement from Christopher Cox, Chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland
Security, May 28, 2004.
26 Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, “Look Who’s Not Talking — Still, A new report
says U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t learned to share information, despite lessons of

9/11” Newsweek.

!August 1 - November 10, 2004
Sixth time threat-level raised to Orange
On August 1st, 2004, Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge stated that the
HSAS was being raised to Orange based on threat intelligence that indicated Al
Qaeda was planning attacks against financial institutions in New York, Washington,
D.C., and New Jersey prior to September 11, 2001. In announcing this threat level
change, the DHS Secretary Ridge stated that the United States had new and unusually
specific information about where al Qaeda would like to attack.
The following day, Monday, August 2, 2004 White House Homeland Security
Advisor Fran Townsend similarly stated that the increase in threat level was based
on information showing that Al Qaeda had been surveilling financial targets in 2000
and 2001. However, she also added that the most recent intelligence included
mention of threats to the U.S. Capital and Members of Congress. This prompted
Washington, D.C. Capitol Police Chief to remark that the briefings he had received
on the recent intelligence did not speak to specific, credible, direct threats against
Congress as an institution, or its Members. 27 Secretary Ridge did not mention the
Capital or Congress in his statement announcing the increase in the threat level.
However, one month later, Secretary Ridge reportedly admitted that though the
Administration viewed the threat as “credible,” the information was “sketchy and
On October 12, 2004, in view of the uncertainty of the intelligence that was
presented and the subsequent announcements regarding the threat environment,
Senator Mark Dayton temporarily closed his Washington, D.C. Office, “ based upon
that information, I have decided to close my office until after the upcoming election.
I do so out of extreme, but necessary, precaution to protect the lives and safety of my
Senate staff and my Minnesota constituents, who might otherwise visit my office in
the next few weeks. I feel compelled to do so, because I will not be here in
Washington to share in what I consider to be an unacceptably greater risk to their
During this threat level change, a senior member of the White House proffered
additional information as to the reason the threat level was raised in Washington,
D.C. The additional information led to further confusion, producing follow-on
statements and actions by the Washington D.C. Police Chief and a Member of
Congress that further called into question the credibility of the originally announced
information that led to the raising of the HSAS.

27 “Capitol Police Chief Sees no Specific Threat to Hill; Gainer Disputes Charge by White
House Adviser,” The Washington Post, August 10, 2004.
28 “Security Measures Buying Time Before New Plot,” The Financial Times, September 2,
29 Press Release, Senator Mark Dayton, October 12, 2004.

Effects of Uncoordinated or Inconsistent Threat
Homeland Security Advisory System
Given the history of these seemingly uncoordinated threat notifications, local
governments and the public have complained about being confused by the varying
details supporting the decision to raise the alert level. Many have lost confidence in
the system.
In February 2003, the Governor of Hawaii decided to keep Hawaii at the blue
(guarded) level when the federal government raised its level to orange (high risk).
Monetary cost of increased security and the public’s psyche were figured into the
decision as well as the potential loss of life. Ed Teixeira, vice director of the civil
defense division of the Hawaii’s Department of Defense reportedly commented that,
“just because [Secretary of Homeland Security Tom] Ridge and [Attorney General
John] Ashcroft go on TV and say we are on orange, it doesn’t mean states and30
counties have to be at orange.” Though a lack of information regarding place and
timing of an attack was noted as the reason to not follow the federal government’s
recommendation regarding raising the alert level, it is equally telling that the Hawaii
State Homeland Security advisor pointed to the Secretary of Homeland Security and
the the Attorney General as the individuals Hawaii State officials listen to regarding
threat warnings.
Business leaders argued for better threat information from law enforcement, as
well as better coordination among agencies providing threat information.
Specifically, they said that they did not receive sufficient specific threat information,31
and frequently received threat information from multiple government agencies.
Some federal agencies, as well as state and local officials reported hearing about
notification of national threat level changes from other entities, such as the FBI and
media sources, before being notified by DHS.32
Other Warning Advisory Problems
There have been examples and findings that speak to the issue of coordinated
warnings and unity of message. A significant finding of the USS Cole Commission
acknowledged that contradictory threat levels played a role in the level of protection
of the ship on the day of the attack.33 Similarly, the Commission on the Intelligence

30 Pacific Business News; [
31 GAO-05-33, Homeland Security: Agency Plans, Implementation, and Challenges
Regarding the National Strategy for Homeland Security, January 12, 2005.
32 GAO Report, Homeland Security Advisory System: Preliminary Observations Regarding
Threat Level Changes from Yellow to Orange, February 26, 2004, page 8.
33 On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by a small boat laden with explosives
while at a refueling stop in the Port of Aden, Yemen. The USS Cole at the time of the attack

Capabilities of the United States regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reported
on the confusion associated with threat warning products destined for the President
and senior decision makers.34
Discussion and Options for the 109th Congress
“The American public, state and local law enforcement, governors and mayors,
and private sector officials with responsibility for critical infrastructure all
deserve crystal clarity when it comes to terrorism threat advisories.”
(Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Select
Committee on Homeland Security)
A number of options exist that include clarifying DHS’s primacy in alerting the
Nation of impending threats, eliminating the Homeland Security Advisory System,
or transferring the national threat notification responsibility to the National Counter
Terrorism Center.

was operating under Department of Defense threat condition Bravo, the second lowest alert
level that denotes the current threat condition. Central Command’s decision, based in part
on the current defense threat condition, continued to use Yemen during this period as a
refueling location despite a U.S. State Department warning against travel to Yemen on
September 14, 1999, stating that Yemen is experiencing higher incident of hostility and
violence toward Americans. Also, the annual State Department Patterns of Global
Terrorism report released in April 2000, characterized Yemen as a haven for terrorists. This
same report did not mention Djibouti; a neighboring Country that would have been available
for refueling, as a concern for terrorist. The inconsistency between the Department of
Defense and the Department of State warning offered conflicting information as to the level
of threat faced by the USS Cole as it waited to be refueled off of the coast of Yemen. This
differing analysis and lack of coordination between DOD and DOS resulted in the lack of
recognition of the danger that the U.S.S. Cole’s crew faced.
The USS Cole Commission, in investigating the attack and making policy and
procedure recommendations to improve the DOD’s system of protecting its forces, released
a report on January 9, 2001, acknowledging contradictory threat alerting mechanisms. One
of the recommendations stated that the geographic Commander in Chief (CINC) should have
the sole authority for assigning the threat level for a country within his area of
responsibility. The Commission report further recommended that the Geographic CINC’s
be solely responsible for establishing the threat level within the appropriate area of
responsibility with input from DIA, and that the Secretary of Defense coordinate with
Secretary of State, where possible, to minimize conflicting threat levels (being issued) from
the Department of Defense and the Department of State. DOD, USS Cole Commission
Report; Executive Summary, Unclassified Findings and Recommendations, January 9, 2001.
34 “The Community’s inability to implement a “one team, one fight” strategy in the terror
war may be attributed both to ongoing bureaucratic battles between agencies charged with
responsibility for counter terrorism analysis and warning, as well as the failure of
Community leaders to effectively resolve these disputes and clearly define agency roles and
authorities.” WMD Commission Report, Chapter 4; Finding 2, Page 288.

Option: Clarify DHS’s Primacy in Alerting the Nation of
Impending Threats
One issue is whether the intent of Section 201d735 of the Homeland Security Act
of 2002 was to give DHS explicit authority and responsibility to be the sole federal
entity charged with conveying homeland security threat information to the American
people. In delivering to Congress the proposed legislation to create the Department
of Homeland Security, President Bush recommended that “one department
coordinate communication with State and local governments, private industry, and36
the American people about threats and preparedness.” Section102(c)(3) of the
Homeland Security Act also states that the Secretary of Homeland Security has the
authority and responsibility for “distributing or, as appropriate, coordinating the
distribution of warnings and information to State and local government personnel,
agencies, and authorities and to the public.” Congress could reemphasize DHS’
primacy in alerting the Nation of impending threats. This might put other Agency
officials on notice as to whom is authorized to be the public face of national threat
notifications. Another option would be to allow other Departments to disseminate
threat information regarding the security of the homeland when such information is
deemed credible and extremely time-sensitive (exigent circumstances).
Option: Eliminate the Homeland Security Advisory System
Given the short history of the HSAS, uncoordinated warning efforts, lack of
uniformity in the type of information conveyed, and an increasingly wary populace
as to the credibility of the message, Congress could choose to eliminate the system.
The natural question that follows is what would the replacement system be and
would it be an improvement on the current system.
One could argue that, given the uniqueness of each threat situation requiring a
communication to the public, threat notifications may not allow for a system per se.
According to this line of reasoning, each “warning-notice” should be handled as its
own entity. Threat information, geographic location, target location, timing of
perceived attack, defensive measures, and the like should be addressed individually
and not formulated to fit into a neat category of threat-levels. This might be
problematic for a number of reasons. First, many federal and state programs are tied
to the current color-code with numerous actions and funding decisions tied to a
raising or lowering of the alert. Secondly, though cumbersome and non-specific, the
current HSAS allows for an assessment, by federal and state governments, the private

35 HSA2002; Sect 201d 7. The Under Secretary of IAIP, subject to the direction and control
of the Secretary (of Homeland Security), shall administer the Homeland Security Advisory
System (HSAS), including (1) exercising primary responsibility for public advisories related
to threat to homeland security (2) in coordination with other agencies of the Federal
Government, provide specific warning information to State and local government agencies
and authorities, the private sector, other entities, and the public.
36 Message to the Congress; Transmittal of proposed legislation to created the Department
of Homeland Security, June 18, 2002. [

06/20020618-5.html ].

sector, and the public as to a general threat level that comes with certain expectations
regarding the federal response. Lastly, if a warning-notice type system were
introduced, the inevitable question would arise regarding how one compares today’s
threat warning to past color-coded warnings and other warning-notices.
Option: Transfer the Threat Notification Responsibility to the
National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC)
As stated in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, a
mission of the National Counter Terrorism Center is to serve as the primary
organization for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by
the United States Government pertaining to terrorism and counter terrorism (except
intelligence pertaining exclusively to domestic terrorists and domestic counter
terrorism) and to serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and
suspected terrorists and international terror groups, as well as their goals, strategies,37
capabilities, and networks of contacts and support.
Since the relevant Departments concerned with terrorism are represented at the
NCTC and legislatively NCTC is the focal point of all federal analytical and strategic
operational planning terrorism efforts, this entity may be well positioned to review
all applicable information regarding the terrorist threat and also coordinate the
warning message to be conveyed to the public. One option would be to designate the
NCTC the federal government’s communicator of threat information to the Nation.
Precedence exists for this option as Secretary Ridge and the Director of the NCTC
(formerly the Terrorist Threat Integration Center) held a joint press conference38
discussing the threat environment and suggested protective measures. Formalizing
the NCTC as the national threat messenger would allow Congress to hold one
organization (NCTC) responsible for terrorism analysis and the warnings that are
derived therein. DHS could continue to provide specific advice regarding protective
measures to the private sector, state and local governments, and the public. However,
the advice and collaborative efforts would be based on threat information compiled
and communicated by the NCTC. Congress could include language to allow for
other Departments to disseminate threat information under exigent circumstances.
Whether the threat notification process continues in the current form of the
HSAS, is eliminated and replaced by situation specific warning-notices, or is
transferred to the NCTC or some other entity, the issue remains one of coordination
and unity of message, rather than in what form the threat information should be
conveyed. Undoubtedly, numerous government agencies will continue to comment
on various aspects of a given threat condition. However, critics argue that future
national threat announcements should occur in a coordinated manner that allows for
an unambiguous message. Due to a lack of coordination and unity in message it
appears that the general public and affected localities are becoming desensitized or
disinterested in the information contained in national threat warning notification
messages. The lack of confidence brought on by confusion in the current notification
process could be a severe liability in an actual emergency.

37 P.L. 108-458; Section 119, 3(d)(1)and (6).
38 “Feds Decide Against Raising Terror Alert”; Fox News, October 20, 2004,
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