Has Homeland Security's Color Coding Of Terror Threats Been Scrapped? A Closer Look Suggests Yes, After Serving Its Purpose (To Get Bush Re-Elected)
Americans may be surprised to learn that we still have the Homeland Security Advisory System.
Even Americans who don't know it by name are familiar with the color-coded system (if not, check the graphic at right). When former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the system in 2002 -- before the department itself was created -- he stressed the need to provide a "clear" indication of a terror threat to the nation, but "flexible to apply to threats made against a city, a state, a sector, or an industry."
From the get-go, critics of the Bush Administration suggested that it was using the terror threat system for political gain, in part because President Bush's popularity always seemed to rise after a change in the terror threat system. As the New York Times reported in August, 2004, a terror threat announcement by Ridge earlier that month was used to "repeatedly praise President Bush's leadership."
Conservatives no doubt reject the argument, but after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reacted to the Mumbai train bombing earlier this month by saying "there are no plans to raise the nation’s threat level," just four days after failing to mention the terror threat system at all when announcing the U.S. had helped end "a terrorist network that was in the planning stages of an attack against the transportation system in the New York-New Jersey area," I had to wonder, what happened to the "flexibility" of the terror threat system?
Last time I checked, trains are part of the transportation "industry." Last time I checked, New York and New Jersey are each a "state."
In an earlier era -- before the 2004 presidential election -- a one-two punch of terror threats, one directly against the U.S., would have set off alarm bells, and the terror threat would have been raised from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high." At the very least, a thorough discussion of why the threat level was not raised would have been undertaken.
That said, I searched the Department of Homeland Security's archives to determine how many times the terror threat level has been raised -- as well as how many times the possibility of it being raised was discussed at length -- for each year it has existed.
See if you notice a pattern:
2006 -- 0 raises, 1 brief mention on July 11
2005 -- 1 raise (July 7, but limited to mass transit, following London terrorist attack), no other mentions
2004 -- 1 raise (Aug. 1, following report of terror threats to financial districts). Three mentions, at the May 28, July 8 and Oct. 30 press conferences.
2003 -- 4 raises (Feb. 7, after unspecific threats by Al Qaeda, March 17, on the eve of the Iraq War, May 20, following Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and Dec. 21, continuing until Jan. 9, 2004, as a result of terror threat during the holiday season). Three mentions: Dec. 30 (to reiterate the need for the Dec. 21 decision), as well as Sept. 4 and Nov. 21.
2002 -- 1 raise (Sept. 10, for anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attack), no other mentions.
It may simply be that Chertoff (who came on board in February, 2005) is less eager to raise the terror threat level than Ridge. It may be that higher-ups in the Bush Administration made that call -- after the 2004 presidential election -- allowing policy to match the oft-repeated White House spin that "we're safer" because we're fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (or the variant that "we're safer" with Bush in the White House.)
Shortly after he succeeded Ridge, Chertoff said he would review the terror threat system. Others at the time suggested Chertoff would ultimately scrap it.
And perhaps he has.