Britain Adopts Threat Levels

Taking a cue from a useless American idea, the UK has announced a system of threat levels:

“Threat levels are designed to give a broad indication of the likelihood of a terrorist attack,” the website said in a posting. “They are based on the assessment of a range of factors including current intelligence, recent events and what is known about terrorist intentions and capabilities. This information may well be incomplete and decisions about the appropriate security response are made with this in mind.”

Unlike the previous secret grading system offering seven levels of threat, the new system has been simplified to five, starting with “low,” meaning an attack is unlikely, to “critical,” meaning an attack is expected imminently. Unlike American threat assessments, the British system is not color-coded.

The current level is “severe”:

“Severe” is the second-highest threat level, but the Web site did not say what kind of attack was likely. The assessment is roughly the same as it has been for a year.

I wrote about the stupidity of this sort of system back in 2004:

In theory, the warnings are supposed to cultivate an atmosphere of preparedness. If Americans are vigilant against the terrorist threat, then maybe the terrorists will be caught and their plots foiled. And repeated warnings brace Americans for the aftermath of another attack.

The problem is that the warnings don’t do any of this. Because they are so vague and so frequent, and because they don’t recommend any useful actions that people can take, terror threat warnings don’t prevent terrorist attacks. They might force a terrorist to delay his plan temporarily, or change his target. But in general, professional security experts like me are not particularly impressed by systems that merely force the bad guys to make minor modifications in their tactics.

And the alerts don’t result in a more vigilant America. It’s one thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events, and it’s obvious when the danger is imminent and when it’s over. People can do useful things in response to a hurricane warning; then there is a discrete period when their lives are markedly different, and they feel there was utility in the higher alert mode, even if nothing came of it.

It’s quite another thing to tell people to be on alert, but not to alter their plans?as Americans were instructed last Christmas. A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Indeed, it inspires terror itself. Compare people’s reactions to hurricane threats with their reactions to earthquake threats. According to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in the next two hundred years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster will be enormous, people just can’t stay alert for two centuries. The news seems to have generated the same levels of short-term fear and long-term apathy in Californians that the terrorist warnings do. It’s human nature; people simply can’t be vigilant indefinitely.


This all implies that if the government is going to issue a threat warning at all, it should provide as many details as possible. But this is a catch-22: Unfortunately, there’s an absolute limit to how much information the government can reveal. The classified nature of the intelligence that goes into these threat alerts precludes the government from giving the public all the information it would need to be meaningfully prepared.


A terror alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are essentially two ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of people. The second is to keep people living in fear with the threat of doing something horrible. Decades ago, that was one of the IRA’s major aims. Inadvertently, the DHS is achieving the same thing.

There’s another downside to incessant threat warnings, one that happens when everyone realizes that they have been abused for political purposes. Call it the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” problem. After too many false alarms, the public will become inured to them. Already this has happened. Many Americans ignore terrorist threat warnings; many even ridicule them. The Bush administration lost considerable respect when it was revealed that August’s New York/Washington warning was based on three-year-old information. And the more recent warning that terrorists might target cheap prescription drugs from Canada was assumed universally to be politics-as-usual.

Repeated warnings do more harm than good, by needlessly creating fear and confusion among those who still trust the government, and anesthetizing everyone else to any future alerts that might be important. And every false alarm makes the next terror alert less effective.

The Bush administration used this system largely as a political tool. Perhaps Tony Blair has the same idea.

Crossposted to the ACLU blog.

Posted on August 2, 2006 at 4:01 PM41 Comments


Armin August 2, 2006 4:30 PM

You mentioned the vagueness of these threat levels. The problem which bugs me is the vagueness of the location of the threat:

If I’m somewhere in a remote part of Scotland (two cottages, 50 sheep and 50 million midges), am I at the same risk as someone in the centre of London (millions of houses, millions of people, lots of targets)? Doubt it.

I remember reading of people living on some remote farm in the middle of not very much in the US sealing their windows to protect them from a potential gas attack by terrorists (OK, that might be an urban myth, but then I heard people here in the UK saying they were afraid to go to the pub in their sleepy village…). Hello?

David August 2, 2006 4:49 PM

“and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. ”

Minor nitpick, but that should be stay out of the basement: that is the place most likely to flood in the house. Best to stay away from windows on the first or second floors, and keep out of the attic if it is avoidable.

Going to the basement is best for tornadoes.

Richard August 2, 2006 8:38 PM

There might be some general meaning for Bush and Blair themselves. But please close the door, not to harass our people.

Deaf Con III August 2, 2006 10:02 PM

This crap is based on US military training for things like Nuclear/Biological/Chemical attacks.

However, as you correctly point out, the civilian population doesn’t receive any training for this.

As civilians, we are not to dig our chem suits out and check the filters on our gas masks and make sure we have our atropine injectors. No, we are simply to run in circles, scream and shout.

Even the “duck and cover” foo from the 60’s was more logical than this insanity.

Pete August 2, 2006 10:18 PM

Perhaps the UK government should recommend that citizens adopt this response protocol for the “severe” threat level:

“Shouldn’t we lie down, or put a paper bag over our heads or something?”
“If you like.”
“Well, will that help?”
“No, not really.”

Lee August 3, 2006 2:23 AM

Still there are no definitions of how the levels are decided (and are therefore likely a political tool) nor any comment on what to do with them.

We can also be quite sure they won’t ever be lowered, because if there ever is another attack it would be politically expensive coming just after the threat was downgraded.

Paper bag anyone?

Jackdaw August 3, 2006 2:56 AM

You’re off base a little on this one. The UK has not adopted this system, they simplified the system already in place – they certainly did not copy the USA system. The change was moving from 7 levels of threat to 5 and announcing the level to the public. If you worked in any area of the government (largest employer in the UK) the threat level was known anyway, the information was already public but now I guess it is officially public.

sas August 3, 2006 3:06 AM

“If you worked in any area of the government (largest employer in the UK) the threat level was known anyway, the information was already public but now I guess it is officially public.”

But if you worked in Government you’d be told what the threat levels meant as part of your security briefing. It also seemed reasonable a few years ago to think that UK Government/military sites had a greater probability of being targetted than any other random building (from what I remember, the greatest threat level meant that a particular site was judged to be at imminent risk of an attack).

The problem is the public doesn’t have the faintest idea what these levels mean, and it’s pretty useless for a distributed threat.

Mitch August 3, 2006 3:07 AM

Yes, this is a political move. The government is under pressure over two high profile police shootings (remember, we don’t have as many guns here, so a gun story is “shocking”). By having a public threat level of ‘severe’, they can use this as an excuse for shooting anyone who is slightly foreign looking.

“Why did you shoot him eight times in the head?”

“Because I ran out of bullets. And the threat level was severe.”

Maybe this is Blair’s new immigration policy? Just scare all the foreigners into leaving.

Bob August 3, 2006 3:27 AM

The system Britain used up until now was called “Bikini state” — a totally awesome term if you ask me!

The states were: red, amber, black special, black, white.

John Lettice August 3, 2006 3:36 AM

The Parliament Intelligence & Security Committee report into the July bombings is broadly useless, but inadvertently educational on threat levels. There was a lot of coverage in the press last year about the threat level having been dropped because there was no known group with the will or capability to execute an attack (or words to that effect). This was just before the bombings took place.

The report takes up a wholly disproportionate amount of space on threat levels because of this, giving some background justification to the level of threat that was current over a fairly long period. The decision to drop the level just before July was (rocket science alert) justified because it was based on the known facts, and the fear of being seen to cry wolf, and deadening the public’s reaction came into it too. (Warning: it’s a while since I read it, so I’m paraphrasing heavily)

But messing around with the number of stages on the scale and the factors taken into account doesn’t change any of this. On one side, if you don’t know anything serious is in the offing, you should feel less threatened and drop the level. But on the other, if you read the papers and grasp what they’re going to do to you if (or, as the cops here keep saying, when) something you didn’t know whacks you, then maybe you shouldn’t drop the level. So either you’re very brave, call it as you see it and tell the public shit happens, as and when it does, or you start factoring in ‘might’. There might be something you don’t know about. They ‘might’ have sneaked bioweapons in. There might’ be a nuclear-armed missle concealed in the North Korean Embassy…

The only threat alert that works, IMO, is a real bomb going off. Then everybody on the underground gets really alert for a couple of weeks, but after that it starts dropping down again and no amount of publicity will make any difference.

Olaf T. Hairy August 3, 2006 3:36 AM

I think this has been misunderstood. The threat levels apply to the Labour Party only. With TB’s current popularity rating on the slide this has caused the ‘Severe’ threat.

I remember the bikini states from when I was a cadet and much hilarity was caused when we moved to ‘Black Bikini’.

Tim August 3, 2006 3:42 AM

I’m sure that the threat level will prove a useful excuse for the goverment when it decides to further deplete our civil liberties.

sas August 3, 2006 3:48 AM

‘The system Britain used up until now was called “Bikini state”‘.
I thought “Bikini” was meant to be the secret codeword? And wasn’t “black special” only added when the IRA entered the peace process, as they were still judged to be a threat but politically it was thought necessary to downgrade the threat level.

Pat Sutaw August 3, 2006 4:14 AM

@Brian “Any of the brits care to comment on why the UK gov’t thinks this is a good idea?”

I doubt that any UK resident who reads this blog thinks that vague terror warnings are a good idea.
Currently the UK is systematically stripping its citizens of our rights but cannot control our leaky border – even though we are an island (let’s not count the channel tunnel).
Unfortunately, I suspect that the “politics of fear” is part of the problem here 🙁

Rob green August 3, 2006 4:56 AM

As of today my local bus service also seems to have a terror alert system. They have a new slot in board with a message above it saying “Today’s Alert Level Is:” and as yet there is no level underneath it yet, I assume they’re still implementing it.

Frankly, it will not stop people that are determined to live their lives, it will not stop terrorists from planning and executing attacks.

Perhaps it’d be useful to families planning days out, they could avoid the tube for example, but if the level is constantly set to severe because we are at a level of preparedness following the last bombings in London, how do we ever know when an attack is predicted?

What’s to say a terrorist isn’t indecisive and chooses Wednesday 18th rather than Monday 16th at the last minute? Who knows.

Steve August 3, 2006 5:03 AM

“Severe” is the second-highest threat level, but the Web site did not say what kind of attack was likely. The assessment is roughly the same as it has been for a year.

And in that year, there hasn’t been an attempted attack (there were two sets of attacks last July, one successful and the other not). There may well have been credible planned attacks foiled by law enforcement, but nothing which got to the stage of bringing together the perpetrators and the equipment.

If the “threat level” reflected the security services’ honest opinion of the danger, something which in aggregate over time could be assessed for accuracy (perhaps expressed as “10% chance of an attempted attack in the next month”), then maybe they could be credible. But the warnings aren’t credible because they aren’t specific or measurable.

Indeed, if they were measurable then the probabilities of an attack would be much, much less than 10% in a month. Unlike with the IRA, there is currently no competent organised group making attacks in the UK, so how the threat can honestly be rated as “severe” I do not know. Presumably if the threat level were comparable with that in Iraq or in northern Israel (or the threat level in Lebanon, since it’s a bit irrelevant to the person who gets blown up whether it was done by the military or by irregulars) we’d be at the highest level. So why is there nothing between “one or fewer successful attacks per year” and “people dying every single day”?

Any of the brits care to comment on why the UK gov’t thinks this is a good idea?

In my opinion, because they’re out of ideas. They’ve just about sold the concept that unusual measures (such as continued operations in Afghanistan, or imprisonment without trial) are necessary “because of terrorism”, but they can’t present any thoroughly convincing evidence that terrorism really is a problem in the UK.

They’ve had two high-profile disasters in the last year (the killing of Jean de Menezes, and the mistaken arrest by 200-300 officers of two (count ’em, 2) brothers in East London, one of whom was shot in the process). There’s been the high farce of some dodgy blokes being acquitted of any crime, accused of trying to buy a non-existent substance (“red mercury”), which they may or may not have believed was a weapon, in a journalist-lead sting operation that the police somehow got dragged into. They’ve had no high-profile successes (because where they have caught genuinely threatening terrorist wannabes, they won’t say anything about it because it could prejudice any trial and/or compromise their intelligence sources).

What they need is something to convince the public that terrorism is worth being afraid of. The government itself is afraid of terrorists, and wants the public to share its priorities. But in fact, the general public is not afraid of terrorism, except when the government or the press remind us and encourage that fear. So a constant threat warning serves as one way to repeat that we’re in great danger, but that the government will save us if we only give it the chance.

Dom De Vitto August 3, 2006 6:45 AM

I’m a brit, and I should point out that the UK has threat levels before, but they were in a rather cryptic format – e.g. “Bikini Black Alpha” ???

“Severe” is much easier to understand, but again, the value of such a message is dubious if it’s not communicated regularily.

Frankly, anyone with the sense to understand “Severe”, is likely to know not to pick up orphansed rucksacks on the tube….

bob August 3, 2006 7:09 AM

Actually “duck and cover” is useful. Not all attacks are nuclear or nation-wide and not everyone is at ground zero. In those instances being under your desk can save you from the bulk of the windows as they make like a claymore.

I think the DICEman had the best color-code system for the alert levels – he used colored ‘m&m’s.

Simon Wilson August 3, 2006 7:47 AM

I think this sums up the reason for keeping the threat level at Severe. Taken from the response to this level is:- “Additional and sustainable protective security measures reflecting the broad nature of the threat combined with specific business and geographical vulnerabilities and judgements on acceptable risk”

So it means they can keep the heavy handed tactics in place. And also “The security measures taken to protect people and Critical National Infrastructure will not be announced publicly, to avoid informing terrorists about what we know and what we are doing about it. Because response levels are the result of detailed assessments of risk to specific elements of the Critical National Infrastructure, changes in the national threat level will not necessarily produce changes to the sector-specific response levels.”

So even if they drop the level they are allowed to keep the response? Maybe we will move to ‘Critical’ just before the next election so it can be ‘postponed’ due to the threat!

Sorry feeling very cynical today esp with out govts uninterested response to the middle east crisis. Remind why is Blair going on holiday while the crisis is still in place. Oh Yes because Bush hasn’t asked him to help!

Tim Kirk August 3, 2006 7:58 AM

It’s not new… but it is still a good parody :

@sas : I think you are correct about ‘black special’ being added for politcal reasons. I cannot recall my local parcel sorting office ever not being on a state of ‘Black Special’ according to the poster up inside the door. Everyone there just seems to ignore it anyway.

I remember the IRA bombing London & other UK mainland places in the 70-80s, and pretty much everyone just got on with life (I had school trips to places that had been bombed only a few weeks before and we were just told not to worry, as we were more likely to die crossing the road anyway). Maybe the fact that most of our parents had been kids in WW2 and remember far more widespread bombing going on had something to do with it.

@Steve is dead on – it is to try to make us as scared as the government thinks is useful (or perhaps as scared as they are themselves). Don’t think it will work though.

Xellos August 3, 2006 10:06 AM


Slightly more seriously, though, more people need to play the Paranoia RPG. Might as well start training for the future now.

Martyn August 3, 2006 10:24 AM

As Tim says, we had IRA trying to blow us up in the 70’s and 80’s, and we didn’t have a colour system then to tell us how afraid we should be. In this situation you somehow have to weigh the risks up for yourself and decide how to live your life. I agree with Bruce, that vague threats combined with no useful advice can serve no useful purpose.

Geoff Lane August 3, 2006 11:34 AM

The UK government is doing stuff because they feel they must do something no matter how ineffective it is.

In the UK there has been only one successful attack in the past 12 months (plus an indeterminate number of “disrupted plans” whatever that means.) When the IRA was active we were getting one or two successful attacks per month and neither the government nor the population went into panic mode.

The world is allowing a threat of violence to be as effective as actual violence.

Jiminy August 3, 2006 12:02 PM

I always come back to Orwell for inspiration when we hear about these vauge threatening pogroms. He wrote about how the constant war with either eurasia or eastasia or oceania kept the public on a war footing, allowing for anything to occur under the auspices of the war effort, like rationing, POW hangings, and the disappearances that were so popular.

I find it hiliarious that my right-wing counterparts are inspired by Ayn Rand’s future outlook, which for the most part turned out wrong and never occured, vs Orwell’s future view, which for the most part is here today wearing a jolly hat and iron boots.

Lobbyboy August 4, 2006 9:22 AM

As it happens, I asked Blair’s spokesman (PMOS to his enemies) exactly this question when the threat levels were announced in July. The response wasn’t illuminating, but can be found at the bottom of this page:

“In response to the suggestion that a terrorist might postpone his attack because of an increase to the threat warning, the PMOS said that it did not operate like that. The bigger danger was that people did not think there was a serious threat and that they became complacent. The public needed to know when they should be vigilant and alert. Complacency was a risk if the government did not talk openly about the threat level.”

Jeremy Brayton August 4, 2006 2:31 PM

“Our citizens should be well aware that we are protecting our own ass in this matter. By publicizing and simplifying our terror levels we are making sure no frivilous lawsuits result of a possible attack, regardless of our involvement or lack thereof.”

I think the problem isn’t necessarily that governments want us to be scared but the fact that everyone and their mom proceeded to sue the U.S. government for something they had a really hard time proving in the first place. On top of the reconstruction we’re funding, we can line the pockets of a few “real” victims. Every American was a victim of 9/11. We saw raised taxes, our money go down the toilet on wasted “countermeasures” and all sorts of other political agendas. I’m sorry that people died but insurance is supposed to cover what happened. If it didn’t then we should have held them in stocks in every town square they’re found in, not sue the government so that everyone (including those suing, ironically they pay taxes on what they get) are paying for the government’s lack of apparent initiative. I know it’s simplifying what happened but if I die tomorrow in a “normal” tragedy my family is no different than any of those who sued the government. They would have the same expenses and issues that faced those families yet wouldn’t be given a pot to piss in other than what insurance would hopefully cover.

Basically speaking, the p**sies are in power and creating a world according to their living conditions. It’s going to smell, be a little sweaty and feel all tingly to the touch. Every 30 days or so it’ll bleed all over the place, be bloated, cranky, and take it’s aggression out on those that aren’t going through the process. “If you aren’t for us, you’re against us” sounds like a menstral mantra to me.

Tom Chiverton August 6, 2006 1:25 PM

Plus, typically of UK government IT projects, it’s badly introduced.
Search for ‘threat level’ on MI6 / SiS web site, and you get no hits.
There are less than a handful of hits on the MI5 site, and the only relevant one is the handy to remember with isn’t really machine readable.

And, yes, it is a PR exercise – a very telling interview on BBC Radio 4 on release day where some government gimp admitted that they didn’t want people to do anything different at different threat levels.

csrster August 7, 2006 2:06 AM

Those “basement” comments remind me of my days in Boulder. When the sirens went off during a violent thunderstorm it meant either a) Boulder creek is flooding, seek high ground or b) there’s a tornado coming, get in the basement.

Simon Wilson August 10, 2006 7:11 AM

Well today they got to use the new threat levels with the increase to ‘critical’ following the alledged foiling of the plan to bomb plans to the US.

Seems with the disruption to flights, restrictions on carry-ons, etc. the alledged terrorists have achieved far more disruption to the economy and public fear factor than anything the IRA ever managed. Paranoia tends to breed and it seems that we are almost being trained to be paranoic without any room for reasoned debate.

ian h August 29, 2006 7:10 PM

couldn’t we have threat levels for ALL the things that threaten us?

Likelihood of being in a car crash: ‘Crumple State’.

Likelihood of getting bird flu: ‘Sniffle State’

Likelihood of getting drunk: ‘Whata State’

Likelihood of suffering from xenophobia: ‘Nation state’

etc etc..

This would help us make considered decisions as to what threats were most pertinent and alter our actions accordingly. Security businesses would profit and we’d have lots of excuses not to go to work.

Martins, Getúlio Marques September 9, 2006 3:41 PM

In what concerns transport infrastructure and operations, I mean, provision and use of transport services and infrastructure, the adoption of a threat level nomenclature seems alright, inasmuch as the providers and users of transport services are told what security measures/procedures to deploy. This sort of rationale has been “on” in the civil aviation for a long while, but perhaps not in an effective fashion.
In the Twin Tower attacks, the perpetrators had first to lure the security access controls and then …
Should have the primary access control measure, the screening of passengers belongings before boarding, been made in an enhanced and effective mode, perhaps we would not even be discussing this issue here. But this is a drawback!
In my reading of the problem, Nations could well work threat assessment and correspondent security measures deployment by activity sectors, allocating primary responsibilities to the authorities involved and to the providers or producers of the services or goods societies depend for progressing onward.

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