The Ineffectiveness of Vague Security Warnings

From Slate:

We do nothing, first and foremost, because there is nothing we can do. Unless the State Department gets specific—­e.g., “don’t go to the Eiffel Tower tomorrow”—information at that level of generality is completely meaningless. Unless we are talking about weapons of mass destruction, the chances of being hit by a car while crossing the street are still greater than the chances of being on the one plane or one subway car that comes under attack. Besides, nobody living or working in a large European city (or even a small one) can indefinitely avoid coming within close proximity of “official and private” structures affiliated with U.S. interests—­a Hilton hotel, an Apple computer store­—not to mention subways, trains, airplanes, boats, and all other forms of public transportation.

Second, we do nothing because if the language is that vague, nobody is really sure why the warning has been issued in the first place. Obviously, if the U.S. government knew who the terrorists were and what they were going to attack, it would arrest them and stop them. If it can’t do any better than “tourist infrastructure” and public transportation, it doesn’t really know anything at all.


In truth, the only people who can profit from such a warning are the officials who have issued it in the first place. If something does happen, they are covered. They warned us, they told us in advance, they won’t be criticized or forced to resign. And if nothing happens, we’ll all forget about it anyway.

Except that we don’t forget about it. Over time, these enigmatic warnings do al-Qaida’s work for them, scaring people without cause. Without so much as lifting a finger, Osama Bin Laden disrupts our sense of security and well-being. At the same time, they put the U.S. government in the position of the boy who cried wolf. The more often general warnings are issued, the less likely we are to heed them. We are perhaps unsettled or unnerved, but we don’t know what to do. So we do nothing­—and wish that we’d been told nothing, as well.

I wrote much the same thing in 2004, about the DHS’s vague terrorist warnings and the color-coded threat advisory system.

EDITED TO ADD (10/13): Another article.

Posted on October 8, 2010 at 12:49 PM39 Comments


TrapSpam HoneyPot October 8, 2010 12:58 PM

Exactly my own experience. Flew out of Amsterdam one hour before the bombing in London July 2005. All sorts of hysteria when we landed in ATL. Only added to two extra bag and luggage transfers just to get out of the airport. Did not make any difference to security or sense of security after all was said and done.

Todd Thompson October 8, 2010 1:08 PM

You’re right. It is about covering the behind. And, until specific information is publicly shared about a pending attack, there will ultimately be very little response. Those who do take the generic threats seriously will be thought “paranoid” and will fall into the clutches of the “nanny.”

Good post!

David Blackburn October 8, 2010 1:11 PM

In truth, the only people who can profit
from such a warning are the officials who
have issued it in the first place.
Ineffective? Given this is true, I’d say it was a very effective. It costs the ‘warners’ not a thing to increase their budgets and spread FUD to the ‘warnees.’
Everything makes sense once you see the actual risk being controlled against.

Noble_Serf October 8, 2010 1:26 PM

“Refused to be terrorized” isn’t working it’s way into the body politic. I guess there’s more to be made on fear.

Jan Glarum October 8, 2010 1:27 PM

Post September 11, 2001, the government’s thirst for “Intel” became insatiable..until it became apparent, Intel with sufficient detail to be actionable is not Intel, but clutter. The government is not going to provide us actionable Intel, as our decisions could prove detrimental to commerce, and hold the government accountable for loss revenue. I’m thinking that the day I am within 1 mile of a terrorist attack is the day I but a lottery ticket…the odds are astronomical for both.

Slarty October 8, 2010 1:46 PM

In truth, the only people who can profit >from such a warning are the officials

And, of course, ‘real’ terrorists. I presume they have developed the art of obfuscation as much as we have…

Aviatrix October 8, 2010 2:01 PM

I’m a professional pilot and the only time I have managed to distinguish between threat levels was when I asked to come visit a controller in the tower and he said, “I’d love you to come up but we’re at threat level [whatever colour it was] and we’re not allowed visitors.” So some people have different procedures in place for different colours, but they couldn’t give me examples of anything I was supposed to do differently at different colours. So why do they tell us?

Peon October 8, 2010 3:21 PM

“Obviously, if the U.S. government knew who the terrorists were and what they were going to attack, it would arrest them and stop them.”

At what stage does the crime get committed?

Brad Wheeler October 8, 2010 3:30 PM

The contents of that article are so self-evident that it’s unfortunate that it needed to be written. Too bad nothing is going to change suddenly in that regard.

Richard Steven Hack October 8, 2010 3:31 PM

“War is the health of the state.”

So is terrorism. Terrorism is the new “war” since no other state has the power to challenge the US.

As I’ve often said, government’s defining characteristic is: “You do everything we tell you to do and give us everything you own and we’ll protect you from the Bad People inside and outside our borders. And if there aren’t any Bad People, we’ll make some.”

n3td3v Security October 8, 2010 3:41 PM

Europe terror warning was to legitimise drone attacks in Pakistan.

Drone attacks are becoming increasingly unpopular.

More than 150 people have died in drone strikes this year, including both militants and civilians.

The attacks have inflamed public opinion in Pakistan, which last week was further aggravated by border violations by Nato helicopters from Afghanistan.

There was a planned strike on a bunch of German nationals that they knew was going to be unpopular unless a reason was pushed out beforehand.

The attack has now been carried out and the terror alert issued in Europe will now fizzle out now that the operation is complete.


Cybergibbons October 8, 2010 3:52 PM

They remind of the signs I see all the time walking round London: “Caution – men working overhead”.

What am I meant to do with this information? Get ready to duck? Run past quickly? Surely if it was dangerous enough to warrant warning me, then you should put barriers up to stop me?

Joe October 8, 2010 3:59 PM

Refusing to be terrorized sounds nice, but it doesn’t work that way. Its like “just say no” to drugs.

Humans are wired for fear, like all mammals studied. In order to change that you have to do a lot of training and practice, and I’m not talking about military training.

There’s the story of a Zen monk who responded to a warlord’s challenge with ‘Don’t you realize you are standing in front of someone who could be run through without batting an eye’. (We don’t know how the warlord responded.)

But how many people are interested or capable of retraining their neuroendocrine system to be immune to fear.

So irresponsible leaders who constantly beat the drum of fear are going to scare people. We can work to keep a level head ourselves, but the masses are not going to be able to do that.

That is why we need people to speak out, like Bruce, and the author of this article. Fear is easier to resist when you can connect with others who are not afraid.

George October 8, 2010 4:24 PM

@Ross Patterson, Been reading this blog for years, and that’s easily the best comment I’ve ever seen! May I use that one? Why are you scared? Yellow is the new green. 🙂 Absolutely classic.

anton October 8, 2010 5:06 PM

In truth, the only people who can profit from
such a warning are the officials who have
issued it in the first place.

Well, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that if you don’t like frogs, you issue such warnings to hit their tourist dollars.

Davi Ottenheimer October 8, 2010 5:18 PM

Some people still realize the color code system is meant to be used with specific information. When orange, then do x, yellow, do y. It is the people who just like the colors themselves that scare me.

I once tried to get the Symantec Internet color codes removed from a major security site. A meeting was held where the marketing group showed me incontestably that website visitors “like the pretty colors”. There was no way they would let me remove them. So I had to negotiate to get meaning added to the colors (hard to do when you know Internet threat yellow and Internet threat orange are, well, meaningless in difference to a website visitor). Given the influence of Symantec on the project we also could not do much to avoid “scan your computer for infection” as the meaning for each color.

askme233 October 8, 2010 6:14 PM

In truth, the only people who can profit from
such a warning are the officials who have
issued it in the first place.

I find this troubling and likely untrue. I will have to think about it for a bit, but so far my plan looks like this:

1) Issues Warning
2) Terrorize people
3) ???
4) Profit

Seriously though, I am sure large travel groups (AMEX?) provide consulting services to corporate clients on what travel policies they should implement based on warning levels (e.g. “how many Execs can be on s single plane at Orange…”). If they don’t, they should.

Paul Renault October 8, 2010 7:52 PM

I have your Step 3):

One of the commenters on some blog site was complaining that he had purchased an airplane ticket to Europe three days before that vague warning had been issued. His main complaint was that if they had issued the warning earlier, he could have gotten his airplaine ticket cheaper.

John N. October 9, 2010 12:04 AM

@Peon –

“At what stage does the crime get committed?”

At the stage where they cross the line to “conspiracy to commit [x].” Once two of them start talking about committing the act, they’re conspiring to do it.

Matthias October 9, 2010 4:03 AM

Currently the U.S. government is pressing hard for European governments to provide unrestricted access to their police computers. The Europeans don’t want to hand over their citizens’ data without guarantees. This warning tries to increase the pressure on Europe. The warning also benefits American tourism. A sad story all in all.

Geek Prophet October 9, 2010 8:08 AM


The profit to such people would be the political influence it gives them. Presumably, the people who issue the warnings get larger budgets and thus more influence if people are frightened by the warnings.


In some jurisdictions, a single act in the direction of committing an illegal act is also required. For example, if we discuss robbing a bank, in many jurisdictions it doesn’t become a crime until I buy a mask, take pictures of the bank, or obtain a car.

C October 9, 2010 10:36 AM

Do these vague warnings have an effect on the networks of terrorists? If someone is under surveillance and a vague warning is issued, does their reaction tell us something? I can envision an analyst shaking the trees and seeing what falls out.

Also excellent point above by Andrew… no one blinked at German nationals being targeted in Pakistan.

ABC October 9, 2010 2:22 PM

Of course the opposite of the article’s claim is true – if there’s an attack and no warning had been previously issued, and it was later determined that the government had some information – no matter how vague – but didn’t issue a warning, there would be just as much consternation.

Just look at the political uproar after the public found out that the government had some vague information that might have stopped the Christmas panty bomber from getting on a plane. After years of complaining that watchlists and such were too expansive and over-inclusive, everyone started complaining that the very same lists were too small and that everyone should be on some kind of watchlist or another.

The article also neglects to mention that some European governments had announced increases in security (or visibly increased security in such a way that there was plenty of speculation in the press that they had internally increased their alert level – France, for example) even before the US issued its alert. How does that square with the conspiracy theories about what the US is up to?

Imperfect Citizen October 10, 2010 12:24 AM

Great discussion. I wonder if there isn’t profit (due to threat levels) in terms of the business of intelligence, with all the contracting going on? What I’m saying is I think its fear and greed both. I’m leaning towards the greed theory considering how long my observation has gone on. Domestic observations of US citizens are funded by the FBI but the contractors are well known companies. I noticed on 9/11 for the past three years, my observation group was more vigilant and bigger on that date. More official use vehicles in the perimeters, vehicular surveillance etc. I’m assuming the alert was higher then because of the date. As a target with people untrained in surveillance “watching” and “pointing and talking about watching”
I wonder if it isn’t just a business for considering my job is paid up til the end of the fiscal year. I know the cops aren’t afraid of me, the FBI isn’t scared of me. I am sure the NSA is not afraid of me. From my point of view, its filthy lucre and Patriot Act Abuse more than fear because I know they know I’m just a housewife. I wonder at some level if these observations are meant to harass.

A Reader October 10, 2010 8:33 PM

In California, there is a proposition on the November 2010 election ballot to legalize the recreational usage of marijuana to a certain extent under state law (but not federal law.)

The Nip It In the Bud campaign (see on the Web) is opposed to the legalization of marijuana under the ballot proposition. Among the reasons given is the potential for national security to be harmed by legalizing marijuana. (This information is accompanied by a small poster of a “pillars of light” WTC memorial.) Amomg other things, it is said that the alert level for the airline sector has been raised to orange (High) and that drug paraphernalia would pose concerns for aviation security and for airport screeners. Amomg other things, the campaign site says that “We cannot afford to be casual about many items, which are banned from being brought on a plane.  Drug paraphernalia would add a long list of items, which we must not be burdened with.”

Although there are likely concerns and issues to consider regarding the state-level legalization of recreational marijuana, one might question as to the relevance of national security, in addition to the effectiveness of aviation security measures and the restrictions on certain items.

its hollow October 11, 2010 8:23 AM

@ john N, the two people are conspiring but only the one who isn’t paid by the fbi will be charged, the other is one of their agents provocateurs, all terror plots are started by the fbi so that they can capture somebody, and anybody will do.
We no longer have freedom, thats been hollowed out by the supreme corrupt who have sliced the bill of rights so thin you can see through it. then they decide who’s vote gets to count, the repuglicans or the corporations that own them.

karrde October 11, 2010 8:36 AM

“Obviously, if the U.S. government knew who the terrorists were and what they were going to attack, it would arrest them and stop them.”

This may not be the case. There are levels of knowledge of “who/when/where-they-will-attack” that do not include “where-they-are-now”.

The “where-they-are-now” knowledge is rather necessary for detention.

There is also the problem of knowing “who-is-ringleader” and not knowing “who-is-footsoldier-preparing-for-attack”, which would allow the government to have knowledge of the plans, but be unable to use the knowledge to stop the attack.

Don’t take this as disagreement with the thrust of the post–just that this particular statement is an oversimplification of the problem.

I agree fully that most Threat Level Warnings are more about posturing by Government Officials. Such warnings cannot provide information that is usable by the public.

No One October 11, 2010 10:30 AM

@John N: What’s the difference between conspiring to commit [X] and a thought experiment — the hypothetical planning of [X] with no intent to commit [X]?

My common sense says that only one of those should be illegal and my common sense also says it’s impossible to know the difference until I attempt to commit [X].

For example, in a vacuum, the act of buying a mask or photographing a bank is (I hope) not illegal. Maybe I would do those things as part of my thought experiment to see if I could “get away with it” without the actual crime of robbing the bank. Can I do all the legal things preceding the illegal act as well? This is an actual curiosity, not a plan to commit an illegal act, at least, according to my common sense.

BF Skinner October 12, 2010 6:27 AM

@ Joe “how many people are interested or capable of retraining their neuroendocrine system to be immune to fear.”

Quite a few in fact. The Biosurvival and Emotional/Territorial somatic circuits are reimprintable using martial arts and meditation. Quite a lot of that going around.

“Fear is easier to resist when you can connect with others who are not afraid.”
While community is a necessary human activity and can be comforting sometimes you only end up with a
community of the fearful. See from the reaction of residents of small towns to plans by their neighbors
who are muslims to build mosques. A recipe for xenophobia…we don’t want to ‘resist’ fear. Resistence
still leaves us clinging to fear.

Fear builds emotional tension and it’s that tension we suffer from. It goes away on it’s own over time
unless, it’s chronic, but it needs releasing. Funny how we always come back to Wilhelm Reich; suggest orgasam.

BF Skinner October 12, 2010 6:31 AM

@Peon – “At what stage does the crime get committed?”
@John N. – “At the stage where they cross the line to “conspiracy to commit [x].”
@pdf23ds – “pretty fuzzy line, still, but not too fuzzy to be useful to prosecutors”

And for that crime the penalty is death by drone without trial?

lairdb October 12, 2010 11:56 AM

Dear Lazyweb: There’s a fallacy in there somewhere, and I can’t think of a Google-able name for it to bootstrap my thinking it through.

“…the chances of being hit by a car while crossing the street are still greater than the chances of being on the one plane or one subway car that comes under attack.”

Over the broad population, yes — but I can take personal steps to control my risk of being hit by a car. For example, I can develop the discipline of looking.

Being in the one plane seems less… personally controllable, so the comparison seems fallacious. Surely someone has thought this through so I don’t have to do the hard thinking — what’s the name for this, or what should I read?

Jim A October 12, 2010 12:38 PM

Well an argument can be made that this helps the public realize just how little the authorities actually know. ‘Cause in those action movies the hero always knows to the minute when the bomb is going off. In the real world nobody knows whether or not there IS a ticking bomb, much less when and where.

David October 13, 2010 8:43 AM

I would like to remind everyone that the DHS has established the “Homeland Security Advisory System” to clearly communicate the current threat level we are experiencing. We are currently at level “Orange”. To quote:

“# High Condition (Orange). A High Condition is declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the Protective Measures taken in the previous Threat Conditions, Federal departments and agencies should consider the following general measures in addition to the agency-specific Protective Measures that they will develop and implement:

  1. Coordinating necessary security efforts with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies or any National Guard or other appropriate armed forces organizations;
  2. Taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation;
  3. Preparing to execute contingency procedures, such as moving to an alternate site or dispersing their workforce; and
  4. Restricting threatened facility access to essential personnel only.”

Surely you can’t expect more specificity than that?

No One October 15, 2010 10:11 AM

1. They should always be coordinating with Federal, State and local LEAs and the National Guard where appropriate.

  1. So every public event should have more security or be moved or canceled? Do you know how many public events there are? Is there any credibility to the threat level that really indicates we need to add security to every public event since, as far as I can tell, 99.999% of all public events since 2001 have been terrorist-free. In fact the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics seems to be the only US public event where a terrorist attack was attempted!
  2. They should always be prepared to execute contingency procedures. If you’re not prepared to execute a contingency then you don’t have a contingency.
  3. What facilities are threatened? Why, if they are so important, are they not always restricted to essential personnel only anyway?

None of those suggestions are anything more than hot air and even if they weren’t there’s no reason to advertise this to the public anyway — there’s nothing about what the citizens should be doing there!

GreenSquirrel October 20, 2010 6:42 AM

(Late to the party, as always, but I’ve been working away).

This is something that has infuriated me for a long time.

Publicly stated threat warnings like this are a farce. They help no one but reinforce the work of the terrorist groups.

As “No One” points out, without more detail it is of no help to the public and we are almost thanking Government security officials for giving us a vague warning that absolves them of any blame if it goes wrong.

If they know enough to warn, they know enough to be specific. Anything else is a sky falling down warning.

Once I would have thought that only a cynic would note the timing between “warnings” like this and possible budget cuts, but I think we are well past that now….

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