Do Terror Alerts Work?
How would we know? An essay by one of the world's busiest security experts.
As I read the litany of terror threat warnings that the government has issued in the past three years, the thing that jumps out at me is how vague they are. The careful wording implies everything without actually saying anything. We hear "terrorists might try to bomb buses and rail lines in major U.S. cities this summer," and there's "increasing concern about the possibility of a major terrorist attack." "At least one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer 2003." Warnings are based on "uncorroborated intelligence," and issued even though "there is no credible, specific information about targets or method of attack." And, of course, "weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological, or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted."
Terrorists might carry out their attacks using cropdusters, helicopters, scuba divers, even prescription drugs from Canada. They might be carrying almanacs. They might strike during the Christmas season, disrupt the "democratic process," or target financial buildings in New York and Washington.
It's been more than two years since the government instituted a color-coded terror alert system, and the Department of Homeland Security has issued about a dozen terror alerts in that time. How effective have they been in preventing terrorism? Have they made us any safer, or are they causing harm? Are they, as critics claim, just a political ploy?
When Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Minnesota recently, he said the fact that there had been no terrorist attacks in America in the three years since September 11th was proof that the Bush administration's anti-terrorist policies were working. I thought: There were no terrorist attacks in America in the three years before September 11th, and we didn't have any terror alerts. What does that prove?
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.
It's true too that people want to make their own decisions. Regardless of what the government suggests, people are going to independently assess the situation. They're going to decide for themselves whether or not changing their behavior seems like a good idea. If there's no rational information to base their independent assessment on, they're going to come to conclusions based on fear, prejudice, or ignorance.
We're already seeing this in the U.S. We see it when Muslim men are assaulted on the street. We see it when a woman on an airplane panics because a Syrian pop group is flying with her. We see it again and again, as people react to rumors about terrorist threats from Al Qaeda and its allies endlessly repeated by the news media.
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. And maddeningly, the current administration occasionally compromises the intelligence assets it does have, in the interest of politics. It recently released the name of a Pakistani agent working undercover in Al Qaeda, blowing ongoing counterterrorist operations both in Pakistan and the U.K.
Still, ironically, most of the time the administration projects a "just trust me" attitude. And there are those in the U.S. who trust it, and there are those who do not. Unfortunately, there are good reasons not to trust it. There are two reasons government likes terror alerts. Both are self-serving, and neither has anything to do with security.
The first is such a common impulse of bureaucratic self-protection that it has achieved a popular acronym in government circles: CYA. If the worst happens and another attack occurs, the American public isn't going to be as sympathetic to the current administration as it was last time. After the September 11th attacks, the public reaction was primarily shock and disbelief. In response, the government vowed to fight the terrorists. They passed the draconian USA PATRIOT Act, invaded two countries, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars. Next time, the public reaction will quickly turn into anger, and those in charge will need to explain why they failed. The public is going to demand to know what the government knew and why it didn't warn people, and they're not going to look kindly on someone who says: "We didn't think the threat was serious enough to warn people." Issuing threat warnings is a way to cover themselves. "What did you expect?" they'll say. "We told you it was Code Orange."
The second purpose is even more self-serving: Terror threat warnings are a publicity tool. They're a method of keeping terrorism in people's minds. Terrorist attacks on American soil are rare, and unless the topic stays in the news, people will move on to other concerns. There is, of course, a hierarchy to these things. Threats against U.S. soil are most important, threats against Americans abroad are next, and terrorist threats -- even actual terrorist attacks -- against foreigners in foreign countries are largely ignored.
Since the September 11th attacks, Republicans have made "tough on terror" the centerpiece of their reelection strategies. Study after study has shown that Americans who are worried about terrorism are more likely to vote Republican. In 2002, Karl Rove specifically told Republican legislators to run on that platform, and strength in the face of the terrorist threat is the basis of Bush's reelection campaign. For that strategy to work, people need to be reminded constantly about the terrorist threat and how the current government is keeping them safe.
It has to be the right terrorist threat, though. Last month someone exploded a pipe bomb in a stem-cell research center near Boston, but the administration didn't denounce this as a terrorist attack. In April 2003, the FBI disrupted a major terrorist plot in the U.S., arresting William Krar and seizing automatic weapons, pipe bombs, bombs disguised as briefcases, and at least one cyanide bomb -- an actual chemical weapon. But because Krar was a member of a white supremacist group and not Muslim, Ashcroft didn't hold a press conference, Tom Ridge didn't announce how secure the homeland was, and Bush never mentioned it.
Threat warnings can be a potent tool in the fight against terrorism -- when there is a specific threat at a specific moment. There are times when people need to act, and act quickly, in order to increase security. But this is a tool that can easily be abused, and when it's abused it loses its effectiveness.
It's instructive to look at the European countries that have been dealing with terrorism for decades, like the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain. None of these has a color-coded terror-alert system. None calls a press conference on the strength of "chatter." Even Israel, which has seen more terrorism than any other nation in the world, issues terror alerts only when there is a specific imminent attack and they need people to be vigilant. And these alerts include specific times and places, with details people can use immediately. They're not dissimilar from hurricane warnings.
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.
Fighting global terrorism is difficult, and it's not something that should be played for political gain. Countries that have been dealing with terrorism for decades have realized that much of the real work happens outside of public view, and that often the most important victories are the most secret. The elected officials of these countries take the time to explain this to their citizens, who in return have a realistic view of what the government can and can't do to keep them safe.
By making terrorism the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, President Bush and the Republicans play a very dangerous game. They're making many people needlessly fearful. They're attracting the ridicule of others, both domestically and abroad. And they're distracting themselves from the serious business of actually keeping Americans safe.