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DHS: The Credible Threat Alert Standard Didn’t Work… Because There Weren’t Any Credible Threats

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced yesterday that the terrorism alert system needed to be changed. Pay close attention to his reason:

“In 2002, we went to the color bars. Everyone remembers the color bars: severe, high, elevated, guarded, low. One of the issues with the color bars was that there was very little public commentary to go with them and there’s a certain de-escalation factor here. Once you elevate, it’s difficult to de-escalate. In 2011, we did away with the color bars and created the National Terrorism Advisory System. The National Terrorism Advisory System has two levels to it, an “Elevated Alert” and an “Imminent Alert.” This system has never been deployed. It depends upon, for an “Elevated Alert,” a credible, terrorist threat, which to give you any guidelines means something very specific. An “Imminent Alert” warns of a credible, specific, impending terrorist threat against the United States. This in my judgment does not work in the current threat environment because it depends upon a specific, credible, terrorist threat to something in the homeland. This system has never been deployed. It’s time we change the system, and this is what we are doing and announcing today.”

“It depends on… a credible, terrorist threat.”
“This system has never been deployed.”
“This in my judgment does not work in the current threat environment because it depends on a specific, credible, terrorist threat to something in the homeland.”
“This system has never been deployed.”

What we’ve just learned is that since 2011, there has not been a credible terrorist threat against the United States.

Alerts Will Continue Until Morale is Sufficiently DegradedOne reasonable reaction to this news would be to exhale, declare satisfaction and gratefulness at Americans’ safety, then move on. This was not the reaction of the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security saw a problem in the lack of jarring, anxiety-producing, fear-evoking alerts. So it changed the alerts. New alerts will be issued regularly that are not based on credible information. Instead, non-credible, non-specific information will be shared with the American public.

The first new “alert” is full of the language of possibility, of what could happen in the imagined world of Homeland Security:

“We are concerned about the self-radicalized actors that could strike with little or no notice.”
“DHS is especially concerned that terrorist inspired individuals and homegrown violent extremists may be encouraged or inspired to target public events or places.”
“The FBI is investigating potential terrorism related activities associated with this broad threat throughout the United States.”

Terrorists always could strike with no notice — that’s the nature of strikes that occur — or don’t — without notice. Extremists always may be encouraged to target public events or places — although then again, they may not. The nature of potential is that it is always present, never absent, always justifying a feeling of insecurity among citizens, always justifying the existence of a Department with Security on its agenda.

What can we call the ideology behind the issuance of frightening alerts without credibility? The phrase “state-sponsored terror-ism” comes to mind.

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