Chertoff: Threat Level System May Be Too Ingrained to Change

By Joseph Straw

Changing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) color-coded threat level system would be highly problematic because it’s become too ingrained in the security procedures of government agencies and other organizations around the country, former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday.

Current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has consulted both Chertoff and his predecessor, Tom Ridge, in a reassessment of the five-level alert system. Chertoff addressed the issue during a panel discussion on emergency communications at the National Press Club.

The system is based on military-style alert systems, under which each level dictates a specific set of security procedures. 

Chertoff said a simple option would be to simply lop off the system’s two lowest rungs, “guarded” and “low,” which have not been invoked since the system’s establishment more than seven years ago, and which he believes will not be applicable “within our lifetimes.”

Ridge re-entered the media spotlight leading up to Tuesday’s release of his memoir, The Test of Our Times, with his contention that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft pressured him to raise the terror alert level in advance of the 2004 election.

Later Ridge told USA Today that he was “not second-guessing [his] colleagues,” who urged the change after Osama bin Laden released a video critical of President George W. Bush shortly before the election. Ridge noted that bin Laden had previously released roughly 20 such video tapes between 9-11 and that point.

Ridge writes in the book that “Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’”

Chertoff experienced no political pressure regarding the alert system during his four years as DHS secretary, he said, noting that during that period the agency only raised the alert level twice: following the July 7, 2005 London subway bombings and amid the August 2006 transatlantic aircraft bombing plot.

 DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory System has five threat categories: low (green), guarded (blue), elevated (yellow, the current threat level), high (orange, the current threat level for the aviation sector), and severe (red).

♦ Photo of HSAS by vaXzine/Flickr


View Recent News (by day)


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.