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NTAS under scrutiny: No terrorism advisory system?

Foreign Policy published a piece earlier today raising an important question: why has the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), brought into operation in April 2011 to replace the former Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), not been used at any point in time over the last 3 1/2 years? As John Hudson writes:

Since replacing the old system in 2011, [the National Terrorism Advisory System] has not issued a single alert, bulletin or advisory to the American public. NTAS encourages Americans to check its website and social media feeds for “information about threats in specific places or for individuals exhibiting certain types of suspicious activity.” But no alert has ever been posted to the website, the Twitter account has never tweeted, and the Facebook page is empty.

DHS’s public guide to the NTAS system describes the two types of alerts envisioned under the NTAS system: Imminent Threat Alerts are intended to “warn of a credible, specific, and impending terrorist threat against the United States”; whereas Elevated Threat Alerts are intended to warn of “a credible terrorist threat against the United States”.

Given these criteria, I find it surprising that no NTAS alerts have been issued since April 2011. There are at least three examples of situations in the last few years where one can make a credible case that an NTAS alert should have been issued for a particular city, region, or economic sector, including:

1. In the days following the successful assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011 – a period of time when various agencies increased their threat posture out of fear of a revenge attack;

2. In September 2011, during the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when there was considered to be a credible threat against a potential target in New York or Washington, DC. (As DC police chief Cathy Lanier recounted in Senate testimony the following month, “within 24 hours, the intelligence community collectively decided that the public needed to be informed of this credible threat.”);

3. In the immediate 2-3 days following the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, prior to the identification and apprehension of the Tsarnaev brothers. The mere fact of the initial bombings should have been the basis for believing that there was still a “credible, specific and impending” threat of a follow-on attack in the region (as in fact there was).

In each of these cases, I think there was a reasonable basis for the issuance of a public NTAS alert, to complement the less-public guidance that DHS was providing to its key stakeholders (e.g. state and local law enforcement, owners and operators of critical infrastructure) at the time.

By no means do I think we should go back to the Homeland Security Advisory System as it was bluntly used in the 3-4 years following the 9/11 attacks. But I worry that DHS is erring too much on the side of caution, and should be using the NTAS to provide measured information to the American public where there is evidence of a credible threat to the homeland. Otherwise, we diminish the important role of the general public in preventing terrorist attacks, and inadequately promote the need for individual preparedness and resilience in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack.