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DHS updates its terrorism advisory system

Earlier today, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced changes to the National Terrorism Advisory System, adding a new category of warning, the NTAS Bulletin, to complement NTAS Alerts, and to be used as follows:

NTAS Bulletins will provide information describing broader or more general trends and current developments regarding threats of terrorism. They will share important terrorism-related information with the American public and various partners and stakeholders, including in those situations where additional precautions may be warranted, but where the circumstances do not warrant the issuance of an “elevated” or “imminent” Alert.

DHS also issued its first NTAS bulletin in conjunction with the Secretary’s statement, a one-pager on the global threat environment that highlights the Department’s concerns with “self-radicalized actor(s) who could strike with little or notice.”

Overall, this introduction of NTAS Bulletins is an improvement to the system, and is particularly warranted given the fact that DHS and the FBI already produced unclassified bulletins for law enforcement and first responders – their Joint Intelligence Bulletins (see this example) – which are widely disseminated and almost always find their ways to the news media a few days after they are issued. It makes a lot of sense to repurpose many of these JIBs into NTAS bulletins, in instances where the vigilance of the general public may help to prevent or disrupt a particular threat.

However, these changes to the NTAS do not address my long-standing concerns about the underuse of NTAS, which I outlined in this blog post last year, noting that there were a number of circumstances in the past 3-4 years where the issuance of an NTAS alert was warranted in my opinion, based on the system’s own standard of a credible threat (for an elevated alert) or a specific and credible threat (for an imminent alert). For example, I still maintain that DHS should have issued an NTAS alert after the Boston Marathon bombings during the four days when the attackers (the Tsarnaev brothers) had not yet been identified and were still at large.

Given the current pace of ISIS-related terror plots, there will likely be similar circumstances in the coming months and years where DHS should issue NTAS Alerts, not to stoke fear but to ensure that the American people have an informed understanding of current threats. Hopefully today’s changes to NTAS will also lead the Department’s leadership to be more forward-leaning in utilizing the system.

But in the meantime, the 25,000+ followers of the @NTASAlerts twitter account are still waiting for that first tweet.