TCS Daily

Taking It Up a Level

By Noah Shachtman - February 10, 2003 12:00 AM

The Bush administration has raised its terror threat level to orange, the second-highest ranking. Too bad it doesn't mean a whole lot to national defense, experts say.
Local authorities and private companies are often the ones most directly responsible for maintaining the peace and preventing terrorist attacks. But when the risk judged by so-called "Homeland Security Advisory System" goes up, these groups aren't obligated in any way to alter their defenses against a possible threat, according to David Heyman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"That's the big hole that for local authorities, state authorities, and private business, all of this is voluntary," Heyman said. The fact that companies are unaffected is particularly troubling, Heyman added, because 80 to 85 percent of the country's "critical infrastructure" dams, power plants, and the like are operated by private enterprises.

Even the Pentagon is unaffected by the Homeland Security Department's estimates of terrorist risks. The Defense Department operates under a different, five-tiered program of readiness, called "FPCONs," for "Force Protection Conditions." The military system is independent of Homeland Security's color-coded set of risks, according to Phil Anderson, Heyman's CSIS colleague.

Only federal agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Transportation Security Administration are obligated to change their ways when the official threat of terrorism goes up. When the level is at orange, like it is now and like it was around the 9/11 anniversary - more federal air marshals are supposed to ride airplane flights, more cars around airports are supposed to be inspected, and more people are supposed to be closely questioned at the country's borders.

Some local authorities have taken it upon themselves to voluntarily beef up security now that the White House has said that an attack may be imminent. In New York, there's been an added police presence on the subways, and around the big hotels, bridges, and landmarks, according to the New York Times.

But in many other cities, the beat cops and private security guards who have as good a chance as anyone of coming face to face with a terrorist they don't have to do anything more than keep their eyes particularly peeled.

Why ratchet up to orange, then? Even if intelligence reports have indeed revealed that the chance of an attack is now particularly strong, what good is that information if it comes without instructions on how to respond?

Could the shift be partially political, then - providing cover for the administration just in case something awful happens, or making the need to go bomb Saddam feel all the more urgent?

Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, replied, "It's a reasonable question to ask, and it must be a temptation."

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