Do Terror Alerts Work?

Do Terror Alerts Work?.

As
I read the litany of terror threat warnings that the government has
issued in the past three years, the thing that jumps out at me is how
vague they are. The careful wording implies everything without actually
saying anything. We hear “terrorists might try to bomb buses and rail
lines in major U.S. cities this summer,” and there's “increasing
concern about the possibility of a major terrorist attack.” “At least
one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer 2003.”
Warnings are based on “uncorroborated intelligence,” and issued even
though “there is no credible, specific information about targets or
method of attack.” And, of course, “weapons of mass destruction,
including those containing chemical, biological, or radiological agents
or materials, cannot be discounted.”

Terrorists might carry out their attacks using cropdusters,
helicopters, scuba divers, even prescription drugs from Canada. They
might be carrying almanacs. They might strike during the Christmas
season, disrupt the “democratic process,” or target financial buildings
in New York and Washington.

It's been more than two years since the government instituted a
color-coded terror alert system, and the Department of Homeland
Security has issued about a dozen terror alerts in that time. How
effective have they been in preventing terrorism? Have they made us any
safer, or are they causing harm? Are they, as critics claim, just a
political ploy?

When Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Minnesota recently, he
said the fact that there had been no terrorist attacks in America in
the three years since September 11th was proof that the Bush
administration's anti-terrorist policies were working. I thought: There
were no terrorist attacks in America in the three years before
September 11th, and we didn't have any terror alerts. What does that
prove?

In theory, the warnings are supposed to cultivate an atmosphere of
preparedness. If Americans are vigilant against the terrorist threat,
then maybe the terrorists will be caught and their plots foiled. And
repeated warnings brace Americans for the aftermath of another attack.

The problem is that the warnings don't do any of this. Because they
are so vague and so frequent, and because they don't recommend any
useful actions that people can take, terror threat warnings don't
prevent terrorist attacks. They might force a terrorist to delay his
plan temporarily, or change his target. But in general, professional
security experts like me are not particularly impressed by systems that
merely force the bad guys to make minor modifications in their tactics.

And the alerts don't result in a more vigilant America. It's one
thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their
windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events,
and it's obvious when the danger is imminent and when it's over. People
can do useful things in response to a hurricane warning; then there is
a discrete period when their lives are markedly different, and they
feel there was utility in the higher alert mode, even if nothing came
of it.

It's quite another thing to tell people to be on alert, but not to
alter their plans–as Americans were instructed last Christmas. A
terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic,
without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective.
Indeed, it inspires terror itself. Compare people's reactions to
hurricane threats with their reactions to earthquake threats. According
to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in
the next two hundred years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster
will be enormous, people just can't stay alert for two centuries. The
news seems to have generated the same levels of short-term fear and
long-term apathy in Californians that the terrorist warnings do. It's
human nature; people simply can't be vigilant indefinitely.

It's true too that people want to make their own decisions.
Regardless of what the government suggests, people are going to
independently assess the situation. They're going to decide for
themselves whether or not changing their behavior seems like a good
idea. If there's no rational information to base their independent
assessment on, they're going to come to conclusions based on fear,
prejudice, or ignorance.

We're already seeing this in the U.S. We see it when Muslim men are
assaulted on the street. We see it when a woman on an airplane panics
because a Syrian pop group is flying with her. We see it again and
again, as people react to rumors about terrorist threats from Al Qaeda
and its allies endlessly repeated by the news media.

This all implies that if the government is going to issue a threat
warning at all, it should provide as many details as possible. But this
is a catch-22: Unfortunately, there's an absolute limit to how much
information the government can reveal. The classified nature of the
intelligence that goes into these threat alerts precludes the
government from giving the public all the information it would need to
be meaningfully prepared. And maddeningly, the current administration
occasionally compromises the intelligence assets it does have, in the
interest of politics. It recently released the name of a Pakistani
agent working undercover in Al Qaeda, blowing ongoing counterterrorist
operations both in Pakistan and the U.K.

Still, ironically, most of the time the administration projects a
“just trust me” attitude. And there are those in the U.S. who trust it,
and there are those who do not. Unfortunately, there are good reasons
not to trust it. There are two reasons government likes terror alerts.
Both are self-serving, and neither has anything to do with security.

The first is such a common impulse of bureaucratic self-protection
that it has achieved a popular acronym in government circles: CYA. If
the worst happens and another attack occurs, the American public isn't
going to be as sympathetic to the current administration as it was last
time. After the September 11th attacks, the public reaction was
primarily shock and disbelief. In response, the government vowed to
fight the terrorists. They passed the draconian USA PATRIOT Act,
invaded two countries, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars. Next
time, the public reaction will quickly turn into anger, and those in
charge will need to explain why they failed. The public is going to
demand to know what the government knew and why it didn't warn people,
and they're not going to look kindly on someone who says: “We didn't
think the threat was serious enough to warn people.” Issuing threat
warnings is a way to cover themselves. “What did you expect?” they'll
say. “We told you it was Code Orange.”

The second purpose is even more self-serving: Terror threat warnings
are a publicity tool. They're a method of keeping terrorism in people's
minds. Terrorist attacks on American soil are rare, and unless the
topic stays in the news, people will move on to other concerns. There
is, of course, a hierarchy to these things. Threats against U.S. soil
are most important, threats against Americans abroad are next, and
terrorist threats–even actual terrorist attacks–against foreigners in
foreign countries are largely ignored.

Since the September 11th attacks, Republicans have made “tough on
terror” the centerpiece of their reelection strategies. Study after
study has shown that Americans who are worried about terrorism are more
likely to vote Republican. In 2002, Karl Rove specifically told
Republican legislators to run on that platform, and strength in the
face of the terrorist threat is the basis of Bush's reelection
campaign. For that strategy to work, people need to be reminded
constantly about the terrorist threat and how the current government is
keeping them safe.

It has to be the right terrorist threat, though. Last month someone
exploded a pipe bomb in a stem-cell research center near Boston, but
the administration didn't denounce this as a terrorist attack. In April
2003, the FBI disrupted a major terrorist plot in the U.S., arresting
William Krar and seizing automatic weapons, pipe bombs, bombs disguised
as briefcases, and at least one cyanide bomb–an actual chemical
weapon. But because Krar was a member of a white supremacist group and
not Muslim, Ashcroft didn't hold a press conference, Tom Ridge didn't
announce how secure the homeland was, and Bush never mentioned it.

Threat warnings can be a potent tool in the fight against
terrorism–when there is a specific threat at a specific moment. There
are times when people need to act, and act quickly, in order to
increase security. But this is a tool that can easily be abused, and
when it's abused it loses its effectiveness.

It's instructive to look at the European countries that have been
dealing with terrorism for decades, like the United Kingdom, Ireland,
France, Italy, and Spain. None of these has a color-coded terror-alert
system. None calls a press conference on the strength of “chatter.”
Even Israel, which has seen more terrorism than any other nation in the
world, issues terror alerts only when there is a specific imminent
attack and they need people to be vigilant. And these alerts include
specific times and places, with details people can use immediately.
They're not dissimilar from hurricane warnings.

A terror alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic
echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are essentially two
ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly
horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands
of people. The second is to keep people living in fear with the threat
of doing something horrible. Decades ago, that was one of the IRA's
major aims. Inadvertently, the DHS is achieving the same thing.

There's another downside to incessant threat warnings, one that
happens when everyone realizes that they have been abused for political
purposes. Call it the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” problem. After too many
false alarms, the public will become inured to them. Already this has
happened. Many Americans ignore terrorist threat warnings; many even
ridicule them. The Bush administration lost considerable respect when
it was revealed that August's New York/Washington warning was based on
three-year-old information. And the more recent warning that terrorists
might target cheap prescription drugs from Canada was assumed
universally to be politics-as-usual.

Repeated warnings do more harm than good, by needlessly creating
fear and confusion among those who still trust the government, and
anesthetizing everyone else to any future alerts that might be
important. And every false alarm makes the next terror alert less
effective.

Fighting global terrorism is difficult, and it's not something that
should be played for political gain. Countries that have been dealing
with terrorism for decades have realized that much of the real work
happens outside of public view, and that often the most important
victories are the most secret. The elected officials of these countries
take the time to explain this to their citizens, who in return have a
realistic view of what the government can and can't do to keep them
safe.

By making terrorism the centerpiece of his reelection campaign,
President Bush and the Republicans play a very dangerous game. They're
making many people needlessly fearful. They're attracting the ridicule
of others, both domestically and abroad. And they're distracting
themselves from the serious business of actually keeping Americans
safe.

This article was originally published in the October 2004 edition of The Rake  [Schneier on Security]

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