from yellow to orange for mass transit only, though noting that the government had “no specific, credible information” to suggest that an attack in the United States was imminent.
The system worked differently for different audiences. When a decision was made to change the threat level, department officials notified federal, state, and local agencies electronically or by phone and also called chief executives of major corporations, using a secure connection maintained by the Business Roundtable.
DHS also developed channels for communicating threat information without raising the overall threat level. The department issued threat advisories or less urgent information bulletins for specific locales or sectors. Access to these communications was often restricted, however, leaving the public uninformed. Officials explained that such information was shared on a need-to-know basis, since it was often derived from classified sources. A GAO review of a sample of secret threat advisories in 2004 concluded that they contained “actionable information about threats targeting critical national networks, infrastructures, or key assets such as transit systems.”
In practice, however, the terrorist threat warning system remained problematic. Several in-depth evaluations and surveys found that rankings were little used by its intended audiences. The Gilmore Commission, a broad-based congressional commission charged with continuing oversight of domestic responses to terrorism, concluded in 2003 that “[t]he Homeland Security Warning System has become largely marginalized.” On occasion, governors and mayors declined to elevate threat levels or take other federally recommended actions. Public and private groups expressed frustration at the lack of information about the character and location of threats.The commission recommended the creation of a regional alert system featuring specific guidance, as well as training local officials for responses to each threat level.
A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in 2003 concluded that threat alerts were so vague that the public “might begin to question the authenticity” of threats and therefore ignore them. The report noted that the government “has never explained the sources and quality of the intelligence upon which the threat levels were based.”
Government officials have rarely received information specific enough to act upon. A survey by the General Accounting Office in 2004 found that sixteen of twenty-four federal agencies had received information about elevated threat levels from the media before they received it from homeland security officials. One of the potential strengths of the alert system was that it was constructed to work synergistically with regulatory requirements. Each federal department was required to come up with its own protective measures appropriate to each threat level and to take those actions each time the threat level was raised. However, federal agencies sur veyed by the GAO reported that changes from yellow to orange had minimal impact on their practices, since they maintained high levels of security at all times.
State officials, too, reported that they received much of their information about changed threat levels through the media and got little specific information from the government. The GAO survey found that fifteen of forty states learned about threat level changes from the media before they heard from federal officials in at least one instance. State and local officials reported that learning about threats at the same time as the public could carry heavy political costs. State officials also noted that they received conflicting advice from different federal authorities about what actions to take.