By Kathleen Murphy
The nation's security status was ratcheted up to "high
risk" in February 2003, but you'd never know it under
the swaying palms on Maui's beaches or on the hiking trails
of Kauai, two of Hawaiis most popular tourist sites.
No extra police were on duty on Maui or the smaller islands
of Lanai and Molokai. Small power plants didn't step up security
as specified by the states classified checklist of actions
for higher alert levels, said Robert Lee, Hawaii's homeland
In both February and April 2003, when the federal government
raised its color-coded terror alert to orange or high
risk, Hawaii took an a-la-carte approach to stepping
up its own alert status.
Gov. Linda Lingle (R) kept the state level at yellow or "guarded,
despite U.S. intelligence fears of an al Qaeda attack. Hawaii
clamped on more security at airports and harbors, but stood
If you were a tourist on Maui or Kauai or the Big Island,
it made no sense to have that elevated threat and security
level in those areas versus some of our key sites, said
Lee, Hawaiis adjutant general.
Hawaii, the same state that takes credit for being first
to create a color-coded alert within a month after Sept. 11,
2001, also has led the states in using the two-year-old nationwide
system in targeted ways. In a move urged by many state homeland
security directors, the federal governments color-coded
terror alert system is shifting toward localized warnings.
States are pressing for future alerts to be tailored to geographical
locations or types of targets.
If you have a threat in Chicago and New York
does that mean you put the whole nation on alert? No, I dont
think so, and thats the thought process now, said
Arizona Homeland Security Director Frank Navarette, who added
that he wont follow the federal governments alert
if it doesnt make sense for his state.
The threat alert system that costs federal, state and local
governments millions in extra civil defense spending has been
heightened five times since its creation in March 2002. In
January, the Department of Homeland Security lowered the threat
level nationwide but for the first time kept it elevated in
Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.
When we brought it down from high to elevated, we maintained
targeted security at certain venues, and well do more
and more of that, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
said at a Feb. 4 press conference. Admittedly, elevating
to a separate to a higher level, across the board,
is a fairly blunt instrument.
Ridges office is working with state directors to develop
a way to routinely localize alerts. Brian Rohrkasse, spokesman
for the homeland security department, said that the advisory
system was designed for targeted warnings but that incomplete
intelligence information has thwarted clear-cut alerts.
Unfortunately al Qaeda does not tell us specifically
how, whom and when they are going to hit, Rohrkasse
Congress also is looking at making the alert system more
precise. U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of
the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said the
warnings trigger expensive responses that worsen economic
We should not be using the public, color-coded threat
advisory system to warn of terrorist threats that are not
national in scope, if we are not willing to discuss them publicly
We cannot expect states and localities to sustain such unbudgeted
expenditures indefinitely, Cox said at a Feb. 4 hearing
on the security advisory system.
Several states, including Delaware, New Jersey, New York
and Utah, developed their own state-level color-coded alert
systems that largely mirror the federal threat advisory system
after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Hawaii's system adds
a black alert level to indicate that a terrorist
attack already has taken place.
Critics and late-night talk show hosts have derided the federal
five-color alerts, saying the United States acts like Battlestar
Galactica, the science-fiction TV series, when broadcasting
vague and overly broad alerts to the general public. Filmmaker
Michael Moore, who had his microphone cut off at the 2003
Oscars as he lambasted President Bush and the orange
alerts, charges the governments warnings needlessly
whip up public anxiety and keep the public in constant fear.
State homeland security directors say the alerts are essential
but simply need tweaking.
I wouldnt call the federal alerts useless,
because they let states know what is happening on a global
scale, said Annette Sobel, New Mexicos homeland security
director, who supports a regional alert system.
But they clearly need more specificity built into the
system. This process clearly isnt perfect yet,
said Sobel, who wants the next meeting of state homeland security
directors to focus on tailoring alerts to regions.
We need to drive this and push our recommendation back
to Washington so we have control over what happens at the
state and local level. The bottom line is, Im on the
front lines. I need to answer to the governor. You need to
empower me, Sobel said.
Jerry Humble, Tennessees homeland security director,
said, What I prefer is that when necessary we alert
the whole nation, but as we work together, federal and state,
that we adapt what security enhancements we do based on intelligence
and situational awareness. Im not so sure a regional
approach is absolutely the answer, and whatever we come up
with next probably wont be the answer, and well
adapt. And thats how we do it in America.
State homeland security directors, who were appointed after
Sept. 11, 2001 regard the federal alerts as a recommendation
that must be validated with their own intelligence information.
Glen Woodbury, Washington state emergency management director
and a board member of the Center for State Homeland Security,
said more targeted alerts would be helpful, along with standardization
among localities choices of colors for warning levels.
Critics have complained the frequent alerts foster public
indifference, and say only police should be warned, not the
Edward Luttwak, senior fellow of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies who was special national security
adviser to President Ronald Reagan, said, If we ever
have a situation where we want the public to be involved,
to take their flashlights and go out at night with their guns,
then we dont need this alert system. We can use our
mass media. We need to save a few bucks and abolish a useless