Smith: Communicating Threats Ten Years After 9/11

When we assumed control of the Department of Homeland Security back in January of 2009, it seemed we were inheriting a department known for one thing: a color coded alert system that was more useful to late night comics than to the American people.

The colors were never associated with any useful information so knowing we were at yellow, or orange, didn’t communicate anything meaningful to people, with the possible exception of: be afraid.

Neither Secretary Janet Napolitano nor anyone on our team faulted the architects of that system who, in the uncertain days after 9/11, rightly knew the country needed a formal way to communicate potential terrorist attacks. But, like much of the original homeland security architecture that had evolved since then, this system was due for an overhaul.

The basic tenets of risk communication have long been to say what you know and what you don’t yet know; to state what you are doing about it; to tell people what they can do about it; and to commit to providing more information when you have it.

In the era of hyper transparency in which we live, these principles have never been more important. To a country, indeed a world, now accustomed to accessing any piece of information they want whenever they want it, the default expectation from the people of their government has become disclosure.

Freedom Tower, Ground Zero, New York City
Photo: Jennifer Parker for
Freedom Tower, Ground Zero, New York City

Communicating information in real time is easy—indeed, imperative—if there’s an impending hurricane or in the aftermath of a disaster or an attack.

Communicating the threat of a pending or suspected terror attack is considerably more complicated. The FBI or the NYPD, for example, might be building a case against individuals plotting to plant fertilizer-based explosives in the New York subway.

They will move in and make arrests before an attack can be carried out, but what if it’s a larger conspiracy and a similar plot is unfolding in Boston or Chicago which is unknown to law enforcement? Should the government issue an alert to the country asking citizens to be on the lookout for large purchases of fertilizer but before they have enough to plausibly convict the plotters they are tracking? Or, if an attack isn’t imminent and revealing what is known might compromise a source who has infiltrated al queda overseas?

In many cases, DHS, and sometimes in conjunction with the FBI, reconciles this tension by issuing bulletins to local law enforcement agencies and not broadly to the public. But in some cases, there is a need to confront the public with information.

In October of last year, the administration had vague but trusted intelligence that some European cities might be targets of an attack. After discussion within the US intelligence community, it was decided that the State Department would issue an unusual alert to travelers: we have nonspecific threat information and while we’re not telling you to not travel to Europe, we are telling you that a threat stream exists and you should be vigilant and take certain precautions.

The message was simple: you’re adults and we’re confident that if we share information with you, you’ll calmly and rationally do what is best for you.

September 11: Ten Years Later - A CNBC Special Report
September 11: Ten Years Later - A CNBC Special Report

The composed reaction from the American people and the news media was a welcome relief, and instructive for those of us designing a replacement to the color-coded threat system.

Information is power. Empowering people with actionable information not only signals trust, it puts them on the team as true partners in our collective security. A 2010 study by the Homeland Security Institute found that of the 68 terror plots thwarted since 1999, more than 80% were disrupted by alert citizens or local police—and not an intelligence agency.

We soon learned that the two former DHS Secretaries—Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff –agreed that the original color-coded system had probably outlived its usefulness. We found that many others were eager to help devise a new system so Secretary Napolitano appointed a bi-partisan blue-ribbon commission to assist us. After their recommendations were delivered, we worked to build consensus with local law enforcement, Governors, Mayors, the FBI and other US national security agencies.

The process resulted in a new system, the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), which Secretary Napolitano unveiled at Grand Central Terminal in New York City in April. It is premised on providing as specific information as possible about a pending threat, and telling the country how they can protect themselves and assist law enforcement.

Ten years after the attacks on September 11, we still don’t live in a world where we are free from terror threats. But we have made great progress on how to best communicate those threats in a way that makes us all a little bit safer.

Sean Smith is an SVP of Crisis Communications at Porter Novelli PR. He was Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security under Janet Napolitano. He presided over the elimination of the old color-coded advisory system and the implementation of the new National Terrorism Alert System (NTAS).