The Super Bowl came and went without a hitch — or a terror bulletin or alert. But are agencies ready to test the new Homeland Security system when the time comes?
DHS unveiled in December a new type of communication, called a bulletin, which would serve as an alternative to the already existing alerts it uses to relay terror threats to the public. While a National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) alert tells the public, other government agencies, first responders, transportation hubs, and the private sector about a particular imminent threat, a bulletin will communicate current developments or general trends about a terrorism threat, allowing the agency more flexibility in what it says about a threat and when it says it.
"NTAS Bulletins permit the Secretary to communicate critical terrorism information that, while not necessarily indicative of a specific threat against the United States, can reach homeland security partners or the public quickly, thereby allowing recipients to implement necessary protective measures," said DHS in a statement.
The agency added that the bulletin concept allows DHS to get threat information out to the public faster. Versus an alert that needed to meet strict criteria before being trumpeted, a bulletin can be much more fluid. It will also outline actions DHS, the Justice Department and FBI are taking to respond to the threat. That is new.
"This new aspect of the alert system makes sense as it is more transparent," said Charles Brooks, vice president for government relations and marketing for global IT company Sutherland Global Services, who served as the first director of legislative affairs for the Science & Technology Directorate of DHS.
"In the past, the Secretary might have had to wait for a greater clarification of specific data regarding threats," he added. "Now he or she can more rapidly put out a general bulletin that can be updated later or upgraded to an alert."
With increased transparency comes the need to leverage new avenues for information sharing. DHS is getting more modern, planning to distribute more of its terror advisories via social media in addition to the more traditional communication modes of DHS.gov and alerting the media. Chris Cummiskey, CEO of management consulting firm Cummiskey Strategic Solutions, and a former acting undersecretary for management at DHS, said it just makes sense for DHS to begin using Twitter and Facebook more aggressively.
"We're seeing an uptick in interest in social media at DHS, likely inspired by the groundbreaking work of FEMA using social media to get messages and updates out during disasters," he said. "DHS wants to be able to replicate that on a broad scale. We live in a society that's increasingly comfortable receiving information that way so the time is right."
But the new, more fluid reports will take more cooperation between agencies, said Brooks. DHS and other critical national security agencies now have formal working groups set to share intelligence and protocols with each other, with the greater goal being preparation for sharing with the public when the time comes. Bulletins create a need to share more and more often, and to deliver details more regularly to citizens. It creates yet another cultural shift, the latest of many since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
He added that DHS and the FBI are working very closely in coordinating efforts because of their direct engagement and aligned missions with first responders and law enforcement. The new NTAS advisories will also include steps that people and communities can take to protect themselves from threats and to help detect or prevent an attack before it happens, which also means more requirements of agencies as they analyze information filtering in.
This new threat-warning system is part of an evolution that's been ongoing since DHS was formed after the 9/11 attacks, explained Cummisky.
"Here's the trajectory: The whole system was designed under Secretary Ridge with five threat levels, and when Secretary Napolitano came on and went through it, she said this is too much information, it makes sense to switch to a simplified version. So it was switched to two levels. But that didn't give DHS much latitude. When Johnson came on, he said, 'Well, we need something else—a better flow of the intelligence we have to the public and the private sector."
The goal has always been to alert the public to terror threats in a way that will keep the greatest number of people safe. Are we there yet? Maybe. But this latest iteration is another transition.
"The challenge is to hit that happy medium so that you're not pushing so much information that it becomes noise, but you have a level of information people can hear and act on," said Cummiskey. "That I think is the balance the department is trying to strike, and they're getting closer to it with this latest move."