Skepticism of Terrorism Alerts Cited
Report Says Conflicting Messages Hurt Credibility of Color-Coded System

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

U.S. government officials have issued confusing and at sometimes conflicting statements about the threat of terrorist attack in this country, with the result that the public often doubts the credibility of official pronouncements about terrorism, a congressional report said.

The report, released yesterday by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), said that when the nation's terrorist threat alert is raised to "orange," or high risk, as well as at other times when terrorist concerns are heightened, officials in various agencies at times present differing messages to the public.

"A perceived lack of coordination in the federal government's warning notification process and inconsistent messages regarding threats to the homeland have led to an erosion of confidence in the information conveyed to the nation," said the report.

The report -- co-authored by CRS terrorism analyst John Rollins, who until a few months ago was chief of staff of the Homeland Security Department's intelligence unit -- cited as one example an episode in May 2004. Then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced that al Qaeda was "90 percent" ready to attack America, on the same day that then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge publicly played down the terrorist threat.

Administration officials acknowledge there have been cases in which agencies have not coordinated public statements about terrorism threats. They add that after the case of miscommunication in May 2004, vast improvements have been made, with White House officials reiterating that Homeland Security plays the lead role in releasing threat information.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman, said yesterday that officials have learned "valuable lessons" about communicating threat information to the public and "have become more sophisticated and better coordinated in our approach." He pointed out that the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and presidential directives designate DHS as the lead agency for publicly disseminating threat information.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he is considering making changes to the color-coded threat system of alerting the public about terrorism dangers, as part of a larger examination of DHS programs.

In March, Chertoff, who previously headed the Justice Department's criminal division under Ashcroft, told reporters that he expects smoother coordination among federal agencies, particularly between his department and Justice. Aides have pointed out that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has a more circumspect style than Ashcroft, his predecessor.

"We have a new group of players, people who are in government," Chertoff said. "I don't think there's anybody here who's looking to jostle for position in front of the camera. I think what we're looking to do is project a disciplined and steady flow of information to the public."

The CRS report said that one early instance of lack of coordination occurred in September 2002, when Ashcroft, who then officially had the lead in warning the public, issued the first orange alert. But days before that, Ridge, then at the White House, had disseminated the opposite point, saying no intelligence existed indicating an attack might occur.

In May 2003, the fourth time the orange alert was sounded, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said there was no specific information on potential targets or timing of an attack, but then-Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said, "There is increased specificity in what we hear, but not necessarily in terms of the target."

The CRS report also pointed out that in March 2004, FBI officials in Texas warned the oil industry it was being targeted by terrorists, while DHS officials played down the threat. Sources said DHS concluded the source of the tip was not credible.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, is promoting legislation that would restrict DHS to issuing color-coded alerts that are limited to specific locations or industries.

"Given the history of these seemingly uncoordinated threat notifications, local governments and the public have complained about being confused," the CRS report said. "Many have lost confidence in the system," it added, citing the case of states that refused to follow Homeland Security in declaring a code orange.

The CRS report raised the option of moving responsibility for publicizing threat information from DHS to the National Counterterrorism Center, the joint CIA-FBI agency that analyzes terrorist intelligence. DHS officials, who zealously guard this turf, dismissed the idea yesterday.

CRS analyst Rollins said his former senior position at Homeland Security should not impede the independence of his analysis.

"In my capacity at CRS, I get paid to provide objective advice to Congress, which at times may not align with the interests of DHS," Rollins said yesterday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company