Flickr image courtesy Bill Alldredge

The federal government is closer to doing away with one of the most visible symbols of life in America after Sept. 11: the color-coded terror threat advisory from which our own blog, Elevated Risk, draws its name.

The threat advisory, created by former President Bush in 2002, has long been the subject of ridicule from critics who said color-based terror alerts couldn’t meaningfully inform Americans about the actual danger they faced from terrorists day-to-day.

Colors are assigned to each of five threat levels, with red for “severe” meaning hit the floor, Al-Shabaab is heaving grenades through your living-room window. Green is for “low,” or “impossible,” since Al Qaeda in Yemen would have to be sharing burritos with Obama’s counterterrorism advisor before the post-9/11 atmosphere was considered that peaceful.

Questions have plagued the color-coded system since its creation. When would it ever be politically possible to lower the threat level to green? It’s never reached green, and we can say with a fair amount of confidence that it never will. The advisory for years now has been mostly stuck at yellow for “elevated risk of attack; no specific target identified.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has spent months weighing options for the threat advisory. She convened a panel way back in the summer of 2009 to determine whether it should be done away with completely. That was shortly after President Obama plucked her from the governor’s office in Arizona to head the agency.

Now, according to the AP, Napolitano wants to discontinue using colors and instead rely on more “descriptive language” to convey what threats might exist. Her commission also recommended that some rules be put in place for forcing the threat level downward after a pre-determined period of time if credible intelligence doesn’t exist of a real hazard.


Journalists and other observers are raising questions with greater frequency about the stream of domestic terrorism prosecutions that seem to surface now just about every week in splashy announcements from the Justice Department.

An attempted bombing in Oregon owned headlines at the tail-end of the Thanksgiving holiday, but news networks during the first 24 hours didn’t always make clear that the case resembled others in recent years controlled by the FBI, rather than foiled by its agents at the last possible moment. Newscasters said the government “stopped” an alleged plot by 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud to attack a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, implying that he nearly succeeded in creating havoc.

Not that bomb plots are okay. But undercover FBI agents provided Mohamud with the harmless materials in a parked van he believed could be used to launch an explosion. Meanwhile, arsonists targeted the Islamic center in Oregon sometimes attended by Mohamud, which authorities say may have been done in retaliation.

Days before, journalist Ted Conover criticized another terrorism case known as the Newburgh Four in a piece for Slate headlined “Should the FBI really be baiting sad-sack homegrown terrorists?” Conover is best known for his book “Newjack” in which he made journalism history by working as a guard at New York’s Sing Sing state prison and writing about the experience:

Why does the government’s anti-terror net catch such unconvincing villains: black men near mosques who, in exchange for promises of money, sign on to knuckleheaded schemes that would never exist if it weren’t for the informants being handsomely paid to incite them?

Commentator Glenn Greenwald – not exactly a cheerleader of the war on terror, to be sure – made similar complaints about the most recent case in Oregon, pointing out that coverage of the alleged plot hinged largely on how the government presented it in an FBI affidavit:

As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims – as here – are uncorroborated and unexamined. That’s why we have what we call ‘trials’ before assuming guilt or even before believing that we know what happened: because the government doesn’t always tell the complete truth, because they often skew reality, because things often look much different once the accused is permitted to present his own facts and subject the government’s claims to scrutiny.

Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer looked at this subject more closely in a book published recently, “Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland.” He’s since written frequently online about terrorism prosecutions.


So how much is homeland security worth to private companies that want to get in on the action and provide contract services and supplies to the government? Elevated Risk tracks an outfit called Homeland Security Market Research that analyzes and predicts the future value of demand for everything from hazmat decontamination equipment to systems for detecting explosives.

Sometimes their conclusions are intriguing. A recent report from the firm says the combined state and local market for homeland protection gear and services during 2010 alone totaled $16.5 billion, whereas the value of the Department of Homeland Security itself was $3.5 billion less. Part of the reason is that state and local governments – which employ more than two million emergency responders, according to HSMR – continue to receive large sums of money from Washington in the form of anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. Congress has awarded $33 billion in such grants since 2002.

There’s this takeaway, too:

The aviation security sector enjoys much greater importance in the public image than in actual dollars and cents. While certainly important, it represents only 4.7% of the market and is much smaller than some other industry sectors (i.e. the 23% market share of the information technology sector).

Indeed, IT is worth serious cash, even if it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind in the fight against terror. Consider the monster $2.6 billion IT infrastructure contract awarded to defense giant Northrop Grumman this year for the Department of Homeland Security’s planned new headquarters in Washington. Northrop’s competitors – some of the biggest in the defense industry – are bitterly protesting it alleging that the process for evaluating bids was flawed.


Other Notes

Cannabis seizures by the Department of Homeland Security increased on Barack Obama’s watch between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. Authorities captured over 140,000 more kilos of marijuana during 2010 than they did the previous year. On the other hand, cocaine seizures dipped over that same period by more than 2,000 kilos. (Find additional stats on page 71 of this very large PDF.)

A new report from the Congressional Research Service describes ongoing attempts by the United States to contain terrorist groups in East Africa, where three years before 9/11 attackers killed 224 people and injured thousands more by bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania:

According to the U.S. State Department, the continued presence of Al Qaeda operatives in the region and Islamist militants in Somalia poses the greatest threat to U.S. and allied government interests in the region … The reported recruitment efforts of Al Shabaab in the United State have also raised concern regarding threats to the homeland and the involvement of U.S. citizens in terrorism activities overseas. … The United States implements a range of overt, covert, and clandestine programs to counter the transnational terrorist threat in this region.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.