George W. Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3 in March of 2002, which established a color-coded system for notifying the country of increased dangers from terrorist threats. But critics raised doubts about the terror alert’s effectiveness: It seemed politically impossible that world events could ever cool long enough for officials to adjust advisories downward to green (low) or even a step up above that to blue (guarded). In fact, the system has never reached either of those colors. State-level homeland security and emergency preparedness offices still dutifully post the current threat level on their Web sites, including the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. But advisories are typically maintained day-to-day at yellow (elevated) meaning national security authorities believe there is a “significant risk of terrorist attacks.” After Barack Obama appointed Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to take over as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, she convened an advisory panel to evaluate the usefulness of color-based threat levels. The bi-partisan group had 60 days to report back, and representing rural, less-populated areas of the country on the task force was Michael Rounds, governor of South Dakota, with help from his state’s homeland security director. “The committee agreed unanimously that the system was good at the time it was established, but it needs to be changed,” Rounds told us in an e-mail response to questions. “Committee members were evenly split on continuing with an updated color-code system or using a verbal system of elevated, high and severe alerts.” According to a later report, half of the task force’s membership believed “the concept of color-coded alerts is sufficiently clear, powerful and easily understood to be retained as one element in the secretary’s alerts to the nation.” On the other hand, an equal number argued that the system “has suffered from a lack of credibility and clarity leading to an erosion of public confidence such that it should be abandoned.” Some Bush detractors, moreover, insisted that the colors were elevated to higher threat levels at times during his administration to benefit the White House politically. When the task force met for its assessment, the nation’s first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, had only recently suggested in a book that he felt pressured by other cabinet members to raise the terror alert just before the 2004 reelection of Bush. That action, press materials for the book claimed, led in part to Ridge’s later decision to step down in November of 2004. Bush administration officials vociferously denied that such a thing occurred, and Ridge began to back away from the claim slightly some time later. Panelists on Napolitano’s task force determined that the alerts could too easily move up rather than down and argued that the system shouldn’t remain elevated without specific information that a threat exists. Since it is “institutionally difficult” to lower the threat level, they recommended creating an objective standard that would force it down, such as a 15-day deadline for intelligence that demonstrated a credible risk. The report also called for fuller transparency over threat information, the identification of regions most affected, a list of who was involved in raising alerts and “the complete absence of political interest in the decision process.” While deadlocked over whether colors should be used, the task force suggested reducing threat levels to three and lopping off the safer green and blue designations with yellow to be the new baseline of “guarded.” “I favor a three-color system, using traffic-signal colors of green, yellow and red,” Rounds said. “These colors are universal, and they cross language and cultural barriers.” As for homeland security grant spending in South Dakota, the Gannett News Service reported in March of 2007 that it was one of a handful of states refusing to cooperate with open-government requests a reporter had sent looking for information about how the funds had been used. The news service was seeking information from about 15 states for articles at the time. We had similar experiences with South Dakota. Our goal with each state was to retrieve the records electronically, such as in spreadsheets containing individual grant transactions. But many states like South Dakota only have piles of hard-copy documents, and an official there said no matter how we obtained the material it would still cost about $800 to process our request. We were welcome to travel there and examine records, but doing so wasn’t practical since we were aiming for data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. There are some audits of grant spending at the local level in South Dakota that are publicly available and point to bookkeeping issues with the funds. Those reports are available for download here.
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, Wired.com, 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.More by G.W. Schulz