Quick. What’s the national threat level? Time’s up. It’s yellow for "elevated," meaning a significant risk of terrorist attacks. It has sat there almost continuously since right after 9/11. For the airlines, which can’t seem to catch a break, the threat level is "orange" for a high risk of terrorist attacks.
Surely you remember the Bush administration’s color-coded threat assessment chart? There are five levels, the lowest being green for "low," then blue for "guarded" and so on through yellow and orange to the ominous red for a "severe" threat.
Americans we’re never quite sure what to make of the levels. At one of them, they knew, they were supposed to retreat to their basements and stockpiles of plastic sheeting, duct tape, bottled water, batteries and Meals Ready to Eat.
Fortunately, it has never come to that and now the Department of Homeland Security is contemplating getting rid of the chart. Like a long-running TV show that you’ve stopped watching, you still hate to see it go.
It’s hard to imagine now but the Homeland Security Advisory System — who knew it had a name? — was a point of considerable controversy. The Democrats accused the Bush administration of jiggering the chart for political purposes and, in fact, during the 2004 Democratic convention it was raised to orange as if to demonstrate that the Republicans were stronger on national security because they had a color-coded chart and the Democrats didn’t.
Most Americans could probably live without the chart, although for a certain generation it might have a certain nostalgia, like "Duck and Cover" with Bert the Turtle for aging veterans of the schoolhouse civil defense drills of the 1950s.
You would think that getting rid of the HSAS would be simple but this is Washington and you would be wrong.
Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano has named a panel of 17 people and given it 60 days to make a recommendation that would then be forwarded to the White House, meaning it’s ultimately up to President Obama.
The Obama administration, perhaps mindful of the Cheney family’s dark mutterings about impending doom, seems to have chosen the panel as much for the political cover it would give as its considerable expertise.
The co-chairs are William Webster, a former head of the FBI in a Democratic administration and a former head of the CIA in a Republican administration, and Frances Fragos Townsend, the former White House homeland security adviser to George W. Bush.
The panel members include a couple of governors (from Washington and South Dakota), a couple of mayors (Atlanta and Miami), and a deputy mayor (New York), along with the head of the Navajo Nation, the chief of the San Francisco police force and the commander of New Jersey’s state police. Plus a think tank rep and a couple of business people.
That’s a lot of firepower to consider the fate of five colors. Doing so, the panel is to be mindful of "the system’s impact on state, local, tribal, territorial and international law enforcement partners, the private sector and the American people."
It’s good that the American people are in there even if we do sound like an afterthought. And if the American people want to get their two cents in, Secretary Napolitano says to e-mail their thoughts to hsasreview(at)dhs.gov.
That would seem to cover about every thing. But while this distinguished panel is in session maybe the members could come up with a better name for the department than the sinister, Eastern bloc-like "Homeland Security."