WASHINGTON -- As the nation stepped up security yesterday with extra police on the streets and fighter jets in the sky, a broad range of specialists warned that the color-coded terrorism alert system should be replaced because it frightens people and wastes public resources even in those cities not mentioned as possible targets in intelligence reports.
The debate over whether the rating system is too blunt an instrument had been largely dormant since spring, the last time the level was lowered to yellow, or elevated, alert. But criticism resurfaced after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the alert to orange, or high, Sunday, citing increased intelligence chatter about a possible Al Qaeda attack on multiple US cities using airliners.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey and a leading critic of the system, said Sunday's announcement was "a perfect example of the ambiguity -- the `Crayola confusion' -- generated by the threat advisory system," and contended that the Homeland Security Department failed to provide Congress with a review of the system, which it was mandated to do by law last week.
"Americans are frustrated because they have not been instructed on how to better protect themselves," Lautenberg said in a statement. "Should they cease riding subways and public buses, or stay off interstate highways? Should they cancel domestic or international flights? Should residents of Kansas be as vigilant as those living in Manhattan?"
A study released last week by the defense consulting firm Rand Corp. said the system obliges local governments to cut back on other spending to pay for increased protection everywhere even when the threat is more specific. Thus, cities and towns might have to assign extra law enforcement to malls, bridges, buildings, utilities, or anywhere people will gather, when the information prompting the alert may well concern only a hijacking threat.
The "warning system can cause confusion because there has not been a willingness on the part of the federal government to help local . . . authorities define what actions are appropriate for the different threat levels," the report said. "Coupled with the high uncertainty associated with the threat, this makes it difficult for local authorities and private-sector security representatives to maintain public confidence while trying to describe public risk realistically."
There were reports yesterday that police were adding overtime patrols and that citizens around the country were bracing for an attack, even people who live far from big cities or potential targets like nuclear power plants. Officials at Starc Armory in Johnston, Iowa, called all local agencies to make sure everyone was "prepared." The head of security at a Montana mall promised his guards would be extra vigilant about unattended bags. And the sheriff of Pittsburg County, Okla., told a local ammunition plant, "anything that doesn't look right, we'll check it out."
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the across-the-board display of security contributed to an endemic problem of homeland security policy: a funding mechanism that spreads most federal assistance across the country equally rather than giving a disproportionate number of grants to higher-risk targets, such as New York City and Washington, D.C.
Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at OMB Watch, said a related problem has been the failure of the US government to conduct a comprehensive survey measuring exactly how much it costs the nation for each day spent at "orange" rather than at "yellow" alert. Specialists say it's a lot, but can't be precise.
"Normally, the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] would be screaming about doing a cost-benefit analysts," he said. "It would make the decision easier if we knew that every time the alert status changed, it cost the nation, say, a billion dollars. Then maybe that would create pressure for a geographic system."
But the current system could be used geographically, according to Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman. Even though the administration has never chosen to put any one area or type of target on a higher alert, it could do so. He described the color-coding yesterday as "a good system designed with the flexibility to enable the department to put specific sectors of the economy or regions, cities, or states on a different threat level."
The current situation, he said, warranted a national alert, but he offered no further details of the threats that had been received.
Other members of Congress who specialize in homeland security issues also defended the system, but Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the current threat of a hijacking should be a wake-up call to the "unacceptable" fact that the Transportation Security Administration still does not inspect all plane cargo.
And Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, described the color system as necessary to "put people on notice" so they can make an informed choice about whether to put themselves in potentially targeted places, such as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
But James Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said "it does seem like the department has lost any appetite to revise the system," which he described as "stupid" and "really, really useless" because the public does not understand it. But he expressed hope that local governments will interpret the system for their own purposes, rather than overreact to fluctuating warnings that may have nothing to do with them.
"The first couple of alerts, everyone sort of panicked and threw stuff out there," he said. "Now everyone is more thoughtful and parsimonious about resources.
"It seems it has partly evolved into a more sophisticated system, if not by design, at the state and local level. Still, there's a pretty clear need for a better system."