For a town that is known for its receptions and occasional stiff drinks, it’s a wonder that Kool-Aid is not the official beverage of Washington. Be they on the ideological right or left, this town is full of avid consumers, spillers and splashers of the beverage of my childhood. You know what I’m talking about… people who can only deliver one flavor of ideas and comments and regardless of the circumstance, that is all they can serve up. Those were the thoughts I had when I read the press release that came from the Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), commenting on the newly announced National Terrorism Alert System (NTAS).
Heralding the replacement of the oft-maligned color-coded threat advisory system, Ranking Member Thompson said:
When I read those first two sentences I had to shake my head in disgust at the inalienable ability of a number of Members of Congress to not recognize the evolution of an information system but deliver a purely partisan pot-shot at the other side. Once again waving the oft-used accusation banner of fear tactics, Thompson thought it be a good time to pull out a proverbial stick to stoke fires that frankly never seem to die when it comes to warning the public. The Left’s constant accusation that the color-coded threat advisory system was a tool of the Right meant to generate fear and play politics with is a slap in the face to the career as well as political personnel in charge of the nation’s homeland security and intelligence operations. When charged with those responsibilities, those individuals were operating in an environment that NO ONE had ever operated in before. As such, they developed a rudimentary tool to try and communicate threat conditions that had never been communicated to the public before.
Whether that was a nationwide or infrastructure-specific warning (e.g., financial services sector, air travel), they took that their charge of responsibility seriously and used what was a first generation tool to accomplish the task at hand. As someone who was at DHS during a number of those threat advisory issuances, I watched first-hand the seriousness of the people in making those decisions. The decision to raise those levels was something that they did not want to do, but they did it because the information they had in hand pointed to the need to take action. We can all debate after the fact whether some of those decisions were right or wrong, but only in Washington could faulting people for trying to proactively protect and advise them of a situation be labeled as “the era of color-coded scare tactics.”
It is appropriate that the color-coded system has been retired and replaced with NTAS. We are a whole lot smarter today in relaying information to infrastructure members, state and local law enforcement and the general public than we were nearly ten years ago. We have relationships and tools that we never had before either, and as such, we should change our mechanisms and means to adjust to those conditions. That was officially done yesterday, and the Department and its leadership deserve all the credit for doing that.
It’s a real insult to people like Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Mike Byrne, Bob Stephan, Charlie Allen and many others who were stewards of the retired system to accuse them of being fear-mongers with the charges they were sworn to keep . If they had not said anything and something had occurred during those times of concern, can you imagine what Rep. Thompson and others would be saying in their press releases and appearances on MSNBC and Fox?
In reflecting on this situation, it reminds me of a lesson that my wife and I have been trying to share with our kids as they’re growing up with their sports and school activities. In life, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and take pot-shots and complain about things and never really do anything about them. The better reward in life is working to make a difference and show some respect to others along the way, even if you don’t agree with them.
Rep. Thompson somehow forgot that lesson yesterday in his comments. I guess it’s always easier in Washington to pick up the Kool-Aid and share that flavor than applaud how far we’ve come. That was a message he could have delivered, but I guess it just wasn’t his favorite flavor.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.