Americans looking for information in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings were greeted with silence if they turned to the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) for real-time alerts.
As of Thursday morning, the Department of Homeland Security notification system has still not sent a single message alerting citizens about the ongoing investigation into the terror attack. In fact, since its inception in April 2011, not a single alert has been sent through its website or social media accounts associated with the NTAS.
Naturally, some obvious questions emerge. To begin: If there’s a supposedly-useful and important alert system that hasn’t been employed in two years, what’s the purpose of having one in the first place? To answer this, it’s important to first look at the stated purpose of the NTAS.
When there is credible information about a threat, an NTAS Alert will be shared with the American public. It may include specific information, if available, about the nature of the threat, including the geographic region, mode of transportation, or critical infrastructure potentially affected by the threat, as well as steps that individuals and communities can take to protect themselves and help prevent, mitigate or respond to the threat. The advisory will clearly indicate whether the threat is Elevated, if we have no specific information about the timing or location, or Imminent, if we believe the threat is impending or very soon.
According to the government, these alerts will go out through a variety of sources: The DHS alerts web page, Facebook, Twitter and RSS. However, to date, as noted, when one visits the alerts page, no such message is present. Below, a screen shot shows that there are no “current” or “expired” alerts on the website.
Likewise, the government Twitter account setup — and verified by the social media company — to advertise NTAS alerts is devoid of any messaging since the system’s 2011 inception. As you can see, the account appears vacant, offering no alerts or messages for public consumption.
The Facebook page follows this pattern as well, with its inception date listed as April 7, 2011:
Since no alerts have ever been sent, it’s difficult to discern how Americans, in practical terms, would respond to government notification that dangerous information has been intercepted. That said, text on the NTAS web site does provide a brief blueprint outlining how individuals should react in the case that an actual alert is eventually sent.
“Where possible and applicable, NTAS Alerts will include steps that individuals and communities can take to protect themselves to help prevent, mitigate or respond to the threat,” the FAQ page reads. “Individuals should review the information contained in the alert, and based upon the circumstances, take the recommended precautionary or preparedness measures for themselves and their families.”
And with no actual alert to view or even show as a literal example, citizens are left with a sample alert that is shared, in PDF form, on the NTAS web site. Now, let’s take a look at what, exactly, this newer system replaces.
In a Jan. 2011 press release, DHS announced that the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) would be ceased — and that the NTAS would be used instead. The statement heralded the new system as one that would “effectively communicate information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports and other transportation hubs, and the private sector.”
After a review of the old, Bush-era system, it was determined by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano that this change was much-needed. The release further explains the replacement plan:
The National Terrorism Advisory System alerts will be based on the nature of the threat: in some cases, alerts will be sent directly to law enforcement or affected areas of the private sector, while in others, alerts will be issued more broadly to the American people through both official and media channels—including a designated DHS webpage (www.dhs.gov/alerts), as well as social media channels including Facebook and via Twitter @NTASAlerts.
Additionally, NTAS will have a “sunset provision,” meaning that individual threat alerts will be issued with a specified end date. Alerts may be extended if new information becomes available or if the threat evolves significantly.
A timeline documenting the many times that the HSAS system was changed and the public alerted throughout its use from 2002 until 2006, DHS describes the newer NTAS system that replaced the Bush-era alert plan as “a robust terrorism advisory system.”
In further dismissing the HSAS system, Napolitano said at the time: “This means that the days are numbered for the automated recordings at airports, and announcements about a color code level that were, too often, accompanied by little practical information.”
To date, though, no “practical information” has been disseminated through the NTAS system. If its creation was intended to alert the public about credible and important information regarding threats, then one must assume that there has either been no legitimate information about threats intercepted by the government since its official adoption in April 2011 — or that the system is simply not being used.
In the case of the Boston attack, if there was no such information found before the attack, it’s understandable why an NTAS alert wasn’t disseminated. However, such a system could have had potential benefits to alerting the public about issues following the event, but it seems as though it was not created for such a purpose.
This development is particularly striking, considering recent controversy over President Barack Obama’s initial hesitation to label the Boston bombing “terror.” While the president inevitably did call the incident terrorism, the alert system’s stagnant state does raise additional questions about what, exactly, the administration considers “terror.”
A spokesperson for DHS had no immediate comment when TheBlaze inquired about why the system has yet to issue an alert two years after it was implemented to replace HSAS.
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