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US Homeland Security to Unveil New Terror Alert System

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson speaks at a Defense One "leadership briefing" in Washington, Dec. 7, 2015, on the agency's efforts to tackle growing terrorism threats in the U.S. and abroad.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Monday "a new phase in the local terrorism threat” in the U.S, following an attack last week in San Bernardino, California that left 14 people dead.

“I believe in this environment we need to get beyond [the current terror-alert system] and go to a new system that has an intermediate level to it,” Johnson said during a Defense One forum in Washington, D.C. that precedes the unveiling of a new U.S. government domestic terrorism alert system.

The announcement comes after husband and wife, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in a shooting referred to by the White House as an “act of terror.”

The couple was not flagged as terror suspects. U.S. government officials have expressed concern about so-called lone-wolves who commit attacks in support of organizations like the Islamic State but without direct orders.

Johnson said even if there is no specific credible intelligence of a plot, there can still be risk. He emphasized the possibility of a terror-inspired act by a person who might not be on law enforcement’s radar.

FILE - A woman organizes her carry-on luggage next to a sign explaining new security measures at Miami International Airport.
FILE - A woman organizes her carry-on luggage next to a sign explaining new security measures at Miami International Airport.

New system needed

A color-coded alert system was put in place, following the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, DC. Nearly 10 years later, it was replaced by a two-tier advisory. Johnson said the National Terrorism Advisory System [NTAS] is inadequate, and has never been used because it is dependent on a specific threat or threats to the country.

“We need a system that adequately informs the public at large, not through news leaks of joint intelligence bulletins to law enforcement, not through leaks from anonymous government officials,” said Johnson.

But Seth Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center for RAND Corporation said this change won’t make much of a difference to the public’s sense of safety.

“I don’t really think that the alert system is particularly that important for most Americans. I don’t think most Americans pay attention to it. What they probably pay attention to, in some cases, is when senior administration officials have come out publicly about plots.”

Post Paris alert

DHS chief Johnson said that after the Paris attacks, the U.S. has been on a “heightened security posture.” He said there currently is no actionable information, however, of a planned attack in the U.S.

“There is no specific credible intelligence of a Paris-like attack on the homeland, but we are concerned about copy-cat acts. We are concerned about terrorism-inspired acts by the lone wolves,” Johnson said.

The DHS secretary also mentioned that his department and the State Department are evaluating vetting procedures of the K-1 visa program or fiancé visa, after direct orders from President Barack Obama. Malik, the wife of U.S. born Farook, entered the country with that visa.