Letter: Jeh Johnson wrong on DHS terror alert system

Dear Editor:

Up until last summer, I worked for the Homeland Security Department, including serving as the acting under secretary for intelligence and analysis and the counterterrorism coordinator. Part of my responsibilities included managing the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS).

I read your article on Secretary Johnson’s comments on the NTAS, indicating that it had never been used.  That statement is not accurate.

First off, the NTAS is much more then a specific advisory. It is...

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Dear Editor:

Up until last summer, I worked for the Homeland Security Department, including serving as the acting under secretary for intelligence and analysis and the counterterrorism coordinator. Part of my responsibilities included managing the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS).

I read your article on Secretary Johnson’s comments on the NTAS, indicating that it had never been used.  That statement is not accurate.

First off, the NTAS is much more then a specific advisory. It is a process intended to ensure that DHS and other federal entities provide timely, detailed, accurate, and consistent information to the public, state and local officials and the private sector regarding potential threats facing the nation or a specific geographic location.  The goal of this information-sharing is twofold: One, to provide a detailed and consistent message regarding the threat and, two, to provide information regarding actions that could be taken in light of the threat.

The process involves a number of steps involving the department’s Counterterrorism Advisory Board (CTAB) to ensure that the sharing of threat information as described above occurs.  While the NTAS process does allow for the issuance of two types of alerts/advisories, it also envisions that this information-sharing can happen through the use of other established techniques, to include issuance of intelligence bulletins, conference calls or secure video teleconference calls with government and nongovernment officials, statements from elected officials, press conferences, etc.

It was always envisioned that the use of the NTAS advisories would be extraordinarily rare (if ever), due to the maturity of other communication platforms and protocols.  The primary goals of the NTAS were to ensure that threat-related information sharing was organized and coherent and, most importantly, that recipients received a consistent message from federal entities. 

Notwithstanding that DHS has elected not to issue a NTAS Advisory, the fact is that the NTAS process has been used repeatedly and very effectively. Up until recently, DHS’ information sharing with the stakeholder groups was complimented directly because of the changes that came about due to the establishment of the NTAS.

It was used during past anniversaries of the 9/11 attacks, the days following the Boston Marathon bombing and the anniversary of Osama Bin Ladin’s death. In the discussion surrounding these specific circumstances, we always considered whether there would be additional value is issuing NTAS advisories. In every case, it was decided that other communication strategies would be most effective in conveying the necessary information to the impacted stakeholders.

While I cannot speak to the management of the process after my departure, I am very confident that up until June of last year, not only was the NTAS process effective, but it was an integral part of how DHS dealt with emerging threats.


John D. Cohen is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey.