The Bush administration can't win when it comes to issuing homeland-security alerts.
If it issued no warnings, the public and local authorities might become complacent, and the administration would take all the blame for a successful terrorist strike.
But its use so far of the color-coded threat-alert system has apparently done little except frighten the public and cost federal, state, and local governments millions in extra civil-defense expenses.
The key word is "apparently." It's hard to tell how many terrorist attacks the alerts may have thwarted - especially the latest alert, issued over the Christmas holidays, which caused Air France to cancel six flights and French authorities to question at least seven people.
The frequent increases in the terror alert from yellow (elevated risk) to orange (high risk) have evoked a lot of negative comment - from unfair ridicule of the government's good-faith efforts to alert and protect citizens, to valid complaints from local police forces that the information is too broad and vague to act on intelligently.
Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, issued his own powerful critique Sunday. The current alert system, he told Fox News, alarms "an awful lot of people who really can't do much with this information." He rightly pointed out that, as the system works now, terrorists don't even need to plan an attack - they need only issue a credible threat and impose huge costs on the American economy and public (not to mention on companies like Air France) as the US reacts defensively. That turns the terrorists' "losing game into a winning game," Mr. Cox said.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security say the current system allows for more-specific regional or sectoral warnings when the government has information that is specific enough to warrant them.
Clearly, the continued issuance of increased threat warnings for the entire United States on the basis of limited or sketchy information itself risks rendering the system ineffective. It includes the danger that the public will increasingly ignore warnings and be unprepared if an attack comes.
Given the experience of the past two years, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and his staff must go back to the drawing board and come up with a better system - preferably one that can be more precise. That's a tall order, but a necessary one if any system is going to work over the long haul.