Silent Warning: Understanding the National Terrorism Advisory System

Roy B. Brush


Terrorism warning systems provide warnings for internal (organizational or for official decision makers) and external (other partner organizations or the public) categories of constituents. They must support resolution of the decision maker’s dilemma and balance between the need to warn people in danger from terrorism with the need to maintain operational security (OPSEC) for counterterrorism (CT) efforts to mitigate that danger. Therefore, a system is effective if it capably fulfills these two thematic functions related to providing warning and decision advantage.

Determining the effectiveness of a seldom-used warning system, such as the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), is a difficult problem to solve. More difficult is determining the effectiveness of a warning system that seldom provides external warnings because it serves a complex community of both internal and external constituents. Another criterion of the effectiveness of a warning system is its ability to provide sufficient “decision advantage” to the decision makers it serves. The type of threats that terrorism warning systems are used for involves mitigating the additional complexity posed from thinking human adversaries. This additional complexity presents a challenge to homeland security officials in accomplishing the daily mission and also for any effort to evaluate a terrorism warning system with a quantitative approach. These factors mean that any examination of a terrorism warning system must qualitatively accommodate the complex warning community, determine the level of decision advantage it provides, and, in assessing system outcomes, incorporate the mercurial human nature of the threat.

In response to the problem, this research compared the case studies of NTAS and its predecessor the Homeland Security Advisory System. It included a brief contrast/comparison discussion between the tenets of a terrorism warning system, such as NTAS and the U.S. hurricane warning system (also known as the Tropical Cyclone Forecasting and Warning Program). This discussion of similar systems that address different threats provided important context for the NTAS effectiveness/decision advantage evaluation. A standardized panel of questions, Dr. Erik Dahl’s theory of preventive action, and Clayton Christensen’s resources-processes-values framework provided assessment tools to compare the effectiveness of these terrorism warning systems.[1]   These tools also were used to assess each system’s capability to deliver decision advantage.

The research supported that NTAS is an effective system that provides a sufficient decision advantage capability. However, the system requires further improvements. These improvements involve: formally establishing a DHS Office of Counterterrorism Coordination; renewing the DHS Counterterrorism Advisory Board Charter or other appropriate governance documents to ensure sustainment of necessary decision making and execution authority for NTAS; refine the NTAS Concept of Operations to better demonstrate the system’s scalable outcomes other than an NTAS generated alert, such as Joint Intelligence Bulletins, Joint Threat Assessments, etc.; conduct NTAS related outreach and education efforts with the homeland security enterprise  and the public; and improve communication aspects of NTAS integrating with other warning systems, such as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. These improvements are critical in sustaining the current effectiveness of the system and in ensuring its future success.



[1] Erik J. Dahl, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 175–184; Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You do Business (New York: Harper Business, 2011), 185–197.

No Comments

Post a Comment