Today in 2002: The Homeland Security Act is signed into law

November 25, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryOn November 25, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act into law, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal government since the Department of Defense was created over 50 years earlier.

Passed in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the HSA contained numerous anti-terrorism measures that have been discussed at length in various other outlets.

One of the most significant of these measures, though, was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Department consolidated 22 existing federal agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service, the Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Secret Service, under the one roof of the DHS.

The purported point of this consolidation was to increase communication between and effective coordination of these various government agencies, the lack of such were blamed in part for the failure to anticipate and respond to the September 11 attacks.

Ironically, though, the DHS’s response to Hurricane Katrina is regarded as less than satisfactory (and others would less generously regard it as absolutely atrocious).

The reasons for this failure have been expounded on, again, in various other outlets.

The fact remains, though, that in the face of its first national disaster since formation, the much touted coordination and efficiency of then-almost three-year-old Department never materialized.

Unfortunately, other reforms of the Homeland Security Act have also failed to deliver on their promises; notably, the Homeland Security Advisory System.

The System was a color-coded terrorism threat level scale that changed based on the probability of a terrorist attack at any given time.

Although the idea may have sounded good in theory, in practice, the System’s effectiveness was a different story.

Since there were no criteria given publicly for the government’s determination of such threat levels, there was no independent way of verifying if the asserted threat levels were accurate.

In addition, the terror alert levels themselves were quite vague.

The risk levels were differentiated based on different colors and subjective terms such as “general,” “significant,” and “severe.”

Homeland Security Advisory System

The Homeland Security Advisory System scale

Moreover, there was very little information provided to the public on both the rationale for changing the terror threat level and what actions to take at each different level.

Consequently, the System’s ambiguity may have led to manipulation for political gain, at least according to a 2009 book by Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.

In his book, Ridge claims that top aides to President Bush – including then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft – pressured Ridge to raise the terror alert level the night before the 2004 presidential election, which Ridge refused to do.

We’ll never know for sure if this kind of political manipulation was commonplace or nonexistent, and the point is moot anyhow, since the Homeland Security Advisory System was replaced earlier this year.

The new system, the National Terrorism Advisory System, was intended to solve much of the perceived shortcomings of the old System.

The NTAS accomplishes this by issuing alerts from only one of two alert levels, “elevated” or “imminent,” and provides the public with specific threat information and steps to take in response to a particular terrorist threat.

Whether this new system will be effective remains to be seen, as does whether any other failings of the HSA will be addressed and dealt with similarly.

Nine years later, though, it seems the original goals of the Homeland Security Act – more efficient and effective government responses to terrorism and natural disasters – are still a work in progress.