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NATIONAL SECURITY - The Orange-and-Yellow Yo-Yo NATIONAL SECURITY - The Orange-and-Yellow Yo-Yo

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NATIONAL SECURITY - The Orange-and-Yellow Yo-Yo

So, we bounced back up to "high-alert" Code Orange this week in anticipation of war with Iraq and with a certain sense of deja vu. Courtesy of federal homeland-security officials, our post-September 11 world has been cast only in hues of yellow and orange-yo-yoing between the two. The highest level, red, is too scary, so we had to drop down to yellow in order to have room to rise fairly comfortably as war neared. But why do we have five colors on the terrorism-threat warning chart, if only two are going to be used? Is this week's orange any different from February's orange?

As Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge rolled out his security ramp-up Operation Liberty Shield last Tuesday, he maintained that the federal government's amplified response to this latest orange alert is a product of his department's heightened capacity for preparedness, not a greater level of concern. The department, according to one Ridge aide, sees orange as offering a "menu" of security options, and because of the "specific" threat information now reaching Ridge, he's ordered essentially everything from the menu this time. (The only specific threat Ridge has mentioned publicly in explaining the latest return to orange is the tape Osama bin Laden released during this country's prior bout of Orange Fever.)

Yet, there's wide acknowledgement at the state and local levels that February Orange is different from War Orange. February Orange was linked to the end of the Muslim hajj holiday and intercepted terrorist "chatter." War Orange-which some state officials are calling "orange plus" and some customs officials call "high orange"-is pegged to the terrorist threat that actual war poses to the American home front.

The alert system's lack of nuance has some state and local officials questioning its utility. "I'm starting to rethink the threat-level system," says Clifford Ong, director of Indiana's Counter-Terrorism and Security Council, who helped create the system. "Part of the problem is, nobody wants to be the one blamed for not having warned people."

Distinctions in threat levels are tough to communicate, especially when Ridge probably doesn't want to send America on another duct-tape binge. But the once-lampooned threat-alert system is finally being taken seriously. And Ridge might want to consider how best to shade his warnings.

Our Last Responders

The refrain "I'm proud to be an American" blared from the speakers in the conference hall on Capitol Hill as 700 firefighters descended on Washington this week. On the walls of the hall hung two life-sized photos of firefighters amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. On the agenda was more homeland-security money for fire-station staff and equipment. On hand were two Democratic presidential aspirants, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Since their heroism of 9/11, firefighters have become the highest-profile promoters of the homeland-security needs of "first responders" and have earned a coveted spot at the center of Washington's homeland-security debates. But while firefighters tell an emotionally compelling and politically powerful story, it's backwards to make them a top policy priority if the goal is prevention. In fact, the term "first responders" is something of a misnomer. Firefighters and others who rush in after an attack are the nation's last line of defense when it comes to terrorism.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, puts the distinction bluntly: "prevention versus mop-up." Those in the best position to prevent a terrorist from executing a deadly plan may be the 708,022 cops on the beat and on the highways-if they're armed with the best database access that money can buy. "Our concern grows daily that Congress, with all good intentions, is committing extraordinary amounts of money to respond to terrorist attacks, but does not seem to have the same laser focus on preventing attacks," Pasco says. But cops with computers don't make great photo ops. Prevention is intangible. It doesn't fit on a poster. And it's hard to put to music.

The firefighters are smartly capitalizing on a monthlong fight in which congressional Democrats, the White House, and congressional Republicans accused one another of not doing enough for firefighters. Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, says, "The good news is, they're trying to point fingers-trying to deflect the blame."

But there might eventually be a lot more blame to go around if Washington's focus remains on mop-up. John Cohen, an ex-cop who now advises law enforcement on security, warns, "Prevention isn't necessarily going to come from an intelligence briefing from the CIA. Often, it may come from the sheriff's deputy responding to a trespassing call. I don't think that's understood in Washington." But Washington may soon get the message. On his visit to the White House last Wednesday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a pitch for "first preventers."

But for now, a state highway patrol officer who pulls over a speeding driver may or may not be able to run a sophisticated check on the driver's background and fingerprints. No doubt one day every such officer will instantly know whatever any government agency has learned about the driver. But that day will have to wait until after the hazmat suits are all doled out.

Siobhan Gorman National Journal

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