Homeland Security

DHS chief plans changes to terror alert system

Jeh Johnson

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the current alert system was becoming impractical in an increasingly fluid and blurred terrorism environment.

In the wake of the complex threat posed by domestic terrorists, like those in San Bernardino and Paris, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said DHS will announce modifications to the National Terrorism Advisory System.

Johnson also said he has directed his agency to look into the vetting process for the K-1 fiance visa program that was used by the couple that attacked a county conference center in San Bernardino, Calif., in early December.

In remarks at a Defense One conference on Dec. 7, Johnson said the department's current alert system, which is triggered by "credible threats" inside the U.S., was becoming impractical in an increasingly fluid and blurred terrorism environment. The alerts are posted on DHS websites, distributed to the news media and disseminated via various government social media channels.

The system has a high bar to clear before an advisory is issued, and it has never been triggered, he said. According to Johnson, DHS needs to provide an intermediate, more detailed alert similar to the warning issued about intensified protection of U.S. federal buildings after an attack on Canada's Parliament in October 2014. That advisory was a statement about what the agency was doing and why in response to the Canadian attack rather than a known terrorism threat.

Johnson said the existing threat awareness system in the U.S. is inadequate to address lone wolf-type attacks where threats and individuals fly under electronic and intelligence radar.

A DHS official told FCW on background that earlier this year, Johnson had directed a review of the National Terrorism Advisory System to see what modifications could be made to more effectively communicate threats. The official said the system is not being replaced, but changes would be made soon.

Johnson said a formal announcement of the modifications would be made in the coming days. DHS phased out the often ridiculed color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System in 2011 in favor of the National Terrorism Advisory System.

In response to the San Bernardino attacks, Johnson said he has also directed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to review the process for granting K-1 visas, which allow U.S. citizens to bring their future spouses into the country. Tashfeen Malik, the wife in the couple that attacked the San Bernardino County office complex, was allowed to reside in the U.S. on a K-1 visa.

Johnson said DHS also continues to press Congress for help in modifying the Visa Waiver Program to bolster its ability to keep potential terrorists from using the program to enter the U.S.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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