Designer Administration

It must have seemed so easy: five simple colors to guard the Homeland.


By Tom Engelhardt

Yellow decorating: Van Gogh called it ‘a color capable of charming God.’ You may relegate it to the kitchen or a bathroom, but take a chance with this warm tone and the rewards will be tangible. By itself, the citron yellow on this Victorian chest seemed pallid. But a rich, honeyed drawer trim — not an obvious choice –galvanized it.” (Tips on colors from the Martha Stewart Website)

Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the Protective Measures taken in the previous Threat Conditions, Federal departments and agencies should consider the following general measures in addition to the Protective Measures that they will develop and implement:

*Increasing surveillance of critical locations;

*Coordinating emergency plans as appropriate with nearby jurisdictions;
*Assessing whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of preplanned Protective Measures; and

*Implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.”

(Tips on colors from the Dept. of Homeland Security Website)

Designer Administration

It must have seemed so simple. Five primary colors to guard the Homeland — green, blue, yellow, orange, red — the colors of earth, water, cowardice, uh… let’s skip orange, and fire/hell/communism. A color-coded thermometer taking you from our cool, green Earth to the heights, or depths, of Hell. (This “homeland security advisory system” is actually displayed at the Department of Homeland Security website as a directionless barcode with, at the moment, yellow highlighted.) Five primary colors defined thusly: green (low condition), blue (guarded condition), yellow (elevated condition), orange (high condition), red (severe condition).

Having color-coded the world of danger with a somewhat puzzling set of primary colors, Homeland Security officials proceeded, from March 2002 on, to issue confusing, exceedingly vague terror alerts at regular intervals, evidently based on little or no actual information (“background chatter”). They did this in part, undoubtedly, to scare us all; in part to cover themselves in case something else horrific should indeed happen on their watch (“you see, we predicted it…”); and in part because of their own fears. They then struggled with the appropriate color level to scare or calm the public, knowing that any jump in colors involved dumping yet more financial burdens on desperate state and local officials.

There are several things to note here: First, in the world of the Bush administration, not even “low condition” green is without its dangers. A condition of no-danger is now unimaginable. Beyond utopian. Conceptually useless. Not even to be aimed for. Second, the alert system is really two systems in one — “low to high” and “guarded to elevated.” Third, this five-color code has in practice proved to be a two-color code. Reaching the relative coolness of guarded-condition blue has been inconceivable for the fear-driven, fear-driving Bush administration. (Just think if something happened while the alert level was that low!) On the other hand, given two-plus post-alert years of hair-raising announcements with no domestic terror incidents whatsoever, moving to red would be a cataclysmic act, leaving them no future wiggle room whatsoever.) So, they’ve found themselves trapped between yellow and orange, while the media and the Democrats increasingly complain of “alert fatigue,” and many Americans simply stop paying much attention.

The most recent alert, remarkably close to the Democratic convention in a season of bad news for our war President, involved the following announcement from Homeland Security head Tom Ridge: “Credible reporting indicates that al-Qaeda is moving forward with plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States aimed to disrupt our democratic process.” This warning, first issued on July 8, caused the Kerry campaign and Democrats everywhere to scream foul and accuse the Bush administration of “playing politics with terrorism fears,” especially since the alert color level, already at yellow, didn’t budge.

According to the Los Angeles Times, despite his potentially hair-raising warning, Ridge admitted

“that although the Al Qaeda network had vowed to strike again in the United States, the government had not received any intelligence that terrorists were targeting the Democratic or Republican conventions this summer. The threat level, he said, would remain at code yellow, or ‘elevated.’… ‘We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack, but along with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge,’ Ridge said. His agency also is beginning to discuss how to safeguard voting places on election day… Ridge’s warning came six weeks after a similar alert from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. An FBI official said the bureau had not received any substantive new intelligence about an attack since then.”

Alerts without information. Crises that don’t change color. This is the dotty (if fright-inducing) essence of this administration. In a first, according to David Johnston and Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, analysts from the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence are now fanning out across the country in a post-alert FBI-coordinated program to “warn” not just city officials but small town ones “of the possibility of an attack by Al Qaeda this year” in order “to put some context and flavor into the current threat environment.” (Color that “flavor” sour lemon yellow.)

It turns out, however, that color-coding terror alerts was but the beginning for the designing members of the Bush administration. Imagine these men at their offices in [location deleted] with little color swatches spread on their desks, applying visual coding to every situation — so many male Martha Stewarts trying to decide, along with Vincent Van Gogh, which colors were capable of “charming God” and which of thrilling Satan.

How many such color-coded systems they have so far set up we have no way of knowing, but two hit the news recently, the first emerging once again from the designer-mad Dept. of Homeland Security. After its mind-boggling experience with a five-color system that was really a two-color system, its officials evidently decided to simplify to a three-color coding system for a $100 million program to track air travelers: “Suspected terrorists and violent criminals would be coded red and forbidden to fly. Yellow would indicate the need for a search and questioning and green would mean standard screening.”

Imagine, then, arriving at an airport, suitcase and red-code tag in hand. (“Flight 723 for Guantanamo, departing gate 18 at 10 PM… Flight 432 for Diego Garcia, stopover in Kabul, departing at 1:05 AM… “) Unfortunately, despite all their practice honing their color-coding system to a fine point, the overall tracking system, which “would have collected passenger names, addresses, telephone numbers, birthdates and itineraries from airlines and reservations companies, then checked the data against crime and commercial databases,” ran into “concerns about accuracy, privacy, safeguards to prevent abuse and recourse for passengers mistakenly identified as threats.” In a storm of criticism, the whole program then crashed and burned. All that’s now left of this color-coded system is a “voluntary” program in which “frequent fliers can register by providing personal information and a fingerprint or iris scan to the Transportation Security Administration. If accepted, they receive identification cards allowing faster passage through security lines.” Prospective terrorists, on the other hand, can voluntarily turn themselves in.

Lest you think that only the Department of Homeland Security has gone color crazy, according to Robin Wright and Bradley Graham of the Washington Post, officials keeping an eye on the ever-shredding “coalition of the billing” in Iraq have also engaged in color-coordinated practices. “To track commitments, the Bush administration keeps a color-coded chart of coalition members: red for countries withdrawing, yellow for nations considering a pullout and green for countries staying.” However unsatisfying U.S. officials may have found last week’s announcement of the withdrawal of the 51-person Philippine contingent, think of the pleasure involved in moving the Filipinos out of the yellow ranks of cowardice and into the burn-in-Hell category.

It’s hard to believe that other color-coded systems don’t exist in this administration. After all, as far as we know, they haven’t even begun to exploit the pastels. Should there be a second Bush term, I think the least you can expect is a steady stream of officials heading for the “prison farm” in Danbury, Connecticut, where Martha Stewart may have some time on her hands.

Read the rest of this post, as well as additional posts by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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