Good strategies have offensive and defensive components. If protecting population and national infrastructure is the defensive challenge for public warning strategy, attacking an enemy’s strategy comprises the offensive component. Public warning for terrorism has habitually represented the sole focus of public warning in its effort to mitigate—and whenever possible with the hope of preventing—terrorist attacks. The offensive opportunities and dimensions of public warning have been largely ignored—and most frequently, not ever conceived.
Citing the fact that the United States has not been attacked on its own soil since September 11, 2001, some argue that a purely defensive public warning strategy is sufficient. Others have implied that no strategy or system is required at all. Former White House counter-terror expert Roger Cressey asks hypothetically whether a nation-wide alert system is actually needed, when “public acceptance hinges on the additional information provided by federal officials while the dilemma at the federal level is ‘what can be disseminated?’” There have been widespread calls for scrapping the Homeland Security Advisory System altogether, but in almost every case no alternatives are provided. While “No Strategy” is certainly a strategy, it must be asked whether it is the right strategy when life, limb and property hang in the balance. A purely defensive strategy may be politically most palatable given the overwhelming and well-placed concerns over privacy issues. The emotional debate surrounding the Patriot Act best illustrates those concerns. But is even a defensive strategy of public warning sufficient?
Carl von Clausewitz theorizes that "The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows." He warns that while the defense is indeed the stronger form of warfare, it is only useful when the goal is to maintain stasis. The primary issue of making the defense the cornerstone of a strategy is that by doing so, you effectively cede the initiative to your opponent. Clausewitz argues: “…it follows that [defense] should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object.”
Adding an offensive component to public warning for terrorism does come with its fair share of controversy. It involves injecting potentially invasive and controversial information-based components into public warning systems that, to date, have not been wholly attempted as part of a deliberate strategy such as profiling and delaying warning to the public at large. As one high-level Homeland Security official told me, “Profiling may be controversial, but it does work and it will remain a key part of our strategy to defeat terrorists.” Delaying public notification of a terror threat in order to preempt also carries with it a full array of risks and liability issues--issues that may require targeted solutions from all three branches of government. In fact, all three branches of government must be involved in crafting a strategy of public warning. It cannot be created in a vacuum. For it to be accepted, it must be a bipartisan effort with inclusive protocols that keep all parties with a need to know, informed (and involved).