Homeland Security Abandons Color-Coded Terror Alerts

Wednesday, 20 Apr 2011 09:19 AM

By Mike Tighe and Hiram Reisner

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The Department of Homeland Security is dumping its often-maligned and complicated color-coded terror alert system in favor of a simpler model that enlists the social media: People sometimes will be able to get alerts on Facebook and Twitter.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will unveil the new National Terrorism Advisory System, featuring warning levels of just "imminent" and "elevated," in New York City today.

Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security, alerts
Homeland Security Secretary Secretary Janet Napolitano: "we get more into what is the information you need." (Getty Images Photo)
Napolitano explained during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today that the United States remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks, but that the new system is intended to depart from broad alerts to provide specific information.

That information will tell people "what to do, how to get information, how to be prepared,” she said. “And then its ‘sunsets’ after two weeks, so we don’t continually add on alerts, unless we need to.”

“It may be specific to geography; it may be specific to a certain type of threat,” she explained. “So we get out of this the general, the airport’s ‘orange,’ and we get more into what is the information you need, how you can be prepared, how you can stay informed.”

The previous system, labeled the Homeland Security Advisory System, befuddled people with airport announcements that the terror level was, for instance, yellow or orange, without clearly saying what the colors meant ("elevated" for yellow and "high" for orange). Even those who knew what the colors meant were clueless about the difference between elevated and high, or the three other color codes and their levels.

The new setup, detailed at the Homeland Security website, is intended to clarify the message by telling the public the reasons for the warning, where the peril is imminent, who might be targeted, and what actions to take.

Some of the alerts will go to law enforcement, if making them public might reveal confidential intelligence or an ongoing probe, while others will flag the public, according to Homeland Security's plan.

Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government's confidential plan.

Starting next week, the new classifications would offer:
  • An elevated alert would warn of credible threat but probably not pinpoint timing or targets.
  • An imminent warning would signal a credible, specific, and impending terror threat or ongoing attack.
The plan outlines each step of the behind-the-scenes process officials will follow when they believe terrorists might strike Americans. It includes a notification schedule for Congress, counterterror officials in states and cities, and then, the public. The content of the alert messages will depend on intelligence gathered to support them, the plan says.

The alerts would be posted on Facebook and Twitter when officials deem that appropriate, the plan specifies.

For example, if there is a specific threat that terrorists might hide explosives in backpacks at U.S. airports, the government might warn travelers at airports to be extra vigilant and report any unattended backpacks or other suspicious activity.

Napolitano would decide whether to issue an alert and to whom — sometimes just to law enforcement and other times to the public.

The color warning system hadn't changed since 2006, despite a rise in attempted attacks and terror plots against the United States, The Associated Press noted. During that time, the counterterrorism community employed other methods to signal threats.

But that system didn't include a way to decide whether to raise or lower the threat level, leaving travelers to puzzle over what the colors meant.

Although U.S. counterterrorism officials coordinated information about such threats, "it was pretty much kind of a gut call," James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., told the AP. Carafano served on an advisory committee in 2009 to review the color alerts and suggest improvements.

On "Morning Joe," Napolitano said Homeland Security officials have foiled planned terror attacks.

“We face a consistent and evolving threat — part of it is international, part of it is homegrown — so we have to deal with both,” she said. “And we want people to be safe, we want to help people participate in our own safety, by being better informed and better prepared. That’s part of the reason well have moved beyond the color-code system now.”

Asked about balancing personal security with individual freedom, Napolitano responded: “What TSA is doing is re-examining those protocols all the time, and it’s all in relation to threat. One of the things we do see is, if you categorically remove a group from any type of screening, well, those who seek to do us harm then exploit that group.

“So you have to be very careful on how you do it.”

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