Homeland Security wants to end color-coded terror alerts

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Homeland Security Department is proposing to discontinue the color-coded terror alert system that became a symbol of the country’s post-9/11 jitters and the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

The 8-year-old system, with its rainbow of five colors — from green, signifying a low threat, to red, meaning severe — became a fixture in airports, government buildings and on newscasts. Over the past four years, millions of travelers have begun and ended their trips to the sound of airport recordings warning that the threat level is orange.

The system’s demise would not be the end of terror alerts; instead, the alerts would become more descriptive and not as colorful. In the past two years, Obama administration officials have changed security protocols without changing the color of the threat, such as introducing new airport security measures after a terrorist tried to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas.

By scrapping the colors, President Obama would abandon a system that critics long have said was too vague to be useful and that Democrats criticized as a political scare tactic. And it would represent a formal undoing of one of the George W. Bush administration’s most visible legacies.

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he believes the aim of the administration’s plan is to help people better understand concepts about danger that may be too vague when conveyed through the color-coded system.

“I think it’s something that is under review to make it meaningful and relevant to the American people,” he said. “I’m just not sure how relevant it is.”

He called Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s internal review “just a commonsense approach” and said she should be credited with “making some judgments going forward.”

Officials confirmed the recommendation and the draft proposal was described to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because other federal agencies are privately weighing in on the idea, and no final decision has been made.

Ms. Napolitano ordered a review of the system in July 2009. Earlier this year, the department decided the best way forward would be to scrap the colors and use more descriptive language to talk about terror threats. The recommendation is not related to the recent furor over airport security pat-downs and body scans.

The details of the new alert system — including the words that would be used to describe the threats — are still being worked out internally by multiple government agencies and the White House.

The Homeland Security Department would not discuss the recommendations and did not know when a new system would be rolled out. The current colored system remains in place.

“We are committed to providing specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence,” department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

One of the recommended names for the new system is the National Terrorist Advisory System, replacing the current Homeland Security Advisory System.

An option under consideration is to go from five threat tiers to two: elevated and imminent. Under that model, when the threat level changes to imminent, government officials would be expected to be as specific as possible in describing the threat without jeopardizing national security. And an imminent threat would not last longer than a week, meaning the public wouldn’t see a consistently high and ambiguous threat level.

There also would be an understanding with the public that there is a baseline level of vigilance needed in the U.S., but when the government gets information that suggests the threat is more specific, the new system would be used to communicate those details.

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